It’s a stormy night, the night of the 10th of April, when our Altitude Junkies team leaves for the Chinese border in Kodari. After taking another pill of Amoxicillin, I toss and turn in bed until 3 in the morning, unable to fall asleep because of the fever, the less than optimistic thoughts on my mind and the thunder – I can’t remember a louder storm in Kathmandu in all the time I have spent here. I give up on trying to rest before the 5 a.m. departure, and get up. My two enormous black duffel bags are packed and ready to go on the truck, directly to base camp, while in my backpack I have a few things I will need during the four-day drive through Tibet. Everything is ready but I am not: I cannot climb the world’s highest mountain on antibiotics. Or can I? Driving through the dark, wet streets of Kathmandu, I find myself thinking about how bad a start I am making: I’d spent the day before trying to deal with the Tibet permit problems (a most nerve-wracking experience), I am ill, and I feel that after all the climbing I’d done in 2011-2012 I simply don’t have enough strength in me to scale another mountain, least of all Everest…
The border crossing in Kodari distracts me from these grim thoughts. Our team’s 250 porters, mixing with other travelers, cross the Friendship Bridge, and we follow the group tents, chairs and gear into China. The rigorous border checks take a while, but go smoothly enough, and early in the afternoon we find ourselves already in Zhangmu, having lunch before proceeding to Nyalam at 3800 meters. The scenery as we drive higher into the mountains is stunning: the still cold, bare hills rise above grey gorges, linking the dry earth to the heavy clouds in the sky. In about two hours we arrive in Nyalam and, following its main street, down which thick steam pours from pipes, sticking out of every window, we arrive at our CTMA-assigned accommodation. We will spend two nights in Nyalam – to acclimatize to high altitude. I will be in bed most of the time, shivering with fever, or cold, or anger at myself, I hardly know.
On the 12th of April we leave for Tingri at 4300 meters, where we spend two more nights. The scenic drive through the Tibetan high-altitude desert takes us across two high mountain passes of over 5000 meters in elevation. It is on the way to Tingri where we catch our first glimpse of Everest. Blurry in the distance, it rises above the valley, completely surreal: broad, black, tall, intimidating. Looking at the summit, battered by the powerful jet stream, I ask myself: ‘what was I thinking?’ Everest is just too big a dream!
In Tingri the Wild-West-looking town’s dogs, famous for biting and sending home many a hopeful Everest climber, keep me and my team mates confined to the grounds of the hotel. Still sick, I watch movies and nibble on Chinese candy with the wonderful and inspiring Margaret Watroba, a well-known mountaineer/electrical engineer/Wonder Woman from Perth, Australia, who summited Everest from the South/Nepal Side in 2011. We go through liters and liters of ginger tea, trying to fend off the headaches caused by the rapid altitude gain of the past couple of days. I am excited to be climbing alongside Margaret: she was the one who made me believe I could do it – climb Everest – in the first place, and her presence on the team is a great joy and comfort to me.
On the 14th of April we arrive at Everest Base Camp (BC) after a four-hour drive from Tingri. The base camp area is very spacious, with different teams’ headquarters located at a good distance from each other. As I later find out from a team mate, Grant Rawlinson (http://climbforhope.wordpress.com/), there are about 110 injis (westerners) on the North Side of the mountain – not too many at all compared to the infamously crowded South Side. While our leader, Phil Crampton, and the Sherpas get quickly to work on the group and individual tents and the dining and communications domes, we sip milk tea in the kitchen tent, popping our heads out occasionally to look at Chomolungma, who towers above the Rongbuk Glacier with her characteristic jet stream plume painting a thick white line against the cold sky. ‘What was I thinking?’ I ask myself again, looking at the enormous black mountain.
Soon the tents are ready for their inhabitants, and I jump into my temporary orange nylon home. I take the last Amoxicillin pill of the course, stretch out on my -40C sleeping-bag and feel at last like the expedition has really started. Due to my illness, I am much weaker than I expected to be upon arrival at the foot of Everest but that’s fine, as long as I can keep healthy for the next 50 days or so. My determination to give my all to the climb is returning as well, supported by the proximity and tangibility of my dream – Chomolungma.
I am not looking forward to the first night at base camp, however, as I know I will be cold. I lie in my large, puffy sleeping bag, waiting and waiting for the down to warm up a little but the curse of my ‘eccentric’ bodily thermal regulation system is as powerful as ever, and the sleeping bag stays cold. I take an Ibuprofen to get rid of the altitude-induced headache, at least, and drift into half-sleep. When I wake up again I see someone sitting next to me in the tent, yet, I can’t make out their face, which is darker than the night around us. I wonder who my guest is, but I am more sleepy than curious, so I let my eyes close – I have a feeling I will meet my visitor again, and when I do, it won’t be in a dream but in a nightmare.