Everest – Day 19: Training in Base Camp

April 17 (Wednesday)

Early morning one of the girls from the team left by helicopter for Kathmandu to check out her unexplained swollen arm.  The rest of the team moved on to the nearby icewall again for some advanced training.  Today we were supposed to ascend a vertical wall and rappel.  Even though the actual wall was a lot taller than the actual obstacles we would see further up on the climb, this exercise was supposed to prepare us for the icefall and the Hillary Step high up on the mountain.

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Well..  all I gotta say is that I’ve never rappelled before.  I was so scared!!  I was afraid that I would slip and fall, even though there was a person ‘breaking’ me down at the bottom of the wall.  The whole experienced was not fun at all.  It seemed like everybody else has rappelled before, or at least pretended like they did.  It seemed like I was the slowest out of the whole group.  I know I shouldn’t have compared myself to others, but especially at altitude, I was getting so self-conscious!

The emotions got to me to the point of actual crying.  I didn’t want to sit inside of the dining tent with everybody because I was just bawling.  So instead of drawing attention away from myself, I inadvertently drew it toward me by sitting outside of the dining tent and eating lunch out there by myself.  I felt like I was ‘the weakest link’, I was not going to make it.  This was only base camp, and I still had another 12,000 feet to go!!  If I can’t do it now, then I will surely fail up higher!  I went to my tent and kept bawling my eyes out.  Two guides came over and told me that I’m doing great.  They emphasized that climbing this mountain is a mental game more than anything, and that I’m strong enough to do this.  I eventually got better.  I’m normally not a wuss, and it takes a lot for me to cry.  Stupid altitude makes me so emotional though!!

DAY 20

Everest – Day 18: Puja ceremony

April 16 (Tuesday)

Today we took part in a very important portion of the trip: the Puja ceremony.  According to Buddhist beliefs, nobody should go up the mountain past base camp unless Puja ceremony is performed.  It is essentially a ritual where the Sherpas pay homeage to Sagarmatha, the mountain goddess.   Usually a special monk comes up from one of the villages down the valley, and some Sherpas who were also monks earlier on in their life, join him in the ritual.

The Sherpas erect a tall altar using rocks and boulders, and stick a mast in the center that’s adorned with multitude of prayer flags.  All the mountain equipment, especially the sharps (crampons, ice axes) are brought to the altar for the blessing.

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The monks then pray in form of Buddhist chanting and throw tsampa (barley flour) towards the altar.  In their prayers they ask Sagarmatha, the mountain goddess, for permission to step upon its slopes, for safe passage, as well as for forgiveness for inflicting pain upon it with our crampons and ice axes.

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Juniper wood is burnt, and rice, cookies and beer are also offered up to the deity.

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The culmination of the ceremony is spreading of the prayer flags over the whole camp in hopes of protection.  There is a belief that if a bird sits on top of the mast it’s an omen of good luck.  We were lucky to get a raven sit on the top multiple times!! (of course the fact that the top of the mast had some rice on it probably had something to do with it…) 😉

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raven sitting on top of our Puja

raven sitting on top of our Puja

We were given the food that was blessed, including beer and homemade rice wine.  It took only one can of beer to get me tipsy haha :)). We also smeared each other’s faces with flour for good luck, and then joined the Sherpas in the traditional, arm to arm, Buddhist dance.

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view of Khumbu Icefall in the background

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Sherpas’ cooking tent (grey on in the background) with Puja altar in the foreground

Now we were truly ready to climb the mountain!!!

DAY 19

Everest – Days 16 and 17: Training in Base Camp

April 14 (Sunday) and 15 (Monday)

After spending one night at base camp, Andy had to head down (although usually a permit is required to sleep at base camp, our head Sherpa arranged for that).  I was a little upset…  It’s been 2 weeks already of continuous walking, we were high at 17,500 ft, and we haven’t even really started climbing the mountain yet!  And now I was losing one of my best companions…

In order to stay healthy and ready to go further up the mountain, we had to get well and acclimatized to the elevation of Base Camp.  It was actually imperative that we feel good at this elevation; otherwise going higher would not make any sense, we would get altitude sickness in no time.  However, instead of just sitting on our behinds, our guides made us ‘actively acclimatize”, meaning we did little physical activities everyday so make us breathe deeper and thus adjust to the thin air more effectively.

