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Into The Shadow of Everest
March 18 – April 8th 2004
Approximately 18 hours in the air took us to Katmandu via London and Abu Dhabi (U.A.E.). Katmandu is a large, dirty, bustling anthill where the ants drive around at breakneck speed in an infinite number of stinky alien vehicles managing somehow to avoid collision with crowds of traders, bustling barefoot porters, tourists, beggars and the occasional cow. I had the opportunity to ride on the back of a motorcycle with Chiri, one of our Sherpa guides, in search of a voltage converter, and was somewhat overwhelmed by the number of vehicles and number of times that one could potentially lose a knee-cap or worse while Chiri weaved in and out of busy traffic at break-neck speed. Although I tried, I could not hold my breath for the 30-minute ride to the Thamel market district in the thick diesel-laden air. Destitute families were seen living on the sidewalks in squalor amidst livestock that roamed freely.
The highlight of my stay here was filming a very colourful holy man who took me on a grand tour of all the temples and shrines of his Deities in the Holy, World Heritage Site of Pashupati. He relished in telling me, mostly in sign and dance, the stories of his Gods. My greatest disappointment was running out of film just as he was being chased by a large (and holy) bull that he was trying to introduce me to.
We left Katmandu March 23rd. in a twin Otter light plane, (heavy actually with our expedition gear), and bounced over the foothills of the Himalayas to Lukla at 9,380 ft. The airport here is worth mention due to the 15-degree uphill runway that was built with the assistance of Sir Edmund Hillary in 1965 and paved just three years ago. Many a plane and chopper has crashed here including one that killed Mr. Hillary's 1st wife and their daughter some years ago. The foot of the runway drops off into a 2,000 ft. gorge and the top ends abruptly at the base of a cliff.
Lukla and the 425 square miles of the Kumbu valley above is accessible only by air or by foot. There are no roads, no cars, nor motorcycles. All supplies are carried up the valley to neighboring villages by porters. The porters carry large, heavy loads on their backs suspended by a single strap over the top of their heads. These friendly hard working people must be among the strongest on Earth. Two of our porters for example each carry a 70 Kg. Honda generator up hills all day long that challenge most of us Westerners with only daypacks.
After a night interrupted by gunfire from the local militia we struck out for Phakding, an easy ten kilometer hike that had us descend a little over 1,700’. The trail in places followed the Dudh Koshi River. At Phakding we crossed our second of what would be many suspension bridges high above the glacier fed whitewater. Here we camped alongside the River and along-side our trusted Zopkio beasts of burden. Zopkio’s are a cross between a longhorn local cow and Yak and are used primarily at lower altitudes to carry supplies. The more surefooted purebred Yak with his long shaggy hair, prefers the colder climate of high altitude and is larger and stronger.
The afternoon of March 25th found us struggling up into the Mountainside Sherpa Capital of Namche Bazaar. The local people have created terraced gardens that reach right to the very brink of a steep cliff that drops into the valley below. At 11,500 feet, we have apparently entered into the “danger zone”. Our expedition doctor, Matt Arentz, instructs us that Accute Mountain Sickness affects some at this altitude and that we should all watch for headache, nausea and dizziness from this point on, all symptoms of pulmonary and cerebral edema. Pulmonary Edema is a buildup of fluids in the lungs. Cerebral Edema is a buildup of fluid in and around the brain. Both can prove fatal if not treated with rapid decent or provisional treatment inside a pressurized and oxygenated “Gamow” bag. Some of the team are now on the drug Diamox which helps increase respiration, especially helpful during sleep. I’m personally just beginning to feel somewhat healthy, while recovering from a gastro intestinal bug of some kind that many of us have had to deal with.
From Namche we can see the 29,035 foot peak of Mt. Everest off in the distance with its familiar plume of snow being blown from the top by the jetstream.
