There are two routes to the north side of Everest from Kathmandu. The more interesting one, and the one I took on my two previous visits to Tibet when I climbed to the North Col of Everest and made an attempt on Cho Oyu, involves flying over the Himalayas to Lhasa and driving down the Friendship Highway through Shigatse and Shegar.
Lhasa and Shigatse are both modern Chinese cities with comfortable hotels, hot running water and a selection of restaurants serving western food. They also have plenty of interesting places to visit. Lhasa has the awe-inspiring Potala Palace with pilgrims doing their kora (circuit) round it, an old city centre called the Barkhor with narrow streets and markets and the Jokhang temple in the middle, and the out of town monasteries of Sera and Drepung. Shigatse has the enormous Tashilhunpo Monastery, the largest in Tibet, and the white-washed dzong (fort) on a hill above the town. Further along the highway Shegar is a little more rustic, but has a lovely acclimatisation walk up to a ruined fort on a precarious hillside. There is history here as well, as the 1920s British expeditions to Everest with George Mallory tested their new-fangled oxygen apparatus here.
Far less enticing than this route steeped in history, and the route we took this time, is to drive up to the border crossing north of Kathmandu and cross the Friendship Bridge into Tibet. Acclimatisation then involves two nights in Nyalam at 3500m and two more in Tingri at 4300m before driving to Base Camp. I’m going to try and say something nice about these two places, but it’s going to be hard.
Nyalam sits in a deep gorge high above a river, the Bhote Khosi which we followed up from Nepal the previous day. The rooms in our hotel were clean, but there was no running water and we had to flush the toilet by scooping water from a large butt outside the door. While we were there the town was engulfed in a damp mist which mixed with wood smoke from the houses and made for an unpleasant atmosphere. Above all it was cold, unexpectedly so, and a shock after warm and temperate Kathmandu. All day it snowed, then sleeted, then rained.
My two old climbing buddies Mark and Ian are not known for their temperance, and spent the day ‘acclimatising’ in the only way they know how: by finding a bar and camping there for the afternoon. They weren’t discouraged by expedition leader Phil, who insisted that drinking Lhasa Beer is a good way of keeping yourself hydrated. We were joined by Grant, a New Zealander who is back for a second attempt on Everest after experiencing cruel summit weather last year.
The four hour drive from Nyalam to Tingri is spectacular. We continued up the gorge to its top, where it opens out onto the wide desert plains of the Tibetan Plateau. Here there are great views of Shishapangma, and above the damp fug of Nyalam it was clear and sunny, and much more pleasant. An hour or so later we had our first view of Everest, its black pyramid towering above the highway. It was easy to believe from there that we were looking at the highest mountain on Earth.
Tingri is something of a Wild West town, a single street sitting on a dusty plain whose distinguishing feature is its army of stray dogs. In the afternoon the wind whips up and tosses dust around, rendering the atmosphere unpleasant in a very different way to Nyalam. Again the rooms in our hotel were clean but there was no running water. I had an interesting experience using the long-drop toilet when I glanced down to see a cow down there. I had no choice but to continue what I was doing, but luckily the cow didn’t seem to mind.
Tingri’s redeeming feature is an acclimatisation walk up a small hill above the town for a wide view across a green-tinged plateau to a horizon of Everest, Gyachung Kang and Cho Oyu, three of the highest mountains on the planet.
The following day we had a spectacular four hour drive to Base Camp across rough terrain. At times we wondered whether our bus would make it, but now we are here and the expedition can begin in earnest.