Top of the World – A tour to the North Side of Mt. Everest

We are standing at 6.000m above sea level. Our view wanders 2.800m upward to the 3rd pole, the higest point in the world. We have been hiking the North Side of Mount Everest towards the Advanced Base Camp. The air is thin, the wind is strong. During the day the sun burns down on us mercylessly, while during the cold night, we huddle in our sleeping bags and listend to the wind barrel down on our tents. Here, Mallory, Irvin and their expedition had already made their way from the Bay of Bangalore, when they discovered the small valley, which paves the way towards the summit.
The Advanced Base Camp lies at 6.400m on the North Side of Mt. Everest. The way there is the worlds highest trekking tour, the “Golden Highway”. We made it to 6.000m but could not push on as our Yaks were not able to follow. Nonetheless, we had a superb view on the North Side of Mount Everest.

Quick facts

  1. Trail: The ABC trek is the highest hiking trail in the world (up to 6.400m). No climbing required. Way is mostly gravel and rocks.
  2. Stages: 3 Stages. Warmup walk from Rongbuk Monastry to Everest Base Camp, walk from EBC to Intermediate Camp at 5.800m (with overnight stay at Camp 1 at ca. 5.500m), and “summit day” from Intermediate Camp towards ABC and back.
  3. Elevation: 5.200m to 6.000m (ABC is at 6.400m). The thin air makes the hiking very exhausting (50% less power than on sea level).
  4. Temperatures: 20°C to -15°C. Temperatures turn very cold at night. Wind was strong during the day.
  5. Date and duration: We went in October for 16 days. Main seasons are April/May and September/October.

Things to cross of the bucket list

  • Hike the North Side of Mount Everest
  • Climb higher than Kilimajaro (possibly higher than Denali)
  • Turn all prayer wheels around Potala Palast in Lhasa
  • Put up a prayer flag on 6.000m
  • See the wall of books at Sakia
  • Check the water at Namtso lake

Things I would have improved in hindsight

  • Pay more attention to the planning of the hike (The Yaks were not able to cross a particular river. as a result, we could not set a camp higher than 5.800m and thus not make it to ABC. Surely, there would have been a planable way).
  • Adjust the packing list (sun protection, esp. hat and strong sunglasses; add medication esp. saltwater nose spray for dry sinuses)
  • Try to go to North Col (its “only” 600m up from ABC)

Here is the full story

Day 1 (29.09.) – Flight to Lhasa
Our flight leaves from Shanghai at 07:15 (China Eastern Airlines via Xi’an was the best option). As the flight to Lhasa is domestic, we do not need to go through immigration, but we get our permit checked (photographed by smartphone), and we are on our way. In Xi’an, we need to change planes but keep our seats. We sit on the left side (Seat A and B) and have a great view as the plane descends over Lhasa valley and does a 180° turn around the mountain ridge for the approach to LXA airport. From the airport, it takes about 1h drive to the city (with one checkpoint on the way). We check into the Gang-Cyan Hotel on Beijing Street. The thin air makes us feel slightly drunk and dizzy. Still, we explore downtown around Jokhang Temple and have some Jaozi and Cold Nudels on the street.

Day 2 (30.09.) – Acclimatization day
We have one free day. Which is good. We had a horrible night. Excruciating headaches make it difficult to get any sleep. We had not taken any Diamox but we take a dose of 125mg every 8h. Early afternoon, the headache clears and we attempt a walk around town.I walkt to Potala Palace and back via Jokhang Tempel. Joerg, our third traveller, arrives with several hours delay. Learning: its better to take a Diamox either before traveling or on the first night of arrival.

