The Adventure to Mt. Everest's North Face
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A. Introduction

The Gang - Ooi, KC, Kenny, Larry & the writer upon arrival at Lhasa Airport

As far as mountain-trekking is concerned, my fellow trekkers always call me a perpetual motion machine or a clock. Once wound up, I would plod on any backbreaking trail continuously. My technique is simply to let my breathing control my pace so that I can achieve a state of "perpetual motion" as if I have an inexhaustible supply of energy, just like a wound-up grandfather clock. The fact that I was able to reach Camp II without much difficulty in our recent trekking expedition to Mt. Everest's north face bore testimony to my well-tested technique. But it was completely a different kettle of fish during the descent from Camp II to the Everest Base Camp when we were all beset with stomach upsets.

In early September 2002, four Malaysian trekkers, Kenny, KC, Ooi and I together with an American friend, Larry, landed in Lhasa International Airport, Tibet ready to scale above 6,000m by trekking up the north face of Mt. Everest. It has been reputed that the arduous journey to Camp III at over 6,300m is the only trek on earth where one can hike to such a high elevation without the need for crampons, ice axes or mountaineering skills.

We spent three days in Lhasa, allowing us adequate time for acclimatisation as Lhasa is already at nearly 3,600m above sea level. While in Lhasa, we took the opportunity to visit some main attractions in and around the city, like Potala Palace, Jokhang Temple and Drepung Monastery, and fully immersed ourselves in Buddhist culture. We were accompanied by our Tibetan tour guide, Kama who would also lead us in our trek to Mt. Everest's north face.

On the fourth day we left Lhasa for Shigatse in two 4-wheel drive vehicles, one carrying Kama, the trekkers and the luggage while the other had our tents, food, cooking utensils and our cook. Shigatse is about 280km west of Lhasa and it took us five hours along the bumpy gravel road called "Friendship Highway" to reach our destination.

B. The Ascent

All ready to start from Tashi Dzom

After an overnight stay, we proceeded westward along the Friendship Highway and after crossing the highest pass on our journey, the Gyamtso La at over 5,200m, we reached Shega or New Tingri where we stopped for lunch. Not far from New Tingri, we turned off the Friendship Highway and headed southward into a narrow mountainous track leading to Everest Base Camp (EBC), 101km away. After nearly 10 hours of bumpy roads, and covering nearly 300km, we reached Tashi Dzom (4,160m) in the evening after crossing over Pang La pass (5,150m).

The journey for the previous two days passed through small Tibetan settlements, barley fields on terraces, and plains dotted here and there with nomadic herdsmen and their yaks. This was the end of our ride, as we would commence our trek from here the next day. Tashi Dzom is only 49km away from EBC.

From Tashi Dzom we intended to trek to EBC in two days, staying overnight in tents midway. We trekked along the gravel motorway, which was barely 4 meters wide, and had to contend with thick clouds of dust whenever vehicles passed us by. The track wound through beautiful valleys and plains surrounded by barren yet spectacular mountain peaks. Along the way we passed through small Tibetan villages where farmers tended their barley crops and small children accosted us with their dirty palms open and asking for "money, money".

We covered about 25km in six hours on our first day of trekking. Though the ascent was gradual, we had to make frequent drink stops as the heat from the sun was intense. We also had a lunch break by the side of the track. When we arrived at KM 24 (4,580m), our overnight tents were already set up beside a small stream on flat grassland, a few hundred meters off the track.

A scenic journey from Tashi Dzom to EBC

We started early the next day, hoping to reach Rongbuk Monastery for lunch. However, the going was slow as we were rapidly gaining altitude and after more than four hours of trekking we were still at least more than one kilometer from Rongbuk Monastery. So we stopped by the track and had our packed-lunch, which consisted of a piece of Tibetan bread, a sausage, an egg and an apple - typical packed lunch we were provided during our trek. We continued our journey after lunch and arrived at Rongbuk Monastery (reputed to be the highest monastery in the world at nearly 5,000m) at about 2.00pm. The view of Mt. Everest from here was stunning and it appeared to be so close.

Ready to continue from Camp at KM 24

EBC was still 7km from Rongbuk Monastery and it took us another 2¼ hours of laborious trekking to finally reach our destination. At EBC (5,150m) the view of Mt Everest's north face was even more stunning. However, the evening was cold and windy and immediately after dinner, we all retired to our tents, exhausted.

View of Mt. Everest from Rongbuk Monastry

After two days of trekking, we decided to do some acclimatisation on the third day by trekking to a higher altitude and returning to the EBC for another night. To do so, we had to trek beyond EBC and this gave us an opportunity to head towards Camp I to explore the Rongbuk Glacier.

