Today a helicopter flew us from Kathmandu to Lukla (2 800m) with our 1 500kg of luggage. An uneventful trip. People in Lukla welcomed us with a gift of a silk scarf, called a “kata.” It’s a customary way of welcoming new arrivals. A kata also serves as protection from the dangers of the mountain. We started out right away. A few hours’ walk, as far as Phakding, where we spent the night.
Climbed 800 metres from Phakding to Namche Bazar. Here it’s the end of the monsoon, the rains that make everything very wet. The sky is always overcast, and it’s often drizzling. Even when it’s not raining, the air is very damp. The trail to Namche Bazar is marvellous. We’re walking alongside a river that we cross by means of dizzyingly high bridges. Lots of flowers growing here, including edelweiss, the flower usually associated with the Alps. .
People’s gardens are full of cabbages, garlic and potatoes. Our supplies are carried by our porters and by “dzos,” a cross between a cow and a yak. We’ve seen very few yaks on the path, since they are still in their summer pastures. Yaks are used mainly at high altitudes, after Namche Bazar, for the climb to the Everest Base Camp. The altimeter reached 3 440m today.
We have arrived at Lobuche (4 930m), about one hundred metres higher than the peak of Mont Blanc, at 4 807 metres. Some members of our team are already feeling the effects of altitude: Myriam Leibundgut is suffering serious headaches. There are no more trees at this level, but the Himalayan prairie is covered with all kinds of flowers all along the moraine. The weather is very cloudy. We were unable to meet with the Lama of Thyangboche to receive his blessing, because he was on a retreat. So the ceremony was held in Pheriche (4 243m) instead, in one of Nepal’s oldest monasteries. Five Buddhist monks received us, and the ceremony lasted about an hour and a half, accompanied by chants and the music of drums and cymbals. The Sherpas were happy. This blessing is a must for anyone intent on climbing Everest, for it protects us from the dangers of the mountain and keeps bad luck away.
Yesterday we helped out a young porter who was having trouble with altitude sickness. We put him inside our pressure chamber, a sort of hermetically sealed sleeping bag that can be used to create different altitudes. He stayed completely shut up inside at an artificial altitude of 1 800 metres for one hour, even though we were actually at 4 000 metres. His headaches and vomiting stopped, and he was able to start off home again in fairly good shape.
The dzos have now been replaced by yaks, which are more efficient at these heights. We are all finding it a bit harder to breathe, since there is already 30% less oxygen in the air. Tomorrow we will make it past 5 000m and spend the night at Gorak Shep (5 286m). We will also hike to the peak of Kala Pattar, from where we can observe the upper regions of Everest. Our Sirdar (head Sherpa) and another Sherpa, both of whom have already stood on the Roof of the World twice, will be able to give us some information on certain steps along the way and the final ascent.
Nathalie is doing well, despite some minor headaches that should disappear as she acclimatizes. Thierry, on the other hand, is very tired and has to stop to rest from time to time as we proceed. I feel very good so far, although a bit breathless. By Saturday we should be at the Base Camp…
We left Lobuche (4 930m) this morning and reached Gorak Shep (5 288m) after a three-hour walk. This is the last step before the Base Camp. The weather is very overcast, and it’s raining heavily. We rarely see the peaks, because the entire landscape is clouded in. Here at Gorak Shep we are enjoying the last bits of greenery and flowers before heading off into the moraine on the Kumbu glacier tomorrow, on our way to the Base Camp.
As for our team, Nathalie is acclimatizing very well. Slight headaches from time to time. Thierry, for his part, found the trip up to Lobuche very difficult. He was suffering from severe headaches, but don’t worry, he is in good condition. He took a short “break” in the pressure chamber, that sort of sleeping bag or sealed “balloon” where we can create artificial lower altitudes. He felt much better after that, and was able to start walking again, slowly. His headaches have become less serious. Like Nathalie, I’m acclimatizing very well, and as yet haven’t felt any ill effects. The important consideration is to eat properly (a healthy appetite is a sign that you are acclimatizing well) and, above all, to drink lots. The rest of the team is doing well, some progressing more quickly than others. Still minor headaches from time to time. The Sherpas, being used to these conditions, obviously have no trouble with high altitudes.
We’ve been eating very well since we started off on our walk. The food is delicious–more than we had hoped or expected. The dishes consist mainly of eggs, rice, pasta, potatoes and a few other vegetables. The cook and his helpers, who will be with us all the time at the Base Camp, leave a bit before us in the morning and stop to make lunch. Then they leave ahead of everyone in the afternoon, so as to get set up for supper. They are really excellent cooks.
We are sleeping in lodges, a sort of very rough shelter. The higher we go, the less comfortable they are, so Nathalie and I preferred to set up a little tent for the past two nights. We are all looking forward to tomorrow, when we finally reach the foot of this mythical mountain.
07.09.97 – ARRIVAL AT BASE CAMP
Four hours’ walk over the moraine of the Kumbu glacier from Gorak Shep to the Base Camp. As soon as we arrived, we attended another religious ceremony, this time celebrated by a lama who is also a mountaineer specializing in ice climbing. The event took place outdoors, facing Everest, accompanied by prayers, chants, offerings, everyone throwing rice in the air, and a yak-butter cake that we all had to share. Then things lightened up, and we were given flour to throw in each other’s faces! The poor lama got more than his share!! This was followed by a blessing, and the lama wrapped a thread around each person’s neck. Finally, we ended with a serving of rice alcohol and french fries (with a slight taste of shrimp)… just as the snow began to fall. It snowed heavily during the night, and we woke up to about 10 cm of snow shrouding the Base Camp.
