Qolomalangma by night

From near death to exhilaration on Qomolangma mountain

In the very early hours of Friday July 29 2022, I thought I was going to die as I sat in my yak hair tent at the foot of Qomolangma mountain, in Tibet, China.

I could not take in enough oxygen and battled to breathe. I started to shake. I prayed for my life to be spared, at least to save my wife Kathy the awful trouble of having to take my body off the mountain. At least 309 people had died over the years up to that morning while attempting to climb the mountain and more than 200 corpses have not been recovered, so have become part of the frozen landscape.

Well, I was spared, and about seven hours later was treated to one of the most beautiful, moving, unforgettable sights that Earth has to offer – a nearly clear view of the north face of Qomolangma mountain, up to the peak just 17.87 kilometres away and standing at 8 848.86 metres above sea level. From near death to exhilaration at our environment.

As a youngster, I explored the uKhahlamba mountains of KwaZulu-Natal, but not nearly as much as I should have done.  uKhahlamba is the name given to the area by people who live there. That is the Drakensberg mountains for those of you with a colonial mind. While at Glenwood High School, Durban, I had the privilege of going on a Wilderness Leadership Trail though the Hluhluwe, Umfolozi and Lake St Lucia game reserves. The trip left an indelible appreciation within me of the wonders of our world.

So, going to China to live and work gave me the opportunity to visit Qomolangma. What a privilege that was. Qomolangma is the name given to the mountain by people who have lived there for centuries. To those of a colonial mind, the mountain is known as Mt Everest. The Tibetan name Qomolangma means Goddess Mother of the World, or Goddess of the Valley.

Journey to Tibet: A Land of Majesty

After a great cruise on the Yangtze River, Kathy and I took a train to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, standing at 3 650 metres, and arrived on Sunday July 24 2022. Enter Tibet. Enter one of the most spell-binding places on Earth. The landscape was breathtaking, offering a ring of snow tipped mountains in the back ground, lots of yaks, fields of barley and of mustard seed, and much open space. The train played captivating Tibetan music. I knew I was going to love Tibet.

We were met at the Lhasa station by a staff member from the tour guide company through which we booked to explore Tibet. People from other countries have to work through a tour company to visit Tibet. The company thus handled the paper work, of which there was a small mountain. The staff member gave us white scarves to signify friendship, purity, compassion and peace. The scarves are given to arriving guests. We were booked into the Thangka Hotel. Parts of Lhasa were quite beautiful and many people walked around in clothes very similar to what their grandparents would have worn. I wish I could have spent more days there.

Actually I was lucky to walk away at all. Within hours of arriving, altitude sickness kicked in. The oxygen content in Tibet is 67 percent of that at sea level.  Altitude sickness does not affect all visitors, but it did me. My first bout befell me in the hotel bedroom.  I thought I was going to die and meet my God. Our brains simply were not getting enough oxygen. Reduced oxygen leaves a person not able to think clearly.  

This gave rise to a temporary, mild taste of dementia. Now that was something to forget. Kathy led me downstairs to get help. We met up with a fellow tourist from Los Angeles who directed us to a pharmacy that sold oxygen canisters for R65. A few deep intakes of oxygen and life was restored. There was never a time in Tibet when I was without an oxygen cylinder.

Encountering Altitude: Coping in Lhasa

We spent the next two days acclimatising in Lhasa. Breakfast at the Thangka Hotel was a bowl of  roasted barley, yak tea, dried yak cheese, yak butter and a little sugar. Yak yoghurt is delicious. Our days comprised mostly of visiting Buddhist temples. The Buddhist religion entered Tibet in the seventh century from India. The Buddhists  faith is an integral part of life in Tibet, binding closely faith and government. Lhasa means the place of gods and is a holy city for the Buddhists. There used to be 6 000 monasteries in Tibet.

