The Final Chapter
For those of you reading this blog, you probably never thought you’d see the words “Final Chapter” associated with my blogs. Yes, I promise, this is THE END. After 9 installments, I am closing this out with one final posting and will return to writing about other things of interest to me. For me, this trip was pivotal in my approach to being in high places. On future climbs, I continued to make mistakes and miscalculations but this trip established a major data bank on which I was able to draw as I embarked on future adventures.
The morning after our night in Yulba we climbed back into the Land Cruisers and headed back to the Friendship Highway at Tingri. We pushed on for the Nepal/Chinese border and the town of Zhang Mu. It was a spectacular, breathtaking and, for me, terrifying drive. We began a plunge down a gorge. The road clung precariously to the side of the mountain. There was, theoretically, room for two vehicles to pass. Guardrails were not a featured item for CDOT. This would go on for two days as we descend from the Tibetan high plateau – a loss of over 8,000 ft. You might have already gotten the sense that I am a bit high strung so this ride out of the mountains was NOT just what the doctor ordered for my state of anxiety.
We stayed overnight in Zhang Mu, the last city on the Tibetan side of the border. There was just one road in town, the Friendship Highway, and no cross streets. Zhang Mu clings to the side of the mountain as the Friendship Highway makes a series of switchbacks. Think of a road that looks like a snake curling down a mountain side – that’s Zhang Mu. It was (and still is) a large Chinese city – hotels and restaurants were everywhere. And trucks – trucks were omnipresent. This is a major point of entry for commerce across the Tibetan/Nepalese border. Chinese and Nepalese trucks come to their respective sides of the border but are not allowed to cross. The trucks must be unloaded on one side and the goods portered to waiting trucks on the other side. It seemed a terribly inefficient process. Talk about increasing the cost of exporting/importing goods…
Our hotel was, well, let me put it this way – it was not up to Econolodge standards. In fact it was far short of that. At this point, compared to the high Tibetan plateau with its arid landscape, Zhang Mu was lush and the insect life was, I guess you could say, abundant. This was made very clear in the hotel room which I was sharing with one of the other clients.
I will digress here for a bit. Things had gotten somewhat tense with my roommate over the previous several weeks. He was a much more experienced climber who came to some conclusions (unhappy for me) after witnessing my performance in the mountains. If you think of the phrase “he doesn’t suffer fools”, well, I played the fool. It was pretty clear that he (let’s call him “Fred”) was fed up with me. I’m not the best at reading people but even I knew that things had gone in the toilet with Fred pretty early on in the trip. Anyway, here we are in lush Zhang Mu, a sultry night in the mountains, no screen windows and no air conditioning. Fred naturally wanted the windows open to bring in fresh air. However, this did have consequences. After about 30 minutes, as we are sitting in the room, reading, updating our journals, not watching Chinese ESPN, not conversing with each other, I look up and see that the walls are copiously covered/squirming/alive with various insects of unknown (to me) character but probably not conducive to good skin health.
Now, back home in the states with my wife and daughters, I play the role of Insect Hero. When a single insect is somehow ferreted out, somewhere in the house, I am summoned and I do battle with and slay said insect, feeling manly in the process. This was, well a bit different for me. I suggested to Fred that maybe we should bite the bullet and close the windows, given the critical biomass of insects that were accumulating in the room. Fred explained very clearly to me that he was not in favor of this and in fact the windows under no circumstances would be closing. So, my last evening in Tibet was very interesting. When we turned out the lights, I was left to speculate (to myself) in the dark, as to what these various insects had in mind and I dearly hoped that they would find Fred the more appetizing meal. What else can I say, I did survive the evening.
The next morning we passed through customs on the Chinese side and crossed over to the town of Kodari on the Nepalese side. We were now using a small bus instead of 3 Land Cruisers, having made this exchange at the border, just as the truckers . We were now all together, sherpas and clients, with the gear piled on top. This made us a bit top heavy and a new source of anxiety for me as we continued our plunge off the Tibetan Plateau. This was landslide country with serious consequences as the road is perched high above the river – we were now traveling down the Bhot Kosi Gorge. Words cannot do this justice – it was another real life Disney ride, with our bus swaying over ruts in the road mere feet from the edge, again without guard rails (NDOT, like CDOT, not having guard rails as part of their standard road construction armamentarium). It was inevitable – we came to a landslide while perched in a particularly precarious section of road. There was actually a diesel powered tractor working to replace the washout. They finished their work while we patiently waited in line with other vehicles.
