The day after our North Col debacle, we began our retreat from Everest by walking down from Advanced Base Camp at 6,400 metres (21,000 feet) to Base Camp at 5,150 metres (17,000 feet). Our expedition leader, Jamie, was too busy dealing with Andrew, our ‘unassisted’ summitteer, to say goodbye to us at camp.
It’s an eight hour walk downhill to Base Camp and it’s a difficult walk over shale, loose rock and rubble where we have to watch where we place our boots. I have managed to develop a high altitude cough. I feel as if I have burnt the middle of my lungs, just under my breastbone, but it may be that with all that gasping for air, they have dried out and become infected. Anyway, I can’t walk and cough at the same time because I will die from lack of oxygen. It makes for a slow journey, fighting for air, either because I’m walking or coughing. Debbie kindly follows along behind so as not to pressure me. I feel like a complete invalid and totally decrepit. At this rate, we’ll still be on the mountain next week.
We stop for lunch just after the spot where Interim Camp would be if Jamie hadn’t arranged for it to be dismantled to save costs. It had taken 3.5 hours to get this far partly because we were slow and partly because the trail down involved crossing a river that on the way up was frozen but now was not. The unfrozen river blocked our path which, after surveying the limited number of options for further progress, necessitated negotiating a twelve foot drop down sheer ice. I’m not sure how we all got down without someone hurting themselves – perhaps it was the thought that medical help was still two days away!
I felt exhausted already. Jo offered me an inhaler and some cough sweets from the medical kit. I have never used an inhaler and didn’t want to start now but I stuck it in my pocket anyway, just in case. She’s not looking particularly brilliant herself – burnt tongue and burnt lips along with exhaustion from yesterday’s efforts, the lack of sleep and the low oxygen levels in her blood make her, arguably, worse than me.
At 12:30 we move on down the mountain, using a mixture of gravity, weight and stumbling feet for downward momentum. It’s still hard work despite continually achieving lower altitudes and increased oxygen which ought to make us feel better.
After 30 minutes or so, I stop for a good cough. Debbie grabs me, turns me round, puts both hands on my shoulders and says:
“Relax! Take some deep breaths and let them go sloooowly…… Come on! Take it easy, you’re all tense!”
So, I try. Deep breath in, fill my lungs and slooooow exhale. What’s that? Deep breath in? I haven’t been able to do that for more than a week and now, all of a sudden, I feel like my lungs have twice the capacity they had a second ago. Suddenly, I feel turbocharged and, apart from stopping for a good cough every so often, I can motor downhill. Having spent 3.5 hours covering the first 8 km, we now managed the next 11 in 3 hours with ease despite having to walk into driving snow and chilling winds that grabbed and pulled at our clothing.
Base Camp had an easy familiarity about it and generated the warmth of a safe haven. Maybe that was because we had only one more night left to endure on the mountain. Just that thought alone was a morale booster.
The summiteers, Tom and Andrew, were resting at base Camp, waiting for the next weather window to begin their attempt to reach the top of the highest mountain in the world. Tom is a delightful man with whom to spend time chatting about his experiences, ambitions and answering any questions we may have. Andrew, in contrast, isn’t pleased to see us at all. He reminded us about camp hygiene and spent his time cocooned in his own little world despite being with us in the same mess tent at meal times. He still won’t eat any food from a plate any of us have touched so there is no point in passing anything to him – he wants to reach past everyone and help himself directly.
Our last night was comparatively warm. As usual, I took a nalgene bottle full of hot water to bed but had to evict it from my sleeping bag because I became too hot. In the morning, we enjoyed breakfast in the mess tent in a balmy temperature of minus 5.4 centigrade! No need for gloves or woolly hats.
The transport, an old 4×4, turned up sufficiently late that we all felt that we would be spending yet another night at Base Camp. In desperation I had run through all the possible options in my mind for escape:
1). Hire another 4×4. No, too expensive at $1,000.
2). Call a helicopter. Even more expensive.
3). Fake death. Perfect!
I was trying to decide what sort of death I fancied (can I die from disappointment?) when a battered old Toyota arrived to take us back to Kathmandu. Having said goodbye and good luck to Tom, we jumped aboard and spent the next 4 hours rattling over the desert on unmade roads, up and down mountain passes, past herds of yak, through scrubby little villages that had whitewashed houses built into the hillside, before emerging on to the sealed road that the Chinese euphemistically call ‘The Friendship Highway’ (doubtless in a bid to make the Tibetans feel better about being under the yoke).
In the early evening, we reached the border town of Zhangmu where we would spend our last night in China before crossing back into Nepal. The town is glued to the side of a gorge that, seemingly, rises vertically so that the top end of town must be at least 200 metres higher than the bottom. It has narrow little streets that are wide enough for only one vehicle to go up or down at a time and which are lined with warehouses where commodities of all description are loaded and unloaded as transport is swapped on their way to market. The town is full of traders of the type who enjoy bling, bad fashion and nasty cigarettes. And, of course, the inevitable ladies of the night. Everyone it seems is out to make a buck.
We were billeted in a Chinese state run hotel that was comfortably ranked in the worst 10 hotels in which Debbie and I have had the misfortune to spend time. The rooms compared unfavourably with those that are rented by the hour to the cheapest prostitutes on the planet: filthy, dirty, smelly, with soiled bed sheets and a window that could neither be shut nor locked (filming, for the purposes of, I assume). Our bedroom lacked a bathroom which in some ways was a blessing – our colleagues did have such a luxury but they didn’t work (and were sufficiently dirty that no one cared if they worked or not). Debbie and I enjoyed a communal bathroom at the end of the corridor that boasted two cold water sinks, a urinal and a squatter toilet with a twisted door that wouldn’t close.
To say the place was a shithole would be to imply that it was better than it was.
I cannot imagine how it would feel to have stood on the summit of Everest, having endured for 60 days of all the deprivations of the mountain and then ended up in this disease infested, sperm encrusted, effluent smeared doss house. It’s hard to believe that Project Himalaya could have contracted for this place. But they did.
The good news was that we could have our first shower for two weeks in the massage parlour opposite the ‘hotel’. The showers may have been in the basement, sharing space with a massage table that was covered in a roll of plastic sheeting and where the place smelt of old sweat and stale sex, but they were luxuriously hot and I washed myself three times. When Jo’s turn came, she was lucky enough to share the showers with one of the local tarts who demonstrated how to clean every part of the body using a large brush! At least it was educational.
We went to bed, having enjoyed a couple of beers for the first time for two weeks, cocooned in sleeping bag liners and clothes. I was determined not to allow any part of my body to touch any part of the room. Ironically, I would rather have been sleeping in a cramped tent in temperatures cold enough to freeze meat and with the wind attempting to rip the canvas apart. What an inglorious end to our Everest experience!