At the time of our visit there were 85 monasteries remaining. The changing fortune of history does that. We visited the Potala Palace, where successive Dali Lamas resided. The term Dali Lama means oceans of wisdom and was the name of the spiritual heads of the Buddhist faith in Tibet. We saw people engaged in the kow tow prerecession. The kow tow was a pilgrimage to the monastery, carried out by people from around Tibet at least once in their life time. They threw themselves to the ground every few steps to demonstrate their faith. Some people walked for hundreds of kilometers and for many days to reach the Potala Palace. That was rather humbling. Such people also tended to rely on the good will of the faithful to sustain them along the way.  

Far too many people I know would not even drive to church, let alone kow tow their way there. There were Buddhist prayer flags and bunting everywhere. We quickly learnt the blue flags symbolise the sky, with white symbolising clouds, red symbolising fire, green symbolising water and yellow symbolising the Earth.  At some monasteries monks gathered in the afternoon to debate and discuss the morning’s lessons.  

On the morning of Wednesday July 27 2022 we left Lhasa by bus to travel 446 kilometres direct west towards Qomolangma. Of  course, the road up and down the mountains was not direct, but was mostly beautiful.

A discussion on Tibet has to be weighed against the next fact. The 10 major rivers in China and neighbouring countries have their source in the Tibet Plateau. Together, the rivers that start in Tibet provide living and production water for a third of the world’s population in East Asia and South Asia. The rivers include the Indus, Brahmaputra, Yangtze,  Huang He, Mekong, Salween and Tarim rivers. The tens of thousands of glaciers, other geographical and ecological features and ice fields contain the largest reserve of fresh water outside the polar regions. The presence of the water gives Tibet great significance.

South Africa is 1 221 037 square kilometers in size. Tibet is 1.2 million square kilometers, so is just a little smaller. With a population of 3.2 million, the average population density in Tibet was two people per square kilometre.  By itself, Tibet was the 26 th biggest country in the world, but as part of China it comprised a sixth of China. The northwestern part is extremely inhospitable because of the climate and environment and is the third least populous area in the world after Antarctica and northern Greenland.

People in their early forms have lived in Tibet for 500 000 years. Impressions of hands and feet suggest the ancestors of man lived 4 000 meters above sea level 226 000 years ago. Modern humans inhabited the Tibetan Plateau 21 000 years ago. This population was largely replaced around 3 000 BC by Neolithic immigrants from northern China. Tibet was ruled by kings and then spiritual leaders; the Dali Lamas. There were periods when Tibet was a country in its own right and periods when it was considered part of China, as it is today.  Tibet has been closed off for various reasons to the outside world from 1791. From 1912, with the demise of the last Qing dynasty, Tibet was independent. However, China re-took Tibet in 1951. The period of Dalai Lama rule was not idyllic. There was slavery and serfdom and cruelty.

For better or for worse, here we were. From the bus we saw that many houses had bricks of yak dung drying on their perimeter walls to be burnt in winter to keep the homes warm.

Tibet all around us was so beautiful to behold.  We stopped at a view spot overlooking Yamdrok Yumtso lake at 4 998 metres. That had to be one of the most beautiful sights I have seen. As I told my kids at the time: “This spot is so beautiful it brought tears to my eyes.” We stopped at a hospital in a place called Nagarze for one of the 154 covid tests I underwent in China. Altitude sickness crept upon me again.  Had the nursing staff suggested that I be admitted to the Nagarze hospital, I would have jumped at the chance as I was so battling to breathe. Kathy spent R740 on three lots of medicine for me. Onward we pushed through to the town of Gyantse. I had a deep sense of foreboding and sadness as I entered the town. That was not like me.  

Now there was a place that benefitted from the finest side of British imperialism, as I read later. Going back 130 years, Britain was involved in a border dispute with Tibet in north east India. Britain also wanted to establish diplomatic ties and trade links with Tibet. Tibet wanted nothing to do with Britain but the Dalai Lama did have contact with the Russian Tzar. Russia assured Britain that it had no interest in Tibet. At the time Tibet was under the control of China. London negotiated with China over everything Tibet. 

