Sunday, April 20, 2014

Tragedy on Everest

Greetings All,
We had one more high pass to conquer, the Kongma La, to complete what is known as the "Everest Three Passes Trek".   Most of the group opted out of climbing the third pass so one of our Sherpas, Ongchhu, accompanied us and another client over the pass.  From Lobuche we had to cross the Khumbu Glacier before starting our ascent.

Marc Crossing the Khumbu Glacier

The approach to the top of the Kongma La was straightforward and we had a good trail most of the way.  It took us three hours to reach the summit at 18,160 feet where views of a vast frozen lake and high mountain peaks lay before us.

View from the Kongma La

We didn't linger on top too long as clouds were quickly building up.  We could see Pokalade, a trekking peak, at just over 19,000 feet with its double-peaks looking close enough to touch.

Peggy on the Kongma La

We descended past the large unnamed lake to yak pastures and finally down to the Imja Valley.  We didn't go all the way to Chunking but took a steep shortcut through grassy fields to the valley floor and down to Dingboche.  We arrived just before the snow began to fall and settled into our quaint lodge. The next morning the weather had cleared and we left Dingboche under clear skies.

Leaving Dingboche

The weather remained good until we reached Pangboche where we stopped for lunch.

Peggy Approaching Pangboche

Pangboche has one of the oldest monasteries in the Khumbu and we paid it a visit after lunch.

Pangboche Monastery

A woman unlocked the door so we could go inside where burning butter lamps softly illuminated the interior.

Butter Lamps in Pangboche Monastery

We continued our descent to Deboche past porters who were still hauling up heavy loads for NBC News.  When we finally had Internet access we found that the Discovery Channel plans on airing the first wing suit flight off Mt. Everest ("Everest Jump Live") on May 11.  Climber Joby Ogwyn will make the attempt in a custom-made wing suit with cameras to capture his 10,000 foot plunge.  We figured it had to be a major production based on the tons of equipment being hauled up the mountain for a 2-hour broadcast.

Porter Hauling More NBC News Equipment

The next day we resumed our descent back to Namche Bazaar stopping to visit the famous Tengboche Monastery.

Gateway to Tengboche Monastery

The monastery is the largest gompa in the Khumbu region and was originally built in 1916.  It was destroyed by an earthquake in 1934 and rebuilt.  It was destroyed a second time by a fire in 1989 and built for a third time.  Inside the monks were preparing to resume their morning prayers.  After a quick cup of tea they began chanting in guttural tones.

Monks resuming their Morning Prayers

I wanted to stay longer but we had to continue our trek back to Namache Bazaar.  I spotted some Himalayan Tahr grazing on the slopes above the trail.  The Himalayan Tahr is a large ungulate (hoofed animal) related to the wild goat.  They allowed us to approach quite close making for a good photo.

Himalayan Tahr

We arrived back in Namche in the early afternoon in time for a cold Everest Beer!  It was nice to be back in the "beer-drinking zone" where we didn't have to worry about the adverse effects of high altitude.

Back in the Beer-Drinking Zone!

We checked into the Holiday Inn and settled into our basic but comfortable room.

Our Room in Namache

This was our first lodge-based trek (we usually camp in tents) and I was concerned about being able to sleep and stay healthy but we didn't have any problems.  I could get used to this cushy lodge-based trekking.  The next morning we headed out through the bustling streets of Namche back to the village of Phakding.

Leaving Namache Bazaar

On Day 18 of our trek we arrived back at our starting point in Lukla.

Gateway to Lukla

Upon our arrival Rinij informed us about the disaster unfolding just above Everest Base camp.  At 6:45 that morning a huge ice avalanche swept down from near the top of the Khumbu icefall killing at least 6 Nepali Sherpas.  Throughout the morning we watched from our lodge room as the rescue helicopters stopped at the Lukla airstrip to refuel as they brought the injured and the bodies of the deceased back to Kathmandu.

Nepali Army Helicopter used in Avalanche Rescue

Unfortunately the death toll has continued to rise to 13 Sherpas with 3 still missing making this the worst single climbing accident on Mt. Everest.  It was a sobering end to an otherwise great trek and a poignant reminder of the danger inherent in mountaineering.  Our deepest condolences go out to the families that lost a member on this fateful day.  I have the deepest respect and admiration for these brave men and women who risk their lives to support the hundreds of Westerners that attempt to climb Mt. Everest every year.  Unfortunately, the allure of climbing the World's highest mountain will never go away.  I will continue to spin a prayer wheel that all who make the climb will stay safe.

