Apr 22, 2015

Base Camp: The Yak Rodeo on tour to Shishapangma Advanced Base Camp

Ayyyyeeeaaaaa, whoogh, whoogh”…. followed by the dull ‘thud’ of a rock hitting a kit bag.

This is the high altitude orchestra harmonising a band of burly plodding yaks as they help to transport hundreds of kilos of all of life’s ‘expedition essentials’ to Basecamps in Nepal and Tibet. 

Our move from Base Camp to Advanced Base Camp is no exception. 23 lumbering, wooly yaks at a cost of approximately $5,000 and carrying 40 – 45 kilograms each are led by a team of ancient-looking, weather beaten and exceptionally commercial yak herders. The deep, dark lines etched into their faces and haggered hands reflecting their deep rooted and traditional lives living off the land in some of the most hostile and volatile environments on the planet. These are the environments where a day of clear blue skies and sunshine can turn to bone chilling storms at the drop of a hat. 

High in the mountains or on the dry, cold Tibetan plateau, there is little protection from the elements but they are bonded by their trade and the communities in which they travel. 

Yaks are basically big, wooly buffalo-like creatures with enormous horns and a variable temperament. Their unique, marketable and commercial feature is that they are incredibly strong. Before the winter the yaks are bigger, heavier, having profited from a summer and autumn of grazing on the scrub grasses. As a result they can carry up to about 60kgs. In the spring, they are weaker, after a long and harsh winter, therefore only able to carry about 40 – 45kgs. 

The yak herders arrived at Base Camp rather majestically on Monday evening – silhouetted against yet another magnificent sunset. We all gathered round to welcome them to camp and observe as what can only be described as a ‘yak rodeo’ began. Whilst they arrived untethered, numerous ill-fated attempts were made to bring them together and ‘contain’ them just outside the camp to prevent them from overrunning our dufflebags and down. 

Unfortunately for the yak herders, armed with lassos and rope the yaks seemed to enjoy their freedom too much. The hulking stubborn creatures did their best to fend off the impending captivity. The language betweek yak and herder consists primarily of a series of guttural shouts and whilstles – it was an entertaining sight. Likely more so for the observer than yak or herder!

The following morning was equally entertaining as we broke up camp and all bags, boxes, barrels and crates were divided and meticulously weighed.  It turned out that the amount of ‘freight’ we had to transport up the mountain had been underestimated. We were 25 yaks short – and about $5000. A frantic phone call was made to our agent, Iswari.

We set out in the direction of Advanced Base Camp as the yaks were being loaded. Not long thereafter we could see the herd approaching from the distance – like a black army of ants traveling steadily across the dry, dusty Tibetan plateau. The day continued in that fashion – we’d walk and then stop to rest and rehydrate, watching the army encroach. 

A particularly poignant moment came as the yaks were forced to descend from the plateau onto a frozen river.  The descent went steadily enough but the challenge came as the first yak took its first steps onto the fragile river of ice. With an almighty crack the ice gave way and the yak fell through the ice. What can effectively be described as a bumper-to-bumper collision course ensued. The yak immediately behind hadn’t quite registered what had happened and he literally plodded over of the trapped yak. The pile-up was accompanied by frantic whistling and shouting from the yak herders. 

The lead yak stuck in the ice finally gained enough purchase to pull himself out of the hole and from under the second yak and skittled his way across the snow covered and frozen riverbed. Slowly but surely the pile-up was untangled and  after about 20 minutes with all yaks accounted for we continued our steady progress toward Advanced Base Camp. 


Post a Comment