It was a tiring day. A few team members were still suffering minor headaches, normal at these altitudes, but that should usually disappear in a day or two. The Base Camp has some thirty tents: one for communications, one for the infirmary, another for baggage, along with the sleeping tents. The kitchen tent had already been put up by the Sherpas before we arrived. It’s an impressive structure, with stone walls. The area is very clean. All the garbage is taken back down into the valley — even the human waste is carried back down in plastic barrels. We also have a shower, in a tent, operating with a system of manual pumps.
A team of Sherpas has left to install the guide ropes and ladders on the Icefall. The team will also hike up to Camp I with a bit of equipment. Our ice-climbing lama will pull on his crampons tomorrow to go and install the guide ropes and ladders required for this difficult and perilous section of the climb. At the same time he will attach some little bits of cloth to the equipment, serving as prayers, and will also drop a few scraps into the crevasses — some of them 100 metres deep.
We glimpsed, and certainly heard, an avalanche beyond the Icefall. Very impressive. Today we set up our system of solar panels over our tents, a few hours’ work. We were very satisfied to see that everything is working as planned. None of the material was damaged in transport.
The temperature swings enormously between night and day. This evening, the outside temperature is about -5 degrees C. When the sun is out during the day, on the other hand, it is very powerful at this altitude and we can sit outside in T-shirts. The day after tomorrow we will make our first venture onto the Icefall, a chance to check out the fast-changing appearance of this part of the climb.
We spent the day at the Base Camp, inventorying and adjusting our equipment and continuing our acclimatization. It also gave us the opportunity to meet members of the other expeditions here at the camp. We invited an Everest-bound Spanish team over for tea this afternoon–two mountain climbers and a doctor. They have a whole list of scientific tests to conduct. It was quite interesting talking with them.
This evening, we had two Italians over for supper. They will be attempting to climb Lhotse (8 501m). There is also a Korean team here who will be climbing Lhotse. A Mexican group should be arriving in the days to come, intent on scaling Everest.
All in all, there are now three Everest teams at the Base Camp: a Spanish team, a Mexican team (to come) and us. There are also an Italian team and a Korean team, both planning to climb Lhotse. In comparison with other years, there are not that many people here.
The weather is still very snowy.
Finally! Finally the mountain, finally we set foot on the Icefall. We climbed about 350 metres. We made our first crossings over those famous ladders, and “stepped across” our first crevasses–some of them exceedingly deep. The accent is definitely on safety. Everything is checked and planned to make sure it all goes safely. I must say, for myself, that I found this first outing on the mountain quite fun–and really beautiful. When we finished our ascent for today, we spent time checking our equipment, as a way of finding something to do while we continued acclimatizing.
It’s astoundingly hot. We could walk around in T-shirts, except it wouldn’t be wise when using ropes on the glacier. The combination of heavy snowfalls and high temperatures is causing avalanches. We often see small snow and rock slides–surface sloughs. Fortunately, they pose no threat to the Base Camp or our route up the mountain.
During our outing on the ice fall, the people who remained behind at the Base Camp kept busy with different tasks–setting up the infirmary or adjusting the frequency of walkie-talkies among the different teams, the Sherpas and so on, to avoid any confusion and co-ordinate communications properly.
It snowed heavily during the night of September 9-10.
Let me tell you about the Icefall. It reminds one of the deeply wrinkled skin of a giant, complete with crevasses. It’s the tip of a glacier, with a rough and broken surface, littered with huge blocks of ice, some of them weighing hundreds or even thousands of tonnes, scattered about in precarious balance. Despite their enormous weight, just the warmth of the sunshine or some momentary vibration is enough to tip them over, with a deafening crash. We hear these “seracs,” as they are called, tumbling day and night. A glacier is alive, in constant movement, and we have to pass over it each time on our way to and from Camp I. The Icefall is a mostly vertical wall about 700 or 800 metres high. As I described in yesterday’s entry, we made our first excursion out onto the Icefall to check our equipment and study the route suggested by the Sherpas — they are the experts. The Sherpas installed ropes and ladders on the Icefall.
One of these passages is quite impressive, in fact. The Sherpas have tied seven ladders end to end–as you can imagine, it rises to quite a height! It shakes and sways, but on the whole it’s quite reliable. There are some ladders set vertically, others horizontally, across crevasses that can reach depths of 50, 60 or even 100 metres. I can assure you that we scurry across them as quickly as possible, secured by a clip on one of the two cords running next to the ladder like a handrail, with our iron crampons slipping and sliding on the aluminum rungs… This is quite a dangerous section of the climb, in fact. All the climbers hate crossing the Icefall. According to our climbing plans, we will have 6 return trips to do, meaning 12 times up or down, since we have to cross it to get from the Base Camp to the upper camps, and vice versa.
