This is going to be one of those blog entries that I hope my mother never reads. It’s being written as a faithful account of my time in Tibet, but I’m not particularly proud of the events that happened. And before I go on, let me also say that I’m really not trying to dramatize the events or imply that I’m McGuyver.
That said, this entry is about how we got accidentally left behind on Mt. Everest, lost in the dark and how we found our way back to base camp. With a little photographic creativity.
I set off for base camp three days ago from Lhasa. Our little band of travelers consisted of random people from all over China who wanted to share a ride. Tibet is seriously politically sensitive territory. Foreigners and local Chinese don’t really mix as foreigners need special permits, a local guide and a set itinerary. Which means the only back packers you will be able to organize a shared ride with, are Chinese travelers.
This has been a bit of a new experience for me as an overseas born Chinese, and certainly eye-opening. However I must say, I’m really grateful to have had these new friends.
From Lhasa to Mt. Everest base camp is a two day drive, stopping over at Shigatse. I had struggled with headaches in Lhasa but thought I had acclimated by the time we arrived in Shigatse, which is 1000 km above Lhasa. The moment I stepped foot on Everest at 5000 km however, I could tell it wasn’t going to be easy.
Within an hour of our arrival, everyone else seemed to be doing fine. Except me. I was fighting back the urge to dry heave and a pounding headache. From base camp, most tourists will take transport to the next summit where there is a fantastic view of the top of Mt. Everest. Against what is probably my better judgment, I got on the bus. I don’t think I could have forgiven myself if I came all this way and passed up the chance to see it up close because of a stupid headache.
This side of the Himalayas is completely barren and icy. Nothing but the tiniest weeds grow, and the ground is cut with icy streams from the glaciers above. Nat Geo adventurers make it look so darn easy. I’m a pretty healthy and active girl, but I felt like I moved in slow motion up there and was panting for air after every few steps.
for the love of the game
There is something unique about photographers that sets us apart from other creative pursuits. For one, our craft straddles between technology and artistry. Another is that to be a photographer is to be infinitely curious about the world. We lug our cameras to the far corners of the earth and even though the trip is over, our journey is only half begun. We wake up at insane hours to catch the light and in short, go to great lengths to capture the perfect frame.
So naturally, it was a dozen of us photographers that got left behind on the summit, after the remaining transport had ferried back the very last frozen and weary tourist.
By the time we realized there was no bus coming back for us, it was almost night fall. There was some debate in the group (“no way they would leave us here!”) before the consensus was that it probably wouldn’t be a very good idea to wait and find out.
We were likely only three to four hours’ hike away from base camp, and the feeling of imminent danger wasn’t particularly overwhelming. But how utterly unprepared we all were was rather frightening. We split into three groups (mostly based on hiking speed) and before long, we had lost the main road and were stumbling in the dark, following icy streams. We had totally lost the other groups, and despite China Mobile signs along the road up to base camp, there was definitely no reception.
Somewhere far ahead, we saw a tiny flash of light, followed by another. It took a few minutes before we realized it was the first group, using their on camera flashes and strobes to signal to us. Every 10-15 minutes or so, we’d see a few flashes, return the signal, and then flash the last group. In this way we were able to make sure we all stayed together and moved in the same general direction.
Pro/am photographers often complain that every other person now has a fancy SLR and flashy gear. In this particular instance.. I’ve never been quite so grateful.
A few hours later, we finally came to base camp, half frozen and looking like we’d all smeared blue ink on our lips. Inside the nomad tents we were staying at, the remainder of our group who had made it back earlier fussed around us offering a dozen different herbal remedies. I half heartedly gulped some down, force-fed myself a few spoonfuls of rice before falling into a restless, head-pounding slumber.
As I type this on the road back to Lhasa on my iPhone, there have already been more misadventures. But that will have to wait… Right now I’m just enjoying being at a normal elevation of 4000 km.