‘You have to drink more,’ Margaret reminds me while I sit, clasping my aching head between my hands, in our tent at Interim Base Camp (5800 meters) several days after the Junkies’ team’s arrival at the foot of Everest. We are now headed for Advanced Base Camp (ABC, 6400 meters) to do the first acclimatization rotation on the mountain. In the course of the rotation we are meant to spend several days and nights at ABC and climb to 7050 meters – Camp 1 on the North Col. However, at the moment I can’t see myself going any higher. ‘Just keep drinking,’ Margaret insists and I try to drown the nauseous feeling in my stomach in another large gulp of boiled water.
When you wake up and see your dream in front of you, it makes for a good morning, doesn’t it? At Everest Base Camp I would wake up to the sight of my elusive goal for a week after we arrived. Between our arrival and the departure for ABC we had a very entertaining puja ceremony to bless our team’s passage on Everest and to celebrate the start of the expedition with (quite) a few drinks. I had no trouble during the first part of the puja, when three lamas from Rongbuk Monastery recited mantras for us, but I did struggle when the time came to start ‘celebrating’. After enjoying some beer and rakshi, the team members and the Sherpas began to demonstrate various feats of flexibility and craziness: splits, headstands, ‘ice-screw’ and every other imaginable kind of dancing… I was lost – I don’t drink, after all. ‘Mila, you write poems, right? Why don’t you read us one?’ Unable to get out of it, I chose to recite ‘For Me’ and, thus, was spared having to drink beer while simultaneously doing pirouettes. After the celebration only five of the Junkies’ team of seven made it to dinner; perhaps, three or four of us actually realized they were in the dining dome at base camp in China and not in a glass palace in Tuborgland. Thus, the fun and funny puja day came to an end for the team over/in a plate of yummy momos, prepared by our awesome cook Da Pasang.
The rest of the days at BC were spent in trivial activities: blogging (for those of us who were able to find a way around the BGANs not working), showers, laundry, reading, walking around BC, eating, drinking and even watching bits and pieces of ‘An Idiot Abroad’ and ‘Cowboys and Aliens’ on the big screen in the Movie Tent (which became Laundry Tent later in the expedition).
Thus, when on the 21st of April the time came for the team to leave on our first rotation, I was very excited – we were getting closer to Chomolungma at last! Little did I know that the trek to ABC along the Miracle Highway would be so painful and desperate.
After walking on the windy, dusty trail to Interim Camp for 3.5 hours I am shattered. I’d walked too fast for no good reason, and must now pay for not being more careful.The drilling headache, caused by the rapid gain in altitude and exacerbated by dehydration make me doubt whether or not I can get to ABC the next day. ‘We’re already halfway,’ Margaret says, trying to help me see the bright side. ‘Drink, rest – you’ll be fine tomorrow.’ I zip up my sleeping bag and pray that she may be right. In the morning I am feeling better. The headache, although less strong, is still there, but 400mg of Ibuprofen with coffee take care of it, and I feel I can continue on to ABC. I walk with Margaret following the rubbly trail on top of the moraine cutting through tall and sharp pinnacles of ice. The snaking path seems endless, and it takes me over five hours to make it to ABC. I am neither the first nor the last to stumble into our ABC dining dome upon arrival, and I see that the two team members already seated there are no less exhausted than I am. Soon, the other Junkies make it to the dome, and we try to have some dinner – an obligation and not at all a pleasure at high altitude.
The infamous North Side wind is still too strong for us to go any higher as it is early in the season, and the jet stream is still too close to the mountain. We spend several cold, sleepless nights and blurry days at ABC before we leave for the North Col on the 26th of April. It is a very windy day but we cannot afford to wait for the perfect weather any longer. Our team of Sherpas has already started carrying loads to the North Col, and it’s high time we followed them.
Having learnt my lesson on the way to Interin Camp, I walk to Crampon Point slowly, conserving energy, but it’s hard to restrain myself – the moment I put the crampons on my 8000-meter boots and exchange my ‘walking stick’ (trekking pole) for the ice axe, I want to run to the mountain which I have been dreaming to climb on. When I reach the first of the fixed ropes, guiding climbers to Camp 1 on the Col, and clip in, I feel happy… but very cold: the wind has already drained my body of its reserves of warmth. As we climb higher, I get colder and colder, having to stop often to massage my hands, which are freezing. When I see Phil, our leader, coming down, he tells me and Mark Horrell, whom I am climbing with, that the Col is very close but outrageously windy. Thus, once Mark and I get to the top of the steep section where we met Phil, I decide to turn back: we are now 100 vertical meters away from our target elevation, and I won’t risk getting frostbite just to say ‘I made it all the way to Camp 1’. As I descend the steep slopes through the ruthless white wind, following the expedition sirdar and my good friend Dorjee, I realize I’d made the right decision: I did not have those 100 meters in me, neither in warmth, nor in energy. Back in my tent at ABC I cough and cough forever – the wind has chilled me inside and out, and I worry that my immune system, weakened by the recent illness, will not be able to shake off the cold. Yet, I feel great – I’d climbed on Chomolungma, and it was a beautiful experience!
Although we are still unable to enjoy sleep and food at ABC, we believe we are acclimatized to the new elevation. The first rotation is over, and we descend to Base Camp to have a rest and wait for the right weather to go on the second rotation. Unlike other teams, we won’t sleep at Camp 1 but will simply climb and tag the Col again. The big difference between the first and the second rotation will be that we will not have an Interim Camp but will walk directly to ABC: with 1200 meters to cover, it will be a long day, almost too long for me…