Over the Kongma La

Today was one of the most exhausting days of my life. I headed out on the trail before sunrise, crossing a couple of half frozen little streams just outside Chhukung. The sunrise turned the huge peaks around me brilliantly pink and the weather was perfect. After a couple of hours of hiking up and up I reached a high grassy plateau and sat down for a drink of water and short break. It wasn’t long before a local Sherpa motored up the slope behind me at what seemed to me to be an incredible rate. I expected him to at least be breathing heavy from the steep high altitude hike, but instead he sat down next to me totally fine and to my surprise lit a cigarette. We managed to communicate enough for me to learn that he was a porter, carrying a backpack full of gear all the way to Gorek Shep. We got moving again at about the same time, but he was soon a speck in the distance. Eventually I got to an enormous and impassable looking rock wall covered in icicles that were melting and falling from great heights in the morning sun. The same cyclone that hit Nepal in October and killed a bunch of trekkers had dumped a foot or so of snow on the Everest region as well. This made it pretty tough to find the trail but luckily I could still see the porter in the distance so I knew the general direction I needed to go. The going got very tough as I made my way up a steep and icy slope to the left of the rock wall. I pretty well had to crawl on all fours up the icy slope, sliding back down a foot or so every other step. Luckily when I reached the top the trail reappeared and the slope became much gentler.

It was from there I got my first glimpse of Kongma La, the 5535 meter pass that would lead me to Lobuche. It was still quite far up and in the distance, marked by prayer flags at a small cleft in a jagged spine of rock that connected two high peaks. I also noticed some yaks grazing on the plateau to my right and wondered how these heavy, ungainly looking beasts had managed to get up here. My surroundings looked almost otherworldly as large patches of blinding white snow contrasted with dark grey broken rock. To my left was a small milky green coloured pond at the base of a high cliff. The snow around this pond was covered in animal prints so I spent a few minutes looking for anything interesting. I found one set that looked curiously felid and the idea hit me that maybe they were left by the extremely rare snow leopard. I kind of dismissed the idea because they are indeed so rare as to almost inhabit the realm of the mythical, but nevertheless I took a quick picture of them. I was glad I did when a couple of days later in Pangboche I showed a local Sherpa the photos and he said he thought they were actually from the majestic cat.

After a short climb away the prints I reached another spectacular plateau, the last one before Kongma La, which loomed directly ahead of me. To my right was another small greenish pond situated below the remnants of an almost entirely melted glacier. To my left was a large, deeply navy blue lake at the base of a towering cliff. The reflective snow all around made the temperature soar as the sun was now high in the sky, enabling me to hike above 5000 meters in shorts and a T-shirt. The thin layer of ice on the lake whistled and popped as it melted in the heat, the sounds echoing strangely off the cliff walls that surrounded it on two sides. Other than that there were no sounds at all except for my laboured breathing in the thin air. I walked between the two water bodies and reached the final rock wall that lead up to the pass. It was only 50 or 60 meters more elevation gain, but the climb absolutely killed me. There was no ice here; instead the sun heated the dark rocks so it felt like I was in a furnace. One of the characteristics of these high altitude environments is drastic changes in temperature between shadow and direct sunlight. Because the air is so thin it isn’t able to hold on to much heat, and at the same time the thinner atmosphere doesn’t filter out as much UV radiation as at lower elevations so more of it reaches your skin in direct sunlight and is converted to heat energy. My 35 pound bag felt like it weighed a ton and it literally became more of a climb than a hike as I hauled myself upwards, stopping to rest every 30 seconds. Finally I reached the pass, on a veritable knife edge of a ridge that plunged almost vertically down over a vast rock fall on the far side as well. I gobbled down what food I had left and had a good long break there. A group of eastern Europeans reached the pass just after I did, but headed in the opposite direction toward Chhukung.

I was a bit worried to see the northwest facing slope I needed to descend in order to reach Lobuche was made up entirely of loose, broken rubble covered in snow and ice. Luckily I had bought a cheap pair of crampons in Namche which ended up working like a charm for the short amount of time I actually used them. Without them it would have been a much longer, more dangerous descent than it was. After what seemed like an eternity on this awful terrain I made it to the grassy flat bit at the bottom. I was borderline exhausted at that point, but still needed to cross the debris strewn labyrinth otherwise known as the Khumbu Glacier. What should have taken a half hour ended up taking me about two hours, as I had to keep stopping every couple of minutes to rest. A couple of times I actually fell asleep on my backpack for a few minutes. The glacier was beautiful and amazing, but in my wrecked state I didn’t fully appreciate it until a couple of days later when I returned with Emily. The ice is mostly covered in a thick layer of boulders so that you can only see it in a few areas, but there were constant reminders that I was on a flowing river of ice and rock. The sound of rocks and boulders breaking free from precarious perches and tumbling down into small ponds that dotted the glacier was very frequent and every once in a while I could hear a deep groan from somewhere down below. I finally dropped down the western side of the lateral moraine onto some beautiful grass, head throbbing from AMS and just about hypoglycemic. Lobuche, an otherwise unremarkable little gathering of shacks seemed like an oasis in the desert to me at that point in time, and I very much enjoyed a big supper and an 11 hour sleep that night.


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