Everest: Northside Base Camp, Pt.3

By Owen West

Slate.msn.com, 04/18/2001

Noon

Thirty yak men and their 100 yaks arrived last night, so Base Camp was not only crowded but also quite loud—each yak wears a brass bell around its neck (though many of us wondered how exactly you’d lose a yak when the sides of the glacier extend thousands of feet into the air), and the clanging started around six last night and hasn’t stopped. At least the yak men are quieter today; last night they sang at the top of their lungs. The same song. Over and over. Together with the yaks, our camp sounded as if a mad Quasimodo had locked himself in the bell tower, swinging on his bells and singing “Macarena; the Extended Dance Version.”

Our tent is parked on the outskirts of camp, so it was particularly popular with the yaks; Suz and I had one parked outside our entrance all night and when our piss bottles were full we were forced to run the gantlet. This morning, Suz told me that she thought the hairy beast was attracted to my animal scent, so she trimmed my bangs (my haircut is now Bono circa 1981’s “New Year’s Day” video; perhaps I’ll call it a Himalullet or a Mount Mullet) and forced me to bathe. A shower consists of a pot of steaming water, a rush to strip off some relevant articles in the cold, a pleasurable dunking, a miserable retraction and soaping, a rinse, then a frigid rush back to the tent before the hair crystallizes.

I think Suz—like Ellen and Evelyne—is just grumpy because another expedition took away her only private bathroom. Everest Base Camp is a bit like my other jaunts—Harvard, the Marine Corps, trading—in that there are desperate men roaming everywhere. And unfortunately, as is often the case in the wild, the dark underbelly of these men has been set free, and they wander around in various states of dress, urinating where they please like dogs marking territory, staring after our women and forcing them into thin air just to find some privacy.

Maddeningly, on a huge glacier that stretches for miles, at least seven other expeditions have set up right around us. Apparently this happens to Russell every year; last year, he parked a klick to the south and, seeing him, everyone camped there. I guess it’s an unfortunate side effect when you’re known as the “Mayor of the North Side”

Russell, like all of the commercial operators, has come under some criticism since the maelstrom that followed the 1996 season, and much of it has been bandwagoning and hypocrisy disguised as highbrow reasoning. From my vantage point in the heart of the matter, things are not as simple as many would have me believe.

The first argument is that Mount Everest should be spared from such idolatries as “money” and “business.” Of course this is impossible given the travel expenses, the costs of the equipment, and the fact that Nepal, for example, charges $10,000 a head to climb. So, the “private” expeditions are also commercial—they, too, have to raise money, except they tuck the dollars away into something called “sponsorship” and then criticize commercial expeditions as avaricious. Furthermore, most expeditions—regardless of label—hire Sherpas for support. The difference is that some private expeditions keep these men hidden, while they are a proud part of the commercial expedition’s team. The Sherpas on all teams take pride in their work, but it is clear from my interaction with them that certain expeditions keep that pride from shining.

The second argument is that incompetents are being dragged to the top of a mountain that is no longer difficult to climb and, because of this, qualifications should be established. This is reasoning that is not just idealistic, but quite moralistic, bordering on snobbery. Nobody controls the mountains, just as nobody controls the oceans. I would love to retire and guide spearfishing or fishing expeditions, and no one would object—there are hundreds of operations like this. Why is it, then, that guiding on Everest has been placed off limits? If a client chooses to risk her life in the fulfillment of a dream, that is her business, and if a guide wants to charge for expertise, that is his business. As for the charge of incompetence, I think the label has been unjustly applied in several cases. Everyone knows that Sandy Hill Pittman had some money, was savvy with the media, and was aided as she approached the peak of the highest mountain of the world. What you do not hear is that she had been to Everest three times before 1996—including attempts on the north side and the treacherous Kangshung Face. That’s about three more times then her most vociferous critics.

From various reports I had read before coming here, I was convinced that the commercial expeditions were responsible for the garbage on the mountain—this is an absolutely fallacious connection. I am not a champion of all commercial expeditions, but the truth is that operators like Russell return to the hill each year, and they are the ones who meticulously police its cleanliness—all of Himalayan Experience’s waste, including human, is transported off the mountain in barrels. All team members participate and adopt this philosophy. Then we’ll do a sweep of the mountain and collect what extra trash we can, and Russ will pay anyone who hands him a discarded oxygen bottle. Of the 25 expeditions on the mountain this year, fewer than 10 are going to these lengths, almost all of them commercial. If four friends want to come “knock this bastard off the right way” what do you think happens to their waste? Do they pay for the barrels and yaks to withdraw their stuff from up high? My team has viewed this cleanup as part of our duties, a viewpoint most other expeditions do not share.

The fact seems to be that the commercial expeditions have the money, the relationships, and the incentives that form the backbone of this mountain. They fix the ropes the others will use, they have the infrastructure to perform the serious rescues (Russ has taken an amazing 14 climbers down from above 8,300 meters, often with the help of other commercial folks, and has never received even a letter of thanks), they inject money into the local economy, and they pay their Sherpas top dollar and outfit them best (our team has top-of-the-line uniforms).

Bottom line—commercial expeditions are slowly starting to right the wrongs of the previous 50 years and, while the mountain certainly wears more rope than it did in 1924, it is open to anyone with a dream and is still an extraordinarily difficult and treacherous endeavor.