Gorak Shep (5160m) – Everest Base Camp (5364m) – Gorak Shep (5160m)
Date = 29 March
There are two inches of snow on the ground when D&L set off from Gorak Shep for Everest Base Camp, but the going is easy. They wend their way gently up the edge of the Khumbu glacier, the rock and dust beneath their feet covered in clean crunchy snow. The temperature is minus 6°C but the sky is blue and clear, and the sun is warm on their faces. On every horizon white peaks soar skywards. They share the path with few porters and Nepali expedition staff heading for Base Camp, but almost no other trekkers.
The guidebook is unenthusiastic about today’s walk.
“Many people have unrealistic expectations of Base Camp and end up being disappointed….there are no views of Everest…and cloud often rolls down from the peaks, obscuring everything in a grey fog. The main reason to go there is to say you have been there.”
Instead of starting from Gorak Shep, most guided groups walk for 3 hours from Lobuche, pausing for an early lunch in Gorak Shep before arriving at Everest Base Camp in the early afternoon, and then heading back to Gorak Shep for the night. It saves a day, keeps costs down and reduces the time spent at over 5000m.
L: But it means they’ve walked for 5 hours to get to Base Camp, instead of 2. So everyone’s exhausted.
L: And they’ve gained 450 metres in altitude instead of 200. So they’re probably not feeling so great.
D: Also true.
L: And they’ll get to get to Base Camp in the afternoon, after the clouds have built up. So they might not see anything.
D: You’re right. I agree with the guide book. Could be a pretty rubbish sort of day.
They descend onto the Khumbu glacier at around 10am – the landscape a heavy rolling sea of snow-sprinkled rock-strewn peaks and troughs. Ahead a train of yaks weaves its way calmly through the chaos. The path leads them to a small hillock strewn with prayer flags. They are approached by a tall bearded man speaking heavy accented English with some difficulty. D&L they recognise the accent and switch helpfully into Italian.
Man: Ahh! You are Italian!
D: No, we’re English.
Man: But you speak Italian!
Man: Fantastic! So where is the Base Camp?
They confer with Angtu in English.
D: Umm…here, sort of.
Man: But where is the sign?
They confer again with Angtu.
D: Err..there is no sign.
Man: But for my photos. I must have a sign!
They explain to Angtu. The Italian has seen pictures of trekkers posing triumphantly in front of a big yellow sign. And a huge engraved boulder. Angtu shrugs and walks away.
Man: So why d’you speak Italian?
D: We have a house in Italy.
Man: Oh! Where in Italy?
This is usually the end of the conversation. The relatively unknown region of Abruzzo in central Italy is not on most people’s radar. Except, it seems, for today.
Man: No! It can’t be true. I come from Abruzzo! Where in Abruzzo?
D: The Majella National Park.
Now they will lose him. Almost no-one lives in the beautiful mountains of the Majella, with its harsh winters and lack of jobs. He will live on the coast, in the region’s capital maybe. But no, it seems, he does not. He spreads his arms wide.
Man: Aah! It’s not possible! I come from the Majella!
They grin at each other stupidly in disbelief. Angtu returns and leads them over to the pile of stones and prayer flags, where he has dusted the snow off a couple of small rocks on which people have written EBC and the date, in crayon. It’s good enough for the Italian. He gets out his camera phone and then delves once more into his rucksack, bringing out a fist-sized rock on which is written “Majella – Abruzzo – Italy”
Man: Look! I brought this here! To Everest Base Camp! All the way from the Majella! From my mountain! He places it reverently on top of stony pile and photographs it proudly.
L: That’s some dedication. You’re going to make me cry!
He hugs her.
Man: I’m crying a bit too!
They leave him taking hundreds of photos of himself and his trek mates, accessorised with Italian T-shirts, hats and flags. At this point most trekkers stop, take a few selfies, and then retrace their steps. But the expedition tents for those attempting to summit Everest are spread out along the rocky glacier for a mile or so beyond them. L wants to see more.
L: Angtu? Can we go on? Up to where the tents are?
Angtu: This way.
