Everest 1998 Part I
Kathmandu to Advanced Base Camp
by Dave Hahn
Note: These are excerpts from the dispatches that started it all. No one knew Dave could write like this (maybe not even Dave himself,) but he was leading the IMG North Side Everest climb and was asked to send a few updates to be posted online. No photos, no video, no big leadup, just these long emails that started showing up, and suddenly everyone was asking who is this Hahn guy and when is his next dispatch going up.
This is a Climbing Trip
To say that our trip is commercial may imply that it is some grand business venture, but the reality is that one could probably count on greater, certainly safer, financial returns by staying home mowing lawns, selling lemonade and working down at the local McDonalds.
This is a climbing trip. There are six guides and two clients, and an associated trek helps to make the trip possible. We met our Sherpa partners in Kathmandu back at the start of April. For the climbers, this was a reunion as we are well aquatinted with the four climbing Sherpas and two Sherpa cooks provided by [Ang Jangbu in Nepal]. In my own case, this makes six 8000 meter expeditions, and happily they have all been in the company of many of these same Sherpas, guides and clients. That made things easier when it came to wrestling with logistics in K-du.
Through Tibet to Everest
Road blockages between the Chinese/Tibetan towns of Zhangmu and Nyalam are not uncommon. It is such a spectacular road that occasionally a piece of it just gives up the ghost and drops a mile or two to warmer climates. I'm sure it has an official name, but for me it will always be the Valium Hi-Way for the needed assistance when traversing some drop-out on three wheels of a fully loaded vehicle of uncertain origin and maintenance while the driver calmly smiles in some direction other than the one you'd like him to be focusing on.
Landslides do happen on the road, and the short-term solution usually involves a bunch of hard working porters hustling truck-loads a hundred yards or so to another waiting truck while exploding dynamite adds atmosphere and flying debris in a try for a new road.
Each of us twitched a little at the prospect of delay. An Everest climber is always trying to keep careful track of how many days he or she has for acclimatization and setbacks before a summit attempt. More is generally better. But Zhangmu is not a good place to get stuck if a delay is to be endured. To be charitable, the town is vastly improved from 1991 when I first came through. To be less charitable, it is a good place to catch a disease nobody back home can diagnose.
One finds, while avoiding ankle deep mud patches on main street, that it is wise to keep an eye upward for the occasional anonymous toss of various fluids and wastes from some upper level dwellings. And it costs an expedition a fortune to stay extra days in Zhangmu... or anywhere else along the intended journey to base camp as it is all by arrangement with the various government climbing associations and not by direct dealing with some hotel manager. It seemed best to stay in comfort and economy in Kathmandu, so we did for another three days, slightly worried about catching bugs there or being trapped by a projected riot by the communists, scheduled for our last day in town.
The riot missed us, a few bugs caught us and we were on our way to the border on the seventh of April. It is a beautiful drive four or five hours up to Kodari, where Nepal Customs and passport control are. When China and Nepal are getting along well, it is then a simple matter to get your truckload of gear across the Friendship Bridge and up a couple thousand vertical feet along a crumbling switchback no-man's land road up to Chinese customs and passport control at the entrance to Zhangmu. There, you set your watch to Beijing time, two hours and fifteen minutes different from Nepal, and you begin the laborious process of getting your gear transferred to a Chinese truck. It is not at all like driving up into Canada for the day from the States.
When the two countries aren't getting along, you may have to hire porters to get gear between the two customs stations. In any case, no vehicle really crosses the border and most climbers choose to walk/climb the hour or so through no-man's land. We got all that done, and found in Zhangmu that the snow blockage on the road ahead had indeed been keeping a few expeditions trapped in town.
Zhangmu is a place of fabulous natural beauty, one zig-zagging street on a steep mountain-side perched precariously over a violent stretch of cascading river that even kayakers would be smart to avoid. The mountain walls of the gorge are so abrupt that one doesn't tend to look at the peaks on either side, it is too hard on the neck. But again, the town is dirty, to the point that the repeat visitor recognizes various bits of detritous in the street. It is a bustling place these days as it is the border town on the one road linking Lhasa and Tibet with Kathmandu and the South. A bunch of overloaded trucks are usually grinding their gears, blasting their horns and splashing the main street up onto pedestrians.
