We are in a routine... hitting our stride and finding a groove. It felt perfectly normal to wake up at 14,000 feet [4,267 meters], pack the bags, guzzle the hot drinks, look each other in the eye for signs of a rough night due to tummy or altitude trouble, fight over who-ordered-what, eat breakfast, and hit the trail in the midst of gargantuan mountains and outrageous vistas.
The trek to Lobuche began as an easy stroll up the broad valley that Pheriche sits in. Tawoche and Cholatse seemed to grow bigger and steeper, forming an impenetrable wall to our left. Pocalde and its many rock summits formed a corresponding barrier on our right. We merged into the flow of yak and trekker traffic for a time until the route steepened and narrowed. At that point, we began to pass numerous teams and individuals stopping to catch their breath.
Rather than giving in to the temptation to pause every few steps, I urged Erica to treat the hills we were climbing as prep for the Khumbu Icefall. We certainly won’t have the option there to pause in dangerous places just because our legs and lungs get tired. Erica has climbed a few good mountains and she understood the challenge I was putting to her. It was time for us to distinguish ourselves from trekkers and walkers and hikers, and to operate more like mountain climbers. Mountain climbers who actually would not have too many more practice stretches before things get serious above base camp.
The rest of our own team was on about the same game plan. We gathered to check on one another at Thukla... or Dhukla, as you may prefer. In fact, the sign there says “Thukla+Dhukla.” At any rate, there are just two teahouses at Dhukla and we sat outside one, sipping hot lemon drinks, and chatting with some of the folks we’ve shared the trail with for several days. There are gigantic hills of rough rock piled near Dhukla, which are actually the terminal moraine of the Khumbu Glacier. After our break, as we climbed up a long and steady hill to 16,000 feet [4,877 meters], we were finding our way to the lateral moraines of the Khumbu, the glacier that will essentially be our home for the next seven weeks.
We came out onto level ground at Thok La, a pass of some significance and reverence for climbers. There are dozens of stone monuments, or chortens, at Thok La for dead climbing partners: fathers, brothers, sons, teammates, and friends. Some of the chortens are elaborate, with engraved and polished brass. Others have chiseled stone tablets eroded and difficult to read after decades in the wind and driven snow. Some are for famous Western climbers, some are for anonymous Sherpas. It always seems appropriate to pause at Thok La in order to walk among the chortens and to appreciate the dangers we will subject ourselves to. And for some of us, it is an important chance to remember friends who didn’t make it home.
Thok La is also a natural boundary between the inhabited valleys below and the vast and marginally hospitable world of rock and ice above. It took our team no more than an hour to cover the easy ground into Lobuche from the pass. The trail followed a stream that, I explained to those around me, would normally be a sizable frozen flow at this time of year. I was struck by how little water was in the stream. There was virtually no ice and no snow on the hills forming the moraine. Just as many Sherpas had already explained, the winter was strangely devoid of precipitation and we were seeing confirmation of that.
We’d lost our view of several of the familiar peaks of the past week, but we’d gained unimpeded vistas of new and important ones: Pumori, Lingtren, and Khumbutse, which tower over Everest base camp, only two short days’ walk away. And Changtse, Everest’s north peak, was visible over in Tibet. The Lobuche peaks (east and west) crowd the immediate view to the west now, and Nuptse’s crazy spiderweb wall of dikes fills the east.
We are in yet another comfy teahouse, the Eco Lodge, unpacking a few bags and getting settled for two nights and some more of that good old-fashioned acclimatization. The afternoon clouds have come over, and it seems a good time for a nap.