We hope all is well back home.
Peggy and Marc

Everest Base Camp Here We Come!

Greetings All,
The alarm went off at 4:00 AM for another early start for our crossing of the Cho La.  The climb started off gradually but there were plenty of boulders to scramble over and rockfall to avoid from above.

Ascending Cho La

We could see a long white prayer flag on a pole on top of the ridge but as we approached I could see it was a false summit.

Prayer Flag at False Summit

The climb started in earnest from this point on.  There was more boulder hopping and a few snow fields to traverse.

Final Ascent of Cho La

Finally after 4 hours we reached the top of the pass at 17,782 feet.  Once again we were rewarded with spectacular views and stopped for a lunch break before heading down.

Us on Cho La

There was a receding glacier on the other side of the pass.  Recently the approach to the east side of the pass had to be rerouted due to the unstable glacier.  If the glacier continues to recede, the Cho La may become impassable.  Fortunately, we had our micro-spikes with us which made the descent much easier.  We had to cross the glacier over steep side-slope areas where if you slipped, you could slide hundreds of feet down into a crevasse.

Descending from Cho La

Luckily we had no mishaps and we all reached Dzongla safely.  The next morning we left Dzongla under clear skies and continued our approach to the Everest Base Camp Trail.

Dzongla Tea House

We had to cross a small pass before reaching the junction with the Everest Base Camp Trail.

Junction with the Everest Base Camp Trail

It was a short 30 minutes to the village of Lobuche where we stopped for lunch.  We crossed the Lobuche Glacier and continued along the massive Khumbu Glacier.  Finally we arrived at Gorak Shep, the last outpost before Everest Base Camp.

Gorak Shep

We stayed in a crowded teahouse where the atmosphere was more like being in a ski lodge in Europe rather than just a couple of hours away from Everest Base Camp.  Marc and I set off early the next morning to explore Everest Base Camp (EBC).  We encountered porters and yaks hauling heavy loads to support the climbing expeditions just getting underway.

Hauling Loads to Everest Base Camp

Finally the tents at Base Camp came into view.  They stretched for over a mile along the Khumbu Glacier at an altitude of 17,600 feet.  Just above camp the Khumbu icefall loomed ominously, the major obstacle to conquer when climbing Everest.  There were many climbing companies including International Mountain Guides (IMG), Jagged Globe and Peak Freaks getting set up for the climbing season just ahead.

Everest Base Camp and Khumbu Icefall

We made our way toward the end of the camp where an expedition guide was leading two novice climbers to the edge of the glacier to practice using crampons and an ice ax.  I couldn't imagine learning how to use crampons and an ice ax on an ascent of Mt. Everest!

Crampon and Ice Axe Lesson

More yaks arrived carrying loads with "NBC News" stickers.  We had seen roughly 60 porters or yaks carrying loads for NBC News.  "What were they going to do with all this equipment?", we wondered.  They must be filming some sort of documentary or maybe a clip for the Today Show.

Hauling NBC News Gear

We made a hasty retreat back to Gorak Shep as the weather began closing in.  Snow began to fall and we wondered if we would be able to climb Kala Patthar tomorrow.  Fortunately, the weather cleared overnight and we were treated to sunrise over Everest as we climbed the "peak".

Sunrise over Mt Everest and Nuptse

As we neared the prayer flags on the top, the perfectly pyramidal shape of Pumori rose in the background.

Reaching Kala Patthar

We didn't dare to go to the very top as the rocks were covered in slick snow and one slip would mean instant death.  The view from our vantage point was just as good.

Us on Kala Patthar

At 18,200 feet, Kala Patthar has one of the most impressive views of Everest Base Camp and the summit of Mt. Everest beyond.  Although not a proper peak, Kala Patthar is very popular with trekkers and now on the top I can see why.  The view of Changtse, Everest and  Nuptse was breathtaking!

View of Everest and Nuptse from Kala Patthar

It was time to return to Gorak Shep where a pair of friendly Tibetan Snowcocks greeted us.

Tibetan Snowcock

We had time for lunch before heading back down to Lobuche where we would spend the night.  What a thrilling visit to Everest Base Camp!  After reading so much about the highest mountain on our planet I could hardly believe that I had finally reached Base Camp.  I couldn't imagine scaling the peak.  I was content to admire it from afar and wish those brave enough to attempt it the best of luck!

