My feet are numb or on fire. I am not sure which. The view is spectacular but the thought of removing my gloves to operate the camera’s controls is unbearable. The wind is making the cold worse, and I imagine that it must be hovering near zero. I have managed to clamber up the 100-foot high moraine, but here at 17,000 feet, there’s only half the oxygen that I am used to at sea level, and I have to rest after every three steps as if I have just run a 100-metre sprint. Yet I am feeling at the top of the world, and have the crazy urge to sing the Carpenters’ song. That’s because I am at the top of the world. Nearly.
I am standing at the Everest North Base Camp in Tibet. In front of me is the Goddess Mother of Earth or Qomolangma, as the Tibetans call the Everest. The ribbed stone pyramid towers over 29,000 feet into the air (that’s 8.8km vertically!). The giant stands grand and solitary on the horizon. Correct that. Everest is not on the horizon, it is the horizon.
This daunting mountain has beckoned adventurers for nearly a century. I try to imagine what it would be like to be in George Mallory and Andrew Irving’s stout boots and fleece jackets marching down here 90 years ago. Or Reinhold Messner in 1980, who reached the summit on his own. In just four days. Without oxygen.
The north face of Everest is more technical and difficult to climb. While Hillary and Tenzing conquered Everest in 1953, they climbed from the south face, in Nepal. The north face was conquered only in 1960 by a Chinese team which built a road to this base camp to ferry equipment and supplies. That’s why we can drive to the north face in Tibet, and not to the base camp at the south face in Nepal.
This is the closest I’ll ever be to Everest, and perhaps never again return here. But I will revisit this place in my mind many times over, so I want to burn it into my memory for just a moment longer. But the cold and exhaustion win out in the end, and I descend from the wall of rock and shale carried down by the glacier. It’s time to get into the Mahindras parked down and head back to Kathmandu. It is October 3, 2014.
The story began exactly four days ago, when a convoy of five Mahindra vehicles in Mahindra Adventure colours and Maharashtra number plates snaked through the chaotic labyrinths of Kathmandu, hurrying to beat the morning traffic. In the convoy are two Thars, two XUV 500s
and a lone Rexton. Behind the wheels of the SUVs are a bunch of excited journalists greedy for the days to come. We are on the first edition of ‘The Summit’ drive organised by Mahindra Adventures. Our destination, the Everest North Base Camp in Tibet.
Our destination for the evening, Nyalam in Tibet, is about 150km away at a height of 12,300 feet. Kathmandu is at 4,600 feet, so we are going to be climbing up almost 8,000 feet in a day. But important, since our final destination is 17,000 feet at EBC, and we need our body to acclimatise to prevent Acute Mountain Sickness. So we put our faith in God and Diamox tablets, hoping that AMS would spare us on this trip.
Named after the 13th century Nepali architect credited with introducing the Pagoda to China, the Arniko Rajmarg that connects Kathmandu to the Nepali border town of Kodari is, at best of times, a narrow strip of tarmac that snakes its way through ravines and hills. Unfortunately, we are not here at the best of times. Just the previous month, a deadly landslide on this road had claimed many innocent lives. A part of the road had been washed away due to a portion of the mountain collapsing, but the Nepalese army had chiselled an alternate mud track through the hills. Mud tracks, slush, boulders, water crossings, steep hills. While some others would curse the dismal road conditions, this is fantastic as far as we are concerned. The Thars were built for this, the XUV 500s manage it without a fuss, and even the Rexton powers its way through it. While this is fun, the slow going means that we are not going to make it to the Chinese border in time. And we don’t. We have to spend the night at Tataopani, just 8,250 feet above sea level, about 4,000 feet lower than our scheduled stop at Nyalam in Tibet.
Day two. Now a strange thing happens when you cross over from Nepal into China. Connecting the two countries is a Friendship Bridge. Exactly half way down the bridge is a line marking out the two countries. Since Nepal drives on the left, you drive your vehicle up to that line keeping left. Then as soon as you cross the line into China, you have to shift to the right of the road as China follows the opposite system. And put your watch two hours ahead of Nepal time. Welcome to China.
The smooth black asphalt on the Chinese side is a revelation after our off-roading experience on the first day. We are now on the 800km-long Friendship Highway that connects Lhasa to the border town of Zhangmu on the Nepal-China border. The road climbs up rapidly; we gain 5,000 feet in less than 40km. Soon, the lush tree cover and waterfalls give way to the yaks and the vast barren Tibetan plateau with the snow capped Himalayan mountains framing the landscape. We are at the roof of the world. This is where some of the world’s greatest rivers originate, the Indus, Yangtze, Irrawaddy, Yellow River and Brahmaputra.
Driving on the dark black asphalt against the brown landscape is a bizarre experience. This is the kind of road that calls for a Ferrari 458 or a Porsche 911, and yet this road is taking us to Everest! The high point of the day’s drive is Tong La. At 16,900 feet, this pass is a great place to view the majestic spread of the Himalayan range.
It’s dark by the time we get to our hotel in Tingri. Worryingly, the lack of oxygen is getting to some people in the team who are suffering from nausea and headaches.
Next morning, we bid goodbye to the Friendship Highway, and turn south on a dirt road leading to the base camp. The road is a dusty, impacted earth, strewn with small boulders, but nothing that the Mahindras cannot take. As we bounce along the track, we can only marvel at the vast expanse of the plateau, which makes our More Plains seem small. This is sky country, the vast blue dome making even the mighty Himalayas seem like tiny specks in the universe.
