You originally went over to Base Camp with the intention of covering a serious expedition up one of the mountain’s most technical routes. What happened to those guys?
I arrived here April 19th and have been here throughout the entire season with the Eddie Bauer West Ridge Expedition. These are four guys who are trying to climb a different and much more difficult route than the standard guided route, but unfortunately the conditions were just too difficult and they’ve called off their expedition as of about two days ago.
Before we talk about what went wrong this weekend, can you tell me what Base Camp is like? I think most people don’t realize how, ah, civilized it is.
Base Camp forms in early April and this year there are close to 1,000 people here. It’s like a small city, with everything from a helicopter landing pad to an emergency room. It’s supplied by yaks and porters and helicopters. It has wireless Internet and 3G cell-phone connections. Everest Base Camp is actually one of the most well-connected wildernesses in the world. The idea that people are out here roughing it is sort of a misnomer.
Back in 1996, when the Everest disaster that led to Jon Krakauer’s bestseller Into Thin Air occurred, there were only a handful of outfitters here. Now there are closer to a dozen, and the clients are paying anywhere from $25,000 to go with a local outfitter, to $80,000 to go with the most reputable Western outfitters. Back in 1996, a big deal was made of climbers who supposedly didn’t have much experience because they’d only climbed a few peaks around the world. But now you literally have people showing up at Base Camp who have never strapped on crampons before, have never climbed any mountain, who are trying this. So the level of experience has fallen off dramatically, while at the same time the number of people has increased just as dramatically.
Are there more people there than in previous years?
Well, there are definitely a lot of people, but probably not too many more than normal this year. The biggest problem this year has been the way the weather window is set up, everybody tried to funnel into the same first summit window, so what we had was a situation where there was a clear period of about two days of good weather but about 300 people who were trying to make their summit bids in that time.
And that’s partly because this first weather window occurred later in the month, right?
Exactly. So what happens is, most people get here sometime in April and they’ll do two or three rotations up the mountain where they’ll climb incrementally higher, up to Camp II, Camp III, and eventually Camp IV at about 26,000 feet, and then everybody goes down the mountain and waits for the perfect window when temperatures get up toward zero and the winds drop from 70-80 miles per hour down to 20 or 30 miles per hour. Normally you’ll get a number of these windows where people will sort of filter into them and go about it in an organized fashion. But this year, because of the way things shaped up, everyone just started going at once.
Whereas usually the summit bids are more spread out.
During a more normal year, people would have started summiting in the second week of May. But the first window didn’t happen until last weekend, into the third week of May. The route to the summit was only fixed by teams of Sherpas on May 18th, so that leaves really only about a week or 10 days before the monsoon season sets in and the mountain becomes unclimbable, so I think people were a little more anxious than normal this year.
That’s a critical point, the fixed lines. I don’t think people really understand what you mean when you say traffic jam.
Everest is unusual in that the mountain is stitched together with what are called fixed lines. Every season, teams of Sherpas will go up and put miles and miles of rope through the Khumbu Icefall, which is at the bottom of the mountain, all the way to the summit. So people will be climbing roped in to these fixed lines, so there’s not really a way to safely pass other climbers who are moving slowly—basically the line moves at the speed of the slowest climber.
I talked to a guide yesterday who said he waited during his summit bid for three and a half hours at the Hillary Step, which is one of the last big cliffs just before the summit. Waiting three and a half hours above 28,000 feet, where the Hillary Step is, is just far too long to not be moving. And when you stop moving, your body stops generating heat, so it just creates a very dangerous situation up there.
The whole idea is to get up there, and then back down, as quickly as possible.
That’s right. Usually on a summit bid, teams will leave the evening before they plan to summit, anywhere between 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. and climb through the night into the morning and summit sometime in the morning the following day. Most of these teams observe a strict turnaround time where, if the guide who’s with them doesn’t think that they’re going to make it to the top at a reasonable hour, they’ll turn around, but as you said, people are very determined to make it to the summit. They’ve paid a lot of money to be here and oftentimes it’s very difficult to get them to turn around.