Sunday, May 10, 2009

Reporting from Everest

Just for the exercise and a change of scenery I hiked down to Gorak Shep and back the other day.  Gorak Shep is the closest outpost of civilization--and here I'm using the word "civilization" quite generously--to Everest base camp.  While I was there I ran into a group of trekkers who wanted to hear all about climbing Everest.  They were curious, apparently, because other climbers they'd encountered were a little too full of themselves and couldn't be bothered to spend time with mere trekkers whose only ambition was to get to Everest base camp.  It was a lot of fun to talk with them and hear their stories.  Two of them had just graduated from medical school in England, and part of their graduation requirement was to spend six weeks working in a clinical environment before they went on to their residencies.  So they chose to spend six weeks working at a clinic in Kathmandu.  I was inspired by their altruism, and it would have been a shame if I hadn't taken the time to learn a little about what brought them to Nepal.

As I was leaving Everest base camp on my way to Gorak Shep there was a huge avalanche--the largest I've seen yet--that swept down on the Khumbu ice fall.  It originated from a huge, overhanging cornice of ice and snow far up the nearly vertical slope that defines the western flank of Everest.  I've been keeping my eye on it, wondering when it would finally come crashing down.  i learned after I got back to Everest base camp that the avalanche had resulted in two injuries and a fatality, a Sherpa who had been buried alive and then crushed to death by the huge mass of snow and ice that came crashing down on him.  One of the injury victims was in sufficiently serious condition that he was evacuated by helicopter the next morning.  That speaks volumes about the extent of his injuries, because a helicopter evacuation at this altitude is very dangerous.  Ask any helicopter pilot how his or her craft performs at 18,000 feet.  A rescue helicopter crashed at Everest base camp last year.  All of this was a sobering reminder of just how dangerous this whole business is.  That Sherpa who lost his life in the Khumbu ice fall could have been any one of us.  My heart goes out to his family and friends.

Today our expedition is hosting a huge party to celebrate victory day in Russia, the anniversary of what Americans are more familiar with as V-E day, the day Allied forces, including Americans and Russians, occupied Berlin and World War II in Europe ended.  The Russians, which make up the majority of our expedition, are making a big deal out of it.  Last night at dinner they were trying to think of ways to improvise pyrotechnics in place of fireworks.  I"m afraid by this evening the vodka will be flowing and the Russians will be blowing things up.  Our expedition leader Alex Abramov has invited a number of other expedition leaders, including Russell Bryce, whom you may know from two seasons of the Discovery Channel series Everest: Beyond the Limit.  This should be very interesting.  This evening also marks the deadline by which all expedition members who went down the Khumbu valley to lower altitudes for rest and recovery are supposed to be back in Everest base camp.

I wish the weather forecast were more promising.  We may be stuck in Everest base camp for a good while longer waiting for the right opportunity to make our summit push.  I'm getting really tired of fighting for breath.  Yes, I've acclimatized very well; after all, we're close to 18,000 feet here; but I really long for a truly satisfying gulp of oxygen-rich air and sleeping in my own bed for that matter.  This is where an important part of the mental game comes into play.  The agony of climbing the world's highest mountain would be a welcome torture compared with finding ways to keep from going crazy waiting, waiting, waiting ...

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