Mountains have always been my weakness. When I read in the Lonely Planet that there were cable cars up on to this one, it was immediately added to my mental itinerary, even if it was the most expensive day of the trip so far (and hopefully of the entire trip).
I joined an organized trip on the advice of the ever-helpful receptionist at the hostel; although pricey, when added up it cost barely more than all the buses, fees, etc. would cost on their own, and saved a lot of hassle. And, it would take me to the Blue Valley, which I didn't know about and therefore never would have found otherwise.
Our first stop was a large, fancy visitor center; it wasn't terribly busy this time of year, but I'm sure it's bustling in the summer. We trotted after our guide around an annoyingly long walkway and through the building and up to the back of the second floor to get our warm parkas and little personal oxygen canisters before heading up the mountain. It seemed terribly inefficient to have this necessary counter since far from the parking lot, but I suppose their point was not the convenience of the guests but rather funneling them by as many souvenir shops as possible on the way.
Anyhow, we got what we needed and we were soon off. Our next stop was the cable car station. I had walked from the hostel with an Austrian couple, Thomas and Anne-Marie, but now I ended up in line with the one other foreigner on the trip, a Swiss man, Eric. For the rest of the day, we walked around together. Traveling alone as usual it was nice to have a friend for the day.
Once we arrived at the top of the cable car, we were already at nearly fifteen thousand feet. The highest I remember ever being before was probably when my brother and I took the ski lifts up the Rothorn, the mountain across from the Matterhorn in the Swiss Alps. This had that beat by five thousand feet.
And then climbed higher. From the cable car station, a wooden boardwalk, mostly stairs, went up the mountain to a viewing platform over the glacier. Up that high, the air is thinner, so you get out of breath much quicker than you usually would. On the way up the cable car,Eric and I were wondering if the Chinese people across from us, who were already huffing their oxygen canisters, really felt the altitude yet or if they were just experimenting. We certainly didn't feel anything yet. But as we tackled stair after stair, the oxygen became useful. I would stop and take a few deep breaths before each set of steps,and then scamper up before the effects wore off. It was so easy to climb with oxygen, but without it seemed like I was dragging myself up.
At the top deck, we reached our highest altitude-4680 meters, or 15354 feet. It felt like the top of the world, and it boggled my mind to think that Everest is still another fourteen thousand feet up. Here's a picture of me with the marker at the top. I look like a fluffball, of course. I was wearing three shirts, my fleece jacket, my windbreaker coat, and the parka they provided, and I was comfortable, not overly warm. They weren't lying when they said it would be cold up there! It wasn't too bad with all those layers until suddenly a strong wind would start up and blow snow swirling around, stinging our faces and making it too cold to breathe for a moment. It felt at one point like it would have blown me over if I didn't have a firm grip on the rail; I don't know how some of these tiny Chinese girls don't go airborne.
Edit: I don't know where the picture of me at the top went. I'll try to add it later.