Day 3 (01.10.) – Potala Palace and the Debate of the Monks
Today is the start of our tour program. As good consultants, we start with the most important things first: Potala Palace. Security is very strict. Our time-window tickets have our passport numbers on them and we need to go through five checkpoints, until we are insight (non of which spotted the mistakes in the passport number on Joergs ticket). Up on top (the ascent is our first test of shape), we get to see the most impressive roof terrace in Lhase. Next, the study and the living quaters of the current Dalai Lama, who resides in india, as well as the great assembly hall and grave Stupas of Dalai Lamas (biggest one is from No. 5, who was the first DALAI Lama). After a while, our heads get dizzy again, from the smell of incents and Yak butter, as well as our guides explanations of the different schools of Tibetean Buddhism, their Lamas and scholars. In the afternoon, we drive to Sera Monastery, home to one school of Tibetean Buddhism and formerly housing ca. 6.000 monks (today only a few hundred). In Sera, we can see the monastery, but most importantly, we can watch the Debate of the Monks. The Debate is the daily training of the young monks in the art of debate. Pairwise, they discuss questions of philosophy and religion. Thereby, one monk asks questions (with a very engaging, rehearsed gesture of clapping hands and stomping feet), while the other monk sits and answers. Its not only a great “dance” to watch, but we discover later that we take over some of the gestures. In the evening, we round of our welcome dinner by a nightly round around Portala Palace, turning all prayer wheels.

Day 4 (02.10.) – Drepung Monastery and Jokhang Tempel
Today is Sunday. The Tibeteans do not visit the tempels today. We, however, continue on our path to spiritual enlightenment (at least to some knowledge on Tibetean Buddhism), to Drepung Monastery. Noticeable is the great white wall (in this case, a metal construction), a feature of every monastery, where once a year a huge picture is displayed. Also noticeable are the many dogs that are brought here for rescue and a good live. In the afternoon, we visit the insight of Jokhang Tempel. First, we need to make our way through the praying crowd. There are now queues, this Sunday. The temple holds a holy statue, bless3ed by Buddha himself. The temple is built on a filled up lake. The legend says that this was the heart of a demon, which now cannot rise anymore. The Jokhang Tempel is actually on the ground of old Lhasa, the holy land. Around the temple, we find many small streets and shop. Joerg uses the chance to buy a monk robe, while I go with some prayer flags.

Day 5 (03.10.): Namtso Lake
We have to get up early to drive 280km to Namtso Lake. It takes some banging on office doors to wake the hotel receptionist up and get some breakfast, at 7. We leave at 7.30, with 3 people from the government joining us, albeit privately as it seems. We drive along the lhasa railroad tracks. Many nomads and villagers are harvesting grass for the winter. Roads are largely in good condition. Our chinese co-travelers get ripped of at Namptso National Park entrance stop for fotographing locals posing with mastiff dogs. After entering the park, we quickly climb up to Flanagan Pass at 5.190m. We stop for pictures in heavy wind but wit a commanding view of Namtso Lake in the distance. After a quick lunch, we have only about 1,5h to explore. Much to short. First we head to the lake shore. The water is deep blue surrounded by green grasslands and snowy mountains. The scenery is indescribable and one can understand why Tibetans are spiritual people. From the lake shore we walk past rock formations and climb up the viewpoint hill. Altitude causes us little problems as we hike upwards past prayer flags flying in the wind. Due to time, we cannot go up all the way, but the view is magnificent nonetheless. At 14.30 we hit the road again, hoping to survive the crazy road (with its many close encounters with overtaking cars). The ride back turned out to be one of the craziest, yet. A two lane highway is turned into a 3 or even four lane road. Someone overtook the overtaking cars while almost driving through the ditch. Overtaking was frequently so close that cars needed to squeeze back into their lanes only meters in front of oncoming trucks. The road itself was mostly ok, but narrow an difficult to foresee. no problem, people overtake blind. the only conclusion is that drivers are enlightened. In Lhasa the road again deteriorates due to construction. A railway underpass is flooded despite the weather being dry. some cars drive through the water anyway; we watch drivers, pants wet to the knees, draining the water from their cars after driving through the deep water instead of taking another road. The road varies between a narrow dirt track with impossibly steep inclines and wide aspgalt tracks, at one time a factory yard serves as road. where the road is wide, there are no lanes. People seem to drive on all sides of the road, left and right. Finally, our driver pushes the 10m bus through the city traffic, cutting left and right, almost constantly honking, while himself being in a state of pure serenity. Surprisingly, we arrive at the hotel safely and, even more surprising, have not seen an accident

