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All Your Basecamp are Belong to Us

We woke up bright and early in the unheated, but cozy interior of our room at the guest-house in Haba Village. We pulled on a few more layers than usual and made our way across the courtyard to the outdoor bathrooms and the large kitchen area where we had eaten the night before.

Our guide was already there with a friend of his. We were worried for a moment that this friend was to be our extra guide (which we could, due to last night’s alarming census of our coffers, of course, not afford). Our guide assured us, however, that he was not appearing in a professional capacity, and soon we all relaxed and laid into a giant breakfast of fried eggs and thick Naxi bread called “bing“.

Along with the bread and eggs, was some freshly extracted and boiled yak milk, and plenty of good strong tea. We feasted heavily, knowing that the next time we would be able to eat with abandon might be back in Lijiang.

So nearly bursting, but in very high spirits, we thanked our kind hosts and took from them a couple of large pieces of the Naxi bread and a few hard boiled eggs for each of us to eat later that day. And with that we headed up the trail. It was the lowest portion of the hike elevation-wise, but we could already feel that we were much higher up than we had been in Kunming. The trail began by cutting across agricultural land, heading steadily uphill over meadows and scrappy bits of pine forest.

From time to time, we would come up upon a small group of yaks, usually containing at least one mother and calf pair. Our guides seemed particularly wary of these, and went to great lengths to get them moving out of our way.

You see, dear reader, I have begun calling them our guides. This is because for all intents and purposes, they were. Our original guide brought along this friend under the pretexts of a normal companionship,  but in reality he was helping us almost as much as our fully employed guide in determining the way up the trail and avoiding negative interactions with maternal yaks.

The air was thin. That was for sure. We indulged in frequent breaks in order to catch our breath and take in the view. We were gaining altitude at a good clip though, for soon the entire valley began to spread out in all its terraced glory below us. Each time we took a break, and even from time to time as we hiked, our two guides would light up a cigarette. Indeed, the rate at which they smoked was only eclipsed by the degree to which they could outclimb us in this low oxygen environment.

As we climbed, the ecology around us began to change. Soon we were walking through large flowering forests of rhododendron. It was beautiful, and before we knew it, we had passed the highest point of this leg of the trip. To culminate it, our guide’s friend let out a savage whoop. Stewart explained to us that this was part of both a Tibetan and a Naxi tradition – screaming to the gods when you get up high. Delightful.

From there we had only a mildly muddy descent down to the base camp. As soon as we entered the grounds of the base camp, the temperature seemed to fall by 20 degrees. The wind whipped up, and clouds began to blow in. The camp consisted of a number of small low-lying, hand-made wooden buildings that were barely outnumbered by the number of donkeys idling around the premises, defecating and being generally ornery.

We ducked inside one of the small wooden buildings to seek shelter from the cold and the donkeys, and to eat the lunch that had been packed for us by the guest house. Paired with some salt from the base camp kitchen and some items from the market, we were able to make some positively delectable little sandwiches. As we munched and drank water from our canteens, people began to trickle down from the mountain.

It turned out that on that day there had been a Korean group that had ridden up to base camp from Haba City on donkeys and were currently climbing the mountain. They strolled one by one back into the base camp looking tired and windblown. “The wind is crazy up there,” they explained.

Some had made it all the way to the summit; others had been forced to turn back for fear of being blown off. They all appeared to be wearing very fancy cold-weather gear. I am talking North Face parkas, with elements of fur, giant gloves, fancy snow pants… all things that AsiaWheeling did not have.

We quieted any vestiges of fear of freezing to death with the notion that Koreans are notorious for over-equipping for their expeditions, and instead laid into our food.

Soon the food was gone, and then there was only the question of what to do for the rest of the day. We could not hike up to Haba, for expeditions could only be made in the morning. Our guides explained that in the afternoon, cold air and clouds came in, making the ascent too difficult.

So the only thing to do was to wait, and refrain from eating too many of our supplies. So we let the day go on, passing our time by chatting with the Koreans and marching around trying not to get too cold, for it was indeed cold, and the air was thin up there.

Finally all the Koreans had come down from the mountain, and we were actually able to check into our room. It was more of a leaky shack, but it was filled to the brim with blankets. We crawled under these and began to get warm. Now that we were not freezing, it was much easier to pass the time chatting and speculating about topics of trivial relevance. I had just regained normal body temperature when the sun sank low enough that we might safely eat our instant noodles, without fear of going to bed starving. So we headed over to the kitchen.

We found the whole crew in the kitchen, as usual, crowded around the small stove, chain-smoking inexpensive Chinese cigarettes and laughing about some jokes in Naxi.  We sat down and did our best to connect with them in Chinese and bits of English.

The noodles were delicious, though the little packets of spicy goo that are used to flavor the broth had frozen solid. They melted in the boiling stream water, that we were drinking and cooking with, and after our bowls were done, we began to discuss the logistics of the next morning.

We decided that we had better come clean with our guide and let him know exactly how much warm clothing we had. When he found out, he clicked his tongue disapprovingly. We could do it, he said, and as long as we hiked hard we would not be cold, but if we stopped, or needed to take it too easy, we would get cold and need to turn back.

This then tumbled us once again into a savage logistical debate. Can we do this? Is it safe? Is there a way we can modify the plan? Should we still rent the crampons (which were one of the most expensive things on the budget)? After contemplating many different  options, we decided that we needed to try to climb this beast. And in order to do that, we would need crampons.

The next day we would get up at 3:30 in the morning, meet the guides for breakfast, and head up the mountain. If we were too cold and had to turn back, so be it. At least we would have tried. Comfortable in our new resolve, we trundled off through the whipping cold wind to our unlit shack and piled five blankets over the tops of each of us. I took all my clothes, even my boots, and put them in bed with me dreading even then the thought of putting them back onto my body freezing from the night’s cold.


  1. Christi Johnson | July 21st, 2010 | 7:31 am

    Can’t wait to see what the next post will hold. As usual, love the descriptive writing and pics. Take care as we continue to share in your journey.

  2. Val | July 21st, 2010 | 10:29 am

    You are a terrific storyteller-of course, this seems like an amazing tale in itself.
    I’m on the edge of my seat.

  3. Woody | July 21st, 2010 | 11:28 am

    @ VAL

    Thanks Christi and Val. It’s great to have you reading.

  4. Angela | July 21st, 2010 | 12:28 pm

    Your writing is amazing. I am cold sitting here in my office in the middle of July in the midwest. Please tell us what happened next.

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