Lobuche (4910m) – Italian Pyramid (4970m)
Date = 28 March
D: Minus 5°C.
The cold is getting colder. D&L are snug in their bedroom with sleeping bag and duvet and thermal clothing. They need to cover their heads at night, wearing hats and pulling sleeping bags tight around their faces. In the mornings, the inside of their window is coated with ice. The air temperature in their room makes the water in their water bottle freeze when they open it to clean their teeth. The loo cistern freezes overnight. Even to flush the loo from a bucket they need first to break the ice in the bucket.
They slurp milky porridge soup at 8am while the lodge cleans around them. All the other trekkers left hours ago. Angtu shrugs at the staff. He’s been trying for weeks to get L&D to set off early like everyone else, with very little success.
Half an hour up the valley they stop at a sign saying “8000 Inn” and pointing off the main trail.
Angtu: Is this the turn? Is it a hotel?
They are looking for the Italian Pyramid. Angtu has never been there. His clients have always been in too much of a rush to get to Everest Base Camp.
L: I don’t think so. It’s supposed to be a research centre.
D: It says it’s just 5 minutes. Why don’t we go and have a look anyway?
In a little barren side valley a solitary low stone lodge is half buried into the hillside and topped by a large glass pyramid sheathed in solar panels. Behind, in a perfect mirror image, rises the white peak of Pumori, and opposite, a glacier tumbles straight down the mountain into the valley. A few dumb-bells and makeshift gym equipment sit on a low wall. They are definitely in the right place.
The catchily named Pyramid International Laboratory/Observatory High Altitude Scientific Research Centre was built in 1990 by a pair of Italians – a mountaineer and a geologist – to measure the exact height of Everest and K2. It has been used for scientific research ever since, and is commonly known as the Italian Pyramid.
They are met by the softly spoken manager who speaks very good English and looks very Italian, with fashionably shaved scalp, designer stubble and blue eyes in a deeply tanned face. After weeks of being immersed in incomprehensible Nepali, L&D prepare to break into a language they can actually speak.
L: Hello! Are you Italian?
Kaji: No, I’m Nepali.
Kaji Bista welcomes them, makes them tea, settles them in front of a huge TV showing a cricket match, rustles up a plate of egg & chips for another visitor, and then shows them around.
Inside the pyramid a number of small rooms are crammed with scientific equipment, paper files and work spaces. In one room a large yellow body bag lies on a table. Stairs climb to an upper floor and a ladder to a space in the pyramid’s peak. The glass is not glass – it is flexible Perspex. The whole building flexed comfortably during the 2015 earthquake, remaining undamaged and protecting the equipment within. There are Italian electronics labels and stickers everywhere.
L: Look – it’s just like being at home! We’re English, but we love Italy! We live there half the year.
A look passes fleetingly across Kaji’s face, like a twinge of sudden toothache. He says nothing. Having clearly hit stony ground, D changes the subject.
D: So what exactly do you do here?
Kaji: We collect meteorological data, about the weather, from here and also from Namche Bazaar. And from the top of Kala Pattar. Have you been there?
D: Next week.
Kaji: You’ll see our weather mast up there. Webcam too.
He walks to a monitor and clicks his way to live weather info and an image. It looks cold.
Kaji: We also collect geological seismic data – any earthquake activity.
L: Including the earthquakes in 2015?
Kaji: Oh yes.
He waves at an information poster.
Kaji: We gather climate change data on nearby glaciers – how fast they’re retreating. Every month I go back to see what’s changed.
L: And the gym equipment?
Kaji: Yes, we get physiological data from people – on how they are affected by altitude.
D: And what happens to all the data?
Kaji: It’s sent back to Italy. All the data can be accessed and transmitted remotely. Even the lights here can be controlled from Italy!
The whole place is astonishingly high-tech for somewhere so very remote.
L: And the yellow bag – is that a decompression chamber?
Kaji: Yes – we have a portable hyperbaric pressure chamber and oxygen. This month we’ve treated 7 people. But the lodges and trekking companies don’t like to bring people. We don’t charge, so no-one makes any money from it.
L: And now you’ve opened the place up as a lodge for trekkers too?
Kaji: I had to. I’ve not been paid a salary for 3 ½ years.
L: Sorry – what did you say?!?
He gently explains. The Italian government stopped funding the centre without warning. His Italian boss in Bergamo took the government to court, and won, but still no money has arrived.
L: (thinking to herself) Me and my big mouth. That explains the tooth-ache face.
D: (thinking to himself) L and her big mouth. “Oooh we love Italy!”
Kaji: We used to be a team of 14 people. Now I am the only one still here. I collect all the data myself. If I left, the research station would close. So now I use the empty accommodation as a trekking lodge. To bring in some income. Sometimes scientists visit too.
The lodge is cosy, the rooms thickly insulated. The enviable bathrooms are tiny gleaming white plastic pods straight from an Italian motel. D finds a tip-box and discreetly feeds it, attempting to compensate for the behaviour of his adopted country and his wife.
L: Is there nothing you can do?
Kaji: I hope the new Italian government will free up some funds.
L: Couldn’t someone else take it over?
Kaji: Maybe, yes, we could sell our data to richer countries such as China, but until now it has always been Italian. For 29 years. It would be nice if it could stay that way.
L: How long have you been here?
Kaji: Eleven years.
L: And does your family come to visit you?
Kaji smiles and shakes his head.
Kaji: No. It is too far. Takes too long. I have four children studying hard in school and college and I go to see my wife twice a year.
They leave Kaji living alone in his valley at 5000m, gathering data from glaciers and mountaintops, running a research lab and a trekking lodge, and saving lives on the side, working for no pay for a far-away country which has forgotten him.