You know your are nearing the top when some of your fellow trekkers are throwing up due to altitude sickness. You feel quite bad when you see groups arriving to the lodge at night in the pitch black, rushing down the mountain because someone is quite sick and needs to descend immediately to try and overcome their sickness. Altitude sickness can kick in at around only 6,500 feet, but once above 15,000 feet, the risk is high and effects could be severe. Thus, it is best to go quite slowly at these altitudes. In addition to AMS risk, it is just damn hard to breathe this high up, so climbing is much more tiring. The final climb to the summit is a long, rough day.
The general accepted strategy for trekking is to climb higher than you are going to sleep for the day to help get used to the altitude. That means we would need to climb up to the summit and then back down to the town we are sleeping in all in one day. The summit day starts in the village of Lobuche (elevation 16,200 feet) and takes about 3 hours to get to Gorak Shep, which is the last sleeping spot on the trek. Amazingly, this is the only spot on the whole trek where I had 3G internet on my phone! But I digress. After the winding, up and down slopes to Gorak Shep, it is a quick stop for lunch and then on to the summit. At this point, the daytime temperature has dropped dramatically compared to rest of the trek and we are trekking on top of a glacier. It is time to fully bundle up with the down coats, knit hats, wind-proof gloves etc. The air is super thin and it is really dry...it is quite hard to breathe. And the terrain has also changed; it is now just giant piles of loose rocks that you need to climb over. Twisting an ankle is a real concern, as is a series of rock slides from one of the thousands of loose boulders up hill from where we are walking.
The time to the summit and back from Gorak Shep is another 4.5 hours (at our slower pace), and they were not fun ones. Although definitely the worst conditions of the trek, you are motivated knowing you are just a few hours away from completing your goal after trekking for the last 10 days. It was at this point that I really started to feel lightheaded for the first time. There were a few points where I felt like I was having an out of body experience...like my body was weightless and I was watching from above. Very, very weird feeling and not something I have really ever experienced.
Battling against the conditions, we could finally see our endpoint, but it seemed like it was getting further and further as we walked. The slow hike seemed to last forever as the sun started to go down, but after a long day, we finally climbed onto the official markers of base camp. A lot of people who do this trek say that the actual Everest Base Camp kind of sucks as it is just a pile of rocks. While they are right that the views along the way of all the other largest mountains in the world are better (see photos from our Part 2 blog post), it is still very cool to be at the base camp for the tallest mountain in the world. The spot feels special as it is marked with a lot of prayer flags and signs from previous trekkers. The view is pretty spectacular, and although the view of Everest is mostly obstructed (as it is everywhere in Nepal) since it is in the middle of a mountain range, you can still see a good part of the peak which is spectacular. What really blows me away is that we are looking at a mountain that is 3X the elevation of some of the massive mountains I had seen just a few weeks ago in the Alps.
After about a billion photos, we realized we had to get back as the light was starting to fade. We slept like babies that night. After hustling down the mountain in only 3 days (since no AMS fears going down), our trek was complete. We almost didn't do this trek at all (see list of concerns in our Part 1 blog post), but we were so glad we ignored our rational selves and did it anyway. Now we can go back to the rest of our trip of drinking beers and laying on the beach and not feeling so bad about it =)
P.S. If the two of us, who have no training, asthma, fear of heights, bad knees, etc., can do it, then you can too! If you are interested, shoot us a line and we would be happy to discuss any questions or provide motivation!