This article is dedicated to Sue Fear, the first Australian-born woman to climb Mt Everest and who tragically lost her life descending after an ascent of her fifth 8000 metre giant. She loved the mountains and was a fine and inspiring leader of our small Himalayan trekking group.
It was bitterly cold and teeth chattered as I sat among a handful of brave souls perched on a rock upon a mountain top. Ice-encrusted prayer flags stood unmoved by the chilling breeze. We were waiting for the first rays of sunlight to awaken the world’s giant – the travel wonder of Mt Everest – the tallest mountain on our planet.
As each day took hold and the sun’s beams reflected on the whiteness of the snowy peaks, the extraordinary Himalayan amphitheatre rises in all its splendour. The world’s tallest peaks stand in concert as part of a 360 degree mountain panorama. In this same range with Everest stands the world’s 4th, 5th and 6th highest peaks and the world’s third highest mountain (Kanchenjunga) can be viewed on the horizon. Even from the dizzying and oxygen-deprived heights of Gokyo Ri (at 5360 metres), it is a further three vertical kilometres to the top of these largest world peaks.
A couple of hours earlier, these same folks escaped the toasty warm comfort of a sleeping bag, struggled with boots and headlamps while trying not to remove the precious gloves and egged on by the chance to lay eyes on the world’s greatest peaks. Leaving the tiny hamlet of Gokyo, the strong moonlight silhouetted the handful of rugged stone houses along with the craggy heights of Gokyo Ri, a peak that stood a further 600 metres above us.
The panting and tiredness in the legs, the rest stops after every few steps, the struggle to spot the path among the dusting of snow and the biting Nepalese cold of an hour ago is all forgotten, swept away by a mesmerising mountain vista. Azure blue glacial lakes glisten while the brooding greyness of the Everest glacier continues it unrelenting journey through the towering giants sweeping all before it.
A Nepalese guide indicates the path taken by climbers attempting to climb Mt Everest. Stories of the challenges of climbing Everest – the Hillary Step, the Western Cwm and more – incredible challenges for the early climbers at heights above 8000 metres in such difficult and unpredictable weather. With only one-third of the oxygen available at sea level, it is barely within the range of human endeavour to climb these towering peaks. For me, I am truly contented to enjoy the view warmed by the strengthening sun and a small block of chocolate religiously carried for weeks for this moment.
Among its neighbours, Mt Everest is somewhat different. An elegant pyramid, it is almost devoid of snow and ice, the harsh winds keeping the blackened face relative clear of ice. A stream of snow is jettisoned from its peak, the stillness of the morning in sharp contrast to the conditions typically found at the peak of Everest.
The previous day, the group had snuck a view of Mt Everest. On a rarely used track walking towards Tibet from Gokyo, past further glistening lakes a flattish path finds a junction between the intervening peaks where Everest stands tall. The view is arrogantly described as Scoundrel’s View (photo shows the view on a clear day), no peak having being climbed to see Mt Everest in all its glory – the vista being somehow unearned. The remarkable Ngozumpa Glacier creaks and groans audibly from this vantage point. Disappointingly, a small cloud sat on the Everest peak hiding its upper reaches but adding to the anticipation of viewing this travel wonder the following morning.
Even trekking among the Himalayan mountains for a couple of weeks, nothing can prepare you for the exhilaration of viewing the world’s tallest mountains – elegant moody rock giants. The rickety bridges, the cold and physical exertion becomes a fading memory in such august company.