Base Camp, Bad Booze, and Bad News

[Continued from the previous post]

It is a short 90-minute saunter up the side of the glacier to get to Everest Base Camp, the jumble of tents at the bottom of the infamous Khumbu Icefall apparent from some distance.

Given the uncertain nature of glacial terrain, the path doubles back and forth past crevasses before suddenly entering the compact area of tents. This year, it is home for over 600 climbers, supporting sherpas and porters, their tents perched improbably on the ice on stone-built platforms.

The risks are ever-present. A couple of days before my visit, an avalanche had swept down the Khumbu Icefall, killing one Sherpa climber and injuring two others, the snow-dust cloud reaching well into Base Camp itself. The Icefall, which moves about a metre down the hill each day, is always dangerous – and particularly unpredictable this year. The snow piled up on the forbidding slopes to North have made it more treacherous than usual – to the extent that at least one expedition leader has put a time limit on climbers getting through. If you can’t make it in time, tough – you’re back down, no climb.

But I had work to do – 8 days earlier, across a couple of mountain ranges ot the West, I had been given a letter to deliver from a Sherpa whose son was at Base Camp. I started asking around to locate his expedition. “Alpine Ascents?” I enquired. The familiar answer – “Go straight” with a vague wave of the arm in the direction of the main camp – wasn’t particularly helpful.

In fact, somewhat predictably, Alpine Ascents was the furthest possible set of expedition tents right at the top of the temporary village by the foot of the icefall. Knowing that expeditions were not always that keen on the distraction of visitors, I entered gingerly.

“Errrr… I’m the postman – anyone know Nima Nuru Sherpa?” A few shouts and grunts later, and the 19-year-old Nima wandered out, toothbrush in hand.

It was a great moment – in an age of instantaneous communication across continents, there’s something deeply satisfying about delivering a letter by hand over 30 miles and eight days. After he had devoured the letter, I sat quietly drinking tea with Nima for half an hour. He must have offered me more tea about very 30 seconds. I will stay in touch with him.

I spent a further couple of hours at Base camp, chatting with the leader of the Jagged Globe expedition (Adele, pictured in front of the Icefall, with the ominous hanging ice on the slopes to the left/North) and one of the climbers, Doug (Everest will complete the “Seven Summits” for him). I did a climbing course with Jagged Globe in the Alps in 2006. Adele was, amusingly, recovering from a massive party put on my the Kazakhstani Expedition the night before.

I also managed to enjoy the incredible apple pie in the Base Camp Bakery (set up by a climber-Sherpa Steven Dawa Sherpa – all the profits go towards an initiative to remove plastic waste from Base Camp) before eventually dragging myself away from this fascinating human drama.

The challenges of Everest 2009…

As I returned to Gorak Shep, heavy snow started to close in. It would snow for the next three days. Summit attempts this year have already been postponed once (orignally May 10th), and the snows are threatening to do so again. As I write, many expeditions have set off with the aim of summitting on or around the 20th. You can read about their progress here. With so many expeditions, the chances of queues for the top along the final stages is high.

After a quick wander up the 5600m peak Kala Pittar, I reluctantly started heading back down the Khumbu valley. 4 days of sickness (plus the deteriorating weather) put paid to my plans to walk over a third pass to the fifth valley.

As I descended, a series of strange incidences occurred which only made sense later. A Sherpa complaining of severe kidney pain in Gorak Shep; an expedition leader passed me running down from Base Camp to the medical camp at Pheriche and back (2 hours round trip); a higher-than-usual number of helicopters buzzing up and down the valley.

The full story is quite remarkable, and very sad. Essentially a bad batch of moonshine booze from Kathmandu (methanol masquerading as whisky) killed one Sherpa cook and severely injured another. The activity I had witnessed was an amazing (successful) 48-hour battle to save the second Sherpa. It is recorded, by the climber whose cook he was, in a compelling blog here. The doctors had to innovate above and beyond normal practice, eventually (bizarrely) putting him on an alcohol drip, to combat the methanol. Incredible.

Return to Namche and beyond

Within two hard days of walking through the snow, I was back in Namche Bazaar. I returned to the hut that I had started from. I was happily explaining my route to the owner and casually mentioned the Japanese climbers that I had bonded with over the local rice-beer Chang 15 days earlier. I was shocked to hear that 2 of them had been killed in their attempt to climb Kawande, their rope being cut by a falling rock as they ascended a ridge. It was a final reminder of how dangerous proper climbing in this region can be.

I returned, bearded, to Kathmandu for the inevitable night out in Thamel, and reflected on a rewarding, fascinating and sobering 20 days. Taking the path less trodden across the passes) had given me a broader sense of the region and it’s culture than I could have hoped for; and travelling without a guide or a porter (I carried all my own gear) increased the physical challenge, and gave me a very liberating sense of freedom.

Finally, the trek served as Phase 2 of my unintentional weight loss programme (Phase 1 being qualifying as a Yoga Teacher). Getting ill at altitude is a fine way to shed the pounds (though probably not medically recommended). While not quite a rake yet, I definitely am erring on the slender side for the first time in a few years.

I leave for Tibet, overland, on Tuesday; with only a 15-day one-man “group” visa for Tibet, I then have the challenge of entering China via the Lhasa-Qinghai railway, and trying to extend my visa – apparently not as easy as it sounds.

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Filed under 'mind the gap' journey 08-09, All posts, Nepal and Tibet '09

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