As we were climbing yesterday we encountered the lama who had presided over the blessing ceremony when we arrived at the Base Camp. (You remember that he is an expert on the Icefall.) I grinned to see that he still had a bit of flour in his ear from the ceremony, when we had thrown all that flour at him!
Tomorrow we will be crossing the Icefall again to take our equipment to Camp I (6 150m), where we’ll set up a rudimentary camp and spend the night. This should speed our acclimatization. We’ll be back at the Base Camp on Saturday.
As I noted before, we are eating very well here. The food is excellent, and looks good, too. The head chef worked for ten years or so at a hotel in Kathmandu, and he serves us little apple fritters, different types of bread, cakes, popcorn, all kinds of things. And then the different teams here invite each other for a taste of their special dishes, too. Surprisingly enough, we’re fairly comfortable here, even at the foot of the world’s highest mountain. We have to put out a huge amount of energy for days while actually climbing, but when we come back to the Base Camp, it’s as though we were returning to life, to warmth and good food.
Today, some news from Nathalie…
Bernard and the rest of the team left at about 8 a.m. for Camp I. They crossed the Icefall again, and arrived at Camp I around noon. They’ll spend the night there, to help with their acclimatization. We listened to our walkie-talkies all day to keep communications open between the climbers and the Base Camp. In fact, I’ll keep the radio with me all night. Everything is calm today here at the Base Camp. I’m taking the opportunity to recharge my batteries, read a bit and rest up a bit. Bernard said that he had a headache today, although he adapts to the altitude much better than I do. At night I wake up with terrible headaches. As Bernard explained yesterday when talking with Marie-France Bazzo, that’s because our breathing slows down when we sleep, and the brain gets less oxygen. We wake up to take a few deep breaths.
We heard from our friends Lise and Michel Perron and Tim and Audrey Kenny, by radio. They’re on their way to the Base Camp. They had supper in Dughla, and should be sleeping in Lobuche this evening. Thierry and the man in charge of the Sherpas here at the Base Camp have set out to meet them. They ought to reach the Base Camp within a couple of days, by Sunday at the latest. We’re really looking forward to seeing them.
Quite a full day. First of all, our two friends Michel Perron (the main sponsor of the expedition) and Tim Kenny arrived at the Base Camp. This alone was an admirable exploit for two men in their sixties. Michel is exhausted, and is sleeping now. He found the trek very demanding. As for Tim, he is feeling fine. We celebrated their arrival with a bottle of champagne. With the pressure at this altitude, I can assure you that there was no difficulty in coaxing the cork out of the bottle! There wasn’t much champagne left, but it was still a wonderful moment.
Thierry is busy all the time, taking care of everyone at the Base Camp. One of the Italian climbers is sick, one of the Basques is suffering altitude problems. Thierry never stops. I’ll bet that his “waiting room” isn’t quite as full as those in Quebec hospitals, at least!!
Nathalie opened her tubes of paint today (non-freezing paint, of course!) and began painting the mountains all around us. I haven’t yet been able to admire the results, because for some reason she has hidden the canvasses away. I’ve looked all over, but I can’t find them anywhere…
The team has returned to Camp I. One more round trip over the Icefall, more trips across the ladders, one of which is beginning to lean quite a bit to the right, over the crevasse. Needless to say, it isn’t my favourite activity.
The Sherpas reached Camp II for the first time today–no easy job, with the heavy snowfall we’ve been having. They had to find another route, in fact, because avalanches had buried the first one they had traced. It was a difficult climb for them, with their backpacks full of equipment, walking through snow up past their knees. Our team will be able to strike out for Camp II in two or three days. We will return to Camp I, pick up the equipment stored there and then proceed to Camp II. The Sherpas hate sleeping at Camp II. It’s an avalanche-prone part of the route, and they prefer to walk for several hours further rather than overnight there.
The end of the monsoon has brought great swings in temperature. When we wake in the morning it’s cool, about -8 degrees Centigrade. By about 9 a.m., the sun comes out from behind the mountain and the temperature starts to climb. Around 1 p.m. the heat is unbearable. You’d think you were on a beach in Martinique! That’s when we use our shower tent.
In the afternoon the clouds climb back up the valley and the weather becomes very changeable. It rains, it snows, ten minutes later it’s very warm, and then it starts snowing again. Really unstable. There’s no understanding it. We end up using our entire wardrobe, from T-shirts to three layers of polar fleece!
We spent the day with Messrs Perron and Kenny, visiting the other teams at the Base Camp and giving them the chance to meet the members of the Italian and Spanish teams. Our whole team is at the Base Camp right now, resting up a bit, so our friends have been able to chat with all our fellow members. The Sherpas received training today on how to use the ARVAS, a sort of mini-transmitter you carry on you and that helps to locate you if you’re buried under an avalanche.
Our friends Messrs Perron and Kenny left today to rejoin their wives, Lise and Audrey, who had remained a bit father down in the valley. Afterwards we got busy fixing some of our equipment, including ripped gaiters and other clothing. We spent the day sewing a bit, reading a bit and listening to music. Patience is an essential commodity on Himalayan expeditions. You have to know how to wait.
The Sherpas who had gone to set up Camp II are back at the Base Camp. They will be staying here a few days to rest up as well. While they were at Camp II we took the opportunity to test and adjust the walkie-talkies with them. Communications between the Base Camp and Camps I and II are now problem free.
