After two weeks hiking and climbing in the Khumbu Valley, I was finally on my way to Everest Basecamp. I had been dreaming of this day for years. I hoped I wouldn’t be disappointed.
Day 14 (April 7) – Lobuche to Everest Base Camp
Elevation gain – 430 m (1,410 ft); Hiking time 5 hrs including lunch
After my success on Island Peak (Part I) I was feeling strong and confident. I was glad to leave Lobuche, not only because we would be arriving in EBC, but also because the food and accommodation aren’t as nice in Lobuche as lower down in the valley. It’s not a village, but rather a collection of guesthouses for trekkers and climbers. From Lobuche to Gorak Shep the trail gained 230 m (754 ft) in over 2 hours. Time flew by as I admired the surrounding Himalayan peaks.
From Gorak Shep the trail to EBC follows the lateral moraine of the Khumbu Glacier. As the trail climbed up and down we stopped at a few lookout spots where I could see what would be my home for the next month and a half, Everest Basecamp. We arrived early in the climbing season so there weren’t too many tents yet and basecamp didn’t look very big.
I also had my first look at Khumbu Icefall. I was in awe. It’s so massive and convoluted, I couldn’t image how I could possibly make it across. Looking up I could see the tip of Everest’s summit poking above the mountain’s shoulder.
Everest Bascamp (5,360 m/17,585 ft) is located on the melting glacier at the base of Khumbu Icefall. When we arrived it marked the end of carrying my 20 kg backpack. I felt strong and had no symptoms of altitude sickness, so I felt very positive about the expedition. Our cook, Landuk Sherpa, greeted us with mango juice and black tea followed by my second lunch consisting of dal baht. I didn’t mind dal bhat (lentils and rice), but we had it several times a week in the 2 months I was on the expedition. By the end I was quite tired of it.
Behind my tent was the famous Khumbu Icefall. It is a formidable looking maze. The deep crevasses are networked in a tight web seeminlgy eliminating any possible ‘route’. The massive seracs and avalanche chutes with hanging glaciers and cornices take it from formidable to impossible.
Days 15 to 23 – Everest Base Camp
Now I had to play the waiting game. We were waiting for a number of things to happen before I could begin my ascent of the mountain. The Chinese had to summit; the route on the Khumbu had to be set; and the other climbers in my group had to arrive.
While I was waiting for something to happen, I tried to keep busy, but there’s not much to do when you’re camped on a glacier. Our campsite slowly changed as did all of basecamp. As more and more climbers arrived, more tents were erected, and I could see it grow day by day. I watched as Sherpas used ice axes and shovels to clear spots on the rough moraine to make room for more tents.
A popular lookout for people doing the EBC hike it to go to the top of Kala Patthar. To get there from basecamp, Ngima and I had to walk back down toward Gorak Shep, losing 284 m (932 ft), and then climb 480 m (1,575 ft) to the top. Kala Patthar is only 300 m above basecamp, but there’s no easy way to get there directly from basecamp. From its summit (5,643 m/18,513 ft) I was directly above basecamp and had a great view of the Khumbu Icefall’s convoluted mess of ice. Above the glacier I could see the path from South Col all the way up to Everest’s summit. It looked so intimidating. With nothing to do for the next week and a half I would do this hike two more times on my own.
One afternoon I watched a few people learn how to use their ice axes and walk with crampons on the ice. It’s quite scary that for some this would be their first time on a glacier! When they were done one lady limped back to camp, being helped by a Sherpa.
Sherpas will not set foot on Everest until after a monk performs a puja. Each expedition has their own puja ceremony. One day I spent the afternoon helping Ngima build the altar for our team’s puja. It could only be built with white granite so I collected blocks of granite from around camp while Ngima erected the altar. When we were done, the altar was 1m x 1m and 1.5 m tall with 3 pointy rocks on top wrapped in a khata.
Slowly our expedition team of climbers began to arrive. Kalpana Dash was an Indian climber. On this expedition, she would be attempting Everest for her third time. There were also two people in our camp climbing Mt. Lhotse. An Australian, Tony and my Spanish friend Rosa. The route to Lhotse’s summit shares Basecamp, Camps I, II and III with the Everest climb. I met Rosa while climbing Denali. It was really nice to have a friend to go with on the acclimitization hikes. She completed the Seven Summits the previous year (2007). In addition to the climbers, Tony and Rosa and I each hired one high altitude Sherpa, Kalpana hired three. We had a head cook, Landuk, his assistants and at Camp II we had a permanent cook. We shared Camp II with two Quebec climbers, Francois and Sebastian. They’re not the same Quebec climbers from the Island Peak climb.
