at Namche Bazaar in the Khumbu region. We had our first glimpse of Everest
today, from afar, to the sounds of Queen in my iPod earphones. It was totally
uplifting, and my spirits soared. We have walked for 2 days now, and are at
Namche, the "capital" of the Sherpa's region.
We have a large group of climbers (26) with Himex, and a group of trekkers who are going as far as Base Camp. In addition we have 6 Western guides who are vastly experienced, and a brilliant team of sherpas for climbing and logistical support. The weather is balmy during the day, cloudy in the late afternoon, and pretty cold at night.
The trek into Everest Base Camp winds uphill and downhill through Sherpa
villages. The Sherpas (the word literally means Easterners) are
Buddhists, originally from Tibet, now living in Nepal, a largely Hindu country,
and they are accustomed to living at altitude. Whilst at the start of the trek
in the hills are covered in Rhododendrons, trees, greenery, now at 4450 metres,
the slopes are pretty barren. We have taken the trek slowly, so as to
acclimatize gradually. There are a few things which stand out compared to my
previous mountain experiences:
10th April: We are finally at Everest Base Camp on the South Side. The altitude is 5,300 metres and today is the first clear day after 4 days of intermittent snow. We could see the summit of Everest until about a half hour before Base Camp, that’s the view in the picture below, with the telltale plume off the summit.
The next picture below is of the Himex (our operator) camp, to my right, all those are the logistics, dining, and sleeping tents. In the middle background one can see the legendary Khumbu ice fall, and the route goes through the top centre of the pic, between the two mountains.
13th April: The Puja ceremony marks the end of the Base Camp preparations by the Sherpas and climbers. A two-hour ceremony was held yesterday, in our camp, with Buddhist chanting, juniper smoke, food, drinks, dancing, and Tibetan prayer flags fluttering in the breeze to the backdrop of Mount Everest. Then group photos were taken. Until after the Puja no Sherpas would go onto the mountain proper, but now the timing is regarded as auspicious, and the preparations of higher camps can commence. The trekkers who had accompanied the climbers to BC have now left, and we have to focus on acclimatizing to higher altitudes, and mountain skills.
There has been quite a lot of altitude sickness, colds, and health adjustments, but this is pretty normal. We eat in three dining tents, and the food is pretty good. There’s tea and snacks at all hours. The toilet and ablution tents are hygienically kept, and there is always hot water and soap for washing hands. Staying healthy is the priority. We are about 15 minutes walk from the main Base Camp, in our own Himex Base Camp. There is a WhitePod, a dome-type structure in which we can watch DVD movies in the evenings.
21st April: We are back in Everest Base Camp after an exciting ascent of Lobuche Peak. The purpose of the climb was both to acclimatize to a higher altitude and to get high mountain technical experience. We trekked down from Everest Base Camp to Lobuche BC which is at 4,900 metres, slept there, and next morning climbed up to Camp One at 5,200 metres and slept on a rocky plateau. We woke at 4.15am, and after cooking a brief breakfast in the vestibule of the 2 person tent, started out at 5.30am up a snowy slope which steepened considerably. The climb from Camp One to the summit took me four and a half hours with spectacular views of the Khumbu Glacier, and the surrounding peaks.
The height of Lobuche’s summit is 6,120 metres, which makes it the 2nd highest mountain I have ever climbed! The summit day height gain was almost a thousand vertical metres, which is useful training, and there were fixed lines most of the way, placed by our Sherpa team.
The view in the pic Lobuche3 shows me a few metres below the summit, on the final icy stretch
The final traverse to the top is quite spectacular, and in the picture LobucheSummit above, the actual summit is the snowy cornice facing left at the top of the pic. The route is from the lower right of the cornice to the crest on the upper left.
After summitting, we climbed down to Lobuche BC, spent a night there, and trekked back to Everest BC. The days are quite warm and the Khumbu ice fall has had some serac falls and is not yet considered safe to traverse.
The focus is now on ice skills, and altitude acclimatization. For ice fall
training we practiced on ladders in the glacier, and rehearsed abseil and jumar
skills. I was a bit shaky on the ladder, and have to find the right space to
set my crampons onto the ladder's rungs, whilst maintaining my balance. But
practice will improve things!
Our next acclimatization stage will be to go back to Lobuche Peak, and this time ascend from Base Camp to the summit in one stage (missing out Camp One), and sleep in a tent on the summit ridge for one night. That’s the plan for the next few days.