After two more days of hiking up and down through the Himalayan foothills some of which was through some beautiful Rhododendron forests we arrived in Tengboche. Here in the Tengboche Monastery, surrounded by mountain peaks, we were all blessed by the head Llama at a private Puja ceremony. The ceremony was primarily for our Sherpa guides who will not climb without these spiritual blessings. Our four western climbers, Hector Ponce de Leon of Mexico, Andrew Lock from Australia, Shaunna Burke and Ben Webster of Ottawa also find it somewhat comforting to take part in these ceremonies. Andrew, having summited Everest before is one of the few people in the global climbing community who has knocked off ten of only fourteen summits on Earth that are over 8,000 meters. At age 42, Andrew still plans to knock off the last four. Some other interesting team-mates include Marni shulman, Director of programming for CTV Travel and Valerie Pringle who you may recall from Canada AM etc. They and their camera man will stay with us for just one week after arriving at Everest’s base camp. Their primary function is to generate live to tape general interest pieces that will air on Discovery’s Daily Planet show as well as on CJOH in Ottawa, CTV out of Toronto and the Travel Network. These pieces are kind of a prelude to the six part mini series that we are here to produce. I will miss both Marni and Valerie’s camaraderie and humour, their cameraman however is a pain in the butt, a glass half empty kind of a guy but a professional none-the-less. Our full-time camera operator Frank Vilaca on the other hand is quite a cheerful character, not only does he carry a rather large high definition camera up the trail without complaint but he also brought an 18” lawn gnome to decorate the sometimes bleak terrain at base camp. Frank will accompany the climbers to camp two at 21,325 feet and, body willing, beyond. Above camp two the large high def. camera will be left behind in favour of 6 smaller mini dv cameras that will take its place. These camera’s will be used by our Western climbers and some of the nine climbing Sherpa’s that will assist the team while shooting the action and hardship all the way to the summit. The filming will also include some of the other more interesting teams that are to be on the mountain as well.
At 6:30 am. bed tea is served by our amazing and resourceful kitchen staff and begins the day of Mar. 30th. At 8:30 we are on the trail to Dingboche. Awesome mountain views and the dodging of Yaks on the narrow cliff-side trails distract me from the pain that has once again infested my gut. At approx. 14,450 feet the night brings snow and frost to cover the tents and Yaks. By morning my water bottle is mostly slush and ice. A hike up to 15,600’ for further acclimatization presents many photo and video opportunities for me. Snow showers however prevent me from hitting the satellite for website and video updates this afternoon; I will try again in two days. Nothing but the weather happens fast up here.
On April 1st we hiked into Lobuche. Here is a great atmosphere for thinking. Walking slowly alone in high country, my brain deprived of oxygen, I’m overwhelmed by so many memories that have been lost in the usual day-to-day hustle of city living. At 16,100’ this and any settlement beyond is only seasonal. People, including the Sherpa’s, I am told, cannot survive year-round at this altitude. We stay one day in Lobuche for rest, acclimatization and photo, video and story transmissions. In the morning my water bottle that had contained hot water was now frozen solid. My minus 12 degree down sleeping bag surrounded by a summer bag were not near enough to keep me cozy. Tonight I’ll be sure to sleep in fleece as well.
April 3rd found us in Gorak Shep with one inch of fresh snow and many of us with fresh colds. The cold dry air at 16,800’ is hard on the throat and lungs as one struggle’s to get enough oxygen even at rest.
