The excerpts from the expedition log were written by Nathalie Tremblay, Bernard’s partner and constant companion, who co-ordinated the expedition from the Base Camp at the foot of Everest. Every possible tool was used to capture Bernard’s and Dorjee‘s ascent to the roof of the world as faithfully as possible: notebook, sketchpad, camera, videocamera, tape recorder, walkie-talkie and satellite telephone…
22.03.99 – WE’RE OFF AGAIN!
As you doubtless know by now, Bernard is making a second attempt to climb Everest. This time, he will be making a try in the spring, when statistically the weather is more favourable. Still, who can say? We will be going with a very small team this time. I will be accompanying Bernard, of course, and like the last time, I will be spending my days handling communications, photos, films… and sharing every moment with Bernard. His climbing companion is Dorjee Fulelee Sherpa. Bernard met Dorjee on his first attempt, and they often climbed together. Since 1997, they have been corresponding regularly. He is a very, very experienced climber, a sensitive fellow, a friend. The rest of the team consists of a cook and one of Dorjee’s friends. There are lots of expeditions at the Base Camp, many more climbers than in 97. The route remains the same, that is up the Nepalese face with a Base Camp and four high-altitude camps. It makes things easier for Bernard to know a large part of the route already, but the unexpected remains the greatest danger.
Once again, many companies are supporting Bernard, and he thanks them all. Every expedition calls for enormous precision and meticulous preparation. Everything counts, right down to the smallest detail. It may be light, but it all adds up to 200 kilos of essential equipment! It is as though all you sponsors, suppliers and partners have each contributed a section of rope; together, all these bits of rope will form one long one, connecting Base Camp to the summit.
That summit has never left Bernard’s mind since he first saw it. But just reaching the top is not enough. He has to make it there and then back. He is keeping a spot in his backpack for something intangible: a taste for life. In a few weeks, far above the clouds, he will be filled with wonder… once again.
We meet up with Dorjee. Kathmandu. We are presented with a necklace of real flowers. Bernard savours this moment, finally rejoining the friend with whom he will touch the sky, up there on the roof of the world.
Check list, check list, check list, permits, papers, signatures, people to see and places to go and things to buy… and we meet Prim Sherpa, our Base Camp cook.
Dorjee bought prayer flags, rice, incense, twigs, etc., for the religious ceremony planned for the Base Camp. Blessing by a Tibetan monk at a monastery in Kathmandu. We met our friend Fausto De Stefani, the illustrious Italian mountaineer who has climbed the world’s 14 mountains higher than 8 000m. He was going to join his compatriot and climbing companion Sergio Martini, who will be attempting to add Everest as the last jewel in his prestigious collection. Bernard climbed with them in 1997.
The Twin Otter takes us to the village of Lukla (2 800m). Bernard meets up with Chwangba Sherpa. He will help with transporting our equipment and setting up the high-altitude camps. Just a few more km to the village of Phakding, and we settle in at Dorjee’s. His wife, his son, in-laws and others all share a meal with us. Tomorrow we leave for the Base Camp. Bernard seems very happy, and very focused. He is determined to pour all his energy into climbing Everest.
Sitting on a rock, Bernard watches Everest. Nothing could distract him. We are still very far from the mountain, and already he seems to be possessed.
We are at 5 000 metres, two days away from Base Camp. Everything is well, health-wise. No problems with acclimatization. It is snowing, not very warm, and blowing pretty hard around Everest. All is fine with logistics. Once we’re at Base Camp it will be easier to communicate with Montreal, since we’ll be able to set up our solar panels to give us power and recharge our telephones.
We’re walking slowly. Just twisting an ankle on these rocky trails could put an end to the climb. We’re eating carefully and keeping ourselves warm, too–catching a cold would be disastrous! All along the way we meet sherpas we know from the 97 expedition.
We’re at Base Camp, 5 400m. We set up the tents, inspect our equipment and assemble the solar energy system. Dorjee is very busy checking the hundreds of kg of materials brought up by the yaks. A cold night, Everest, the Icefall… here we are again.
We meet the other teams. The Base Camp is turning into a real village. Already there are about a hundred people here, and we’re expecting others. The sherpas are busy building the altar for the Buddhist ceremony called Puja, planned for a few days from now.
We rise very early. The sherpas are busy getting everything ready for the Puja ceremony. Here we go, the Lama is here and the prayer starts. The Lama recites for two hours, facing Everest. Tea and cookies are served. It’s a festive atmosphere. I dare to hope that the prayers will protect Dorjee, Chwangba and Bernard. The ceremony ends with a blessing, of the climbers themselves, their crampons and their ice picks. Prayer flags float over our campsite. Now everything is in place to begin the acclimatization climbs.
16.04.99 – 4 A.M.
