Reflections on Base Camp
Dispatch—Day 59: May 24, 2009
Everest Base Camp—17,530 feet (5,343 meters)
N 28º 00.336' E 086º 51.504'
There are two distinct sounds that jar me away from the day-to-day life at Base Camp and instantly remind me of the sobering landscape in which we are living. The first starts as a low grumble, like a distant roll of thunder moving up the valley, then turns to a deep guttural roar that shakes through camp. It is as if the mountains themselves are groaning under the weight of their icy loads and they shift to ease their burdens. At the head of the Khumbu valley and surrounded by a full 270 degrees of soaring peaks, Base Camp is ringed by steep flanks of rock, ice, and snow. The panorama surrounding Base Camp is stunning as some of the world’s highest peaks rear up directly above. Beginning with the hanging glaciers flowing from Pumori’s almost perfect conical summit, and stretching over Lingtren, Cholatse, Lho La Pass, Everests’ West Ridge, the Khumbu Icefall, and Nuptse’s impressive West Face, the Himalayas dwarf Base Camp. And from these faces comes the deep groans. It is the sound of falling ice and rock as the glaciers hanging high on the mountains above calve off, sending tons upon tons of ice crashing down the faces below. From Base Camp the first distant grumble echoes across the valley, growing in intensity as the falling chunks gain speed, breaking apart as they hit the mountain sides and dispersing into fine clouds of billowing ice crystals. These clouds of ice blast across the valley floor, like the smoke from a canon as it discharges its deadly load, billowing up in boiling white curtains that rushes through Base Camp.
The second sound is so sudden that I often question whether I heard it at all. It is a quick and sudden, loud, sharp crack. It passes through camp like a bolt of lightening, often leaving me clutching my morning cup of coffee, a bit startled and shaken. The Khumbu Glacier, upon whose edges Base Camp sits, flows in an incessant icy march downward from the peaks above, continually adjusting and repositioning itself. With water this results in a continuous flow, but with ice, it is a jerky, spontaneous, and unpredictable dance downward. The ice reaches the point where it can no longer bear the tension and in a loud crack it readjusts itself, however imperceptibly to the casual observer. These creaks and cracks that run through the ice underfoot can be muffled, occurring deep in the ice below, or alarmingly loud, their vibrations running through the ice and startlingly me from sleep. However harmless they are in retrospect, they never fail to startle, always causing me to pause and look around.
The bustle of activity that makes up Base Camp can distract from the reality of the place. It is a short-lived settlement on a continually shifting sea of ice and rock. Five months ago, when I came to Base Camp during the waning days of November to establish RMI’s Base Camp location for the First Ascent Expedition, the site I stood on was almost indistinguishable from the other parts of the glacier. A few flat stones positioned a bit too precisely to be random, a couple of icy shelves suspiciously sized to fit a tent, a half collapsed rock wall were the only clues to the excitement and activity the place had seen six months before, and would see again soon. Instead of the gathering of nylon tents I see around me now, Base Camp was a frozen desert. Dunes of ice strewn with a blanket of rocks, like a stormy sea whose waves were frozen in the midst of a tempest.
Yet now, the same place is a hub of activity, a village of clusters of brightly colored tents, connected by narrow paths, continually flattened by the boots of climbers and the hooves of yaks that pass along them. Above hang strings upon strings of prayer flags fluttering in the winds. Their bright colors never cease to mesmerize me, breaking apart the drab palette of grays and whites that surround us. Friends and other expedition members stop by to say hello, and the days pass, settling into a routine that borders on normality. Despite falling into the habit of day-to-day tasks at Base Camp, the distant roars of the mountain sides and the loud cracks that race through Base Camp instantly remind me of the reality of this place, of the immense size and power of the mountains at whose feet we live. Soon, all of this activity will retract back down the glacier, back down the valley and disperse across the world. The stormy frozen sea will continue to buck and roll and gradually the ice will reclaim its shape, leaving few clues of its recent past. The deep roar of ice fall high on the mountain sides and the sharp cracks of the ice itself will echo across an empty landscape of ice and stone.
- Nat Geo Expeditions