When I was about eight years old my favorite book in the entire world was a book about the first summit of Mount Everest by Hillary and Tenzing. My mother has commented since that she never should have bought me that book because just look at what crazy places I’ve since ended up to worry her, but to be honest I’ve never thought I’d make it here. Everest is like the moon, a place so far away one can dream about but there are too many obstacles when it comes to getting there.
That said, I’m pleased to report that getting to Everest Base Camp is something you actually can do in a lifetime! Here’s how it unfolded-
Some places in the world should not be easy to get to, and Mount Everest Base Camp is not an exception. Yes, a road goes up practically the entire way on the Tibet side, but “road” in this case translates into “dirt path of questionable durability which your driver will abandon anyway in favor of just going straight down the rocks.” (Really, I know it wasn’t his first time doing so, but all I could think of during the particularly precarious off-roading sections was how someone was definitely going to die there by rollover and I really hoped it wasn’t us.) Then you spend the night a few km down the road from Base Camp at “yak tent camp” trying to sleep a bit between the cold and gasping for breath at 5,100m (16,600 feet), then finally making the final ascent to the mountain.
It’s not a steep walk at all, but it’s not an easy one because there is literally half the amount of oxygen in each breath compared to sea level, so even if I took a half hour extra to hike up I was gasping when not admiring the ice crystals forming in my water bottle and keeping a tight grip on my camera battery (batteries of course don’t work well at sub-zero temperatures, so a tight grip was the only way to guarantee I’d get pictures). I kept reminding myself this was literally the hardest thing I was ever going to do, well in terms of oxygen supply at least, and perseverance paid off-
Yes, I walked up to Everest Base Camp! And it was enough to convince me that summiters are one part much more fit than me and two parts flat out insane, but there you have it.
Now to the question everyone wants to know: what does Mount Everest really look like up close and personal? Well in short she* is actually very lovely and impressive in size and loftiness- you would be impressed even if this wasn’t the world’s tallest mountain. The local population believes that a formidable Buddhist protectress lives at the top and you can’t help but think it’s rather fitting.
Also, apparently the way you climb up on this side is typically by going to the furthest right ridge and basically up that way (part of it’s cut off in this image unfortunately- did I tell you it’s a big mountain?). This is supposedly the easiest way up Everest as the Nepali side has some sections much more technically difficult- Hillary and Tenzing went up that one first primarily because of political instabilities in Tibet at the time. These days slightly more people still climb up the Nepal side, but at this time of year there are still plenty of expeditions to watch regardless of which side you’re on!
*Ever notice that things guys want to respect and not piss off like mountains, boats, and hurricanes are always female?
The closest expedition to the Base Camp viewpoint when I was there, the 2011 Iceland Everest Expedition. (Apparently Iceland is the biggest frozen foods distributor in the UK, and their C.E.O. wants to plant their brand’s flag on the summit. They will also donate a few hundred thousand dollars to charity if they make it because frozen foods flag-planting in itself sounds like a strange cause.) Let’s just say that a bunch of mountain expeditioners make for some excellent people-watching: these guys were just getting out of their yellow-domed tents and wandering to their kitchen tent where the Sherpas were getting coffee ready, and then some of them walked off towards Everest with showshoes and hiking poles for some practice. The acclimatization process takes so long that they won’t plan to summit until the end of May, over a month after my visit.
A few of a giant herd of yaks that lives at Everest Base Camp and were outfitted to take some climbers’ gear as close to the First Everest Camp as possible (typically you have three camps on Everest at different heights, and most of your time on the mountain is actually ascending and descending multiple times between them before the final summit push). One thing I was not expecting in such a barren rocky place was how a surprising amount of animals lived up here, from birds to stray dogs to even wild goats. Isn’t the roof of the world supposed to be an inhospitable place?
I spent nearly an hour just sitting and admiring Everest and Base Camp and all the activity there, but all too soon it was time to go. A few final waves to some of the expeditioners later and I took my last look at Base Camp, and Everest herself. I was in for one of the most miserable afternoons of my life as all pretenses of a road were going to be abandoned on the way to the Chinese border so bouncy my insides would ache- not a great thing when you spent all your reserves that morning- but that was later. Everest was now.
I can’t tell you how emotional an experience all of this was to me- I got tears in my eyes more than once surveying Base Camp, and I think it was really just the emotion of the moment rather than the thin oxygen. You see, I have long ago concluded that I will never be the fastest, or the smartest, or the strongest person out there. Most of us just aren’t built that way, so we just try the best we can. But I will be dammed if I am not good at achieving my dreams even if they take me to the ends of the Earth and beyond because, well, we only get one lifetime and I want to make mine a good one.
But actually reaching Mount Everest… this I really, truly never expected. Exciting and important people do things like that, not girls who grew up in Pittsburgh who were so shy they spent all of recess preferring to read books about other people’s adventures instead of playing with the other kids.
I would never have believed it, but one of the best things in life is how it never turns out as you could have imagined it to be. Life is too grand a thing to define by your prior expectations- and not knowing where it will lead you can meander through the roof of the world! I could live to be a million but I doubt I could ever forget what it was like to be at Mount Everest, and what it felt like to see this dream come true.