Everest Base Camp is ever-changing. The weather, the comings and goings, new world records — and the ice beneath.
The night is punctuated by the sharp crack of avalanches as the hanging seracs calve off on Nuptse. After a week or two, the floor of the tent tilts, and my head is lower than my feet. Base Camp itself is on the move.
After Ang Tsering sets off for his summit push, other climbers arrive. Purnima Shrestha, a photojournalist for Karobar relates how after her first summit, it just became one peak after another.
She is at EBC after having climbed Kanchenjunga earlier in the week, and was now going for Lhotse. Last year she climbed Mt Everest, Dhaulagiri, Manaslu and Annapurna. Everyone expects her to do 14 peaks a la Nims Purja, but she has not made up her mind yet.
“I don’t know, I want to keep K2 for when I’m in my 50s or 60s,” she laughs. “I don’t know what my life will be like then. There’s some poetry in leaving something unfinished, a challenge for me to pick up later on in life.”
Kristin Harila has a much more immediate ambition. The Norwegian climber is sponsored by a watch brand, and is taking the help of Lakpa Sherpa and 8K Expeditions to fulfill her dream of conquering all 14 eight-thousanders in record time. Not only will she be the fastest woman to do it, but she might even be the fastest human being to climb all 14 true peaks in record time.
She adds, “I am completely beholden to the 8K Sherpas who help me up there. They are the backbone, without them I would not be able to even dream of doing what I am setting out to do.”
“Nowadays individuals get too much credit, and make too much of their achievements,” she continues. “The real story is that it is a collaborative effort from fixing ropes to carrying oxygen and making sure that survival is possible at such altitudes.”
Dawa Sherpa has come out of retirement to help Kristin beat the record of 14 peaks, and has seen how climbing has changed in the last few decades.
“Before you were truly going into the unknown, nowadays they can tell us precisely when a weather window will open. It is much easier,” he says, but adds that the mountains still have plenty of surprises.
Dawa and Kristin had a tough time in April on Annapurna 1 when they got lost in a complete whiteout with fierce winds. “It was the first time that I was in that situation. Annapurna 1 is truly the most difficult mountain in my experience,” he says.
All activity at EBC also revolves around the weather. The conditions in Lukla for the ferry flights, weather here, and high up on the mountain. Nature has to be an ally for any progress from Kathmandu to the high camps, and the summit.
Purnima leaves for her Lhotse ascent, and we head up to Pumori High Camp to get a better perspective on things. It is the day of Ang Tsering’s summit, maybe it will be possible for our lens to capture him on the southeast ridge more than 4,000m above us.
These mountains are taller than anything else in the world, and even here we are already higher than all mountains in Europe. Be humble, the mighty mountains silently implore. Far off to the south, Ama Dablam is a swirl of vanilla ice cream, gleaming like gold in the first rays of the sun, even as the crags below us are in shadow. A shroud of fog blankets the Khumbu Glacier, drifting up the valley. It is movement in stillness in these mountains.
The sun is rising from behind the West Ridge of Everest. The Icefall swooshes down from the Western Cwm and veers off to the right – like the bridal train in a white wedding. There are little dots of yellow and orange of Base Camp on the moraine below us, but even these soon disappear as the fog turns into a cloud.
There are rockfalls off Pumori as we descend, and we get word that Ang Tsering did summit Mt Everest that morning. But getting to the top is only half the battle, getting down safely is even more difficult.
Back at EBC, we learn just how difficult it can be just listening in on the walkies. A client has thrown off shades, and is walking aimlessly on the South Col. Another ripped off the oxygen mask, and told his guides he will come on his own but headed off the wrong way. A team of unroped guides has to quickly help him back.
“This happens,” says Lakpa, “there is a lack of oxygen, a feeling of accomplishment, and some people hallucinate. This is when the Sherpa’s job is critical. Sometimes we have to force them to come down. They are angry up there, but once they get to Camp 2 they are grateful that we took control.”
Rescue helicopters are able to land at Camp 2, and can even sling lift wounded off Camp 3. Without these daredevil pilots, there would be many more casualties on Everest every season.
We run into Khimlal Gautam, the Nepali civil servant and surveyor who has scaled Mt Everest twice. Having summited 11 years ago, he went up again in 2019 as part of the expedition to calculate the exact elevation of Mt Everest at 8848.86m.
He is now worried about the impact on all the people at EBC. “Think of all the waste we generate by just being here on the glacier for three months,” he says, “maybe Base Camp should be shifted to Kala Pattar.”
Over the next couple of days, the climbers return to EBC. Patrine Cheng from Hong Kong completes her ascent though the speed record remains unbroken. Ang Tsering arrives as well, having lost weight and still nursing that cough. Purnima also gets down after bagging Lhotse. Kristin was among the few still waiting to go up. That night there is a party at EBC.
Purnima says, “Now that I’m just one peak short of completing Nepal’s 8K peaks, the idea of Pakistan and China are more appealing. Especially K2. I might just go for it.”
Kristin Harila later completes the double summit of Everest and Lhotse, beating her own record and thereby also climbing five eight-thousanders in 24 days — another record.
She and Purnima are off to Makalu now, where Kristin is aiming to set another record for the fastest completion of the First Phase. Once she does that, she will just need the weather to be on her side, and perhaps a little political clout to get to Xixapangma.
UPDATE, 28 May: The Norwegian Kristin Harila has set a record climbing six 8,000m peaks in the fastest time, beating Nims Purja’s record for 6 summits.
Purnima Shrestha has also climbed Makalu, her sixth 8-thousander in Nepal.