The weather is still just as foul, overcast and snowing. To make up for it, tonight we’ll treat ourselves to a “Petit Extra” meal — meaning, ladies and gentlemen, a succulent dish of freeze-dried preserved ducks’ gizzards that Jean Filippi kindly prepared for us. My mouth is watering already!
Here I am once again, coming to you from the Base Camp. I’m eager to get off to bed so that tomorrow will come sooner. We’ll be leaving for Camp II (6 450m) tomorrow morning at about 4:30 a.m., before the sun comes up. The idea is to get past the Icefall as soon as possible, because the sun’s warmth can make the seracs unstable. Everyone is reading to help pass the time. As Marie-France Bazzo said when we spoke this morning, it’s sort of a book fair at the foot of Mount Everest.
The Mexican team arrived at the Base Camp today. There are Mexicans on the team, of course, but also Peruvians, Colombians and Americans. We’ve been watching with a great deal of interest and surprise for a few days now as the Sherpas set up the route over the Icefall for this team, at tremendous expense. We couldn’t help but be impressed by the investment of time and material. It must have cost tens of thousands of dollars.
The Mexicans were exhausted when they finally arrived. The entire team had found the trek to the Base Camp very demanding. When the Sherpas showed them the Icefall and the difficult terrain ahead of them, they finally realized what it meant to climb Everest… and they gave up! They said no, it’s not for us, it’s too difficult, we’re packing up and going home! They’ll be leaving the Base Camp tomorrow. It was the famous lama who is an expert on the Icefall, the one with the flour (you remember), who was responsible for opening up a passage over the Icefall for the Mexican team. And now he has to take it all down. He’ll certainly be keeping busy for some days to come.
Just the same, it’s not good news for the climbers here. Although they sometimes say that Everest is a real “highway,” that there are more and more people trying to reach the coveted summit, it’s not the case this fall. It actually helps to have more people climbing. It also makes everyone feel safer. Occasionally it can be a hindrance, if the trails are crowded. But it helps in opening the trail, or if anything goes wrong, and it means that there are more Sherpas to carry equipment and clear the trails.
So all in all there will be only 14 climbers trying to touch the Roof of the World. And not all of us will make it, needless to say. How many of us will have the privilege of standing on the tip of Everest? What’s your guess?
News from Nathalie…
After spending yesterday packing their last bags, Bernard and the rest of the team left at about 5 a.m. this morning, heading for Camp II (6 450m). They stopped for a few minutes at Camp I along the way to pick up some of the equipment they had left there on their two previous trips.
We’ve been in regular communication with the climbers today. They reached Camp II at about 5 p.m., and they will spend the night there. Bernard seemed very tired when I spoke with him. The mountain is taking its toll. At their altitude there is about half as much oxygen in the air as in Montreal, for example. Tomorrow, the team is to come back down to Camp I to pick up the rest of the equipment, then climb back to Camp II and overnight there again. Weather permitting, they will also take the opportunity to open up part of the route to Camp III. If all goes according to schedule, they should be back at the Base Camp on Sunday.
One bit of sad news… Thierry spent last night and part of the morning with a member of the Korean team who had suffered a haemorrhage. He was evacuated from the Base Camp to a hospital in the valley by helicopter this afternoon. We all wish him well, and a speedy recovery.
One of the six high-altitude Sherpas, Dorjee, worked on an Imax film being shot here on Everest. It should be in the theatres in Quebec next spring.
As for me, I spent the day resting and reading. I’ve already read one whole book. It’s done me good! I also take care of communications between the Base Camp and the climbers during the day. We’re keeping close track of them, which helps to calm any little fears…
Back at the Base Camp after two nights at Camp II. I slept very well up there. So far, I’ve been adapting well to the altitude, but some members of the team suffered headaches and hallucinations on the first night. The second night went much more smoothly for everyone. In a few days we’ll try to reach Camp III and spend one night there, then come back down to Camp II for the next night and then return to the Base Camp. That time will be the real thing, since we’ll be preparing the equipment to take back up to the upper-altitude camps, readying ourselves to attempt the summit in early October. Climbing Everest is something like a yo-yo, up and down and a bit higher each time.
Another tale of the Icefall. As we were coming back down from Camp II I had something of an adventure while crossing a ladder laid over a crevasse. I was alone at the time, the other team members some distance away. In the middle of the crossing, right over the crevasse, one of my boots got stuck. I pulled with all my strength to yank the crampons out, but nothing worked. I took one step back, so as to put my other foot on the same rung and get more purchase to push with–and my other boot got stuck as well! So there I was, all alone, standing on an unstable ladder overhanging the void, with both feet stuck to a rung. There was only one thing to do. I bent over and unlaced my boots, took them off and finished walking across in sock feet! Needless to say it was quite cold, and rather slippery. I couldn’t believe it. I was sitting on the Icefall, gazing at a ladder sticking out over a considerable drop, with my two boots perched over the abyss. A Sherpa arrived and, using his ice axe as a lever, with me stretched out full length along the ladder to help him, after a few minutes we managed to pry off my boots.
