Introduction to Everest Base Camp Trek

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


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Wednesday, April 25, 2012

As the clouds rolled asunder before the heights, gradually, very gradually, we saw the great mountainsides and glaciers and ridges, now one fragment, now another, through the floating rifts, until, far higher in the sky than imagination dared to suggest, a prodigious white fang – an excrescence from the jaw of the world – the summit of Everest appeared' (George Mallory).

So in the heart of the Himalayas lurks the peak that we know as Everest. But although it’s always been there, Everest was for a long time unacknowledged This was the last terrestrial challenge to be identified. It wasn’t until 1856, that it made it finally made it’s cartographic debut. In 1856, the Great Trigonometric Survey of British India established the first published height of Everest, then known as Peak XV, at 29,002 ft (8,840 m). In 1865, Everest was given its official English name by the Royal Geographical Society upon a recommendation by Andrew Waugh, the British Surveyor General of India. Waugh named the mountain after his predecessor in the post, Sir George Everest. Although Tibetans had called Everest "Chomolungma" for centuries, Waugh was unaware of this because Nepal and Tibet were closed to foreigners.

And so began the quest to climb the highest mountains in the world. However, over the next 57 the closest that anyone got to the mountain was about 40 miles away when John Noel, a British military officer, travelled to Tibet in disguise (at the time foreigners were forbidden in Tibet) to find the best way to approach Everest. As he headed towards the peak he found his way blocked by an unexpected mountain range that did not appear on his faulty maps. Noel was able to view the top 1000 feet (300 meters) of Everest when it appears out of the shifting mists, a "glittering spire of rock fluted with snow". WWI then stopped any further exploration until in 1920 when the Dalai Lama opened Tibet. The Royal Geographic Society and the Alpine Club held a joint meeting to discuss how to proceed with an expedition to Mount Everest. Explorers had reached both the North and South Poles, so the next "feat" was Everest. So in 1921, the First British Everest Reconnaissance Expedition to the mountain was led by Lt. Colonel Charles Howard-Bury. And one of the members of that expedition was a man from Mobberley in Cheshire, George Herbert Leigh Mallory. After spending ten weeks exploring the northern and eastern reaches of the mountain, on September 24, 1921, Guy Bullock and George Mallory were the first climbers to reach the North Col of Everest at an altitude of around 23,000 feet (7000 meters). The northern route up the mountain had now been established.

In 1922 there was the Second British Everest Expedition to the mountain, led by Brigadier General C.G. Bruce, following the same route reconnoitered the previous year. George Mallory returned along with climbers George Finch, Geoffrey Bruce, Henry Morshead, Edward Norton, Howard Somervell, and John Noel as expedition filmmaker. On May 22nd, Mallory, Norton, Somervell and Morshead make the first assault, and climb to 26,800 feet (8170 m) on the North Ridge before retreating. On May 23rd, George Finch and Geoffrey Bruce climb up the North Ridge and Face to 27,300 (8320 meters) feet using oxygen. On June 7th, Mallory leads a third and final attempt that year on the summit. Sadly, whilst heading up to the North Col there was an avalanche that claimed the lives of seven Sherpa climbers, these were the first reported deaths on Everest. Somervell in particular was stricken by a guilty sense of grief, uttering the words, 'Why, oh why could not one of us Britishers have shared their fate’.

Mallory’s most famous words came in 1923, whilst he was on a lecture tour in the United States. A reporter apparently asked Mallory why he wanted to climb Everest, and Mallory immortally replied "Because it's there". But I think the following words actually better sum up what climbing Everest meant for Mallory and perhaps will start to go somewhere to explain why he why back in 1924.

‘The first question which you will ask and which I must try to answer is this, "What is the use of climbing Mount Everest?" and my answer must at once be, "It is no use." There is not the slightest prospect of any gain whatsoever. Oh, we may learn a little about the behavior of the human body at high altitudes, and possibly medical men may turn our observation to some account for the purposes of aviation. But otherwise nothing will come of it. We shall not bring back a single bit of gold or silver, not a gem, nor any coal or iron. We shall not find a single foot of earth that can be planted with crops to raise food. It's no use. So, if you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won't see why we go. What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life. We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to enjoy life. That is what life means and what life is for’.(George Leigh Mallory, 1922)

So in 1924, the Third British Everest Expedition to the mountain, led by Acting Leader Lt. Colonel Edward Norton after Brigadier General C.G. Bruce was indisposed due to a flare-up of malaria. As a result George Mallory was promoted to Climbing Leader. Geoffrey Bruce, Howard Somervell, and John Noel return from the previous year, along with newcomers Noel E. Odell and Andrew (Sandy) Comyn Irvine. 

