It was 3:15 a.m. when my alarm clock buzzed in my ear. I was already awake, though, stirring with worry over whether I would be able to make it. I snuggled under my two thick blankets around 8:00 p.m. the night before, trying to get good night’s rest, but that was all for naught. I probably woke up three or four times throughout the night – to blow my nose, to use the bathroom or to just worry.
We were at nearly 5,000 meters up in Gokyo, higher than I had ever been before. I had struggled with my breathing for two days but I wasn’t sure whether it was altitude sickness setting in or just the nasty cold that I acquired after two days of trekking in the rain. I convinced myself it was just a cold, but at the same time promised myself I would turn around as we trekked up to Gokyo Ri if I started to feel too bad.
Eight of us gathered in the teahouse dining room at 3:30 – our leader, Peter, four of us in the group, our Sherpa guide, Kami, and our two dzokyo drivers, Rabin and Nima. Kami, Rabin and Nima would be carrying tea and snacks to the top for us and, more importantly, would be available to accompany any of us if we needed to head back down. Bundled in four layers (long sleeve shirt, fleece, sweatshirt and windbreaker) with my scarf wrapped around my face and neck and my hat pulled down tightly over my ears, I followed the others as we made our way toward the base of Gokyo Ri.
It was pitch black, with just the lights of our headlamps to guide us. Before long, we had to cross a small river by stepping on the round, wet stones scattered throughout the water. I panicked immediately, flashing back to when I fell into a river doing the same thing (in broad daylight!) in Uzbekistan. One wrong step and my trek to Gokyo Ri would be over – there was no way I could make the trip up soaking wet. It was hard to tell where to step and everything seemed slippery, but Peter and Kami walked on either side of me and I managed to make it through unscathed.
Once we reached the path up to Gokyo Ri, we went very, very slowly. We followed very steep switchbacks, a mix of dirt and rock, and often so rocky that it was difficult to make out the path. I ran through tissue after tissue having to blow my nose almost constantly (while telling myself this was a good sign that my sinuses were finally draining). My fingers and thumbs – especially my thumbs – were beyond numb. Every time we stopped, I took the chance to pull them all into the palm of my mitten and rub them together with my hands in my pockets in an attempt to warm them up. I kept telling myself that as long as I was still breathing and able to occasionally catch my breath, I was okay. I didn’t have any other signs of altitude sickness – aside from a slight headache and occasional lightheadedness. And I promised myself if I started to feel bad when I got to the top, I would come right back down.
After about an hour and a half, the sky started to lighten and we could see the outline of the mountains behind us and more of the path in front of us. While it seemed like we had been climbing forever, there was still a long way to go! By 5:50 a.m. – more than two hours intro what we had been told was a two hour hike, we could really see some color in the sky and stopped to take some pictures. Once we started up again, I kept thinking we were getting close, just a few minutes away, only to realize that no, we probably had at least another thirty minutes.
Finally, at 7:00 am. we reached the top. By then, the sun was shining bright and I was peeling off the layers, it was suddenly so warm. I took a much needed seat on a stone and enjoyed the hot tea that Kami had waiting for us. Hot tea never tasted so good! Then I just took everything in with a feeling of complete satisfaction, feeling fairly certain that the trek up was the hardest thing I have ever done – harder than running a marathon. Given the altitude, the temperature, my massive cold, the steepness of the climb and doing most of it in the dark, I can’t think of anything more difficult.