Everest Base Camp Days 9-11

Trip Start Oct 29, 2011
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46
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Trip End Jun 01, 2012


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Flag of Nepal  , Eastern Region,
Sunday, May 6, 2012

So it was now Day 9 and we awoke to a very different landscape. It had been snowing overnight and Gorak Shep was blanketed white. I was awake early (as usual, though not surprising when you are in bed by 8pm) so I headed downstairs to the dining area. There I found Alex already up. Alex had been up for a while as poor Ollie had been ill throughout the night. I knew something had gone on due to the sounds in the night. I was awoken by a commotion (turns out it was Ollie trying to get out of the sleeping bag), following by a clattering towards the door as he tried to get out without putting on the light. This was then following by a sprint down the corrider, followed by the sounds of someone being violently sick, then the words 'Oh S**t' as Ollie realised he hadn’t made it to the toilet and had been sick all over the floor. So when I got up it was like playing hopscotch to avoid the piles of sick. Turns out it was the dodgy Dal Bhat which Ollie had eaten the night before (no it wasn’t me because he had beaten me up Kala Pattar the day before). Ollie was in a wretched state and wasn’t going to be able to make it up to Base Camp. So Mingma had to take Ollie down to Pheriche, where we would meet up with him in three days.

So the rest of us headed out into the snow and by the time we left the sun had come out and it was a perfect morning. We started walking up the hill out the lake bed over the moraine. About 30 minutes we hit another area of memorials. These memorial chortens  were for Rob Hall, Doug Hansen, Andy Harris, and Yasuko Namba from the 1996 disaster on Everest.

Rob Hall is perhaps the most well known of the group as he was prominent in the book ‘Into thin air’. Rob Hall was a New Zealander who owned a company called Adventure Consultants. The 1996 Everest expedition consisted of eight clients and three guides (Rob Hall, Mike Groom and Andy Harris). Shortly after midnight on 10 May 1996, the Adventure Consultants expedition began a summit attempt from Camp IV, atop the South Col. They were joined by climbers from Scott Fischer's Mountain Madness company, as well as expeditions sponsored by the governments of Taiwan and India. As said in the previous post there were delays at the Hillary Step because ropes had not been put in place. This is where the disaster began because the climbers decided to go onto the summit and not head down and make the South Col before night fall. On his way down Rob Hall encountered one his clients, Doug Hansen (a postmaster from Seattle). Doug Hansen was in a bad way but Rob Hall stayed to help. He even tried to get him to push for the summit.

At 5:00 pm, a blizzard struck the Southwest Face of Everest, diminishing visibility and obliterating the trail back to Camp IV. Shortly afterward, Hall radioed for help, saying that Hansen had fallen unconscious but was still alive. Adventure Consultants guide Andy Harris began climbing to the Hillary Step at 5:30 pm with supplementary oxygen and water. On 11 May, at 4:43am, Hall radioed down and said that he was on the South Summit. He reported that Harris had reached the two men, but that Hansen had died sometime during the night and that Harris was missing as well. Harris was never seen again. Hall was not breathing bottled oxygen, because his regulator was too choked with ice. By 9:00 am, Hall had fixed his oxygen mask, but indicated that his frostbitten hands and feet were making it difficult to traverse the fixed ropes. Later in the afternoon, he radioed to Base Camp, asking them to call his pregnant wife, Jan Arnold, on the satellite phone. During this last communication, he reassured her that he was reasonably comfortable and told her, "Sleep well my sweetheart. Please don't worry too much." Shortly thereafter, he died, and his body was found on 23 May by mountaineers from the IMAX expedition. Although Rob died on the South Summit at 8700m, since then his body has fallen 3,800m down the Kangshung face, towards Tibet. It is doubtful whether it will ever be found again. The bodies of Andy Harris and Doug Hansen have never been discovered.

Yasuko Namba was famous in her native Japan for becoming the second Japanese woman (after Junko Tabei) to reach all of the Seven Summits including Everest, where she died. On May 10, 1996, the 47-year-old Namba reached the summit of Everest, becoming the oldest woman to do so (her record was later beaten by Anna Czerwińska of Poland who summitted Everest at age 50). She was part of the group from Mountain Madness and Adventure Consultants and was still high on the mountain rather late into the afternoon, and was descending when the blizzard struck. Namba, fellow client Beck Weathers, and their guide Mike Groom from Adventure Consultants and clients from Scott Fischer's Mountain Madness were stuck on the South Col, while a whiteout prevented them from knowing where the tents lay. When the group was rescued and taken into camp Yasuko was close to death and it was decided it would be detrimental to the rest of the group to try to save her. Another man Beck Weathers was in the same state and the two ‘lost causes’ were left alone. The following day, Stuart Hutchinson, one of the clients on Adventure Consultants, organised a search party to find both Namba and Weathers. Hutchinson found both in such horrible shape – unlikely to live long enough to be carried down to Base Camp – and decided to leave the two alone to save limited resources for the other climbers.