On June 4th, after weeks of appalling weather, a string of camps were established on the northern side of the mountain, culminating in Camp 6 at 26,700 feet (8140 meters) on the North Ridge. Norton and Somervell attempt an oxygenless ascent, following an ascending diagonal line across the North Face of the mountain towards the Great Couloir. After Somervell was forced to give up at about 28,000 feet (8500 meters), Norton continued alone, reaching a high point of 28,126 feet (8570 meters) near the top of the Great Couloir and ended up spending a night over 8000m proving human beings could survive at the this altitude.

On 8th June 1924, British climbers George Mallory and Andrew Irvine left their high camp on Mount Everest in a final bid to reach the summit. Neither returned. The pair were equipped with primitive climbing gear, wearing Burberry gabardine jackets and hobnail boots, and carrying a rudimentary oxygen supply, their gear was a far cry from the hi-tech protective clothing worn by modern mountaineers. Even the gear worn by your bog-standard hikers like me is so much more of a higher standard than what these men were wearing.

They were last seen alive at 12.50pm as they surmounted an obstacle on the Northeast Ridge, not far from the base of the final pyramid. According to Noel Odell, who was the last person to see them alive, yhey were "going strong for the top". However, clouds swirled in to hide them and they were never to be seen again.

The tragedy of two individuals - one consumed by a desire to overcome the summit, the other bolstered by youthful fearlessness - driving themselves on towards their fate is what makes the story compelling, For Mallory, there's no question that climbing Everest was everything to him. It was like the mountain has consumed his being

Did George Mallory and Andrew "Sandy" Irvine make it to the top in 1924, almost 30 years before it was officially conquered. Whether the pair were the first to reach the summit, 29 years before Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, and how they came by their deaths, will probably forever remain a mystery. This tale of doomed, romantic endeavour, has endured for decades and even today it resonates with people. In 1999 an American expedition finally found Mallory’s body but they did not find the infamous Kodak vestpocket camera that might finally end the mystery. Sandy Irvine’s body has still yet to be found and perhaps that is the way that it should be, because actually do we actually really want to know the prosaic truth? Because that truth could never match the legend of George Mallory and Sandy Irvine and hopefully Mount Everest will forever keep one of the greatest secrets of them all.

As well as the death of these two climbers there is also the historical context. The disappearance symbolised more than simply the tragic deaths of two young men. The recent memory of World War I - in which most of the expeditionists, with the notable exception of 22-year-old Irvine, had served - added an additional dimension of poignancy to their loss. Subsequently, too, the noble failure of this ill-equipped, Boys' Own-like adventure has come to be seen as a symbolic portent of the British empire's demise.

In the 1930’s there were several expeditions to Everest but none got close to the summit. Taking part in the 1933 and 1936 was a young Sherpa by the name of Tenzing Norgay. He claimed that he was a true Sherpa from Nepal’s Khumbu region, but he was actually born in the Kharta Valley of Tibet and as a boy had tended to his parents’ yaks on the meadows east of Chomolungma (Everest). At some stage his family moved to Nepal, and then he later moved to Darjeeling in India to seek his fortune. Right from the start Tenzing he proved to be strong, cheerful, enthusiastic, energetic and with a natural talent for mountaineering. But the storm clouds of war were gathering and the final expedition of the 1930’s was in 1938.

So by 1950, following WWII the world was a very different place, the British Empire was now being dismantled, India has become independent and the possibility of any further assaults on the mountain from the north in Tibet were out of the question because the Chinese Communist armies had taken ancient claims of suzerainty (this occurs where a region or people is a tributary to a more powerful entity which controls its foreign affairs while allowing the tributary vassal state some limited domestic autonomy) to their logical conclusion. However, after decades of isolation Nepal was now allowing foreigners to visit its unknown mountain interior – the next expeditions to Everest were now to be from the south.

In 1951 British Reconnaissance team supported by the Alpine Club and the Royal Geographic Society headed out to Nepal. The exploration was led by Eric Shipton with M.P. Ward, T. Bourdillon, W.H. Murray, and New Zealanders Edmund Hillary (a beekeeper) and H. Riddiford. The expedition headed out post-monsoon and was forced to contend with swollen streams, washed-out bridges, leeches, and reluctant porters, but on the 22nd of September they finally reached Namche Bazaar. They then headed up the valley with the objective of scaling the Khumbu Icefall and entering the Western Cwm. From a vantagepoint on the lower slopes of Pumori, they could see that the route up to the South Col looked feasible. Eventually the expedition pushed the route almost completely through to the top of the Icefall before retreating. All was looking good for an expedition the following year. However, when the team returned to London they discovered that the ‘Everest Committee’ had failed in to secure a permit from the Nepalese government to attempt the mountain in 1952 and the Swiss had got their first. In the forlorn hope that the Swiss would not manage to complete the final pieces of the jigsaw, the Alpine Club and RGS managed to secure a permit for 1953, with the French booked for 1954 (remember these were the French who had successfully climbed Annapurna I in 1950) and the Swiss again for 1955 the Race for Everest was on!!

