Everest: Northside Base Camp, Pt.1

By Owen West

Slate.msn.com, 04/20/2001

I awoke 30 minutes ago gasping for air. Being smothered by a hypoxic pillow of stale air is no joy at sea level but here at Everest’s north side Base Camp—our first night in a tent at 17,300 feet with only half the oxygen found in New York City (actually, that’s a bad example; let’s use San Diego)—it actually causes panic and a breathless fumble for the sleeping-bag zipper. Acclimatization is a wildly unpredictable process, and this latest bout of Chayne-Stokes breathing is yet another crevasse into which I’ve stumbled on my way up. At sea level, CO2 buildup triggers breathing, but in this thinner air it is the absence of oxygen that has to spur the urge. My body hasn’t adjusted yet; every 15 minutes I stop breathing because my lungs don’t feel a CO2 burn when in fact I don’t have much oxygen, either. After a few seconds, the low oxygen level trips a delayed alarm and I wake up gasping for breath. And to think I’m missing MTV’s Spring Break coverage for this madness.

I’ve known I’d make an attempt on Mount Everest since I graduated from the Marine Corps’ Mountain Leadership Course in 1992, and when we (my wife, Susanne, is hiking up to Advanced Base Camp at 21,000 feet) were granted the opportunity to join Russell Brice’s north side expedition we signed on immediately. We probably can’t afford it now in terms of either time or money, but we reasoned that our fitness levels at the time we can afford it—that is, retirement—would simply add to the jeopardy the mountain already presents. Besides, I’ve used the phrase “It’s too late now” before and vowed never to employ it again in regret.

So, on my third day of acclimatization in Shingatse, Tibet (it has taken six days to reach Base Camp), I was totally dismayed when, after climbing a small flight of hotel stairs, I collapsed on our bed, hyperventilating. I had been up over 13,000 feet many times before—often right from sea level—but had never had this breathless reaction to the altitude. Here was this once-in-a-lifetime and I wasn’t going to cut it! To clear my head, Suz and I went on a short acclimatization hike to 13,500 feet, and I seared my lungs and trudged along at a crawl. My wife was just humming along and she said, “Maybe I should replace you on the summit permit and you can stay at ABC.” If I could even get to ABC. Chinese antibiotics cured both the bronchitis and some of the self-doubt; now if I can kick the Stokes, I can begin to make up some of the acclimatization opportunities I’ve already lost. I’m hopeful that a little typing tonight will take my mind off my breathing.

I crawled over Suz, carefully keeping my headlamp beam away from her face—she’s sleeping soundly each night, heartless wench—unzipped the tent flap, and stood full upright in the frigid wind of the Rongbuk glacier. The moon’s been waning for only two days, and our camp was illuminated by that otherworldly glow I’ve come to associate with the promise of adventure. I twisted the headlamp off and started my fast walk—a sprint would have collapsed me tonight—toward the comm. tent, guided by the occasional cough of a teammate and the hundred-odd barrels of equipment we’ll soon be moving up to ABC by yak. With the frosty laptop in my hand, I was hyperventilating my way back to the tent when the outline took the rest of what little breath my lungs were holding.

You can’t see the summit from the south side Base Camp, but my God the mountain looms dominant here—and commands your full attention. And your fear. And desires. And again the fear. There are certain things in life you need to see for yourself to fully appreciate—your bride walking down the aisle, Springsteen playing “Born To Run” live in the Garden with the lights on—and Mount Everest is one of them. When we first saw her, she was 140 kilometers away. That is, if you were standing on the northern outskirts of San Diego you could see her as far away as Los Angeles; likewise for Philadelphia and Manhattan. Tonight she is a great, black pyramid and her concomitant plume is twinkling silver in the light, easily 10 kilometers long. Standing 12,000 feet below her summit, I felt the wind ripping away my body heat even as it ripped those snow crystals free of her brow. Staring up at the top section of the very route this team intends to take, it was hard to imagine that, given the proper acclimatization and weather, I’d be up there taking a crack at the northeast ridge.

There are no easy routes up Everest, but of the 950-odd summiters, fewer than 25 percent have followed the route we’re taking. When I first talked to one of our horse-mountain guides, Chris Warner, he described the route as being “really cool” because it was “wildly exposed,” had “better views” than the traditional south side route, and “really airy traverses and mixed climbing.” It wasn’t until later, when I found someone who could translate mountain lingo, that I found out the phrases meant “terrifying,” “one slip and you’re over,” “don’t look down,” and “you better have your shit wired.”

Before I left the States, someone told me not to come home without the summit, which you could bag if you were “really, really determined.” Avoiding an escalating argument on the definition of true, in-your-face determination, I just looked at him the same way I look at people who wonder why anyone would attempt Everest to begin with; given the gap in understanding, no answer will sate. Reaching the summit is never, ever a given in the mountains, especially one where, if it shivers or sneezes it will end you.

The summit is not the salient goal here. Granted, if the opportunity is right I’ll strike up into the jet stream with the rest of the crew, but if I am forced to prioritize, the order runs something like: 1) come home alive; 2) come home with all my fingers and at least nine toes; 3) climb as high as I can without endangering my teammates; 4) relish this adventure.

To reinforce these priorities—which I already knew—Suz and I took a walk on cemetery hill when we arrived this afternoon. Dozens of knee-high piles of stones serve as memorials to those who have been swallowed by the north side. It’s eerie and sobering. The carvings are in an assortment of languages—Russian, Japanese, English, Dutch, Polish, French, Spanish—and we were left with the strong impression that some terrible battle had been waged between an international force that had put aside ideological differences and an omnipotent force of nature. I recognized many of the names, and they were far stronger and more experienced mountaineers than I. When you walk the northeast ridge you’re on the razor’s edge, and it takes every bit of judgment and luck not to wake the dragon.

As I type these last sentences tonight—plunging my fingers into my armpits every few sentences to keep warm—my wife is sleeping peacefully next to me, and I don’t want that to change on some terrible day in May. I’m a trader and I understand risk and reward at sea level; let’s hope I understand it above 8,000 meters.

Tomorrow: the team.