Kala Patthar, aka The Time I Began to Miss Oxygen

When you talk to people about trekking to Everest Base Camp, everyone (myself initially included) automatically assumes that it’s the highest point on the trek. And why wouldn’t you – it’s got the word Everest in its name, and at 5364m above sea level, you’d think only an insane person would voluntarily climb any higher. I guess I can count myself in that category now.

So what is Kala Patthar and why is it such a big deal? When you actually get to Everest Base Camp, you’d think that being at the base of Everest you’d actually have this spectacular view of the tallest mountain in the world, the mountain you’ve supposedly hiked for over a week to see. Instead, a lot of people are disappointed because all of these other flipping huge mountains are lined up in front of Everest, all but obscuring your view of it. Not me though – I was pretty stoked to be seeing a glacier for the first time (see airborne photo below). However, if you do want a better view of Everest, Kala Patthar is the place to see it.

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Woo! Hooray for Khumbu Glacier! At Everest Base Camp! Wahhh!

So the day after we’d made it to Base Camp, we got up in the morning (if you could reasonably call 4am the ‘morning’) at Gorakshep (5,164m) and threw on all of our layers including my ridiculously attractive puffer jacket and donned our head-torches. We shuffled outside into the darkness and my breath momentarily caught in my throat and I was distracted from the cold. Above and around me were two of my favourite things: mountains, and a dense and flawless remote night sky. The stars where just light enough that the outline of the surrounding mountains could be traced against the black. Magnificent doesn’t even begin to describe it. It reminded me of a quote that I adore by Galileo, “I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.” But because my hands were too freezing to even consider removing them from my gloves, and because our goal was so far above us, I didn’t even bother to attempt a photo.
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The day before whilst on our way to Base Camp, I’d asked one of my guides which was the way to Kala Patthar. Without saying a word he just smiled knowingly and pointed towards an incredibly steep dusty hill covered in multiple tracks. I just nodded dumbly in reply. So it was at 4am that we began out ascent of that hill. Now, you’d think after over a week of trekking we’d all be hiking machines by this point. Unfortunately, the universe has its own way of one upping you. By this point we were way above sea level and oxygen was something that I hadn’t really experienced for a few days. Within a few steps, my breathing became pretty laboured and my heart kind of felt like it was going five times its normal speed. My friend happily informed me that oxygen levels at this altitude are 50% what they are at sea level. However, in a way I was glad that it was so dark since I could do it blindly and turn on the auto-pilot.

It was hard. I’m not going to lie. As I continued into my second hour shuffling along rocky switchbacks, I pondered why this was so difficult. Firstly the cold, and not just the fact that it was cold, but that fact that I was having to constantly manage my body heat. I was wearing 2 bottom thermals under hiking pants, 2 pairs of hiking socks (1 thermal, one regular), a t-shirt, a thermal top, a fleece jumper, my down puffer jacket, my headscarf, my beanie, gloves, oh and my underwear. Within half an hour I was peeling off layers in a sweaty frenzy, but the higher I got the more I found myself layering back on. Being Australian, this was all completely alien to me.

Secondly, it was mentally challenging. For a while I’d been thinking that a ridgeline at the top of the steep hill was what we were aiming for. But when I got there, I could see a mound of boulders far off in the distance, minute prayer flags fluttering in the pre-dawn breeze and I realised… I WASN’T EVEN HALF WAY!

And thirdly, the oxygen, or lack thereof. At this point, I’d almost forgotten what it was like to breathe sea level air. At times I felt like a spaceman with my oxygen outlet turned down to 50 per cent: crazy slow motion steps and echoing breaths. On this morning though, I felt I looked like a zombie: ragged breathing, dragging limbs as I pulled myself slowly along with one pole, dripping bodily fluids (most peoples’ noses drip like a tap in the cold) and dead eyes.

Eventually, I cracked the secret code: if I walked really slowly at a shuffle, I could still breathe and I didn’t need to take any breaks. I then began to pass by all the people who were gunning it and then having to take long breaks, pretty much driving home the truth behind the whole tortoise and the hare thing. When I finally reached the boulder mound, I could see three of my friends up the top who were cheering me on, but I refused to believe that I’d made it until I was sitting on the highest point of the highest boulder on that mound. And then I realised in numb shock… I’d made it! I was sitting 5550m above sea level.

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The coldest I’ve ever been in my life, but triumphant nevertheless!

Turning my head to the right I noticed the usual pile of prayer flags heaped on the rock beside me, although this time they were covered in a thick layer of icicles. I found out a few hours later that at the summit it had been -10°C – the coldest temperature I’ve ever been at in my entire life. After a short while, I began to feel the effects of it – my fingers and toes, which had been fine up until that point, went from cold to numb to pain, which was mildly scary. No matter how much I wiggled or rubbed them, it wasn’t changing. So after sitting there for about 20 minutes and realising that only half of our group had made the summit, I got a few hurried shots with Everest while trying not to fall off the edge and then began to make my way back down.

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Frosty prayer flags on top of Kala Patthar

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GOOD MORNING EVEREST! (That one directly on the left of the prayer flags.)

After a while, relief and feeling began to return to my phalanges again. Then out of the corner of my eye, I saw some movement which turned out to be a Pika – a native mountain rodent! Mountains and wildlife… just when I thought my morning couldn’t get any more awesome, it somehow did (yes, I know, I’m an enviro nerd). I stopped and tried to bribe it with Nepalese coconut biscuits. I don’t think that it was a fan.

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A Pika – so fluffy I wanna die!

It was at this point that my camera and all of my other electronic devices which had been full on flipping out at the summit decided to want to work again. So as I strolled back down the hill that had taken me multiple hours to pretty much crawl my way up, I thawed out in the sunrise and took photos of the tallest mountain on earth.

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Sunrise over Everest

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The insanely sexy Himalayas

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Frost – a novelty for the sunny Australian

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Frozen water bottle – also a novelty

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