April 4th brings our biggest challenge yet as we finally climb the last leg of the trail to base camp at 17,600 feet. The views are awesome as the trail falls off several hundred meters in places. We have to continuously be aware of the Yak traffic as they can easily knock you from the narrow trail. The Kumbu glacier is now below and on our right side with Mt. Nuptse (25,790’) and the West shoulder of Everest, known as Lhola, looming overhead just beyond. On my left is Pumori (23,507’) and in front of me is the boxed canyon of several other mountains that surround base camp. The trail sometimes disappears amongst the rubble now as we enter the moraine of the ice-fall. Great multitudes of rocks cover the glacier in all shapes and sizes, sometimes perched on top of 12’ pinnacles of ice that has not melted due to the shadow of the rock sheltering the ice from the Sun. Ice spires poke up like stalagmites through the rocks here and must be avoided like Yak dung. Rounding a large rock I came across the hulking, burned out remains of a helicopter on it’s side amongst the rubble. I am now told that it was on it’s way up the valley to pick up Ang Gelu Shirpa, our Sirdar, (head climbing Sherpa), in order to bring him to the 50th anniversary celebrations of Edmond Hillary and Tensing Norgay’s first accent when it crashed. Gelu was to be the guest of honour as he had recently broken the speed record for climbing Everest. The date was May 26, 2003. Gelu left Everest base camp at 5:00 pm. and summited at 3:56 am. for a total climb duration of 10 hours, 56 minutes. Our Western climbers in contrast will spend 6 – 8 weeks going up and down, higher and higher, to achieve this same feat if in fact they make it at all. The human body, used to the rich Oxygen and heavier air pressure nearer sea level cannot function at altitude without a slow and steady acclimatization period. Ang Gelu on the other hand is a long standing legend in this high country having been to the top of the World no less than eight times. This will be his ninth. Contrary to the ego’s of some Western climbers, Gelu is a very humble, quiet and religious man. In his countrymen’s eyes however, Gelu is “The Man”.
My first impression of base camp was one of curious indifference. The colours of tents and prayer flags were of interest but my senses were somewhat dulled by mild exhaustion. The lack of oxygen and rocky terrain had taken it’s toll. You may be interested to know that our home at base camp lies approx. 1,500 feet above the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies. The first thing I did was climb to the highest point of rocks, sit down and begin scouting around with my camera’s zoom lense in an effort to locate our partially constructed camp among what looked like over two dozen other camps jumbled amongst the rocks, ice, Yak, porter and trekker traffic. Some young Indian and Nepalese porters that I recognized from earlier meetings pointed me in the right direction while waving and shouting good-byes. I stumbled into camp just in time for some hot soup and milk tea to recharge my battered body and brain.
This first night in the shadow of Everest was one of the coldest yet, so it didn’t take much to wake me when the sound of ice, snow and rock avalanches exploded like thunder in several directions throughout the night. The most unsettling occurrence came from below my tent at about 4:00 am. when the glacier beneath us cracked and shuddered for a moment. We are camped on the same ice and rock that is slowly moving down the Khumbu ice fall from the base of the Lhotse Face some miles above.
My office, otherwise known as the communications tent, has a bit of ice showing through the jagged rocky floor. When I inquired as to when it may begin to melt, the Sherpa’s pointed out to me, with a humourous gleam in their eyes, (silly westerner!), that the ice below my feet was 700-800 feet thick. So I’m not expecting it to melt any time soon.
Yaks and Zopkio’s are herded back and forth through our camp on a regular basis as more and more teams show up for this pre-monsoon climbing window. On June 1st all teams, whether successful or not, must get off the Mountain before all permits from the Nepal government expire and the icefall and glacier become too unstable to allow relatively safe passage to the Western Cwm (coom) and points beyond. I’m hoping to be looking back on this Yak poop, rock, ice and snow infested little town near the middle of May. I really miss my children Dana and Daniel already and a proper place to park my butt when the belly bug strikes again! There is no porcelain at base camp, just a bucket set into the rocks inside a tiny outhouse tent where one squats, preferably in daylight. The porters have it worse though, they must carry all solid waste out of Sagarmatha Park to points set up well south of the Khumbu.
Well, that’s my story to this point. Shaunna and the boys have begun their dangerous trips up through the ice fall and with help from the Sherpa’s, have the tents set up at camp one. Valerie and the team have left so I have a bit more time to myself now. I will not leave it so long to write again.
Daniel… Your Snaky hangs over my desk in the communications tent and seems to be enjoying the view. He gets along very well with Frankie’s gnome! Thanks for having me bring him. He reminds me of you every time I look up.
Dana… I hope you don’t mind but I gave your name and number to a reporter from the Citizen who wanted to speak with someone at home. I suggested you would give a good and intelligent interview.
For you both… If you want to ask your teachers and school principal, perhaps they’d be interested in setting up a satellite phone call with us.
I will try to call you every Friday evening.
I love you both.
P.S. I would love to have a hot tub up here!
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