Day 6 (04.10.) – Lhasa to Gyantse
Today we leave Lhasa, to finally head for the mountains. Our first etape leads us to the town of Gyantse. We drive along rivers past small towns and monasteries. We pass Yamdrok Lake, which is as stunning as Namtso Lake. After lunch, we drive up the pass of Netschi Kangsam, the „Glacier Mountain“ at 50.20m before descending into Gyantse. The town features a monastery (with the 1.000.000 Buddha Stupa) and the best preserved City Fortress in Tibet.

Day 7 (05.10.) – Gyantse to Sakia
We start our day fresh with a typical tibetean breakfast: Tsampa. Tsampa is made out of wheat from fried barley seeds, mixed with Yak butter tea, and, depending on the taste, sugar and Yak cheese. Mix with your fingers into a dough. Eat. From Gyatse we drive to Shigatse. Its harvesting week, so we see many people in the fields cutting and loading grain. In Shigatse, its the time of the Tibetean Opera. The monestry is overcrowded, but we have a chance to see the singers perform. People look at us more strangely than in other cities, but maybe thats just a bad feeling. From Shigatse we drive on the Friendship Highway (passing the 5.000km mark from Shanghai) to the town of Sakia. Sakia is towered by a monetary; its old (looking) part gives a deep view into the villagers life. Dried Yak dung on the walls of houses, cows in the streets, people carrying food and spring water to their houses.

Day 8 (06.10.) – Sakia to Rongbuk Monastry
In the morning, we visit the most impressive Sakia Monastry. Its main hall holds 85.000 scriptures on Tibetean Buddhism. From Sakia, we drive back on the Friendship Highway and into Qomolangma National Park. We drive over two passes of ca. 5.200m. From the second one, we have a spectacular view on Choy Oyo while Mount Everest and Makalu hide out in the clouds. Entry into the National Park takes time as we need to wait for the guards to finish their lunch. At late afternoon we reach Romphu Monastery. We stay at the guest house, rather than at the tourist tent city a kilometer down the road. In the evening, the sky clears and we have a fantastic view on Mount Everest for the first time; at dusk and later under a star-covered sky.

Day 9 (07.10.) – This is our first „hiking“ day
We do an easy walk from Rombuk to EBC. We walk along the road to the tourist tent city (horrible place. Do not do the „drive to EBC“ tour), and continue offroad to the EBC viewpoint. The viewpoint is a small hill, which overlooks the gravel plains of EBC. A sign says „Tourists stop“. We proudly step over this boundary to walk to our base camp. We are the only group at EBC; 4 lonely tents on the wide planes. The first tent dinner is noodles with Yak meat. Perfect preparation for tomorrow. No elevation gain, we stay at 5.200m.

Day 10 (08.10.) – Today is our first real hiking day.
We have eggs and toast breakfast. First order of (hiking) business is to convince our driver Tensing to drive us across the river, which cuts through the camp. With this head start, we hike on the left side of the valley towards everest. The track climbs slowly and, despite the high altitude, we make good time. The sun is burning hot. On our left, large stones seem to defy gravity on the washed out sandy slopes. To our right, we see the glacier pools of Rongbuk Glacier. After lunch, we follow the trail up the slopes to our left, high above the river. A bit into the side valley, we reach our camp. I have a strong headach. The sight of dinner makes me vomit. A few cups of tea and I vomit again. Great. We are unsure on the severity of my acute mountain sickness, but decide to stay the night at the altitude, because its late and I feel to exhausted to walk down. I take a Diamox pill and go to sleep. Total elevation gain is ca. 300m from 5.200 m to 5.500m.

