Walking in Mallory’s Footsteps: Part 4

Trekking to Base Camp

Shigatse to Shegar 

Shegar Dzong Fortress from New Tingri
Shegar Dzong Fortress on the hill 

Shegar is another 150 miles down the road from Shigatse and getting further from what passes for civilization.  It was a rough, dirt and rock road when I was there but we were surrounded the entire time by a massive road building project as the Chinese government pushed to have a paved road all the way to Tingri –long since completed by now.  We stayed 2 nights in Shegar to continue our acclimatization.  In the morning we headed pinnacle of Shegar Dzongover to Shegar Dzong – a fortress that, like the others in Tibet, seemed etched out of the mountain.  At its base sat another Buddhist monastery.  But these are all simply and literally shells of their former selves.  Phorpu (our Chinese government “guide” who was assigned to go with us everywhere we went, presumably to keep us out of trouble, and perhaps to monitor what we say to the Tibetans) told us that these were destroyed by a combination of bombings during the takeover of Tibet in the 50s by the Chinese government and then finished off during the Cultural Revolution in the 60s.  The exciting thing was that with our arrival in Shegar we had now literally crossed paths with the 1921 British Reconnaissance Expedition.  They stopped here to visit the head of the monastery and to secure additional assistance from the locals.  The fortress is amazing – it literally climbs the mountain into which it is built, culminating with a parapet at the summit which was our destination for the morning acclimatization hike.  We climbed up and around the monastery remains and then struck out the rest of the way on narrow paths with very steep drop offs.  The views offered as we climbed were again, stunning.  As we got closer to the main chain of the Himalayas, the mountains around us loomed higher and higher.  We arrived at the top, with me comfortably in the rear and totally out of breath.  Our real guide told of a fight here with the British during their 1904 invasion and how Shegar Dzong stood until a major assault with a modern day siege engine breached the walls of the fort.  It is a great story but there is only one problem – the British invasion force never came this way.  According to the account I read (“Bayonets to Lhasa” by Peter Fleming), the British passed by well to the south and east, heading through Giyantse, on their way to Lhasa.  I decide not to point this out to our guide.

Lungjang – Everest Base Camp

 We continued on from Shegar to our next destination, further along Mallory’s trail – towards the town of Tingri.  We turned off the road just outside of Tingri and traveled directly inland toward the Himalayas.  We met the rest of the sherpas and our camp truck on the plains just outside the town of Lungjang.  From now until we meet up with the truck for the drive out, we will have a new routine – sleeping in tents and hiking during the day.  We are eager to get going.  The previous 10 days have been tiring, fascinating, exotic but still no more than a prelude.  We came here to trek in the Himalayas and we are finally about to begin.  We have left behind all signs of civilization.  Lungjang itself appears to have been transported directly from the Middle Ages.  Fields of barley surround the town.  Yaks, goats, sheep and cattle are roaming around.  Kids are scattered about the town, mostly naked and pretty dirty.  Hygiene appears to be a lost art.

Here was what our expedition lifestyle was like:  We arrived at our day’s destination with the camp completely pitched, including our tents.  Dinner was in a mess tent and due to the wonders of solar chargers, we had lights and even music via an MP3 player.  Meals were served by the sherpas.  All we had to do was eat.  Afterwards, our guide would announce the next day’s schedule – it usually went something like this – “Bed tea at 7, breakfast at 7:30, we’ll hit the trail at 8:30″.  The first day that he went through this I wasn’t exactly sure what the “bed tea” reference was about.  I found out the next morning when 2 sherpas came to my tent, politely announced their presence and unzipped my tent fly so I could be served my choice of hot tea or coffee – service in bed, to start the day, every day.  After breakfast we just walked out of camp for the day’s hike.  When I later described the arrangement to a friend they nodded their head and said “so you were doing catered car camping in the Himalayas?”  I wanted to protest this but couldn’t come up with a good counter argument.

For the next three days we continued our pattern of climbing high and sleeping low.  The first day out from Lungjang we climb two “hills” – one 16,560 ft, with the obligatory prayer flags and a “chorten” (a carefully stacked pile of rocks into which prayer flags and bits of paper with prayers written on them were placed).  Later on we climb a second hill, and top out at 17,780 ft.  Over the next several days we continue to ascend, and I develop a cough that gradually became asthmatic.  I was pissed about this but I managed to ignore the symptoms most of the time.  It gradually faded into just a part of the routine (step/breath /cough/step/breath, etc).  I learned later that this is a not uncommon accompaniment to climbing at altitude.  The next day was one of the signature events on the trip for me – we went through the Pang La pass and descended into the glacial moraine that surrounds the Everest area.  Mallory and company were here in 1921 scouting the approach into the Everest region!  The land seemed unchanged from that time, in contrast to Shegar.  The climb up the Pang La was hard and I had an odd, dissociated sense on the walk down till we got a bit lower (maybe a little hypoxia induced hallucination?).  By the end of the day we had entered the Rongbuk Valley and, most importantly, had finally gotten our first glimpse of Everest.  I was stoked.

Descent from Pang La - high pass on the way into Everest Base Camp
Descent from Pang La – high pass on the way into Everest Base Camp

June– July, 1904

British Everest Reconnaissance Expedition

Walking around Everest

 On June 27th Mallory’s group began their giant boxing match with Everest.  For almost the next two months, like a fighter approaching an unknown opponent, they launched a series of probes and feints as they searched for a way to get from where they were, to where they wanted to be – the top of Everest.  The north side of Everest is dominated by a series of glaciers – the East, West and Main Rongbuk glaciers.  Did any of these provide passage to the summit? Looking back, what they accomplished in 7 weeks was remarkable.  In that period of time they identified all the major approaches that would come to define Everest mountaineering for the next 80 odd years.  But, one by one, Mallory crossed them off the list of reasonable routes.  The West Ridge was declared “not attractive” (first climbed in the 1963 by Willi Unsoeld and Tom Hornbein).  They peered into the Western Cwm, assessed the Khumbu Icefall and said that this “looked daunting”.  31 years later the Swiss would try this route, unsuccessfully, and then the British would follow in 1953, with Edmund Hillary and Tensing Norgay the first men to the top of the world.  Of the Kangshung (East) Face of Everest Mallory said “…other men, less wise, may attempt this way if they would, but emphatically, it was not for us”.  But, Mallory saw that the Northeast Ridge looked possible – the slope appeared gradual till the summit pyramid and there appeared to be a way up to the Northeast Ridge, via the North Ridge.  But how to get onto the North Ridge?  It ascended from the North Col.  But the North Col from their first approach, via the main Rongbuk Glacier, appeared to be a complete disaster, unclimbable from its western side.  What did the eastern side of the North Col look like?  Was it climbable?  And, more to the point, how could they get over there, from where they now were?

 (To be continued)

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