By David Rich
Everest sat high on the near horizon blowing its nose like a blizzard over the top of neighboring Lhotse, the eternal hurricane force winds scouring Everest from its west to east summits. This was the first time I’d seen Everest other than a glimpse from an airplane into Katmandu or Lhasa. This time had taken some doing.
The only way to get to Everest is to fly to Lukla, unless you’d prefer a rickety bus to Jiri and a week’s hike from there to reach the Lukla trailhead.
For $93 ($30 for locals) you can fly from Katmandu to Lukla, the third busiest airstrip in Nepal — everyone wants to see Everest up close and some fools actually harbor ambitions to climb Everest or one or more of the dozen other incredible summits in the area.
Don’t Forget to Acclimatize
A few years ago you could have flown into the airstrip above Namche Bazar, but the folks in Lukla complained to the government about their complete loss of business upon the opening of the new airstrip, so you still have to hike from Lukla to Namche, a two-day slog.
From Lukla to Everest Base Camp is a minimum of eight days from 9000 to 18,000 feet (3400 to 5400M) including two days off to acclimatize. The acclimatization part can be important.
When you hop off the little two-engine plane in Lukla, you’re surrounded by glaciated peaks and would-be porters. Hire a porter. Spend a measly $100 to save your back for eleven or so days, a nice contribution to the local economy, providing a job to a porter that will support his family for six months. Then instead of toting a pack your energy can be expended taking photos National Geographic Magazine would be proud to feature on the cover.
Besides effusive greetings from would-be porters, a medical doctor from London begged me to sign up for a high altitude sickness study coordinated by Stanford University Medical School. Take two capsules a day of what could be Diamox, gingko biloba or a placebo. Check in with docs in three villages ranging higher and higher in altitude. Cute doc, so I signed up.
Finding a Porter
I found a porter named Raz through Porters’ Progress, a nonprofit repository of clothing and shoes for otherwise ill-clad porters such as Raz.
Raz was a fit-looking twenty-three year old quite nice kid and to look at him you wouldn’t think any mountain could impede his progress, contrary to later reality. You see many porters carrying over fifty kilos (110 lbs) wearing flip-flops up near vertical trails with snow blowing in their faces.
Raz and I dropped down from Lukla into a narrow canyon with Tibetan-style houses perched on sheer hillsides that plunged precipitously to an aquamarine glacier-melt river. If this river were named after the mountain from which it sprang it’d be named Everest, but it isn’t.
The next day we climbed past Sherpa villages primarily consisting of tourist lodges, steeply up to Namche. The hundred or so lodges between Lukla and Base Camp afford hot showers, even in the remotest boondocks and biggest snowstorms, as we found out. Most have private plywood rooms, two rough frames with foam pads covered by a sometimes-changed sheet upon which you dump your sleeping bag.
There is seldom electric and never any heat except in the dining room where low room charges ($.75 to $3) are cozily recouped over pots of Tibetan milk tea and high-priced food (trucked in by porters). The menu is fortunately mostly carbs: breads, eggs, potatoes and such, much of it fried, from two to four dollars a pop. Eat and stay warm.
The Carter “Suite”
Namche sits at 11,000 feet (3400M), a horseshoe-shaped village of forty-odd lodges where I checked into the Khumbu Lodge, taking Jimmy Carter’s old room (October 1985), which Rosalind must have agreed to inhabit during a fit of bad taste.
Of course it’s been almost twenty years, so maybe Rosalind had better furnishings than my bare plywood room with two dinky racks barely counterbalanced by lots of windows. The Carter Suite must have been divided into fourths.
The rest/acclimatization day in Namche is often spent exploring its trinket and trekking shops, shopping for goodies from prayer wheels to hiking poles, exploring the river that waterfalls through town center where locals wash their duds in front of signs saying “No Washing Clothes” and listening to a cacophony of stone masons frantically chiseling gray granite to build Namche’s forty-first lodge badly needed during Nepal’s tourist slump inspired by loose cannon Maoists.
In Namche I met a trekker who’d hiked in the extra seven days from Jiri, coming away with Nepal’s most avidly sought-after souvenir — a receipt from “The Communist Party of Nepal”, normally requiring a 1000 rupee tribute ($14) but he’d claimed to only have 500 rupees and they believed him. Such a deal he got.
By noon the clouds drop over the peaks and fog wisps around the streets of Namche but don’t let that drive you into an Internet café unless you have a spare $18 an hour. It’s only slightly less disheartening to watch non-tourist porters who supply local merchants, trudging by with half their load consisting of twelve cases of beer and the other half twenty liter canisters of soybean oil: flip flop until you drop.
Portrait Studies of Everest
The real trek to Base Camp begins in Namche where immediately upon leaving town Everest appears on the horizon next to Lhotse, a mere 15 miles (25 km) away, allowing a morning for portrait studies of the highest mountain on earth.
At Tengboche high on a knife-edged ridge the morning views are especially fine, fine with me because half the trekkers turn back here thus leaving the trail far less seriously populated, a major difference on a track pounded into a two-inch (5 cm) dust layer by tourists, porters and yak trains. The dustbowl effect changed abruptly the next day.
