Chillaxin' at Everest Base Camp
Sometimes Google can be just a little too sophisticated. Otherwise I would have updated my blog ages ago. When I've tried to update my blog from here at Everest base camp, Google, the sponsor of this site, detects the location from which our satellite signal is originating and all of the menus show up in the script of a language with which I am utterly unfamiliar. So to make this work I've asked a friend to update my blog for me.
Our trek to Everest base camp was relatively uneventful, other than the typical health issues associated with hygiene, sanitation, and nutrition in the third world. Thank your lucky stars for flush toilets, hot showers, potable water, and food that you can trust. I used to be able to say that I was genuinely omnivorous in the sense that I could eat anything and that I was the least picky eater you were ever likely to encounter. Well, I've met my match: yak meat.
We took our time on the journey, trying to give our bodies time to acclimatize properly, spending a couple nights at the truly fabulous Sherpaland Hotel at Namche Bazaar, then on our trek making overnight stops in Tengboche, the site of the famous monastery, Dingboche, and finally Lobuche before we finally arrive at Everest base camp. Some of the guides and Sherpa associated with our 7summits-club expedition had preceded us to base camp and our camp was already set up by the time we got there. We stole the prime spot on the uppermost end of Everest base camp usually occupied by the Alpine Ascents International expedition, but in the interests of U.S.-Russia relations the AAI guys were very gracious about it. Along the way we met Todd Burleson, the founder of AAI, and Vern Tejas, one of their famous guides. Both of them were very classy guys.
Having never been to Everest base camp before, I really didn't know what to expect. Nor did I realize what a prime spot we had. There's a saying to the effect that !@#$ rolls downhill, and so it is at Everest base camp. There we are at the top, untouched by any filth from higher up, but I can't say the same for those down below. Everyone makes do as well as possible, but it can be pretty grim for people trying to climb Everest on the cheap. I really lucked out with Alex Abramov, the Russian leader of our 7summits-club expedition. The quality of our food and other amenities at base camp are far and away superior to what others have to endure. Proper nutrition is vitally important here, because the altitude really saps your strength and kills your appetite. You have to eat; otherwise you won't have the energy reserves to climb the mountain. The food isn't what I would necessarily choose, but there's variety and it's prepared in such a way that we're unlikely to get sick from eating it.
The topography of Everest base camp was a bit of a surprise to me. There's no flat camping area. The whole thing is built on top of a slowly moving glacier covered with rocks and gravel. It is melting out from under me as I write this. The terrain can best be described as undulating. To get anywhere, even in your own camp, you have to scramble up and down hills covered with loose, unconsolidated, sharp rocks and scree, with patches of ice showing through from underneath. It's a wild and crazy place to pitch a tent.
The bottom of the infamously dangerous Khumbu ice fall is quite close to our camp, so when I wake up in the morning and open the zipper of my tent I enjoy a spectacular view of the Khumbu ice fall. It's really quite breathtaking, and quite dangerous to move through. We've already been up through the fall twice for acclimatization purposes. The first time we just spent a night at Camp I and returned to base camp the next morning. The second time we spent a night at Camp I and then moved further up the mountain through a valley of glacial snow and ice known as the Western Cym (pronounced "coom") to Camp II, which is situated at the base of the steep Lhotse face. The next morning we retreated all the way back to base camp.
What makes the Khumbu ice fall dangerous? It's a huge jumbled of constantly moving blocks of glacial snow and ice known as seracs. Some of them are the size of buildings, and they can fall on you without warning. Then there are the deep crevasses, most of them bridged by aluminum ladders put in place by a specialized team of Sherpa known as the "Ice Doctors" who are responsible for maintaining the route through the Khumbu ice fall. They stay very busy as the fall is constantly shifting. It is particularly dangerous to be in the fall in the afternoon when the sun is beating down and melting out key structural supports for the larger seracs, so most people try to climb through the fall in the very early morning, but you never know. Things can get crazy at any time. We were barely missed by an avalanche on our second trip through the fall. All you can do is clip in to the nearest, strongest anchor, hide behind the biggest serac in the area, and hope for the best. It was especially unnerving, because we could hear the avalanche before we could see it.
