The jewel of the Tibetan side of Everest is undoubtedly its secretive eastern Karma valley which, in its upper reaches, is dominated by the mountain's massive snow covered Kangshung face. Politically part of Tibet, but geographically typical of Nepal, the Karma's lush forests and green pastures contrast strongly with the remainder of this remarkable country - a direct consequence of a gap in the main Himalayan crest which leaves the valley vulnerable to the full force of the monsoon rains.
Access to the northern side of the Himalaya has improved considerably over the last decade with the construction of new roads linking major towns across national borders. The Kathmandu to Lhasa highway passes just 80 kilometres to the north of Everest, with a diversion leading from Shegar all the way to Everest Base Camp at the head of the Rongbuk valley.
Thankfully, a little more effort is required to enter the Karma valley, and the only practical ways in from the road-head at Kharta are the trails which cross the Langma La (5330 metres) and the Shao La (4970 metres) passes.
The vast tracts of land which must be crossed in order to reach the Tibetan side of Everest commit any trek or expedition to an appreciable amount of travel by road. The first decision which therefore confronts any group planning to visit either Rongbuk or Kharta is the direction of the approach.
It takes three days to drive from Kathmandu to Shegar, crossing the border at Zhangmu and following the main highway north and east. On the other hand, the drive from Lhasa is on better roads and takes only two days, but involves the additional time and cost of a flight to, and accommodation in, Lhasa. A further consideration is the matter of acclimatisation, as both approaches involve overnight stops at over 3500 metres and pass crossings of over 5000 metres. Unless one embarks upon an acclimatisation trek in Nepal before crossing the border, the safer of the two alternatives must be that from Lhasa.
The flight from Kathmandu to Lhasa is renown for its fine views of the Himalaya and of Everest in particular. Sadly, we were denied this spectacle but were relieved to leave behind the late monsoon rains which had plagued us since our arrival in Kathmandu. Lhasa airport is nearly 90 kilometres from the city, and the drive along the fine new road beside the swirling waters of the Yarlung Tsangpo river, a tributary of the Bramhaputra, provides a stunning introduction to the Tibetan scenery. Arrival in Lhasa is an unforgettable experience, and first sight of the Potala Palace, the ancient seat of the Dalai Lama, familiar all over the world, is a memorable moment indeed.
From Lhasa, the highway to Kathmandu heads west to Shigatse, the second city of Tibet, and then on via the 5220 metre Lhakpa La pass to Shegar. The Lhakpa La is the highest pass on the whole highway and, on a clear day, reveals the first views of the distant Himalayas.
At times the journey across Tibet seems unrelenting as the true size of this remarkable country becomes apparent. On the Tibetan plateau the light is of an incomparable quality. It vividly displays every colour of the landscape. Sweeping views, furnished with azure blue lakes, unfold against a background of lonely peaks. We finally left the main road beyond the checkpoint at Shegar and headed south towards the tiny settlement of Chay. In our grand plan we had arranged to meet our Nepalese Sherpa team here and spend our first night under canvas, so sight of their lorry parked beside a group of tents came as a great relief.
We made an early start the next morning, eager to reach the summit of the 5183 metre Pang La pass before the midday cloud build-up. By now the road had degenerated into little more than a track, and our land cruisers shook, rattled and rolled their way up a route which was originally constructed to assist the first Chinese ascent of Everest in 1960. As we reached the summit of the pass the view unfolded; it was quite literally a breath-taking panorama of snow capped summits rising ethereally above a carpet of rounded brown hills of the Tibetan plateau. Makalu, Chomo Lonzo, Everest, Gyachung Kang and Cho Oyu were the principal summits on view.
From the Pang La the road plunges into the valley of the Dzakaa Chhu, the river draining the Rongbuk Glacier, and diverges near the village of Phadruchi. At this point one branch leads up river to Rongbuk, the other heads south and enters the narrow gorge of the Arun River, known in Tibet as the Phung Chhu, heading for Kharta.
It was a pleasure finally to leave the vehicles at Kharta and head off on foot beside the waters of the Kharta Tsangpo river, a tributary of the Arun, towards the Langma La pass. The weather was pleasantly warm but unsettled; each morning clouds would soon envelope the peaks of the Gyankar range to the east and on our route to the pass.
In Tibet, the length of the trekking day is frustratingly short and governed by the pace of the yak herders, but this does give trek members more time to acclimatise to the relentless gains in altitude. We reached the village of Landrubling, at 4100 metres, on the first day, and then pressed on through clusters of stunted juniper, tall willow and wild rose bushes, towards a box canyon enclosed by jagged peaks. The next campsite at Lhatse was hidden away in a hanging valley just four hundred metres below the pass; an impressive setting made more dramatic by billowing clouds and the onset of a snow storm.
