We woke at 4:40 for an early breakfast and start for the hardest day of the trek. By the time we got out the door it was 5:50 and there was no need for a headlamp, but the sun was blocked by the large mountains ahead (we were going east) and we pressed on against the biting cold. This was the first time I busted out the large down jacket that Himalayan Glacier loaned us and it was definitely necessary. The start of the walk was technically simple, still an upward climb, still cold and still at elevation, but easy footing. And it was long. I found myself employing various tactics to distract myself, resorting not so far in to “99 bottles of beer on the wall.” This soon failed, and I went to my happy place: dogs. I pretended in my mind that I was out in the backyard of my childhood home, playing snowball fetch with Beyaz (my family dog who recently left us).
After a bit of a climb we reached the top of a hill from where we could view the actual pass. It’s a decent downhill climb, and then a steep, rocky incline, followed by an even steeper, rockier, icier incline. I asked Rishi one final time, “you think I can do this?” He confirmed, I took a deep breath and on we went.
I don’t recall exactly when I began to panic, but I know it culminated in tears and me turning to Alan to say “Alan, I’m panicking. I’m freaking out!” Rishi said something along the lines of “there’s a lot of work to be done here,” and pulled me onwards, directing me in nearly every step as I tried to avoid slipping down to a rocky, icy, deathly fall. I wound up arriving faster than the rest, thanks mostly to the jet-like propulsion of fear and the most intense desire to not be there anymore. Also because Rishi pulled me up the last few steps. In fact, by the final several meters I must have looked on the verge of fainting because every time I looked up, huffing and puffing, there were at least a handful of men holding their hands out for me to grab on and get pulled up to the next boulder. So thank you, strange men and especially Rishi.
We had a mini feast at the top of the pass (5370m!), Rishi jovially handing out hard boiled eggs, Snickers bars, biscuits and fistfuls of toasted corn with soya beans that another porter had.
While Jenni would be hard-pressed to recall it, the views from the top of the pass were actually quite beautiful. We could see Nuptse, Cholatse, Taboche, Ama Dablam…
Crossing the snowfield to descend is by comparison a million times easier than the ascent, but it is quite a slippery path. I know it looks like I’m doing the robot in this picture, but I’m actually just trying not to slide down into the center of this giant ice field.
I wish I had known that our “down” side of the pass was by comparison super easy. I think a large part of my panic attack was the realization that “holy crap, even if I make it up this damn thing, there’s no way I’ll make it back down.” But thank my lucky stars, crossing from west to east as we did is a far more difficult uphill.
The whole day took us less than 6.5 hours, compared to the guides’ warning of 8-9. And this includes several stops on the walk down for me to puke behind rocks. Alan, the ever dutiful blog photographer on this trek, did not fail to capture evidence of my ailment…
Arriving in Dzongla, I was barely in a condition to communicate. I flopped down in the common room and proceeded to pass out while the rest of the team enjoyed lunch. Thankfully that ended up being the worst of my altitude sickness and it was much smoother sailing from here on out.
Alan adds: I think part of why crossing Cho La Pass was the hardest day is that the terrain made it nearly impossible to relax and take your time. With most of the trails and days, we are able to move at an awkwardly slow pace when ascending and thus help avoid headaches and greater shortness of breath. But much of the ascent to cross the pass was so steep and rocky/icy/snowy that we really had to scramble and expend bursts of energy.
Also, I admire Jenni for pushing herself and overcoming fear and sickness. It can be difficult to know when one’s altitude symptoms require descent vs. just tolerating pain and discomfort. Perhaps even harder only a month after being hospitalized following uncertainty about her ailments at the time. Jenni fought through like a champ and this allowed us to finish the trek with great success.
On the walk out from Dzongla, to Lobuche (where we joined back up with the main EBC trail), we peeped some climbers on their way to summiting Lobuche East. Incredible. Check out the zoomed in shot, and then for some perspective on the feat they accomplished, look at the next zoomed out shot of the mountain they are on.
We, on the other hand, were very thankful to have a much easier day post-Cho La. A quick couple hours leisurely walk brought us back to the EBC trail (and way more people!).
We did our loop hike by first going up the Gokyo Valley and then crossing the Cho La Pass from west to east. Some do it in the opposite direction. As noted above, we were happy to ascend the steeper and more challenging side of the pass and descend the comparatively easier side. The views on the descent were awesome, too, with Ama Dablam directly ahead of us.
You could leave from Gokyo and cross the pass in the same day, but it would be pretty hard. Crossing the glacier from Gokyo to Thangnag is not so easy, and you want to cross the pass early in the day to increase the likelihood of favorable conditions. However, if you are looking to save time, you could definitely make it all the way to Lobuche on the same day as crossing the pass. We were not in a rush and with Jenni’s altitude sickness we were happy to settle in Dzongla, but you could hike another 2-3 hours and get to Lobuche well before dark.
Accommodation: In Dzongla we stayed at the Hotel Zongla Inn. The location was breathtaking, with Cholatse towering above us.
April 11, 2014 (Friday)