This is the final part of my four part story on getting from Kathmandu to Advanced Base Camp at Cho Oyu. Please follow the links to read the first three parts of this voyage!
Chinese Base Camp
We were on the road to Chinese base camp. After now adventuring the last six days from Kathmandu, we would finally begin to use our feet to lead the way to Cho Oyu Mountain. After many hugs and well wishes, our climbing team split up, some to tackle another 8000 meter peak, Shisha Pangma Mountain.
It was low clouds and drizzle, no views of the big mountains though we had hoped to steal a glimpse of Everest, especially since the Everest View Hotel offered none. There are less than 2000 people who have stood on the top of the world, but I wondered, as we drove along, how many had even seen this mountain.
Our first base camp was at 16,000 feet and by the time we arrived, our Sherpas and cook team had already set up camp. An enormous pile of gear waited to be separated and dragged to tents.
I looked around in the drizzle and saw a city of tents, probably 200. The Chinese government had denied permits to climb Cho for a number of years. Now with the mountain opened once again, there were some 300 climbers in this short fall weather window, vying for the top.
Nearby, we could hear the neck bells of the yak who restlessly waited for their loads. The yak would carry our group gear, personal high altitude bags, suits, boots and snow gear, food, cooking fuel, and pizza oven (!) to Advanced Base Camp at 18,100 feet and then just the necessary gear up to Camp 1 at 21,000. From there we’re on our own! After two days at base camp, the yak loading process began. It took 60 yak carrying 60 kilos each to move our expedition team. The gear was piled up and then weighed using two men, one large pole and a rusty meat scale. Each piece of gear was lifted by two Sherpa and roughly tossed onto the meat hook, the weight called out and then dully scribed in a notebook. Normal wear and tear definitely took on a meaning even the airlines couldn’t rival! Bags often fell off the yak into rivers or sent rolling down hillsides, though unlike the airlines, no bags were ever actually lost.
UP to Intermediate Camp at over 17,000 ft.
The wind howled as we began our trek up to Intermediate Base Camp (IBC) at 17,200 feet. I added a few more layers as we climbed, pulled my hood down snugly and then added a wool cap on top. A wall of snow moved its way across the mountain and began dropping large beautiful flakes on us. Monstrous peaks came in and out of view briefly through the snow squalls and I could only imagine what was truly towering above us. I only knew we were going there!
The climb was slow and steady and the important thing was realizing how high we were. It wasn’t terribly steep for most of it but it was relentlessly UP. Each climber took his own pace and soon we were strewn across the mountain. Some plugged in the iPods and cranked the music for the climb. I prefer the silence of the outdoors, the ringing of the yak bells, and the sound of my own labored breathing. It gives a feeling of being alive and very present in the moment. Four hours later, we arrived at IBC and before our yak team. Four seasonal teas houses are set up here during the climbing season and we quickly huddled inside for warmth. We were immediately assaulted by the sweet smell of burning yak dung even as our eyes were adjusting to the darkness inside the tent. Long benches lined three sides of the tent covered in warm, filthy wool blankets. They served as a place to sit and drink tea as well as beds for the families that run the tea house. Each tea house had a supply of cokes and warm beer, pre-packaged noodle bowls and assorted food. Regular as well as sweet tea, a blend of yak butter, sugar, and evaporated milk, can be found in abundance! As the tea warmed us from the inside out and I rested on the itchy wool blanket, contentment as well as sleepiness encompassed me. I would realize later just how much this fatigue affects me at elevation, on some days leaving me too exhausted to do more than get up for a meal. All too soon, the bells signaled the arrival of the yak and it was time to sort the gear and get the tents set up before cold and darkness drove us in for the night.
While the women also made cooked to order food such as pancakes, eggs and many other dishes, our own cooking team prepared our meals. Extra special care was needed to eat the local prepared foods as the Tibetan women often collected the yak dung with bare hands and then made the meals, no stopping to wash hands in between. If we wanted to remain healthy and have a chance at the summit, we had to take these pre-cautions.
