Lobuche: 4930m/16175 ft.
Gorak Shep 5164m/16942 ft.
Base Camp 5360m/17650 ft.
6-8km, 4-6 miles, 7 hours hike time
Terrain: A steady sloping up on a rocky trail that alternates between valleys and hillsides.
A fun surprise for us at Lobuche as we reconnected with two team members who’d split off at Namche wanting to move faster and skip Base Camp on their way to climb Lobuche peak. It was fun to catch up and hear that they’d made their goal and were safe and sound.
The teahouse was the most crowded yet, not unlike a Colorado ski lodge during spring break. I noted the ratio of women to men, probably in the range of 4 to 1, and most people looked like serious climbers. I suspect this must be a launch point for expeditions to many of the nearby peaks.
We arrived late in the day and went to bed within a few hours. The rooms were frigid but the beds came with the thickest, softest blankets I’ve ever felt. They were so heavy and warm that I was dismayed through the night to realize I was still shivering. Disappointingly, just one day after kicking my intestinal crud I awoke with a deep, painful cough. I dug into my stash and loaded up on Alka Seltzer cold medicine and EmergenC.
At our previous stops I’d learned about Sancho, a potent menthol oil for sale at the teahouses. The kitchen staff would bring a large bowl of boiling water to which just a few drops – no more than three – of Sancho were added. Draping a coat over the head the sickling would breathe the steam for as long as they could stand it. The heat made it tough to stay under the coat and just a single drop too much of the Sancho created a such a burning sensation that your nose and eyes instantly drained – in a painful way, not in a good way. The person would emerge looking like they’d just showered and grabbing for a napkin. At breakfast I did a Sancho session (with the right amount!) and it was glorious. Much stronger than Vicks, warm and cozy. I wished I could bottle it to take on the trail.
Everyone was cold, tired, and subdued at breakfast, anxious to get on the trail. We were up early with the plan to trek to Gorak Shep, drop our overnight gear, and continue another hour or so to visit Base Camp. We’d have to move fast to make it before night so we layered up and stepped out into the bitter cold sunrise.
Lobuche is at 16,200 feet and Base Camp is at 17,600 so we only had 1,400 vertical feet to climb, but trekking has become markedly more difficult at this point. was different than the muscle fatigue and labored breathing from cardio like running, more of just a slow decline in motivation and a desire to rest. Our guides urged us forward as we tried to wake up and if we started to lag. About halfway through the climb one of the team members, an experienced climber, stopped to vomit. The guides urged the rest of us to keep moving on as one stayed behind with the stricken trekker. At a lower
About halfway through the climb one of the team members, an experienced climber, stopped to vomit. The guides urged the rest of us to keep moving on as one stayed behind with our stricken friend. At a lower elevation we would have blamed the food but our location and the more serious behavior of the guides’ made us think altitude sickness.
We were lucky it wasn’t much farther to Gorak Shep where they immediately put him on oxygen and in bed. Ryan spent the night checking in once an hour and in the morning the decision was made to take the climber back down to Pheriche, our next stop, on a horse. A few high-altitude horses are kept busy on the trail toting the sick or injured when a helicopter isn’t necessitated. I also saw a few of these small sturdy ponies when we passed local farms; presumably they’re kept for personal transport and cargo. I loved their coarse, curly hair, and since I was starved to cuddle anything with fur I always veered toward them. They didn’t much look like they wanted to deal with me.
Climbers and serious trekkers will push through an array of injuries that would sideline most but altitude sickness (aka Acute Mountain Sickness) is the one nobody messes with. You can’t train against it, and though there are certain precautions that will help it can still strike anyone who mucks around in thin air. You absolutely can’t tough it out so it’s a danger to the most seasoned athlete, experienced climber, or weekend warrior.
There are three stages and most of us have experienced a bit of the first stage – fatigue and flu-like symptoms – at altitudes above about 9,000 ft. Next, comes pulmonary edema with fluid accumulating in the lungs, and finally cerebral edema causing brain swelling. The last two stages can be fatal rather quickly if left untreated. I was told all the teahouses stock some oxygen and most trekking outfitters will carry some themselves.
The mechanism of is well understood and the cure is simple – get to a lower altitude – but it still kills more high altitude climbers than accidents or falls. I’m no expert but I suspect that’s because either the body becomes too weak before the person can descend, or from what I’ve read about Everest climbers because they get disoriented and wander off.
The first half of our trek was tough but short, and I loved the scenery. Absent any pine trees, color, or streams it’s not what people usually think of when they want to visit the mountains, but the starkness is its own appeal. And being this close to the big peaks is just humbling, and doesn’t get old.
Gorak Shep was just a few buildings along the trail but after our early start they were a welcome sight (note the buildings on the bottom left of photo below.) While Ryan situated our sick friend the rest of use stopped for a quick tea at the lodge, then eight of us and two guides pressed on to Base Camp.