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Dancing with Devils
Apr. 23 2004 by: Mike Swarbrick
My laptop has croaked from altitude sickness, a terminal case of cerebral edema. In the midst of capturing and editing the video shot enroute, the hard drive broke into a chorus of wipe-out. This was one of two things that have been occupying my spare time here in the shadow of the Himalayas. The other is avalanche photography. A frustrating hobby really, because you can never tell which massive snow and ice shelf is going to go next. Here I sit on my plastic patio chair high atop a large boulder with camera in hand while I write, waiting for one of the big ones to release. Unfortunately, they usually let go at night when the days melt re-freezes. When they do release, they go off with an explosion that sounds exactly like thunder echoing through the mountains.
We are surrounded on three sides by mountains with significant overhanging seracs of ice and snow, so the thunder is frequent. Some nights we see sheet lightning beyond and above the mountains but it is strangely quiet. The stars here are tremendous. I’ve only seen sky’s like this in Canada’s North and well out on the Atlantic. When it’s clear, I need no flashlight to find my tent, even though the trail is littered with rocks whose positions change daily as the glacier groans and moves under pressure from below and beyond.
Perhaps I should paint you a picture of my surroundings. On my extreme left is Pumori (23,507 Ft.). It is a great dome like snow covered peak with a long sloping ridge line that runs North into the side of Mt. Lingtren (22,142 Ft.) Next to Lingtren and directly in front of me is Khumbutse. At 21,866 feet it is so steep that not much snow accumulates but Khumbutse does have massive amounts of scree that has collected at it’s base due to rock slides from above. These scree slopes run up the mountain about a thousand feet and they are growing. New rocks are continually breaking free and sliding down from above. Some make it all the way down into the edge of camp. Thankfully we are well protected by the morrain ridge pushed up by the khumbu glacier on which we are camped.
As I turn my head directly North I face the West shoulder of Everest, known locally as Lho La (19,770 Ft.). There is more glaciers hanging from it than the previously mentioned peaks and it has a large pyramid like footprint. Although it isn’t, Lho La appears larger and taller than all but Nuptse, which looms high above to my right. At 25,790 ft. Nuptse hides the second highest peak in our neighbourhood, Lhotse (27,890 ft.). From between Lho La and Nuptse flows the Khumbu ice fall. This ice fall is so immense that climber’s in view just half-way up appear as oblong little dots, appearing and then disappear as they move among the towering seracs some of which are 100 feet tall. These seracs are created as ice and snow slowly breaks away from the Mother glacier due to the extreme slope of the valley it occupies. This river of ice actually flows down the mountain at an average rate of 4 feet per day, every so often a serac tumbles over and will crush those in the wrong place at the right time. Other than the mile high near vertical Lhotse face and the summit ridge of Everest this is among the most dangerous of places for climbers who, unfortunately, must pass through it a number of times during the acclimatization process. The peak of Everest at 29,035 ft., is just out of view from here, blocked by Lho La.
In among these ever growing rocky monsters that make for good fences between the Kingdom of Nepal and Communist China, lies our sprawling little multicoloured tent town. With twenty one permits purchased, for at least $70,000. each, from Nepal this spring, there are at least that many camps. each camp has its own Puja Alter, carefully constructed from rocks by the Sherpa’s to ceremoniously honour their God Buddha before any of them will attempt to climb above base camp.
Further up the Sherpa’s sacred mountain, Sagarmatha (Everest), their “Mother Goddess of the Earth”. There is a flagpole built into the middle of each alter carrying the many lines hung with Buddhist prayer flags. A quick estimate puts the number of prayer flags flying in each camp near 600. Climbing to any high rocky point in base camp brings into view approx. 12,000 flags of yellow, green, red, white and blue. Quite a contrast to the grey and black rock and glistening ice that is predominant here.
Snow falls almost daily here at or about 3;00 p.m. Usually just 2 -10 cm’s. and it stays only for the cold clear starry night then melts in the late morning sun. Tanning is possible for several mid-day hours when it can hit a high near 15 degrees c. but without much of Earths atmosphere for protection one can burn in just twenty minutes. Winter wear is the norm. though as the temperature plummets to an average low of -12 c. at night.
