Day 10 of our journey dawned with my plan still firmly fixed in my mind. For many it would be a day of rest lolling around camp ‘acclimatising’ but a few of us had other ideas mostly based on a trek up the valley to Gokyo. Gokyo stands at 4,790 & was seen by the team leaders & our 4 doctors as a reasonable next step for those with a more expansive mind or lungs. However my plan which it’s fair to say did not meet their general approval was to walk up to Gokyo with Dorina & then leave her there whilst I went onto climb Gokyo Ri the adjacent peak that rises to 5,357 metres taking me 3,000′ higher than our camp. The spur for this idea had come days earlier when whilst in a Namche bakery sipping coffee I’d looked up to see a photographic panoramic view of Everest & it’s surrounding peaks & glaciers that took my breath away. At that point I was un-aware that our ‘preferred acclimatisation route would take us so close to this view point (namely Gokyo Ri), frankly once the penny dropped the view simply had to be seen for real.
I did not undertake this plan lightly but reasoned with some logic that I was feeling good, had made jumps of this altitude in the past which had gone well & all being well it would give Dorina & I a proper rest day the day after.
At breakfast Barry, a potential protagonist, decided not to join me & aim simply for Gokyo instead so I knew I would be on my own, ce la vie as they say.
Dorina & I enjoyed a pleasant morning walk alone surrounded by magnificent scenery all around including the like of Cho Oyu (my cancelled 8,000er from earlier in the year) & the green & blue trio of Lakes above the Longponga. At Gokyo we found the unusually named new Hostel ‘The Fitzroy’ (we were a long way from Patagonia if my map reading is any good) where in it’s elevated Café we had tea over looking ‘my’ coming climb.
Soon I was crossing the in-flow to the Dudh Pokhari lake when I bumped into Tom & Astrid who had circled the Lake from the other way (independent minds as ever), ‘Dorina’s up there’ they headed off to join her.
My climb went as planned, just one foot after the other at a slow but constant pace, no stops, expect false summits (there were plenty), monitor your lungs & your head, push but play safe. It wasn’t a busy path but I must have overtaken a dozen or so who had been well out of sight before I’d started & after a stiff 1 Hour & 9 minutes I reached the far summit & took in the well deserved rewards. A slightly dizzy head & many photographs were my reward before after 10 minutes or so I headed back down the way I’d come, the descent took 37 minutes.
Back in the hostels café Keith (Blue team leader who’d advised against the climb) & Whippet Ben congratulated me. Dorina & I tucked into some chips whilst we all kept a look out for Sabrina who had been climbing Gokyo Ri un-beknown to me from the other side. She soon came into view & un-like me was running making her descent in a sprightly 23 minutes. This would be put into perspective as a sign of things to come when next day one of our Sherpa’s, Lakpa, would make the same descent in 12 minutes!
The afternoon was rounded off with a pleasant walk back to camp, Dorina had done well after needing a paracetamol first thing for a headache which we’d needed to monitor on the walk in, thankfully it had soon abated allowing us to enjoy our separate goals to the full. For me I had learned a physiological lesson too, my watch stats of the climb showed unusually low heart rates maxing at 147 & averaging 122. On a climb such as that back in the U.K. I would expect these to be 180+ & 160+ respectively, race day would not be about heart rate it would be simply how much Oxygen could I breathe, an obvious point that had just been rammed home & was good to understand fully. To add to my feeling of well being Dorina said that as she, Tom & Ben had watched my steady climb the boys seem to have taken note.
Next day was our rest day reward, reading, relaxing, Pema boiled hot water for a shower (luxury & our one & only of the trek) before Bhai (our Nepali leader) called us for Noodle Soup all in splendid trekker isolation. In the afternoon we climbed the gentle ridge above the camp to approximately 4,800 metres where we snacked & read in the afternoon sun at a vantage point over looking Thamserku, Cholatze, Cho Oyu, Everest & so much more, an idyllic day. We had learned how to maximise peace & scenery, the trek was now feeling very much different, my plan had worked & needed building on in the days ahead.
