Gokyo Trek - Day 6 and 7 - Sagarmatha National Park - Nepal
October 27th, 2011 - Day 6 - Pangka (4455m) to Gokyo (4760m) in 4.5 hours (5km)
Again, we awoke to another beautiful day in the Khumbu region and were off like a herd of turtles by 8am. Though only a 5km hike north to Gokyo with a 300 meter elevation gain, the affects of the altitude were now hitting us all pretty hard. I had already passed my high point record of 14,246 feet on the way up from Dhole to Pangka the previous day, so I was officially in new territory and wondered how things would go from this point on.
The surrounding environment once again seemed to change before our eyes as we headed further up. It seemed we had suddenly entered a kind of desert landscape, dominated by brown and gray tones with stunted shrubs as the only sign of life around. The peak spires and hillsides also seemed to be closing in on us on all sides, possibly accentuating the sense of claustrophobia that one can feel when there is a lack of oxygen.
For the most part, however, I was feeling strong and energetic, enjoying the unprecedented views that were revealing themselves at the turn of every corner. This part of the trek was probably the most beautiful of all, in my opinion. I love mountain peaks, desert environments, rivers, lakes and deep blue skies... this section had all of them at once, plus the added bonus of experiencing a glacier for the first time. There are no words to describe the experience of such beauty. It is simply felt in the soul and is something you carry with you for the rest of your life.
For the majority of the day I was hiking ahead of the group, just focusing on moving along, taking photos and listening to my music. When I'm in that meditative hiking zone I have a habit of neglecting my hiking partners paces, simply moving forward without much thought of how close they are. This was the case on this day, as some of the others were beginning to have difficulties with the altitude and I would find myself waiting for them to catch up. By the time I reached the 2nd Lake the lag time had become even longer and I began to worry there were serious issues.
When the group reached my rest spot at 2nd Lake, it was clear just how badly Peter was suffering. Fighting both a cold and the elevation, he was walking so sluggishly (which was a first) and was so introverted that it was obvious he was in bad shape. As I have heard and read many times, suffering from altitude sickness is not a measure of ones strength or weakness, it is a condition that can affect anyone at anytime and is quite random in its occurrences. What affects a person on one occasion may not on the next.
I felt for Peter on that day. It's hard enough to be suffering from altitude sickness, but add in that extra sense of group pressure and to contend with feelings of not wanting to "let the group down"... all of it adds up to a very difficult emotional and physical struggle. He showed incredible strength on that day though, by far his hardest of all, and physically pushed himself beyond anything he has ever experienced before.
We all plodded along slowly towards the last curve in the trail that would finally reveal Gokyo village. Beside it was the large "mound" of Gokyo Peak and the beautiful blue waters of Gokyo lake. What a stunning setting for a village! After seeing Namche Bazaar, I didn't think it was possible to find a more beautifully located village... until Gokyo. Considering how remote the location is, it's quite an impressive little village. If it wasn't for the affects of the high altitude, I think I would have been able to appreciate it a little more, but by that point I was ready for a rest.
No one was in need of a rest more than Peter though. Upon arrival Gopal lead us to our small room and Peter crashed on the bed immediately, wrapping himself in multiple layers of sleeping bags as he shivered in his sickness. Luckily for us, Gokyo has a resident doctor always ready to check on people who could be in serious trouble. It wasn't long before Gopal and our porters had tracked the New Zealand doctor down and brought him back to examine Peter. His final assessment was that Peter was suffering from moderate altitude sickness and recommended he descend to a lower elevation as soon as possible, suggesting Machhermo as a possible destination since it was well equipped.
For Peter, the idea of having to hike back down in the state he was in, especially after the incredible struggle of coming up, must have been a terrible prospect to face. Although he was relieved to know his life wasn't in immediate danger, he also was not looking forward to the hours long hike in the dark that was going to begin shortly. From what he told me later, his experience of the whole event felt surreal, disjointed in time and hard to recall. That goes to show you how badly off he was.
After some quick repacking and logistical discussions, it was decided that the entire party would head back down as far as they could go and that I would remain in Gokyo so that I could hike up Gokyo Peak the following morning. Gaurab or Lachhi would meet me later in the morning in Gokyo and lead me to the location where the group was.
And so it was that our effort to reach EBC was over. At the time, I think I might have felt a bit relieved in some ways. I knew how hard it had been to even reach Gokyo and from all that I had heard along the way from those returning, to have continued on to EBC would have been incredibly gruelling. People had told us the lodges and views near EBC were lousy and that Gokyo Peak had a better view and was actually a few meters higher than basecamp. So in my mind, if I could get to the top of Gokyo Peak I would have accomplished all the main things I had come here for... incredible views, climbing a mountain and experiencing a personal high altitude record. My "I will abide" mantra was also working to great affect.
After well wishes to each other, the group headed down and I was left alone in Gokyo. As the evening sun worked its way towards the mountain horizon surrounding me, I took a small hike up to a ridge that opened up to an incredible view of the Ngozumbu glacier. It was the first time in my life to be so close to a glacier and it was a very special experience. Though they don't seem to be moving, the cracking and rock fall sounds make it clear these are ever changing natural wonders. Sitting and quietly listening to these sounds was an amazing and peace filled experience. I fell in love with it and felt an incredible compulsion to head down the ridge and walk atop this beautiful creation of nature. I don't know why I felt so attracted to it, but I didn't lose my senses at least, quickly reminding myself of all the stories I had heard of the hidden dangers glacial crossing's pose. Last thing I wanted was to end up in a crevasse.