While Weathers somehow survived and walked back to camp, Namba never moved again. She died alone, in the middle of the night, from exhaustion and exposure to the harsh conditions of the mountain. Since then the rest of the group have all expressed profound regret at her lonely death, saying that she was just a little 90-pound woman, and that someone should have dragged her back to camp so she could at least die among her companions. On April 28th 1997 Namba's body was found and a cairn round her to protect her from scavenging birds. Later in 1997, her husband funded an operation that brought her body down the mountain

Before and since this trip I have read much on the Everest Disaster of 1996. The different accounts attempt to unravel what happened on those fateful May days and to try to work out the truth who was to blame. Whilst it is really important to try to reflect on what happened and to ensure that lessons are learnt for the future it is also important to remember that yes people made the wrong decisions up there that meant people died but people were making decisions at an altitude of over 8000m where there is a third of the amount if oxygen of sea level. I know that even when I was at 5800m my capacity to make rational decisions was not there so heaven know what happens another 3000m up. Summit fever is also a major factor. Getting to the summit was the life-long dream of every single person who was up there and letting that go when you only have a couple of hundred of meters to go is a very hard thing to do. The weather also played a major part.  A major cyclone came in from the Bay of Bengal. And this is Everest, a very dangerous place where people just aren’t meant to be. So in the end the truth is that it was a set of circumstances that conspired to cause the deaths of eight people. And in the end it all comes down to risk and personal responsibility. Each one of the those climbers made a choice to chase that dream and climb that mountain but invariably put themselves at great risk.

For me it was another huge reality check, especially when you consider that these are only memorials and three of these climbers’ bodies are still up on that mountain. But they aren’t in a grave, covered by a cairn, with prayer flags they are still in the position that they fell in, left to the elements for evermore. Prized possessions of the  mountains that she will never give up.

So we were nearly there but first we had to clear a dangerous rock-fall area which meant virtually running along a section of the path (a feat which hardly any of us were in any real fit state to manage). But finally after about 3 hours of trekking we had made it. We were supposed to be much quicker but the rest of the group were suffering from the altitude. When we finally got to the entrance to Base Camp (a big rock with Everest Base Camp engraved on it), we realised we were missing Alex and Lakpa. Looking behind us we saw Alex struggling very slowly across the moraine. The last time I had seen him he was fine but all of sudden the altitude had really started to take its toll. When he came into camp he was not in a good way so it was decided he could not remain and would need to descend at least a 1000m and quickly. The only way he could do this was to travel down by horse. So this was arranged and he headed off with Hari down to Pheriche. Apparently it was a torturous and painful eight hour walk down and they did not arrive until well after night fall.

So, we had arrived at the final destination – Everest Base Camp at 5364m. We were all really quite deflated as Ollie and Alex were not with us. However, we headed out for a bit of walk to see the other camps where the expeditions were preparing for their ascent up Everest in the coming days and weeks. We would be staying there for two nights so that afternoon we did not venture out too far but rested in the camp. We had a large dining tent where most people hung out. I think the biggest excitement that afternoon was the availability of hot chocolate and in three hours the group managed to get through 2 large tins of the stuff. There were many discussions about the recipe for the perfect cup of hot chocolate and what was the correct ratio of spoonfuls of hot chocolate powder to powdered milk (as you can probably guess this was mostly from the boys – I think because they couldn’t prove their manhood by climbing the peak itself they would have to win instead by showing off their abilities in the hot chocolate making stakes). There were many games of cards played but I decided to head over to the tent and have a bit time with the iPod, some wine gums and a Yorkie (Bar not Yorkshire Terrier – that would be a bit weird – anyway some of you will know my opinion on dogs smaller than a Labrador – I guess here I am closer to orbit when the booting occurs – smaller than a Labrador is a cat).  I had finally succumbed to the effects of altitude and was suffering a bit with a headache. There was a collective sigh of relief from the rest of the group as they couldn’t believe how so far I hadn’t suffered at all from the effects of altitude. I was human after all. I was the last of the British in the group to suffer. The Canadians were still fine but they were all on the Diamox and they were well hard (they live in Canada where it does get really quite cold and they are tough as nails because they are spending most of their time proving they aren’t pathetic American’s). That afternoon I also got to ring home. Amazingly there is a signal at Base Camp and Lakpa was kind enough to lend me his phone so I could ring my Mum. I did one of those phone calls like you used to make as a kid and only had 10p (can you believe it costs 60p now from a phone box now) and had to be really quick.  I was really quite emotional – it wasn’t like I was on the summit but I guess I had made it to Base Camp (and let’s face it this was the farthest up Everest I was ever going to go).