The noise of the stoves wakes us up. We rise and start getting ready. Bernard forces himself to eat. I can feel that he is ready to begin the long climb–it may last as much as a month. I accompany him to the foot of the glacier. Dorjee is wearing exactly the same clothes as in 1997. Our tents are at least 500 m from the glacier. We have to cross a number of campsites. Some other climbers are getting ready, too. Dorjee and Bernard pull on their crampons, and I tell him simply: “Be careful.” I know just how dangerous climbing through the Icefall can be. I know that many climbers have lost their lives there. There are crevasses, toppling seracs, ladders to climb across… in 1997, they even found pieces of equipment from the first Canadian expedition to climb Everest, in 1982, at the foot of the Icefall. Some of the members of that expedition died in the attempt. I return slowly to our tents; from this moment on, I’ll keep the walkie-talkie with me at all times. It’s my only link with Dorjee and Bernard. I will still have to bear long periods of waiting, but I remain confident.
They are back at Base Camp. Everything went well. The first acclimatization phase is finished. So far our strategy is working perfectly. In 97, Bernard had to cross the Icefall 12 times–much too often. So they decided to sleep at Camp I right from the first ascent and then to head up to Camp II with a light load and return to Camp I to sleep there before coming back down. Bernard is tired, but very upbeat. Dorjee has joined his sherpa friends for an interminable card game. A few days of rest and preparations for the second acclimatization phase.
From the meal tent, I can see a group of trekkers approaching our camp. I immediately recognize one of Bernard’s old friends, André. Bernard is astonished, and runs up to grab André in hug. It’s a touching scene, lots of smiles and a few tears. We knew that a group of André’s friends was thinking of coming to the Base Camp, but André was supposed to remain in a village much lower down in the valley. Just one year ago he had suffered a serious heart attack. André and Bernard had crossed Baffin Island together in 1978. He was a renowned mountain-climber, who had racked up many climbs in the Rockies, the French Alps and, especially, a winter ascent of Cap Trinité. So we all talked and talked…
A long meeting with Goran Krop and his friend Renata. We are sharing the same campsite at the Base Camp, and we’re thinking of organizing our summit attempt together. Goran reached the top in 96, after riding his bike all the way from Stockholm to Kathmandu! He’s an excellent climber, and always in a wonderful mood. He is surrounded by a team of a photographer, journalist and co-ordinator. His goal is to support Renata as she tries to become the first Swedish woman to reach the roof of the world. He doesn’t know whether he’ll try again himself. We trade maple syrup for raspberry jam.
They’ve left for the second acclimatization phase, planning to reach Camp III at 7 400m and spend one night there. Even before our cook, Prim, has lit the stoves, we join Dorjee where he is praying at the altar. He is burning juniper branches and throwing rice into the sky. I can see that even sherpas still have a deep-rooted fear of climbing in the high mountains. The sun is shining on the Icefall, and I can see two little black dots in the middle of the huge blocks of ice. The morning light is so magnificent that I settle down with my pencils and my notepad to make a few sketches. Photos, videos and notes. Chwangba comes back to the Base Camp; he had gone to take some equipment up to Camp II. Everything seems to be going well. He met Dorjee and Bernard on their way to Camp II. Bernard is always the first to leave the Base Camp; he doesn’t want to be in the Icefall in the bright sun, because of the heat and the danger of avalanches and seracs toppling over. Today, some huge avalanches came near the Base Camp, but fortunately they were on a neighbouring mountain. I just can’t get used to these rumbling noises. I hear falling stones and snow day and night. Let’s hope Everest holds onto its snow…
They made it to Camp III yesterday and spent the night there. Acclimatization at Camp III is very important, and it will give them a good idea of what awaits them. If they can manage to doze and eat a bit there it will give them strength for the tremendous efforts ahead. They’re back at Camp II now. Bernard told me all about the ascent by walkie-talkie. His tent is 100m farther up than in 97, at 7 400m. So he is closer to the famous Yellow Band (yellowish rocks) he will have to climb when he heads for the summit. He told me that he had reached Camp II in six and a half hours, directly from the Base Camp. Goran Krop nicknamed him the “Canadian Train,” because he never stops! Bernard seems to confident and determined, so happy to be by himself with Dorjee. His acclimatization is very good, even excellent. He tells me that Dorjee suggested that they spend the night at Camp III, which no sherpa ever agrees to do. They ate, but very little. There were b gusts of wind, but nothing else. They had a great view of the upper reaches of Everest, and there they could see the wind blowing with unimaginable force. It’s still too early in the season for any climber to hope to reach the the summit. We hope that the jet stream will shift to the north so that they can make an attempt on May 10 or 15. It will be too late by the end of May, for the monsoons will leave heavy snows up on the mountain.