At Rongbuk, the choice of accommodation is limited. You can stay at the guest house run by the Rongbuk monastery, at 16,340 feet, the highest on earth. Or the government hotel situated 50-metres north across the monastery, not surprisingly called the Rongbuk Everest Hotel. Or at the yak wool tents pitched further down the road. The tented city is as far as a private vehicle can go. From here, you have to hop on to government buses for the final 8km leg to the base camp.
We are booked at the Rongbuk Everest Hotel, which has decent rooms. The problem is not the rooms, but getting to them. At this altitude, the long flight of stairs to our fourth floor rooms look as formidable as the slopes of Everest. Finally it is because of sheer will power and desperation that we drag our luggage up the stairs and then collapse on the bed trying to get back air into our lungs. The other big problem is loos. Don’t even ask about it. One look, and I decide to go easy on food, not wanting to venture into the pit. But all these problems seem trivial when you look out of the window. Framed within every window is just one mountain, the Everest.
As soon as we check in, the Everest disappears from view. All we can see where Everest once stood is a white haze. It is snowing on the mountain, and it’s not in a mood to grant us an audience today. Maybe tomorrow.
October 3, 2014. The day dawns bright and clear with Everest beckoning us to pay it a visit. The pools of water on the hotel terrace have turned to ice and splinter like glass under our shoes. As we prepare to go to the base camp, we realise that we have been careless. Very careless. We neglected to put in additives in the diesel. And left the cars out in the open overnight without starting the engines every few hours. The diesel in the exposed-metal Thar fuel tanks have frozen as the temperature plummeted below zero at night. And now, they won’t start. Fortunately, the other Mahindras have plastic tanks, and though they grumble, they wake up and start. So the Thars. which have been most happy on this trip, have to be left behind for our last leg to the Everest Base Camp.
And that’s where the story begins. I am standing in the shadow of Everest. Another tick on my bucket list.
BEEN THERE. DONE THAT.
In 1994, Hormazd Sorabjee drove to the Everest Base Camp in another Mahindra. Memories of another day.
Twenty years on, memories of my first audience with the big E are as vivid as the deep blue sky the highest point on earth pierces. I still remember every kilometre of the spectacular drive from Tingri to the base camp of Everest.
The 80km stretch took a good five hours because back then, the road or dirt track would just disappear for many kilometres, leaving you to guess the general direction. We drove through gushing streams, river beds that dried up centuries ago and bone-jarring rocks. It was true 4x4 country, and I was driving what was then the most sophisticated 4x4 SUV in India — a Mahindra Armada! The agricultural Peugeot XDP engine developed a frail 62bhp, which felt more like 30 at 17,000 feet. With a four-speed gearbox that belonged to a tractor (sans synchro on first gear), no power steering and brakes that you needed to stand on, driving a seriously overloaded Armada was probably the next most difficult thing to ascending the North face. There were no turbo engines in those days to compensate for the sharp drop in atmospheric pressure, and the Armada, at such high altitudes, felt as energetic as a Yak on dope.
It’s a good thing that roads in Tibet have a gentle gradient and there are no steep inclines but even then, we had to select ‘low’ on the transfer case to cross some of the passes.
What made my drive to Everest truly special was the way we got there. It wasn’t the traditional or simpler route from Nepal or Tibet’s capital Lhasa, the other start point. The journey began 11,000km earlier in central Asia. I was part of the Central Asia Cultural Expedition which comprised a not so exotic convoy of four Mahindra Armadas and one Commander. Starting from Bukhara in Uzbekistan, we covered 13,000km across five countries, and after three months, had a grand finish in Delhi — It was a once-in-a-lifetime trip, not because the route is impossible to do again but because today, it’s impossible to take so much time off!
The drive to Everest was the final leg of this Expedition and as they say, the best was left for last. We entered Tibet from its back door, the small town of Golmu, just outside the northern edge of the Tibetan plateau.
In 1994, there was no tarmac in all of Tibet but narrow tracks of smooth, packed dirt which formed the highways. It’s all smooth tarmac now, all the way from Lhasa to the Nepal border, and a showcase of Chinese road engineering at its best.
Lhasa and the great Potala Palace were brilliant photo ops but nothing can prepare you for your first sighting of Everest. You suddenly see it, rising out of the desolate landscape with no other peak around to challenge its supremacy.
Via Lhasa, you can see Everest nearly a 100km before you reach it. Turning off the Lhasa highway and onto the road to Rongbuk, Everest looms larger, beckoning you and filling your windscreen with every approaching kilometre.
That night, whilst the team slept in the Rongbuk monastery, I chose to sleep inside the Armada and under the shadow of Everest. Except that I didn’t sleep. It was sub-zero inside the car and my sleeping bag had a faulty zip and didn’t quite keep me warm enough. But it was just the sheer sight of Everest, bathed in moonlight, piercing the black night sky that was indescribably surreal and kept me awake. At around 3am, I started the engine to warm it up as a precaution against diesel from freezing over.
Wide eyed and ready, my Nikon firmly mounted on a tripod, I was all set to capture the first rays of the sun to land on the 29,028 feet high summit. The warm glow on the tip of Everest is a magical moment that lasts just a few minutes before the sun pops up from behind the mighty Himalayan range.
It was time for breakfast, which consisted of the disgusting yak milk to drink and some sort of stew that was equally inedible. I was in no mood to eat but instead happy to let my eyes feast on the spectacular views of Everest, which kept changing with the rising sun and a stream of fast moving clouds.
For any car, base camp Everest is the best photo op in the world, and our convoy of Armadas were the first Indian vehicles to have gone there. And now 20 years later, Mahindra is repeating history. The cars have changed, as have the roads, but Everest is just the same.