We woke up at 7:30 and were on the road by 8am. Our initial excitement was quickly tempered by the numbing cold. Our toes were numb and I worried about frostbite. The road was rough, the windows were frosted and we were nearly comatose.
We hadn’t slept very well the night before due to the near freezing conditions in our rooms.
In an attempt to stay healthy in the high altitude with all of the exertion from the day before, we’d all had quite a bit of the very weak tea they served. Tea was the best way to get clean water from the well which provided the hotel with water, since the water had been boiled. However, this caused us to have to get up to relieve ourselves all night long. Since the toilet was on the opposite side of the compound, across 20 meters of about -15C open air, it was quite a chore. Consequently, sometimes staying awake and shivering only a bit with a full bladder was preferable sometimes.
At around 9am, we approached a checkpoint. We all had to get out of the relative comfort of the Land Cruiser and go into the unheated building. The process of looking over our paperwork took us about a half hour, during which we were cold, but were at least moving around and out of the wind. The same wouldn’t be true of our second checkpoint where we stood out in the wind. A couple of us had to use the toilet which necessitated crossing the checkpoint without papers of any kind and going into a ramshackle shack. However, this checkpoint was faster and we were on our way up the mountain quickly.
Around 10 in the morning, our toes warmed up and the windows got clear, but the road got a little more rocky and icy. We didn’t notice these things. We had crested the top of a hill and paused at a scenic overlook. From this vantage point, we could see four of the 8,000 meter peaks in the Himalaya range.
The day was perfect. Though the day before had seen snow and heavy cloud cover, our visit would have neither of those things. From the overlook point, each of the highest peaks was creating its own weather; clouds were bellowing from them, turning them into chimneys at the top of the Earth. China has its smokestacks, regurgitating trash into the sky, making you weep for the shame they don’t feel. Tibet has majestic mountains lifting air to become billowy balloons of white, marring the blue with beauty and bringing a tear to your eye for that reason. The moment left all of us with a prescient sense that China was indeed a whole different world away from this place, not its master.
The ride down into the valley and back up, up, up towards the base camp felt like the stream must feel coming down from its heights — our limbs, words, and minds tumbling over one another without concern for their final destination. It was onward at any consequence. The final checkpoint unmanned, we passed through with momentum growing as we sped uphill.
We reached the end of the road, the Rong Phu monastery across from the newly built Chinese hotel with its satellite dishes and antennae like hairs on a bar of soap. We were the first Land Cruiser, but several others quickly followed. By this time, we were headed off towards the mountain which was calling us in a tune we didn’t hear but felt as a moth feels the draw of the fire. Our driver didn’t have time to give us instruction or deadlines, we simply gravitated towards that landmark.
As we walked along the road and up and over hills as shortcuts, we hardly noticed the vehicle starting from the place past which only emergency vehicles were allowed. In less than an hour we had covered probably a kilometer and a half, by which time the Land Cruiser had caught up with us. Though it was prohibited, there were no officials to challenge us, let alone stop or prohibit us from continuing. Our experienced driver tackled the ice and flowing water skillfully and carefully propelling us toward our destination. We emerged from the winding road on a flat where perhaps thousands of adventurers had come before us to camp and plan before heading beyond where we would go.
We danced and played in the snow and on the ice. We climbed the outhouse and the hills around. We stood in wonder looking up at the mountains around us, the farthest from us, we knew, the highest in the world. We were higher, both in spirit as in body, than most people would ever aspire to be. We drank a toast of Jack Daniels to celebrate.
But Everest was not a place of jubilation for all. This was evidenced by the many gravestones we found on the low hills around. These were monuments for men who headed on past our footprints without retracing them. One stone marked the place of the first descent attempted by snowboard. One was for a husband and wife team who were not underneath their names. There were remains, too, of people who had died in the camp before trying and after successfully ascending the mountain to which we now stood, nearly prostrate reading markers. A humbling reminder that not all days were this beautiful and not all people were this joyous.
On the way back down the mountain in the Land Cruiser, we drank our oxygen. We’d each brought 2 bottles for the ascent but hadn’t needed them. Sucking on it coming down kept us giddy, whether from physiological or psychological effects, we didn’t know. We didn’t care. We all felt like we’d touched the Gods; modern day Icari with our wax intact. We passed through Shegar, our previous night’s resting place, and felt as if it were at sea level. We continued on back across our route, things seeming to be much less consequential than when we first passed them.
We slept in Shegatse in the Tenzin Hotel. We arrived after dark and checked into our rooms. They were expensive and fancy, but we felt we had earned them. Showers, heaters, television — we were living in luxury compared to the previous three nights. It was nice for the hour we were awake to enjoy it. But it was late and we were tired. We fell asleep quickly and deeply.
After our incredible and long day, we slept in until about 9am. This was the first night of the Tibetan new year and our driver wanted to get back to Lasa and his family as soon as possible. We wanted to get back too because we had heard so many things about the holiday that we didn’t want to miss any part of it.
The drive back was uneventful and we had a chance to reflect on all we’d seen and done in the last few days. It was really incredible to us. Even 24 hours after being in that place, we still enjoyed talking about it to each other as if the others weren’t there. We told the same stories over again that we’d shared the night before on the drive East.
The monuments at EBC marked empty graves, but the spirits of those fallen were present where their bones weren’t. And we’d taken a bit of that fervor with us while still leaving it there intact. It was one of the greatest experiences of any of our lives and one we will all tell many times over, hopefully to spread what we’d caught on that mountain on the far side of the globe.