THE ROOF OF THE WORLD
KNOWN AS CHOMOLUNGMA TO THE TIBETANS AND SAGARMATHA TO THE NEPALESE, THE HIGHEST POINT ON OUR PLANET WASN’T GIVEN AN OFFICIAL TITLE UNTIL 1865. SINCE THEN THE 29,000 FOOT GIANT HAS GIVEN IT’S NAME TO A BY-WORD FOR SOMETHING THAT TOWERS ABOVE ALL ELSE.
I awoke that morning to a nervous excitement in my stomach, the sort of butterflies you get before a first date, a job interview, or a funeral for someone you really hated. We were hitting the road towards the north base camp of Mount Everest. THE Mount Everest. It was like meeting royalty. Man, I should have brought something!
From Shegar / Tingri to Everest Base Camp is only 110 km, but that is mostly over unpaved bumpy roads, so non stop it would be about six hours. An early start would see us there in the early afternoon with plenty of time to take everything in. The only questions surrounded the weather,and people’s ability to cope with the altitude. Already yesterday my stock of Nurofen Extra was being hastily handed around the van. Admittedly the Karola Glacier pass would be the highest point on our trip but Everest Base Camp at 17,600 feet wouldn’t be far behind.
Along the roadside we stopped to take in the extraordinary view of the Himalayas to our left. It was a special moment for one of our group, Jeff. In 2002 a good friend of his died while summiting the 26,000 foot north face of Gyachung Kang. That mountain, said to be the 15th tallest in the world, was the peak we were looking at now. After a moment we piled back in the van, more determined than ever to tackle Everest.
It wasn’t long until an imposing underpass of prayer flags heralded our arrival at Chomolungma National Park. Giddy with excitement we jumped out of the van only to be assaulted by the local yak herders selling trinkets ranging from prayer flags to yak bones. Jeff nabbed some prayer flags, intending to place them at EBC for his departed friend. I meanwhile haggled for a yak bone necklace. Etched into it in Tibetan script was “Om manna padme Om” the mantra Tibetans chant when spinning their prayer wheels. But let’s be real it could have said “Ass Butt” and I’d still think it looked cool enough to wear around my neck.
They weren’t kidding when they said the road to base camp was rough and bumpy. Still the trusty Higer grinded it’s way ever closer.
And that’s when we saw it.
I can’t remember who said it first. I was already out of the van and staring in disbelief.
“Everest!” someone yelled.
There she was. A perfect white pyramid jutting above the grey foothills. The clouds which rolled across her face tried their best to hide her beauty, but she continued to smile at us, like an Arabian beauty beckoning through a veil.
“Bernard my love. Come to me” I swore she said. That’s when I knew i had to sit down.
Compared to the stunning views we would be treated to over the next 24 hours this was nothing. After another hour of twisting and turning around dirt roads and over hills we found ourselves on the straight road to base camp and the vista of Everest opened up like a flower revealing it’s petals.
Tibet Base Camp is situated in a glacially carved valley with an unobstructed view of the north face of the mighty mountain. It’s popular among visitors not only because it doesn’t require a ten day round trip hike like the Nepalese side, but also because of it’s world beating location. We pulled into the “tent camp” which, as the name implies, is a square encampment of yak hair tents. Each tent is surprisingly spacious and warm inside. It’s the closest you can sleep to the mountain without a proper mountain camping permit.
Having reached camp we decided to calm ourselves down with some tea. I’m not exactly sure what Tibetan tea consists of but it’s looks like a bunch of flower buds floating in water. At these altitudes any hydration is welcome, so the tea was kept on the boil, while stories were swapped, and the tea was “enhanced” with some bottles we had picked up along the way. Lunch was being prepared for us, but I couldn’t help but take a peek outside every now and again. It was early afternoon when we had arrived and the mountain was beginning to veil herself with cloud again. Like most mountains the best times for viewing Everest is early morning and late evening. I wasn’t worried. I’d come all this way, from the rolling green hills of the emerald isle to the wind swept peaks of the Himalayas and the big girl wasn’t gonna let me down.
