A long nine hour drive took us from Sakya to Rhongphu, the monastery at the Tibetan Everest Base Camp. We went over the Gyatso Pass at 5,252 meters. We had our first glimpse of Qoomolangma, as the locals call Everest. Everest, at 8,848, is the world’s highest mountain and reportedly, continues to grow each year. It was a long and bumpy ride in our 4WD vehicles. It took a lot of work to create a rough road that would not wash out each season.
When we arrived at Rhongbuk Monastery guest house, it was late afternoon. Although there were some clouds on Everest, it was mostly sunny. We sat on a field of boulders and marveled at the sight before us. True to its reputation, Everest is massive and awesome. We took turns taking photographs of each other in front of Everest. A complying yak kept in position to take his photo in front of Everest. Eventually, the cloud at the very top blew over for about ten minutes.
Several people mentioned visiting the monastery but everyone agreed they were “Buddha’d out.” The wind picked up and the temperature dropped. We retreated to the guesthouse which was warmed by a yak dung stove. Dinner was simple Tibetan fare (but no yak!). We retired to our rooms four at a time.
I awoke early in the morning to commune with nature and was suprised that I could not see stars and that it was relatively warm. We awoke in the morning to snow. It was cold, windy, wet and dark. After a pancake breakfast, we bundled up for our hike. Base camp was eight kilometers from the guesthouse, about a two-hour hike. The elevation would change from 4,980 to 5,200 meters. At 15,000 feet we were at an altitude above any mountain peak in Colorado.
I had every layer on: T-shirt, Thermax shirt, fleece, down sweater, and rain jacket. Long johns and trekking pants. Glove liners and socks on my hands. And, my brand new Chinese worker’s hat with the synthetic fur flaps in the army green. Despite sitting in yak dung smoke and drinking hot jasmine tea, I was somewhere between cold and chilly as we started out.
Walking was difficult. Or, I should say breathing while walking was difficult. Typically, I walk briskly. But, I realized a slow and deliberate walk was required. I tried not to stop, but I frequently decreased my slow walk to an even slower one.
Eventually, we came to the midpoint where vendors sell souvenirs, tea and trinkets. There are horse carts there also if you don’t want to walk. I was warming up and breathing more easily. I took off my down sweater for a while. The last part was a steady uphill. We went around a bend and there before us was base camp. Dozens of yaks were saddled up as beasts of burden. Dozens of tents in various colors were segregated by trekking company. The permit office was before us, and a knoll of a hill. There, too, was a new cordoned off Chinese army installation.
We went in front of the permit office and took photos by the plaque. Permits to approach Everest are $10,000 U.S. per person. The fine for crossing the line without a permit is $200 U.S. We climbed the hill to the last point we were permitted. On the plain below us were a half-dozen expedition tent sites. The day before, we met a Serbian team. Two Serbs have summited Everest, but this is the first all Serb team. Later, we met a U.K. team. They had climbed Acancaugua near Santiago, Chile, the tallest mountain n the Americas. Now, they were climbing two sub-peaks of Everest. We also met a Nepali who was climbing with two friends and several sherpas.
In additon to the expedition teams, there was yet another Chinese military installation and an armored vehicle. Later, we would learn that a “Free Tibet” protest had been held at base camp by several Americans. The new military presence was apparently designed to thwart any future protest activities. Within China and until today, we have no additional information other than a protest occurrred. Several Tibetans told us they like Americans because they protested.
We ate our Power Bars and Dove chocolate bar. They were frozen solid. My down jacket was back on and it was snowing again. The clouds hung stubbornly like a white curtain in front of Everest. Occasionally, the curtain ruffled and we could see rock, snow or glacier. But we never saw Everest that day. Base camp is still a long way from the actual mountain. We returned to our monastery, talking with climbers as we walked. The climbers were acclimating and taking conditioning walks as they waited for their bodies to adjust and their turn to try Everest. Later, we would learn that although it was May, not a single team had summited. Two sherpas had and a lone climber.
When we returned to the monastery, we packed up and headed off in our Jeeps.