After breakfast we went out to train on the nearby ice, just a review of how to use an ascender, glacier travel, and such.

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sun reflecting off the ice made the temperature rise!  We trained on the vertical wall right ahead of us

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our guides attached ropes to the vertical ice wall to mimic the conditions we would encounter in the Icefall and on Lhotse face

We also walked on aluminum ladders wearing our boots and crampons in preparation for the real thing in the Icefall.  Each ladder had a rope on each side.  In order to correctly and safely cross on a ladder, one must lean somewhat forward and pull on the ropes to stabilize themselves, or ask somebody on either side of the ladder to put tension on the ropes for them.  It is a little easier when someone applies the tension to the lines.  Engagement of the core is essential for optimal balance.  And then comes the proper placement of the feet; you really have to take care of putting the spikes of the crampons on each rung.  It was a bit challenging, even with the ladder suspended only a few inches off the ground.  I really didn’t want to think about the actual ladders in the Icefall with the abyss underneath…

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tension on the rope applied by another person makes the crossing a little easier!

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I’m preparing to cross a training ladder

cautiously getting on the ladder

cautiously getting on the ladder

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successful passage to the other side of the ‘crevasse’!

 We met up with the remaining 3 climbers.  Two of them had decided to sleep in a hypobaric tent at home (one that imitates high elevation, thus inducing changes in human body as it would at real altitude).  This investment saved these guys 3 weeks of the trip!

DAY 18 – Puja Ceremony

Everest – Base Camp

Base Camp in itself was so interesting that I had to devote a whole entry to it!

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First, I should say that the company I went with, Alpine Ascents, went out and beyond to make sure we were comfortable there.  According to the guides, it was imperative that we stay healthy in order to go higher up the mountain, so they spared no cost to ensure our well being, both physical and mental.

Each climber had their own individual tents.  Every one of us was asked to bring two ThermaRests (a blowup mattress), but it turned out that we didn’t need one of them because the company provided us with a body length 2-inch thick soft mattresses already set up in our tents.  We also had a huge dining tent in the middle of our camp, complete with a table, chairs, real china plates, and real silverware.  There was even a plastic tablecloth on the table and some plastic flowers!!!  Right across from the dining tent there was a cooks tent with an American head cook who would serve us mainly American style cuisine (so our poor bellies could fill up on something familiar).

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Andy in front of our Khumbu Icefall and my tent right behind him

DSC_8643typical early snow at base camp

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view of Base Camp from our tents. The white tent with orange triangles in the background is the ‘headquarters’ of Himex (Russell Brice)

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The blue tent is one of the dining tents (ours is that sliver on the left). The dark green/grey one to the left is the cooks’ tent.

The dining tent also had a few thermoses always filled with hot water, as well as hot tea bags, coffee, cocoa powder, and snacks.  It also had a little charging station on which we were allowed to charge our electronic devices for most of the day.  Our base camp manager had 2 huge solar panels off of which he drew power for the generator, off of which we got to charge our devices.  Also, every day, we were allowed to use wi-fi for a few hours a day.  The connection was very slow, only 5MB for our whole group (12 of us plus 4 guides), but hey, it’s better than nothing!!  It allowed me to post short updates on Facebook and let my family and friends know via email that I’m still alive.  At night, after dinner, we were able to watch movies through a computer and projected out on a small screen in the dining room tent.

