Gokyo (4790m) – Gokyo Ri (5360m) – Sacred Lakes (4990m) – Gokyo (4790m) – Tagnag (4700m)
Date = 23-25 March
L&D are contemplating getting out of bed. The inside of their bedroom window is thickly crusted with ice.
D: Minus 1°C.
L: We’re beginning to smell. If only it were 20 degrees warmer, I might wash.
D: What’s your problem? We’ve got hot water on tap!
L: (face lighting up) Really?
D: Almost. We can share a pint of not-quite-cold water from your last-night’s-hot-water-bottle.
L: (face falling) Oh. Ingenious. Great.
In the lodge kitchen, their breath forms great billowing clouds. It’s a race to eat their porridge before it gets cold. Outside the open door a gaggle of fat stripy-bellied snowcocks peck at a handful of scraps.
The path from Gokyo up Gokyo Ri’s open south-east slope is entirely in the sun. There’s no wind and not a cloud to be seen. The trail zigs steeply, left and right, up and up. The higher they get, the deeper blue the sky becomes and the more phenomenal the views. The surface of the lake is a dazzling carpet of purest white, encircled by dark rocky crags. The village cowers coldly in the shadow of the glacier wall. As they climb, the terrain morphs to rock and loose stone underfoot. Above 5000m almost no plant life can grow. They pause and turn again, and the view has changed, become more three-dimensional. Behind the mountains there are mountains, and behind the glacier wall is the great Ngozumba Glacier, pushing its way down from the flanks of Cho Oyu.
L: (squeaking with excitement and breathlessness) Look at that – it’s enormous!
D: It’s supposed to be the longest glacier in the Himalayas.
L: How long?
D: Over 30 kilometres, and a kilometre wide.
L: Why’s it made of rocks? I thought glaciers were ice.
D: The ice is just underneath the surface. Because it’s moving it churns up the stony surface as it goes – especially at the edges – that’s why you’ve got that big ridge between the glacier and the village.
L: And we’ve got to cross it?
D: Not today.
They eye up the glacier’s choppy surface – a rough river of rocky peaks and troughs and pools of ice.
L: Is it safe? Will we fall in a crevasse?
D: No idea. We’ll follow Angtu.
Angu’s reassurances are somewhat ambiguous.
Angtu: We will see. The path changes every time. Not so easy. But not so hard.
On they go. Up and up. Phurba and Angtu laugh and chat in Nepali, Angtu’s conversation punctuated with noisy groans, Phurba’s with duck-quacks.
It takes two hours to reach the top, and for a time they have the place to themselves. The summit ridge of Gokyo Ri is draped with swathes of prayer flags, looped from rock to rock. The 360° views are breath-taking. Behind the glacier, beyond a series of peaks, is the black pyramid of Everest rising clear above the rest.
Angtu: From here you can see 4 of the world’s 10 highest mountains
L: Really? So – Everest. What else?
Angtu: Look to the right a bit. That’s Lhotse – 4th highest. Right a bit more – that’s Makalu, number 5. And then Cho Oyu at the head of the glacier – number 6.
D&L scramble and explore and take photos. They ceremoniously secure their tiny string of prayer-flags and imagine the prayers taking flight, like leaves, spinning and drifting across the magnificent scenery, spreading peace and wisdom, compassion and strength onto the world below. Then they just sit. And look. And take it all in.
Angtu and Phurba do the same.
They share biscuits, in companionable silence, sprinkling crumbs for a troupe of canny little high-altitude sparrows who have sussed this inhospitable spot as a daily source of biscuit-eaters.
They notice they haven’t noticed the altitude. They’re at 5360 metres and they feel fantastic. The recent series of short days and height gains have paid off.
The descent takes an hour and a half. Back in their lodge, in a bucket of hot water, they wash their hair, then their bodies and then their clothes. It’s still only lunchtime.
L: We’ve got too much time.
D: For what?
L: We could be doing longer days. Walking further.
D: Who are you? Where’s my proper wife?
L: OK – we’ve got a lovely leisurely itinerary, plenty of time before our flight back to Kathmandu. But we don’t need to be walking short days any more. We’re acclimatised. We’re fit. It’s way too cold to sit around indoors reading or outdoors having picnics and looking at stuff. The only warm place is in bed. And we don’t need the rest.
