Day 9: Kala Patthar (we made it!)

Gorak Shep 5164m/16942 ft.
Summit of Kala Patthar 5643m/18514 ft.

Kala Patthar is brown, snow covered Pumori behind, Gorak Shep bottom right corner Image: Nepal-dia

From Everest BaseCamp you can’t actually see Mt. Everest, it’s blocked by smaller, closer peaks. The only place for a rookie like me to get a good look at the peak – besides a distant view from Namche Bazaar – is by climbing a ridge above Gorak Shep called Kala Patthar. This is really the goal of this trek but since nobody has heard of Kala Patthar it’s just easier to say you’re going to EBC.

Kala Patthar is just a small peak, too small to qualify as a mountain, and it’s part of a ridge up to the mountain Pumori. The “summit” is 18,500 feet but we started from 16,900 feet at Gorak Shep, so it’s a steep 1,500-foot climb that takes 90-120 minutes. Many people leave pre-dawn to catch the sunrise over Everest but, after a long day yesterday we decided to sleep in. We left at 6am.

Last night was quietly joyful as we reveled in our success and also worried a bit about our friend who was on oxygen. You definitely notice the altitude here through the cold, dry air and a slight headache. It was no surprise that the bedroom here was the coldest yet. I so wished I could just curl up by the wood stove in the dining room. Even though I was in the habit getting into my sleeping bag before changing into the long johns I slept in I was still shivering. I used my clothes and jackets as a makeshift blanket on top of my bag.

We were the only ones on the trail when we started up Kala Patthar. This trail starts out steep and the effects of even another 500 feet of altitude were remarkable. With every step I felt like a vigorous debate was taking place in my head: one little lawyer arguing why I should stop and his opponent countering with encouragement about how close I was to this goal. Clearly, I was hallucinating. As I warmed from activity and I peeled off layers I regretted bringing even my small pack, though the water it held was important and I knew if I stopped I’d quickly be cold again.

There were only four of us heading up – three team members plus Kat – and two Nepali guides. A few of our team were starting back down the trail with our friend on oxygen, a couple of us were too sick or exhausted, and a couple more have previously done this hike.

I won’t say it wasn’t embarrassing to be hunched over my trekking poles, dragging myself forward while Kat was upright, hands in her pockets, looking for all the world like she’s browsing shop windows. But she’s also encouraging in a unique way that feels genuine, and told me again and again how great I was doing. I kept reminding myself that she’s a professional athlete, so this is her job, and I’d undertaken this whole challenge with just a few weeks training.

The two Nepali guides with us were veritable mountain goats. Funny, since one of them is hardly svelte. I tried to ask how many times they’ve done this climb, a question I’ve asked them several already. I don’t know if they don’t keep track, or if they’re just self-effacing but they just say “A lot,” and smile. This morning they slowly walked alongside, laughing at us as we laughed – or some oxygen-starved approximation of laughter – at ourselves.

First half of trail, steep and deceptively smooth

Last part of trail, when you are worn out, rock scrambling!

I’ve always respected high-mountain climbers and this day, more than any other, made me understand just the tiniest fraction of what their minds and bodies go through. Back at home I’m pretty stubborn about workouts. I’m a slow jogger but I push myself to try and go farther or faster every time. I crank cardio machines up to the hardest level I can stand. I truly enjoy a physical challenge. (Except free weights; much to the detriment of my aging bones I have no use for those.) Despite that, this challenge was completely new. Even when I did a marathon I was never this weary. The guide in this video clip accurately describes it… “the battle is all internal now.”

That video also gives a glimpse at how crowded the trail can get. Throughout our trek we’d enjoyed the low tourist numbers at each stop due to the earthquake. But since these mountain towns rely on tourists for their income we understood the worries of our hosts. On this day though the solitude was special.

The last bit up to the peak of Kala Patthar is volcanic rock, so scrambling was in order. I’m not a great scrambler on any day, and my pack and coat made it more awkward, but I tried to keep close behind my much fitter team members. Finally, when we made the summit, we were alone, the few solo hikers that summited before us having made their way down another trail.

It was one of the best moments of my life.

I’ve never been a high-achiever. Not one to win the academic awards in school. Not the one sought out by peers. Not fast enough or strong enough to be a great athlete. While I felt the excitement of winning a track event once I also come in last many, many times. But what I am is tenacious.  I compete against myself and my expectations, so this moment, the culmination of a trip I never thought I could do, whipped up a fury of emotions.

We sat alone on the summit for about 40 minutes, bundled against a cold wind, taking photos and silently absorbing the view. There was nothing that needed to be said, and no good words to describe what we were seeing.

The black peak to the left of the prayer flags is Everest. On the left you can see the icefall and the glacier as it turns right down the valley. Base Camp is at the extreme middle-right.

The black diamond is the summit of Mt. Everest. Peak to the right is Nuptse.

Summit of Kala Patthar. The peak behind us is Pumori.

That’s our small team sucking in the cold, sparse air at 18,500 feet. To our right (in the photo) is a sheer and high cliff falling straight down to the valley floor. The peak behind us is Pumori, another favorite for climbers. Sadly, is it where the avalanche that had buried Base Camp just six months earlier originated from.

Too soon, it was time to start down. I was feeling the climate in my lungs, was genuinely cold, and starting to get a hacking cough. Time to begin a long trek down to spend the night in Pheriche.

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