Megan Holbeck celebrates a twin milestone on a two-week trek to the Gokyo Lakes.
My twin sister and I trudged up the hill in a chorus of puffing. We’d stopped talking for the first time in 12 days, the catch up not as important as being able to breathe. The long, brown slope of Gokyo Ri might have looked like a nondescript Snowy Mountain ridge, but it sure didn’t feel like it.
Up ahead the fluttering of prayer flags announced the summit ( 5360 metres). After another 10 minutes of plodding, we reached the top with its panoramic view of the Himalayas. Jagged snowy mountains lined the horizon, including four of the world’s six 8000 metre peaks: Mt Everest, Cho Oyu, Makalu and Lhotse. Below lay a jumbled grey river of glacier and moraine and the browns of smaller peaks, the two dazzlingly blue lakes in the valley below breaking up the barren, high-altitude colour scheme.
I hugged Laura, first making sure I wouldn’t knock us both over the edge. (Mum and Dad would not have been happy!) We’d reached the high point of the trip, figuratively speaking at least, and it had been more beautiful and rewarding than we’d imagined, as well as both harder and easier. It was also giving us a new insight into ageing: we’d come here to celebrate our 40th, but we didn’t just feel middle aged, we felt half dead.
The first day of our trip had been spent at Tribhuvan International Airport waiting for the weather to clear, even making it on to the runway before we were turned around. The next morning we crammed into a helicopter, our shadow traversing the Himalayan foothills below. We searched the horizon for mountains, eventually realising that the clouds were actually peaks that seemed too high to be real. And then we were there, walking through cold, busy Lukla, along dirt tracks lined with gear shops and cafes with WiFi, passing yaks and groups of laden donkeys.
The landscape changed quickly, from terraced fields full of crops to forests split by steep valleys and crossed by wire bridges. The track is lined with mani walls, each stone slab hand-carved by monks, and studded with white stupas tethered by prayer flags. It is a living landscape, with a real sense of connection between the surrounding wilderness and those who live there.
It didn’t take long to hit the mountains. Snowy peaks jutted up high above the valleys as we walked, before hiding in the afternoon cloud. Every morning I opened the tent door to a glittering new view, which was usually enough to entice Laura out of her warm bed. (She needed an early start – that girl can faff!) We got our first glimpse of Mt Everest just before reaching Namche. It didn’t seem real, being there with the world’s highest mountain looking all humble and accessible on the horizon. After a few days it didn’t seem exactly normal, but we’d grown used to the idea and the reality of walking among mountains much bigger than anything at home.
Locals get up to Namche in a day, but we spent three days walking, acclimatising and adjusting. The first adjustment was the weather: Laura has been living in Fiji for the last few years, so anything colder than 25 degrees and more than a hundred metres above sea level is a novelty. She put on her thermals as soon as we landed in Lukla and didn’t remove them until we returned to Kathmandu.
The landscape changed dramatically around Namche. This horseshoe-shaped town is perched above a deep valley and ringed by peaks, and from here on up, it is all about the mountains. We left Namche on the fifth day, becoming an insignificant part of a grand setting. From a stupa jutting out on an exposed ridge the view opened up, showcasing Ama Dablam, Mt Everest, Nuptse and Lhotse and hundreds of other small peaks. (You know, only 6,000 metres or so high!) An hour later we turned off the Everest Base Camp trail and the whole flavour of the trip changed. There was now the occasional person rather than a steady stream of folk, and the villages were much more spaced out. Instead there were forests of rhododendrons and silver birch, waterfalls that pitched down hillsides and patches of snow hidden in dark corners of the trail.
The effects of altitude also became more noticeable. Group members suffered from headaches, stomach complaints and sleeplessness, and every movement took more effort than it should. After putting away a sleeping bag I needed to catch my breath, and running more than 10 metres was out of the question. Most nights it snowed, and Laura was now walking in a minimum of four layers.
The stupas and mani walls disappeared, as did the crops, replaced by seasonal yak pastures divided by stone walls. By the time we reached the Gokyo Lakes on the 10th day of walking, the landscape was stunning but barren, with a high-altitude palette of muted greys, browns, whites and greens.
At 4,700 metres, this is the world’s highest freshwater lake system. It’s also got to be among the most beautiful: the water is a brilliant blue, fringed with ice, studded with ducks and surrounded by a standing army of rock cairns. Oh, and there’s a few mountains scattered around (only the world’s highest and most famous), as well as a glacier or two. All in all, it’s a pretty awe-inspiring place, and the next few days were the best of the trip.
The two nights between Gokyo and our return to Namche were spent in wilderness camps, perched high on the mountains. These were the most physically exhausting days, taking in the highest points: Gokyo Ri and the Renjo La pass.
And then, like that, it was over. We reached Lukla, flew back to Kathmandu and suddenly I was back in Sydney, slotting right back into the organisational Jenga that is my life.
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