There must be about 300 climbers and cooks based on the Rongbuk this season, and right now, another 100 Yak herders, at least. That is a lot of people, but it doesn't discourage us. All of us have felt the pull of Everest strongly enough that we don't question that it pulls on others just as powerfully. We are not so naive that we come looking for solitude at the base of the North Ridge route during prime climbing season. Even so, there is plenty of solitude left to be had on Everest, all but one of the teams is climbing the North Ridge. For those who want Everest to themselves, the routes are harder and more committing. Privacy does not come cheaply here.
On the way in, the Liason Officer for an expedition will stop off in one of the villages a few days walk from base camp and arrange for a team of Yaks and herdsmen [to help move gear from base camp to ABC.] It takes one Yak Driver for every three yaks. When the Yakkers arrive in base camp, they whip up a tent, collect every dry Yak turd around for fuel and set in for the night. The smell of burning dung is one of the triggers for the senses to let one know just what mountains one is climbing in again.
The Yakkers are tough guys, we are careful not to tempt them by carelessly leaving valuables around, but that is not to say they can't be trusted. We normally end up with a pretty good relationship, they know we will ask for the same crew again and that we'll give them some Kerosene beyond the pay that has been arranged by the Liason Officer. They are usually pretty cheerful folks, curious about the people they are working for, but keeping to themselves also. They work with so many foreigners now that you'd imagine they'd start to lose their individuality, but that is not the case. Their clothing is still very traditional Tibetan dress and they are still the "cowboys" of the area, hardworking from closeknit villages.
Right now, with our first forays of climbers and Sherpas up at ABC and even working the route to Camp IV at the North Col, things have quieted considerably at base camp. Just a few of us attempting to get rid of the colds we picked up on the way in. Wait too long to get well, and you may miss out on an Everest climb. Don't wait long enough and you may push something so far into your lungs that your climb will be over before it starts. The waiting is one of the hard parts of climbing that usually doesn't make it into the best selling books and movies. For good reason: it is dull... and essential.
A walk across the valley to "memorial hill" is one of the things we all do before heading up the mountain. There are about a dozen stone tablets there with names carved in them. One can hype one's climbing prowess to the rafters while home talking about the upcoming climb on the big E, but then one should go to the hill for some much needed reality before taking a serious step uphill.
Seeing Marty Hoey's stone is quite sobering for many of our team. She fell from the Great Couloir in 1982 on an expedition made up primarily of Mount Rainier guides. Marty Hoey was a Rainier guide and so are five of us. She is a legend on "our" mountain, and beloved by the people who taught us what we know about big mountains. To remember that this is her final resting place because of an accident makes us all more careful. To look next to her stone for the one dedicated to Peter Boardman and Joe Tasker has the same effect. They were the best of their day; hard, strong, gifted and lucky climbers... but even that was not enough against their 1982 disappearance on the Northeast Ridge. And we can't avoid Rhineberger's stone and wouldn't want to, despite the painful memories it brings. Michael Rhineberger went to the summit on our 1994 expedition after coming close on seven previous trips. Mike was always so careful and conservative that none of us knows yet what made him gamble his life away for that 1994 summit. He didn't have the strength to make it down, and in the end, after many people made great sacrifices in a vain attempt to help him, we could only add another stone to the hill. Reminding ourselves of a man we loved and reminding ourselves to watch every step of our own.
Looking up from that same hill of solitude and introspection, it is not hard to be wildly inspired and excited for the adventure to come. Mount Everest's North Face tells many heroic stories of success. The Hornbein Couloir on the right, for instance, how could Tom Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld possibly have done such a thing in 1963? To do it today with all of the advantages would still be the climb of a lifetime, yet they did it virtually onsight and alpine-style to the top.
The Great Couloir had it's heroic first ascents in 1984 when the tough Australians pushed through obstacle after obstacle to make the top, followed just weeks later by the only American to get up the face, Phil Ershler.
Looking farther left, the mind can barely take in the magnitude of Rheinhold Messner's solo, monsoon, oxygenless ascent of the North Ridge and Face, but it happened there nonetheless. And finally to the North Ridge proper, rich with climbing history. The first known attempts on Mount Everest were along the North Ridge, reaching amazing heights for those, or any, years. The stories of the first success on the North Ridge in 1960, when the Chinese climbed it, are remarkable. That a man took off his mittens and boots to climb the Second Step at 28,500'... well, perhaps that is more inspiration than we need. I don't want any of my team to do something so remarkable, just climb up and down safe.
Base Camp Cooties
We still have a relatively good weather pattern here. The big winds up high just don't seem to be there this year. In their absence, cumulus clouds form by mid-day and the snow falls. Superficially, the North Face is made very pretty by all that snow. As climbers, we'd just as soon see all that snow blow toward Texas before we get on the summit terrain.