So the camp was made up of the aforementioned dining tent which had a big long table in it and we all sat on little camp chairs. It also had a gas fire that did warm it up a little bit but not really (down jackets and woolly hats all the way). Then there was the cooking tent where our amazing Chef managed to create some amazing meals (pancakes and pizza! – not together obviously). Then we were all in two man tents which were surprisingly warm (well in the day – slightly different at night). The whole camp was perched on the glacier with ice and stones. Then there was the toilet tent. The was was basically a big blue barrel with rocks piled up either side to put your feet on. Then on top was a tent. So the rules are that the toilet tent is only to be used for solid waste. Which means liquid waste needs to be deposited on the glacier itself. As you will see on the pictures there isn’t that many rocks to crouch behind but I did find my chosen spot for relieving of a more liquid variety.

Then that afternoon the snow started to fall – so a game of rounders was out then. At night the temperature really dropped but we did get a stunning view of the moon over Lho La (yes that is really the mountain’s name). Then it was time for bed, but it was so cold I didn’t actually get changed for bed. I did take my boots off but on stayed the thermals, base layers, fleece, trousers, waterproof trousers (I couldn’t face trying to get them off and I figured they would keep the heat in), down jacket and woolly hat. Oh and I also had on my Icebreaker thermal pants (but more on those later). My rationale was that if I needed to get up for the toilet in the night (oh heaven forbid) at least I would be ready. So I got into my four season sleeping bag and attempted to get comfortable, however, this isn’t easy when you are lying on a load of rocks on a glacier with only a thin sleeping mat underneath.

So Day 10 and I had managed a bit of sleep. I just woke up cuddling my kit bag as I’d somehow managed to get myself right off the sleeping mat (just be grateful I had gone to the left and not the right Caroline). Neither of us had got up in the night as it was -16 degrees outside (and inside probably). When we woke up Caroline and I just looked at each other and laughed (no not because of that). We couldn’t quite believe what we were doing at 5340m on a glacier in this kind of weather. We’d both struggled in the night with the issue of how much to get into the sleeping bag. As I said ‘there’s a fine line between hypothermia and claustrophobia’. I was actually contemplating the symptoms of HAPE and seeing if I could get Prince William and a St Bernard to come and rescue me in a helicopter, but I decided better of it. At least it didn’t take long to get dressed as I already was dressed. So a quick whizz round the face with a wet wipe, a bit of moisturizer and some teeth cleaning (a bit tricky as the toothpaste had frozen into the tube).

So at 9am (9am when we had nothing else to do all day – this was to be our only outing and I was going to miss Homes Under the Hammer) we headed out for a tour of base camp. We met one of the other Exodus Guides called Kachi who was going to be making an attempt to get to the summit for a 5th time. I had my photo taken with me and then got all star struck (I do this all the when I meet anyone remotely important or famous – I don’t know what I’d do if I actually met anyone that famous or important). Then we went to see the Khumbu Ice Fall.

So a bit of geography on the glacier. With elevations of 4,900 m (16,100 ft) at its terminus to 7,600 m (24,900 ft) at its source, it is the world's highest glacier. The Khumbu Glacier is followed for the final part of the trail to Everest Base Camp. The start of the glacier is in the Western Cwm near Everest. The glacier has a large icefall, the Khumbu Icefall, at the west end of the lower Western Cwm. This icefall is the first major obstacle—and among the more dangerous—on the standard south col route to the Everest summit.

