“Passion moves within the spirit, within the impossible dream, that which we are destined to pursue as long as we live.”
Mountaineering has been my passion since a young age and Everest has been my impossible dream. Everest, the impossible dream? I have always been fascinated by the whole history surrounding Everest, the highest mountain in the world. If I could have reached the summit based on the number of books I have read on the subject I would have been on the summit many years ago. The early pioneering climbs in the 1920s, the mystery of Mallory and Irvine, lost high on the mountain and never knowing whether they reached the summit or not (recent discoveries seem to point to the latter) and the brilliant reply by Mallory, when the question of why climb it was posed to him, to which he replied “Because it’s there”, and so giving all future climbers a good excuse!
So yes, at the back of my mind has always been the desire to try to summit Everest and to that end I have progressively climbed higher and higher, through the years, getting priceless experience in high altitude mountaineering, whilst juggling my family responsibilities, work commitments and financial and time constraints. A typical commercial expedition to a 7000m mountain in the Himalayas takes the better part of a month and costs several thousand pounds. An expedition to climb Everest, which is 8848m, takes around two months and costs about thirty thousand pounds.
So it was that I found myself in Kathmandu in early April this year. This city, the capital of Nepal, is the starting off point for most of the mountaineering in the Himalayas. It is an amazing place which ‘breathes’ mountaineering (the smog is quite bad) and has an incredible feel to it, particularly for mountaineers.
It was my third mountaineering trip to the Himalayas and the second with the British adventure company, Adventure Peaks, who specialise in organising commercial trips to mountains worldwide and the Himalayas in particular. My group was composed of myself and two others who were going to attempt the North Col only and three others going to the top plus the expedition leader all of whom were British.
This time I was going to attempt to reach the North Col of Everest, at a height of 7050m on the North side of the mountain in Tibet, which is now an autonomous region of China. The North Col is part of the normal route, along the North Ridge of the mountain. It is also the route attempted by Mallory and Irvine on their fateful pioneering attempt and is also the last place from where they were last seen alive, heading for the summit. Getting to the North Col is a sort of test for those who harbour summit aspirations.
The first hurdle was to obtain the Chinese visa for Tibet, a process which takes four days. As it turned out it was a blessing in disguise for me as I got some time to recover from some sort of respiratory virus I picked up, either on the flights to or in Kathmandu, and from a cut foot sustained whilst trying to alleviate my blocked nose.
We left Kathmandu to the border crossing with Tibet, (fig. 1) which took two days, and then proceeded to drive into and through Tibet for a further four days. We stopped at several towns on route to Everest Base Camp North, progressively gaining altitude until our arrival at Base Camp, aka BC, at an altitude of 5200m.
We arrived at BC, which is located on the Rongbuk glacier, just past the Rongbuk monastery, (fig. 2 & 3) which is the highest monastery in the world. There are wonderful views of Everest from BC (fig. 4 & 5) and the mountain dominates the surrounding scenery, even though it is still at 16km distance. I helped in setting up my personal tent (fig. 6), which essentially was going to be my home for a couple of weeks or so. It was a three person tent so, in terms of outdoor mountain accommodation it was luxury, as there was adequate room for the two expedition bags worth of kit and equipment, plus ample room for my sleeping space. Routine at BC is a mixture of feeding, hydrating, resting and managing the hours in camp (fig. 7), whilst you allow the body to acclimatise to the altitude.
After two days at BC, we began making acclimatisation treks (fig. 8) to increasing altitudes, up to around 6000m, but always returning to sleep at BC. By that time, the cut on the sole of my foot had healed sufficiently to allow me to join my fellow team members on these acclimatisation walks. These walks are essential in order to acclimatise the body to function at altitude, with the time proven maxim of climbing high and sleeping low. Without your body adapting to this process you would be unable to progress further up the mountain. It went well for me and I had a good appetite, my blood pressure, heart rates and oxygen saturation levels were normal and I had no headaches at all, plus I was sleeping really well. All of these are good signs that the body is acclimatising well.
Between these acclimatisation days, a Puja ceremony was held in BC for the expedition. The Puja is a Buddhist ceremony to ask the mountain gods for a safe passage. All those venturing further up the mountain place items of equipment like boots, ice axes and harnesses, on a makeshift stone altar, (fig. 9) to be blessed by the Buddhist monks. It is also customary to place national flags on the stone altar, which gives the ceremony, a truly international flavour. This time it included the Gibraltar flag, (fig. 10) proudly flying in the wind at BC. The ceremony goes on for a couple of hours with various religious verses and chants, the burning of Juniper twigs and throwing of tsampa (flour) in the air three times (fig. 11) then smearing the paste on your nose and cheeks. Finally we drink rakshi (homemade Nepali firewater) which is lethal and tastes awful. I was able to finish my glass with just a little bit finding its way into my mouth.
Six days after arriving at BC we are ready to proceed to Advanced Base Camp, aka ABC. This camp is at an altitude of 6400m and at a distance of 20km from BC. This trek takes two days covering about 10km each day, with an overnight stop at Intermediary Camp aka IC and dubbed ‘Yakshit’ Camp, at 5800m. The curious name for this camp is due to the fact that the Yaks, (fig. 12) beasts of burden who carry most of the expedition equipment, stop overnight at this camp to rest too and are not provided with toilet facilities as such! As the yaks carry most of our kit we only have to carry a daysack with some food extra clothing and plenty of liquids, which is crucial, as proper hydration is arguably the single most important aspect to successful climbing at altitude.
The trek to IC is pretty straightforward and I travel on my own as navigation is based on following the trail of Yak dung. The scenery is spellbinding with Everest dominating the skyline. The trek takes me about six hours, well within the average times, taking it very easy so as to save on efforts for the harder days yet to come.
‘Yakshit’ camp (fig. 13) certainly lives up to its name and I could not wait to depart the next morning, to the relative comfort of ABC.
* * *
To be continued next month!
If you would like to support Joe and work with him on his next venture to the summit of Everest, contact him on +350 54006190 or by email at [email protected]
BY JOE CELECIA