Phew, that was challenging but satisfying! I am back at Base Camp, after the
second ascent of Lobuche Peak, this time, direct from Base Camp (4,900 metres)
to the summit (6,120 metres). We trekked down to Lobuche Base Camp, and slept
there, getting up early in the morning, eating and drinking as much as one
could put down, and setting out with backpacks with food and gear. For the
climb, I wore my high altitude boots, crampons, harness, and had the jumar and
ice axe in hand. My personal aim was to ascend to the top in one big push, in
less time than I had previously taken in total, to get from bottom to top, in
two stages over two days. I managed to do this.
The views were spectacular. As the sun set, we saw the magnificent peaks with a reddish hue, Everest, Cho Oyu, Ama Dablam, Nuptse. But as the sun set it became pretty cold. We were two to a tent and had to melt snow and cook a meal in a bag, as well as brew lots of warm drinks to rehydrate. The experience was meant to familiarize ourselves with the independent camping routine which we will follow higher up.
daybreak next morning we hastily packed up, and climbed down. The descent was
icy and steep, and a good breakfast awaited us at the Himex camp at Lobuche BC. Then I trekked back up to Everest BC for lunch.
Tonight at 2am (in the early hours of Friday, May 1st) we plan to leave Base
Camp on the ascent to Camp One (C1). We will step onto the Khumbu ice fall and
make our way up to the Western Cwm at about 6,000 metres.
1st May: THE ICE FALL CROSSING: We had an early breakfast (2.00am) at our Base Camp, and then hiked with our packs to “crampon point” at the entrance to the ice fall. At 3.30am we started up through the mangled blocks of ice and hanging “icebergs”. To give an idea of how tortuous the route is, it’s 700 vertical metres of a glacier which tumbles down at a speed of, maybe, about a metre a day. That’s a pretty slow “fall” and it’s as if the massive towers and blocks of ice are in suspended animation. They are named seracs, and range in size from 10 storey buildings, to the size of houses, to the size of a car. To give some idea of their weight – a “small” block of ice measuring 1 metre cubed (a metre on each side), weighs one ton – 1000 kilos! They hang perilously and awkwardly, and really can fall at any moment. They move less at night when the temperature is far below zero. But as it gets light – and especially when the sun hits the ice fall, the ice blocks resume their slow downwards momentum. To add to the dramas, there are massive hanging glaciers on the sides of the ice fall, on Everest’s west flank, and on Nuptse’s right flank, and blocks of these can also fall off without warning. So we try to cross the ice fall in the early hours of the morning – which is just as well, so that one can’t see how dangerous the route is! And there are also crevasses which have to be crossed by means of ladders placed in the ice fall by the “ice fall doctors”, Sherpas who maintain the chaotic route.
was pretty nervous, and in fact, in the days before I had actually decided not
to go through the ice fall, and then had reconsidered. My worry was that this
seems to be a particularly warm season, and there have been a number of
avalanches in the ice fall. So far nobody has been hurt, but deaths on this
section of the route are not uncommon. It is the “objective danger” of the
southern Everest route.
stood at the entrance to Western Cwm, with Lhotse, the 4th highest mountain in
the world at the far end, (pic above) Everest on the left, finally at Camp 1.
I sat in the snow with the cooker between my feet.
2nd May: THE FOOT OF EVEREST: We woke early so as to walk the length of the Western Cwm before the sun hit it and temperatures rose to a typical 40 degrees Centigrade. The route is circuitous so as to avoid the deep crevasses.
It was bitterly cold, far colder than freezing. I tried to keep a steady pace as the whole height gain was no more than 400 vertical metres, and the slope pretty mild, but the cold was debilitating. My nose felt completely numb, my fingers (in gloves) like wood, no feeling. But then the sun hit us from over Everest and we started to cook! Gloves and hats came off, sunscreen and sunglasses on. What a contrast. In the picture below, the big black rock in the top centre is Everest! That’s before the sun hit the valley.
2 is on the moraine at the foot of Everest, on its Western slope. It also lies
at the foot of the Lhotse Face, an ice slope leading up to Camp 3.
It became cold before too long, and we had to put on down suits again. In the next picture, my tent is on the left, and the sunlit Lhotse in the background, the summit just below the whispy cloud.
The toilet facilities (below) are well, okay, but this is a pretty remote place!
The night was another cold one and everything seemed to freeze solid. But, we were sleeping at the foot of Everest, after all!
