Everest Base Camp—17,530 feet (5,343 meters)
N 28º 00.336' E 086º 51.504'
Somehow we kept busy all afternoon at Advanced Base Camp [ABC] yesterday. Seth Waterfall figured out and fixed problems with the solar panels that the radio “base station” was dependent on. Then he figured out how to make the antenna and base station talk to each other a little better so that ABC could dependably have radio communication with anywhere else on the mountain. Kent Harvey then suggested a little foray out onto the ice just west of camp, which Seth and I found quite interesting. As I’ve said many times, there is little or no snow from the past winter on Mount Everest. The glacier surfaces are down to old snow and ice; everything is melting out and exposed. Within just a few minutes of poking around, we were finding old and intact oxygen bottles from the 1960’s and 70’s. Treasure.
I have to catch myself every now and then, remembering that not everybody has an oxygen bottle collection... but I do. I love finding old bottles and then matching them to legendary expeditions and climbers of the past. Some of the bottles I’ve found over the years will eventually be in museums, none will ever be on eBay... they mean too much to me (although they severely challenge my living room décor).
As Kent and Seth and I continued to crunch around the glacial surface with our crampons and heavy boots, I came upon a cardboard box, looking a lot like a damp heap of trash on a 21,000-foot [6,400-meter] glacier. But when I folded over this particular trash, it said in big black letters “1975 British Everest Expedition”. While this wasn’t the kind of treasure I could reasonably burden my living room with, it was nonetheless very special to me, in a trash-picking sort of way. I’d already been thinking of the 1975 British Everest Expedition—all day, in fact, as we’d gone for our hike under the great Southwest Face that the ’75 BEE famously climbed. All morning I’d been straining to understand again how Chris Bonnington’s boys had managed to get up something so steep and foreboding. And out there next to that soggy box I began blathering on about Doug Scott and Dougal Haston and Peter Boardman and Pertemba and that post-monsoon hardman climb, until I could see Kent and Seth’s eyeballs rolling back in their heads.
We trudged back over the ice-rolls to our ABC and an afternoon of minor chores in camp. Word came via radio that Nga Tenji had reached the South Col with the rope fixing team and was figuring out a place for our highest camp. He reported strong winds up there, and that certainly seemed to be the case by the time Erica, Seth, Kent and I gathered for dinner in our big dome tent. The strong winds were finding their way down into the Western Cwm. We each went to bed knowing that it would be a noisy night.
And it was. There was the noise of great waves of air periodically rolling down a mountainside... then the frantic flapping as a wave would crash on the 50 tents just uphill from us, and finally the noise of the wind blowing on our own tents and trying to flatten or remove them. But while we couldn’t exactly sleep through it all, we could at least relax in the knowledge that we’d diligently done our chores in anchoring and properly securing our strong tents. Poking our heads out into the gusty morning at 5:45 a.m., we could see many surrounding tents that were radically different in shape from the previous evening, but our camp had been largely spared. I told Erica not to worry too much about the sleep she’d missed out on in the night. We were going to Base Camp, land of good naps.
We geared up and crammed a little breakfast and coffee. The wind still whipped around us as we climbed into our crampons. I was interested to see high cloud covering the sky at just about the level of Everest’s summit. We’ve had so many days begin with nothing but pure blue skies that it seemed eerie and frightening to have a sudden change in the pattern. As we thanked our chef and walked out of camp, I could see a silver lining to the cloud cover. I knew that it would make our time down in the Icefall a little more comfortable by blocking out the morning sun... perhaps it would even make things safer.
Ang Kaji, Kent, Seth and Erica let me lead on down the Western Cwm. We passed plenty of the usual “Sherpa Army” moving loads all the way from Base Camp to ABC and then running back down empty. And we began to pass our own gang as they made their way up from BC to take our places up high. Ed Viesturs, Jake Norton, Peter Whittaker and John Griber each seemed to be making fine progress after their 4 a.m. start down low. We moved through Camp 1 and then down into the chaos of the Icefall itself.
I knew it hadn’t been just the wind keeping me awake in the night—there were also plenty of wayward thoughts of things that could possibly go wrong with our descent. It would be another big test for Erica’s skill and stamina. I didn’t let her take the test alone, of course. I pestered her to clip this rope and unclip that one, step fast on that ice chunk before it collapses, step over here to let the Sherpas pass, do this and don’t do that... QUICK! And Seth watched and pestered her from behind. She was probably wishing we’d just let her plug in her iPod to drown out all the excess coaching. But she passed another test with flying colors. We radioed Linden Mallory at Base Camp just after 10 a.m. to let him know our team of five was out of danger and headed for food, friendship, thick sleeping pads and the low, fat air of 17,500 feet [5,300 meters].