It is Monday here. Early Wednesday morning I'll be joining Team I for our third acclimatization climb up the mountain. We'll spend one night each at Camps I and II, both of which we've been to before, and then push higher up the mountain halfway up the steep Lhotse face to Camp III, which is situated at about 23,000 feet. We'll spend a night there and then the next morning we'll attempt to climb without supplemental oxygen another thousand feet or so to the top of the Yellow Band. Then we'll scurry all the way back down to Camp II, spend the night, and then retreat all the way to base camp the next morning. Following that we'll take about a week to rest and recover, perhaps retreating further down the Khumbu valley to lower altitudes, and then regather at base camp for our summit push.
This has been so much harder than I ever could have imagined. It is taking absolutely everything I've got--physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, psychologically--just to cope with the challenges I'm facing. It will be nothing short of a miracle if I actually summit. So many things can and do go wrong, but then miracles do happen, and with the kind thoughts and prayers of so many friends I'm curiously optimistic. Thank you for all of your support. I can sense it.
It is said in some ancient spiritual traditions that the one and only voice of God is silence. That voice is very loud here. It's so deep and profound here you can't help but hear it.
Monday, April 6, 2009
Well, so much for Plan A. We didn't make it out today either on account of bad weather in Lukla. The airport here in Kathmandu has become a purgatory of sorts for lost souls hoping for redemption in the form of a flight to Lukla. It's not just the Everest climbing expeditions. There are a bunch of trekkers too who hope to make their way to Everest base camp.
I'm impressed with the patience exhibited by my fellow expedition members and especially by our expedition leader Alex Abramov. No one seems upset, even though objectively it's frustrating to be stuck in Kathmandu waiting for a break in the weather. It's nice to be surrounded by people who understand that no amount of worrying about what can't be helped is going to make the situation better, so we're making the best of it.
Now our plan is to fly to Namche Bazaar tomorrow morning in a huge Russian-made heavy-lift transport helicopter that can carry all 11 of us and all of our gear in one trip. I like that plan mostly because it gets us out of Kathmandu and on our way to Everest base camp, and the added bonus, assuming the weather is clear enough for us to land at Namche Bazaar, is that Namche Bazaar is closer to Everest base camp than Lukla, so this will enable us to skip the trek from Lukla to Namche Bazaar, which was on our route anyway. The downside is that Namche Bazaar is considerably higher than Lukla. I believe I've heard the elevation of Namche Bazaar is 3,400 meters, which would be just a little over 11,000 feet. Kathmandu is a little shy of 4,500 feet, so we're looking at an elevation gain of 6,500 feet in a matter of 30 minutes or however long it will take us to fly to Namche Bazaar. That's a lot of altitude to digest in terms of acclimatization, so it's likely that we'll stay put in Namche Bazaar for a least a day.
After spending the bulk of the day at the airport, I succumbed to the temptation to check out the extraordinary number of climbing gear shops in Kathmandu. Most of these are very small mom & pop stores with a somewhat limited inventory, so it's not like you've got a bunch of REI stores to choose from, but if you know what you're looking for and are willing to keep searching, there are great bargains to be had. I've really got everything I need, but what caught my eye this afternoon was an ultra-light weight headlamp from Black Diamond: the Ion. My trusty older headlamp, state-of-the-art as of four years ago, feels like a brick compared to the Ion. I got a great price on it too and picked up some spare batteries while I was at it. I'll test it once we're at Everest base camp and decide whether to take it alone or as a backup for my older headlamp. The loss or malfunction of a headlamp on summit day would make it impossible to proceed. A typical push to the summit from the South Col/Camp IV begins before midnight. You've got to be able to climb in the dark for at least six hours or so.
Our acclimatization plan is to make a total of four trips up the mountain from Everest base camp. The first time we will climb through the treacherous Khumbu ice fall to Camp I at approximately 6,000 meters/19,700 feet, spend the night there, and return to base camp the next day. The second time we will climb to Camp I, spend the night there, advance the next day through the Western Cwm to Camp II at approximately 6,200 meters/20,300 feet, spend the night there, and then descend the next day all the way back to base camp. The third time up the mountain, perhaps the most critical in terms of acclimatization, we will bypass Camp I, ascend directly to Camp II, spend the night, climb half-way up the Lhotse face to Camp III at approximately 7,200 meters/23,600 feet, spend the night, and then push on to the Geneva Spur, which is not far from Camp IV on the South Col at 8,000 meters/26,200 feet. (The objective is to reach the Geneva Spur without the use of supplemental oxygen. If we can reach 26,000 feet without supplemental oxygen, weather permitting we should be able to reach the summit at 29,035 feet with supplemental oxygen.) After reaching the Geneva Spur we will descend all the way back down the mountain to base camp and then continue descending for rest and recuperation at the much lower altitude of Tenboche. We'll stay there for a week, ascend back up to base camp, and then wait for a good weather forecast. When we can reasonably anticipate a 72 hour window of decent climbing weather, we'll move up the mountain in stages, taking a day to climb from base camp to Camp II and another day to move from Camp II to Camp III. We'll start using supplemental oxygen at Camp III. The next morning we'll climb to Camp IV on the South Col and prepare to leave Camp IV for the summit that same night a little before midnight. That's the theory anyway. The weather may have other ideas.
