On the road to Everest - literally!
The beautiful chaos of Kathmandu
Ralf and I and the AMICAL Alpin expedition team are on the road to Chinese Base Camp on the north side of Mt. Everest. We spent five days in Kathmandu, being tourists and doing our final packing. Kathmandu is everything I hoped for and more. It is a big, crowded city ruled by chaos. The only real rule is to not run over or run into anyone, whether you are on foot, bicycle, rickshaw, motorcycle, car, bus or truck. It is completely normal and expected to make a sudden and unannounced turn across oncoming traffic. Nobody gets mad because they do the same thing 30 seconds later. As a pedestrian, you just step into traffic and believe that the drivers will not hit you. This theory worked for us for the whole five days.
The people of Nepal are incredibly friendly, the food is excellent and there are many things to see and do. We went to several Hindu temples and Buddhist stupas. The Buddhist stupas are inspiring. Hundreds of people get up before sunrise to start their clockwise marches around them. There are all ages, shapes, sizes and manners of dress. Some people are chanting, some are talking on their smartphones, some are visiting with each other and some are just walking and meditating. They walk fast and do many laps before they go off and start their day. This daily ritual is very important for them.
Meeting the Keeper of the Mountains
Ralf has known Ms. Elizabeth Hawley (The Keeper of the Mountains) for 30 years, and she invited us to her apartment for a visit. She is 91 now, but still hard at work keeping records of ascents in the Himalayas. A German woman named Billi Bierling is helping her. Both are essentially volunteers - it is really quite amazing. Ms. Hawley was in good spirits and seems as sharp as ever. She has a bit of trouble getting around these days, but her blue Volkswagen Beetle and Nepalese driver are as trusty as ever. She pulled out an original copy of a book that was written about the 1924 British attempts on Everest. In it was Edward Norton’s first-hand account of his attempt of the Norton Couloir. We got some good beta, and were fascinated to read that he believed "there is nothing in the atmospheric conditions that should stop anyone from climbing to 29,000 feet without the use of supplemental oxygen". Norton climbed to just over 8,600 m (28,000 ft) in 1924 without bottled oxygen - an altitude record that stood for over 50 years!
We set off early on Friday morning, driving up steep mountain roads through impossibly steep valleys. The scenery was spectacular - the famous Nepalese terraces, whitewater rivers and hints of the high mountains to come. After four hours, we arrived at the Chinese border. Getting through took the rest of the day, but it went smoothly. Leaving Kathmandu, our group was made of 11 climbers, five climbing Sherpas, one cook and one organizer. Eighteen people going into the mountains for two months require A LOT of gear!!! It took two big trucks and a medium sized bus to transport everything and everyone. And we will soon be joined by more people - Tibetan cooks' helpers, a Chinese liason officer and Tibetan yak drivers.
Over the border
The border crossing is like none other. Dozens of women and some men line up by the gear trucks to earn a few dollars carrying the gear across the “Friendship Bridge”, through Chinese customs and up to the new gear trucks waiting on the Chinese side. In total, they carry the gear about 600 or 700 metres. It is uphill the whole way, and they are carrying 60-80 kg each on their backs, via a strap that goes around their forehead!!! One man had at least 100 kg on his back. One of my bags was on the bottom of his load, and it looked as thin as a pancake by the time it got to the other side. I remembered that my new Petzl helmet, Julbo goggles and Ralf's Jetboil are in there - I’m not really sure what they will look like when we see them at base camp in a few days' time…
Our first night was in Zhangmu (2,400m) just on the other side of the border. Our next two nights were in the village of Nyalam (3,750m). I climbed into the back of a truck with two Tibetan women and ate their dried sheep meat and tsampa with them (kind of a roasted barley flour/fat-of-some-kind mixture). I also drank several mugs of yak butter tea, and discovered that I like it!! Ralf told me if I thought of it as soup instead of tea that it would be much better, and he was right. It is kind of like milky chicken broth, which would be quite gross if you were expecting Earl Grey.
We did an acclimatization hike up a hillside above Nyalam and hung around at about 4,500m for a few hours. The four-hour drive to Tingri was really beautiful. The landscape is completely different to what we saw in Nepal. It is a high desert with rolling (very high) hills. Tingri is at 4,300m, and we are so far feeling really good with the altitude. We leave for basecamp tomorrow, and I'm pretty sure I will have my first headache tomorrow night, sleeping at 5,200m!