So, this was gonna be the big day, that would bring me so close to Everest.
Lonely Planet says that the trek from Lobuche to Gorakshep is about 2 hours. I should have added in a buffer of another 2 hours, because at that altitude I would definitely have been slower, and I would also have needed time for photography.
I left the lodge around 830AM, much later than the rest of the folks. It was a gentle gradient all the way, until it was time to go over the Khumbu glacier. I stopped at several places to make images and kept asking Bibek “when would I be able to see Kala Patthar ?”, as that would mean that I wasn’t too far from Gorakshep. Bibek replied that we would see Kala Patthar just before reaching Gorakshep.
Lila kept telling me that he wasn’t feeling well and that his chest felt heavy and he was having difficulty breathing. I told him that he needn’t climb Kala Patthar, and that he could rest at the lodge at Gorakshep.
Anyways, we finally reached Gorakshep around 1130AM or so. We decided to stay at the very first lodge that we encountered – Himalaya lodge. There was a statue of Shivaji, that kinda tilted in its favour. Some of the folks who had stayed in Peak XV lodge too were staying in this lodge.
Promptly ordered Dal Bhat for me and fried noodles for Lila and Bibek. It was decided that Lila would descend to Lobuche or Thukla, and Bibek and I would stay at Gorakshep for one night, and climb Kala Patthar that afternoon and visit Everest Base Camp the following morning, and then descend to Lobuche.
After lunch, I said my goodbyes to Lila, and got ready for the ascent to Kala Patthar. Packed my camera bag, two tripods, two headlamps, took my down jacket and some food. Made sure that Bibek was adequately covered for the drop in temperature, as the plan was to stay till sunset and photograph last light on Everest. The weather Gods would have the final say, but at least I wanted to do my part.
Bibek and I left the lodge by 130PM. I had set myself a stop time of 4PM, which I could extend by 15 minutes, by when I would stop wherever I would have reached and get ready to photograph. If all went well, I would make a time-lapse of the shadows receding from the glacier and last light hitting on Everest.
Some other people from the lodge had left at 2PM, and they soon caught up with us. I was making very slow progress. In hindsight, I should have left Lobuche much earlier, and left Gorakshep much earlier for the Kala Patthar climb. The air was so thin, and every step up was a torture. The climb was not so steep, but still it was very tough for me.
We looked back and saw clouds approaching at break neck speed from the valley. They had already reached Lobuche. I cursed. Why were the weather Gods so pissed with me ? I prayed and asked the clouds to stay where they were.
And then, something magical happened. The moon rose from behind Everest. It was spectacular. I stopped in my tracks and made several images, and then continued.
Time was going by fast, and I wasn’t making any progress. The people ahead of me had also slowed down, clearly everyone was struggling.
By 415PM, I was still around 50-80m from the summit of Kala Patthar. It would easily take me another 30 minutes for the final push. I decided that it wasn’t important for me to make it to the summit, rather I wanted to use the time to make some memorable images of Everest.
Bibek took a detour to the right and found a flat spot from where I could shoot sunset. It was in the same line of sight as the view from the summit. I somehow dragged myself there, and collapsed to the ground.
I wore my down jacket first. Then setup one tripod and mounted the 6D with the 17-40mm lens to shoot a time-lapse. Once that was done, I setup the other tripod and the 7D with the 24-105mm lens on it. I kept another 7D with the 70-200mm on standby. Took couple of photos of Bibek and I with my iPhone, and just when I was making a video, it died. The temperature was dipping drastically. I could feel my fingers going numb. The Icebreaker base layer gloves were of no use at that temperature. Thicker gloves didn’t give me the dexterity to operate my gear. I alternated between shooting and stuffing my hands in the pockets of the down jacket to keep the fingers from freezing.
By the time the sun set around 515PM, Bibek and I were the only ones left on Kala Patthar. I continued to make images till 530-540PM and then packed up. The light was magical. I could have continued there for another 2-3 hours and made some star trail images, if I had some company. I would have certainly needed chemical warmers too, as by now my fingers and toes were already getting numb. It was probably -20 degrees and the mercury was dipping fast.
Bibek and I donned our headlamps, and we started the descent. I told Bibek to go a bit slow and followed in hot pursuit. We made it back to the lodge in less than an hour. I promptly ordered a pot of ginger tea and some french fries, even as a tomato cheese pizza would come later. I knew Bibek would have been famished by then. We gorged on the fries and the plate was cleaned up within 5 minutes.
Dinner came and I finished the pizza as well. Bibek would eat his Dal Bhat with the rest of the guides and porters. We talked for a bit, and then I went out to make some images of the landscape under moonlight.
By 8pm or so, I was done. I was exhausted and we still had a long day the next day.
There was an American couple with whom we had been crossing paths, all the way from Kathmandu airport. The husband was clearly suffering from AMS. I think the pace at which they came up to Gorakshep and then climbed Kala Patthar, must have got to him. He was vomiting and getting delirious. Another reminder for me to take AMS very seriously. Nothing could be done until the next morning, when the sun would be up, and the lodge would make contact with a rescue helicopter. I prayed for him, and went to bed.