Down at base camp, land of coughs, Jim and I are completing a planned rest that we may have to extend. Seems we both torched our throats on that last tour of duty. For me, it was a classic case of working hard and sleeping little at the Col for two nights, then coming down and neglecting to "re-stock" fully on food and water at ABC before making the long dry march to base camp. Someone needs to guide the guide.
Craig John was doing well enough at ABC when he made the mistake of having someone look at the inside of his throat. So he is down here while the spots go away... we feed him with a long stick and make him sit just outside the dining tent. Richard made a break from the sick ward this morning, darn near sprinting to IC, intermediate camp (half way to ABC), to get away from all perceived base camp cooties.
Bob, having mastered the physical and technical problems of the North Col slopes, decided for personal reasons to end his Everest climb. He will spend a day or two with the coughing people at base camp waiting for a jeep homeward. Bob will be missed, and his decision respected.
Walking The Walk to ABC
Setting out from base camp is plenty easy when you've got your altitude cough under control. If you are heading to ABC for the second or third time of the trip, you probably walk out of base camp a lot like a regular human, perhaps forgetting the way you crawled out, stopping frequently for air that first push up from 17,000'.
But it is "easy" because you are walking straight at the summit of Mount Everest. You are probably resolving that THIS TIME, you're going to do everything right. Not going to get too sunburned. Not going to forget to eat and drink somewhere up there where the distractions come in. Going to take care of the throat, going to dress right, going to work like an animal, impress everyone and quit just one day before becoming too tired to be useful for further work on this climb...
Having the summit and that big North Face triangle, square in your face helps you make resolutions. You probably have on some hiking boots, gators, trekking pants (those are light trousers with your favorite climbing label prominent), a midweight top and pile sweater (this year's colors please). You want two ski poles and some light gloves. Put on a baseball cap for the sun (it doesn't really matter if it is a "cool" one or not, you aren't going to bump into anyone who shares your vision of "cool") slap on the glacier glasses.
If you are on my team, you are probably messing with your Walkman and headphones that first hundred yards out of camp. But then, after about fifteen minutes, when you leave the big flat alluvial area and go into the little gully formed by the present day lateral moraine against the big thousand foot high old moraine, you better take off the head tunes. Rocks fall down here, they're easy enough to avoid if you hear them coming, but it would be an embarrassing way to go if you didn't.
You are now walking pretty darn close to the Central Rongbuk Glacier, although you might not see it that way. No ice and snow around this part of the glacier. Or none visible, as the glacier is just a huge conveyor belt of rock at this point. When you are feeling well, you "cruise" this part of the route in an hour or a bit more. It is barely uphill until you get to where the first big side valley comes in. That is the East Fork of the Rongbuk, and you want to be sure to turn left up that way. Go straight and you may have to be writing to the climbing mags afterward because everything up the Central Rongbuk is the hard way up Everest.
Heading up the steep hill into the mouth of the new valley would be harder if you didn't get to look over at Pumori while you worked. Pumori is one of those "little" 23,000' peaks that you could brag for decades about just touching. Steep and toothlike... the way kids draw mountains.
Say goodbye to Everest for a bit because you are now in a tight valley with steep, rocky and mountainous walls cutting off the big views. You gain almost a thousand feet before you are properly in the valley. The "trail" eases, and you find yourself at a relatively flat place with a bit more Yak dung around than normal. Must be Camp I. But if you're new at this, you say "Ah, Camp I in two hours, at this rate I'll be in Camp VI in ten more hours." Yeah... maybe, more likely you will be looking for the Ibuprofen and a friendly Gamow Bag.
Camp I is 18,000', the perfect place to sleep (1000' higher than BC) when you are working into the altitude for the first time of the trip. Camp I seems to have fallen out of favor these days. There aren't any tents there now, just a bunch of fat looking Ptarmigan-like birds. In the good old days, say in the twenties or thirties, when the British had this part of the planet to themselves, you could leave a camp here with food and stoves and just use it when you were passing through. Same with Camp II a bit farther up, perhaps as the trip went on and your acclimatization advanced, you wouldn't even need these camps on the way to ABC (Camp III). No matter, they were there if you wanted them. These days if you left a tent at Camp I, folks would take your stove, eat your food, and it is a sure bet that a Yak herder would take a fancy to the pretty cord that was holding your tent from blowing away. Herdsmen like rope and cord theirs is made from yak-hair thanks for the new stuff.