And there’s more. At noon today, during lunch, we were all in the tent. We heard a loud rumbling noise. That is nothing unusual here, so no one panicked. One of us near the door stepped outside for a look and quickly ducked back inside and urged everyone outside. Two kilometres above our heads, one whole face of the southwest shoulder of Everest had come off and slid down, dragging with it hundreds of tonnes of snow. It had caused an impressive avalanche, and an incredibly b gust of wind swept the Base Camp. Then we all panicked. Sherpas, workers, climbers, everyone started yelling and running around (away from the avalanche, of course) to take shelter behind rocks. We all tried to cover our faces with a bit of cloth, so as to be able to breathe if we were trapped under the snow. The sky darkened, and within the space of a few minutes, 2 or 3 inches of snow dropped on the camp. I can tell you that it’s quite a feeling to be stuck in a snowstorm that hits all of a sudden when you don’t know when or even IF it is going to stop.
Fortunately, no one was hurt, and there was no damage to the camp. The tents stood up to the blast of air and the equipment is just fine. I should mention that a few years back, the gust from an avalanche at exactly the same spot literally razed the Base Camp and ripped all the tents up. There had been no one killed or injured that time either, but enormous losses of equipment.
Witnessing a spectacular avalanche like that really takes your breath away. It’s apocalyptic. The path carved by the snow and rocks from the southwest shoulder must be a kilometre wide. We escaped with nothing more than a good scare, which is about the best conclusion we could have hoped for…
News from Nathalie…
Bernard left this morning for Camp II. He made the trip up in about 4.5 hours. He’s very happy with his climbing time, for it means that his metabolism has adapted properly to the altitude, and he can work hard without too much discomfort. He’ll be sleeping there tonight, and tomorrow he’ll be climbing up to Camp III to spend another night there. The stop at Camp III always makes Bernard a bit nervous, because of the avalanches over the last few days. Camp II isn’t in the avalanche corridor, so it’s fairly safe. Camp III is in a riskier location. He is to be back at the Base Camp on Friday.
Yesterday we witnessed another gigantic avalanche, starting from the same place as the one on Monday. There was another during the night, too, but not as large. The one yesterday afternoon was the most impressive. The wave of snow rushing down toward us must have been at least 3 kilometres wide. Once again, everyone at the Base Camp panicked. Bernard was napping in the tent. He raced outside, without taking time to get dressed or even to pull on his boots, and began scrambling for cover behind the rocks, barefoot and in his underwear. The sky was blocked out in a few moments. The blast of air produced by these hundreds or even thousands of tonnes of snow starting at 7 800m and racing all the way down to the Icefall is incredibly violent. It blew through the camp for some forty seconds. A few inches of snow dropped on us in the space of seconds. It really seemed like the end of the world. While all this is happening, we’re huddling there wondering whether we’re going to make it. But fortune is smiling on us, since there were no injuries and no tents or materials lost. Who said that the Everest Base Camp is totally safe? Not in the last few days it hasn’t been.
It’s increasingly clear that the monsoon season is over. Today and yesterday there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. But the heavy snowfall and the relatively small number of climbing teams have slowed down the installation of the upper-altitude camps. It’s harder work to open up the trails in all this snow up to your waist, particularly when you’re carrying equipment as well. We spend all our time outdoors. Whether you’re in a tent or outside, the temperature is the same. The air is quite humid, but at least we have good sleeping bags that keep us warm.
I was first away from Camp III (7 300m, or about 24,000 ft.) this morning, at around 7:30 a.m., after a troubled and sleepless night. Now I’m back at the Base Camp. It was very cold this morning, about -20C. I don’t care for Camp III. We camped under a serac, on a platform the Sherpas had shovelled out so that we could erect our tents. It was very narrow. In fact, as you come out of the tent, there is a pathway about 40cm wide running alongside a crevasse. It’s not exactly a bottomless pit, but it is one heck of a slope. I can understand better now why the Sherpas refuse to sleep at Camp III. A few years ago, a Japanese climber set fire to his tent while using his stove, and scrambled outside onto the ledge without his boots. It was a fatal error, because he fell over the edge.
It’s also a frustrating place, for we are just 1 500 metres from the summit. But we have to come back down, because none of us is ready to tackle the peak yet.
At an altitude of 24,000 feet there is only half as much oxygen in the air. This is a mandatory step in our acclimatization. The mountain has its demands, and we have to be patient and obey. It’s still an extraordinary experience, though, because as we move higher we are above Pumori (7 145m) and we can see the peak of Cho Oyu (8 153m). The horizon is gradually opening up before our eyes. It’s really quite beautiful.
So here we are back at the Base Camp, after a very demanding day. I arrived at about 1:45 p.m., after stopping at Camp II and Camp I to rest and drink as much as possible. Fortunately I was able to eat a bit while I was up there. My appetite didn’t disappear completely. I can’t say the same for all my teammates. Some of them were so nauseous that they were actually throwing up. When you’re feeling that way, you get tired very quickly. We’re staying at the Base Camp for a few days in order to recover our strength before launching the attack on the peak, and to allow the Sherpas to finish setting up Camp IV, the last high-altitude camp, at 8 000 metres. The break is most welcome.
