Newsletter 211 April 2001
Arriving at Base Camp
The jeeps rolled across the Tibetan Plateau, climbing up dusty hills, passing streamers of prayer flags, and after a quick new view, dropping down the other side. Eagles and ravens circled above the passes. Yak men, driving their herds toward fresh pastures, scarcely noticed our passing. The winds were howling, but the movement of jeeps, yaks and eagles signaled the return of spring.
We entered the Rongbuk Valley, four-wheeling up the dirt and boulder strewn road. Streams criss-crossed the road, but each river crossing was easily passed on a bridge of ice. We rolled up to the Rongbuk Monastery and paid our respects to the Buddhist Monks and Nuns who live in this desolate place. At 16,500 ft. it is at the limits of year round human habitation. The Rinpoche, who is the abbot of this monastery, has been reincarnated many times. The wisdom gained from those lifetimes may explain why he is in Katmandu right now, not awaiting Spring's arrival in this beautiful but unheated collection of buildings.
A few miles above the monastery, the valley flattens out. It is on this outwash plain of the Rongbuk glacier's terminal moraine, that base camp is established. Russell and the Sherpas arrived a day earlier than us, only to find that our usual base camp had been taken by the Australian Army. We settled for a site, a bit closer to the mountain and on the lee side of a small hill.
The 5 large base camp tents were set up and the cooks (Lacchu, Ram and Kuhl Bahadur a.k.a. "Koobadoo") had lunch ready and waiting. The luxuries of Russ' expeditions were obvious: the barrels of potato chips, the boxes of candy bars, the CD player, and the thermoses of freshly roasted, organically grown coffee. The list could go on. Each climber has his/her own tent, complete with thick foam mattresses. At 7 a.m. a Sherpa visits each tent with a steaming mug of tea. Dessert last night was fresh baked apple pie with a whipped cream topping.
Prepping for the Climb
It is considered a bad omen to climb above base camp before having a puja ceremony. This Buddhist blessing is a sacred act to the Sherpas and to those of us who will be climbing on Chomolungma (the goddess mother of the earth), as Mt. Everest is known to the Tibetans. Upon arrival, the Sherpas visited the monastary, giving an offering of 20 fleece jackets, to find out which day was the most auspicious for our puja. This morning two monks walked into camp and the preparations began. A stone altar was built. Piles of food, pyramids of beer and soda, burning juniper and all of our ice axes, were strategically placed on the altar. The two monks sat up front, while we gathered behind them. The chanting began, "Om mani padhme om."
Everest stood above us, shining in the sun light. The wind hardly blew until we needed it to flutter the prayer flags, sending good wishes to the heavens. Following custom, we smeared barley wheat (tsampa) on each other's cheeks and threw handfuls of blessed rice over our shoulders. The black birds hovered over head, awaiting the puja's end to feed on the rice. With a final chant, the ceremony ended and the food and drinks were passed around.
We are now ready to head to advanced base camp (ABC). Well, almost. Most of the loads had to be reorganized. The village head man has decided that each yak can only carry 40 kilos, down 10 kilos from last year and 20 kilos since 1999. Of course this means that we will need more yaks, with no discount being offered. We had been planning on 50 kilo loads and packed accordingly.
While base camp was being set up, the loads re-organized, and the communication systems re-engineered, the climbers have been getting themselves acclimated to this new altitude (17,200 ft./5200m.). There are so many great hikes from our valley. In the next few days, each of us will climb peaks that rise to 21,000 ft./6400m. Most of these can be done in light-weight hiking boots. In between hikes, the cooks will serve us carrot cake and pizza, or yak steaks and french fries. Take your pick.
A quick note on the weather: It has been seasonable so far. A few hours each day, high winds (50-80 mph/100-160kph) have been blasting the summit, even though the jet stream is not in our area. In base camp, the wind seems to blow lightly through the afternoon. Temperatures here are mild: highs of 60 F/ 14 C and lows well below freezing. Everest, like most of the peaks, is quite bare of snow. This should make our climbing easier, although will make Marco's snowboard descent even more spectacular.