Everest Base Camp sits on a moving, melting avenue of ice and boulders. It is today 50m lower than where it was when Hillary and Tenzing first climbed the mountain nearly 70 years ago.
Surrounded by icy towers on all sides, it is a noisy place with growls from beneath and cracks of frequent avalanches above. As the sun comes up there is a new sound: the gurgle of water from a stream that runs down along the Khumbu Glacier.
One can picture what it was like before the expeditions got here as the spring climbing season got underway in early March. It is now a tent city along a river of melting Himalayan ice.
It has numerous suburbs: Pioneer Adventure, Elite Exped, Seven Summit Treks, named after the expeditions going up to Everest or Lhotse. Three more weeks, and they will all be gone. It is a temporary Dubai: a boomtown amidst pinnacles of ice, where nothing grows but everything is available for a price. The only difference is that this is a 5,300m expanse of ice and rock, not a desert. And in their own way, the inhabitants here are also climbers.
They come here from all over the world to fulfill their dreams of standing on top of the world’s highest mountains. Every year, more records are set, and more broken.
It is the high altitude guides mainly from the Sherpa community who are mostly the reason those records can be set. From setting up tents, preparing food, fixing lines, stockpiling oxygen at high camps, and deciding all-important climbing windows – it is the Sherpa who do it all.
Nepal’s other ethnic groups have also started to rise up the ranks in different roles, and even among the Sherpas there are more and more from the Makalu and Rolwaling regions.
We are here to follow one such Sherpa, Lakpa Sherpa from Walung below, Makalu, as he leads his first clients up the world’s highest peak for the first time as the proprietor of his brand new 8K Expeditions outfit.
He plans to climb with his clients, who trust his expert guidance. It so happens that one of Lakpa’s first clients is Ang Tshering Lama, owner of The Happy House in Phaplu – the place that Edmund Hillary considered his home as he built schools and hospitals in Solu Khumbu decades ago.
Back in Sir Ed’s day, Phaplu was an important stopover on the walk-on from Lamosangu on the Everest trail. Today, most trekkers start their journeys after flying to Lukla, or even higher. Soon, a road from Phaplu will arrive at Chaurikharka below Lukla.
For now, helicopters are the taxis of the Khumbu sky during peak season – ferrying cargo and trekkers up and down between Lukla and Base Camp. Call them the ‘Ubercopter’, or ‘Heli-Tootle’ of the Himalaya.
Lakpa Sherpa himself came to Kathmandu and rose up with no wealth, no contacts, pulled himself up with the straps of his climbing boots, starting out as a porter 14 years ago.
“I started from zero,” he recalls. “I didn’t get a leg up from my father or my brothers. I used to wait around the shutters of different trekking agencies in Kathmandu to get work.”
His first jobs were with Pasang Sherpa’s Green Lotus Trek and Expeditions. Eventually, he was promoted to Mountain Guide, and between 2016 and 2021, became Managing Director of Pioneer Expeditions.
When trekking and mountaineering collapsed during the pandemic, Lakpa sold some property, banded together with two friends and started 8K Expeditions. He risked his savings to start a company of his own at a time when tourism had hit rock bottom. But meeting Lakpa in person, it would seem like he does not have a care in the world.
When we get to Base Camp on 10 May, Kami Rita Sherpa had just beaten the record by climbing Everest for the 26th time. Raju Lama held the highest ever music concert somewhere above Camp 2.
Lhapa’s namesake, 48-year-old Lhakpa Sherpa also started out as a porter, and broke her own previous record climbing Everest for the 10th time. Some 150 other climbers also reached the summit on Thursday, including the Full Circle expedition that put six Black American climbers on top.
There are 317 climbing permits for Everest this season and more records are set to be broken, including by Marc Batard, 70, who is bypassing the Khumbu Icefall on a new route to be the oldest man to climb the mountains. Nepal’s Sagar Sunar, who is 109cm tall, wants to be the shortest man on the summit.
At the 8K tent at Base Camp we find that Lakpa has developed the ‘Khumbu Cough’ – a whooping and wheezy expectoration that will not allow him to join Ang Tshering when he heads for the summit of Everest at 1AM on the 12 May.