However, the Tibetans rejected the negotiations, including the border settlement in Sikkim and a trade agreement. So, the British invaded Tibet. In December 1903, using mostly Indian soldiers who were armed with good equipment and experienced fighters. The Tibetan soldiers were mostly peasants and monks who lacked organisation, discipline, training and motivation. The Tibetans did not want to fight. I wish history had recorded if the invading imperial soldiers were given white scarves when they arrived. A military confrontation on March 31 1904 became known as the Massacre of Chumik Shenko. Tibetan soldiers armed with antiquated matchlock muskets asked the British to stop moving forward. The British soldiers refused and instead opened fire with machine guns on the Tibetan troops. One account put the number of murdered Tibetans at 5 000. The British military then pressed on to Gyantse, where we were, reaching it on April 11 1904 and entered unchallenged. To repeat, this day as I entered Gyantse 119 years later, a sense of lingering sadness hanging over the town came upon me. I could feel it, but I did not know why at the time. Nice people the British, unless they want to steal your lives. China was unable at the time to help its province of Tibet, and was forced by the British to pay for the costs of the miliary invasion.

Our destination was Shigatse about 270 km away and nine hours in the bus. Shigatse; now there was a place to return to; often, despite the altitude of 3 900 meters About half the area is home to nomadic people. The life of a nomad is not easy as the fields their animals graze on are covered in frost for half of the year. The men cared for the herds of animals and were away a lot. So, the women of Shigatse could take four husbands at the same time, preferably related to each other. I do not know if that custom still prevails. I am pleased I do not have a brother. We were booked into the Tashi Tshuta Hotel.

Ascending to Qomolangma: The Rongbuk Monastery

On Thursday July 28 2022 we set off to the Rongbuk Monastery at the foot of Qomolangma, about 340 km away by road. We entered the Qomolangma National Nature Reserve at 12.08 The emblem of the park is the snow leopard. A great start. What a splendid animal. The preserve in on the border between Tibet and Nepal. The park became officially a park on March 18 1989. Before then, local volunteers took it upon themselves to stop rampant deforestation, unregulated tourism and the illegal hunting of rare wildlife.  Management of the preserve is mainly in the hands of the communities living there. One of their first tasks in charge was a reforestation programme and garbage collection to restore the environment. The preserve covers 33 819 square kilometers, which is a tenth bigger than Belgium. About 90 000 people live in the reserve, in about 230 villages, of whom 50 000 are engaged in protection of the environment and tourism services. They keep domestic animals, grow crops, preserve historical sites and share the land with indigenous mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish. There are 2 550 species of plants, including 160 medicinal plants. Lack of oxygen, powerful winds and extreme cold mean there is almost no plant or animal life above 6 400 metres.

Five of Earth’s 14 peaks above 8 000 metres are located in Qomolangma preserve. The park also sported 38 peaks above 7 000 metres. The preserve links with five protected areas in Nepal and together they cover a piece of land bigger than Switzerland. We arrived at the monastery in the Dzakar Chu valley at 18.15.

Up to 30 people could sleep in a tent, at a push.

The monastery was at 5 180 m, on a gravel plain just below a glacier on the slopes of the mountain. There were 60 tents in the monastery nearly laid out in rows, with black yak hair exterior walls. Up to 30 people could sleep in a tent, at a push. Each tent had its own minder. At least 2 000 people visited the monastery every day on average around that time of the year, hoping to see Qomolangma. There was one small toilet block for them to use which was, crudely, awful.

The North Face of Qomolangma is on the Tibet side and the South Face is on the Nepal side. The border runs across the summit. By the time of our visit, there had been at least 11 346 summit ascents by 6 098 people. The summit is so high that the amount of breathable oxygen there is one-third what it is at sea level.

On the Nepal side, climbers can pay up to R1 200 000 to reach the peak. Our trip, including flights from Xi’an and a magnificent Yangze River cruise for four nights cost for both of us R102 000.

