After the usual terror flight to Lukla, in which the twin engine plane zips into a toy-sized landing strip and throws itself into a steep, uphill trun--stopping like a runaway truck in a sand pit--we head for Namche Bazaar, a Sherpa town that clings like velcro to the impossibly steep mountains.
A steep ascent toward the monastery of Tengboche is climbed in tandem with hundreds of trekkers, all headed toward Kala Patthar, Everest, Island Peak, or Lobuche. Panting and sweating, we finally reach the misty heights of the monastery to catch the first clear view of Mt. Everest. At 12,700-ft., the monastery huddles in the curve of swoopingly high mountainsEverest, Nuptse, Lhotse, Ama Dablam, and Kantegaand the cold, wet night rumbles with the mutter of distant avalanches.
It is festival time in Nepal, and the large monastery allows visitors to shuck their shoes and sit around the perimeter to observe its celebrations. Twenty or so monks assume a seated position on parallel benches and chant and pray. Like a lone foghorn, the Sandung, a long, traditional horn, sounds out. Cymbals clash and drums boom. Around the gompa (sacred space) are pyramids of candies, heaped up in profusion, along with bakery goods and other sweets. At the end, each monk's plastic bag is filled with treats, plus fistfuls of rupees. They giggle like schoolboys, good-natured, thankful.
Skies are clear, the air cold, as we head through grazing meadows and rockfall toward Duglha. Our plan is to get away from the surging crowds--there's even a German mountain biker, carrying his bike up the trail--and set up a base camp on the steep flanks of Pokalde. We seek isolation, and once there, the stillness thankfully takes over. No trails, no trekkers, not even yaks find their lonely way up the lateral moraine to the rocky field where we camp. Ang Cheering wants to establish a high camp at 18,000-ft, but we resist. It's freezing cold, we don't want to sleep any higher than 17,000-ft. and we think that with an early start, we can make it.
Pokalde Peak was described by a 1953 Everest team as a jolly ridge, in the Alpine sense, yet nothing seemed jolly about it at 3 am, as we struggled into our gear, scrambled up miles of broken rock, and skirted milky, frozen lakes to reach the lip of the hanging glacier at dawn. A deep crevasse and an ice bridge bar the ascent, and we rope across both in the pale dawn light. When the sun finally burst through, the snow turns x-ray white. Deep-cut shadows play up the 50-55 degree slope as we advance.
The snow clings to the rocks in huge, deep folds, so dry and unconsolidated that we flounder like yetis. No matter how many crampons had tramped down the same spot, the snow refused to pack down--I've never seen snow behave like this! Completely without traction, we wallowed. We plunged. We pulled ourselves slowly up a taut rope using ascendors, and wondered: was it possible to drown in snow? One side benefit: a climber could never slide backwards down the steep slope. Of course, the snow itself could slide backwards down the steep slope, but, well, we don't think about that.
Fortunately, the weather was beautiful. Once, bored with the length of time it took to reset the ropes, Neal and I set up the steep ascent unroped. It was nearly impossible, and we swam back toward the sherpas. After hours of puffing and pulling up a 250-meter. rope, reset over and over, we finally inched toward the summit, crampons teetering on the jagged rocks. Ahead rose the false summit, behind which lurked the popular summit, and further behind, hid a third crest, which the sherpas called the impossible summit. On their advice, we settled for the summit with the cairn, trying not to look down the backside, a vertiginous drop, although climbable.
Just then, the immense, triumphal Nuptse broke out of the clouds behind us, glacial teeth flashing, while in front of us stretched a world of jagged snow snouts: Ama Dablam to the east, Lobuche to the west, Kala Patthar and the Khumbu Glacier below, the killer slopes of Pumori to the north, and skirting just out of view, the hidden grandeur of Everest.
The climb down seemed interminable, knees straining as we slid down pitched frozen rock toward camp, which we finally reached at the end of a fourteen-hour day. Crawling into the yellow tent, I curled around a hot water bottle, beaten, strained, mentally scrolling through a list of ways in which my body could break down. I finally settled on the Khumbu cough and sleep, and by morning, all pain was forgotten in the thrill of having made it to the top.
Well, one of the tops, anyway.
Following was the steep ascent of Cho La pass, marked on the map as "slippery trail," which is code for "pulling yourself straight uphill through boulders by hand" then crossing a snow covered glacier, to descend down the most teacherous, icy, snow glutted trail imaginable. All the while, porters leap like rockfall around us, their thin sneakers slapping off the icy rocks. How do they do it? The views are spectacular from the top, and the vast glacier, given the bright, cloudless day, was perfect for snowballs.
Next was Gokyo Ri, reached through a maze of jumbled boulders, frozen lakes, snow slides, and scree so violently tumbled together you could almost see the enormous glaciers of the past, crunching and barreling through. The mountan gives a panoramic view of Everest, Lhotse,Nuptse and Makalu, but the day was grimly overcast and we opted to leave early instead, to summit our last pass, the Renjo La. Equally steep and treacherous,it seemed worse because of the snow, which followed us for the next few days. Not to be forgotten: lunch bravely cooked in a cave during a blizzard.
A scenic adventure and many mountain memories.