Although the temperature swing at basecamp seems severe our climbers deal with much worse. Ben earlier reported in on the radio “from the surface of the Sun”. On their way up the Western Cwm (Pronounced Coom) toward camp 2 with no air movement and the Sun reflecting from the ice on three sides he suggested that the temp. was near 60 degrees Celsius. Perhaps some exaggeration there, but later, upon reaching camp 2 approx. 3ooo feet above us, he was commenting on the freezing, clear cold darkness of night and guessing that the temp. was near -30 c.
Breaking news via radio from camp 2.
Ben reports that our whole team was chased from their tents in the middle of the night by a large avalanche that came too close for comfort. He described the situation as frightening with some chunks of ice actually hit the tents. It was near 2:00 am as he yelled for Shaunna to get up and get out. Hector ran from his tent and jumped into a small crevasse for protection from flying ice. Andrew told me a little later that although his ears perked up, he didn’t bother leaving his warm sleeping bag. This Ausie does have ice-water in his veins!
A bit of excitement here last week as well. A helicopter zoomed into camp, a rare occurrence by all accounts. A Nepali military machine flown by a real cowboy. It came low up the valley aiming straight at our camp veering right at the last moment and circumnavigated the mountain walls that surround us.
A community effort, quite by coincidence just days before, had levelled a landing pad near the medical tent a stones throw south of us. Good timing really as the base camp manager for David Breshears team hurt herself while climbing the scree walls. David is here filming a movie for Universal about the 1996 tragedy on Everest, since made famous in Jon Krakauers novel Into Thin Air. We later learned that his manager had broken some ribs and suffered quite a gash to her head but we hadn’t realized that her injuries required evacuation. Apparently one of her broken ribs has punctured and collapsed a lung requiring treatment unavailable here. When the chopper took off we all had our fingers crossed. You could just tell that it was struggling in the thin air unable to gain sufficient altitude. It eventually tilted forward quite close to the ground and began it’s run down the valley. Everyone was quiet until it disappeared from site. We assume it made its destination. The poor girl was just out for some fun and fitness. These walls that surround us though are somewhat alive and need no extraneous disturbance to collapse on them-selves. Rock and boulders crash down with some regularity. I too had a good close look at scrambling up for a photo op. but decided otherwise not wanting to become personally involved with a landslide. Just getting to the edge of this trouble zone was more dangerous than I had anticipated. At one point I had to traverse a natural dam that was holding back a semi frozen pond. Once on top I could hear the water escaping below and realized that it could let go at any moment. As a measured amount of panic struck, I started to run but tripped. I just barely managed to stay on my feet but the video camera hanging from my neck struck a rock, fortunately just hard enough to dislodge the lense cap. When I got to the other side, quite out of breath, I paused long enough to look upward at a large jumble of rock perched precariously overhead. Adrenaline gave me a good kick in the butt now as I scrambled further out of harms way. A coughing fit ensued as the cold, dry air burned my hyperventilating throat, and lungs. The careful trip back to camp was not without some danger of pinning a foot in the unstable boulders, so I promised myself that from now on I’d keep to the more established trails in and around base camp.
My little outings pale in comparison to the truly adventurous spirits who venture high into these peaks. At this point I can only imagine climbing the twisted trails, around the towering seracs and over deep crevasses to camp one and two yet Ben, Shaunna, Andrew, Hector, Frankie and our nine climbing Sherpa’s must navigate this route many times not only for the filming of their own summit push in a couple of weeks, but also in order to film and gather the stories of climbers from other teams. The latest from camp 2 has Gelu and partner Mingma holding onto our dining tent through most of last night as high winds tried to steal it from their grasp. Mingma has suffered an injury to his mouth after being struck by a pole. This morning, while it snowed, the loads to camp two were postponed as Gopaul, Shiri and another were turned back by yet another serac collapsing near the top of the icefall. The Khumbu Doctor has yet another repair to make. For 25 years this man has been paid to keep the route open. Lashing ladders together, building bridges over crevasses and up seracs he has possibly the worlds most dangerous job. Andrew and Hector have carved a flat ledge out of the snow for tents approx. 30 ft. wide by 6 ft. into the cliff face about 1,800 feet from the base of the Lhotse face. This will be our team’s camp 3.
Dana and Daniel: Sorry I missed calling you Friday night. The sat. phone is up the mountain with Ben. I hope to connect with you before next Friday.
Anne: I tried to respond to your previous note a couple of times but kept losing the connection. It took me 26 hours to finally get 6 minutes of video out for Discovery and CJOH yesterday. The weather has been heavy here.
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