Glancing at the map, Gokyo is in one valley and Mount Everest in another. We could spend two days of reasonable hiking, backtracking to make it over to Khumbu valley which would lead us to the Everest Base Camp. There was a thin line on the map that provided another option. It cut more or less straight across the mountains. It crossed over the Cho La Pass.
Our guide was not enthusiastic about going over the Cho La Pass. In that subtle passive way that is so characteristic of Asians he came up with ways to dissuade us. “You shoes are too old,” he would say. “They’re only 9 months old,” I rebuffed. Granted our Keens looked beaten and ragged and we were not happy about the quality of the shoe, but they were surely adequate. “My stomach hurts,” came at another time. He drank a lot of water and tea and that passed. “My head hurts,” our guide complained one morning. “That’s because you drank too much last night. No sympathy today,” I replied “You are slow and it will be very hard,” he tried convincing us.
Granted, we were not too sure if we wanted to go either. The pass was about 5350 meters above sea level and we heard it led through some rough terrain. We would flip flop. One day our guide would be very convincing and we were set on taking the easy way around the valleys. Another day, our new friends would convince us to cross Cho La Pass. This went on for a few days. Finally, the day before we went it snowed, and our guide was visibly happy that we would not be going. Yet somehow, we decided we would go with the group of people we had met along the way. His last condition was that if it would snow more, we would take the long but easy way. It did not snow.
Starting from Gokyo, our first step was to cross the Ngozumpa Glacier. It is the biggest glacier in the Himalayas. For some time, the regular and easy was of getting across the glacier has been flooded out due to melt water (thanks, global warming) and we had to do go along the new, more difficult path.
We made it down from the ridge of the rocky moraine and were now walking along a boulder field. This is what many glaciers look like. The ice on the surface melts and what is left is a jumble of rocks which had been scraped from the mountainsides earlier in the ice’s journey. As we walked along the cliff, rocks were constantly tumbling down. It was a constant remainder that the ground we are walking on is not static, but is rather a slow creeping carpet of ice which is constantly grinding away at the landscape. It was a bit stressful when we heard rocks crumbling closer to us. We would watch as they tumbled down the hillside and hoped they were not heading in out direction. Had they, we always had a boulder close by which we would duck behind to avoid the rock falls.
We made it across the moon-like surface of the glacier and fought our way through another human pachinko game, avoiding rock falls on the other side of the glacier. The walk was very short today, and in under three hours we were resting in the small village of Dragnag at 4700 meters.
The next day, we set off at four in the morning. It was still dark, but the first hints of morning made it possible to hike without a flashlight. The first two hours were a steady uphill which was not too strenuous but at this altitude made for some heavy breathing. This brought us to a ridge, just as the sun was starting to send its rays above the mountains in front of us. The scenery was profoundly beautiful. The morning sun illuminated the snowy peaks near and far with its warm early light. The long shadows on the rocks added an out of this world feeling.
The only question on our mind now was where s this Cho La Pass. We saw the mountains ahead of us, blocking our progress with their vertical walls. We guessed that we would be making our way up the valley. Wrong. Our guide, Korma, pointed to a dip in the mountain range ahead of us. That was it. We were wondering how we were going to get up what looked like a sheer snow covered wall from our current vantage point.
Down into the valley below we made it. We scrambled our way across the boulder field. Some of the rocks were the size of cars, and the snow and ice made it a bit tricky to find good footing. It was a tiring walk and scramble, but I enjoyed it greatly. We looked ahead at the ever steepening path ahead of us. Farther forward were our quick friends, who by now were dots on a white wall. We were still not sure how they were making their way up.
By now the clear morning weather got filled in with a thick fog. Soon enough we found ourselves in the place where we saw our friends earlier. The cliff was not vertical like it looked from a distance. It was a bunch of loose rocks covered in about a foot or two of dense snow. The path went up at 45 degrees, zigzagging its way up to the top. It was slow and exhausting walking. Step by step, with frequent breaks, we trudged on and eventually made it.
The view from the top of Cho La Pass is known to be extraordinary, weather permitting. For us, the low clouds and fog were no permitting. After a quick sandwich and some high fives, we made our way down the other side. It was much easier going down. First we hiked along a nice snowy glacier. Next, we walked and crawled down a steep section of rocks. Finally, the path gradually became less and less steep, the snow disappeared, and we were walking along flat ground. We had made it across the Cho La Pass, and it looked like the person most relieved was our guide, Korma Sherpa.
Being quite tired we stopped along for the night in a scrappy little place called Dzonglha. The next morning we rose of another perfect clear morning and a spectacular view. Tall white peaked mountains flanked the opposite side of the valley.
The rest of the walk all the way up to Gorak Shep was amazing. The mountains just continued to grow higher and more spectacular with every hour of hiking. The Khumbu glacier accompanied us to our right on the latter part of the trek. We took frequent breaks for photographs and to take in the dramatic landscape. The weather miraculously obliged and did not turn cloudy. We had a perfect day of hiking with some of the most beautiful mountain vistas on earth.
Eventually we got to Gorak Shep. This is the last permanent settlement along the Khumbu Valley. A few hours further lies the tent city known as Everest Base Camp, from where crazy people with loads of disposable income attempt to climb the tallest mountain in the world. We could not see Mount Everest from the valley in which Gorak Shep lay, but the following day we would climb Kala Patthar and get a good up close view of Mount Everest and its tall brothers.