By STEPHEN REGENOLD
A subterranean stream gurgles in the glacial ice beneath my feet. An avalanche crashes, ice pillars tumbling down, in the Khumbu Icefall above. Welcome to Base Camp at Mount Everest, a tent city at 17,500 feet and home to more than 1,200 seasonal residents clad in down jackets and mountain boots. There are climbers and guides, Sherpas and cooks, porters, doctors, and at least one world-famous photographer/cinematographer who this week will erect a huge tent featuring hung prints for what he is calling “the highest photo show on the planet.”
Expedition Hanesbrands, which arrived here on April 10, makes up just a handful of the high-altitude populous. So far, our encampment — a dozen tents staked in the middle of Base Camp — includes a giant geodesic dome, a cook tent, a dining room, a communication tent with computers, satellite modems and solar-power plug-ins, and a handful of personal tents to serve as sleeping quarters.
This morning, after an elaborate Puja ceremony with a Sherpa lama (priest), a 20-foot wooden pole was hoisted up from Expedition Hanesbrands’ stone chorten. The Buddhist monument, a physical and spiritual anchor in the camp, is streamed with prayer flags, hundreds of yellow, red, blue, and green squares flapping and sending out prayers in wind that whips down Everest’s face. “To me, the Puja marks the official start of the expedition,” said Jamie Clarke, lead climber. “We feel like we’re now allowed to go onto the mountain above.”
The lama is a busy man. His chanting, rice throwing, cymbal beating, and blessing of the climbers well be a ceremony heard throughout Base Camp this week. In all, there are some 300 foreign climbers on Mount Everest this season. At least that many Sherpa climbers and guides will accompany the Canadians, Americans, Indians, Koreans, Argentinean, and other aspirants of the 29,035-foot peak in the sky.
The climbing teams are diverse, from large operations with almost 30 paying clients to solo climbers with no Sherpa support, including Chad Kellogg, a Seattle resident attempting a solo speed ascent likely early next month. Team Hanesbrands is taking a small and traditional approach, said Clarke. “We have two permitted climbers — myself and Scott [Simper] — and four climbing Sherpas for support.” Clarke said a small team like this can move faster on the mountain. That can translate into a safer ascent. “We’re not going to be waiting in a line of guided climbers,” said Clarke. “We are a small, well equipped and experienced team. I’m excited to see what we can do.”
Before Clarke and Simper set foot on the climb, they will spend at least a week in Base Camp. They will acclimate and organize gear, unpacking duffel bags, pulling on outerwear to check for fit, loading packs, configuring cameras and radios, cinching on harnesses, and clipping ice screws to biners to gear up for the climb.
Base Camp is the launch pad for climbers like Simper and Clarke. But the temporary village in the sky — a sprawling labyrinth of tents, tarps, cairns, rock walls, trails, flags, corporate logos, and religious chortens — is a final destination each spring for trekkers and expedition support staff. “Base Camp in the past few years has become increasingly popular with trekkers in the Khumbu,” said Wally Berg, founder of Berg Adventures International and organizer for Expedition Hanesbrands.
Other than my quick climb a couple days ago up Kala Patthar, an 18,600-foot peak near the village of Gorak Shep, Base Camp will be my high point in Nepal. At 17,500 feet, the air is thin here. But after a week of trekking and acclimating, the approach successfully prepared my body for the temporary town here at Everest’s base.
Today, I hiked around to take in the spectacle that is Base Camp. There are hundreds of tents. Solar panels suck sunlight for power. Music pumps from camps, and Sherpas shout out as they raise nylon structures that may house stereo systems, couches, and 50-inch TVs. Next door to Expedition Hanesbrands’ spread, the aforementioned world-famous photographer/cinematographer, better known as David Breashears, is setting up his camp for a project that includes “Rivers of Ice,” a photo show with hung prints to illustrate the “vanishing glaciers of the greater Himalaya,” as a handout puts it.
Breashears took time to film at the Hanesbrands Puja. He shared in the blessed food and drinks offered after the ceremony, a celebration bathed in sunlight and juniper smoke. Later, Breashears passed around a booklet previewing the “Rivers of Ice” show, including decades-old photos juxtaposed with pictures he has taken from similar vantages today. Glaciers that were once fat and white are now brown and curdled. Near one peak, a deep lake sits in the place where a glacier once grew. “We’re not making any blanket statements about climate change,” Breashears said. “But the pictures illustrate a message in a quick, obvious way.”
This month, Breashears will photograph around Everest Base Camp with a special super-high-resolution camera system that stitches 200 or more digital photos together to create a seamless panoramic collage. If you can’t make it to Base Camp to see the photo show, go online to see more from the “Rivers of Ice” series at www.asiasociety.org/onthinnerice.
My final stop today on the Base Camp tour, the Everest ER tent, is a full-scale medical facility housed under a fabric roof. The clinic treats about 300 people a year, said Steve Halvorson, one of the seasonal doctors who staff the tent. Altitude sickness, frostbite, broken bones, nausea, stomach flu, toothaches, cuts, collapsed lungs, and other ailments are treated with a modern spread of medical devices. There’s a heart-rate monitor, an ultra-sound machine, oxygen tanks, myriad drugs, splints, and a Gamow bag, which is a human-size sack that simulates lower altitudes by changing pressure internally with a foot pump.
Drama hit the ER this weekend. The season’s first rescue — a young Nepali cook suffering from high-altitude pulmonary edema — was “one hour from death,” said Luanne Freer, a doctor who helped found the clinic in 2003. He was carried to the clinic at 6:45am, gray and lifeless. Fluid was gurgling in his lungs. Freer, Halvorson and the ER assistants administrated medications and oxygen. They monitored him and later put him in a transport basket to be ferried to lower elevations. “He improved fast,” said Freer. “He sat up and was talking when we sent him away.”
The last they saw, the sick cook was bouncing in the transport basket toward the villages further down the valley. He was destined for thicker air and a clinic in another Sherpa town. The high altitude at Everest’s base can be physiologically harsh. Despite TVs and photo shows, life on the ice is not always easy. “Not everyone is meant for Base Camp,” Freer said.
—Stephen Regenold will blog live from the Everest Trail this week and through the month of April. Monitor Expedition Hanesbrands’ progress at ClimbWithUs.com and on Gear Junkie at the site’s Everest Blog, http://gearjunkie.com/everest-blog.