The 1952 Swiss expedition ought to have reached the summit, with some incredible mountaineers (including Tenzing Norgay) on the team. They had far more experience than the British-New Zealand team that was preparing for the 1953 expedition. Ironically, the Swiss – a nation renowned for meticulous engineering and organisation suffered from malfunctioning oxygen equipment and poor teamwork. They did attempt a final push for the summit spearheaded by Raymond Lambert and Tenzing Norgay but due to a breakdown in communications and muddled logistics they ended up camping at 8302m with no sleeping bags and barely functioning oxygen sets. In the end they got to the South Summit, at 8597m (28,200ft), but had to admit defeat and descend. One of the Swiss team commented afterwards that ‘the troubled with Everest is not that it’s a very hard mountain. It’s just a little bit too high’. So next up the British in 1953.

So in 1953, under the leadership of John Hunt, the British were given permission to climb Mount Everest. Hunt (a military man) brilliantly orchestrated the necessary equipment and scientific preparations and, through his belief in teamwork, brought together a band of men who together would attempt this lofty peak. At this time there was no Lukla airport so the expedition had to walk from Kathmandu. This was a huge expedition comprising nearly 400 people. There was a team of 14 climbers (11 British, 2 New Zealanders and 1 Nepali), 20 Sherpa Guides and 362 porters carrying 10 000lbs of equipment and food. There were After 17 days trekking they reached Thyangboche (Tengboche) in the Khumbu region. They based themselves at by the monastery at Tengboche for three weeks, allowing plenty of time for acclimatizing, trekking, exploring, climbing several peaks (including Island Peak,). They then headed off up the valley to establish Base Camp. Everest Base Camp back in 1953 is actually different to the once used in 1953. Then they set up camp in Gorak Shep whereas today the base camp is further up the Khumbu Glacier at the base of the Khumbu Icefall. Base Camp was established on April 12, 1953 and thereafter the Khumbu Icefall became an important feature of life in climbing Mount Everest. Ever since, the Icefall has been renowned as one of the most treacherous parts on the attempt of Everest. It is an ever-shifting river of ice, with huge crevasses and frozen blocks of ice and rock, this monster of nature had to be overcome. Establishing a route through the Icefall took several days. Thereafter it had to be kept open for a constant succession of men and equipment. The team established nine camps from the Khumbu Glacier, through the Icefall, up the Western Cwm and on to the South Col of Everest. For several weeks Sherpas busily moved supplies ever further up the mountain. By May 21, 1953 Wilfred Noyce and Annullu had reached the South Col, a symbolic and crucial objective. The final objective, however, was the summit. On May 26, 1953, the first assault party comprising Tom Bourdillon and Charles Evans set off for the south summit, using closed-circuit oxygen equipment. At the south summit they realized that they would not be able to reach the summit owing to lack of time. Wearily, they returned to Camp XIII.

On May 28, the second assault party comprising Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay made their bid. Together they set off, establishing Camp IX at 27,900 feet (8503 m) before spending a bitterly cold and desolate night trying to sleep. At 4 a.m. on May 29, 1953, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay awoke in camp nine and readied themselves for their climb. Hillary discovered that his boots had frozen and thus spent two hours defrosting them. The two men left camp at 6:30 a.m. When they opened the doors on their tent they looked out across the Himalayas and could make out Tengboche and it’s monstary below. Apparently Tenzing turned to Hillary and said that is was a sign, they were going to make it because they could see the monastery. Using open-circuit oxygen equipment they departed at 6.30 a.m. Climbing steadily, they reached the south summit at 9 a.m. Onward and upwards into the unknown they persevered. Upon their climb, they came upon one particularly difficult rock face, but Hillary found a way to climb it. (The rock face is now called "Hillary's Step.). As Hillary stated: “I continued hacking steps along the ridge and then up a few more to the right … to my great delight I realized we were on top of Mount Everest and that the whole world spread out below us”. It was 11:30 a.m and Hillary and Tenzing had reached the summit of Mount Everest. Hillary reached out to shake Tenzing's hand, but Tenzing gave him a hug in return. Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary had reached the highest point on the earth.The two men enjoyed only 15 minutes at the top of the world because of their low air supply, but they spent their time taking photographs, taking in the view, placing a food offering (Tenzing), and looking for any sign that the missing climbers from 1924 had been there before them (they didn't find any).