If this sounds terrible, try leaving a tent pitched for the summer on the Appalachian Trail and see how the herdsmen there treat it. Too much anonymous traffic in old Camp I. Most of us now work out of some intermediate camp (IC) halfway to ABC, easier to defend. From Camp I though, the hard walking begins.
The Snow Is Praying
The East Fork of the Rongbuk Glacier doesn't make it to the Central Fork these days. It gives up about ¾ of a mile from the Central Valley. So the walking gets tough because the glacier snout is routing around and pushing up big piles of dirt about 15 minutes above Camp I.
You pass through this transition zone from terra-firma to mobile landscape by going up and down on loose piles of rock and dirt. Don't get lost here because then you will have to explain to your laughing team-mates how a thousand crapping, hair shedding, hoof-scuffing yaks made the correct move here and you didn't. Get it right and you are now working up the right moraine of the glacier, seeing black ice under the dirt from time to time, gazing at the violent bit of river you get to see popping out from under the glacier and then back in in some spot you don't want to go.
As I say, this is the tough bit. The altitude is getting on 19,000' but it isn't staying there. You keep having to go up and down, and turn down the Pearl Jam, pull off the Tchaikovsky. Rocks fall down these mountainsides. Heck, if you get really unlucky, perhaps you'll be in this spot with a book-on-tape when that little glacier up above lets loose with an avalanche. Anyway, it is a good spot to hurry through.
For me, it is tough to get through this area without remembering how many times I've staggered "down" through after some up-mountain fun. Trying to get to BC while bruised, frost-nipped, peeing blood, seeing a tad poorly, with lips and tongue sunburned, throat on fire, pack belt slipping off where I used to have shoulders and a butt. This part of up and down is exquisite in those times... and you tell yourself, "I can climb Mt. Everest, but I can't get up this 50 foot dirt pile without resting three more times... but not four times... but not four." Ahh, but that is "down," best not to jump ahead to all that fun.
Keep trudging up, pull on your Gore-tex bibs and jacket (this year's colors please) if an afternoon snow shower starts. Stop thinking and walk for a while, and you are at Intermediate Camp. We teamed up with Russell Brice, the only other guide on the North Side this year, to keep an IC. Russell has it nicely furnished and he found a splendid Tibetan caretaker, Chuldim, to keep out the riff raff. Just show Russell's business card to get in. That works fine, my own card isn't as cool looking. I wanted a secret handshake, but it would have been too tough to translate for Chuldim. Chuldim is becoming a star. All of our team come up or down raving about his friendly and gracious manner, marveling at the hours of prayer he fits in, turning IC into one of the world's great monasteries. Up in the morning and on your way... or shave your head and stay a few years... with a whole stack of Russell's cards.
Out of IC, just go up one more big heap of broken rock and then down again. But go down a bunch this time, because you are going to get off the side and onto the famous medial moraine of the East Fork. The upper part of the glacier pinches Changtse (Everest North Peak), and a pile of rock gets dragged down the length of the glacier as a result. When you climb up onto the spine of this medial moraine, the walking gets a lot easier, but now you have another big problem. If you are like most folks, you will now try to capture some incredible scenery on video or film, and you probably won't do justice to what surrounds you.
The glacier "surface" on either side of you consists of 100 foot high daggers of white and blue ice. "Sails," some people say, or "frozen waves." To me though, it is just walking into a shark's mouth surrounded by countless teeth, and looking over to the right you see that Everest's North Face has reappeared, doubtless in complete control of the shark's mouth.
These teeth are an interesting phenomenon. On Mount Rainier, for instance, when the sun shines a lot in a given summer, the glacier surface becomes rough with "sun cups." Dirt on the snow focuses the sun, cupping out a spot, which further intensifies the sunlight, cupping the surface more until pinnacles of snow three feet tall separate the cups it makes walking difficult all those little pinnacles. Neve Penitente is what it is known as, the snow is praying... all the pinnacles pointing at the sun.
Things are bigger in the Himalaya. This glacier on the Tibet (the dry) side of the range is relatively slow moving, almost stagnant in some respects. And it is darn near equatorial, so the mid-day sun can be pretty strong. The penitente here are in place for years and years and get bigger and bigger as they slowly move along... until they come crashing down. My theory, at least, and I'm happy with it, so don't tell me if it is wrong.
