Gorakshep and EBC
Time now to see Everest from up close! After an easy trek from Dzongla to Lobuche we had some busy time ahead of us: walk to Gorakshep, see the Everest Base Camp (EBC) on the same afternoon, sleep at Gorakshep; on the next day climb Kala Patthar early in the morning and in the afternoon descend all the way down to Dingboche. A bit of a marathon but after 10 days in the mountains and two high-passes of 5400 m I felt pretty well acclimatized and eager for some interesting new sights.
We had an early start from Lobuche because of the long day ahead of us. Leaving Lobuche the trail goes almost straight up north and it is mostly flat. It is a pleasant walk with only a couple of steeper sections in the upper part when you actually step on the Khumbu glacier's moraine. There are great views all along the way as the border mountains to the north get closer and closer. There is a spot on the trail right before Gorakshep from where you can actually see the top of mount Everest peering over Nuptse's ridge but that view is not too impressive as the true scale of the mountain is not really revealed.
Gorakshep is the highest settlement before the Everest Base Camp. It is set at 5164 m / 16942 ft on the edge of a flat area (a dry lake bed) by the lateral moraine of the Khumbu glacier. Starting as if from the former lake's bottom the bullet-like shape of Pumori (7161 m / 23494 ft) is shooting straight up to the sky. To the east the massive ice cliffs of Nuptse hang menacingly from the clouds. It is a high-desert, a wasteland of rock and ice and that's why it is an amazing sight so see the bustling life around it: colorful lodges, caravans of porters and yaks and scores of trekkers moving up and down the moraines.
After a quick lunch our group headed for the Everest Base Camp. The trail goes north at an easy angle but is quite rugged as it navigates the curves of the Khumbu glacier. Mount Everest shows up in view halfway to its base camp but disappears again towards the end of the trail. In fact the top of the mountain cannot be seen from the base camp, it is hidden behind the so-called West Shoulder. We reached a sign "Everest base Camp 2012" but there was no camp nearby. The tents we saw were a few hundred meters further up on the glacier. Most expeditions work from this side of the mountain during the spring (pre-monsoon season) and I was told only two of them were active this fall. Normally the base camp stretches all the way down the glacier to where we stood and should present an interesting sight but we weren't so lucky. I actually quite liked the place. This is where the Khumbu Valley and Nepal ends and beyond the chain of icy mountains surrounding it is Tibet.
1 1/2 times on Kala Patthar
Coming back from EBC was easy but it was already late in the afternoon so I was getting ready for some well-deserved rest at Gorakshep. The "problem" however was the excellent afternoon light I saw already turning the mountain tops orange. So I mustered up whatever strength I had left and dashed up on the trail to Kala Patthar.
Kala Patthar is 5545 m / 18192 ft-high and is reached by a couple of hours of stiff climb from Gorakshep. It counts as a mountain but it is really just a black rocky outcrop on the shoulder of Pumori. The view from its top however makes it so famous and is the reason why so many trekkers try climbing it every season. It provides one of the best view points of Mount Everest reachable by non-mountaineers. Most people climb it early in the morning when the skies are cloud-free and the view of Mount Everest is almost guaranteed. The best time to climb it however is in the afternoon when the west-facing slopes of Everest and Nuptse turn gold at the light of the setting sun. And that's what I was aiming for! It was a rare treat to have clear weather in the afternoon so I did not want t miss it. You don't have to reach the top of Kala Patthar to see Everest but the higher you go the better the view is. It was really a race with time itself and in 40 minutes I was more than halfway to the top when I realized that I cannot reach it before the sun sets. So I started shooting and I got some of the most impressive images I made during the entire trek. Light is everything in photography and for some brief 10 minutes I had the best light possible!
On the next morning the group headed up for Kala Patthar as was the original plan. With a steady pace we made it to the top and back in about two hours but I was really beat up after that. After so much time above 5000 meters and absolutely no issues with my physical shape so far I was really struggling in the upper part of the trail. On top of that I had to operate the camera in the morning's chill and my fingers froze so much that I had to borrow our guide's thicker gloves (thank you Karma!).
Down to Dingboche
After Kala Patthar we headed down to Dingboche. Our goal was to get some rest at a lower altitude and then head up to Island Peak. Going back to Lobuche was quick. We stopped for lunch and after that continued the descend down the main Everest trail.
The trail passes through a memorial site for climbers who lost their lives in the mountains. The place is marked by tens of memorial stones and plaques - some of them commemorating real Everest legends like Babu Chiri Sherpa and Scott Fisher. From there the trail descends at a steeper angle until it reaches Dukla - a small hamlet of just a couple of lodges. From there the trail splits. The lower trail goes down straight to Pheriche. We took the upper branch of the trail however that traverses some long flat slopes to the left and finally descends into Dingboche.
Dingboche (4400 m / 14436 ft) is the highest real village in the Everest region. By "real" I mean that the village has more than only lodges and is inhabited by local Sherpa people year-round. Set in the lower part of the beautiful Imja Valley right below the magnificent Ama Dablam it provides a convenient starting point for Island Peak. Also being at a relatively low altitude it's lodges are slightly less basic than those we had seen during the past few days.
Pictures from this part of the trek can be found in the Everest Base Camp Trail album.