I’m waiting for them at the foot of the Icefall. I’m sitting on a rock and trying to pick them out in the distance from the other climbers. I always bring the video and the camera with me, along with cold juice for Bernard and hot tea for Dorjee. I would love to be able to see the Valley of Silence between Camp I and Camp II across from Lhotse. From here at the Base Camp you can’t even see Camp I. A huge shoulder of Everest even cuts off the view of the summit. You have to walk for hours before you can see the whole route and if I did that, I would be too far from Base Camp, if anything were to happen to Bernard and Dorjee.
Even from the Base Camp, though, the view is breathtaking. I get up early to marvel at the sights in the early morning light. By early afternoon the sun is beating down, and I allow myself a (long) nap. I manage to sleep deeply. The altitude (5 400m) doesn’t bother me much any more. I love the primitive nature of the place, the whole environment. I feel good here. The only little problem is the toilets… As for bathing, I’ve solved the dilemma. Our cook, Prime, boils up a large basin of water, and I take it into the tent with me. It’s quite comfortable. Bernard always told me that a large tent at Base Camp makes day-to-day life easier. He’s quite right. I can even stand up in our tent.
There they are, I can see them now. Whew. I worry so much every time they cross the Icefall.
Second rest day back at Base Camp. Dorjee is doing his laundry, Bernard and I are taking inventory of our equipment, because now there is material at Camps I, II and III. The logistics are getting more complicated. Everything has to be ready for an attempt on the summit. You can feel the excitement here at the Base Camp. Everyone is revved up. It’s not even May yet, and already people are talking about the summit. Some people are saying that the window of good weather will come earlier this year, and that conditions could be right in just a few days. Some climbers, who have had more trouble acclimatizing, are becoming pessimistic, for they still haven’t reached Camp III. People are dashing from one tent to another, all the computers are plugged in to get the weather reports. Bernard is calm. I hardly recognize him, the guy who is usually chatting with everybody. He sits there, watching the mountain, its clouds, as though he were listening. He’s not worried in the least about the strategies that the other climbers are devising. I know that he wants to reach the summit, that he wants it more than anything, but I’m surprised and happy at his attitude. Yves (Laforêt) told him to focus his energy, and it looks as though he understood!
They’re off again. At 4:30 a.m., Bernard, Dorjee and Chwangba left Base Camp. Last night, after endless consultations with teams and sherpas, they decided to make an attempt for the summit. We were all expecting to rest for at least eight days, but the weather seems to be turning favourable. They’re taking a risk, but they’re ready for the attempt. Only two days of rest between the second acclimatization phase and the final assault doesn’t seem like very much to me. I really hope Bernard has rested enough. This morning, Dorjee reminded me several times that I had to burn juniper wood all night long on the night they were heading for the summit. Before he left, Bernard hugged me, hard. Some tears. He promised me he would be careful, and would always remember that success means reaching the summit and coming back alive. They pulled on their crampons, and I quickly lost sight of them in the icy maze.
They have reached Camp III (7 400m). A short message, because we’re trying not to use up the batteries. Bernard described the weather and the cold, his shortness of breath and loss of appetite, and above all his determination. Tomorrow will be all new for him, because it was there, at Camp III, that the storms pushed them back twice. Goran, Renata and their team are camped at the same site. They got there a few hours later. Bernard was very fast. That reassures me–in the high mountains, speed is a key asset.
They’re at Camp IV (8 000m). Another short conversation. Everything is going well. He tells me that climbing the Yellow Band and the Geneva Spur was much harder than he expected. He had to describe for me the view of Nupste. It’s still blowing up on the summit ridge. I encouraged him to drink and to try to relax, for they will be leaving in a few hours, in the middle of the night, to attempt the summit.
10 p.m. I call them to tell them that the latest weather forecasts are predicting higher winds, and that they should give up the idea of making an attempt tonight. He tells me he already had his boots on. I insist and insist. I ask him to call me back in 30 minutes.
10:30 p.m. They’re not going. The different expeditions at the South Col and the sherpas have decided not to budge. I could tell he was terribly disappointed. I wish him good night, knowing that he won’t sleep a wink. Remember to drink.
6 a.m. I spoke to him again. They spent a horrible, sleepless night–and so did I. Many teams are getting ready to come back down. They figure the weather won’t improve. Bernard’s group has decided to stay and make an attempt tomorrow night. Goran and Renata are staying, too, as are some Americans, Mexicans, an English group…
At 8 000m, there is so little oxygen that climbers sometimes have trouble speaking clearly. Bernard seems coherent to me. I’m sure, I have confidence in him. I suggest that he get out of the tent, and walk around a bit. We’re going to speak again at 7 p.m.