Every expedition has a Nepalese Liaison officer in basecamp. Their role is to ensure expedition teams follow all of the rules and regulations. Our Liaison Officer, Pratik, was also an Army Captain. On my third hike up to Kala Pattar, Pratik and Kalpana asked me if it was really beautiful and that’s why I was going again. I replied ‘The view is nice, but I go for fitness’. Neither seemed to understand this concept.
In 2008 the Nepalese Army were also stationed in basecamp. They were at camp to ensure that no teams climbed Everest until the Chinese had summited. The Army’s Major was a brother of Pratik.
Once everyone had arrived I thought the puja would be conducted the next day which was a Monday, but the Sherpas said Mondays and Wednesdays are not good days for a puja so it would be on Thursday. I still don’t know why it couldn’t be held on Tuesday. That meant four more days of waiting.
The route through the complicated icefall is set by Sherpas called ‘Ice doctors’. They work for SPCC (Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee). The Ice Doctors determine the best way through the maze and install all of the ropes and ladders in the Icefall. Before the route was completed they allowed us to go a few meters on to the glacier. We reviewed how to use fixed ropes with jumars but also walking up and down ladders while wearing crampons. This is actually much more difficult than in normal shoes. Most importantly for me, we reviewed walking on a ladder over crevasses. There are two fixed ropes on either side of a horizontal ladder, but it is still very nerve racking. To keep stable you must lean forward while holding tension on the ropes behind you. Some people never get the hang of it and ended up crawling.
After 6 days waiting around for information there was a meeting with the army. They confirmed that no one was allowed beyond Camp II until the Chinese summited. They also confiscated all laptops, satellite phones, cell phones cameras and video recorders. Each Liaison Officer would keep these in a locked box until after the Chinese summited. In reality, they took everything except cameras even though most cameras can take video. A few days later the Quebec climbers used their satelite phone without permission. Pratik was very angry with them and threatened to cancel their climbing permits.
Day 24 (April 17) – Khumbu Icefall training
Elevation gain – 390 m (1,289 ft); Climbing time 4 ½ hrs
Finally, we’re having the puja today! This meant that my Everest climb could begin. A lama arrived from a village in the valley and performed pujas for a few different expedition companies.
I wasn’t sure why, but we were allowed on the Khumbu before the puja. They’d been saying all week that it wasn’t allowed, but today it was okay. Since the route hadn’t been completed we could only climb on the first section.
What a bizarre place. The route weaved between huge columns of ice called seracs. We crossed deep crevasses by walking on ladders strung between the sides. Some crevasses were so wide it took two ladders. They were tied together with ropes and looked a bit sketchy, but Ngima said they were safe. Other ladders were used to climb vertical sections. Some required multiple ladders. In total there were 78 ladders used this year to complete the route.
It’s important to cross the Khumbu early in the morning. Once it gets too hot there is danger of a serac melting and breaking. These seracs are huge, many are as big as a house or even larger. When they fall they could break a ladder, destroy a rope or crush and bury a climber. You don’t want to be stuck in the Khumbu if the route is damaged. Because of these dangers the route is continuously maintained by Ice Doctors.
In the afternoon we had our puja. A puja is a Buddhist ceremony that must be performed before anyone is allowed to climb Everest. It’s not a law, but a Sherpa custom. The altar that Ngima and I built was wrapped in colourful prayer flags. In the centre was a tall pole with 13 prayer flags strung from it to the ground. They represented the 13 in my team who would climb the mountain. Around the sides of the altar we placed our climbing equipment, food and even a bottle of whiskey. The lama chanted mantras and asked the mountain for permission to climb; forgiveness for any damage climbers may cause; and safety for all climbers. He then took a piece of smoking juniper and blessed the equipment and food. Tsampa (buckwheat flour) was smeared on the faces of all of the climbers and any equipment that was considered impure. An Alpine Chough landed on our altar. Ngima said that the bird meant good luck. At the end we threw rice into the air and then feasted on the food that had been blessed. What an amazing experience and it finally felt like I may be on my way.
