Archive for October, 2010

Qomolangma aka Everest, at Last!

China > Tibet > Everest Base Camp

Wednesday, 06 October 2010

Daybreak, and somebody wakes me up, “The Everest is out there!”. Excitedly I hurry out of the tent and yes, that’s Everest alright, just 25km away as the crow flies, but the top is missing, to everybody’s dismay.

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Regardless, it’s indeed an awesome sight. At last I’m staring at an object that has always fascinated me since a kid – the world’s tallest mountain at 8,844m (29,015ft), and this is the view from the north.
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The base camp itself is a hive of activities. People are getting ready for a cold and tiring 4-km hike up the valley to a base hut with a splendid lookout.
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It’s almost a 2-hr walk along the Rongbuk valley, whose streams are fed by the melting Rongbuk glacier a few kilometres uphill. The huge Rongbuk glacier goes all the way to the northern face of Mt Everest. Moraine is everywhere, proof that Rongbuk glacier once came all the way down here.
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At the end of the trail, a lookout hill to climb, made difficult in thin air.
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A notice at the bottom of the hill. The Tibetans call it Qomolangma (“Mother Goddess of the Earth”). It’s 80km to the peak by ground (for climbers), but as the crow flies, only 20km from here. With our permit, this is about as far as we can go. Any further and you need another permit, and proper preparation.
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Atop the hill, a splendid view of Rongbuk valley to the south, with the glacier a fair distance away. But alas, the peak of Qomolangma/Everest is still hidden, just 20km SSE of here. So near and yet so far.
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The GPS tells the story – we are at the crosshair in middle of this Wikimapia satellite image.
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I look back at the Rongbuk valley with the track back to base camp. There’re tough mini-buses to take tired (and out-of-breath) trekkers back to the camp, which is very handy.

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This is the advanced base hut, and I’m told climbing expeditions would get off their 4WD vehicles here and begin the trek to base camps further up the Himalayas with yaks and guides. In fact one expedition just left prior to our arrival.

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Back at base camp, and we wait for the clouds to clear the top of Everest.

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A local denizen. Doesn’t look like a crow family member.

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This is our ‘hotel’. In winter the whole base camp shuts down and everybody returns to their villages down the mountain. It’s still very cold, and I tell Lotse, our guide, we can’t leave till we get to see the top of Everest. I retire into the hotel to keep warm.

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Suddenly I hear noises of people shouting and clapping. I rush out of the tent, and there, in full glory, Qomolangma aka Everest, at last! What an excellent sight. This is the north face of Everest, much harder to climb than the more popular Nepali south-east ridge approach.

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Even Lotse is relieved that our trip’s mission has been fulfilled! In 1924, Englishmen Mallory and Irvine, started the climb from somewhere very close to this base camp, but disappeared during the final ascent to the summit along the Northeast Ridge, which can be seen in pic below. Only Mallory’s body was found (in 1999), but nobody knew if they actually reached the summit and beat Hillary and Norgay by 29 years. Details HERE and HERE.

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I stroll further into Rongbuk valley behind the base camp, to take some pictures. The mountain is mesmerising. I can just imagine Mallory and Irvine gazing at this very same view in 1924 before their ill-fated ascent.

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Gotta take this pic in the Rongbuk glacial valley, with self-timer. Maybe I’ll visit Everest again, but on the Nepali side.

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The mountain is 50-60mil years in the making, and still growing at ΒΌ inch per year. Caused by the collision of the Indian landmass into Asia, the whole area used to be underwater. To the left of summit ridge, note the 3 ‘bumps’ along the Northeast Ridge climbing route to the top: First Step is at 8,568m, Second Step 8,625m, Third Step 8,660m. Summit is 8,844m.

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The base camp is sheltered by this huge ridge with interesting geology. Fossils of ancient sea creatures are found everywhere, and many are on sale at base camp itself.

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Layers of sandstone and shale, I think, proof of marine origin, now folded and pushed >5,200m above ground by the immense tectonic forces.

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People have been asking me about the loo at base camp. Well, it’s an interesting place, a shed-like structure built some 50m behind the tents, right in the moraine-filled valley. The shed has 2 ‘rooms’ – male & female – but nobody really cares. In each room, just 2 holes in the floor, nothing else, so bring your own toilet paper or whatever. Imaging having diarrhea at 4.00am, pitch black, in howling winds and -10C! Don’t ask me about the aroma, okay?

