By Andrew Bain
Around two hours’ walk north of Namche Bazaar, the largest town in Nepal’s Khumbu region, there is a fork in the trail. Veer right, as the vast majority of trekkers do, and you are headed towards Everest Base Camp.Veer left, however, ascending stone stairs that seem to almost hang off the mountain’s edge, and the trail follows the course of the Dudh Kosi, or Milk River, into a valley that is more remote and less trafficked by trekkers than the “Everest Highway” into Base Camp.For those who take this left turn, there is one destination in mind: Gokyo Ri mountain. From its summit, 5,360m above sea level, four of the six highest mountains in the world -- Everest (8,848m), Lhotse (8,516m), Makalu (8,485m) and Cho Oyu (8,188m) -- are visible.
Gokyo Ri is the trekkers’ other Everest. For many, it will be the highest point to which they ever ascend, providing a view across to Mount Everest that arguably surpasses the scenes even from around Base Camp. Stand here and it becomes clear why one trekking guidebook goes so far as to describe Gokyo Ri as having “the best accessible viewpoint in Nepal”.
The trek to Gokyo Ri, however, is not all about the final view. Once past the turning beyond Namche Bazaar and into the Gokyo valley, the spread of settlement diminishes and a more natural Nepal appears.
No longer is the trail an endless line of teahouses and lodges, and the villages are well spaced to assist trekkers with altitude acclimatisation. Spending nights at the villages of Phortse Tenga (3,700m), Dole (4,200m), Machhermo (4,500m) and Gokyo (4,800m) offers a comfortable four-day approach to the foot of the mountain from Namche Bazaar, ascending gradually through the thinning air. In between the villages, the slopes are covered in rhododendrons and the peeling, papery trunks of silver birch trees. Waterfalls skid down from the mountains, and far below, the Dudh Kosi wriggles its way through inaccessible gorges. On the trail, yak trains amble down from higher villages, and porters sprint past with seemingly impossible weights hanging from their heads.
It is as you leave Machhermo, the final village before Gokyo, that you get a sense of entering mountain royalty. Ahead, Cho Oyu, the world’s sixth highest mountain, shapes the northern horizon, and the trail climbs beside the snout of the Ngozumpa Glacier. This is the longest glacier in the Himalayas, stretching around 25km from its beginnings on the high slopes of Cho Oyu.
At the glacier’s edge, the trail comes to the first of the Gokyo Lakes, a chain of six lakes spread over more than 10km that form the highest freshwater lake system in the world. It is here, over the tops of the inevitable ducks, that Gokyo Ri first comes into view, its brown rounded form a contrast to the snow-covered, sharp-tipped lines of Cho Oyu beyond.
On the shores of the third lake is the village of Gokyo, a collection of weatherbeaten trekking lodges peering out onto Gokyo Ri. Inside the lodges, trekkers rest up ahead of their final climb, conserving their strength and yet still burning energy just trying to breathe and function at such an altitude -- at 4,800m, oxygen levels are only about 55% of those at sea level.
The Everest of views
In the oldest of mountain traditions, the summit day on Gokyo Ri begins before dawn, strapping on a head torch and heading out into darkness. After crossing the often-frozen lake inlet to the base of the mountain, the trail begins zigzagging up the cold slopes.it is a 2km walk that can take hours, as trekkers stop every few steps to gather precious breath. Such regular stops are also a chance to pause and soak in the view, with the lakes and Gokyo shrinking below and the distinctive arrow-shaped peak of Mount Cholatse (6,440m) rising above.
Eventually, prayer flags appear ahead on the trail, waving trekkers on towards to the summit. Rock cairns crowd the final climb -- it is like a mini Manhattan of high-rise stone towers -- until the trail rises over the ridge and onto the summit, which is smothered in prayer flags.if conditions are favourable, the scene from the summit is a dream mountain view. The rubble-covered Ngozumpa Glacier gouges its way through the valley below, Cho Oyu stands nearby and endless lines of mountains stretch away to the horizon, where Makalu rises.
Towering over it all is the mountain everyone has trekked so far to see, the tallest and most famous peak in the world: Mount Everest. Viewed from here, Everest is bewilderingly tall, rising another 3.5km above the point on which you stand. It is a scene so vast, so much wider than the outlooks near Base Camp, you cannot help but be glad you turned left when you walked out of Namche Bazaar.