After some food we hopped into the little green buses that would take us to the actual Tibetan Base Camp three kilometers away. I was expecting a small city of tents, full of wannabe climbers but the place was deserted. Seemingly the climbers pitch camp a further kilometer or two down the road. It is a further 28 km to Advance Base Camp, on the way you pass Camps 1 &2 to the face of the Rongbok Glacier. The view of Everest here is no better than the view from our tents so once all the photos were taken and the prayer flags were laid, it was back to the snuggling comfort of our dead yak houses for some dinner. Just before we sat down for the grub I nipped to the post office for some postcards. Yes they have a Post Office here and yes it’s the highest post office in the world. Pretty much everything here is the “Highest – Insert Object Here” – it’s Everest. I bought some cards for family and friends and dropped them in, safe in the knowledge China Post would have them winging their way back home as soon as possible. Or next week. Or next month. Or whenever the post is actually collected here. I can’t imagine Amazon delivering here. Amazon Prime maybe.
The pain in my head which started as a mild annoyance earlier on was beginning to blossom into a full blown headache. Luckily I was prepared and popped my trusty Nurofen Extra just before dinner. These things are amazing, it’s no wonder you can’t take more than three in a day. I don’t know whether it was the altitude, something in the food (read: tea), or that sweet sweet Ibuprofen hit, but I was feeling AMAZING. As the sun was about to set I staggered out of my tent like a Grateful Dead fan at Woodstock determined to walk as close to the mountain as was safe. Or unsafe. I’d turn back when I was hungry really.
It was chilly and lonely on that little path, but the clouds had cleared and Everest glowed in the sunset like a beacon spurring me on. I came to a small ruined monastery by the roadside draped in prayer flags and there, as the sun sank below the Himalayas, I sat and watched Everest in all it’s splendor.
Then I got hungry and went back.
On the hike back I came across a random leg sticking out of the rocks. It looked like a goat or something, and it had been there for a while. What unnerved me was thinking about what had happened to the rest of it. Either it had been served for supper, or the legends of these mountains being haunted by the pale specter of the abominable snowman could actually be true. Neither thought was comforting. It was getting pretty dark now, and the wind was beginning to whistle and howl around the ancient stones. With a shiver I gathered my scarf tightly around my neck and stumbled onward.
Despite the earlier horror show I slept well that night. I was well layered up during the day, but was warned the temperature can drop very low, very quickly up here, so I piled on the thick woolen blankets on top of me about a foot high. This made it quit difficult to move around but I was glad of it later on when I awoke and could barely feel my face.
That morning after some initial cloud Everest woke us cheerily with a beaming, sunny face. The intention was to stay a little longer but our two Vietnamese friends were beginning to reach dangerous levels of acute mountain sickness. They had been slowly deteriorating since yesterday and we had to start descending.
On our way back down we called into Rongbok Monastery, the highest in the world. The views of Everest from here are spectacular. Not only that but I had heard that high altitude plays tricks with your perception. Sometimes close objects can seem far away and far away objects can appear closer. It definitely seemed that way here. Rongbok monastery is a few kilometers further away from Everest than base camp, yet at certain angles appeared much closer. I climbed a set of steps behind the stuppa and Everest loomed overhead like I had teleported right to its base. Maybe that Ibuprofen bomb of Nurofen still hadn’t worn off. I made a mental note to stockpile the stuff when I got home.
There was a twinge of sadness as Everest disappeared from view. We were on the road to Zhangmu, the border town to Nepal’s Kodari. There are checkpoints set up along the Tibetan highway system. From being stamped at one checkpoint you must arrive at the next checkpoint at a certain time. Too late and the authorities become suspicious, too early and you are fined for speeding. Our guide assured as that she “knew a guy” and to everyone’s surprise it was the first time something like this actually turned out to be true. After a night spent here it was a small matter of leaving Tibet and crossing into Nepal where we would be on our own to sort out our transport down to Kathmandu. Easy.
Next time: The worst jeep in the world, the worst road in the world and a Nepalese driver who looks Mexican.