Friday, November 13, 2009

Topping Out

I was only two thirds of the way up to Gokyo Ri’s summit of 17,500 ft, and I was dead tired. It had taken us ten days to trek to Gokyo, the mountain village at the base of Gokyo Ri. We had hiked approximately 30 miles and had climbed over 8,000 feet one way. I was contemplating turning back. I felt like I was not getting enough air to fill my lungs and each step on the grinding uphill was getting more difficult. I thought “really, the view can’t be so spectacular to be worth this”. Going down would be so much easier … and warmer. And I would make it before the sun passed below the mountain range next to me, so I would not have to descend in the dark. (That was what was going to happen if we stayed on the top late enough to see sunset on Everest.) I thought: “I have seen sunsets before. Do I really need to see the mountain light up like a Christmas tree just to say that I’d seen it?” Clearly I did.


We had arrived in Kathmandu from Bangkok 12 days earlier and had a day to get our gear together and get ready for the trek. We still needed sleeping bags, misc cold weather gear, Nepalese Rupees, trekking poles and some smaller backpacks. My travel backpack weighs 6 pounds empty, and I didn’t want to haul any more weight up the mountain than I had to. The next day started early with a hair raising flight from Kathmandu to the small mountain town of Lukla. The views during the flight of the never ending snow capped mountain ranges were unforgettable, as was the fact that the plane dodged in and out of the valleys so close to the mountain sides that I could make out the individual trees.

Lukla has become the de-facto starting point for all trekking trips heading to the Himalayan mountain range that contains the highest place on earth: Everest. The runway there was never intended to ferry so many tourists to the area. Sir Edmund Hillary and Penba Sherpa’s Himalayan Trust Foundation built it as a way to convey supplies into the region from Kathmandu. It’s evilly short: 300 ft. It begins with a sheer drop off at one side and ends it solid rock wall on the other. The only planes that can take off and land there are small twin propeller jobbies that hold only 10 to 20 passengers and their gear. The planes have the decrepit look and feel of being very well used. The seats are small and not securely attached to the floor and you look right into the cockpit from the aisle. My only thought was that the pilots didn’t want to die any more than I did, so I hoped that the planes were well maintained. Hoping helped as I made it through 2 flights alive.

The lodges we stayed at along the way were simple affairs. They were sometimes made of wood and sometimes made of stone. The sleeping rooms were tiny with a window on one side and generally only contained two small wooden bed frames with a piece of foam on top of them to serve as a mattress. If we were lucky there were a few hooks in the room to hang our coats on. There was no insulation in the walls and only a piece of thin plywood separated you from the next room. Oddly, because the beds were usually pushed against the side walls with a narrow space in between, I was typically sleeping closer to the person snoring a few inches over on the other side of the wall than I was to Cindy. Halfway through the trip we finally got smart and started to push the beds together for warmth. Toilets were outside at the end of the halls. Because of the lack of insulation, any noise made in any of the other rooms echoed into your room. Often I could count how many times our nearest cellmates got up to use the loo (having to pee often being an unfortunate side effect of being at high altitude). There was also always a common room that varied in degrees of comfort. It was there that we spent our time eating, playing games to pass the time and just trying to stay warm.


The 13 day trek was spectacular. Each day the views of the surrounding mountains changed as I gained more altitude and more of the range was viewable. Our main concern with the altitude was Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). It occurs only above 2400 meters (8000 feet). The percentage of oxygen in the air remains essentially constant with altitude (at 21%) up until 70,000 feet (21,330 m), but the air pressure (and therefore the number of oxygen molecules) drops as altitude increases — consequently, the available amount of oxygen to sustain mental and physical alertness decreases above 10,000 feet (3,050 m). There are many non life threatening symptoms such as headache, dizziness, fatigue and lack of appetite. In extreme cases it can kill by causing fluid in the lungs and swelling of the brain. Trekking is nothing to mess around with, and we were advised not to climb higher than 300 to 500 meters (1000 to 1600 feet) per day. The only reliable cure for AMS is to descend as quickly as possible. We heard half-a-dozen helicopter runs daily ferrying dying trekkers out of the valley for $1000 USD a pop. The weird thing about AMS is that just because you’ve climbed at altitude before and not had any symptoms does not mean that you won’t have them now. Physical ability also has nothing to do with whether you will get it or not. Basically it can strike anyone at any time and you can go from feeling fine to barfing in as little as 15 minutes. Needless to say, we were very watchful of each other and spent a few extra days at different elevations in an effort to make sure we were acclimatizing properly.

It was an interesting experience to see how my body handled the altitude, and I am now convinced that choosing not to be a mountaineer for a living was a correct decision. I was constantly cold, often on the verge of dehydration, my sinuses were always blocked, my throat was continuously sore because of the dry air. I had a persistent cough, I tired easily, I slept 11 hours a night, and I found the whole experience generally uncomfortable.

I mentally spanked myself and pushed through the last 800 feet or so and reached the summit. The reward was one of the most spectacular mountain views I have ever seen or experienced. I had a 360 degree view of the Himalaya mountain range and Mt Everest looked like I could reach out and touch it. We stayed until after sunset snapping pictures that will never come close to the astounding beauty of the real view.

No comments:

Post a Comment