Days 25 and 26 – Everest Basecamp to Camp I
Elevation gain 670 m (2,198 ft); Climbing time – 5hrs
Finally we were allowed to climb the entire Khumbu Icefall. It took 5 hours to get from EBC to Camp I (6,050 m/19,849 ft). The Icefall was unlike anything I had seen before or have seen since. We walked between huge seracs towering 50 m above the trail. The longest was 4 ladders joined together and climbed 40 m (130 ft) up one of the ice walls. What an exciting day!
Camp I is located above Khumbu Icefall at the beginning of Western Cwm. From camp you can see all the way up Western Cwm to South Col. I walked around to take a better look at this amazing place. I didn’t see much garbage on the mountain, but there was some including a dodgy looking ladder left over from a previous year. In addition to being responsible for the Ice Doctors, SPCC ensures that each expedition cleans up after they leave. Each team has to leave a deposit and it is not returned if they leave any garbage, supplies etc behind.
At Basecamp my O₂ saturation was 88%, but at Camp I it was down to 78%. Kalpana was struggling to get to Camp I. It took her 11 hours to reach camp and she had to use oxygen all night.
Day 27 – Return to EBC
Elevation loss 670 m (2,198 ft) ; Hiking time – 2 ½ hrs
We only had 2 tents for the 6 of us so it was tight with 3 people per tent. I didn’t want to disrupt the others in the tent by using my pee bottle during the night so I didn’t drink much water. I woke up with a headache and I think it was because I didn’t drink enough water. Keeping hydrated at elevation is very important.
Ngima left early in the morning to start setting up our campsite in Camp II. I wanted to go up too, but I didn’t think I was acclimatized well enough yet. When Ngima came back from Camp II we returned to EBC so it was now my fourth time traversing this convoluted glacier. I would cross it eight more times during this expedition.
As we approached basecamp, I could see how much it had grown since I arrived.
There was a bit of excitement when we returned to basecamp. It was discovered that an American climber was planning on putting a Tibetan flag on the summit of Everest. Because of the arrangement with China, the Nepalese are not allowing any mention of Tibet on Everest. The American’s permit to climb Everest was cancelled and he was escorted from basecamp. What a tough lesson.
Days 28 to 31 – EBC to Camp I, return
Elevation Gain /Loss 670 m (2,198 ft); 5 hrs up, 3 hrs down
Ngima and the other Sherpas, spent the next few days taking loads of gear and supplies up to Camp II. On one of those days Rosa and I went again to Camp I for acclimitzation without them. We left basecamp by 4:30 am. Crossing the Khumbu was faster each time since I was getting more acclimitized. We had lunch at Camp I and relished in our accomplishment of crossing the Khumbu on our own.
Coming down through the Icefall I noticed a couple of disturbing things. One of the rappel ropes was badly damaged as well, a large serac was cracked and leaning quite far toward the route. The serac was probably melting inside and would likely collapse on the route one day. It’s always a nerve wracking place.
The Major from the Nepalese Army came to our camp for tea in the afternoon. He climbed Everest in 1993 and wanted to give some advice to Kalpana and me. His advice was basically to go slow and steady.
Day 32 (April 25) – EBC to Camp II
Elevation gain 1,075 m (3,527 ft); Climbing time – 4 hr 15 min to Camp 1, 6 ½ hrs to Camp II
Today was exciting because we would climb to Camp II. We had an early start leaving camp by 4:30 am. Some people are much slower than others in the Icefall and it can be frustrating, but today it got quite tense. We were waiting in line for one of the fixed ropes when a very strong Italian climber decided he didn’t want to wait. He began to free-climb up a steep section right beside the fixed rope. The Italian climber knocked down large chunks of ice on us. Ngima and a few other Sherpas yelled at him so eventually he climbed down and waited in line. In other years these fights have gotten much worse.
From Camp I the route follows the flat valley of the Western Cwm to Camp II. The Western Cwm runs between the tall walls of Nupste and Everest and in front is the steep face of Lhotse. It is absolutley stunning. There was a marked trail that avoided crevasses and when we had to cross them, ladders were strung across. What an amazing place, I couldn’t believe that I was finally there.
Camp II is located on moraine benches below Lhotse face. There was 100 m (328 ft) difference in elevation between the top and bottom of camp and our tents were set up at the highest point. It was emotionally tough to have to continue to climb by all of the other tents before arriving at ours at 6,430 m (21,096 ft).
From my tent I had a spectacular view of Lhotse summit. Remarkably, even though we were so high, it was very hot inside the tent. I really wanted to lie down to rest, but it was too hot. After a couple of hours at Camp II I started to get a headache. My O₂ saturation was down to 77%. This would be the highest altitude that I had ever slept and it was only Camp II.