D: I agree. What shall we do?
L: More walking.
D: Good. I’m going up to the glacier. Are you coming?
L: No way. I’m going to bed.
L: I’ve got a headache. I’ve had it all night. Am I going to die?
D: Are you dizzy?
D: Confused and irrational?
L: No more than usual.
L: Not sure. Am I?
D: No more than usual.
D: You’re not going to die. You’re probably dehydrated. Have a drink.
The dining room is sub-zero. Muffled in thick down jackets and hats they warm their fingers on rapidly cooling mugs of tea.
L: What’s that noise?
D: The rumbling? An aircraft? An avalanche?
L: And booming.
D: Must be building work.
They pack peanut-butter chapati sandwiches for lunch and set off along the flat valley floor on a wide sandy path.
L: Fabulous easy walking Angtu!
Angtu says nothing.
The terrain becomes more and more uneven, littered with stone, rocks, boulders. They pass the fourth sacred lake, a blank ice sheet against a barren brown hillside and cloudless cobalt sky.
D: This one’s the deepest. 62 metres.
Angtu: When the ice melts, these lakes are very clean. The water’s very clear – good to drink. No algae grows – it’s too cold.
D: It would be – I think they’re the highest chain of lakes on the planet.
Angtu leads them upwards, and they work their way along the top of the glacier wall, the ground now paved entirely with boulders. They rock-hop from one to the next, carefully. It’s high-concentration, energy-draining stuff. It’s L’s least favourite thing. Angtu moves easily, further ahead, oblivious.
L: I’m going to break all my legs.
D: Slow down then.
L: But we’ll get left behind. Lost in the wilderness.
D: I know where we are.
L: Find me a path.
D: This is a path.
L: This isn’t a path. It’s just stupid rocks. I want a proper path.
D: I think you’ve got symptoms.
L: What of? My headache’s gone.
D: You may be irrational. You’re certainly grumpy. It could be the altitude. Or it could be just you.
The glacier is forbidding up close, an apocalyptic moonscape of slow moving rock and ice, and unfathomably huge. From the flank of Cho Oyu it descends in a blue-white ice-fall, turning to stone as it reaches the floor, carving out a great grey gravel lake before creeping southwards along the valley to Gokyo and beyond.
The trail leads close to the edge.
Angtu: Go back! Not this way. The path has fallen into the glacier!
They climb up the steep shoulder and down the other side, to a sandy valley and grassy slope.
L: A lovely proper path!
L cheers up considerably. Her symptoms recede.
Angtu stops and sits down. Points. There, across the valley, behind a couple of low rocky hummocks, is Everest. Not just the summit, but the whole West Face.
L: It’s so close! It’s just there.
Angtu: This is the best view. We’re very lucky with the weather. Very clear today. Mother of the Universe.
Angtu: Sagarmatha. The Nepali name. It means Mother of the Universe. Tibetan people have another name for it – Chomolungma. Mother Goddess of the Snows.
An hour further on they arrive at the fifth sacred lake, hidden behind a ridge. They climb to a viewpoint but are buffeted by a bitter wind, and retreat into a sunny dip, where they shelter behind a boulder and eat chapati sandwiches.
L: You know I said more walking?
L: I’m knackered. And we’ve got to walk all the way back.
Angtu: So, shall we go? Slowly slowly? On to lake 6?
D: I think this is far enough. Thank you.
Angtu looks politely resigned. Phurba has continued to lake 6 and has with him Angtu’s lunch. D&L feed him biscuits and make apologetic faces.
The lovely proper path leads them back to Gokyo along the bottom of a sandy wrinkle in the landscape, avoiding the boulders but also the views. The end is in sight.
D: It was good to do both routes.
L: It’s the lake!!!
D: I can see it’s the lake. We’re nearly back.
L: No – it’s the lake making the noises we heard!
They stop near the edge of the village and listen. From under the surface of the ice comes a prolonged eerie rumble. Then a series of loud hollow whumps, bouncing along from one shore to the other. Spring is on its way and the ice is contracting, beginning to melt. It’s the weirdest thing they’ve ever heard. It continues through the afternoon, audible from indoors.