As far as the bathrooms go, they took care of us too!  Our restroom was composed of a bucket with an actual toilet seat on it, enclosed in a tent.  Supposedly one of the Sherpa porters was responsible for bringing it down the mountain.  Even though he was compensated better than a usual porter, imagine the poor guy carrying this load! (pun intended).  In addition, the company erected a small tall tent over the rocks just for us girls, so we could have some privacy when peeing.  How awesome is that?!!

We also had 2 large tents for showers.  The Sherpas would warm up some water and put it in a bucket.  The tent was divided into 2 areas: one half was a ‘dressing’ area with a chair, and the second half had a huge slab of flat rock (so our tootsies wouldn’t hurt from standing on sharp uneven rocks) and a faucet over us.  The key to taking a shower was to do it in early afternoon when the sun was high and before the clouds would come in.  Sun would warm up the tent so it felt nice and comfortable, but the second the clouds would cover it up, the temperature would drop by at least 40 degrees…  I made that mistake once and got in in late-ish afternoon..  It was the quickest shower ever!!  Brr…  Overall we could take a shower about every 10 days or so.

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two central yellow tents are the shower tents (you can see blue barrels hanging at the corners). To their right, there’s a small dark blue girls’ pee tent, and to the right there’s a small yellow tent for #2

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bottom center there’s one of our shower tents with a hanging barrel with hot water

In case we wanted to hang out in a bigger space than our own tents, Alpine Ascents had a huge dome tent for us.  It was usually filled with snacks and had some mattresses for comfort.

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our hangout dome. We even exercised there on few occasions when we got bored!  it got very comfortable in the sun but also very cold when clouds came in

Right in the middle of Base Camp there was a huge medical tent with 3 doctor volunteers.  It was sort of like a clinic that would treat mild ailments, usually related to high altitude.  There were also two helicopter pads, one in the middle of the camp, and one by the Icefall.

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I kept thinking: if this is what this climb is going to be like, then it will be a piece of cake!!!  Read on my story though to find out! 🙂

DAYS 16 and 17

Everest – Day 15: Lobuche – Base Camp

April 13 (Saturday)

today's trail

today’s trail

Today was the last day of our trek and the final move to our new home away from home: the Everest Base Camp.  We also were to gain the final 1500 ft (1541f to be exact).  It doesn’t sound much, but there is a big difference in gaining 1500 ft at sea-level vs at 16000 ft already…  Because of my unfortunate encounter with the toilet last night, I felt pretty queasy today.  This leg of the trail was probably one of the easiest ones  so far uphill-wise, but it felt the hardest one for me yet.  My legs were hurting and were occasionally cramping up from the lack of electrolytes my body got rid of the previous night.  I wasn’t the only one suffering; the altitude finally caught up with Andy and gave him a splitting headache.

We reached Gorak Shep at 16,942 ft), the last village before base camp, and traveled through a huge plain field that resembled more of a waterless beach than a mountain landscape.

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We were able to sneak a peak at Everest on the trek, as well as part of the Khumbu Icefall.

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sliver of Everest with the jet stream from the summit

sliver of Everest with the jet stream from the summit

peak of Everest in the middle

peak of Everest in the middle

'extension' of Khumbu Icefall

‘extension’ of Khumbu Icefall. The yellow tents in the background is Base Camp!

We continued on through gently rolling rocky hills that seemed to be built out of nothing but huge boulders, and we finally reached the beginning of Base Camp!!  If you look closely, you’ll notice that the Sherpas didn’t change the sign from last year, and it still says 2012! 😉

The girls of our expedition.  From the left: Raha, me, Siobhan

The girls of our expedition. From the left: Raha, me, Siobhan

Andy and I at the entrance of Base Camp

Andy and I at the entrance of Base Camp

I say ‘the beginning’ because the whole thing is just huge!  It resembles more of a little city of tents.  It took us good 40 min to reach our own tents situated at almost the very end of the Base Camp, but also very close to the actual Icefall.  I was so glad we finally reached our destination!  I knew now I was safe from the ‘cooties’ of a third world country =)

BASE CAMP