A new morning dawned, it was time to leave Machherma & head back down to join the main Everest trail. Soon Dorina & I were out in front & alone again, enjoying ourselves, as ever pride comes before a fall ‘Ouchh’ I turned around to see Dorina (who’d been wearing running shoes since Day 2 due to her firmer boots being too tight for her sprained ankle) hobbling in pain. Thankfully it eased again as we continued at a slightly reduced pace with Dorina paying slightly more attention to the path than the views.
On the steep climb back up to the Mong La I again went for it for a 39 minute stomp before enjoying more Lemon & Ginger tea under circling birds of prey before being joined by Dorina, Tomas & Marcus. Our descent to the next camp at Kyangjuma was led by Pema, on arrival we ate our packed lunches before, with time to spare, Dorina & I rose again for an afternoon stroll down to Phungi Thanga. I remembered this route as it was part of my return journey from Island Peak 7 years earlier but in truth the scale of it surprised me. Reaching the bridge at the bottom we turned around to make the ascent (1,000′) back up to camp, on race day this hill was going to be a very serious challenge!
A new dawn & Dorina’s Birthday little did we know the present I would conjure up for her.
It was to be a short day in theory up to our camp site at Tengboche an initial re-tracing of our afternoon stroll from the day before & then a steep climb of 2,000′ to the Monastery itself. Once again early on the climb I turned to Dorina ‘do you mind if…’ & was soon off. Not long afterwards I heard footsteps behind ‘must be Marcus’ only to be surprised to see that it was Barry with poles being used with menace. We stuck it to each other, me with a large sack (as usual carrying most of mine & Dorina’s gear) & Barry using his 60 year old legs & younger poles to full effect. Only Sabrina & Ben were not pulled in by the top, Barry & I congratulated each other with a firm hand shake, old men had become boys once again.
After Lunch ‘Dorina, do you fancy a short walk over to Phortse the village we could see yesterday from the Mong La’, what happened next was her fault as she answered ‘yes’.
Map in hand & knowing we weren’t in Patagonia I headed off with a smiling Birthday girl behind me. ‘Think a left turn here will lead to the bridge, nope’ study map (not overly accurate) ‘maybe we should have headed left out of Tenboche itself, ahh well if we carry on, cross the next bridge & then climb rough terrain to a higher path we can approach Phortse from the East’ I enthused.
We found this ‘path’, lost it, found it & lost it. The next hour was spent on a variety of lofty crap (seriously big drop to the river below) or in rocky gullies, it was fair to say that Dorina who at no time had actually cried was not enjoying her Birthday present from Paul.
Eventually meeting a rock climb too far & with an eye on the clock I muttered ‘think we’ll have to go back’, not an easy utterance as there was a lot of serious crap to re-negotiate, one gully in particular needing several recce’s before we found a way through it. In my defence we saw a variety of wildlife away from mankind such as birds & deer, we didn’t actually die & were treated to an excellent sunset of Llhotse, Everest & Ama Dablan as we made it back to camp just before the headtorches that were there were actually needed, ‘it’s all about timing’ I wisely kept the thoughts to myself.
Thankfully I had seen prudent earlier in the trek to organise a Birthday cake cooked by our chef & his team which went down well over supper, Dorina had had a Birthday to remember, we went to sleep in our tent under the watchful eyes of the Monasteries Lion statues.
From Tenboche we moved up to Dingboche where we were to sleep once again above 4,000 metres (4,410 if the map is to be believed). On the way Keith gave us the option of leaving the path to gain a higher viewpoint halfway along a track to Ama Dablan’s base camp. W, the Whippets & a few other open minded souls took this on. An early steep section led to easier ground before the main climb began but first the tea led to a pee & the others went on ahead. Suitably relieved I kicked into gear plod & one by one passed all bar the fastest Whippets before they went their way & I went mine to two separate view points with equal merits. I for one was enjoying these contests, race day was nearing, they probably had my measure but I like to think I had at least a bit of their attention. Of course more went un-said than said in this high altitude game. The diversion had been well worth it, Dorina & I had been ‘Dodded’ on the descent (aka being overtaken by Wendy Dodds) . Back on the main trail we joined the others for lunch before strolling on at a more leisurely pace to Dingboche where we would spend two nights for further acclimatisation.
