Matt Dickinson, official ‘writer-in-residence’ on the roof of the world, writes from Everest Base Camp about what it is like to report from the world’s most famous mountain.
As writing gigs go, it was a tough one to beat; an offer from the Sheffield-based company Jagged Globe to join their 2016 Everest South Col expedition as ‘Writer in Residence’.
Five British climbers would be attempting the summit. Eight experienced Sherpa mountaineers would be supporting them. A Base Camp staff of 10 (including Anthony Dubber, a top British chef!) would keep the team fed and watered and medically supervised.
The whole show was under the supervision of David Hamilton, a hard-as-nails and highly respected Glaswegian expedition leader with no fewer than seven Everest summits to his name. We left the UK in the last week of March, travelling via Kathmandu. It wasn’t my first visit to the Nepalese capital; 20 years ago I had passed through on my way to the Northern (Tibetan) side of Everest whilst filming the actor Brian Blessed’s third attempt on the peak. Brian almost made it.
Rather to my surprise, I did make it, (just), filming three precious minutes of footage on the top of the world and pinching myself virtually every day of my life since to believe it really happened. This was my first journey to the Nepalese side of Everest, and something of a long cherished ambition. Paying my respects, as it were, to the side of the mountain which hosted Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s successful 1953 expedition was long overdue.
These have been painful times on Everest. The past two years have seen deadly disasters strike the mountain. In 2014 a glacier collapse in the ice fall killed 16 Sherpa climbers. On the 24 th of April 2015, an earthquake triggered an avalanche which killed 18 climbers from many different nationalities. Both seasons were cancelled after stressful scenes of debate and disagreement.
Everest means big money and it is clear that fault lines are developing between western leaders and the upcoming generation of young Sherpa climbers who (justifiably, in my opinion) question why they should be taking the lion’s share of the risks for relatively slender rewards. Jagged Globe had lost a Sherpa climber in the 2014 incident and an America client in 2015. One of the first acts of our expedition was a moving ceremony of remembrance for these two men in the monastery of Khumjung.
Three of our team – Steve, Nick and Ian – were on repeat trips having had their original expeditions cut short. Their permits ($11,000 US per head) had been extended by the Nepal government. Mary, our only female climbing member, was on her first trip to Nepal but had six of the ‘seven continental summits’ under her belt. Richard Parks, a former Welsh International Rugby player, had already summited with the same company in 2011 and was now on a bold mission to reach the top without supplementary oxygen.
There was an extra dimension to Nick’s climb; Cystic Fibrosis meant he had roughly 14% less lung function than the other team members. If he reached the summit he would be the first person with the condition to reach the top of the world. The level of climbing experience in the team was impressive. These were not the bucket-list ‘social climbers’ of media myth. “Some Everest operators will take pretty well anyone,” the leader David told me, “you know, Saudi Princesses that have never seen snow until they get to base camp. We try to be a bit more selective.”
I was amazed by how much had changed in the 20 years since my last expedition to the mountain. Back then we sat in a bone-chillingly cold tent eating kerosene flavoured angel delight and pot noodles that were a year past their sell by date. Today’s Base Camp mess tent has a heater and lip-smackingly good food. Don’t fancy organic bangers and mash tonight? Chef Anthony will knock you up a nice salmon steak with buttered spinach or a warming cottage pie with a Parmesan crust. In 1996 I lost eleven kilos on the expedition.
In 2016 I realised pretty quickly I would be returning home with a couple of kilos of extra bulk. Group meals made sure we got to know the Sherpa climbers,a characterful and highly committed team who would be working alongside the westerners all the way to the summit. They liked a laugh, and the odd tot of whisky. It was a well-run team and a happy one. The mess tent had a cinema screen and a projector. One night we watched Zoolander 2. The scale of the Everest operation is impressive.
Base Camp is a temporary town of more than a thousand people spread out over two square kilometres of the Khumbu glacier at 5400 metres. The Himalayan Rescue Association runs a medical tent to cater for the sick. Helicopters buzz in at regular intervals, bringing in crates of whisky and fresh burgers, and taking out those who have succumbed to altitude sickness or frostbite.”Base Camp is becoming an airport,” one Everest veteran complained to me. “There’s no peace any more.”
The ominous crash and rumble of avalanches is the other sound that echoes round the valley. Chunks of ice the size of office blocks casually smashing themselves to pieces. Nature at its most powerful and unpredictable. Given the choice, I preferred the sound of the choppers.
David ran a pretty tough show. Training climbs were fast and testing. I found myself panting at the back as we made rapid 600-800 metre ascents of nearby mountain slopes. Acclimatisation is everything. The body has to adapt to a world which offers just 30% of the oxygen we normally breathe. Day by day our blood was thickening. We were pushing up towards the six thousand metre zone where altitude sickness (Pulmonary Edema, Cerebral Edema) starts to become a real threat.
We all had our health problems at Base Camp. Nausea,pounding headaches and stomach upsets are pretty well standard, at least for a few days. There may be plastic flowers on the dining table but it’s still a hostile environment for the human body. Ice fall training began, and things didn’t get off to a very good start for me; “You’ve put your helmet on back to front,” David growled, as we kitted up for our first pre-dawn excursion into the chaos of the ice fall, “and your headtorch is upside down.”
I don’t think he was very impressed with his resident writer. I have to admit I was pretty rusty after 20 years off the mountain. (There was mildew on my wind suit when I finally found it in the garden shed). The ice fall was terrifying and breathtakingly beautiful in equal measures, a seven hundred metre high obstacle course of moving, fractured, sometimes vertical glacial ice. The ‘ice fall doctors’ (a crack Sherpa team specifically dedicated to the task) had done a good job, lashing ladders together to cross the wider crevasses, laying down fixed ropes to give a lifeline up the steeper terrain.
Crossing the ladders wearing metal crampon spikes was a uniquely nerve-jangling experience. The dark void below really does look like it falls away to the centre of the earth. The ropes give an illusion of safety but a casual glance to the higher slopes reveals a nightmare vision of overhanging glaciers and seracs which could avalanche at any moment. Being attached to a rope would be irrelevant in such an event as hundreds of thousands of tons of iron-hard ice cascaded down.
Moving through the ice fall is nature’s version of Russian Roulette but (on this side of the mountain at least) it is the only way to get to the higher camps. The team got into the higher ‘rotations’, pushing up into the Western Cwm, where camps one and two had been established. My ‘Writer in Residence’ stint came to an end and it was time to return to the gloriously thick air of normal altitudes where breathing is easy and you don’t wake up with your hair congealed with ice. It had been a fascinating experience.
For the second time in my life I had been bewitched by the extraordinary power of the Everest spell. I had been able to share the adventure with hundreds of schools that followed my blog, tested my body at altitude and met some very inspiring people. Is Everest’s siren song calling again? Will I tread those dangerous slopes once more? Only time will tell. Hopefully, next time, I will get my helmet the right way round!
STOP PRESS: Former Welsh International Rugby player Richard Parks had to pull out of his attempt at camp two when a test revealed his blood was thickening too fast, leaving him at risk of stroke or heart attack. Ian made a personal decision not to continue having completed several successful rotations and reached camp three. The rest of the Jagged Globe team successfully summited at 09.45am on Friday May 13. Expedition leader David Hamilton (it was his eighth Everest summit) was accompanied by clients Steve Waterman, Nick Talbot and Mary Scannell and the climbing Sherpa team of Pem Chhiri (Sirdar), Tamding, Nima Gyalzen, Chhimi and Ang Rinji. Nick Talbot became the first individual with Cystic Fibrosis to stand on the highest point on earth.