“I haven’t conquered Everest – it has merely tolerated me.”
Peter Habeler said that after he and Reinhold Messner accomplished the first oxygenless ascent of Everest in 1978. If he were at Base Camp this year I’m sure he’d agree that Miyolangsama, ‘bountiful protector goddess’ of the world’s highest peak is having her tolerance sorely tested once again by those who have only one thing in mind – conquering her.
At her skirt hem is the biggest circus of summit pretenders ever to have gathered here and the Khumbu Glacier is awash with testosterone. She’s witnessed this Lilliputian invasion before, of course, but not in these numbers, the record having been 107 climbers in spring 2002. This year, over 200 climbers from 20 nations, their sherpas, cooks and gofers are camped in this cold and uncomfortable place. Our tents are spread out like scarabs on a granite blasting site but the facilities nestling under those wind-battered pieces of canvass are impressive. For those teams which aren’t self-sufficient in communications and medical equipment like the Discovery Everest 2003 Expedition, Base Camp boasts an Internet Café and a hospital for the first time this year, as well as a weather station and an efficient waste removal system, albeit one that involves garbage and effluent being transported down the valley in sealed barrels on the backs of sherpas and yaks.
One would think that this little glory town had mushroomed because of the 50th anniversary of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s first successful ascent of Everest in 1953, but curiously, only one expedition appears to be here with the specific intention of celebrating that triumph – a German team which will attempt to summit on exactly the same date and time as they did: 29th May at 11.30am.
The rest of the teams vary greatly in their aims and, dare I say it, their conduct. For some, national pride is at stake; for others, gender equality. There are those who come to clear old oxygen bottles and other garbage from the upper reaches of the mountain. They pay a vastly reduced permit fee, but despite this incentive from the Nepalese Ministry of Tourism, it will be years before the three camps above 6,000 metres are clean.
We have our fair share of Tarzanesque chest beaters on the glacier, and the sherpas have their usual concerns that the arrogance displayed by some of the foreign teams will invite retribution by She Who Must Be Obeyed. For the commercial guiding companies, trophy hunting is still the name of the game – being able to send their clients home with a summit photo, a priceless addition to their CVs and some impressive dinner party anecdotes. Melding their climbers’ abilities and ambitions is not always successful, though, and this year’s ‘Mountain Madness’ expedition (the outfit once run by legendary climber Scott Fischer who died in the 1996 storm) faced the humiliation of having ten of its eleven ‘hopefuls’ go home in a huff. Maybe the company should consider a name change!
No effort is spared to give these commercial clients a good time (and at US$65,000 a pop I should hope not!) but the five-star joint in Base Camp this year is unquestionably the Indian/Nepalese army camp. Theirs is by far the largest team here, with 34 climbers and 80 back-up ‘appies,’ and it took 525 yaks to get their basic supplies up here. They have built a dry-wall mess out of rock, have videos every evening for entertainment, and fresh produce gets flown in to them by helicopter every week. The armies’ stated goal on Everest this year is bi-lateral diplomacy and team building, and in many ways they epitomise the spirit of cooperative, safe mountaineering. With logistical support from the South African team they have fixed safety ropes between the high camps and the South Col, and the two teams share technical information and climbing strategy.
In fact, Alex Harris (the Discovery team’s leader) is delighted that his and the armies’ acclimatization timetables have been roughly the same. The teams got here earlier in the season than most and will therefore be ready to make their bids for the summit during the good weather ‘window’ predicted for early May. By doing so, they may also avoid the heaviest traffic Everest has ever seen. The unprecedented number of climbers this year could result in equally unprecedented bottlenecks on the dangerous, roped sections of the mountain like the Lhotse Face and the Hillary Step. No plans appear to be in place to double up those ropes and facilitate two-way traffic and the potential for disaster looms large in every team leader’s imagination. They liaise with each other at Base Camp, trying to coordinate their ascents, but none have the authority (or indeed the desire) to prevent another team from adopting the timetable of their choice.
Sadly, as Everest becomes more commercial enterprise than wilderness experience, the mavericks on the mountain become fewer and fewer. This year there appears to be only one – an eccentric Canadian, Ian Scanlan, who started his summit bid with a free dive in the Bay of Benghal, then walked here through India and Nepal at a rate of 40 kilometres per day. His expedition is minimalist to say the least, with a buddy from back home doubling up as camp hand and cook, and a sherpa to keep him company on the mountain. His goal? “Oh jeez, to have fun, climb some of the way in the nude and see how far I can go without supplementary oxygen!”
Meanwhile the record breakers flock here in increasing numbers, keen to write themselves into the history books, however fleetingly. This year an Italian will attempt the summit and back in 24 hours, two Sherpas are looking to shave two hours off the Base Camp-to-summit record of 16 and half hours, and the season’s disabled climbers include a Nepalese with no arms, another with only one leg and an American with one arm. Everest has become a spectator sport.