Kumar Iyengar on how he made it to the summit of Gokyo Ri just in time to catch a breathtaking view.
We were a motley group, mostly strangers to each other, as we convened in Kathmandu: a sprinkling of academicians and corporate “types”, conservationists and homemakers — all trekkers with varied experience. The collective “log” included Alps, the mountains of Colorado, some low altitude trekking in the Himalayas. But this was different. We were planning to summit a peak called Gokyo Ri, in the eastern Himalayas veering away from the more popular Everest Base Camp trek. Our trail would follow the course of the Dudh Kosi into a valley more remote and less used by trekkers than the “Everest Highway” into Base Camp.
At a little under 18,000 feet, Gokyo Ri is referred to by the locals as “The Valley of Death” because the route up is known to create altitude sickness. We were reassured that if we were reasonably fit and careful in acclimatising, we could do what is a moderately strenuous trek but helicopter evacuation insurance was mandatory!
First leg of the journey was on a twin engine Dornier from Kathmandu to Lukla. The aircraft wove and bobbed its way between the mountains and we wondered as we came in to land why a huge crowd was milling its way around the little airport in Lukla. Our guide said that occasionally landing aircraft smashed their noses into the compound wall of the airport providing some comic relief! We made it safely, but as we waited for our duffel bags to be unloaded, a loud cheer was heard outside as one of the many aircraft to land hit the compound wall! Apparently no one was hurt except the pilot’s bruised ego and the wall.
After a quick breakfast, we started our trek and after a night at a pretty village called Phukding, we reached Namche Bazaar late the next afternoon. The second day’s trek was arduous — close to six hours and we began to feel slightly dizzy as we reached Namche at 11300 feet, the biggest town in the Solukhumbu region of Nepal, a bustling settlement and a great place for any last minute “kitting” up like sleeping bags, head torches, climbing boots, warm clothes at very attractive prices!
We did a day climb next day of 1000 feet and back, getting our first look at Everest and Nuptse. Our group was handling the altitude well, though the second day’s trek to Namche, with its steep ups and downs scared me a bit. Ironically, as we later discovered, this was one of the toughest legs of the trek. On our return down, we were to be asked by even the toughest looking trekkers, “How much more?”
We left Namche Bazaar and an hour later, took a left turn away from the Tengboche Monastery, which is the more traversed Everest Base Camp route. The stone steps seem to almost hang off the mountain’s edge! The next four days were spent slowly getting to higher altitudes with night halts in spartan lodges and simple Sherpa food for sustenance. Villages like Phortsen are no more than yak pastures, but there is something pristine and pastoral in these places even as we walked on paths that had sheer drops of thousands of feet to one side. At night, we huddled around a central heater placed in the common room and meet with other trekkers, exchanging information on weather, altitude handling ...
The views are breathtaking and the slopes covered with rhododendrons, silver birch and conifers. Two days before we reached Gokyo, we halted at Machhermo at 14400 feet. It’s getting bitterly cold and the weather was turning bad, but we also glimpsed snow-covered peaks that look remarkably close. The guide sounded a warning: if the weather didn’t clear, we may not see anything from Gokyo Ri.
The trek from Machhermo to Gokyo took about six hours. We knew we were entering regal heights as Cho Oyu, the world’s sixth highest mountain, began to take shape in the north and the trail climbed beside the nose of the Ngozumpa glacier, the longest glacier in the Himalayas, stretching 25 kilometres from the slopes of Cho Oyu.
We suddenly saw the first of the six Gokyo lakes, which are spread over more than 10 km. They form the highest fresh water lake system in the world. I was too excited to rest in the lodge, even though oxygen levels at 15,800 feet are only 55 per cent of what they are at sea level. My German room mate, the American conservationist and I climbed to a small ridge and walked along carefully holding each other by the hand on the Ngozumpa glacier edge and were dumbstruck at the drop where moraine and glacier seem to meet. An early night and at 4.00 a.m., Sherpa guide Tulok shone a torch on my face saying the weather had cleared.
Well equipped with head torches and elementary climbing gear, we started the climb to Gokyo Ri. Already, we can see early climbers snaking their way up the mountain, head torches forming a glow worm-like line. I can take only 20 steps at a time and stop to gather precious breath as I am determined not to fall back on the oxygen cylinder Kulok is carrying. As the sun comes up, we see the small cluster of hamlets far below and the lakes gleaming azure. Suddenly after three hours, as I negotiated the rock cairns, I heard clapping above me and a string of prayer flags appear. We were on the summit of Gokyo Ri!
There around me was a sight, which will be forever etched in my mind. Straight ahead, looming majestically in the morning sun, was Everest at 29028 feet; by its side, Lhotse at 27880 feet, a little further back to the right Makalu at 27750 feet and sharp to the left in Tibet, Cho Oyu at 26860. Four of the six highest peaks in the world. Indescribably beautiful and so very close! Twenty minutes later we started the climb down and soon the weather turned cloudy. We had just made the view!
Keywords: Gokyo Ri