After a late leisurely breakfast, we set off from the EBC with Kama leading the pack. The first part of the trail was not well defined as the whole valley was covered with rocks and boulders. There was also a stream running across the valley and we took a while to find a suitable location strewn with boulders so that we could hop, step and jump across. We took 2 ¼ hours to reach Camp I (5,330m), covering a distance of just over 4km. Camp I is a desolate place set in a barren world of moraine hills. Water is not readily available except from the roaring Everest River at least a few hundred meters below the cliff. We took a rest and had our packed lunch. We also discussed with Kama and decided that we would return the next day and set up a temporary camp here. We then returned to EBC.

At Everest Base Camp

The next day, we arose early because there was a buzz of activity and noise around our camp. We discovered that a group of university students from Hong Kong were preparing to leave. They too made a lot of noise the night before while we were preparing to sleep. Nevertheless, we chanced to talk to some of them and they told us that they left EBC at 8.00am the day before to trek to Camp II. But by 2.00pm they were nowhere near Camp II and had to turn back so that they could be back to EBC before dusk. With this information, we were pleased that we would be moving to Camp I to do our final assault to Camp II and beyond.

However, after breakfast, Kama told us that we had to stay put in EBC as he could not obtain the necessary permit from the officials here to set up tents in Camp I. We were absolutely flabbergasted by the news but were adamant that his company was obligated under the agreement to obtain all permits and pay all fees for us to set up tents beyond EBC. We told him in no uncertain terms that by hook or by crook he had to get the necessary permit for us to set up overnight tents in Camp I. We then left him to his own devices. About half an hour later, Kama approached us and told us the good news that we were now allowed to move on to Camp I. What a relief!

A bird's eye view of our overnight tents at Camp I

After an early lunch, we left by ourselves for Camp I and arrived by about 3.00pm. Six local nomadic yak herdsmen (or "yakmen" as we referred to them) were hired as porters to carry our tents, luggage, food, cooking gas and utensils to Camp I. But only Kama and one porter would stay in a makeshift kitchen/tent with us for the night. After we had helped to pitch our tents we followed the steep trail to Camp II as part of our acclimatisation by trekking high and sleeping low. For about half an hour, we ascended about 100m in elevation and rested for about 15 minutes before returning to our camp. After an early dinner of instant noodles, prepared with boiled murky water obtained from the Everest River below, we retired to our tents for the night.

On the fifth and final day of our trekking expedition, we arose by 7.00am hoping to make an early start to Camp II and beyond. By 8.00am, our tents were dismantled and packed, and our luggage was ready to be brought down by the porters to EBC. Also, I was waiting for my personal guide to arrive to accompany me for the day's trek. I needed one as a contingency because I had a history of losing my sight at over 5,600m when I reached Gilman's Point at Mt. Kilimanjaro two years ago. In the event that history should repeat itself, my personal guide would lead me back to EBC without hampering the progress of the other trekkers. By 8.30am the porters and my personal guide still had not arrived, but we decided to move on.

Our target for the day was to reach Camp II, and depending on time availability and our capabilities, we would proceed towards Camp III to an elevation above 6,000m with a proviso that we would turn back - wherever we might be - by 2.00pm so that we would be back at EBC before dusk.

About 10 minutes into our journey, my personal guide, a yakman called Lama, came running up the slope. Soon he reached me and took over my backpack. He was as sure-footed and nimble as a mountain yak and seemed to know the way.

A close-up view of ice pinnacles near Interim Camp

To reach Camp II we had to pass an intermediate camp called Interim Camp. The trail to this camp was tough as it ascended and descended over gravel hills many times. Finally, after over 1½ hours of trekking, we reached a rocky plain close to the Everest River with other smaller streams flowing nearby. This was the Interim Camp (5,490m). Looking back, this was in fact a better place than Camp I to spend a night. From here, we could see ahead of us ice pinnacles that looked like white sails amongst the debris laden surface of the glaciers.

We proceeded with our journey after a short break at the Interim Camp. The trail to Camp II from here was steep and it was very often obscured by rocks and boulders, making our progress difficult and slow. Lama was leading the way and I was trekking slowly behind him followed by Kenny.

1½ hours after leaving Interim Camp, I could not see the other trekkers except Kenny. Neither could I see Kama. We did not wait for them, but instead we proceeded rather slowly hoping that the rest would catch up soon.

Suddenly we heard a voice from behind and saw Larry "running" towards us and beckoning us to stop. Soon Larry arrived and reported that KC was well behind and might not be able to continue. We thought it would be wise for KC to return to EBC and waited for Kama to appear so that we could ask him to accompany KC back. While waiting, a porter descending from Camp II appeared and we stopped him. Kenny wrote a note and asked the porter to pass it to Kama. We then continued with our journey.

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