Blessed to be a witness

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Wednesday, March 23rd

Base camp

There's a certain acceptance of one's fate that I often have to adopt when travelling in the third world. When you're on a one-track dirt road that's covered with ice, clinging to the side of a 500 metre cliff, in a four-wheel drive that's running out of fuel, with no seatbelts, that is at least twenty years old, that doesn't have 4WD engaged and brakes that only work on one side, with a driver who can't communicate with you and whose provenance you can't vouch for, several hundred kilometres from the nearest search-and-rescue team, and at least ten hours' drive from the nearest unhygienic hospital, in the dark, I believe you need to adopt this or you'd go mental. I call it the 'Tacit Assumption of Invulnerability', and it's served me well. I'm still alive after all this time, anyway. This morning wasn't the first time I'd had to engage it on our little trip, but if I hadn't, I'd have been screaming and weeping for the next six hours.

We slowly crept up to the pass of Gyatso-la, after which our driver proudly informed us he'd been named, and then across the long, high plateau, with the windows icing up on the inside of the unheated Land Cruiser. Over icy stream beds, fords and glaciers we went, slamming up and down as dawn rose, and at the highest, coldest point, we passed a western tent, covered in ice, and a mountain bike. Mad bastard. Then finally down the mountain, where we were rewarded with our first view of the entire sweep of the Everest Himalayan range.

Eventually we made the small village of Shegar, where we had lunch, before setting off into the Qomolangma Nature Reserve. Two more checkpoints on, we headed up onto yet another bloody pass that took two hours to get over, and then an hour more of painful driving, we arrived at yet another checkpoint. This one required us to exit our vehicle, leave our driver, and board a big blue Chrysler Dodge Ram, sponsored by China Telecom, at a cost of 80 yuan each. This rather inappropriate vehicle bounced us up the final hour to base camp, but at least it had suspension, which saved my now aching back.

I've seen the Himalayas before, specifically the Annapurna range from Nepal, and their height is eye-bending, because you're much lower. Here in Tibet the altitude is several thousand metres higher, so the weird spatial distortions don't happen so much. But they're still impossibly big. As we climbed the valley, the vast bulk of Everest loomed in the sky, pluming snow from its peak in the hundred-something mile-an-hour winds. It was bizarre to stand beneath such an emblem, such an icon. Everest, or the holy mountain of Qomonlangma, possibly the biggest single solid object on earth. Call that a mountain? That's not a mountain, that's a hill. You want to see a mountain, you should go to Rongbuk.

Base camp itself is just a shale valley, 5,200 metres above sea level, with a couple of permanent structures, and when we were there, a load of blokes setting up metal-framed tents. Not a lot to see except the vast mountain up the valley. But the weather there is unlike anything else I've ever experienced. The ambient temperature was considerably below freezing point, but the wind-chill was something else - eighty to one hundred kilometre-per-hour winds, sweeping straight down from the Rongbuk glacier and funnelling into the valley. I have no idea how on earth genuine mountaineers survive higher up. It just doesn't bear thinking about.

I believe it was Billy Connolly who said words to the effect that "there's no such thing as 'too cold', just 'the wrong clothes'". For once, I had the right clothes. From bottom to top, I was wearing Smartwool sock liners, Smartwool trekking socks, my trusty Timberlands, my fake Calvin Kleins, Helly Hansen thermal long-johns, combats, a long-sleeved T-shirt, an inner fleece, a mountain fleece, a snorkel coat, North Face (aka North Fake) Goretex gloves, a fake Nike wooly hat, and sunglasses. I was just about warm enough. I climbed a small hill covered in prayer flags, and marvelled at the blasting wind, and then we retreated to the van as said blasting wind started to breach my sartorial defenses.

We drove the 8 kilometres back to Rongbuk, also high in the valley, where there are only three structures: Rongbuk Monastery, the monastery's guesthouse, and a new hotel. We examined the guesthouse rooms, which were below freezing even at that time of the afternoon, evidenced by the ice in the metal basins in the rooms, and so we continued a hundred metres on, where we entered what we now refer to as the worst hotel in the world.

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