Part 5: Everest Base Camp
I’m back on line after a hiatus as we’ve moved from Maryland to Wisconsin last week. I’m much further away from the Appalachian Trail and some of the great hiking in the Shenandoah Mts that I had come to love over the last 20 years. But I look forward to exploring new hiking trails in northern Wisconsin. I’ve already signed up to volunteer on the Ice Age Trail which is a pretty new (and still being built) long distance hiking trail. It has the distinction of being totally within a single state (Wisconsin) and yet will be over 1,000 miles in length when completed. I’ll need to add this to my plans for long walks. But, back to describing my experience in the Himalaya. Here is Part 5 (and more still to come!).
At Everest Base Camp
After our hike over the Pang La, our truck met us on the road into Base Camp and we drove the last few kilometers. The first stop was the Rongbuk Monastery. It was here that the British climbing expeditions of the 20s and 30s stopped to get the blessing of the local Lama before heading up to Base Camp. It bills itself as the highest functioning monastery in the world (16,150 ft). It is an impressive place and sits in a valley that is commanded by Mt. Everest. I stood there gaping at it and the surrounds (including “E”!) for a long time. I had spent a lot of hours looking at books and reading expedition accounts and now I was there. There was only one problem – and that was the rest of the neighborhood. Unlike Pang La, things had changed here post British Reconnaissance Expedition. The monastery looked much as it did when Mallory and company passed through but across the “street” there was now a modern hotel, complete with cell phone tower and massive solar arrays for electricity. The most interesting feature of the hotel was their “wall of beer”. It was the most impressive, carefully stacked, pile of empty beer bottles I had ever seen. It lined one side of the courtyard, perhaps 50 feet in length, at a height of at least 4 or 5 feet. It is hard to describe how dismaying this was. How many thousands of miles had I come, and now I had this monstrosity confronting what should have been a perfect picture. I chose to limit the time I spent looking in that direction, what else could I do? I certainly didn’t want to add to the wall of beer.
Our guides ran into a bit of a problem getting permission to drive our truck the rest of the was to Base Camp. Folks got very excited – a pattern that would repeat itself throughout our time in rural Tibet. In this case, I believe the problem was making a distinction between our climbing expedition and the rest of the traffic which were primarily day tourists. After much animation, and loud voices, everyone seemed satisfied and we bounced our way into Base Camp. We were now at 16,700 ft, completely surrounded by the Himalayas. To our right was a river fed by glaciers from the Rongbuk Valley, roaring past in the relative heat of the afternoon. This was exactly the same river that Mallory and company forded as they headed up the valley onto the Main Rongbuk glacier for the initial phase of their reconnaissance in 1921! Directly ahead of me was the path that leads to all the climbing routes from this side of the mountain. But, as with the Monastery, things had changed since Mallory was here. We were now confronted with what the locals called “Shanty Town”, a collection of large tents offering food, drink, trinkets and a bed for the night. We set up camp on the plain outside of Shanty Town. During the Spring Everest climbing season, this place is a sea of tents, as expeditions prepare to summit Everest. Now, with the monsoon season still in full swing, as it was when Mallory was here, we had it to ourselves.
I had a vision of base camp as a rugged, remote landscape and a Spartan lifestyle. But the day tourists provided a constant, jarring reminder of something different. Many tourists, as they wandered around were smoking frickin’ cigarettes! The air here is very, very thin. I was constantly reminded of this as soon as we did anything that involved walking other than on level ground. But there they were, puffing on cigarettes and drinking beer. Then, there were the motorbikes. For a fee, these would take folks out into the Base Camp area, away from Shantytown. They periodically cruised by, mufflers very clearly not in working order. A steady stream of visitors came to our tents, either to sell us things or day tourists who wanted their pictures taken with “the mountaineers”. At this point my picture is probably sitting on a number of mantles in Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, etc, identified proudly by the owners as a “real” Everest mountaineer whom they met when they traveled to Base Camp. If they knew the real story of with whom they had their picture taken, they’d be sorely disappointed!
Despite this, Base Camp was very cool. There is a small hill that divides Shanty Town from Base Camp and on top is a memorial to George Mallory. This was high on my “must see”
list for the trip. There are 2 tablets, one obviously quite recent, the other more crudely scratched into a stone. They commemorate his disappearance in 1924. Neither of these tablets are original. When the 1924 expedition finally left after Mallory and Irvine were lost, they built a cairn memorial to them. Inexplicably, that disappeared. There is also a semi-formal memorial park to the south and west of camp. This contains stone markers dedicated to many of the climbers who died on the mountain. It was clear from reading the inscriptions that in many cases there was no closure – people just disappear, into a crevasse or off the side of the mountain. Body recovery from high up on Everest is extremely difficult, there are lots of bodies up there. We toured this memorial area several days later on our way to Advanced Base Camp. It was a sobering way to begin our trip to ABC.
While at Base Camp, we continued our acclimatization hikes and I continued to struggle. We climbed a “hill” to the South of camp – 18,385 ft. Again, there was no real route – it was a mix of gravel and ankle-grabbing rocks. Hiking required constant vigilance. But the reward at the top was terrific – Base Camp was far below and we had a panoramic view of the entire region. I forgot all of my grousing, partially caused by the fact that I continued to lag behind my companions, who seemed to have limitless energy. I was further cementing my reputation as the weak link of the group but I was also beginning to react badly to the excessive flow of testosterone as we did these acclimatization exercises. These might have been intended partly as team building exercises and if so, they were not achieving that objective.
Our final full day at Base Camp was a light day – we hiked a few kilometers back to a meditation center, built a long time ago. We were in Tibet so when I say a long time ago, we’re not talking talking about Mayflower time. If the Rongbuk Monastery was remote, there were no words to describe this place. There was a single monk in residence and he took us down into a cave where Guru Rinpoche allegedly meditated during the 8th Century AD. While there, we placed our hands into an impression in the rock that the monk asserted (through one of our Sherpa interpreters) to be the impression left by the hand of Guru Rinpoche himself. This was obviously considered to be quite sacred. It felt a tad sacrilegious to me – almost like being invited to manhandle St. Paul’s bones. But, this seems to me to reflect a western/eastern divide in how we confront the spiritual. Afterwards the monk invited us back to his living quarters and served us Tibetan tea (purcha) – Yak butter, salt, water and tea, churned together. It is the fuel that keeps Tibetans going. They carry thermoses of it everywhere. I had heard that it was a notoriously difficult liquid for westerners to choke down. It was part of the big 4 in Tibetan cuisine that was on my radar screen to sample while I was there. I had already tried thukpa (a noodle soup) and tsampeh (roasted barley flour rolled with yak butter into something the consistency of fudge) and only had purcha and chang (the main Tibetan alcoholic beverage) remaining. I approached purcha with some trepidation, given its reputation, but was pleasantly surprised. Other than visions of my arteries closing in a yak butter-induced spasm, it was just fine – more like drinking a cross between beef bouillon and cream soup. We ended our visit with the monk telling the fortune for one of our Sherpas. We sat there respectfully while the monk laid things out, all in Tibetan. Afterwards, the Sherpa politely refused to tell us what lay in his future.
With that, we returned to Base Camp, acclimatization complete and ready for the trip to ABC in the morning.
(to be continued)