I woke gasping for breath.
It felt like I was suffocating; hands around my neck. In a panic I tore off my scarf, unzipping my fleece and sleeping bag. But this didn’t help. Nobody was choking me. It was just the impossibly thin air I was breathing.
This was life in Gorak Shep — the last human habitation before Everest Base Camp — and one of the most miserable places on Earth. I huddled into my sleeping bag, shaking as the wind battered the lodge’s plywood walls. Despite wearing all my clothes, it was still desperately cold.
In vain, I failed to go back to sleep. The stars blazed through a gap in the curtains, looking within touching distance. But the main distraction was in my head. I was still giddy from that day’s momentous events.
I’d arrived in Gorak Shep the previous morning; dumping my belongings in a lodge then leaving with Zak and Connor for Everest Base Camp. The big moment had finally arrived.
Walking under an impossibly blue sky, I reflected on how lucky I was to be here, nearly at the top of the world. Some people spent a lifetime dreaming about visiting this place. Had I made different choices, in this moment I could’ve been reading a spreadsheet in an Auckland office.
Instead, I was almost at Everest Base Camp.
To get there, we followed a rocky path that twisted along a ridge beside the Khumbu Glacier. A grey moraine ran parallel to this frozen river, its icy oscillations looked like a tiny Southern Alps. Surprisingly, animals survived in this wasteland. Tiny pika poked their heads out from behind the rocks.
We slid onto the moraine, where an obvious path led to a collection of flags perched on a bluff. That was it, Everest Base Camp’s centrepiece. Perhaps I’d been expecting too much, but I thought there might have a sign at least.
Instead, it was a field of ice and rock, a monotonous grey expanse, almost devoid of humanity. This was no place to build anything, as it was all moving, at a leisurely one metre per day. It was still months before anyone made their camps for the summer climbing season.
After posing for the obligatory photos, I took a moment to process the view. Arrayed before me was an ampitheatre of giants; those mythical mountains you hear about but never expect to see with your own eyes.
Surprisingly, the view of Everest was underwhelming. Everest’s peak was barely visible, a small portion jutting out from behind the Western Cwm. But it still looked magnificent, a long cloud trailing from its summit. This was snow, scoured off by the relentless winter wind.
What I’d been most excited to see was the infamous Khumbu Icefall, the most treacherous part of climbing Everest. It looked sinister even from afar, a jagged ice-scape that was in perpetual motion.
Occasional groans emanated from the shifting ice, sounding like dying whales. The murderous seracs threw long shadows, ready to crush anyone who entered their realm.
Near the bottom of the Khumbu Icefall was the Spanish expedition I’d heard about in Lobuche, the only people crazy enough to climb Everest that winter. We decided to walk across the glacier to get a better view of their camp.
Although the ground looked solid, it was just a thin layer of rocks with ice underneath. I kept falling on the slippery surface. A sprained ankle would be a major inconvenience up here. More alarming were the massive crevasses in the ice, large enough to eat a human.
In my eagerness to explore Everest Base Camp, I’d forgotten that I was standing at 5,340 metres. The air was hard to breathe, the wind desperately cold. Exhaustion was setting in.
A faint rumbling pulled me from my stupor. A cloud of snow spewed from a cliff-face, carrying a hail of rock that exploded into the ice below. I watched in awe. An avalanche.
With the echoes ringing in the valley, it seemed like a wise moment to return to Gorak Shep. So on that anti-climatic note, I left Everest Base Camp, the place I’d hiked for two weeks to see. It’d been an incredible journey, worth all the struggles.
Arriving back in Gorak Shep, I sat around the fire and ate some rice and dal. Chatting with Connor, we decided to keep trekking. Instead of returning to Kathmandu with Zak, we’d head deeper into the mountains, crossing the Cho La Pass over to Gokyo Lakes. I couldn’t know it at the time, but this would be one of the most dangerous activities I’d ever attempted.
Immensely satisfied, I walked to bed, bumping into the lodge owner on the way. Clad in a puffer jacket and beanie, he rubbed his hands. “Wear warm clothes when you sleep,” he warned, “last night it was minus 30 degrees here — it will be cold tonight too!”
Fortunately, he was wrong. The temperature only just reached minus 25.
If you missed the first part of the trek, from Shivalaya to Lukla, that’s available here. The second part of the trek, from Lukla to Namche Bazaar, can be found at this link. Part three, Namche Bazaar to Gorak Shep, is available here.