The final approach to the Langma La zig-zags steeply up talus slopes immediately behind Lhatse to a beautiful pale aqua lake surrounded by towering cliffs of crumbling rock. As the route negotiated these cliffs we were deceived by several false summits before reaching the notch in a ridge which is the pass itself. The clouds once again denied us a view, although for a moment they did disperse to reveal the magnificent peak of Chomo Lonzo, 7790 metres.
Once across the pass the trail descends steeply through rocky outcrops and past a number of lakes cupped in shallow basins; there are brief views of Lhotse and the Kangshung face of Everest at the head of the valley. The route then traverses grassy moorland, not unlike that in the Scottish Highlands, to reach Pethang, 4550 metres, in the valley bottom.
The scenery here is stunning and totally dominated by the ice-laden cliffs of Chomo Lonzo; the effect of the monsoon rain is evident in the lush nature of the vegetation which is a blaze of colour in the early autumn. It was to these green and gentle pastures that George Mallory and members of the 1922 and 1924 expeditions came to rest and recover from their exertions on the north face of Everest.
It is only when the trail finally reaches the foot of Everest beside the Kangshung Glacier at Pethang Ringmo, 5000 metres, does the real scale and awesome nature of the surrounding mountains become fully apparent. We were disappointed that for much of our time in the Kangshung valley clouds obscured the highest peaks, but on the morning of our departure they finally parted to reveal the whole of the Kangshung face of Everest bathed in the rich golden rays of the rising sun.
We returned to Kharta over the Shao La pass, a slightly lower and easier alternative to the Langma La and situated just 6 kilometres to the south east. By making this short detour we were able to view and explore the forests of the lower Karma valley and to catch a glimpse of the fine summit of Makalu, 8475 metres, at the head of the Arun valley. Once again the conditions soon deteriorated, and it was snowing when we reached the summit of the Shao La. But then, characteristically, as soon as we descended the other side of the pass, we could see clear blue skies to the north across the full extent of the Tibetan plateau.
Snow showers chased us all the way back down to Kharta where we picked up the vehicles for the short day's drive round to Rongbuk. As we returned to Phadruchi alongside the Dzakaa Chhu, the clouds which had plagued us for nearly a fortnight finally dissolved into a clear blue sky. As our journey progressed, tall snow-capped peaks occasionally appeared from behind intervening ridges; at first Cho Oyu and Gyachung Kang, but then Everest itself.
A visit to Rongbuk is not complete without an exploration of base camp and the glaciers beyond, but none of the many views we saw could compare with that of Everest from Rongbuk monastery. The peak remained clear for the entire duration of our stay; it totally dominated the head of the valley, and we were able to study every intricate detail of its massive 4000 metre high north face. From dawn to dusk we watched with amazement at the colourful interplay of cloud and light on its towering ramparts.
We left Rongbuk with mixed emotions; sad to be turning our backs on Everest, but relieved to be getting out of the bitterly cold wind which had howled unabated off the frozen slopes of the mountain. Our convoy of vehicles struggled back over the Pang La pass and then sped on west, past Shegar, to the sprawling town of Tingri.
We camped outside the village, beside the road, with an unobstructed view across the grassy plains towards Everest, Cho Oyu and the Rolwaling Himal. Splitting the peaks of Cho Oyu and the Rolwaling is the Nangpa La pass, an ancient trade route between Nepal and Tibet which has become the escape route for refugees fleeing the Chinese authorities.
Our final days in Tibet were spent driving the two hundred kilometres to the Nepalese border at Zhangmu. This part of the country seemed to be particularly arid and dusty, but the highlight of the route was the crossing of the 5050 metre Thong La pass. The panorama of peaks on view from the summit of the pass was extensive and included the Rolwaling, Jugal, Ganesh and Langtang Himals. Most impressive of all was the huge peak of Shishapangma, the only 8000 metre peak to lie entirely within the borders of Tibet.
From the summit of the pass the road plunges spectacularly through a huge gap in the Himalayan crest. The descent amounted to nearly 2700 metres in 125 kilometres and the switch-backs seemed endless as the narrowing and degenerating road traversed steep and often unstable slopes on its way to the border crossing at the Friendship Bridge. Six more bumpy hours later we finally arrived in the now familiar and seemingly luxurious surroundings of Kathmandu.
The focus of our trip to Tibet had been the mountains, particularly Everest; but one cannot travel across this amazing country without being aware of an overwhelming feeling of space, of wide endless vistas painted in rich and vivid colours. The trek was not a difficult one; the days were not long nor the distances great. But Tibet's irrepressible peoples and majestic scenery will inevitably move and captivate the hearts and minds of those who cross the roof of the world to visit this, the secret side of Everest.
This article was originally published in the magazine 'Trail' in 1996