During our stay at IBC, we made friends with the young grand daughter of one of the tea house proprietors. This little four year old was a whiz at setting up a tent and had all of our tent poles strung together and was lacing them through the main tent before we could even get it spread out on the rocky ground. Once we had the main tent up, she was off to gather large rocks to tie down the outer stakes. I half expected her to sling my pack on her back and lead us up to the summit. Then, once we had the tent up and were snug inside, she came over, sat in the dirt and hung her arms over the tent flap and just watched us with her dirty hands and filthy face. She smelled like the smoke from the yak fire and had threads of wool from her sleeping blanket in her hair. We shared an energy bar and I wondered what went on in her little head….and what would become of her in the future.
Final Push to Advanced Base Camp over 18,000 ft
We made only a one night stop at IBC and then pushed on up to Advanced Base Camp (ABC).This was the day, we were told that we could hit the wall, that the elevation might prove too much and it could well be a tough climb. The climb is very strenuous with as much uphill as down. It would take from 4-8 hours depending on the climber’s physical abilities, the weather conditions and how well our bodies had acclimated. At this point, the climb was still snow free but that was the only thing that wasn’t on the climb.
We began with a slow ascent out of IBC on a military road. Coming out of the valley and around the mountain, a river appeared before us. Yet it is a frozen river, of ice and snow peaks, a magnificent glacier that look like a stiff meringue. Within minutes we could hear and see rocks tumbling off the mountains down towards the glacier and the sound of water running below it. The processes of nature are all around and we could feel just how dynamic the Earth is right under our feet. Mountains crumble, avalanches roar, glaciers creak and break and roll forward with minute speed but incredible mass. It is a symphony of sounds if we take the time to listen. At once I felt small and insignificant among these giants.
The road gave way to a trail which made several river crossings and picking out just the right rocks to jump across on could make the difference between comfort and wet and hypothermic feet. From the river bank, it climbed steeply up a sandy slope and then turned to undulating scree fields dotted with spectacular alpine ponds as blue as the sky. Scree gave way to a boulder field several miles long. Here, we stopped for lunch, a bit of homemade bread, a hard boiled egg and an apple. I could have sat there all day and watched the glacier below me and the snow capped peaks above but the cold was setting in and it was time to move. One more river crossing before climbing up the steep mountain ridge for the next two solid hours. At one point, I became so chilled, Ridlon had to dig out layers and help me dress. My body was expending so much energy just breathing and moving at over 18,000 feet, there didn’t seem to be enough left to heat me. I left my mind wander to a warm tropical beach and finally I began to shake the cold.
We Made it To the Beginning!
As we made it into camp around tea time, five and a half hours after we began, we could see that the camp stretched out for about 1/2 mile. It was an international party of climbers all staged on this rocky mountain slope beneath avalanche prone giants, tents of every color palate dotting the gray boulders. Our camp was at the far end of the city, which would put us a full thirty minute hike closer to the summit as the climbers would now begin the process of going up and down to the high camps. The next 6,000 feet would be climbed as much as six times. Allowing the body time to acclimate here was the most critical. At these elevations the body will begin to shut down extraneous processes and go into survival mode. By the time the climbers reached near the summit at 26,000 feet they would be in “the death zone”. This is a place where no matter what you do, the body can’t keep up with the lack of oxygen and begins breaking down. The only body systems that will remain functioning will be the lungs, heart and brain, even the digestive system closes down. I definitely felt the fatigue of the lack of oxygen. For the rest of our days here we would be monitoring our uptake of oxygen and checking respiration rates. In the history of the world, there is no known civilization that has lived permanently above 17,000 feet and now I knew why. We would limit our own exposure to this elevation to just three weeks. I had arrived at the extreme limits of where mankind can survive and I was humbled. Now the climb would truly begin…
TO YOUR ADVENTURES! ~Mantagirl