The next day & three options, stay in camp, nope, head up to Chhukhung with several others, been there in 2012 spending a great afternoon in a Sherpa home in the afterglow of Island Peak, nope, or climb the ridge above camp towards the summit of Nangkar Tshang (recommended by our Sherpa Tez), now that sounds like a plan. Dorina & I set off alone once again. We climbed well again passing several small groups before eventually pulling alongside Tomas who once again was keeping to his solid pace. 100 metres higher Tomas pulled out of the climb, Dorina & I reached the sub-summit of 5,100 metres (a climb of over 2,000′) to join a younger English couple who were kind enough to take our photo. Any thoughts of my leaving Dorina here to climb onto Nangkar’s main summit immediately disappeared the terrain above was the Cullin on steroids, ‘no need to go there Paul’.
The views from where we were were incredible, Makalu basked in a swirl on Lenticular clouds, Island Peak looking diminutive in it’s surroundings of giants & most memorable of all the Amphu Lapcha pass which I’d crossed in 2012. At 5,845 metres this pass had been arguably the most technical climbing of our trip but looking at it now it looked a very different prospect, seemingly vertical, covered in snow from top to bottom I was both impressed at the sight & very relieved to be looking at it from a far.
The wind blew, jackets on, ‘it’s cold, time to get down Dorina’. We descended well, eventually the cold wind abated & after an hour were back in camp.
That afternoon several of us adjourned to a bakery where a film about the Sherpa’s of Everest was showing (much competition of film showing seems to be a Dingboche bakery theme). Our usual evening routine of meal & reading was broken by a full race briefing, Dorina had earlier attended her Marshall briefing & appeared to be relishing the responsibility of the role, any prospects of my bribing her to send the fast guys the wrong way seemed to be diminishing by the hour.
Another dawn another day, we were heading towards our final valley, race day was now approaching fast.
So far the weather had treated us well with clear skies in the mornings, always dry (very dusty at times leading to plenty of Khumbu Coughs, Dorina’s louder than most) & relatively warm at night (-5/-10 at worse). However today was a downhill forecast. First we would go past Dorina’s Marshall point at Pheriche (4,240 metres), the valley from here up to Dughla felt cold & exposed, indeed since getting back I have read similar comments about it by John Roskelly who climbed an extreme ridge on it’s adjacent peak, Tabuche 6,495 metres, back in the early 90’s. Our lunch stop at the crowded Dughla was even colder so our ever watchful Sherpa team finally switched from our open air lunch tables to the sanctuary of the Dormitries above.
Moving on again we soon passed through the numerous cairns & tombstones at the Dughla pass marking the deaths of many of the climbers who have failed to return from Everest. As enthusiastic readers of mountaineering exploits to see these monuments to the likes of Hall, Fisher & Duff it was a moving experience to us both. The cold reluctantly pulled us on towards the mountain itself.
We reached Lobuche by mid-afternoon with a few flakes of snow in the air & found an agreeably warm bakery for plenty of cups of hot Lemon & Ginger tea before searching out our aptly named lodge ‘The Oxygen’. It would be Dorina’s penultimate night together. The forecast was for a cold one but un-like many we declined the option of a bed in the lodge & stuck to our tent. Once again we went to bed with a plan that had been in my head for some time, hard day tomorrow: Gorak Shep, Kala Patthar & Everest Base camp (if possible) & then a rest day before the race itself.
The night was indeed cold, -15C, the pee flowed, had to empty the pee bottle once again during the night, I breathed at this height (4,910 metres) well, the tea was working!
I’ll leave it there for now to allow you to breath a sigh of relieve & consider your race entry for 2020. I’m off to register for the CyB Winter Trail Half Marathon with the expectation that it’ll be well above freezing at the start line. Good luck to Matt Ward, his team & all the runners.