Hillary describes the final moment…

‘It was 11:30 AM. My first sensation was one of relief — relief that the long grind was over, that the summit had been reached before our oxygen supplies had dropped to a critical level; and relief that in the end the mountain had been kind to us in having a pleasantly rounded cone for its summit instead of a fearsome and unapproachable cornice. But mixed with the relief was a vague sense of astonishment that I should have been the lucky one to attain the ambition of so many brave and determined climbers. I seemed difficult to grasp that we'd got there. I was too tired and too conscious of the long way down to safety really to feel any great elation. But as the fact of our success thrust itself more clearly into my mind, I felt a quiet glow of satisfaction spread through my body — a satisfaction less vociferous but more powerful than I had ever felt on a mountain top before. I turned and looked at Tenzing. Even beneath his oxygen mask and the icicles hanging form his hair, I could see his infectious grin of sheer delight. I held out my hand, and in silence we shook in good Anglo-Saxon fashion. But this was not enough for Tenzing, and impulsively he threw his arm around my shoulders and we thumped each other on the back in mutual congratulations…Tenzing had been waiting patiently, but now, at my request, he unfurled the flags wrapped around his ice–ax and standing at the summit, held them above his head. Clad in all his bulky equipment and with the flags flapping furiously in the wind, he made a dramatic picture, and the thought drifted through my mind that this photograph should be a good one if it came out at all. I didn't worry about getting Tenzing to take a photograph of me — as far as I knew, he had never taken a photograph before, and the summit of Everest was hardly the place to show him how’.

When their 15 minutes were up, Hillary and Tenzing began making their way back down the mountain. It is reported that when Hillary saw his friend and co-New Zealand climber George Lowe, Hillary said, "Well, George, we've knocked the bastard off!" News of the successful climb quickly made it around the world. Both Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became heroes. Famously the news broke back in Britain on the day of the Queen’s coronation, June 2nd 1953.

Following the 1953 expedition, there were many other teams that conquered the mountain. In 1960 there was the conquest of the mountain from the North Col and North-East Ridge by a team from Tibet and China (although this is still doubted as there was no photographic evidence. On May 16th Junko Tabei of Japan became the first woman to reach the summit via the South-East Ridge.

Then on 8 May 1978, Reinhold Messner (from the Italian German-speaking autonomous province South Tyrol) stood with Peter Habeler on the summit of Mount Everest; the first men ever to climb Everest without the use of supplemental oxygen. Prior to this ascent it was disputed whether this was possible at all. Messner and Habeler were members of an expedition led by Wolfgang Nairz along the southeast ridge to the summit. Also on this expedition was Reinhard Karl, the first German to reach the summit (with oxygen).

Two years later, on 20 August 1980, Messner again stood atop the highest mountain in the world. This time, too, the ascent was made without supplementary oxygen but it was a solo attempt. For this solo climb he chose the northeast ridge to the summit, where he crossed above the North Col in the North Face to the Norton Couloir and became the first man to climb through this steep gorge to the summit. Messner decided spontaneously during the ascent to use this route to bypass the exposed northeast ridge. Prior to this solo ascent he had not set up a camp on the mountain.

As well as this, Reinhold Messner was the first man to climb all fourteen eight-thousanders in the world and without supplemental oxygen. His climbs were also all amongst the first 20 ascents for each mountain individually. (1970-1986). These astonishing feats on Everest and on peaks throughout the world have earned him the status of the greatest climber in history.

So the Everest Base Camp Trek. There is a powerful mystique surrounding the trek to the foot of Everest. By following this route you are following in the footsteps of the great mountaineers like Edmund Hillary, Tenzing Norgay and Reinhold Messner. And let’s face it this was the closest I was going to get to climbing the thing. The trek was to take 14 days. This was longer than normal because we were going to actually stay at Base Camp for two nights which is something that most groups do not get to do. The overall round trip is 92km (57 Miles) but it has a lot of ups and downs. You start at Lukla at 2840m and finish at Base Camp at 5340m. However, the higest point is Kala Pattar (a peak close to Base Camp affording the best views of Everest) at 5545m. However, due to the nature of the Nepalese terrain it’s actually 4800m of ascent and 2400m of descent on the way up there and then 2400m of ascent and 4800m of descent to get down !!  (just fabulous for the old knees). 
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