The Khumbu Icefall is an icefall at the head of the Khumbu Glacier. The icefall is found at 5,486 metres (17,999 ft) on the Nepali slopes of Mount Everest not far above Base Camp and southwest of the summit. The icefall is regarded as one of the most dangerous stages of the South Col route to Everest's summit. The Khumbu glacier that forms the icefall moves at such speed that large crevasses open with little warning. The large towers of ice or seracs found at the icefall have been known to collapse suddenly. Huge blocks of ice tumble down the glacier from time to time; they range in size from cars to large houses. It is estimated that the glacier advances 3 to 4 feet (0.91 to 1.2 m) down the mountain every day. Most climbers try to cross the icefall during the very early morning, before sun-up, when it has partially frozen during the night and is less susceptible to moving. As the intense sunlight warms the area, the friction between the ice structure lessens and increases the chances of crevasses opening or blocks to fall. The most dangerous time to cross the Khumbu Icefall is generally in mid- and late-afternoon. Strong, acclimatized climbers can ascend the icefall in just a few hours, while climbers going through it the first time - due to a lower level of acclimatization, being understandably very careful, and lack of experience with ice ladder and climbing techniques - can make the journey take 10-12 hours. "Camp I" on Everest's South Col route is typically just a bit beyond the top of the Khumbu icefall.

On occasion, a climber will experience a large block of ice crashing down in their vicinty. The resulting blast of displaced air and snow can result in light ice and snow creating a billowing cloud which is then deposited on the climber. This is sometimes referred to as a "dusting." To those that have experienced it, it is a very unnerving experience. If a climber is caught in an avalanche or other "movement" event in the icefall, there is very little one can do except prepare oneself for potentially being trapped by heavy blocks of ice, or immediate movement afterwards to try and rescue others. It is virtually impossible to run away, or even know which way to run. People who have died in the icefall and whose bodies have not been recovered have reportedly shown up at the base of the icefall many years later as the ice continually migrates downward toward Everest base camp. In those cases, the bodies have been recovered and given proper burials.

After the ice fall we kept back the centre of the Base Camp where the Medical Centre is and where there is the world’s highest photography exhibition. The ‘Rivers of Ice: Vanishing Glaciers’ Exhibition is an incredible collection that compares photographs taken in the 1920’s and 1950’s with photographs of the same view today. And the contrast is quite startling. Literally every single year the ice is just disappearing and the likely explanation is one of global warming. This BBC website explains it all http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-south-asia-15216875.  Global warming was also having an impact on the 2012 Everest Season.

So whilst we were up at Base Camp we learnt a lot about what happens here every year from March to June and the industry that is climbing Everest.  2012 was a very controversial season in terms of Everest and whilst we were there we were witness to of it. When were we there we were hearing that there was a delay with the ropes being put onto the mountain and that two Sherpa’s had already died.

In mid-May, Everest's most seasoned commercial operator, Russell Brice, Kiwi owner of Himalayan Experience Ltd., made the largest team withdrawal in expedition history (another unwelcome record), saying conditions were too dangerous. A few other teams also withdrew. The weather was proving to be difficult and he couldn’t ensure people’s safety.

Much was made in the media about the traffic jams of 100’s of climbers looking like ants heading up the Lhotse Face and by the end of the season the death toll was eleven, including seven who perished near the summit.

I personally was quite dismayed at how it felt at Base Camp. I think I had some misguided notions of the romance of it, but just found a lot of people with a scary amount of hunger to make it to the top. There just seemed to be a huge expectation that if you'd paid enough then you would get the summit. 

In the afternoon the weather did clear for a brief window so we all headed out to explore a little bit more. We were all conscious of not getting in the way of any of the expeditions so we headed on out towards the entrance to base camp. On the way we saw the helipad. As we were over that way two helicopters came in one after the other to rescue people. The first person to be rescued was one of the Sherpa’s. Then the second helicopter came for a Japanese women who was suffering from altitude sickness having come down from one of the camps on Everest. Apparently she had hired eight Sherpa’s to guide her up the mountain.