Rosa showed me where Camp III is located on Lhotse face. It looked so close, as if I could get there in an hour, but I knew that wasn’t the case.
Most expeditions have permanent cooks at Basecamp and Camp II. Having a permanent cook meant we had a dining tent which is nicer than sitting outside or in your small tent, but what a tough life for the cook. He would spend over a month living there.
Days 33 and 34 – Camp II
I felt awful on the first night at Camp II and I thought I’d have to go back down to EBC. I had an episode of Cheynne-Stokes breathing, also called high altitude periodic breathing (PB). This is common in high altitude when you are suddenly awakened because you can’t breathe. It feels impossible to inhale. After a few seconds of gulping air, I was able to breathe and I was ok, but in those few seconds you think you will die. This phenomenon occurs at high elevation due to the low pressure of oxygen. I took a Diamox and within a few hours I felt better but it gave me a very dry mouth. It was so dry that I couldn’t even swallow. Because of my reaction I didn’t take Diamox again. In the morning my oxygen saturation was 81% which is supposedly very good for the first day at Camp II.
We spent two nights at Camp II while the Sherpas returned to EBC for more supplies. The 2 Quebecois arrived so we spent a lot of time in the dining tent together talking about climbing around the world. On the second morning at Camp II Ngima arrived at 8 am. He and the other Sherpas had already brought heavy loads of supplies up from basecamp. It only took them 4 hours to reach Camp II from basecamp! I was so impressed; he’s a very strong climber.
Day 35 – Camp II to EBC
Elevation loss –1,075 m (3,527 ft); Hiking time – 3 ½ hrs
Not far from Camp II I saw huge chunks of blue ice on the trail. They were most likely from seracs that fell from high above, reminding me that this area is also very dangerous. Descending down the Western Cwm I was in awe of the stunning scenery. The view of Mt. Pumori standing high above Camp I is a gorgeous site.
We arrived at EBC in time for lunch and my appetite had dramatically improved. I ate twice as much as I did in Camp II. Even though I was burning a lot of calories, my stomach couldn’t tolerate much food at atitude. After lunch a rescue helicopter arrived in Basecamp. Thankfully everyone from our group was fine.
The Army announced today that everything above basecamp would be closed for two days (May 1 and 2) because the Chinese would try to put the Olympic torch on the summit during those days. If they don’t summit, the closure could be extended.
Days 36 – 42 (April 30 – May 6) – Rest days in the villages
Elevation loss – 1,560 m (5,119 ft)
Since activity has been halted on the mountain and our bodies needed to rest and repair Rosa, Ngima, Dawa (Rosa’s Sherpa) and I went down to the village of Pangboche (3,800 m) for a few days. With each step I could feel how much easier it was to breathe. It was spring in the lower part of Khumbu Valley. Spring flowers were begining to bloom. What a difference from the glacier.
We stayed in Ngima’s sister’s guesthouse again where I had my first shower in 25 days. You can’t imagine how good that felt. It was only 250 Rs ($2.15 USD). What a deal and worth every penny. My O₂ saturation was a remarkable 93%.
In Pangboche I met a couple from Texas. They were traveling with their friends who had lost their son, 24 years old, on Everest 3 years ago. He was trekking to Everest Basecamp and got lost. No one knows what happened to him. They were going to build a chorten in his memory at the climbers’ memorial.
There was no internet in Pangboche so Rosa and I walked down to Tengboche where there was an internet cafe. I was there before Wi-Fi was widely available. Unfortunately, Tengboche didn’t have electricity on that day, so there was no internet. While in Tengboche Rosa and I went to a bakery and I treated myself to an apple strudel and drip coffee. It tasted like heaven.
We also visited the gompa in Tengboche. It’s built in the typical Tibetan style, painted red with a flat black roof. The views from here of Ama Dablam, Lhotse and Everest were amazing.
After a couple of days in the valley I started to panic about the opportunity to summit. I was worried because it was cloudy to the north so I doubted they were having good weather on the Tibetan side of Everest. There were only 17 days left in the season and if the Chinese didn’t put the torch on the summit soon, those days would dwindle away.
By May 7th we slowly started to make our way back up to basecamp where I would begin the final push to the summit.
Coming Next: Seven Summits- Climbing Mt. Everest (Part III) – The Summit Push
To read about more of our adventures go to Destinations.
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