At any rate, you won't be walking out in the teeth, stick to the medial moraine, and you'll make good time to the Camp II area at about 19,600'. Camp II is spitting distance from some great "teeth," and there can't be too many climbers who come by that don't think of how much fun it would be to sink a couple of tools and some crampons into one of these clean towers. Nobody does it though. That is part of the Everest game, for sure. There is rarely mental or physical "spare" energy in this game. Say you go swinging up one of these teeth, you hold your ice tools just so (this year's curves please), and you hope your buddy can tilt the camera just right and make you look like Alex Lowe, but the next day, you find you don't have quite enough energy to get your pack to ABC, and perhaps that photo will have to take the place of the summit you hoped for. Either that or we are all just a bit lazy and overlook the fine climbing opportunities in the Everest North Side Area.
Long Way For Some Hot Tang
Pause for a break at Camp II if you like, but it is possible that by there, you are anxious to push onward because you now feel like you're getting somewhere. When you are strong, it takes maybe four hours to get from BC to IC and then about that again from IC to ABC. Camp II is halfway for that second leg. As you push up the medial moraine, it starts to narrow a bit, perhaps down to 200' in width. The "teeth" on either side begin to get smaller, and their form is less pronounced until the glacier just forms twenty foot high walls on either side of the corridor.
There are now some cracks and crevasses across the moraine, but simple ones to see and avoid. Again, if that crack didn't bother 1,000 yaks, what have you to fear? Turn up your Walkman if you like. But stop somewhere in this area and load up on calories because you are getting pretty high and going a good deal higher in the next hour or two.
The glacier starts a right angle turn up ahead and you begin to see the entire Northeast Ridge of Mt. Everest, a big deal for certain. Just right of the base of the NE Ridge is a pass to the Kangshung side of Everest. That pass is straight ahead of you before you make the glacier's turn, but the Sherpas say it isn't very simple to walk through. Look it up on your Brad Washburn/National Geographic Everest Map for a name; it is significant because as you are making the turn, Makalu is perfectly framed through the pass. The fifth highest mountain in the world appears as a forbidding black pyramid. Don't use too many brain cells on Makalu though, when the first highest mountain in the world is now looming like a pile of Sumo wrestlers just in front of you.
It is a weird angle to view Everest's summit from, everything is foreshortened. The classic steps of the Northeast Ridge appear squashed together. The view is actually dominated by the "pinnacles" of the NE Ridge, their own 8000 meter peak a mile from the tippy-top of Everest. That is where the North Ridge joins the NE Ridge and you find you can now see the entire North Ridge from the North Col at 23,000' to the Camp V area at 25,700' to the pinnacles. In fact, you realize at this point that you can see a heck of a lot of neat things, but you can't seem to see the thing you now most want.
Where the heck is ABC? The going gets more continuously uphill and the moraine gets narrower. Plug away for another 45 minutes and you will see the tents of ABC. Naturally, the first tents you will see at ABC are someone else's ABC. There are only about 16 ABC's up the East Fork of the Rongbuk right now, and if you are looking for ours, it is darn near the top and last one you will come to. Must be 100 to 150 tents of all shapes and colors up there right now, with strings of brightly colored prayer flags everywhere with ropes and cords tying everyone's tents together and to the hill.
One nice thing, when I first began coming here in 1991, I remember being a little shocked by how much trash there was mixed in with the rock of the moraine. That is gone for the most part. Some of the folks like Russell Brice, who come every year, organized clean-up projects that got that junk picked up and yakked out. It is much cleaner now, despite the amazing number of people. The Tibetan Mountaineering Agency now sends up a string of yaks each week of the busy season, just for garbage. Good to see.
But again, as you walk into those first tents at 21,000', it might be good to see your own tents. No chance. Perhaps you are whupped and exhaustionized and now remembering that the IMG American camp is several hundred feet still higher than these. Lots of people are probably looking at you now as if they've never seen someone so tired before. You stumble through little tent complexes and in through people's dining areas. "Howdy... oh me, I'm from, uh... Canada I guess... oh yeah, that is an International Mountain Guides patch on me, yep... American I suppose is more like it... say, did they move our camp higher?"
Trudge on, look like you mean business. Say Namaste here and Bonjour there and give out with a few Russian style waves and Japanese gestures, and before you know it, there is Pemba, like he saw you coming. And he rescues you with a cup of hot Tang or lemon juice and a smile, and you are at Advanced Base Camp, ready to climb. And when you climb, you'll see that even another 15 minutes up the steepened moraine, there is one more camp. The Chinese/Slovakian team are up there on their own... tough guys. That last 15 minutes must be grueling after you've already seen everybody else kicking back with their cup of Tang.