So it was our second night at Base Camp and before we headed off to bed I was starting to feel a little bit on the dodgy side (the tummy). So I pottered off to the toilet tent and met Paul on his way out (he wasn’t feeling well either). Was all ok so I headed off to the tent and managed to get off to sleep. Then I woke up at 3am with a horrible feeling. I wasn’t sure if I’d dreamt it or it was real but I thought I’d had a bit of an accident in the night. So I’m at 5364m, it’s -20 degrees outside and my pants are at the bottom of the kit bag (still not changed since Gorak Shep) and I really don’t want to wake Caroline. So I lay there for about 20 minutes but knew deep down I had to deal with ‘the situation’. So I had a stroke of genius (yes, I know it’s a first) and remembered that my swiss army knife was in my daypack and that was accessible without waking Caroline. So I eased my way out of the sleeping bag and fumbled around for my (frozen) boots. I felt like Edmund Hillary when his boots were frozen at 8000m in 1953 (I don’t think he thought he s**t himself though). So I headed out of the tent and bumped into Paul again (bless). So the masterplan was to cut off my (quite treasured but needs must) icebreaker thermal pants, which being more like a pair of shorts would have hopefully contained the situation. I made it into the toilet tent and first of all had to deal with the gloves and mittens (thick mittens off, inner gloves on – it was -20). My mittens are very clever because you can attach them to your wrists on bits of elastic (like the one you had as a kid) so you won’t drop them down the side of the a mountain – hey I’d read Annapurna I know what can happen (or has it happens in the blue toilet bucket). Anyway all was fine – no need for a 124 hours hatchet job on my pants. But I still needed to go and as is often the case the body wasn’t differentiating too well between liquids and solids. So I was in this toilet tent, at 5364m, basically pole dancing (I was hanging onto a pole and maneuvering myself either out of the back of the tent away from the blue bucket for liquid outputs or back over the blue bucket) whilst trying not to let my flapping mittens get in the way. Then it hit me – ‘Seriously Liz what the flippin’ heck are you doing here. You aren’t trying to climb Everest, this is the highest point of the trip, you’ve seen it, so why are you still here? You haven’t really felt your feet for the last two days and now you are reduced to attempting to cut off your pants. There are hotels in this world but oh no Liz the adventurer has to do this’. In the end I had to laugh to myself otherwise I would have cried. So I pulled up my three layers of trousers (not easy in gloves) and headed back to the tent. As I headed out I could see a stunning moon and star lit landscape and then there was the crunching sound of Crampons noisily clawing the ground as Sherpas made their way to the Icefall, to negotiate its unstable crevasses in the safer predawn chill.

Back in the tent and I was freezing and unfortunately once I was in this state my sleeping back wasn’t go to warm me up. So I had a terrible last 3 hours of sleep whilst listening to the glacier creaking and groaning below us as it attempts to carry us away. Every ten minutes there would be the thunder of avalanches cascading down the surrounding slopes. Then you would hold your breath for a few seconds whilst you checked it hadn’t crashed into the tent (I can only compare it to what it must have like in WWII when you were listening to the whistle of the bombs from the German planes overhead waiting to see if this one was going to hit your house.  

I awoke to a beautiful morning, the skies had cleared and it was stunning. And I was really looking forward to getting back down to an altitude with more air, and a lodge with a bed and a shower. After breakfast Lakpa took us onto the glacier proper and we had some incredible views of the icefall. You could just about make out tiny dots within it. So we had a few photos taken and then it was time to say good bye to the guys at camp and head back down. I was really glad that I’d been to Everest Base Camp and experienced it but I really didn’t need two days to do it (half and hour would have been just fine). "A world not meant for human habitation" was how veteran U.S. climber Tom Hornbein, a member of his country's 1963 Everest Expedition, described Base Camp. I couldn’t agree more. So off we went and I was leading the way (I couldn’t leave quick enough). When we had to once again cross the dangerous rock fall section I virtually sprinted up the hill. Then I pretty much ran the 1 1/2 hours back to Gorak Shep. There I had a well earned bottle of coke and some pringles (just heaven). After Gorak Shep it was back down to Lobuche for lunch. I was starting to flag just before lunch but made it there for some vegetable fried rice and some hot lemon which got me re-energised. Then we headed off again, down through Thukla and then down to the Tsola valley floor and Pheriche. We were finally at the end of a very exhausting day. We had walked 10 miles (16K) and come down 1124m. As we were walking to our hotel we passed the Walking with the Wounded Team who were hoping to make it up Everest (no sight of Prince Harry though). They were down in Pheriche having a rest having been up at Base Camp. Sadly the weather and risks this year prevented them from summiting. So we headed into the holiday and caught up with Alex and Ollie who were feeling much better but were incredibly bored and apparently really missed us all (that altitude can play with your mind). I then finally had a hot shower and put on some clean clothes. I had been wearing the same clothes (yes and pants) for the last 3 days, I hadn’t had a shower for 5 days and I hadn’t washed my hair for 7 days. It was heaven. Then both Caroline had the best night’s sleep (it’s amazing what a bit more oxygen and warmth can do for you). Seriously after Everest Base Camp even the small things seem just incredible.
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There are some wonderful deals at Travel Lodges for your next adventure.
You sure do not take after me. If I can't find a plug for my curling tongs, I don't go! The photos of Everest are just magic.

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