Part 3 – From Chhukhung to Kala Patthar
After spending a couple of nights at Chhukhung it was time to move on. The walk up to the top of Chhukhung Ri had extended our acclimatization further; we would be ready for the crossing of the first of the High Passes of our Everest trek, the Kongma La (5535 m) between Kongma Tse and Pokalde.
While the crossing to Lobuche can be done in one long day, we divided it into two shorter days. Then, having set up camp at Lobuche, we spent a day to walk up the glacier towards Everest Base Camp and Mount Everest itself. After walking to the top of Kala Patthar, we returned to Lobuche for the night and then continued on to Gokyo the next morning. This post will focus on the three days we spent getting to and walking up the Khumbu Glacier, as shown on the map above.
Our objective for the day was an easy one – to walk up the west side of the Nuptse Glacier and camp below the pass at the high camp for summits of Pokalde (a 5806 m trekking peak). The next morning we would cross Kongma La and walk down to Lobuche on the west side of the Khumbu Glacier.
This meant another day to enjoy the views of the Imja Khola valley and – as in this image – of Imja Tse. The north face of Ama Dablam also continued to draw our eyes – and our lenses!
An early arrival at our camp for the night meant there was time to walk up the steep slope below which we were camped onto the plateau and towards the pass for some late afternoon views of what we – and the yaks!- would be doing the next morning.
We crossed Kongma La on a beautiful sunny morning in November. Unstated but necessary to remember is what some mean, nasty weather would have done to our little walk at high altitude. Imagine a heavy snowfall and add strong winds and visibility of no more than thirty feet – or twenty – and all of a sudden it isn’t a moderately challenging walk anymore. Now it is a full-out mountaineering challenge that you’re facing.
This is one of those situations where I am glad to be guided by local professionals who have done the trek many times before and have probably faced the scenario I just described.
When we got to Lobuche I decided that for a couple of nights I would splurge and, instead of sleeping in the tent, I would take a room in the lodge in whose front yard our tents were set up. It would cost about $3 a night and in truth the room was no warmer than the tent – i.e. about -5˚ C. However, it was nice to have that extra space over my head and the sleeping bag was definitely not as damp in the morning from the condensation which drips down from the tent walls. I even had a night table – all in all, pretty plush given where we were!
It would be the first of more occasions when I would abandon the tent and my tent mate – my hat goes off to those trekkers who spent every night in their tents but I figured that having spent $4000. + on the trip, even thinking about the extra $30. spent on more luxurious accommodation was a bit ridiculous. Enough said…
Above Lobuche, there is one last settlement (Gorak Shep) where lodge accommodation and tent spaces are available. There was a time when Gorak Shep served as Base Camp for summit attempts up the Khumbu Icefall to the south col. Beyond that are, on the Khumbu Glacier itself, Everest Base Camp, and to the NW of Gorak Shep the trail up to the top of Kala Patthar. There are reasons for including both in a trek to the top of the Khumbu.
Everest Base Camp or Kala Patthar – Which One to Do?
To visit Everest Base Camp (5364 m/17,598 ft) – and to see the tents of the climbing parties readying themselves for an upcoming summit attempt – certainly has that “cool” factor associated with it. It should be mentioned that the actual climbing groups at Base Camp cannot be too thrilled at the thought of being a tourist attraction as a stream of day hikers come up and gawk at the proceedings.
And Kala Patthar (5644 m/18,519 ft)? Well, the panorama from the top of the “Black Rock” is unmatched. You’re actually about 300 m higher than you would be at Base Camp. In fact, since you can’t actually see the summit of Everest from Base Camp on the Glacier, it is the place to be for the best views. The cost? One and a half hours to climb the 500 m from Gorak Shep (5164 m).
Our itinerary included only one of the two objectives – Kala Patthar. In retrospect, it was the right choice given the schedule we were following. Independent trekkers could always visit Base Camp one day, stay at Gorak Shep for the night, and then climb to the top of Kala Patthar the next morning before walking back down to Lobuche.
Everest Base Camp sits at the top of the Khumbu Glacier – the left lower middle of the image above. Walking to the Base Camp would give you a great close-up view of the Icefall that represents the first significant challenge faced by summiteers. One thing it doesn’t give you is an actual view of the summit! Given the reality that most of us will never stand on the top of Everest, hiking to the top of Kala Patthar is the best vantage point.
If you want to check out a remarkable panorama, then this one by David Breashears, stitched together from 400 images he took from a viewpoint above Everest Base Camp in 2012, is a must-see. The detail is so fine that you can zoom in on the tents of Base Camp and, if you go back down the Khumbu Glacier, you can see the buildings which make up Gorak Shep. You can even see the trail leading down to them.
If you want some help visualizing the ascent from Base Camp to the top of Everest, this 3D recreation of the route will give you a wonderful perspective on what people are paying agencies $60,000. to experience.
The new-for-this-trip Sony H2 camera that I shot most of these images with also had a video mode; being a recent convert from film SLR I rarely even remembered to use the video format and when I did the results were pretty amateurish. Here is my effort from the top of Kala Patthar, panning north and east over the most impressive mountainscape in the world; this definitely goes on that list of moments I wish I could do over again so I could do it better.
We couldn’t have had better weather for our day up-close-and-personal with Sagarmatha (Mount Everest). After over an hour on top of the “Black Rock” (which is what Kala Patthar means in Nepali), we made our way back down- first to Gorak Shep and a cup of coffee and then down the trail back to Lobuche, where we’d sleep a second night.
Again, there is a logic to walking high during the day and descending to a lower altitude to sleep and the itineraries the various trekking companies follow are designed to minimize altitude sickness. The trekkers most frequently complaining of problems with the altitude were those intent on racing up and down the Khumbu instead of giving their bodies the time needed to adapt to the higher altitude.
The next morning we’d be moving on from Lobuche to the next valley to the west via our second high pass, Cho La. The next post will cover this terrain, as well as the trail back to Namche Bazaar via Renzo La, the third and last of our three High Passes of Everest.
It is now day 13 on this epic trek. Ready for the next four-day chunk of our walk? Part Four – the walk from Lobuche over the second of the high passes, Cho La, to the Gokyo Lakes and then our ascent of Gokyo Ri can be seen by clicking on the title below…