The base camp is 8 kilometers closer to the peak than the monastery.

Mountain explorers can be rather careless about the environment, often leaving a trail of garbage and human droppings in their wake. From 2019, people visiting the North Face could go no further than the monastery due to the mounting waste problem, and theft from mountaineers. The base camp is 8 kilometers closer to the peak than the monastery. From the monastery there were six camp sites up to the peak. The final push to the summit from camp six, at 8 230 metres, could take climbers 12 hours to walk the last 1.72 kilometers. A sea-level dweller would likely lose consciousness within minutes at 8 500 metres.

The open land was bereft of any vegetation.

If you walked about two kilometres from our end of the Rongbuk tent camp to the other end, as we did, Qomolangma opened up on your left hand side, or rather should have. You came upon open land to look at where the mountain should have been. The open land was bereft of any vegetation and covered in small grey rocks of varying colour and size. That was Qomolangma country, if ever we saw it.

The Mother Goddess was behind low cloud and did not show herself to us that afternoon. Alas, we were driven back to the tent by an icy wind and freezing conditions. At least the tent was warm, thanks to a crude stove in the middle that burnt yak dung. We paid R260 each for hotpot supper, made by the tent minder. We did not eat much as we were concerned about having to make emergency comfort calls in the night.

I prayed for my life to be spared…

I woke up around 2 am on Friday July 29 2022. I could not breath and thought I was going to die, for the third time, in that darkened, silent tent. I could not get enough oxygen into my lungs. If you lay down, your lungs could not expand. So, you had to sit up. I did. I started to shake. I prayed for my life to be spared, at least to save Kathy the awful trouble of taking my body off the mountain. I took the altitude pills we had bought and sipped from the glucose and power liquid drinks. I did not panic, I just prayed for my life to be spared. Mercifully, the Lord blessed me with sleep and more days on Earth. People with us said later they heard wolves howling around 4 am. That seemed fitting. There was a practice of sky burials in Tibet where one’s body was left outside for the vultures to eat. Perhaps mine could have been left out for the wolves. Maybe they were out looking for me.

Embracing Majesty: A Glimpse of Qomolangma

The sun rose at Rongbuk at 7.30 am. The day started at six deg C. We went out early in the hope of seeing Qomolangma but the cloud defeated us again. Our party planned to leave at 9:30 am. Kathy and I resigned ourselves to leaving without seeing the mountain. We had gone as far as we could and given our best, but you cannot beat nature.   We were all packed up and sitting on our bed waiting to leave when a message came through on the tour party’s WeChat social media group that changed our lives. A chap with us from Phoenix, Arizona, posted a photograph of the mountain at 9.21 and said: “Mountain is back out if anyone wants last minute photos.” We rushed out, as did other people. We could indeed see Qomolangma, so beautiful, so majestic, looming so large, all silver and white. Some people pouring out of the tents to see the mountain cheered; they were so moved by the most beautiful physical sight in the world. The words of a hymn we sang at the Umbilo Congregational Church, Durban, came to mind, How great thou art. I love that hymn and sang it with such gusto. We even used to walk to church along Bartle Road.  We had spent a life time working towards seeing the mountain. Many photographs were taken. I thought those were the best photographs ever taken of Kathy and Martin. As I told my kids: “There are tears.” One’s soul is moved when you see Qomolangma. The cloud returned so the mountain was hidden again from the world. In a way, that seemed fitting, as leaving with the mountain in full view would have been rude and disrespectful. And a person must never be disrespectful of Qomolangma. To get to where we were, at the foot of the mountain, took fortitude, indulgence and persistence. Gazing up at the top of the world made our efforts worthwhile. What a rare privilege we had enjoyed. We made our way back to Shigatse.

Maybe nothing would be the same in our lives after undertaking this pilgrimage of our own to see The world thou hands hath made.

Click here to see the pictures from the trip.

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