After four days spent acclimatising at Base Camp, we move to Interim Camp and gain about 600 metres (nearly 2,000 feet) in altitude. The first sign that we are going to be on the move is the arrival of the Yaks. Our expedition leader, Jamie, has contracted with the Chinese Mountaineering Association (CMA), who control these things, for the supply of 6 yaks that will carry our kit, tents, food and other supplies for the entire expedition up to Advance Base Camp (known affectionately as ABC). Apparently, each household in the village below has to supply either a yak or a herder for the task. It means that the herders and the yaks don’t belong to one another, a fact that can’t be ideal. In addition, the herders bring with them several cases of beer that they hope to sell for a profit up at Advance Base Camp and which takes up much of the space and the load that we have contracted to be carried.
An argument soon breaks out. By all accounts this is perfectly normal despite the fact that each yak is contracted on a price/weight structure (each beast is supposed to carry up to 60kg in weight) laid down by the CMA and, therefore, any logical person would assume everything would be straightforward. Obviously not. With well worn predictability, the herders vehemently argue about the size and weights of loads in an attempt to increase their price and/or bonuses. To us, it seems to get very bad tempered and involved a great deal of strong words and fist shaking but, just as it seemed to be heading for violence or the herders withdrawing their yaks, everything suddenly calmed down. Agreement had been reached and everyone was happy. Not another angry word was exchanged for the rest of the trip and the yak herders were welcomed by our sherpas to share the same tents and food.
We set off ahead of the yaks, leaving the herders to load their animals and our sherpas to break camp. The first part of the trek is quite benign and reasonably flat as it follows the eastern side of the Rongbuk glacier between a line of steep brown cliffs to our left and a series of lakes to our right. After an hour or so, we turn left up the East Rongbuk glacier and the trail steepens, bouncing up and down for six hours over loose screed and rock that is unstable and difficult. In fact, we didn’t realise at first that we were on a glacier at all because so much rubble lies on the trail that the ice itself is only visible in a few steep places. It’s not a pretty walk and quickly becomes a slog that is a serious challenge both to the legs and the lungs.
From time to time we get overtaken by the yaks who then stop either for a rest or because a load needs to be retied. I notice my own kitbag being fastened again and again on to the side of a particularly sickly looking beast who kept bashing into the side of the mountain and I thanked my lucky stars that I left all my electronics behind at Base Camp. Everytime the yaks stop one or two of them turn round and begin to head home. They’ve done this journey before and don’t enjoy it any more than anyone else. Eventually, a herder has to go after them and encourage them to return to their task. This involves throwing stones at the rump of a reluctant animal and shouting something like “Hoowey!” or, in extremis, “Yeeargarh!” It seemed to work extremely well and I wondered whether the same method could be used for struggling trekkers. I didn’t think it wise to try it on Debbie and I didn’t have the heart to try it on the one person in our group who was really struggling. Poor Kathleen had found the altitude difficult to cope with from the moment she arrived at Base Camp and now decided, wisely, to turn back rather than to struggle on to Interim Camp. Not only would the walk take forever, she wouldn’t enjoy it and, after all, this is supposed to be fun. Isn’t it?
Eventually, we reach a plateau where a number of tents are scattered but we have to keep going, descending a steep gorge, crossing a frozen river and then reascending steeply the other side to reach our camp site. We are pitched on top of the glacier that is covered in loose rock and rubble that has been swept down the mountains in avalanches. We overlook a drop down to a series of enormously high, dog toothed shaped, ice seracs that rach from the base of the valley to at least 40 or 50 metres above us. It’s a spectacular view that is punctuated by loud cracks, like a pistol shot, as the splits in the seracs deepen and become more and more unstable until they collapse.
We all feel exhausted by the effort of reaching Interim Camp at 5,800 metres (19,000 feet) and I have to admit that for the first time I am concerned that I won’t be able to make it to Advanced Base Camp. We now have less than 50% of oxygen in the air that is available at sea level and everything becomes really hard work. Getting in and out of my sleeping bag or in and out of the tent involves a salvo of heart beats that takes several minutes to subside. But I know that I will have to carry on.
Unfortunately, we have now lost two of our party: Hugh stayed at base Camp because he couldn’t shake off a chest infection, and Kathleen, our friend from Ohio, couldn’t cope with the altitude on the way up from Base Camp and, wisely, decided to turn back. Tomorrow, her daughter Jenna would walk back from here as well and our party would be cut in half. This would leave myself, Debbie, Mike (a young accountant on long leave from Deloittes) to soldier on with trek leader Jo. I wouldn’t be surprised if I were the next to fall by the wayside as I have started to feel that I am not built to survive at high altitudes. However, I was to learn that this is what everyone thinks in those moments when the nasty weevil of self doubt creeps into consciousness.
