Drujal had promised us an early morning and he didn't disappoint. We had to be on the bus at 6AM, so we were up at 5.30AM to pack and get ready. It would have been even earlier if we'd have had to have showered, but the guesthouse didn't believe in washing. Thank heaven for small mercies.
Worse than the time was the cold. We'd noticed the temperature drop as we climbed further above sea level, but when compounded by the early morning winds it was literally freezing. I helped pack the bags onto the coach just to slow the onset of frostbite that was threatening to take any number of appendages, some more vital than others. Once we were all aboard, we sat quietly awaiting the bus' heating system to warm us up enough so that we might be able to go to sleep without the fear of hypothermia taking us before daybreak. But the bus didn't have a heating system. Those few hours were the coldest I have ever been. Unable to move around, or put on any more layers, I just sat there and stared intently on the horizon, waiting for the sun to appear over the mountains.
Even when the sun did eventually break from cover, it still took a good few hours before I could drop the hood of my jacket. At least the landscape was becoming more interesting, and more evocative of our destination, with snow capped mountains beginning to tear across the skyline beyond the tussocked plains.
After what seemed liked hours of relentless cold, we pulled over at an irrelevant looking lay-by and were encouraged to make our way off the bus. I was reluctant, as I'd just started to get the sensation back in my thighs, but when I did eventually stagger off I saw what was causing all the hubbub. There, framed by the disappearing hillsides that lined the mountain pass, was Everest. Our first real-life, honest to goodness view of the highest point on Planet Earth. Mind blowing stuff.
Stranger still was the Tibetan man, in his bright red North Face jacket and knitted hat, looking over a small pack of dogs. Who he was and what he was doing all alone on a pass 5248 metres high, early on a frozen morning, with no visible means of transport, will remain a mystery. But I managed to coax a photo out of him, just because it felt necessary to record his existence if nothing else.
We dropped into a network of valleys, losing our landmark for a few hours before stopping in a rough rural village for lunch. It goes to show how well oiled this tourist route is, that no matter how run down the village there's always a restaurant with an English (and I use the word generously) menu (again, generously). Just as we were leaving, a huge plume of sand rose above the building line and around the corner can a column of the dustiest children I have ever seen. Most were wearing fragments of a uniform, marking them out as belonging to some sort of institution - hopefully a school - and there must have been three hundred of them.
Most just looked at us strangely as they passed, some threw insults, some laughed and some even practised English on us. The more inquisitive from the regiment posed for photos or offered a high five, and then, just as dustily as they'd appeared, they were gone.
We carried on, along the ochre valleys, and after crossing a Chinese Military checkpoint (the Chinese do love their checkpoints) we were finally in the Qomolangma National Park. The coach then made it's way up a terrifying collection of snaking, un-barriered tracks - another good time for Jane - stopping at the peaks of the passes we crossed and allowing me to put together a collection of photos of Everest from ever shortening distances.
Finally we arrived at Rombuk, a 'town' which essentially comprises two buildings - a monastery and a guest house, our home for the night. The guest house rooms are four berth, so we shared with an ailing Al and Judy again - the effects of altitude had affected Al's asthma and dust allergies and left him very short of breath. I could also feel the altitude here, more so than just the general lethargy and fuzzy headed-ness I'd encountered at lower altitudes. Every breath was a struggle now and I had to remind myself to breath slowly and deeply, otherwise I'd find myself getting light headed from the lack of oxygen entering my bloodstream.
Drujal had warned us earlier that we'd have to be quick if we were to make it to Basecamp before the light went, so Ria, Sander, Ors, Kate and I hurried onto the bus that would take us to the Tent City and from there it was a short 3km hike to the Basecamp. The walk, contrary to what you might assume, is relatively flat, climbing only 200 metres in altitude and is pretty easy going. Every step saw my lungs relax in the low pressure and we made good time over the distance, all things considered.
The approach was wider and less impressive than I'd imagined. Some boulders littered a remarkably plain landscape, but most of the ground was covered in a mixture of small, grey rocks and sand with the valley walls the same, pale shade of grey. Some were snow capped, some weren't, but the whole scene was rather dreary, enlivened only by a small glacial lake on the road to Basecamp that was perfect for photos and added some colour to the landscape south of the horizon. I say 'south of the horizon' because the sky was a brilliant blue, the weather absolutely perfect for viewing the mountain and ensuring that it rarely left our sight as we climbed towards it.
After checking in with the Military upon arriving (told you), we climbed the small mound that marks the end of the tourist trail to Everest. The view beyond was incredibly tantalising, making it seem like only a few more steps to the second basecamp (the one for real mountaineers, with the appropriate licenses), and from there only a short hike to the summit. Everything looked so clean and approachable in the early evening light, and I would had given anything to put one step on the snow that would mark the ragged mane of the mountain. I know this blog has been full of superlatives, and I might have commented on it before, but this really felt like a milestone in both the trip and my life. I can't imagine much topping the sensation of looking out over such beauty, knowing that I've seen one of the world's greatest sights up close and in person... It marked a specific waypoint in my life I think; there was now Before Everest and After Everest.
As I hiked back to the guesthouse, running mostly on adrenaline, I was unable to stop myself looking back at the mountain every few metres. It had been such a goal in our journey thus far, and something I'd looked forward to since planning the trip, that I was sorry to leave it behind. Even when we were safely tucking into a hearty dinner of rice and yak back in the saloon beside the guesthouse, I felt the need to keep darting out - for just one more look. The night drew in, the temperature dropped and people started drifting off to bed but the mountain remained, lit by some ethereal light, and looking seductive and dangerous in equal measure.
Eventually I tore myself away and tucked myself into bed. The rooms are unheated, so I'm relying on the trio of blankets I've secured, plus my thermals, to see me through the night.
Oh, and Allan's just started snoring.