We learned today that Camp III, where we spent the night last Thursday, has been swept by winds of incredible ferocity, tearing up our tent and the Spanish team’s tent as well. Even at Camp II, a large tent belonging to the Japanese team was ripped up. Everyone is waiting at the Base Camp for the weather to calm a bit. Even the Sherpas are blocked here. This means that there will be other tents to set up at Camp III, and certainly some shovelling to do, to clear the snow off the ledge we camp on.
In the meantime, teams of climbers and Sherpas are living here side by side at the Base Camp. The Sherpas are wonderfully kind. We spend a lot of time talking with them. They smile all the time and play cards. One of them has stood on the Roof of the World six times! They rise early in the morning and begin making breakfast, waking us gently with their whistling and singing. Most of them are fairly young, and they too are far away from their families. We chat about everything; love, distance, the mountain. We eat our meals with them and learn about their lifestyle, while they observe ours. We are having some lovely times together.
The only fly in the ointment, in fact, is the liaison officer, a Nepalese government official who snoops around here throughout the whole expedition and watches everything everyone does. His sole purpose is to notify his government whenever a climber successfully makes it to the top of the mountain, even before we can send the news off to our families or the media of our respective countries. He asks about every step we take and everything we do, and gives us his “informed” opinion on how we go about things. He is quite unpleasant to have around.
We were to have set out again several days ago, but were held back by the poor weather. Our departure for the final assault on the summit has been delayed a few days, although we aren’t behind on our original planned schedule. We will probably have to wait until the weekend for the weather to improve. I feel like a runner at the starting blocks, waiting for the starter’s pistol. I’m impatient to get going. Meanwhile, I’m gathering my strength, watching the magnificent spectacle of the seracs toppling in the Icefall, checking and preparing my equipment one more time, and listening to the Sherpas singing and whistling. I’m ready. I’m just waiting for the green light from the mountain and the weather.
We are still held “captive” at the Base Camp. The weather is really bad. Violent winds continue to wreak havoc in the upper camps. The sky is overcast, and it’s snowing heavily. It’s apparently something to do with the changing phases of the moon. We still don’t know when we’ll be able to make a start on reaching the summit.
To while away the time, we’ve been walking over to the foot of the Icefall. There are all kinds of items and souvenirs hidden away in the folds of this glacier in constant movement. We actually found a bit of cardboard marked with the “EVEREST 82” logo, from the first Canadian Everest expedition! That was fifteen years ago…
An Italian climber, Fausto de Stephano, is interested in old climbing equipment, and the Icefall is a real treasure trove for him. He has managed to find some one hundred items while walking on the glacier, and has spread them out on big flat rocks all around his tent to make a real little Everest museum. There are old ice screws, bits of rope, old carabiners, wooden ice axes (!) and crampons that must be at least 40 years old.
Keta, the Spanish doctor who supervises the hospital tent with Thierry, also collects souvenirs from the Icefall, especially old medical equipment. He found a very old stethoscope, clamps, scissors, etc. It seems as though he’s looking for all the old first-aid kits that the glacier carried away! Like Fausto, Keta has set up a little museum near his tent. It’s fascinating to look at all these remains of previous expeditions.
Eating is another pastime. Since all the teams are waiting here at the Base Camp, we continue to invite each other for meals. This morning, the Spanish team joined us for breakfast. They arrived with ham and sausage from their region of Navarre. I hardly need to say that it was delicious. We, of course, hauled out our maple syrup, which is always a great success.
We try to find hundreds of different ways of passing the time. The mountain continues to teach us a lesson in patience.
News from Nathalie…
Bernard and four other members of the team climbed up to Camp II yesterday, and spent the night there. Today they went on to Camp III (7 300m), in horrible weather. It snowed a lot up there. Bernard and Passang Sherpa had to shovel for close to two and a half hours to dig out the tent. A terrible storm struck Camp III and one of our tents was heavily damaged, so two of the climbers from our team asked the Japanese and Korean teams for permission to use their tents. Bernard’s companions up at Camp III are Yvan Estienne, Marie-Christine Contino, Yannick Navarro and Michel Pellé. Michel has finally decided to make his attempt on the summit with oxygen. Since he already reached the top on a previous expedition, he has decided that the most important thing this time is the film he is making about the climb, rather than doing the climb without oxygen.
One of the Sherpas, Dorjee, is back from Namche Bazar, where he was visiting his wife, who had been having health problems. He climbed up to Camp II today, and will attempt to join up with the rest of our group for the final climb. Weather permitting, the team will try to make it to Camp IV (8 000m) tomorrow.
Bernard said he was feeling nervous today, that his nerves were playing him up. I’m sure that all the work of climbing and then shovelling out the tent has focussed his energy and his attention and that he’s feeling calmer now. He took two bottles of oxygen with him, or about 16 hours’ supply, calculating an average flow of two litres per minute. That should be enough to get him to the top and back from Camp IV. It’s the only oxygen reserve he will be using. They haven’t any other cache of bottles. According to the plans they should be making the attempt on the summit during the night of October 8-9. If the weather co-operates…
Believe it or not, here we are back at the Base Camp again. What a disappointment!