I get headaches that have to be controlled by paracetamol and, often, I get nausea which is linked to the headaches but has the additional delight of making me not want to eat. I also find it difficult to sleep and often wake up breathless. Annoyingly this usually strikes just as I fall off to sleep and I reawaken gasping for air. I can’t remember the last time I slept well – I expect it was back in Kathmandu 10 days ago. As a result I have had to cave in and take half a Diamox pill, a drug that was improves the respiratory rate and depth and helps the body cope with altitude. Personally, I don’t like it because the only previous time I took it I suffered from side effects of painful pins and needles in my fingers and toes for several days. However, this time, it gave me an excellent night’s sleep, although this helpful effect didn’t last more than 2 nights. On the downside it is also a diuretic so that urine output is greatly increased which itself doesn’t help acclimatisation or unbroken sleep! According to the medical book, Viagra and Cialis have also been shown to help altitude sickness but I am unable to report whether this is so because there aren’t any pharmacies on Everest. I am also fairly confident that Debbie wouldn’t want to be part of any clinical trials of these drugs at 20,000 feet and I certainly wouldn’t want to risk frostbite to the todger.
Interim Camp is pretty basic. The tents intermingle with Yak that have carried our kit, food, tents, cooking equipment and other essentials up the mountain. The yaks are all male (female yaks are naks) and are spread out and tied to rocks to prevent them from roaming and fighting. We have one whose arse is no more than 6 feet from the opening of our tent and he looks at me with great suspicion whenever I move behind him.
Our tent is positioned so that at the entrance there is a drop of a couple of feet making it much easier to get in and out. However, the downside is that this drop ends in a spread of yak shit that cannot be avoided. At night time it’s not too bad because the shit becomes frozen, locking in the smell, but, in the daytime, we have to endure the farmyard smells of these hairy beasts. Mike, apparently, lives on friendlier terms with his yak as it is tied so close to his tent that it is just about able to join him next to his sleeping bag during the night. Well, that’s what he claims anyway.
We still have a mess tent but it is unheated and without chairs or a table. Light is provided by a gas lamp that hisses away throwing long shadows up the walls. We have to sit on the floor in a folding seat arrangement and eat off our knees. It’s not ideal for me as I cannot sit on the floor legs crossed. In the ‘chair’ I can manage to be reasonably comfortable as long as I have my feet out in front of me but I cannot hold this position when any Nepali is around because it is rude, in their culture, to show the soles of the feet.
So, without facilities, we tend to go to bed early. At least our sleeping bags provide wonderful warmth. They are bulky but quite light (2Kg) and are designed to withstand temperatures of minus 30c. Debbie has also bought a fleece liner to use inside her bag which not only provides extra warmth but also takes away the cold shock of initially inserting her body into the bag. By the time she’s all zipped up I can only see her hair.
The big challenge is to get undressed and clothed in a base layer, which acts as sleep clothes, without getting frozen stiff. Debbie can manage to get dressed and undressed inside her sleeping bag, her sylph-like body easily managing this dexterous exercise, but my bulky torso finds that there really isn’t enough room to complete this manoeuvre. So I have to be quick or get cold.
When finally settled and the heart rate has slowed, all is well until the need for a pee becomes overwhelming. At first, I try to put off having a pee for as long as possible on the basis that, if I have to get up to pee four times a night (quite usual with all the drinking required at altitude) then the cumulative effects of every 15 minutes saved means I have put off climbing out of my bag for another hour. But it’s not possible to avoid the dreadful moment and when that finally arrives, I have to sit up, shedding heat, find my down jacket and suffer the initial cold shock of putting it on. Then I have to caterpillar down the outside of my bag until I’m doubled up at the inner flap of the tent. At this point there’s no alternative to unzipping the flap and awakening the entire mountain. Why can’t tent manufacturers make a silent zip for goodness sake? And it’s not just the zip of the inner flap; it’s the outer one as well (once I’ve got my boots on)!
Having awoken everyone, I grunt loudly as I back out of the tent and feel the full force of the minus 17c temperature. Thank goodness the wind has abated, otherwise this becomes the worse moment of the day. As it is, it’s the temperature equivalent of sleeping in a domestic deep freeze (only without the pecan pie for comfort). All I have on is a base layer (a good pair of long johns and a tee shirt made from merino wool) and a down jacket. Provided I can get this over with quickly, I won’t get too cold. Staggering over to the edge of the icefall we are camped upon and having suffered another suspicious look from the yak as I manoeuvre behind him, I reach for my fly. It’s not there!! A mixture of confusion, consternation and concern floods through me. What’s going on here? After all, its midnight, its literally cold enough to freeze my nuts off and all I want is to have a pee before re cocooning myself in the depths of my sleeping bag.
Then it dawns on me: In my haste to get into my bedclothes, I’ve put the long johns on back to front. Excellent! That means I now have to drop my waistband and expose an awful lot of flesh (naturally) to the vicious elements. Top job Taylor!
Whilst nature was taking its course a crack, like a pistol shot, rings out. I duck, spilling myself over my boots. This is turning into an epic. Another crack rings out, this time louder. I’m still alive but who the fuck is shooting at me? What have I done to upset them? I realise that whoever it is thinks I must be dangerous because I haven’t raised my hands in surrender. So I raise one hand whilst shaking the drips off with the other.
