Day 8: Lobuche to Gorak Shep

Gorak Shep, Nepal
16,995 feet above sea level; 52% oxygen

The thermostat could not have been above 10 or 15 degrees this morning. It was 5:30 a.m., the skies were still dark and we were freezing. Yet, there was a sense of nervous excitement downstairs in the dining room as we sipped our black teas. A week after arriving in Lukla, we would reach Everest Base Camp this afternoon.

But today would also be one of — if not, the most — difficult days of the trip. Dawa estimated a 9-hour, 10-mile trek, certainly our most strenuous. And to make matters more challenging, nearly all of this would take place above 16,000 feet.

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By 9:30 a.m., we arrived at Gorak Shep, a village that sits atop a small, frozen lake. Gorak Shep was the base camp for the failed 1952 Swiss expedition to Everest. There is little to see here; it’s simply a resting point. So after an early lunch of tuna fish sandwiches, we continued northward.

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Following the rough terrain of the Khumbu Glacier moraine, as the sun nearly blinded us and the wind howled, we advanced slowly along hills littered with boulders. “Can’t stop,” Dawa said, pointing upward. “Maybe avalanche.”

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About halfway there, we caught a glimpse of Everest — its scary and intimidating black peak poking far beyond all of the surrounding mountains. Here, it’s above my right shoulder.

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The last half mile was slow going, essentially ice trekking, as we slowly crossed onto the glacier with its 50-foot tall seracs of ice. Then, finally, it came into sight: a small mound of rocks, a few prayer flags and a handmade sign proclaiming three sweet words: Everest Base Camp. We were standing at 17,598 feet. There was a little less than 50% oxygen in the air.

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As the season is young, there was little life at Base Camp. The expeditions generally don’t start setting up shop here until next month. But for a couple of minutes — as the next group of trekkers approached — we had Base Camp all to ourselves. Wind off the mountains picked up. And hearing nothing but Everest’s wrath, we took it all in.

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Then, after celebrating for no more than 15 minutes an accomplishment that had taken us over a week, we simply turned around and started back home.

In Gorak Shep, the effects of altitude quickly set in. Terrible pounding headaches plagued most of the group. We agreed to have dinner at 5 p.m. not because we were starving — but so that we could go to bed immediately after.

But it would make no difference. At nearly 17,000 feet, there would be no sleep tonight.

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