Lakpa has always prided himself in the fact that as leader of the company, he wants to also lead his clients to the top. He must be crest-fallen. But Lakpa has also realised after having climbed Annapurna I, Ama Dablam, Makalu, Baruntse and Dhaulagiri, that his most important job is at Base Camp to work on logistics, and communication. Another factor is that his wife, Samasti Sherpa, has ordered him to stop climbing.
“She tells me that if I climb another high peak she’ll divorce me. She’s pretty clear about that,” Lakpa laughs. “But I have to climb so… I have to convince her somehow.”
Such family pressure is strongly felt by Nepal’s mountain guides. Fear of losing a loved one is real. At Base Camp this week we hear of three fatalities on Everest, two of them guides.
Even if he does not climb Everest this season, Lakpa is going to take one of his clients to Nanga Parbat, Gasherbrum 1 and 2 and Broad Peak. He is helping Norwegian climber Kristin Harila break the record of most female ascents of the 14 peaks above 8000m.
“Since I have already done K2, I have said I will be her guide on the other four,” says Lakhpa.
The radio crackles. It is Pema Chering one of the few members of the International Federation of Mountain Guides Association (IFMGA) and Lead Sirdar of Team A. Pema, who has summited Everest 19 times, has reached Camp 2. Team B Sirdar, Tshering Pemba, who has summited 11 times, follows.
In the back and forth we hear that it took part of the group 15 hours to get to Camp 2 – the Sirdars in the communications tent tell us that means that they were walking in the blazing afternoon heat in the parabola of the Western Cwm.
It would not have been an easy climb. The ascent to Camp 1 is done early in the morning so that climbers have a chance of getting there at 8 AM or 9AM in order to get to Camp 2 before noon.
“Anything after noon is walking in heat you have never experienced anywhere in the hottest parts of India. That’s why your cheeks burn up – because the reflected heat off the mountain snow is far worse than direct sun,” says guide Nima Sherpa.
It’s now hours before Ang Tshering’s ascent, and though Lakpa is not going up with him, he has put him in the capable hands of another one of Nepal’s few IFMGA guides – Lead Sirdar, Tshering Lama.
That evening, at the members tent, we get to know a few more of the clients that are in and around Lakpa Sherpa’s orbit – either climbing with 8K or past clients.
Shehroze Kashif, a 20-year-old from Lahore, holds the record of being the youngest climber to scale K2, which he did under Lakpa’s guidance. Shehroze is just strolling through to catch up with his climbing friends, and tells us of his mission to be the youngest climber to complete the 14 peaks above 8,000 meters.
Patrine Cheng from Hong Kong plans to beat the record of fastest female climber to reach the top of Everest. Lakhpa is positive about her chances. I ask Cheng why she is going for this record, she says she read about someone from Hong Kong who broke the record, and thought why should she not give it a try.
“I think she can achieve an ascent in under 22 hours. She can show the world what women are capable of,” Lakpa says.
And what about Lakpa? What drives him? He does so much work for others, what does he get out of all of this? He points to a climber who is heading out with Ang Tshering, Sunil Nataraj from Bangalore and replies, “I might be his mountaineering mentor, but he is my life mentor.”
He adds, “It is not all about money, although I make sure all our Sherpas at every level are paid better than they would normally expect. That is why we have the best people, we care about the people who make us grow. We get credit from clients we help get to the top.”
It is midnight as Ang Tshering, Sunil Natraj and Tshering Lama get out of their tents and sit down for an early breakfast. As they make their way to the gumba for puja, Ang Tshering’s cousin, Tashi, comes over to wish him godspeed.
They hug, and when the prayers are done, the team of four Sherpas and two climbers are off, illuminated by their head torches. They have reached a little way off when Tashi calls Ang Tshering back. His Aunt in Kathmandu is on the phone to say she is praying for him.
In that moment, we all understand the gravity of what it means to climbers, guides, and the families involved in these adventures on the world’s highest mountains.