Friday, April 3, 2009
If all goes well we'll be on a plane tomorrow morning to Lukla to begin our trek to Everest base camp. I say "if all goes well" because the huge Alpine Ascents International expedition, several members of which I know from my Aconcagua expedition several years ago, have been stranded for several days now. That's one of the disadvantages of a large expedition: logistically it's more of a challenge to move people and gear, especially when airplanes are involved. Even though there's a thunderstorm going on here in Kathmandu right now, the forecast for tomorrow is good, so I'm optimistic that we'll be able to fly.
Although it's possible to make the trek from Lukla to Everest base camp in a matter of three or four days, we plan to take 8-9 for purposes of acclimatization. That's a process that simply can't be hurried, at least not safely. Along the way we'll spend time at Namche Bazaar and Tenboche monastery. (I'm guessing about the spelling of those by the way, so cut me some slack. I'm sure I'll have it right once I've spent some time in each place.)
We've already got a couple of the Russian guides and some of our sherpas at Everest base camp. Our camp should be well established by the time we get there.
I won't have access to the Internet while we're trekking to base camp, so this will be my last post for 8-9 days. I'll be back online once we get to base camp. Hopefully, our satellite uplink and wifi system will be operational by the time we arrive.
I'm getting to know the other members of the expedition better and better. It's a very diverse, international group, with climbers from Russia, France, Holland, Northern Ireland, the Isle of Man, Canada, and then there's me from America.
I'm amazed at the technology that is available these days. Earlier I was on a video call via Skype with a producer at Inside Edition. Nothing is for sure until a segment actually appears on the broadcast--that's just the way that industry works--but it's all looking very positive in terms of doing some segments about my Everest expedition and the Arizona Dream House Raffle. Who knows? Soon I could be talking to Deborah Norville via Skype from Everest base camp with the spectacular Khumbu ice fall in the background.
Thanks as always for your support and keeping me in your thoughts and prayers.
Thursday, April 2, 2009
I'm sitting in the lobby of the Hotel Yak & Yeti in Kathmandu, Nepal. We'll have another day or so here before we fly to Lukla to begin our trek to Everest base camp on Saturday. I spent the day walking around Kathmandu doing some last-minute shopping for some essential climbing gear. This is probably the best place in the world to pick up equipment for high-altitude mountaineering. There are something like 200 climbing gear shops in the city. Kathmandu has changed quite a bit since I was last here in 1994. Most of the roads are paved now, and the power supply is more consistent, although there are still periodic outages. Tourism is down almost 20% due to the recession, so people who depend on tourism for their livelihoods are a little aggressive. Who can blame them? You do what you have to do to survive. Still, compared with 15 years ago, the standard of living seems to have improved quite a bit, although there is still abject poverty everywhere you turn.
I'm getting to know some of the other members of my expedition. They are an interesting group of people. There's John, 55, from the Isle of Man, a motorcycle racer who's had his share of near-fatal accidents. This is his third attempt to climb Everest. Then there's a married couple, a rare entity on expeditions like this, Nowell and Lynn, both endurance racing enthusiasts who regularly run eco-challenge races and ultra marathons. They attempted Everest together in 2005, but Nowell experienced retinal bleeding in both eyes, compelling him to abandon the attempt. Nowell and Lynn had made a pact, that if one of them could not continue, the other would go on, but Lynn could not bear to leave Nowell in that condition, so she abandoned her own summit attempt. Nowell came back the next year and successfully reached the summit of Everest. This year the two of them are back to reach the summit together. Another member of the team is Philippe, an IBM executive from France. Today a friend of Nowell and Lynn's arrived, Patrick from Canada. Then of course there are the Russians, starting with our expedition leader Alex Abramov. More on them later.
Arizona is almost exactly on the other side of the planet from Kathmandu, so I've got 12 time zones of jet lag with which to contend. I hardly slept at all last night. Hopefully, I'll fare better tonight.
I'm anxious to begin our trek to Everest base camp. Soon enough.