We left Camp II on Monday, accompanied by b winds, and reached Camp III after a steep and difficult climb. The higher we went, the harder it was blowing. When we reached Camp III, there was lots of work waiting for us, as we had to clear the snow away from the tents, which had also been damaged. It took us more than two hours of shovelling very hard-packed snow. And the worst wasn’t over. There we were, stuffed together in the narrow space, the tent walls pushed in by snow and our sleeping bags feeling like coffins, while the storm raged outside. And let me tell you, it was a real storm! The jet stream winds must have been blowing at over 100 km/h, literally forcing the tent walls into our faces. Chunks of ice, sometimes as big as fists, were breaking off the face of Lhotse and falling on our tents. We were just hoping that they didn’t get any bigger. It was intolerable. In the infernal noise of the wind we couldn’t even hear each other yelling from one tent to the next, and we had to use our walkie-talkies to communicate. We decided that we had no choice but to come back down right away, and that is what we did very early on Tuesday morning. It wasn’t safe for us any more at 7 300 metres.
On the way down, we saw that Camp II had been devastated. There was nothing left but debris, a real wasteland. All the expeditions are now safely back at Base Camp. No one has yet reached the top of Everest or Lhotse this fall. Now we’ll have to wait for the weather to calm down again. All the teams here have to talk about arranging a new climbing schedule.
Very happy to report that no climbers were hurt during this misadventure. Morale is not very good, however. Things are pretty tense here at the Base Camp. Tomorrow (Thursday), we will decide whether we can plan on making a new attempt at the summit this coming weekend. First, of course, we will have to take stock of our damaged equipment. From here, mind you, looking at the South Col, nothing seems less certain. The weather is still awful up there.
Latest news: the Spanish team seems ready to give up.
If our team decides to make another try, there will be Yvan Estienne, Yannick Navarro, our Sherpa, Dorjee, two members of the Spanish team who would like to join us, and me. We’ll keep you informed.
The suspense continues! We were right to wait until today to decide whether or not we would give up or make one last attempt at the summit. This morning I awoke to good news–the weather was glorious, the sky completely clear. It’s cool, but a beautiful day nonetheless. One of the nicest we’ve had since the start of the expedition, in fact. I thought it over a bit, gave Nathalie a big hug, I was afraid for a moment or two and finally I told her “I’m going.” I left accompanied by four Sherpas (Nima and the three Dorjees). Tonight we’ll sleep at Camp II. Yvan Estienne and Yannick Navarro are already up at Camp III. Tomorrow I hope to make it all the way to Camp IV, where I’ll meet up with Yvan and Yannick. If the weather holds, it’s conceivable that we’ll make it to the top between Saturday and Sunday. Will Everest finally give us permission? I feel excited and confident. We’ll keep an eye on the sky and the time and, if the good weather continues, we’ll be off for the summit.
We’re on our way to Lukla. We should reach Kathmandu Thursday, if all goes well. Last Saturday, after we reached Camp III, another terrible storm came up and once again forced us back down to the Base Camp. There was no long discussion, no obstinate arguments, no words–just a small gesture from one of the other team members to say that we were wasting our time, we had to give in, we couldn’t fight the elements any more and we might as well go back down. And so we turned our backs on the summit for the last time. This fall, no one has made it past Camp IV on Everest. None of the teams managed to reach the top of Everest or Lhotse. We are all relieved: relieved that it’s over, that we are all coming back safe and sound, and satisfied that we tried our best to make it to the peak. There’s no bitterness, for as I’ve said before, the mountain is bigger than any human. We have to listen to what it says and obey its orders. Everest simply didn’t make its peak accessible this season.
On the way to Pheriche yesterday, I turned around often to look behind me, just to see the mountain once more, the mountain I’ve lived with so intensely for the last two months. Everest is part of me now, in the same way as the Poles, and always will be. Because Everest is the highest point on the globe, you could almost say that no matter where we are on Earth, we’re always on its slopes, in a way, ever climbing the mountain or coming back down.
I want to tell you an anecdote that says a lot about the Sherpas. They are a wonderful people, who have adapted perfectly to their environment. During our last attempt, I was accompanied by two Sherpas as I was climbing. At one point I caught up to and passed one of them. The farther we climbed, the farther I was ahead of him, until I found myself wondering how it was possible for a Westerner like me, normally living at low altitude, to climb faster at an altitude of 7 000 metres than a Sherpa born and raised in the Himalayas. The second Sherpa stopped next to him just as I was about to climb back down and ask whether everything was OK. I wondered whether he was having trouble with his crampons or whether his hands were freezing. After a few minutes, the two of them began climbing again, and so did I. Yesterday, as we were walking back to Pheriche, I asked the Sherpa why he had stopped during the climb. Had there been some kind of problem? He told me that there had in fact been a problem, but that he had solved it when the second Sherpa arrived: it was blowing so hard that he couldn’t get out of the wind… to light his cigarette! At 7 000 metres! There we Westerners were, barely able to breathe, while the Sherpas are so used to the mountain air that they can even smoke up there. They are really a fascinating people. In fact, they are doubtless one of the most fascinating discoveries I’ve made on this trip. Like Everest itself, their easy-going approach, their kindness and smiles will always remain engraved in my memory.