The next day was a rest day in Dingboche, to get acclimatized to 14,500 ft (4400M). Raz and I climbed to 4800 meters and then while Raz had an extended tea break at a Chukhung lodge, I pushed the envelope by gasping up another 1300 feet (400M), almost to the brown barren summit of Chukhung Rai. This climb got me to the highest elevation at which we’d have to sleep in a few days at Gorek Shep, 17,000 feet (5200M), the last village before Everest Base Camp.
I could feel acclimatization seeping into my bones but nevertheless had a small altitude sickness headache on the way down. Raz also admitted to feeling less than perfect. However, by mid-afternoon we’d kicked the headaches and were back relaxing in Dingboche at 14,500 feet (4400M).
Blizzard Number One
Suddenly a blizzard descended off the lofty tops of Nuptse and Ama Dablam, blanketing Dingboche, turning the village into a springtime winter wonderland and brown yaks white while affording spectacular photography. The temperature in my room next morning was zero degrees centigrade or thirty-two degrees Fahrenheit, but I’d been comfy in my down sleeping bag and was happy to find no more dust on the trail. Now the trail was pure mud.
Snow flurries began within an hour of leaving Dingboche, adding to the mud and slipperiness of the steep climb to Lobuche’s 1,600 feet (4900M), a mere five miles (eight km) from Base Camp. But upon our arrival Raz dropped a bombshell. He was high altitude sick, unable to concentrate, migraine headache, weak limbs and he had to get to a lower elevation pronto.
The fact of a fresh blizzard deterred him not at all as he stumbled out of the Lobuche lodge and headed rapidly downhill toward Dingboche. However, Raz had somehow and quite considerately arranged for a substitute porter until we could meet up two days later.
The next morning Raz‘s surrogate, a kid from the Lobuche lodge, set out on my heels as I began the ultimate four and a half hour ascent to Base Camp, asking didn’t I really want him to carry my light daypack. I shooed him back to the lodge and said I’d see him in the afternoon.
Never try to speed hike for nine or ten hours between 16,000 and 18,000 feet (4900 and 5400M), even for such a worthy goal as reaching Everest Base Camp and returning to shelter alive. My blaze of exhausted impressions included:
A 15-year old tourist at Gorek Shep unable to remember his name, sure he could recall it if the doc would just give him a couple more hours to think, waiting for a helicopter that if it hadn’t arrived within the hour he’d have been history.
The fog-enshrouded top of KalaPatthar climbed by Jimmy Carter and hundreds of tourists at 1800 feet (5500M) for often superb views of Everest and the surrounding magnificent peaks. I skipped the non-view this day.
The smashed rescue helicopter on the outskirts of Base Camp, a casualty from the 2003 season that killed the pilot and copilot, and the random pinnacles of ice saved from melting by the moraine rocks balanced precariously on their tiny tops.
The blaze of pumpkin orange, taxi yellow, baby blue and a cacophony of garish tents dotting the harsh landscape worse than the rockiest river bottom. How could anyone sleep on ice-sharp rocks?
The complete disorganization of Base Camp, which in 2004 consisted of perhaps thirteen or fourteen expeditions to climb Everest. No one knew for sure.
The Envelope, Please
The best rundown on Base Camp came from a chap out of Yosemite, California, Lincoln, who ran the radio link. He told me there were two Korean teams, two from the States, teams from Spain, Chile, Mexico (with two French Canadians) and Canada, the main Irish team down to two climbers including a woman aspiring to be the first of her nationality and sex on top after barely missing it in 2003, two Malaysian climbers with sixteen support staff, a Kiwi contingent and out in front in the sweepstakes to acclimatize and climb Everest first in 2004, the envelope please, and the likely winner was the Greek team in commemoration of Greece hosting the Summer Olympics.
Plus David Braeshears (of Seven Summits fame, the first along with Dick Bass to climb the highest peaks on all seven continents) was running a group called “Working Title”, trying to put together a Hollywood epic on the 1996 Everest disaster memorialized by Into Thin Air and The Climb, radically different versions of what “happened” that killer year on Everest.
The tombstones of those dying on Everest form a long line of monuments a half hour south of Lobuche. Meanwhile the infamous icefall a few hundred meters from Base Camp, the main initial obstacle to climbing Everest continued to shift, sending down boxcar-sized slabs of ice skittering like a giant train disaster.
At least one expedition had given up and gone home, perhaps good sense overtaking foolishness, its climbers victim to high altitude, berserk icefalls or the exquisite pleasure of sleeping on razor sharp rocks at Base Camp, which I then bid adieu.
I’d guess far fewer than half the trekkers who enter Samarantha (Everest) National Park make it to Base Camp because most suffer from mild to very severe high altitude sickness, food poisoning, giardia or half a dozen other readily available and debilitating maladies.
In 2000 over 25,000 people entered the Park. However, only 13,786 checked in during 2002 though the numbers climbed back over 19,000 in 2003. I was happy to be among those to have actually made it to Base Camp though I had to battle the third blizzard in as many days back to Lobuche. I was even happier the next day after scampering back down to a reasonable altitude to find Raz, my weenie Sherpa porter, fully recovered but overdue for a lecture on acclimatization.