We hope all is well back home.
Peggy and Marc

Trek to the Sacred Gokyo Lakes

Greetings All,
We flew from Kolkata, India to Kathmandu, Nepal on March 29.  We spent a few days in chaotic Kathmandu preparing for our upcoming trek in the Everest Region and met our trek group consisting of folks from the UK, Philippines and the US.  Our trek route (shown in red) would take us over three high-level passes that link the valleys of Thame, Gokyo, Khumbu and Imja Khola.

Our Trek Route (Shown in Red)

Our journey started with an exciting flight into the airstrip at Lukla.  We flew into this airstrip back in 1997 when it was dirt.  Even though it is now paved, it's still a hair-raising experience.

Approach into Lukla

On our way out of Lukla we stopped to photograph another plane coming in even though the Nepalese police keep blowing whistles at us and telling us, "no photographs, no photographs!".

Plane Landing at Lukla Airstrip

We  followed the main Everest Trail up to the Sherpa village of Namche Bazaar at 11,286 feet.  The village has grown since 1997 when we first visited but Namche has retained it's Tibetan Buddhist charm.

Namche Bazaar

We spent 2 nights here to acclimatize to the high altitude and took a short walk above the village to the Everest View Hotel where we gained our first view of Mt. Everest.

First View of Mt. Everest (left plume)

We stopped for lunch at the tiny village of Khumjung above Namche and visited the Khumjung Gompa or monastery.

Buddha Statue in Khumjung Gompa

The Gompa is famous for possessing a rare yeti (sometimes referred to as the "abominable snowman") skull!  According to legend, these human-like creatures roam the high Himalayas sometimes killing yaks or abducting small children.

Yeti Skull in Khumjung Gompa

From Namche Bazaar we headed west to the tiny settlement of Thame where we spent another two nights in preparation for our first major pass crossing, the Renjo La.  We got an early start around 5:30 AM for the 3300-foot climb to the top of the pass.

Start of our Climb Over the Renjo La

From the summit at 17,520 feet the view of Mt. Everest piercing the eastern horizon and of the third Gokyo Lake below was stunning.

View From the Renjo La

A steep descent through snow and scree brought us to the summer settlement of Gokyo on the east shore of the third Gokyo Lake known as Dudh Pokhari.  The lake was still frozen so we missed the characteristic turquoise green color for which the lakes are famous.  A chain of  six Gokyo Lakes comprises  the world's highest freshwater system and in 2007 were named a Ramsar site.  The Ramsar Convention (formally the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, especially for Waterfowl Habitat) is an international treaty for the conservation and sustainable utilization of wetlands.  The following day Marc and I hiked up to the Fifth Gokyo Lake for more spectacular views of Cho Oyu (the World's 6th highest mountain at nearly 27,000 feet) looming over the immense Ngozumba Glacier.

Cho Oyu (high point on the left) Looms over Ngozumba Glacier

We didn't trek another 3 miles to the sixth Gokoyo Lake and the site of Cho Oyu Base Camp.  Our trip leader Rinji told us that Cho Oyu is rarely climbed from this side due to the high danger of avalanches.  It's easy to see why this lofty and remote place is sacred to both Hindus and Buddhists.  The area is worshipped as the residing place of "Nag Devata" (Snake God) and as a result birds and wildlife are not harmed.

The next day we climbed the spectacularly located Gokyo Ri for more views of Dudh Pokhari and the peaks of Cholotse and Taboche beyond.

Climbing Gokyo Ri

As we neared the top, a sightseeing helicopter flew high over the valley then plunged 3000 feet!  At first I thought "oh no, his engine has failed!".  When he then leveled out just before hitting a ridge I realized he was giving his passengers one hell of a ride!

Sightseeing helicopter takes a dive!

Once on top we sat on some rocks to drink in the views of three of the world's highest peaks, Mt. Everest (highest bump over my head), Lhotse (right of Everest) and Makalu (pointy peak right of Lhotse, peeking from behind).

Us on the Summit of Gokyo Ri

All too soon it was time to descend from Gokyo Ri back to Gokyo.  We still have to cross the Ngozumba Glacier to reach Dragnag before nightfall.

Crossing the Ngozumba Glacier

Tomorrow we have to tackle the formidable Cho La, the last major obstacle before rejoining the Solu-Khumbu Valley on the southern approach to Mount Everest.

We hope all is well back home.
Peggy and Marc