“Everest has always been a magnet for kooks, publicity seekers, hopeless romantics and others with a shaky hold on reality.”
― Jon Krakauer, Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster
I don’t consider myself much of an adventurer, really. I’ve never had any desire to climb Mount Everest. But I do love a challenge. So when a friend suggested a Mount Everest cycling trip to the base camp of the mountain, I couldn’t resist. Such opportunities don’t present themselves often.
In preparation, I read Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, knowing that since I wasn’t planning to climb the mountain, I wouldn’t face the same difficulties. Still, I was fascinated by the history of it. The stories. All those who tried to climb and succeeded, as well as those who failed, many fatally.
Our plan was to approach the mountain from the Tibetan side, cycling from Lhasa, the Tibetan capital. They warn you about the lack of oxygen in Lhasa with an elevation of 12,000 feet (3,656 m) so I took some ibuprofen before the flight from Kathmandu to Lhasa. Shortly after exiting the plane in Lhasa, I started to feel light-headed and had to sit down for a few minutes. It was an odd feeling: I didn’t feel short of breath at first, just had the sensation that something wasn’t quite right. The low oxygen was definitely a factor throughout the journey. The distances we covered daily were much lower than they would have been closer to sea level.
We numbered around fifteen riders, plus support staff, including SAG vehicle drivers, guides, mechanic and cooks. We had hot meals three times a day, which was nice though the cuisine did get tiresome after a while and many people suffered gastrointestinal distress, myself included. The weather was better than expected, mostly in the 50s (F) during the day, though well below freezing at night. And daytime temperatures dropped the closer we got to the mountain, with the wind picking up as well. I hate the cold weather and had brought along a sleeping bag rated to -40 degrees. The sleeping bag was enormous and I took a lot of ribbing because of it but hey, if the support staff is carrying the gear, why not be as comfortable as possible?
As we left Lhasa, we were still at a low enough elevation that we encountered many farms and trees with leaves changing colors. This was autumn, harvest time, and the highway was filled with tractors carrying wheat or laborers from farm to farm. We would often draft behind one of these vehicles to ease the burden of pedaling for a bit. Sometimes you’d get waves and smiles from those in the back (we were quite the curiosity, after all), while other times they appeared uninterested. I followed a tractor for miles with a woman in the back who never made eye contact but just before the tractor slowed to make a turn, she looked at me and signaled with her hand for me to slow down. It was a nice gesture.
Another time a farmer ahead of me lost his hat in the wind. He stopped his tractor, about to turn around and head back down the highway for it but I stopped, scooped it up and brought it to him. No words were exchanged, just smiles.
As we got away from Lhasa, the terrain became more barren and the climbs more intense. We all had our good and bad days. I remember one day where I just didn’t have any strength at all. I stopped at every switchback, often getting off the bike and just sitting on the side of the road. I put it down to oxygen deprivation and a bad stomach. The next day I was fine.
Our highest climb took us up to the top of Gyatso-La pass at 5,248 meters (17,218 feet). We were advised not to stay too long at the top, since the air is thinner and the weather sometimes extreme. At the top of every pass were hundreds of prayer flags, a stunning site.
Tibet is controlled by China and is officially referred to as Tibet Autonomous Region. I’ll avoid politics here and just explain how this situation impacted us, the cyclists. On the plus side, the infrastructure is outstanding. The majority of the trip was along the so-called Friendship Highway, a well-paved road with clear kilometer markers (though they are made of stone and resemble tomb stones). The downside was dealing with many, many security points. There are two types of checkpoint: police and military controlled. At the police checkpoints, cyclists were allowed to pass without stopping. But military checkpoints required us all to line up with our passports and present them for inspection. All of our names were on the same visa, something I have never seen before, so we had to line up in the same order in which our names appeared on the visa.
At the end of each day, no matter how tired or sick you felt, you knew you were one day closer to the mountain. It was exhilarating.
I’ve done about half dozen multi-day cycling trips in my life, throughout the world, but this one was the most challenging. The climbing, the low oxygen, but it was more than that. The isolation you feel and the distance from civilization, even with the support crew. I felt the fragility of life that I don’t often experience. Passing a fatal car accident added to that feeling for sure. But I noticed that it brought the group together. That guy you thought was a bit of a pompous jackass? He may be the one to save your life.
And as it turned out, safety concerns were legitimate. Near the end of the ride, one of the riders in our group didn’t show up at the rest spot. This was the only day of dirt road riding, and the terrain was treacherous in spots.
I remember riding over rock and through sand realizing how different this is from the road riding I’m used to. Years ago, in Arizona, I did a lot of trail riding but I was out of practice. It took me some time to remember how to do it. If you go too fast, you lose control. If you go too slow, you can’t keep your balance and choose the right path. It was a juggling act. Hitting a patch of sand, the bike slid and I had the sensation of driving in snow. When the car skids, you have to let it go, correct the steering and keep going. It was the same on a bicycle. The road we were on climbed the side of the mountain, dangerously close to the abyss with only sporadic concrete barriers to save you.
So when a rider didn’t show up, panic started to set in. One of the support vehicles had gone back to the farthest point where he had last been seen and there was no trace of him. His wife, understandably, was quite distraught. If he wasn’t on the road, where was he? We tried not to consider the worst but all signs pointed to his having gone off the side of the mountain. So we organized a small search party and headed back down the road, planning to stop and look over the cliff and spot him, hopefully alive and not too badly injured.
After about ten minutes of riding in silent dread, we spotted him on the side of the road. Helmet shattered, glasses broken, blood on the side of his face. But he was alive. We pulled up and asked him what had happened. He had hit a patch of sand, the same one that had reminded me of driving in snow, only he wasn’t so lucky. He fell on a rock, cracking his helmet and knocking him unconscious. When he came to (we’re not sure how much later) he was disoriented, climbed on his bike and started pedaling in the wrong direction. That was why we couldn’t find him. He finally realized his mistake, turned around and that’s when we saw him.
Nothing prepares you for the sight of the majestic mountain. The tallest point on earth. Snow-covered. It was an emotional, celebratory moment, climbing a pass and seeing the mountain before you. We stopped to take pictures of each other holding our bikes above our heads.
We arrived at base camp on the last day of the climbing season. Vendors were packing up to head home for the season when the roads become impassible. It was windy at the base, prayer flags fluttered in the breeze. At the mountain’s summit, 29,000 feet (8848 m) above sea level, snow drifts blew off into the air. It was unimaginable to me that anyone could climb to the top. Just getting to base camp was challenge enough for me.
Time to plan the next ride. Maybe something a little easier, with less climbing and better food. There’s been talk of a ride in Bordeaux. A winery tour. That sounds nice.