Ok, ok! I’ve got both hands up now. I’m sure we can sort this out amicably. Then the dreadful reality of my situation became clear. It was the giant glacial seracs opposite me splitting along fault lines that were replicating the sound of pistol shots. I swept my eyes across the entire camp for any signs of an audience for my stupidity and realised, with relief, that it was only the yaks who had witnessed the debacle. I wished that I had acted like a proper climber and used a pee bottle to do my business so avoiding the necessity of either leaving the tent or, if sufficiently skilled, not leaving the sleeping bag at all. Spillages are the big problem with this and, as Debbie wouldn’t be able to use a pee bottle and as she detests she-wees, it seemed easier for both of us to go outside the tent. At least I don’t run the risk of getting frost nip on my unmentionables!
I slid back into our tent, removed my boots and sat in my bag with my down jacket still on waiting for my heart to control itself. When my breathing approximated normal, I removed my jacket, retreated into the depths of my bag and began a fight to close the zip. These Wraith sleeping bags are the dog’s bollocks for keeping us warm against the serried ranks of Nature but they are a bastard to zip up, continuously getting caught in the material. Success results in the exposure of no more than nose and mouth with almost no heat loss whatsoever. Unfortunately, it also means that no bodily smells escape either and I am suffering from another of the effects of altitude known as farting like a trooper. Fortunately, Debbie hasn’t noticed but, perhaps, she’s just being kind. On the other hand, there is a yak usefully positioned right outside our tent and I wonder if I can blame that in the same way that the dogs get blamed at home. In my wakeful moments, of which there are many at altitude, I try to design a contraption that fits comfortably over a generous posterior and, upon a bottom burp, opens a one way valve into a vacuum that evicts the unwanted pong into the night air outside the tent. How hard can it be?
After a day’s rest, during which I attempt to do as little as possible, we pack up our kit and prepare to head up to Advanced Base Camp. On the GPS it’s a 7.5km slog but with all the ups and downs along the way, it’s probably nearer 10km. Factor in the thinning atmosphere and the percentage of oxygen in the air reducing to 45% of that at sea level and it becomes a 6 hour walk with stops. Around here, progress at something over 1 kph is good going.
Despite it being a sunny day, we are covered from head to foot in multiple layers. As I tend to be a hot walker I have only four layers on my body and two on my legs. There is no atmosphere up here for the sun to heat and when the wind blows, as and when it wants, it not only chills instantly but also sucks the moisture from our defenceless bodies.
It’s a much prettier trek than the one from Base Camp as we are accompanied by ranks of milky coloured ice seracs as we climb up the East Rongbuk Glacier. However, it still a head down trek because we are walking over loose rubble of stones and mountain detritus requiring complete concentration for every planting of the foot. If we try to look about whilst walking it is a certainty that we will lose our footing, lose our balance and stumble about. If we want to enjoy our surroundings then we have to stop.
As we walk, hopelessly useless thoughts came into my head: As we get higher in altitude, do our backpacks get lighter? Intellectually, I would imagine that they must do as the effects of the gravitational pull of the earth becomes weaker. However, I can’t report that my pack feels even a smidgen less heavy, quite the opposite, in fact. Then, of course, we all know that objects with great mass also have their own gravitational force. So, does that mean that Everest is slowly drawing me towards it? I certainly hope so. Any help is more than welcome. Such mental deliberations help to pass the time without any answers forthcoming.
Along the way, we pass a dead yak that had broken its leg. It doesn’t look to have been long gone. I surmise it must have looked up at the panorama instead of looking down to its hooves. A fateful error. It would have been stripped of its load and left to suffer a slow death. This isn’t to teach it a lesson; it’s because the Sherpas don’t like to kill anything – it’s a religious thing. They eat meat, of course, but someone else has to kill and butcher the meat somewhere out of sight. If they didn’t have this hang up the large, fat, Himalayan Partridge that live above Base Camp would have been on the menu (and, I am confident, would have provided a welcome variety to the camp diet). But, even to mention killing one of these heavy birds is to invite disgust and derision and lots of dirty looks.
Nonetheless, all this doesn’t help the poor yak and I would have thought that any religion would have found mercy in its doctrine when it comes to such suffering. An ice pick to the skull would do the job.
Poor Debbie was suffering on this leg too. She had stomach problems of various kinds that were made worse as the increase in altitude decreased the atmospheric pressure and allowed her problems to expand inside her. It made for painful progress. Nothing seemed to shift it or help the situation and all reasonable offers of help from me were refused in no uncertain terms. Perhaps she was worried that I was still thinking in terms of ice axes to the head. Although I was concerned for my gorgeous wife, deep down, I was relieved that I didn’t have to become involved in ‘women’s problems’ and, having made the offer more than once, refusals not only absolved me of any blame but scored a credit that could be traded later. It’s a married thing.