Hiking the Himalayas: Days 5 & 6
The climb reveals an increasingly spectacular trail
but all beauty comes at a price.
After the first two days of this trek, 8km and 2 hours seem like terribly short days but at this altitude, they're even more exhausting than you can imagine.
We left Dingboche at 9am and headed straight uphill for a short climb. I was panting and my legs felt tight but any anguish I may have had quickly melted away when we got to the top. It was a clear morning and those mountains we saw the previous night were in screaming color smiling towards the sun. The weather-beaten prayer flags surrounding the hilltop stupa were somehow as vivid as ever and stood out like stamps on the white canvas envelope of nearby Mount Amadablam.
After our little pitstop to admire the scenery, we continued on the part of the trail that takes you about 800 meters above the Laboche Khole valley instead of through it. The views today were nothing short of spectacular with high peaks singing to the heavens flanking us from all sides.
As we made our way around the ridge and saw the town of Dughla, where we planned to stop for the day, we both began to show signs of exhaustion. When we arrived at one of the two lodges in the town around 11am we were pretty drained. I thought I might even nap through lunch once we got settled into the room but luckily the sultry smell of food convinced me otherwise. Afterwords however as soon as I got into bed to warm up I fell asleep for the better part of the afternoon. Who knew that the altitude alone could be so soporific!
Around dinnertime when everyone was huddled around the furnace in the dining room, we met a couple of groups of like-minded Americans also forging their way along the trail without guides or porters. We talked all night sharing travel stories and giving advice on where to see next. Thankfully, they too fell victim to what I call the "witching hour," that internal clock that chimes in every hiker around 7:45 screaming for you to be asleep by 8. We made loose plans to meet the following morning for breakfast and we were certain we'd see them along the trail. It's a small world up there.
I didn't want to quite make it known, but I knew my body was in worse shape that the rest of the group sitting in the kitchen that night. I was feeling more and more congested and I'd developed a gross wet cough when I woke up after my nap. Although I had little interest in eating I forced myself to order a tomato soup and slice of apple pie in the interest of slipping calories into a body that was nearly repulsed by the idea of food. We were getting higher and higher and at the same time, I was getting sicker and sicker.
To make matters worse, I hardly slept at all that night. My mind wasn't restless and my body certainly was tired but sleep just did not happen for me. The next morning I learned that at these high altitudes where the air is much thinner, if your body doesn't trust it can take in enough oxygen while you're unconscious, it won't let you sleep. I have shallow lungs to begin with so I knew this would eventually become an issue but wasn't aware the lack of oxygen could affect people in this way.
The hill from Dughla to Lobuche is considered the last big hill on the trail to EBC, but looking at it you'd probably think that's a gross overstatement. The hill itself isn't particularly steep or long and at a lower elevation you could tackle it in ten minutes or less. But at 4,620 meters, this hill will take you an hour at least.
It look us 90 minutes on this hill alone. I was moving much slower than usual, letting tour groups and less fit pass me regularly. This was the first time in my life that I could physically feel that I just wasn't taking in enough oxygen. I felt like I was in a cramped box someone had forgot to punch air holes in instead of the fresh expanse of nature. My lungs felt tight and over-expanded simultaneously. I clutched my chest often trying to make sense of the pain, as if I could will my lungs to perform better. I gasped like a fish drowning on the deck of a boat.
I stopped frequently in hopes that I could give myself enough time to adjust but mostly I felt frustrated. Frustrated that all this huffing and puffing didn't seem to be doing much good, that I was stopping so much even though I'm an excellent hiker, that our friends that started half an hour after us were already ahead on the trail. As if that wasn't enough to slow me down, I'd begun to carry around a wad of tissues in my pocket to blow my nose constantly. It was embarrassing to be the weak person on the trail when I'd been so proud of my strength thus far.
Once we finally reached the top of the hill and I felt more drained than proud, we noticed this hill was home to dozens of memorials for those who have perished attempting to climb Everest. The memorials ranged from piles of rock to official carvings and statues and represented people of varying nationalities and ages. Some were as old as the 1950's and some were from as recently as 2015. Among them was the Nepali Sherpa who summited eleven times and Scott Fisher, the American expedition leader who died in the infamous 1996 disaster that claimed seven more lives.
From here, the trail is more mild and gradual. We hiked along the Khumbu Glacier and briefly crossed its churning, grumbling rock bed, animated by the trickling of melting ice. After about thirty minutes we reached the town of Laboche. The weather was clear for us and we debated pushing on after lunch but it started snowing pretty heavily while we ate, so we stayed in and rested. I was hoping another rest day would do we well, and under different circumstances it just might have, but we had chosen to climb to 4,910 meters. While my mind may have glossed over this altitude change, my body certainly did not. It marked the meters in painful tallies.
That evening over a game of cards, I managed to conceal the fact that I again only had tomato soup for dinner. I had no interest in eating anything and the soup was the most I could negotiate with myself. Early signs of dehydration and mountain sickness are, among other things, a disinterest in food but I couldn't tell if I was just feeling the effects of the head cold; after all, I didn't have a headache and wasn't dizzy. Diamox, the altitude medication I'd been taking, is a diuretic so I tried to amp up my water consumption. It seemed like everything I did to try to make myself healthier or more comfortable just wasn't working. We had a big day ahead of us tomorrow- we were finally going to reach Everest! I let Dain's contagious excitement for the next day influence my attitude as we went turned in for the night. Tomorrow, I'd feel better, and tomorrow, we'd achieve something big.