ESSAY: Back to Rongbuk Eric Simonson - Basecamp Mon, March 26, 2001 4:45AM
There is an incredible amount of deja vu associated with coming back to Rongbuk for me. This is my sixth expedition on the North Side now. Adding two other climbs on the South Side and three other trips that I have organized to Everest, and it all adds up to a lot of memories. Many are good, some great, some not so good, some heartbreaking. I guess that is about the only thing we can be sure of...that this trip will be not be the same as any of the previous ones.
Looking back on my first trip to Everest in 1982, I always remember the conversation I had with the famous British climber Peter Boardman, right here at Rongbuk, almost exactly nineteen years ago. On that expedition we had arrived at BC on March 20, the same as this year. There was only one other team here, the British group led by Chris Bonnington, who had arrived a few days earlier. I remember talking to Boardman, who was one of my heroes after his climb of the Southwest Face of Everest in 1975. I asked him why he wanted to come back here. After all, I noted to him, he was already famous, he had made a first ascent on the world's highest mountain, he had nothing to prove. Why come back? His answer has haunted me for 19 years, each time I return to this place. He said Mt. Everest was a schizophrenic mountain, a lady with many personalities. He wanted to know them all.
Pete died on the Northeast Ridge a few weeks after we had that conversation. I vividly remember our arrival back at Rongbuk at the end of the trip, and the greeting Bonnington gave us. He had just returned from an unsuccessful trip to the Kharta valley, on the east side of the mountain, in the hope that maybe Pete and his partner Joe Tasker had descended that side. Our team had lost Marty Hoey a few days before, and we too were grieving. One of the British team's sponsors was White Horse Scotch and they had multiple cases of Scotland's finest left over. That evening we all got together, our teams both shell shocked by the events of the last few days, and we drank to Marty, Pete, Joe, life, death, friendship, and just about everything else we could think of.
Late that night we stumbled out of the big Eureka! tent we had drowned ourselves in, looking for a place to lie down and sleep. It was a beautiful night at Rongbuk, and the mountain shone in the light of the moon and stars. Since our team had not set up additional tents for sleeping, Bonnington directed us to a line of unused tents in his Base Camp to crash in. I remember crawling into one of those in my stupor. As I lay there and started to relax, after two and a half months of climbing on Everest, I looked around the tent and noticed a few personal items. First there was a distinctive jacket I had seen before on Pete Boardman, then a stack of letters to Pete. All of a sudden I realized I was lying in his tent. This man, who I had had a long talk with, who now lay somewhere up above, who had inspired me as a young man with his famous exploits, was there with me. It was a chilling moment.
The next morning our team built a stone memorial to Marty on a hill near Base Camp. Then we carried rocks for the British and helped them build a stone memorial for Pete and Joe next to Marty. Bonnington laid a stone he had carved on it and we said a few words together. Then it was time to pack up and leave. And when we did, when I left Everest in 1982, I thought I had blown my one big chance to climb the mountain. While I had climbed well and reached 27,500 feet in the Great Couloir, only to then be injured by a falling rock, I was terribly disappointed. Little did I know then that I would return seven more times in the next 19 years.
It is still a schizophrenic mountain and I too want to know all its personalities.