Returning to the lodge, I went to bed early that night knowing I would have to get up in the wee hours of the morning to start my ascent of Gokyo Peak (Gopal had told me to start by around 4am). Last thing I expected was to be awoken at 10pm from a deep sleep by knocking at my door. It was Gopal. He had returned all the way from Nala where the gang was resting so that he could lead me on the trek up Gokyo Peak. Obviously fueled by a sense of duty and commitment, he was determined to fulfill his role as guide... I couldn't believe he had returned to Gokyo after all that had happened. Such incredible strength and will power he showed that day, which seems like a common trait in the Nepalese. They constantly amazed me.
October 28th, 2011 - Day 7 - Gokyo (4760m) to Gokyo Peak (5357m) to Nala (4375m) in 8 hours (8.5km)
As planned, I heard a knocking at my door at 4am. I let Gopal in and we groggily put together our gear, strapped some headlights on and headed out in to the frigid darkness. As we made our way towards the base of Gokyo Peak, it was clear to me that there would have been no way for me to find my way on my own in the dark like this. We were the only ones out there at this time, as there were no other headlights visible on the mountain. We tried to encourage ourselves against the biting cold by saying we would be the first to get to the top on this day, which seemed to be the only excuse for starting at such an early hour.
Gopal confided how he had had a terrible sleep, which I imagine was partly due to worry over how the rest of the group was doing in Nala and the fact that he had terrible sleeping accommodations because of his late night return. As we slowly made our way up the trail with only the faint glow of our LED headlamps, the freezing temperatures, altitude and exertion were getting the best of us, slowing us to a snails pace. It wasn't long afterward that Gopal had a short bout of vomiting. I told him we could turn around if he wasn't feeling well, but he would hear none of it, and so we slowly continued on, with only the occasional glowing eyes of some grazing Yaks to break the darkness.
Trying to take a drink from my camel pack, I quickly realized I had made a terrible error in my selection of hydration equipment. The water in the rubber hose was frozen solid and I had little energy or mental capacity to figure out a different method of getting the water out, so I simply continued on as is.
A few hundred meters below we could see the glowing headlamps of other hikers beginning their journey up the peak as well. We figured with the head start we had, there's no way they would ever catch up... only we completely underestimated their abilities and strength (or we overestimated our own) and as the sun began to rise we could clearly see how quickly they were gaining on us. Though there was no true competition taking place and neither of us really cared, it was still one of the things we were using to motivate ourselves, which, when you are struggling at altitude like that, you need any kind of motivation you can get.
By 6am, with frozen hands and a very slow, methodical pace, we were within eye shot of the top, but like my experience on White Mountain Peak, these last few hundred feet were incredibly difficult to complete. Every step felt slow as molasses, mixed in with dizziness, nausea, rapid heart rate, breathlessness and a constant feeling of being out of balance. It's truly an incredible experience to see what happens to our bodies at this altitude. Despite the challenge of it, there wasn't any way I was going to give up on my goal, not with EBC being out of the picture... and so, 600 meters of elevation gain and 2.5 hours later, we made it to the top of Gokyo Peak (joining a crowd of over 10 people).
Again, what luck to be at the top of this mountain and have another sunny and clear day. The views of all the unbelievably beautiful mountains in every direction were breath taking, with the view of Everest being the clearest and closest one of the whole trip. I felt blessed to be able to get to experience a view like this in my life. Would I ever see anything like this again? Most likely not.
At the same time it's a strange experience to have spent so much time and effort to get to this very moment and realize how fleeting it will be. I don't know if it was the affects of altitude, exhaustion or the strong headache, but it felt difficult to anchor myself in that moment and fully appreciate it. I wanted to take it all in and hold on to it somehow, but there seemed to be too much going on inside of me. I was in pain and feeling cold, thirsty and hungry (quickly consuming a cookie kindly given to me by some fellow hikers) and my thoughts were already wandering back to what the return trip would be like.
I tried my best to be in the moment, taking photos, offering my tobacco gift to the mountains and congratulating the others around me, but the half hour we spent up there came and went quickly, not allowing me the time I wished for to do some praying and contemplation. The next thing I knew Gopal and I were heading back down, the long return trip home officially beginning.
The hike down Gokyo Peak, in some ways, was even more difficult than going up due to a bad headache that would throb with every step I took. The lack of water was probably a major contributing factor as well, but by 8am we were back in the village of Gokyo and eating a much needed breakfast. I felt much better after getting some food and fluids in me. Lachhi was waiting for us in Gokyo and had all our stuff packed and ready to go, and so we spent the next two hours heading down to Nala where the rest of the group was recovering. Even this short downhill hike felt more difficult than it should have... I figure I was just feeling pretty tired by that point.
We reached the tiny "village" of Nala (a single lodge settlement) by lunch time and were warmly greeted by our group. They were all feeling much better and told me of the great struggle they faced heading down the night before (Peter vomiting out all the medication the doctor had given him). It was nice to see Peter doing so much better.
It was also great to have a whole afternoon to relax and recover in this isolated and quiet spot. Only thing that we had to watch out for were the dirt licking Yaks, one of whom apparently charged one of the patrons the moment he exited the outhouse. Not the kind of thing you'd expect from these slow moving and quiet creatures.
One other thing of note about Nala is that the lodge is owned by a Sherpa who's climbed Everest many times. He wasn't around while we were there, so unfortunately, we missed out on some potentially incredible stories.
Unfortunately organised group treks tend to start the last ascent in the small hours, whereas individuals can choose to leave at a civilised hour and move a bit quicker. I found this on the Annapurna Circuit, where the group in darkness missed great views at the half way point that I had managed to get the previous afternoon, but only by sneaking out of camp ahead of the rest on the pre-summit 'acclimatisation' walk.