Once again, for warmth and comfort, they are in bed.
L: Am I on fire?
D: Not that I’ve noticed. Why?
L: I can smell burning hair.
D: It’s yak dung. They’ve lit the stove. It must be 5.00pm. Time to get up.
At breakfast they are once more enveloped in the fog of their breathing, clutching plastic mugs of tea to thaw numb fingers, gulping porridge while it still retains some heat. Beyond the iced-up window the frozen lake is booming, as though something gigantic under the surface is thumping to get out.
D buys two small packets of tissues and 8 Snickers bars.
L: How much was that?
D: 24 dollars.
L: HOW MUCH?
D: I can’t talk about it. It’s too painful.
L: It HAS all been carried for a week by a yak or a donkey or a porter to get here. If you consider that, it’s remarkable we can get any of this stuff. At any price.
D: Anyway, the Snickers are medicinal.
A brief scramble behind the village brings them once more to the rim of the glacier. Today they’re going in. They look down over the edge. There is a steep slope of loose stone and scree and gravel and dust that they must descend to get into the glacier, in order to cross it. A couple of people are ahead of them, already at the bottom of the slope. They are tiny, ant-like. D&L shake their heads, trying to knock their brains into registering the scale of what they are seeing. There’s a scuffle and a hiss and a puff of dust below. Loose stones are rattling down the slope. D&L start downwards, skidding and sliding. Another flurry of pebbles tumbles across the path ahead.
D pauses to take a photo. Angtu and Phurba say nothing.
L: Don’t stop here, for chrissakes! We’re about to be hit on the head by falling rocks. Swept to our deaths by a landslide. Wiped off this slope and swallowed by the glacier!
D: You’re right. All those things. Sorry. Carry on.
They make it to the bottom and move away from the fall zone. The wall continues to crumble before their eyes, a little bit here, a little bit there. Down on the glacier itself, it’s a bizarre twisted gravel-pit mess. A sea of crumbling mounds and dips and hillocks and hollows spreads before them, as far as the eye can see. A faint serpentine line weaves its way circuitously into the maze. Down low in the craters, they lose all sense of direction. Up high on the hummocks, the choices are bewildering. Angtu sets off confidently. They follow.
L: When did you last walk across it?
Angtu: Maybe six weeks ago? Twice so far this year. But the path changes each time. It moves.
He observes a guide ahead lead his charges down to the right. Angtu veers uphill and left.
D: Err…should we…umm….follow them?
Angtu: That way’s much longer. This is a short cut.
Sure enough, further on they spot the others completing a long loop to cut in behind them.
L: We won.
Angtu looks pleased. They pause for a rest in the middle of the glacier, on a high mound of debris. In every direction is a formidable wasteland and no sight of a clear trail. They are very glad to be being guided.
They continue, dropping down past the edge of a frozen pool of water. On one side rises a vertical wall of multi-layered ice, festooned with icicles and topped with a carpet of rubble. They stare in fascination at the cross section of glacier. A down-stream path leads them eventually to the foot of the moraine wall on the far side. Their exit is a vertical scramble over loose rock and stones and dust, all crumbling and slipping beneath the soles of their boots, until without warning they suddenly burst over the rim onto a grassy plateau. They are out.
They stride along the flat turfed ground, slaloming around boulders, dwarfed by a soaring black cliff of coarse rock, to Tagnag. Behind the tiny settlement starts the cleft climbing eventually to the Cho La Pass. The five buildings face west, towards the afternoon sun and a stream and a stony parched-turf plateau stretching away to the glacier edge.
The ambitiously named Chola Pass Resort has terraces paved with turf cut from the ground nearby. Four solar kettles glitter blindingly in the bright sun and a pair of women are energetically breaking up an enormous pile of yak dung. Away from the icy lake of Gokyo it feels warmer here, despite being at a similar altitude.
In the evening the dining room is cosy.
L: Look at that!
She is pointing in amazement at the centre of her pizza.
D: What is it?
L: A slice of fresh tomato! At 4,700 metres! In March!
D: It’s a miracle.