But then our bus got … stuck in the soft ground of the newly repaired washout. Our driver threw the bus into reverse and forward repeatedly – each time we swayed and rocked but stayed where we were. Have I mentioned that I can at times get a little anxious? At this point I was in full white knuckle mode. I wanted desperately to just * get * off * the * frickin * bus * and * walk * back * to * Kathmandu. Somehow I refrained from doing this. I did become resigned to being in the bus while we slide off the road and plunged down several hundred feet to the bottom of the gorge. I think this represented my passage through the highway version of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ 5 stages of grief. I had passed into the stage of acceptance – I accepted the fact that we were going to plunge down the side of the Bhot Kosi gorge into the rapids that were far, far below. As I resigned myself to this fate, I looked around and saw our sherpas … asleep, completely oblivious to the imminent disaster. Cognitive dissonance enveloped me.
Eventually, the NDOT crew spread rocks around the wheels of the bus, and with a big push and considerable rocking we were freed. Incredibly, we survived the rest of the ride down the gorge and continued back to Kathmandu. The scenery was now radically different from what we saw only days before in the Kharta Valley. Here, everything was green from the monsoon. The mountains were extensively terraced for farming. Sometimes the terracing had literally reshaped the entire mountain. Deforestation was evident everywhere. In some places only a tree or two remained on a mountain top. The major diversion for this part of the ride was passing through 5 different Nepalese Army checkpoints that were guarding against Maoists. At each checkpoint we followed the same pattern – barriers appeared on the road and we slowly wove around them before stopping beside a sandbagged emplacement. Our driver got out and showed papers, then a soldier got on the bus, with an AK47 or M16 in hand to inspect us and the gear.
By the outskirts of Kathmandu we were back in civilization – crowding, congestion, a din of sounds and smells. After a month in Tibet, this now seemed highly … civilized. I found my perspective on Kathmandu completely reshaped by the experiences of the past month. This in and of itself was a wonderful thing on which to reflect – as Albert said, it is all relative. I looked forward to relaxing in the city for the next two days before starting my journey home.
1922 British Everest Expedition
“Perhaps it is mere folly to go up again. But how can I be out of the hunt?”
(George Mallory, on his decision to make a final attempt on Everest, during the 1922 expedition)
A British summit team returned in the spring of the following year for the first real attempt on Everest’s summit. By starting in the spring they avoided the monsoon weather that had made their reconnaissance so difficult the previous summer. This time, benefiting from the discoveries of the previous year they headed straight up the East Rongbuk Glacier, establishing a camp at the foot of North Col. But, Everest defeated them again. By early June the monsoon weather had begun and it was time for the expedition to give up. But Mallory convinced the team to make one more try. Halfway up to the North Col, an avalanche broke, burying 9 porters. Two were rescued, the remainder perished. This should be eerily reminiscent for anyone who has followed the troubles and tragedies on Everest the past three years: first, fights between Sherpas and their western clients, then a disaster in the Khumbu icefall that cost the lives of 16 Sherpas and finally last year the earthquake that rocked Nepal and shutdown the climbing season on Everest for a second consecutive year. Mallory and the British persisted and returned 2 years later, in 1924. This time Mallory had a new climbing partner, Andrew Irvine, but the result was the same – failure to reach the summit, and death. Only this time, it was Mallory and his partner who perished.
With the passage of time, my view of my journey has broadened, deepened but in some ways, stayed the same. Once back in Kathmandu I remembered talking with the other clients about future plans (yes, even with Fred). One was talking about Mt. Kilimanjaro, the other two were ready to sign-up for a Cho Oyo (an 8000m peak) climbing expedition. I just smiled to myself and thought – did I really want to go through some of these things again? Ultimately the answer was yes. I now had the personal perspective on this part of the world that I was previously lacking. I saw first hand a lot of what Mallory saw back in 1921, and under similar weather (monsoon) conditions. Gazing up at the North Col from ABC was an electric moment for me, as was standing at 6600m on the way to Lhakpa La and looking back across the valley to Everest. It was not the moment I wanted – that was to have been standing on top of the pass, but it was enough.
Now when I read about a climber needing to take 3 or 4 or 5 breaths for every step up the mountain, I can say, yep, I know a bit of what that feels like. Or when they talk about their judgment getting clouded I can recall forgetting and/or not caring, to either stay hydrated or to eat enough or to remember where I put my gloves. This made my trip a success in a way that I had not anticipated. Originally it was all external goals. For some of these I succeeded, for others I did not walk in Mallory’s footsteps so much as tripped and fell. But, through the difficulties I encountered and where I failed, I gained an appreciation for mountains, for climbing, and for myself that I would not have had if things had all gone according to plan.
It was the real beginning of my education.