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Vehicles on high plateau. Vehicles now take the place of yaks on the high flat plateau.
Up to Base Camp
by Liesl Clark
April 23, 1999

March 23, 1999: Zhang-Mu, Tibet
A thick brown pall hangs in the air, as the wind picks up the dust from Zhang-Mu's streets. We're on the border between Nepal and Tibet, a no man's land presided over by Chinese customs officials and immigration officers in smart black and green suits. Local Tibetans swarm around us as we stuff our stamped passports into our backpacks. "Change money?" they ask, knowing we'll have to change our Nepalese rupees into Yuan, the standard Chinese currency.

Now that the entire team has made it across the border, little can stop us from reaching our destination: Everest Base Camp at 17,000 feet. Only landslides, avalanches, altitude sickness, or vehicle breakdowns on the road could slow us from getting there within the week, explains Eric Simonson, our expedition leader. Unlike Everest on the south side, from the north we can literally drive up to the mountain's base. It will take at least five days to adjust our bodies to the increasing altitude as we approach camp.

The border town of Zhang-Mu is the major spot to find provisions. The border town of Zhang-Mu is the major spot to find provisions.

Two nights are spent in Zhang-Mu, a Chinese/Tibetan border town that hangs on a steep mountainside. Time is spent ducking into the many street-side shops that luckily have last-minute staples and not much more. We're waiting for all our gear to come across the border. Simonson estimates we have a grand total of 15,000 pounds of food, tents, mountaineering hardware and ropes, camping and kitchen equipment, fuel, film equipment, and personal duffels. The gear fills up four, one-and-a-half-ton Chinese trucks, everything our team of 25 climbers and filmmakers could possibly need over the next two months. "We're really climbing a mountain of duffel bags," jokes British climber Graham Hoyland, who is here, for a second time, to search high on Everest for his great uncle's camera, which was loaned to George Mallory on his summit day. Neither Mallory nor the camera made it back down, and we're here to try to find out what happened to such a talented climber, who was so close to reaching the summit of Everest 29 years before Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay's first ascent in 1953.

March 25: Zhang-Mu to Nyelam
As we leave Zhang-Mu, our driver stops the bus and honks, unwilling to move forward. It's obvious something is in the street, as people watch from their doors to see what the driver will do. He finally gets out of the bus to shoo away the culprits: four pigeons oblivious to the noise, pecking at something in the road. "It's a good sign," says Hoyland. He knows that the drive ahead warrants thoughtful driving. Soon the left side of the road drops thousands of feet down to the gorge of the Bhote Kosi river below. Simonson comments that this is a heavy fault region, the tectonic plates of the Tibetan Plateau and the Indian subcontinent butting heads beneath us. Mud gives way to snow and we climb up and out of the deeply cut valley toward the craggy Himalayan peaks that beckon in the distance. It's clear we're finally in the mountains.

Tibetan women A crowd of Tibetan women eye the LCD screen of the digital camera with interest.
In the village of Nyelam, half-Tibetan and half-Chinese in architecture, yaks pick through trash in the street. Tinny disco music blasts from a shop door as we wander the muddy alleyways testing our lungs in the thin air. A group of Tibetan teenagers crowd around as I hand them the digital camera to view themselves in. These are the days where the LCD screen is finally replacing the Polaroid.

In the morning after breakfast, we all head up into the hills to get some exercise and a 2,000-foot gain in altitude. The snow begins to blow hard and oddly we welcome it, knowing this is the first step in the 'hardening' process that one has to go through to endure Everest. Some team members joke about how quickly one forgets the misery and cold of high places. But now that we're here, we all know what drives us back to the mountains—the challenge, the beauty, and the self-discovery. Several burning questions linger in particular: Will we find any evidence of Mallory or Irvine on the mountain? Is it possible that we might find some clues as to what happened to them on their fateful summit day in June of 1924?

March 27: Nyelam - Tingri
Driving further east, the brown hills and open expanses of Tibet take shape. We pass by small Tibetan villages with the ruins of monasteries standing in silent testimony to the Cultural Revolution. Brown fields are being cultivated for potatoes and barley. It's hard to imagine anything can grow in this parched cold climate. As we climb up toward the Son La Pass, the top of the watershed, we're finally on the Tibetan Plateau: Brown hills in the distance take shape in the cold, dusty wind. You have to carefully choose in which direction you gaze, avoiding the biting gusts that sting eyes and ears.

Tingri The dusty town of Tingri is one of the last stops en route to Base Camp.

In Tingri, we hide out in a tarp-covered wood frame shed, ducking from the 30-40 mph blasts of dust-laden wind. We've reached 14,270 feet at this desolate truckstop on the friendship Highway that links Lhasa with western Tibet. Yak bells tinkle behind the plastic walls of our shed, and prayer flags flutter horizontally toward the southeast, where Everest peeks behind a brown hill in the distance. Raven-like birds called choughs soar on the updrafts, scavenging for scraps of food thrown out behind the low-slung, white-washed Tibetan houses. To the south lies Cho Oyu, the world's sixth-highest peak. Both mountains loom beyond the flat expanse of the Tibetan Plateau. Everest's characteristic plume cloud streams boldly to the east, a definite sign of high winds aloft. Here, the wind has been turned on high, blasting across the high plateau, with fine dust settling in our eyes, noses, and deep within our ears.

March 29: Tingri - Base Camp
After two days of acclimatizing in Tingri, we're sufficiently anxious to get to Base Camp. Being on the move has been good for us to adjust to the rhythms of the weather. Days are windy and cold, and evenings are the time to be deep within your sleeping bag, staying warm in the still night air. We leave early in the morning for the last leg of our journey, a six-hour drive up over the Pang La pass to Base Camp. Views on the pass are breathtaking, with Everest and Cho Oyu demanding attention. It's all finally coming together. After months of preparation for the trip, Everest stands before us and the air is still. There is no plume cloud streaming from the summit, not a cloud in sight, or a single puff of wind. Today would be a good summit day.

Base Camp The North Side Base Camp sits on a terminal moraine; Everest looms behind.
This is a world where everything exists on a grand scale. Dry river basins stretch a mile across, glacial moraines displace billions of small stones, huge boulders hang on the sides of the moraines, the sky is a deep blue, and the nearby mountains are the highest in the world. As we drive up toward camp past small villages starting their spring barley plantings, there is a deep sense in the team that this is an auspicious moment. We're finally here, the first team to arrive, the day is calm, and the mountain stands before us ready to be climbed.

Unanswered Questions (May 25, 1999)
Forty-Eight Yaks (May 21, 1999)
On Top of the World (May 17, 1999)
Summit Team Moves Higher (May 16, 1999)
Still at Camp V (May 15, 1999)
Snow Bound (May 14, 1999)
Outsmarting the Weather (May 13, 1999)
Last Trip Up (May 12, 1999)
Up to ABC/The Rescue (May 11, 1999)
The Image of Mallory (May 8, 1999)
In Extremis (May 7, 1999)
Pieces of the Puzzle (May 6, 1999)
Dearest George (May 5, 1999)
Mallory's Discoverers Return (May 4, 1999)
Mallory Reported Found (May 3, 1999)
Waiting in Silence (May 1, 1999)
Up to the Search Site (April 30, 1999)
To the North Col (April 29, 1999)
Waiting out the Wind (April 28, 1999)
Search About to Begin (April 25, 1999)
Pitching a 1933 Tent (April 23, 1999)
Early Camp Found at 21,750 Feet on Everest (April 20, 1999)
Up to Base Camp (April 23, 1999)

Photos: Liesl Clark

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