He leads them on through Base Camp. On their left, Nepali expedition teams are clearing rocks and carving flat platforms in the ice on which to set up tents. Clusters of tents are already in place, and set apart from the rest are tiny latrine huts balancing on pedestals of ice or rock – a loo seat suspended over a plastic drum. Beside them, sculptural shards of ice thrust upwards through the debris. On their right flows the Khumbu Icefall – close enough to touch and unfathomably huge. Tumbling steeply down from the Western Cwm is a kilometre wide torrent of dazzling house-sized blocks of ice. It’s on the move, flowing at the rate of about a metre a day, constantly shifting and collapsing, opening yawning new crevasses. It’s beautiful and terrifying. Helicopters skim along the glacier, over the camp and back again, providing photo opportunities for non-trekking tourists. The Icefall is so enormous that the little aircraft dip down behind it, lost to sight from where D&L are standing.
A man emerges from a tent and shouts to Angtu.
L: Are we in trouble? What’s he saying?
Angtu: He’s asking if we’d like some tea.
It’s warm inside the expedition kitchen tent despite the smooth ice floor. Folding tables support large thermoses and cauldrons. Soup is warming on a kerosene stove and a tower of egg boxes stands in a corner. They perch on folding stools, sipping peach tea out of tin mugs and happily pretending they are part of an Everest ascent team.
On the return to Gorak Shep, the trail is now bustling with traffic heading up to Base Camp. Bunches of slow-moving trekkers, strings of high-piled head-swinging yaks, and porters bent double under the weight on their backs. A mountain of mattresses walks by. There’s a guy with a half dozen long steel and wood folding tables. They step aside for a man carrying a large fridge, and for another with a full size cooker. One porter has 4 x 15kg gas bottles on his back. Another is entirely buried under an immense roll of carpet.
D: Base Camp was so clean. I thought Everest was notorious for being strewn with rubbish. But it was entirely litter-free.
Angtu: Base Camp is managed by the SPCC – the National Park pollution control guys. They do a good job. But higher on the mountain it’s a different story.
D: In what way?
Angtu: The SPCC clear up all the rubbish as far as Camp 2, at 6,600 metres, above the Icefall and the Western Cwm. They supply the Icefall Doctors too.
D: The Icefall Doctors?
Angtu: The guys who fix all the ladders through the Icefall at the start of each season. They pick the safest route and put maybe 50 or more ladders across the crevasses. So the climbers can get through it.
D: Sounds dangerous.
Angtu: It is. Very dangerous. Those guys are the real experts.
L: It’s impressive that the SPCC are keeping the mountain clean all the way up to 6,600 metres. That’s some seriously extreme litter picking! Miyolangsangma, goddess protector of Everest, must be happy.
Angtu: No. I think she must be very sad.
L: But why?
Angtu: Further up – above Camp 2 – it gets bad. Very bad. Climbing teams leave a lot of rubbish in the higher camps. Equipment, oxygen bottles, ladders, food wrappers and a lot of toilet waste. Even branded stuff like tents – they just cut their company name off and leave it up there.
D: But don’t they pay a big garbage deposit which they’d lose?
L: Think about it. The deposit’s probably been charged to the client, who won’t be expecting it back. And if it’s easier for the companies to leave stuff up there and not reclaim the deposit, they exert minimum effort and lose nothing. The next client’s fees probably pays for all new equipment.
Angtu: There are supposed to be exit checks. Counting the equipment going up and coming back down. To make sure all waste is removed from the mountain, and so they can return the garbage deposits. But the exit checks aren’t done.
D: Isn’t every expedition member also supposed to bring 8kg of extra waste down with them?
Angtu: Yes. But again – no-one’s checking.
L: That’s so sad. It shouldn’t need to be about checking – it’s about respect and common sense. The companies who come every year are quite literally crapping on their own doorsteps. It’s ludicrous! And the clients – how can they spend months in this most awesomest of landscapes and then have so little respect for it as to leave waste behind? What’s happened to basic human conscience?
D: You’re really shouting now.
Angtu: It’s different up there. The priority is to stay alive. Get to the summit. Get down again. And come home. It’s a problem.
D: And I’m not sure “awesomest” is even a word. Though it should be.