27.10.97 – CONCLUSION
I feel as if I’m still there. Still out of breath, thinking back on our last attempt. So high, and so close to our goal, held nearly motionless by the storm, and I could hear my heart beating. The wind managed to pierce right through my clothing and blow frigid air on my hopes. It cried out “turn back” for long hours on end, and yet my feet continued trudging forward. There, far above the clouds, my eyes were locked on the peak, my hands gripped the rope, my feet clung to the steep slopes of bluish ice, and my dreams gave way to real life. Time was passing, the surroundings were constantly growing more magnificent. We climbed, and the mountain waited. Increasingly violent gusts of wind forced us to advance like crabs, sides to the mountain so as to present our backs to the peak and the wind. Dorjee remained close by me, but I couldn’t see his eyes, hidden away deep inside his hood. His movements, like mine, were in slow motion. His firm and determined steps inspired me to keep going. I could feel the life just next to me, and I needed it. The wind was howling more loudly all the time. I felt “the impossible.” I wanted to keep trying, just one more step, just a bit higher. But one gesture, one wave of the hand, was enough to stop me. A simple half turn, to face back down the mountain, was enough to change my life. Before I turned, just for a moment, with my face into the wind I gazed at the summit.
See you again soon…
10.05.1998 – BETWEEN YOU AND ME
It was six months ago already, on December 10, that we left the Base Camp for our last attempt on the summit. There were only eight of us, including the Sherpas, trying our luck, but the storm barred the way and wouldn’t let anyone through to the summit.
I relive that climb every day, and especially this spring, because other climbers are even now hoping for that window of good weather that offers them an opportunity to step onto the Roof of the World. Many expeditions have set up at the foot of Everest, on the Tibetan and Nepalese sides. Yes, yes, I admit it, I’m a bit envious, jealous even. My good friend Dorjee Sherpa is accompanying the expedition from Singapore. He is the one I climbed with most often. His gaze and his smile always added greatly to my own determination. Thanks to e-mail, I hear from him often, and directly from the base camp. He is still just as skilled and fast on the mountain. He seems to be happy there, and invites me to return. I admire him–he has touched the summit twice now. When he writes me, he always signs his messages with “Dorjee, twice summiter.” That’s quite a calling card!!
Between his expeditions he lives in Kathmandu, with his wife and his son. The 96 expedition took him to the summit, but with a very heavy load: he was carrying the lens for the IMAX camera… The American climber David Brashear was accomplishing a great premiere, by filming the ascent of Everest on IMAX. The equipment required is much heavier and bulkier than for a traditional film. Dorjee was patient, though, and determined to get it all to the top. Since early April this film has been showing in Montreal, in the Old Port. Dorjee appears in it. I admit that I was surprised at the realism of the film. It is very accurate, with no tricks, and shows exactly how it is to climb the world’s highest summit. I wanted to walk into the screen and continue climbing where I had left off–along with Dorjee.
Since I returned from the Himalayas in October, I have been spending my time reliving the expedition. I want to share these moments, to talk about Dorjee, to tell how the mountain reaches into your innermost being. People often say that explorers make useless conquests. It’s true, these accomplishments are useless in the eyes of people who want everything to be profitable. But I am still just as enthusiastic about explaining how climbing a mountain makes you grow. To date, I have shared this adventure with 23,345 elementary, secondary and college students. Together, we climb. Together we give ourselves the right to dream. I have more or less the same experience when I talk to businesspeople at conferences. We are all adventurers, and the things I have experienced can all be transposed into their daily lives. To each his or her own South Pole, his or her own Everest.
Writing. I still have every intention to write. But to write a book, you have to stop… and that’s something that happens too rarely with me. I feel the need to write, to trace my itinerary once more on paper. In the meantime, until I can find the words to describe how it feels as you stretch for the horizon, I am sharing some personal reflections with readers of Lumière magazine, on subjects such as amazement, silence and the seasons. I also contribute to schoolbooks. Elementary students can read about my expeditions. I’m proud of that. Through math classes and French lessons they examine and study my tales. I hope it will develop their curiosity and prompt them to explore the World and protect our planet.
Whew! We’ve reached 50,000 visitors to our Everest Website. We should all celebrate that together. It’s a modern means of speaking to you wherever you are. At school, at the office, at home… Our e-mail box is always full. I don’t always have the time to answer, though, especially when people ask me to describe all the psychological steps I’ve gone through since my first expeditions twenty years ago or more. Ouf! I always enjoy reading my e-mail, for it contains some real gems: “My name is Maxime, I’m 7 years old and I would like to know if it’s cold in Antarctica?” Or “I work for Hydro and I’m tired of freezing. What’s the best anorak?”
Another project is on the horizon: the tale of my polar adventures, in the form of a comic strip with a touch of humour, although still accurate and a true description of the expedition. I’ll keep you posted.
Some projects have attracted my attention and prompted me to offer my support. A group of teenagers suffering from leukaemia are leaving for a trip to Hudson Bay next summer: eight days of adventure accompanied by Inuit guides. They will be reaching their own special summit, the desire to hang onto life. Other teens, ex-drug users, are travelling through Quebec on foot or by bicycle to meet others like them, who are dreaming of getting out of the drug trap and freeing themselves. These youths–those suffering from serious illnesses and those taking on drug addiction–are my heroes. In the meantime, I leave everything in disorder on my desk: a book on mountaineering, a sketch of a mountain, a carabiner, a bit of rope, a photo of the summit ridge, a list of equipment… Everest is still taking up lots of room in my life.