Yesterday I posted a photograph showing the last rays of sunlight catching the summit of Mt Everest at the end of a day. After putting it up online, I was reflecting on the story behind the image, and thought that I would share it.
The year was 1989, the month September. I found myself in Nepal at what turned out to be a little under halfway through a journey that would take me through Pakistan, China, Nepal and India. Plans for the trip were no more than a sketch. I had bought a one way ticket to Karachi in Pakistan, had a couple of destinations that I hoped to visit, but that was about it in terms of planning. It turned out that I visited most of those destinations, but plans also changed as I traveled, as events happened, and as I met people.
One of my pre depature hoped for destinations was Mt. Everest base camp. The reason was simple, because Mt. Everest is the highest point on this planet, and as climbing the mountain was not on my cards, base camp seemed to be the next best option. My interest in visiting Mt. Everest was also informed by having read the biographies of Chris Bonington, the British mountaineer who led pioneered expeditions to many of the Himalayan peaks.
I arrived in Nepal on September 20. A week later I had my trekking permit for the Solo/Khumbu region, where Mt. Everest sits. It is possible to fly into the region, cutting two weeks off of the trek, but I was in no hurry and I wanted to see Nepal. The great Himalayan peaks inform the geography and personality of the country, but the people make it. I want to see and meet the Nepalese people and understand those who lived in the shadows of these great mountains. Although I had left home by myself, on the day long bus ride to the trail head I met a handful of fellow western trekkers who became my partners for the next couple of weeks. We were blessed by a monsoon season ending early and there were very few other trekkers on the route. We had this corner of Nepal to ourselves.
Let me now fast forward to the photograph. This was taken about two weeks into us setting off. As we reached the higher elevations there was the necessity to slow down our height gain each day in order to acclimatize to the thinner atmosphere, and to keep altitude sickness at bay. By October 13 we were at Lobuche 16,210 ft (4,940 m). We had planned to spend a couple of nights there, but woke up on our first morning to extremely cold weather, a hard frost, some snow and a thick mist. Unsure what to do, we sat most of the day out. Very slowly the mist cleared and blue sky revealed the mountains of Nuptse, Pumori, and the Khumbu Glacier which comes down off the Everest massif. Mt. Everest itself is not visible at this point, despite us being so close to the mountain.
With the clearing weather we had an idea that went against all acclimatization recommendations. We would push for Gorak Shep at 16,942 ft (5,164 m), dump our backpacks in a hut there and climb Kala Patthar at 18,519 ft (5,644.5 m) for a sunset over Mt. Everest. And so off we went. At Gorak Shep we found a place to stay, got some warm noodles in us and then started up Kala Patthar. It was slow going. Now we could feel the elevation. A few steps and then rest. A few more steps, and rest again, panting for breath. …And then the clouds starting moving in. We did not know what to do. This was not a place to be caught out and although Gorak Shep was straight down the mountain that we were on, the diminishing visibility and increasing cold was telling us that we were not in the best situation. Our idea was not working out as hoped for.
Then it happened. Suddenly the cloud dropped beneath us, Mt. Everest came into view and there was that orange pyramid seen in the photograph, as the setting sun caught its peak. And at the same time an almost full moon rose from behind the mountain (I have not been able to find that photo). I wrote the following in my journal,
Then, just as we were about to head down the clouds dropped from beneath us and an almost full moon rose behind Everest. There we were for 5 minutes with the moon and the highest peaks in the world. Cameras whirled; absolutely fantastic!
That evening, that experience, has never left me.