Sunday, October 14, 2007

Everest, Baby!

Can you remember where you were and what you were doing on October 14th at 1pm? I can. I was in the Mt. Qomolangma (pronounced "Cho mo lahng ma") National Nature Preserve standing and looking at the great Himalaya Range of mountains.

You can't see it very well, but Mt. Everest peaking over the clouds just above my head.


Despite the cold wind that was whipping up, I didn't want to leave my spot. I couldn't believe that I was actually looking at this magnificent vista! Beautiful snow capped mountains with a brillant blue sky and white fluffy clouds as the backdrop and in the foreground, the stark brown landscape of the Tibetan plateau. It was a breath taking view and worth every minute of having to battle altitude sickness and endure countless hours of riding in a LandCruiser over very bumpy roads to get here!

The photo below shows the entire Himalaya range that's located in the Preserve. Just to the left of the peak of Everest is that of Lohtse - the 4th highest mountain in the world. To the very far left is Mt. Makalu which at 27,776 ft is the 5th tallest mountain in the world, to the far right is Cho Oyu, which at a mere 26,806 ft ranks it as the sixth tallest peak and to the very, very far right is last but not least, Mt. Shisha Pangma which at 26,289 is the shortest of the famed 8000m mountains of which there are 14. Believe it or not, in a single view, I was looking at 5 of the tallest mountains in the world!


When I first saw Everest from a distance, my impression was that it was awfully small. A bit disappointing, I thought. Came all this way to see a small hump of snow covered mountain. Then, I reminded myself that I was standing at nearly 17,000 feet above sea level and that the famed peak was standing among other giants. Putting it all into perspective, it was indeed a majestic sight.

The clouds were drifting in and out - sometimes obscuring our views of the peaks so we opted to hang around as long as we could to get the photos we each wanted. Luckily for us, the weather was in our favor that day. As we left Preserve, on our journey towards Rongphu (pronounced "Rong pock") Monastery where we would be spending the night, we could see Mt. Everest in its full glory. It didn't take us long to get accustomed to recognizing the outline of the mountain as we drove along switchback roads towards the Monastery.


By the time we arrived at Rongphu Monastery, the temperature was hovering somewhere around "freezing"and the wind did not help matters any. Fortunately, I already had my thermal underwear on so all I had to do was add my fleece jacket and down vest. Even then, the wind seemed to blow the cold right to my bones!

We decided to settle into our rooms in the guesthouses before venturing off to Everest Base Camp.

View of Everest from Rongphu. The wind is wicked cold. Brr..

View of Rongphu Monastery, with the white chörten at the right.


The chörten with Everest in the background.

View of guesthouses which we would be spending the night in.















 Our room at the guesthouse. I would be bunking in with Barry and Baikuntha. Since I arrived into the room first, I took the bed against the far wall - away from the windows. I let the two guys brave the cold :-)

The toilet facilities at the guesthouses. Yep. Just this one set of outhouses for nearly 100 guests. And as I would find out later, the doors are a recent edition.....added just this year! Other than absolutely freezing your buns off, I didn't find them that bad though most people seemed to prefer finding a nearby rock to do their business. There were no taps and sinks for brushing your teeth and washing your face so taking water from a water bottle and spitting it on the ground was the only way to go!



Entrance to the dining hall on the left.....nothing more than a piece of thick cotton canvas (offwhite color with typical Tibetan blue applique) to keep the cold and wind out.

Once we all got settled in, the next order of the day was to get to Everest Base Camp. The day before we had all begged Baikuntha to let us hike up, at least part way, to Base Camp from Rongphu. Ah, romantic notions of being mountaineers.....

"

....that all got tossed out the window once we got to Rongphu and faced the harsh wind. We wimped out and all agreed that riding up in the LandCruisers was not a bad idea after all.

We piled back into the cars and headed off towards Base Camp. By now, we had gotten used to riding off road and so we realized it would take us probably close to 1/2 hour to travel the short (7.6km) distance.

The moment we arrived, we each took our turn standing in front of the stone plaque that marks Base Camp. In Tibetan, Mt. Everest is known as Mt.Qomolangma so that's what the plaque reads. The altitude is marked at 5200m which is slightly above 17,000 feet!

I don't know if it was the excitement of being where we were at the moment but we all decided to hike up a small mountain from which to admire the view. At this altitude, doing any amount of hiking can take the wind out of you so by the time we made it to the top, we needed to take a breather. Without any structures or trees to break the wind, it was REALLLY cold sitting to catch my breath.



While Barry, Claire and Baikuntha decided to hike up even further, the rest of us opted to soak in the views and then scurry back down to the warmth of the LandCruisers. On my way back to the car, I bumped into a yak caravan. We had seen plenty of yaks grazing in fields as we travelled in Tibet but never a small group doing what they do best - being beasts of burden for mountaineers.

It was amazing to see the amount of gear they were hauling - everything from tents to propane tanks used, I presume, for cooking fuel.

Video of yak caravan. Believe it or not, the background sound you hear in the video is the wind blowing!
Later on I would find out that there was a mountaineer who was descending ?? (don't know what mountain) and that the pack of yaks, along with a small group of sherpas, was what enabled him to accomplish his successful ascent. All that stuff for one person to climb one mountain. Unbelievable. Shortly after we arrived back to Rongphu from Base Camp, the sun was beginning to set. Barry and I decided to brave the cold and capture sunset over Everest. It was magical moment! As night fell, we gathered in the dining hall for dinner. The place was packed with people - trekkers, mountaineers, guides, drivers, and travellers like us. The air was filled with cigarette smoke as Tibetans love to smoke and there are no restrictions on smoking in public. The whole vibe of the place felt more like a bar than a dining facility. In the middle of the room is the typical Tibetan stove that serves both as a cooking device and a heater. You'll often find folks hovering around the stove to try and keep warm. With no trees in sight, what gets burned is a combination of straw and dried animal dung. Surprisingly, it doesn't stink. Even with all the people sardined in and the heat provided by the stove, it was cold in dining hall so we all kept our jackets and hats on. By now, we had grown accustom to basic meals so between all seven of us, we shared several plates of egg fried rice and veggie (read "onion") fried rice.
 


From left to right. Claire, Margaret, Jo, Bec, Baikuntha, and Barry. 

After dining, I brought out the cards and Baikuntha got us playing Kings and Asses - seems to be a universal game for Intrepid travellers as we did the same thing on the tour through Egypt and Jordan! 
 At one point, we attracted the attention of one of the Buddhist nuns that runs the dining hall. I don't think she knew what the game was all about but she was most certainly amused by the noise we were making! I had Bec snap this photo of me with the nun who after the flash went off, scurried back into the kitchen, giggling all the way!
Soon enough, we called it a night and headed back to our rooms. Someone said that the outside temperature was somewhere around -5 degrees Celsius and the rooms, which are not insulated, did not feel much warmer. I pretty much froze myself getting into the sleeping bag and spent a good while shivering trying to get warm. Fortunately, I was soon toasty warm as body heat built up inside my sleeping bag and the two layers of thick wool blanket that I had piled on top. However, all was not good. Despite the previous days and nights spent getting acclimated to the altitude, I struggled to sleep that night as I has having a really tough time breathing. Guzzling water and taking Diamox didn't help. Throughout the night, I found myself having to take controlled deep breaths and at one point, sat up to try and use gravity to get the needed oxygen into my body. By morning, I was physically exhausted but I think my adrenaline level was still at a high - I couldn't wait to get started on the day and experience the next adventure!