Part 6: The Trek to Advanced Base Camp
So, this is where my story starts to get more interesting. Base camp was high enough, especially for someone like me for whom this was literally the first time I had been anywhere close to this altitude and now, for an extended period of time. As a result of this trip, I learned a really important lesson – climbing is very much a mind game. If you don’t take care of yourself and stay in control of yourself, if you don’t eat, drink and sleep properly, then slowly (or not so slowly) but inexorably you begin to run down. The funny thing is that you don’t know this if you are a rank amateur – it just starts to happen. Worse, your mind is muddled by the lack of oxygen so there is little chance to learn this on the fly – you need to have this concept already burned into what will be left of your brain at this altitude. The checking account analogy is a good one for this – climbing to high places requires you to start making regular withdrawals from your energy reserves but if you forget to make deposits then, well, bad things happen. At some point, you come along and need to make a big withdrawal (e.g., summit day), and all of a sudden, you realize that your account has been wiped out – there is nothing there for you to use. And then, to (mis)quote Leonard from the Big Bang Theory – “you find yourself attached to another object by an inclined plane, wrapped helically around an axis” (in other words, you’re screwed). This was what was going to happen over the next few days, I was just too stupid to understand that.
British Everest Reconnaissance Expedition
The Road to the North Col
“I sometimes think of this expedition as a fraud from beginning to end …”
(George Mallory, 1921 Everest Reconnaissance Expedition)
By mid-July the monsoon weather pattern was in full swing for the British Reconnaissance Team. Snow was constantly accumulating, making travel difficult. Mallory was now fully focused on the North Col as a potential route. He guessed that there must be another glacier on the east side of the Col. If they could somehow get onto that glacier they could follow it up to the North Col. But they didn’t know its path. Ironically, this glacier, the East Rongbuk, flows down from the east side of the North Col, curving northward to join the main Rongbuk glacier, via a narrow, almost, alley-like opening. It is not much to look at while out on a hike. Unknowingly, Mallory’s group had walked right past this passage on their initial reconnaissance up the main Rongbuk glacier back on June 27th! Unaware of this passage, Mallory and companions now staged a full retreat out of the Rongbuk Valley, curving around in a wide arc to the north and east to join the rest of the reconnaissance team in the Kharta Valley. There the team split up, working their way back west towards Everest, taking two different passes. Together with porters, Mallory and Bullock took the more direct but steeper Langma La while another Expedition member, Howard Bury, took the Shao La pass. This led them into the adjacent Kama Valley. They pushed up the Kama Valley and onto the Kangshung glacier, approaching Everest from the southeast and saw the giant Kangshung Face of Everest. They still had not found a view of the other side of the North Col and time was running out. They climbed north off of the Kangshung glacier to the peak of Kartse and at last Mallory thought he saw it – the other side of the North Col, but he needed a better look. They retreated back to the town of Kharta to recuperate and then in mid-August made a last ditch effort – they climbed straight up the Kharta glacier through deep, monsoon-fresh snow. Finally, they were at the top of the Lhakpa La and below them, the head of the East Rongbuk glacier and beyond, the North Col! At last.
Base Camp to Advanced Base Camp (ABC)
This part of our trip was described in Gary McCue’s book “Trekking in Tibet” as the “world’s highest trek”. Over the next 3 nights and 4 days we would ascend another 4,000
ft. We were now out of the car camping stage. The truck was left behind and instead our gear was carried by yaks. We had lunch on the first day at a pivotal point on the route – it
is where the East Rongbuk and Main Rongbuk glaciers join up. I looked at where we would head next and understood why Mallory overlooked this in 1921 – the East Rongbuk glacier appears nothing more than a blind alley, leading no where in particular. In contrast, the Main Rongbuk glacier seems to provide a clear path to Everest. The British walked right past the East Rongbuk in 1921 – an understandable but costly decision. The terrain here was rugged and varied but there was also … litter. I found this hard to take. I heard of the litter problem high up on Everest – primarily related to empty oxygen canisters. But here, on the trek to ABC I saw crushed soda cans and, incredibly, empty packs of cigarettes. It was both aggravating and depressing – some people were smoking while I had to plan when to stop breathing long enough to take a drink of water. The path is sometimes called the “Serac Highway” – most of the way you follow a ridge line free of snow and ice while, at higher altitudes, you are flanked by seracs (ice formations) until you reach ABC. Of course, underneath all of this is a glacier.
After three nights on the Serac Highway we arrived at ABC. For me, that summarizes a whole lot of effort in a very short sentence. I began forgetting to make “deposits”. Everything takes a lot more effort and it is sometimes easy to just say, “screw it, I’ll just sit here and rest instead of eating and drinking (and drinking and drinking …)”. I started to metaphorically say “screw it” quite often. Drinking fluids should be your main job when you are not actually moving up the mountain. I can recall sitting in our mess tent at one of the intermediate camps – just sitting there, perhaps chatting a bit with our guide. I noted that he was constantly taking hot water and making cocoa or tea and drinking – all the time. I saw this but didn’t make the connection to the fact that I wasn’t doing this at anywhere close to the rate that he was.
At ABC, the altimeter read 20,700 ft and every step now reminded me how high up we were. At this point you have to crane your neck to see Everest. In front of us was the Northeast Ridge, to the right the North Col and further to the right, Changste. The North Col forms a bridge between Changste (almost 25,000 ft) and Everest. I now had a view of everything that confronted Mallory’s expeditions in the 1920s – the North Col, the North Ridge and the famous first, second and third steps leading up to the summit pyramid. The temperature was in the low to mid 20s at night, surprisingly warm and a far cry from the bitter cold in April and May when modern summit expeditions gather. During the day, out on the glacier, it was actually hot and we were often down to short sleeve shirts. Across the glacier lay our 2 major objectives – the Lhakpa La where Mallory had stood in August of 1921 gazing at what is now the modern Noth Col route, and Lhakpa Ri itself – a 7000m peak allegedly first climbed by Mallory himself.
I was psyched by all of this but my bank account was pretty much empty at this stage. I just didn’t know it, although shortly this would be brought very clearly home to me …
(to be continued)