ESSAY: Basecamp Tour John Race - Basecamp Mon, March 26, 2001 5:00AM
Basecamp (BC) on the North side of Everest sits just under 17,000 ft. BC takes us about 5 to 6 hours to reach from the Tingri, a town at 14,000' on the Tibetan plateau. As you drive towards Everest the road deteriorates to a jeep trail, and the first group in can expect to spend several hours rebuilding sections of road, or chopping ice to make it possible for a good four wheel drive to make it through. Access is good enough to allow us to haul in ten weeks of supplies, in five Chinese 1.5 ton trucks, but challenging enough to reach, and high enough altitude to keep all but the hardiest of the tourist crowd back on the main road from Lhasa. Driving in we pass several smaller villages, cross the famous Pang La pass at over 17,000 ft. and eventually reach the Rongbuk Monastery, the last regularly inhabited outpost before basecamp.
Our camp sits on the West side of the Rongbuk valley, about a quarter mile from the terminus of the Rongbuk Glacier. The valley floor is broad, relatively flat, and covered with round stones left behind by the retreat of the glacier. The Rongbuk collects snow from the massive North Face of Everest, and then winds down valley some dozen miles until it becomes more rock than ice at 17,000 feet. From camp, we see the terminal moraine to the South, with the stunning North Face of Everest dominating the Southern skyline. To the left Changste blocks the left side of the North Face, and the lower part of our route, the North Ridge. To the right of Everest we see the West shoulder, blocking the view of the Western Cwm, the top of Nupste, and several smaller peaks. Ridges to our East and West rise to over 21,000 feet, and to the North we can see a few miles of dry, tan ridges extending down the Rongbuk Valley in the direction of our initial approach.
Camp is a dusty, windswept place that can be both miserably cold, or unbearably hot (inside your tent) within a few hours of each other. As the first group to arrive, we were able to select our usual spot, a somewhat sheltered edge of the valley near a frozen stream. This location keeps us out of the relative chaos that will be created by the arrival of other expeditions, and has a good source of water. Despite all you hear about the garbage on Everest, the area has remained relatively clean, partly due to our regular efforts to cleanup and haul out any mess left behind by previous groups.
Our camp currently consists of two large Eureka army tents (about 20'x20'), a small Eureka army tent (10'x10'), and 38 Eureka 2 or 3 man tents. Pemba, our longtime friend and head cook, utilizes one of the cotton tents as a cook tent. You can expect the cook tent to be full of busy folks from about 5:30 am until 9 pm each day as Pemba and his assistants work to cook for up to 40 people. On particularly busy days Pemba motivates his crew with the thumping beat of dance tracks you would expect to hear in a London Disco that emanate from a large boom box. The second canvas tent is used to store food supplies, and some of the Sherpa's personal equipment. This tent is full of rice, lentils, potatoes, okra, beans, cabbage, onions, carrots, canned food, yak, sheep, and goat meat, and extra cooking gear. Because it gets so cold at night (down to about 0 F) Pemba wraps all the vegetables in tarps and large sheets of foam that he brought from Kathmandu for this purpose.
One of the large Eureka army tents is used as a mess tent, and the other is used as combination storage-research tent. The mess tent is relatively comfortable with camp tables and folding chairs provided by Slumberjack. The large storage tent connects to the small army tent and is home to a phenomenal array of electronic equipment, our power system, medical supplies, Jochen's research equipment (telescope, maps, very detailed photos, etc..), and the food that expedition members will use on trips to Advanced Base Camp. The small army tent is connected to the corner of this tent, and contains our base station radio, 3 or 4 laptops, a satellite phone, and the deep cycle batteries that store power generated by solar panels, and a windmill.
A typical day starts at 6 am when people start to trickle into the 0-10°F dawn, walk to the mess tent, and drink massive quantities of coffee until 7am when Pemba and his crew bring in a breakfast of eggs, porridge, and bread. Early morning activity is limited due to the cold, and we all wait patiently for the sun to reach our camp at around 8am, just in time for the morning radio call. At 8am we fire up the radio and check on the teams out on the mountain. If someone is sick or injured, we come up with a plan for getting them back to camp, and the various groups confirm their options for the day. After breakfast and the radio call we each go about the half dozen chores that fill each morning. Morning is our most effective work time as the wind tends to be worse in the afternoon. Early in the expedition we are setting up tents, building latrines, packing loads for the Yaks to carry to Advanced Base Camp (ABC), building and fine tuning the electrical system, repairing gear, and basically getting organized. Later in the trip the chore load dies down and basecamp becomes primarily a place to rest. We have lunch at noon, tea (we need about 6 liters of fluid each day) at 4 pm, and dinner at 6 pm. The sun is gone by 6 pm and even the hardiest of souls are usually in their sleeping bags by 8 pm. Mealtimes usually find a group with diverse political and economic backgrounds making little progress to solve the world's big problems, but keeping warm and having a good time in the process. Most of us spend a few hours each night listening to the short-wave radio for news of the world, listening to a walkman, or reading before a long nights sleep.
When you first arrive at basecamp the altitude really drains you. As the trip progresses and you adapt to the altitude (primarily by building more red blood cells) basecamp starts to feel like a place when the air is thick, nights are restful, the food tastes great, and if you are lucky you will get some news from home. We "climb high, and sleep low," basecamp being the low camp where you can recover. A typical upper mountain rotation lasts at least a week, and finds climbers constantly pushing higher and higher on the mountain. Each move up is physically demanding and the higher you go the harder it is to sleep. Above about 19,000 people who are sick or exhausted will not be able to heal and recover, and a trip to basecamp provides the R&R needed to get back in the game. Life on the upper mountain is exhausting, usually cold, and filled with almost constant concern for your physical safety. Each time you return to basecamp you have a chance to breath heavy air, gorge on good food, sleep all night, relax, play cards, write letters and e-mail to home, and try to recover in time for your next trip up.
Our next well established camp (ABC) is about 12 miles away, and takes 1 or 2 days to reach. ABC is the base of operations for the upper mountain, and is much colder and sits at 21,500 ft., and is usually only inhabited by people on their way up the mountain and healthy climbers.