7 p.m. He walked along the South Col, and tells me that he went all the way to Tibet! The Col seems to be a deserted place–half pebbles and half snow. The wind is dropping off. Decision time at 10 p.m.
10:05 p.m. They going to attempt the summit. Bernard is getting ready. Dorjee and Chwangba are already outside, preparing the oxygen regulators and bottles. Bernard reminds me that Dorjee insisted I keep a juniper wood fire going all night. I tell him “Good luck, be careful, I love you.”
All night long, I walk back and forth from my tent to the kitchen tent, clutching the walkie-talkie. Prim has stayed up, too. The stoves keep burning all night. Our friend Iniaki (a famous Basque climber) joins me. He encourages me and tells me over and over that Bernard will make it. He offers to keep me company during this interminable wait. He runs off to other campsites and brings back news. Everything seems to be going well, but very slowly, because they are the very first teams to try this year, and have to install fixed ropes in a few places.
They are at the Balcony (8 500m). The sun is up, everything is OK. The juniper wood is burning, and I’m gulping coffee after coffee. All over the camp, people are huddled around their walkie-talkies. Everybody is waiting. I’m sure he’ll succeed.
They have reached the South Summit (8 700m). Iniaki tells me “You see, they’re almost there.” Maybe he thinks I don’t know the route. From the South Summit there is that very narrow and exposed ridge, then the famous Hillary Step, an 8-metre vertical climb up a rock face. Many climbers have turned back when faced with that obstacle. I know that this part of the ascent is horrendously dangerous. There are still some corpses there. I trust in Bernard’s experience, though. With Dorjee, he is confident. As for Chwangba, this is his first summit attempt. It’s taking so long, where are they?
My walkie-talkie starts to crackle. It’s Dorjee, I can hear him cry “Nathalie, Nathalie, SUMMIT, SUMMIT, SUMMIT!” Hurray! Iniaki jumps, yells, grabs me. Goran’s team is celebrating, too. They must have reached the summit together. I look up toward the clouds. I’m breathless with joy, my heart is up there with them. It’s 12:10.
12:50. BerNard says he’s coming back down… I’m still afraid. I know that climbing back down is even more dangerous. After 13 hours of climbing they are exhausted, and their euphoria at succeeding can distract them. Most accidents occur on the way back down. I’ll be nervous and worried until I know they’ve reached Camp IV. Another six hours of clasping the walkie-talkie and jumping whenever it makes any kind of noise. Many climbers come over to our tents to congratulate us. Bernard, Dorjee and a few other climbers are the first to reach the summit this year.
6 p.m. Camp IV. Finally, now I can savour the victory. Bernard tells me he is happy. He will try to rest, even crammed together all three of them in their tent. I return to my tent and tumble into a deep sleep.
Iniaki, his friend Rachel and I are sitting on a rock at the foot of the Icefall, waiting. I just want him to get off that glacier. The crevasses are just as wide and just as dangerous, whether they’ve reached the summit or not. Ladders, avalanches, toppling seracs… anything could happen. They take a lot longer this time. They must be worn out. The juice is cold, the tea is hot, all we’re missing is them.
They appear from around a serac, advancing slowly with trembling steps. They’ve made it. They succeeded.
Everything is packed up, the yaks are loaded, the kitchen tent is taken down. The place is a heap of stones again. The celebrations and congratulations and praise have been continuing since they returned. Many climbers who didn’t make it to the summit come by for advice and encouragement. Making it to the summit in early May is pretty fast. People watch us enviously as we pack our bags–even with a bit of jealousy, they admit. Goran, Renata and their team are packing up, too, and we’ll leave together. Bernard is too tired at the moment, but he promises to tell me all the details of the climb during the trek. I’m eager to hear about it, but mostly I’m happy for them. Our strategy worked well. No injuries, no troubles at all. A perfect expedition. This was Dorjee’s fourth successful summit. He is gaining a growing reputation as one of the best sherpas around. Bernard has lost weight. He is a bit concerned about the trek back. His breathing is short and fast, but he is so happy. Every twenty steps he turns around to look back at the Base Camp, to scan the Icefall and watch for avalanches. A number of our friends will be making their own attempts at summit in the days and weeks to come. He has stopped again, he is looking back at Everest again. He’s still there.
The helicopter has finally arrived. We were waiting for it yesterday. Goran’s team chartered the helicopter with us, to take us directly from Syangboche to Kathmandu. The rhododendrons are blooming, everything smells green, and a storm appears to be blowing over Everest.
After days of negotiations, faxes, telephone calls and meetings, we finally get a visa for Dorjee.
20.05.99 – DORVAL.
The doors open, I see the faces of relatives and friends crowd around. Out of a long box, Dorjee pulls necklaces of real flowers, just like two months ago.