May: AVALANCHE!!!!: I can’t overstate how
scared I have been of the ice fall, and the relief of arriving at Camp 1 safely
a few days back, was tempered in my mind by the fear of the obligatory descent
back to Everest Base Camp. I have been thinking actively of abandoning my
Everest summit quest as I just can’t get my mind round the idea of having to traverse
the ice fall again. I have sent a few emails discussing my anxieties. Simply
put, I am dead scared of the ice fall. My health is good, I have no altitude
sickness, I am having a great time, and the views are spectacular, the
experience utterly unique. But the ice fall exercises my mind non-stop. The ice
conditions are marginal; it’s been pretty warm, and whilst the statistics are
in my favour, can I really rely on the “it won’t be me” strategy. I know that
the chances are that there will be an avalanche in the ice fall, and that the
chances are that it won’t be me who is in the wrong place at the wrong time. I
know that the objective reality is that it is dangerous. The ice fall is not
controllable, it’s not predictable. And I have been weighing up whether the
summit of Everest is worth the personal risk, and tending towards packing it
in! The thing that keeps going through my head is that it’s a warm year, and
getting warmer as summer approaches and the ice fall melts more.
was about 10.30am, sunny now, and we were at the final ladder over a crevasse,
on the down trip. Here’s what I recall: Chris was halfway across the ladder,
Narly about to cross, and me two metres behind on the ice slope. We heard a
loud explosive sound, somewhere between the sound of thunder and a massive
“crack”. We knew well enough that it was an avalanche. Then time seemed
suspended, and drawn out. I looked up and saw that a piece of serac from
Everest’s west side had come loose high above us and was plummeting down with a
trail of ice and snow, and who knows what debris in its wake. Chris crossed the
ladder, Narly told me to stay where I was, and to go up the slope by a metre,
to get away from the crevasse’s edge, and crouch down. At the same time he
yelled into his radio to the Base Camp manager that we were being hit by an
avalanche at the final ladder. (He explained to me afterwards that this is
crucial – if we are to be buried by the avalanche, his training dictates that
he should have indicated to rescuers where to search for us)
This picture was taken about 10 minutes later at the base of the ice fall.
picture is of Chris and I as we reached crampon point, and safety.
Now I am back in Base Camp. Chris offered to buy me a beer! I settled for a Bitter Lemon, but our eyes met as we toasted each other. It’s good to be alive!
6th May: This is a series of pictures from the avalanche that I was in, taken by a team member who was standing below the ice fall. In the first picture one can see the avalanche after about 10 seconds. As the pictures progress, one can see the advancing cloud. I was inside the middle of that cloud!
May: DEATH IN THE ICE FALL, AND LIFE AFTER THE ICE FALL: Yesterday morning three
climbers fell into a crevasse in the Khumbu ice fall, as an avalanche broke
from the exact same serac as in “my” avalanche 4 days ago. I heard the report
on the crackling walkie-talkie radio, and Lobsang, accompanying us, translated
from Sherpa language: Two climbers were rescued, one injured, and the third was
not recovered from the crevasse, and is dead. The ice fall has claimed yet
another victim: a climber who likely set out, hoping: “Let it not be me.”
have left Everest Base Camp, am trekking back down the Khumbu Valley, with a French climbing colleague from my team, who has decided that he cannot risk all
by going through the ice fall again. He is 41, and has 3 kids. He said to me:
“L’Everest restera un reve et ne sera pas un cauchemard pour mes enfants”.
(Everest will remain a dream, rather than becoming a nightmare for my children)
I first failed to reach the summit of a big mountain (Aconcagua), I realized
something obvious, but profound for me: If I go to the movies and buy a ticket,
I am going to be seeing a movie. It’s really a sure thing. But, if I arrive at
a mountain, with time allocated, air fares paid, equipment acquired, guides and
tents, ropes and jumars, it’s still not a sure thing. The mountain is not a
movie. Money, intent, desire, fitness, are not a guarantee, or a ticket. The
mountain decides. It took me three trips to Aconcagua to finally get to its
summit! And then, the mountain let me sneak up, with humility and reverence.
May: POST SCRIPT ON EVEREST SPRING 2009: The Everest 2009 season is over.
walked down the Khumbu Valley with my French colleague. The walk was cathartic.
I felt the anxiety of the ice fall leaving my system, and I loved the rich
oxygenated air filling my lungs as the altitude dropped. I felt a spring in my
step, and had no doubts about my decision. We flew from Lukla to Kathmandu, and
then I travelled home to Cape Town via Qatar. Back at home, I sorted cleaned,
and packed away my altitude climbing gear, and jogged up the familiar Table Mountain.
thrilled for my team-mates who summitted, and a bit unsure about how I feel
about myself. I suppose that John is right - he phoned me, and then wrote to me
after his summit, and on hearing about my feelings of ambivalence: "You
had sound reason to go home, if your mind is not 100% confident and committed to
the climb, you are headed for disaster, so please don’t over-analyse your
decision, it was a good one for you at that time." As I read that, it
rings true to me. At the time, my thoughts were about the avalanche and not
about the summit. My body felt strong; my physical state was fine, but my head
wasn't right for the climb.