Day 11 (09.10.) – Third hiking day
I feel better and we decide to move on. Todays goal is camp 2 at 5.800m. Michi and I leave early, after a breakfast of hard cookies (much better for the stomach). The weather is cloudy and we face a strong headwind blowing through the valley. The path follows the glacier stream upwards and later leads us on the glacier. As the path caved in, we need to wait for our guide to lead us. The cold wind and the altitude make the walk exhausting. We reach camp at ca. 16.30 and fall asleep in the warm afternoon sun. I battle all kinds of altitude problems, headache, sinus infection, stomach problems (dialectic state of being hungry and wanting to throw up). It’s no fun , if it’s easy. The night turns cold (ca. -10°C outside). Total elevation gain is ca. 300m from 5.500m ot 5.800m.

Day 12 (10.10.) – Today is „summit day“.
We walk towards Advanced Base Camp but will return to camp at night. Michi decides to stay in the camp, so our party consists of five (Jörg, Dan, myself as well as our guide and one Yak man). From the camp, we first need to descent ca. 50m to cross an icy river (the one our Yaks are not able to cross to reach the intermediate camp). Ascending from the river valley, we reach a gravel ridge, lined by Seracs on both sides. We have perfect weather and a clear view on the impressive North Face of Mt. Everest. We hike up to 6.000m to a gravel mountain that is a bit higher than the others, ca. half way to ABC. As I set this target, Jörg and Dan christien this pile of gravel „Mount Fabian“. We hoist our prayer flags with the names of family and friends on it. After lunch, we turn back to camp 2. The sun makes waking pleasant, also we are still exhausted from the elevation. Climbing through the river valley becomes an ordeal. We are happy to finally reach camp. Again, we fall into the sleeping bags. Dinner is an unwelcomed interruption. I am plagued by headaches until late at night. Total elevation gain today is ca. 370m, highest point is ca. 6.000m.

Day 13 (11.10.) – Fifth hiking day
After a cold night, we make a late start towards Rongbuk. We leave camp at 10.00. The weather is sunny but we face a strong wind blowing up from the valley. We descent over the rocky surface oft he glacier. Walking becomes easier, once we reach the river, and shortly afterwards, our first camp site. There, we meet another group on their ascent. At ca. 14.00, we start our final descent towards EBC. Descending the sandy slopes into the main valley is easy, but the walk through the valley seems to drag on. We are fully exhausted from the elevation. The sight of Tensing with our bus creates almost endless joy. However, a celebratory beer gets us up on our feet. Back at Rongbuk, we have dinner and say good bye to our guides. As there are no showers in the guest house, the big wash needs to wait. We huddle in our heating blankets and doze of.

Day 14 (12.10.) – Return trip
The beds, although simple, feel heavenly. Breakfast with tea, eggs and pancakes. The view on Everest is clear, as we head towards Shigatse. On the way, we stop at the village of our Yak guides, to take some things to Lhasa. They meet us at the road with Yak butter tea. From the first pass, leaving the valley, we have a phantastic view over Mt Everest, Makalu, Cho Oyo and Lhotse. We say our final goodbyes to this wonderful piece of land. At night, we reach Shigatse and have the first shower since we left Sakya.

Day 15. (13.10.) – Back to Lhasa
From Shigatse, we drive to Lhasa. We enjoy the views. Harvesting is still ongoing. In the late afternoon, we reach our hotel in Lhasa. We need to spend the afternoon discussing with our tour agency, as their planning and equipment was poor (their plan was not possible, as always in this season, there is to little snow for their Yaks to reach the interims camp at 6.000m from which we could successfully ascent to ABC. For dinner, we finally enjoy beef skewers.

Day 16 (14.10.) – Last day in Lhasa
Jörg and Michi are sick, today. So I spend the morning tending to them. In the afternoon, Michi and I take a walk through Lhasa, esp. around Jokhang Tempel. We have lunch and coffe at Makye Ame, watching the pilgrims walk around the tempel. We explore the big market and have some more cofe in a small artist cofe shop. At night, we have a final dinner with Dan.

Day 17 (15.10.) – Flight home
We do one final city round in the morning, as our flight is a bit delayed. As always, nobody at the airport knows anything. Finally, we make it to Xi’an and later to Shanghai, arriving home around midnight.

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