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Obviously the above is much better than Michael Palin’s:

“The latrine is almost subhuman. It’s hard enough to aim through a hole reduced to a slit by the calcified accretions of many previous visitors, without at the same time having to flash a torch to warn other guests and extract thin sheets of Boots travel tissue in a freezing, force 8 gale. Many years ago, encountering similarly appalling conditions in a boat on Lake Tanganyika, I took Imodium to prevent me having to go to the toilet ever again. As I squat in this howling tempest three miles up in the sky, I think cyanide might be the better option.” – Michael Palin in HIMALAYA, describing the toilet at Rongbuk Monastery, near Everest Base Camp. http://palinstravels.co.uk/book-3527

The base camp also has the highest post office in the world (5,200m, 17,060ft) …

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… so I take the opportunity to send a postcard to my best friend.

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All the tents have ‘hotel’ names, but it’s very rudimentary. Just a place to keep warm and sleep, and the caretaker will prepare hot drinks, noodles and soups. Nothing fancy. Electricity is via solar cells while water is carried from the glacial stream down the valley.

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It’s late morning and Everest is still putting up a great show. We are very satisfied with it, and can’t get enough of the wonderful sight. Mission accomplished.

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Our Mexican friend tries to interest us in a potent-looking Chinese grog he just bought.

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The night before has been friggin’ cold and I’m told the temperature plunged to -12C, so much so the diesel in our vehicle froze. Simple solution – heat the fuel tank with fire from dried yak poo. It won’t explode, the Tibetans assure me.

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As the fuel tank is heated, driver Tashi tinkers with the engine.

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Suddenly the engine starts, coughs a few times, belches thick black smoke, and soon we are ready to go.

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Moraine everywhere as we move northwards along the Rongbuk valley, for the return trip to Shigatse. Another 4hrs of the 102km bad road to the Lhasa-Kathmandu Friendship Highway.

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A mandatory stop 8km down the valley, at the famous Rongbuk Monastery, the highest religious site in the world at 5,150m (16,900ft). It was founded in 1902. The pagoda and sacred mani stone pile (a stone is added as a visitor says a prayer) against the backdrop of Everest always make a good composition.

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And again, we can’t keep our eyes off snow-capped Everest. Peak climbing season is just before summer, when the weather is more stable.

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Opposite the Rongbuk Monastery, a map to Everest Base Camp and a telecom installation powered solely by photovoltaic solar panels. In this remote area, the only electricity source is the Sun.

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We push on northwards along the dry and dusty valley. On the way in yesterday, we passed this area at nightfall.

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A brief toilet stop at a hamlet in the middle of nowhere, and suddenly we are swarmed by a bunch of schoolkids, with soiled school uniforms. Education is the only way to give these kids a chance at a better life.

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Arid landscape and miles from civilisation This is Tibetan Himalaya, as harsh as it looks.

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Climbing a pass, and as I look down, I see the roads we have just driven on looking like layers of dusty strips. And yes, that’s Everest at far left, with other 8,000m+ mountains to the right.

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At a lookout, a chance to train my lens on Everest again.

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An enthusiast with a bike and a sidecar trundles past. We occasionally bump into convoys of bikers, and cyclists.

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Another view of the zigzagging unpaved road as we slowly climb up the pass.

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No wonder it takes 4hrs just to do 102km! Soon the Himalayas disappear over the horizon.

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Back on the Lhasa-Kathmandu Friendship Highway, and we are still not free of bad roads.

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Sometimes guide Lotse and driver Tashi have to do a bit road self-repair before we can pass.

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More mountains along the way, but not part of the Himalayas any more.

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A really bad stretch of the Friendship Highway. Not so friendly after all.

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Approaching the top of another pass, at 5,250m.

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Ten hours after leaving Everest Base Camp, and some 400km later, I’m at my comfy hotel room in Shigatse. A real toilet and a warm shower at last. It has been a most memorable day, visiting Mt Qomolangma aka Everest was a milestone in my life!

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And yes, maybe I do need that oxygen! I still have the friggin’ headache, my sleep is still interrupted, and my pulse rate is still high. Classic altitude sickness symptoms.

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