Newsletter 1013 April 2010
Himex expedition kicks off officially
The expedition has finally begun with the Sherpas, guides, clients and more or less everyone at the Himex base camp getting together for the traditional Buddhist Puja. As I mentioned in one of my previous Newsletters, the Puja is a very important part of any Himalayan expedition, especially for the Sherpas as they believe that without this blessing of the Gods they should not be working on the mountain.
Thursday started off beautifully with the sun hitting Pumori and Lindgren in the West and everybody waking up to a nice cup of tea and the traditional hot towel for the early morning ablution. After breakfast, Russell called a meeting to hand out the radios, which are another essential part of any Himex expedition. Every client, guide and Sherpa is obliged to carry a radio when they are on the mountain, no matter whether they are on their acclimatisation trip on Lobuje East or whether they are on their climb up Mount Everest. During the briefing, Russell explained that one of the main things he had learned from the tragic events on Everest in 1996 was that without communication things can go awfully wrong. Every member, Sherpa and guide of the expedition is required to have their radios on all the time when they are on the mountain, and Russell’s radio is actually on call 24 hours a day for the duration of the expedition. “I am not worried about the battery life of my radios it is much more important for me to be contactable 24 hours a day,” he explained in the briefing.
Russell also wants to be in constant radio contact with his Sherpas, especially when they go through the Khumbu Icefall. The Sherpas usually go through this maze of icy pinnacles and crevasses 12 times (one way!!) per season to carry up food and equipment and set up the camps. Every trip through the icefall is a potential danger, which can be minimised by going through it as early in the day as possible. Russell, or the ‘Big Boss’ as his Sherpas call him affectionately, usually gets up with them at the crack of dawn and does not get off the radio until he knows they have crossed the icefall safely.
After that first briefing on communication we had an early lunch and at 12 o’clock on the dot Phurba Tashi called for the Puja. I was quite surprised to hear that the Sherpas had actually gone through the icefall to set up Camp 2 a few days before the Puja as I did not think they would work on the mountain without this auspicious ceremony. “It was ok, Phurba Tashi explained to me. “The Sherpas made an exception as we had to go up to reserve our space at Camp 2.” He also said that the Puja could not have been done before Thursday as the ‘black month’ only ended on Wednesday. He could not specify how the inauspicious ‘black month’ was determined, however, he told me that there was a black month in every year and a black year in every 12 years.
For the Puja, we gathered around the Chorten - the little Buddhist monument the Sherpas had constructed at the edge of our camp - and everyone brought some climbing gear or whatever they wanted to be blessed for the expedition – whether it was for Lobuje East or for Mount Everest. It was amazing to be among this crew of Sherpas and guides, who, according to Russell, have a combined number of 96 Everest summits under their belts. Unfortunately, Steffi from Germany, Duncan from Australia and Phil from the UK, who will be climbing Lobuje East with the Himex team, had not arrived in time for the ceremony and we had start without them.
Phurba Tashi and his crew had also put lots of sweets, an interesting looking chocolate cake and whiskey and beer around the Chorten, which was engulfed by the smoke of burnt juniper creating a lovely smell in the air. It was actually a good thing that the Puja took place after lunch and not in the early morning hours like it is done traditionally, as drinking beer and whiskey at high altitude is already a challenge – let alone at 8 o’clock in the morning.
Phurba Tashi and Lakpa Sherpa, who is also a trained lama, were leading the chanting of the Puja while the other 20 odd members of our Sherpa crew were trying keep up by finding the right words in their little praying books. Russell was sitting in the front row with the Sherpas and I remembered him telling me that the Puja had become a very emotional part of the expedition for him. And looking at his solemn face, it really showed. While many other spectators were busy taking pictures, Russell seemed entirely immersed in the ritual.
However, despite being solemn the ceremony was also fun. At one point during the ritual, rice throwing was required and everyone threw as much rice and flour at each other as possible. The ‘Big Boss’ seemed to be the main victim of this rice throwing extravaganza as the Sherpas had obviously fun pelting him with as much rice and flour as they could get their hands on. At one point, Lakpa and Phurba broke out in a loud laughter and obviously lost the thread of their prayers.
The Puja lasted for about an hour-and-a-half and it ended with the traditional drinking of blessed beer and whiskey – and of course with the ‘Sherpa Dance’, during which everyone formed a circle and moved back and forth in unity. However, when we all thought the ceremony was over as thick clouds were moving in, the crew came up with the great idea of everyone performing a traditional dance for their country. So, the New Zealanders did their ‘Haka’, Ginger, a girl from the Chinese crew, sang a beautiful traditional song, Hiro, our Japanese guide, performed a rather erotic version of Japanese dancing, the Americans did a bit of ‘twisting and shouting’ on the glacier, the Danes performed some sort of chasing game across the moraine, and the Germans (Helmut and I) slapped their thighs for about 20 seconds in good old Bavarian style. Unfortunately, we could not convince the Brits, Australians, Romanians or French to perform on this world-class stage with the most stunning backdrop you can possibly find.
After the Puja, which was a good introduction for the members to Sherpa culture, most team members retired to the coziness of the “White Pod”, from where I am writing this update. It is a very relaxed atmosphere, it is warm, has comfortable sofas, and if anyone wants an excellent cup of espresso they can ask Adrian to make one with the espresso machine that was brought up from Namche Bazaar last night. Yes, there was a bit of a coffee drama when I arrived at base camp on Wednesday afternoon as the old espresso machine was broken and the crew was worried that they had to sustain a whole Everest expedition without espresso. But as Russell is never short of a solution to a problem he remembered a lodge in Namche Bazaar, which apparently only used their espresso machine for the Himex team. So, there is obviously no better place for the machine than up here at base camp.
On Friday, the team will have a closer look at the icefall and see what it is like to be near this maze of ice pinnacles and snow. They will only touch the outer part to get a feel for it before the first group will embark on their adventure to climb Lobuje Peak for acclimatization on Saturday. The second group, together with Steffi, Phil and Duncan, will set off for Lobuje on Sunday.
There will certainly be more news from the team, the Sherpas, the acclimatisation climb on Lobuje and, of course, base camp life but until then – watch the space.