Everest / Alpine Expeditions

Keith Cowing: Hundred Mile Tall Mountains and Absent Friends

By Keith Cowing
Keith Cowing
April 24, 2009
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Keith Cowing: Hundred Mile Tall Mountains and Absent Friends
Looking back at Aba Dablam and her sisters as we head toward Lobuche – and Everest
Keith Cowing

24 April

Another early start. This has now become routine. Since there really is not much to do here after dark, going to bed at 8 pm is an obvious choice.

On my way back to my room last night, I stopped to give my Sherpa guide Tashi some satellite spotting lessons. The only way I could explain why a satellite could be in sunlight while it was dark on Earth was to cite the nearby mountains. They often remain in strong sunshine quite some time after it is dark on the ground. Conversely the peaks often burst into flame well in advance of sunlight hitting the ground.

I told Tashi to imagine a mountain 100 miles tall – and that the satellites we were seeing were at its summit. Instant understanding. I then explained polar orbits, GPS, and satellite phones. Again, instant understanding.

The sky is achingly clear at these altitudes. I found myself looking up at the sky as I called my wife on the satellite phone wondering if the satellite I was watching – one inclined to the equator – was one I was talking through. Then, just as it reached the horizon, my phone call went dead. A few minutes later I was able to re-establish it. Again, I saw a satellite in a similar orbit albeit one that was the mirror image of the other. Coincidence? Who knows.

The night weather is cold in Dengboche. It will get colder as I continue to ascend. It was much colder last night than the night before – so cold that a stray dog tried every stray dog trick he knew to try and get me to let him into my room. Not a chance.

We set out for Lobuche this morning. After a steep stretch to get above town things leveled out. WIth a few exceptions the next several hours were a mix of gently sloping terrain and a few staircases. We were now well above the tree line, so there was nothing to block the view. Incredible mountains everywhere the eye wandered. Yet Everest, shy monster that she is, stayed hidden.

Looking back at Lhotse as we head toward Lobuche

Lunch was at a small lodge next to a large stream fed by glacier melt. Across the gap through which it flows a truly impressive strand of prayer flags several hundred feet long flapped in the wind. After lunch, we had a huge staircase-lke climb ahead of us that would last an hour or more. After that the terrain mercifully leveled out again and would stay that way all the way to Lobuche.

The sun is rather intense here. And the higher you go, the higher the UV levels. That has caught the interest of astrobiologist Lynn Rothschild at NASA Ames Research Center. She arranged for Ocean Optics to loan us a Jaz spectrophotometer with which I have been measuring the UV levels here. The prime interest is what we’ll see at Everest Base Camp and along the way up the mountain as Scott climbs. I took a series of readings yesterday at Dengboche. I will try and take some readings at Lobuche tomorrow.

My two yellow duffels on the trail just ahead of me.

As we pulled into Lobuche (4,930 meters – 16,175 feet), it was obvious that we were at the ends of the Earth. Although new tea lodges are being built, this place is still very much a work in progress. I opted to upgrade and have Tashi and I stay at the Eco Lodge (known also as e.coli lodge). Around here paying premium ($20 per night for a private room) can make a barely tolerable situation quite tolerable.

Eco Lodge in Lobuche where Tashi and I are staying

Downtown Lobuche

After taking a nap to shed my post trekking aches, I set to checking in with my SPOT Personal Satellite Tracker. I placed the unit in a position so that it could see as much of the sky as possible (damn mountains) and sat down to read a guidebook. A few minutes later a woman came out of he tea lodge clutching another SPOT unit (they are orange and easy to see). Unlike mine which only has a few dents, hers was positively abused.

She said that she had seen me place my SPOT unit down and asked if I could help her check in with hers (simple to do). I quickly learned that she is from Minnesota, and that the SPOT unit belonged to her son. He had most recently used it to track his progress as he bicycled across Mongolia. Clearly the unit had encountered a lot of abuse along the way. Yet once the right buttons were pushed, it promptly went through its comms check with satellites overhead.

My SPOT unit (right) and the Mongolian bike trip veteran (left)

A little later I went back outside to grab some HiDef video for Miles O’Brien. No sooner had I walked out then this couple came up to me, acting as if we all knew each other (we didn’t) and started to chat. Half an hour later we were still talking. A nice couple from Australia doing a quick trip to Everest Base Camp. Things like this happen here.

Tomorrow (25 April) is an acclimatization day – that means Tashi (the eleven-time Everest summiter) is going to take me on yet another “little hike” (several hours) to push my acclimatization along further. We’ll probably top out around 5,300 meters. I have never been that high before. Already, at 4,930 meters – 16,175 feet, I am in undiscovered country in terms of my body. But thanks to the process IMG uses for acclimatization I feel very fit and strong.

On Sunday, 26 April we head for Gorak Shep (5,184 meters – 17,008 feet). After checking in at a tea lodge, we’ll climb Kala Pattar (5,623 meters – 18,448 feet) for what everyone describes as a stunning panorama of Everest in all her majesty. I’ll actually be at my highest expected altitude when I summit Kala Patter given that Everest Base Camp is at 5,300 meters – 17,388 feet.

After Kala Pattar we’ll head back to the tea lodge at Gorak Shep. Then, on Monday morning, 27 April, I will finally arrive at the end of one improbable journey and the beginning of another: Everest Base Camp.

I expect to arrive mid-morning after a 2-3 hour hike. Scott is due down from his current rotation up the mountain early afternoon. It will be great to see him again after our respective journeys to this place. The last time I saw Scott was when he, Miles O’Brien, and I ate Chinese food in Mountain View, California in March to tie up all of our last minute plans.

Miles was supposed to join us here in Nepal – but a lingering, previous commitment just would not let go of him. We tried to make it work up until the very last minute. He was really disappointed as were Scott and I. I know what this is like. Last year the politics and media clamp down surrounding the Chinese Olympic torch relay to the summit of Everest made my trip here impossible – with cancellation happening at the very last minute. I was bummed – but immediately rebounded and did my best to help Scott keep people up to date.

That is exactly what Miles has been doing back on the home front. Miles will be with us in spirit – as well as a happy little face on our computer screens as we do our daily check in by Skype. He’s already up to other media mischief on our behalf. Stay tuned.

I expect that my next update will be from Everest Base Camp – once I have settled in and come to grips with the reality of where I am and what people are attempting to do there. I can’t wait.




Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA Space Station Payload manager/space biologist, Away Teams, Journalist, Lapsed climber, Synaesthete, Na’Vi-Jedi-Freman-Buddhist-mix, ASL, Devon Island and Everest Base Camp veteran, (he/him) 🖖🏻