The Sherpa was groaning under the load of a heavy rock he was carrying towards one of the tents he was setting up. Under my feet is a kind of stumpy heather, alpine cushion plant of an indeterminate type (I need to bring a foliage reference next time – I hate not knowing. When I ask the Sherpas for a name of a plant they look at me as if I am asking to abscond with their wife. They shake their head and walk off.) There are no rocks to be seen.
‘In the stream’ he grins as he stumbles past.
Of course. I have crossed the embouldered (I’m allowed to invent words – we are above 10,000’ and all the rules change the higher one climbs) creek and admired the rocks. But from our base camp site the stream bed is hidden by snow. I walk in the footsteps stamped into the white blanket by the Sherpa and discover clear water stripping through wings of ice locked into either bank. I fumble around in there and find the largest rock I can extract from the gravel and ice and lug it back to my tent. Two Sherpas are standing nearby admiring the mess. They take the rock from me and forbid me to go back to the stream. I stand back and watch them fine tune my orange home then move on to the next. I am happy to do it myself but this is akin the challenge I have with the guards at the house in Kabul. The moment I go into the garden to weed the roses they hover around me expecting to be doing that work. It is not work for the boss. Never mind that I like doing it.
We shuffled out of our plywood prison at Sonam Lodge after the sun was up and made our way to the dining area. It is cold after being cacooned in the sleeping bag, the temperature of which is exceptionally warm. But our unpainted plywood rooms get stuffy and it’s good to get fresh air even if it is crisp on the back of the throat. The usual breakfast options are offered by this most cheap of tea houses along with lots and lots of tea. Paul is back in his corner charging phones and updating his Facebook. I get some photos uploaded. It will be the last wireless coverage for a while we are told.
There is slow start to the day as we watch the Sherpas round up their yaks and start packing gear. Yak wrangling is an interesting business. I am learning yaks are not as benign as their sleepy looks and slow chewing suggest. Like us they object to carrying loads and they baulk at having their ‘saddles’ strapped on at the beginning of the day. I watch how a young lad coerces a beast twenty times his mass and immeasurably stronger. He takes one yak and lashes a rope around its horns and walks it towards a second beast which allows the rope to be tied to its horns as well, both beasts now with their heads down, facing each other, eyeball to eyeball. A third yak is dragged into the equation and his horns lashed to the other two. Clever really. The three are now braced against each other and stand stock still in a balanced bovine tension. The boy wastes no time and flings blankets on the first yak, followed by the wooden frame which he quickly lashes down. Then the next two in quick succession. The yaks seem to know they have been duped and once strapped up they relax and the tension comes off the rope as they nose the grass between them.
The day is crisp and blue and clean white bright. Our packs and bags are sealed up and dropped in a big pile for the sherpas and we leave them to it while we wander into town and across to the monastery. Cypress resin mixes with the smell of yak dung, lots of which is mixed and shaped into patties and placed on any rock surface that will catch a few hours of sunlight. Fuel for the winter which is sinking off the mountains and blowing up the valley. In a few short weeks this place will be locked to the world by snow and there is a zeal in the locals as they focus on getting ready and are inclined to ignore the aliens in their bright trekking gear amble through town.
We snake our way along narrow lanes hemmed in my granite stone walls, turn past stone houses and step around small stalls hoping to sell luxury items to travellers like us, until we step up to the monastery. We pass around the south side of the building pushing the prayer wheels and I pause to film some of them as the rest walk into a side room with a large prayer wheel inside. I check to see where everyone is and then step back to finish filming the smaller wheels. Their copper tint has caught my eye. In the background the monks start up a soft song. Barely twenty seconds later I step back to join my colleagues and… they have vanished. I feel a bit foolish but I enter the side room and press all the timber panels in case there is a door there I cannot see. Nothing. I walk out and bump into Paul. He is agitated at having lost the group and shortly explodes after doing a lap of the monastery.
“No one died Paul“ That is lost on him.
’Scheiße! ’Scheiße! ’Scheiße!’ It’s all he can say for a few minutes. He makes it clear that he had his heart set on the blessing ceremony that everyone else is part of. I think he really wanted some pictures of it all. He finally settles down sufficient to say in his broken English
“Perhaps they took a lane up the hill to that stupa?’
We look up on the ridge. It’s a long way up. I am not convinced. They are fit but there is no way they would have gotten up there that quickly. But in the absence of anything else, and having checked every room in the monastery we climb up the ridge. The team is nowhere to be seen but the reward is a spectacular view of the mountain we are planning to climb and a brief conversation with one of the teachers of the primary school we stumble across. I love that Himalayan kids are forced to climb so far to school. The same case applied in Namche. There would be no need for any PE classes during the day after such a stiff climb to school.
I tell Paul I am heading back to the lodge and drift off. He does laps up on the ridge somewhere, venting his Teutonic frustration. By the time I return the yaks and our gear have vanished and I look across the valley to spot them high on a far ridge, tiny dots that soon move out of sight. I am impressed. We have not really been gone that long but our camp and our supplies are well ahead of us already.
We follow them a short time later after a quick lunch. We step down a short gravel path and cross the Imja Khola river. Standing on a scenic section of bank with a steep little section in front of me I wonder to myself that I can finally say I have stepped onto the mountain. But there is little time for reflection as the rest of the group pile up behind me. Do climbers reflect or do climbers do? My perceptions may well shift but as I watch these folk hunt their way up this Khumbu Valley I think they are more inclined “to do”. It is a three hour climb up to Base Camp and not too arduous at all – helped by the fact that I finally offloaded my heavy gear onto a yak. By the time we arrive the tents are all up including our mess tent and the two support tents for the Sherpas. Each climber has their own little orange igloo, quite spacious and which allows us to spread our gear out. I have colour coded my dry sacks for various types of equipment, clothing and supplies. I place them at strategic points around the tent. That makes me sound more orgnanised than I really am. It means I can put my hands on things quickly, even in the dark but the net effect is that the tent still looks like a teenagers bedroom. No matter, it’s home for the next couple of weeks.
We arrived here at 15,000’ just in time for dinner and were all repairing to bed by 7.30. There is only one truly warm place to be and that is in your sleeping bag. Discussion over dinner turned to the worry about so many climbers being here at Base Camp and the problems of setting up accommodation at Advanced Base Camp as well as getting up and down the mountain. With only one narrow route above Camp 1 what will the passing traffic look like? And who is going to put ropes up? We arrived having been told this was done but discover no ropes have yet been set. It seems we have arrived very early in the season. It will be interesting to see what cooperation actually exists on the mountain. I have no context in to which to place all these concerns and listen to those with experience on these sorts of peaks. Should I be concerned? I don’t think so. That big block of ice above us is to be climbed and despite these concerns there doesn’t seem to be any reason why we can’t tackle it as planned. After all, we are here “to do” are we not?
16 Oct 2014