Never have I longed to climb Mt. Everest. However, a year and a half ago, when I learned we could visit the base of its north face, the idea of doing that seized my imagination, and it proved surprisingly hard to shake. Wednesday morning, as we were driving up the road that leads to the base camp, it struck me that ever since 4th grade, when I learned the name of the tallest mountain on earth, Mt. Everest lodged in my brain as a mythic spot, with the details of the myth growing in complexity over time (as I read Into Thin Air, saw various movies, and otherwise embellished the indistinct image in my mind.) When we crossed the last pass, and the great span of the high Himalaya stretched before us, I felt the same jolt I felt last year in Jerusalem when we visited the Garden of Gethsemene and the spot where Jesus is believed to have been crucified — the jolt of seeing the real physical object underlying the mythic one.
Every other hairpin turn brought the mountain into closer view out my side of the van. It was spell-binding to take in not only the massive striking triangular form of Qomolongma (as the Tibetans have long called the most famous peak) but also to see the threadbare villages shivering in the nearby valley floors; to learn first-hand just how difficult it is to approach this monster mountain, even as a lowly tourist.
Such a visit requires special permits that are even more complicated than the already crazy-complex ones required for Westerners who wish to visit Tibet. No independent travel is permitted, so that makes it expensive too. The Chinese government is deadly serious about scrutinizing all the paperwork. Our Chinese and Tibetan permits got close attention in Chengdu Airport, and on the road, we probably had to stop 10 times to have our paperwork inspected. Most of the time our guide was able go into the inspection offices alone (sometimes just with the permits; sometimes with them and our passports). But at the start of our final approach to Everest, Steve and I had to present our physical persons, to be compared against the passports and other documents.
For a visitor to reach Everest Base Camp also means paying special attention to the task of acclimatization. Just arriving in Lhasa is rough. At 12,000 feet, it’s one of the highest cities in the world. When we came to Tibet a year ago, we felt slammed by symptoms of altitude sickness within an hour of disembarking from our flight from Kathmandu. And Everest Base Camp is almost 6000 feet higher than Lhasa. Even if you’re not planning to climb the additional 12,000 feet to the summit, visiting just the base camp means spending a minimum of 5 nights trying to get accustomed to the dearth of oxygen (only 50% of what it is at sea level).
Our trip was interrupted last year by Steve’s mom’s health crisis only two days before we were scheduled to hit the road and head for the Himalayas. I was still seriously sick from the altitude; had dreadful headaches and no appetite. Couldn’t sleep night after night because I felt like I was suffocating. Moreover, I had caught a cold and developed a terrible case of bronchitis in Nepal, so I was coughing almost hard enough to break a rib. Had we set off southward, as we would have done were it not for our emergency return home, I now think things could have gone badly. I learned on this trip that there is no possibility of helicopter evacuation from this part of Tibet. Our guidebook says one person a year dies from altitude sickness, but our guide Tashi told us that this year 16 Indian pilgrims perished from it while attempting to walk around Tibet’s holy western mountain, Kailash.
Given that background, I was fiercely determined to stay healthy. We sanitized our hands religiously as we shared metros and buses and trains with hordes of folks on the Malay peninsula, many of whom quite obviously were fighting respiratory infections. I started taking Diamox (the drug often used by mountain climbers to speed up the acclimatization process) a day before our flight to Tibet, and on the day of our visit to base camp, I added in a steroid (dexamethazone) recommended both by the CDC and personal friends. It all seemed to work. Or maybe we just got lucky. We avoided catching any colds or developing any traveler’s diarrhea, and when we left the tiny town of Shegar Wednesday morning, neither of us had any obvious signs of mountain sickness.
We had other reasons to rejoice. At the Pang-la Pass, Tashi confided to us that he was getting his first view this year of Everest and its massive companions: Malala, Lhotse, Gyachung, Cho Oyu, Xixiabangma. Tashi has probably made the trip to the base camp 100 times over the course of his guiding career, but this year we’re the 6th group he has accompanied. All the other 5 were greeted by a bank of clouds and fog and dust that obscured the fantastic sight. “You had to imagine it,” he said. But the sky was cloudless for us, and the snowy giants shone knife-edged against the preternaturally blue background.
By 11:30 we were checking into our room at the small hotel across the road from the monastery at the foot of the mountain. Here too there was good news. We’d been warned that the monastic-sized cells were unheated, with outdoor toilets located some distance away, no running water and often no electricity (when the wind blows the lines down). But a strong incandescent lightbulb clicked on in our room, which was further equipped with heating pads under the grubby sheets. I checked out the squat/pit toilets and found them to be less frightening than the ones we’d experienced on the road from Lhasa a few days previously. Those were big enough to actually fall in (and die shortly afterward, I presumed), worse than anything I’ve seen in Africa (where we’ve now traveled in 11 countries). Returning to the room, I repeated one of my favorite mantras for such situations: “Camping would be dirtier.”
We piled in the van and set off on the short ride down the road to the spot where the tourist tent camp is normally set up. We’d been booked to sleep in it last year, but the timing of this trip brought us here a bit later in October — just four days after the tent camp was taken down for the season. Slightly disappointed by this news at first, I now realized that spending the night in the communal tent would have been hideous in the ferocious winds that were developing. I had read that it’s possible to hike from the tourist tent camp site to the true base camp — the spot where the real climbers stay and from whence they depart. Steve and I climbed out of the van all geared up. I was wearing pants and long underwear, with six layers on top (including a fairly heavy down jacket), and Steve was similarly armored. We both had our collapsible hiking poles. The sun was shining brightly, but we walked only 100 or so feet down the road into a driving icy wind that occasionally blasted our small patches of exposed face with gritty sand. We stopped. I felt like I was moving in slow motion, with great effort (the way I felt approaching the summits of Mt. Fuji and Mt. Whitney, my previous mountaineering efforts that made me realize I would never, ever want to climb Everest.) Steve felt the same way, so we sheepishly told Tashi it would probably be better for us to be driven the 4km to the base camp.
There, Tashi declared he would wait in the van, but we could take our time climbing up to the large flat area where the serious expeditions pitch their tents. We moved slowly and carefully and reached it without incident. Once at the top, we estimated the gusts to be 60 mph or more. Time after time, they threatened to knock us off our feet. The site struck me as being perhaps the most dramatic and simultaneously brutal places I’ve ever stood (or wobbled). My iPhone died. (We later joked that it must have been on strike, declaring that I needed to take it back to some kinder, warmer place or it would never work for me again.)
In all, our visit to the climbers’ base camp lasted about an hour. Then we returned to the guesthouse and had a surprisingly tasty, if simple, lunch. The communal dining room is a congenial space, warmed only by a yak-dung stove, and after getting a bit more organized in our room, we returned there with our iPads and grabbed seats in front of one of the south-facing windows, with their commanding views of the mountain. We sat there for 5 hours straight, often glancing up and out.
From time to time, a mane of clouds appeared around the summit, and I thought of how similar clouds in the past have been harbingers of sudden homicidal storms. More than 250 people have died trying to reach the top of this monster since the first Westerners started vying for that honor in 1921. The wind whistled and howled; at times it shook the walls of the dining hall and forced cold air through the crevices. But no storm materialized. As sunset approached, the shadows on Everest deepened and spread, and near the summit, the remaining light made the mountaintop glow pastel orange, then coral, then pink. In a matter of moments, the color drained away. All that was left was white snow and menacing shadow.