Why riding to Everest Base Camp in Tibet is the ride of a lifetime

In Tibet, with the Cho Oyu mountain in the background   | Photo Credit: Royal Enfield

There are demons in my room or so it seems because they assume the forms of animals, objects and people at a whim. I open my eyes and they are gone and I realise that I have been hallucinating. It is a result of exhaustion, a lack of oxygen and the bitter cold. The demons have gone but a soft rhythmic bellowing persists. It is real!

I pull open the drapes and outside my window is a yak that’s taken it upon itself to be my morning alarm. But beyond the boisterous bovine, its permanent snow shining in the early morning sun, stands Mount Everest. So close, so clear that I can see the pool-table-sized limestone summit that is the pinnacle of a mountaineer’s glory.

Goosebumps break out because once again the realisation hits that here on a freezing morning in Southern Tibet I am seeing the very view that George Mallory first saw in 1921 — the North face of the tallest mountain in the world.

I had heard about George Mallory, but ever since I read Jeffrey Archer’s Paths of Glory, this gifted mountaineer, who was so restricted by the rudimentary climbing equipment and gear of the 1920s, has fascinated me.

So when the opportunity to ride from Kathmandu to the Everest Base Camp in Tibet presented itself, for me, as much as the thrill doled out and the fortitude required to ride over passes at 18,500 feet and in temperatures going down to -6 degrees Celsius, the attraction was also to stand where Mallory stood before he climbed Mount Everest.

We had started off from Kathmandu, a disparate bunch of 11 riders, with five days to go. Nepal was preening green and pretty after its monsoon, but large sections of the road on our route were slushy and wet, with the consistency ranging from that of thick treacle syrup to viscous porridge. I was astride the Royal Enfield Himalayan developed for conditions like this and that saw me through without a single fall on the first two days and the entire trip.

Riding through Nepal’s Terai

Riding through Nepal’s Terai   | Photo Credit: Royal Enfield

We were blessed because the monsoon had bid adieu, but the warmth and the humidity made me feel like I was in an open-air sauna as I cursed the heat-trapping capability of my riding gear. That is because we were still at terai altitude in the Nepal Himalayas and still below the tree line.

But two days later, when we started off from Gyirong, which is the first town across the border in Tibet, the cold was bone-chilling. We were now at 8,900 feet above sea level.

The roads in Tibet are Chinese-built, smooth and blemish-free. This meant we could hold high speeds on our motorcycles but it also meant that we ascended very quickly. Within three hours we were at the 17,200-foot pass that was the entrance to the Tibetan Plateau — quite correctly called ‘The Roof of the World’.

The riders with Mount Everest in the background

The riders with Mount Everest in the background   | Photo Credit: Royal Enfield

For me, that was a test of fortitude. Not only was I battling temperatures that were hovering around freezing point, I was also tense with trepidation about whether Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) would envelop me in its deadly embrace. I knew that to battle it, I had to consume a lot of water and keep calm so my breathing would be relaxed and deep.

But I just couldn’t keep calm because I was riding through such spectacular scenery. In the horizon was the deep blue Lake Paiku and beyond that loomed the perennial snow-capped mountains, the Eight Thousanders, so called because their summits stood at over 8,000 metres high. Here at Lake Paiku, the most dominant one was the Shishapangma at 8,013 metres (26,290 feet).

Our destination for that day was Tingri that is at an altitude of 14,265 feet. By the time we rolled into Tingri, AMS was rampant amongst us. When the oximeter clipped over my finger showed 65% oxygen, I was disappointed because there was a chance I would have to stay back at Tingri, because Rongbuk was at 16,340 feet. To give you an estimation of how high that is — my last skydive — where I jumped out of a plane — was from 15,000 feet!

And, to get to Rongbuk, there was an 18,000-foot-high pass to be ridden across. But that evening, I took it easy, drank enough water to put a camel to shame, and the next morning, I was ready to ride. Unfortunately, two riders had to stay back in Tingri.

The writer with Mount Shishapangma and Lake Paiku in the background

The writer with Mount Shishapangma and Lake Paiku in the background   | Photo Credit: Royal Enfield

That morning’s 140-kilometre ride was beyond spectacular, as we rode up to the pass where Mount Everest came into view. It was a beautiful blue-sky day and I remember marvelling at the view from the pass. The Everest at 8,848 metres (29,029 feet) stood taller than the Shishapangma, the Makalu, the Lhotse and the Cho Oyu that flanked it — all of them standing over 8,000 metres high.

The road down the pass was so splendid with its 108 hairpin bends that I had to really keep my mind in check and not get carried away with excitement that would make me breathe harder. It was not an easy task because I was rediscovering the joy of motorcycling in the Himalayas after 16 years.

That evening, as I stood at Rongbuk, watching the Everest go from white to golden with the last rays of the setting sun, I felt a sense of heady excitement just to be in its presence and I wasn’t even going to attempt to climb it.

Just imagine what George Mallory must have felt as he stood right there looking at this eternal mountain in 1921.

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Printable version | May 17, 2021 10:05:05 AM |

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