Everest: Northside Base Camp, Pt.5

By Owen West

Slate.msn.com, 04/16/2001

Advanced Base Camp

From where I’m typing in my tent I can see the monstrous North Col looming over our Advanced Base Camp, a jagged white wall of snow and ice that peaks at just over 23,000 feet. Here at 21,000 feet I’m higher than I’ve ever been and am pleased with the slow, steady progress I’m making with the team. My next goal is simply to reach the top of the Col, something the Sherpas did in under three hours today; I’ll be satisfied with five.

It was a very tough hump up here from Base Camp, and many of us have not yet fully recovered. Eighteen miles with a 30-pound ruck is nothing at sea level, but the 4,000 foot gain at altitude really leveled many of us. My wife Susanne had wanted to reach ABC, but acute mountain sickness knocked her down at our interim camp at 19,000 feet. I’m just so proud of how she fought through the night 48 hours ago—and guilty that I didn’t demand her pack earlier. By the time Andy Lapkass and I took some of her load (she never relinquished her pack) a massive headache had sunk its fangs into her and she was nearly immobile. It was a very cold night and, absent an IV bag, the only way she could begin to cure herself was to drink several liters of the yak-infested pond water the rest of us had refused. She held the fluid down—vomiting would have turned the night into an epic—and was transformed into her usual bundle of energy the next morning, albeit with a massive hangover.

Russ has since told me that all our training endeavors were for naught. “The best way to prepare for that sick feeling,” he said, “is to tie a good one on each night and train your body how to function the next morning!”

So, I’ve been without Suz for two days and besides having a much colder tent (right now I’m in my bag with a down jacket, a fleece jacket, polypro top, down pants, fleece pants, hat, and gloves) all the lonely doubts have already crept inside and been vanquished. But I know they’ll be back. Namely: Why are you doing this? You’re not qualified!

Suz made a pact with Andy and Chris before she left: If I’m struggling, all they have to do is turn to me and say, “You’re too slow,” and I’ll nod my head and head home.

For a living, I sit in front of a screen and bark into a phone; it’s a terrific job with terrific people but it’s only in conditions like these—struggling in the mountains or the jungles as part of a team—that I really find out what I am. I’m not sure what I’m looking for, but I feel close to it out here. Even the warm-up to this climb—and that’s all I’ve really done—has taught me so much. When you set a goal it’s easy; it’s only when the difficulty of the actual endeavor smacks you in the face that you learn to dig deep and overcome. If you can.

I’ve failed a lot, and I’ve always learned more from those failures than I have when I’ve gotten lucky with something. Unfortunately, failure on Everest often means death, so I hope Chomolugma pities me enough to remain satisfied with a toe or two.

Today we moved some barrels and cleared some tent platforms, work that left me breathless and required even more mandatory rest breaks than your average government construction company. The Col is a steep ascent with jumars and ice axes; I hope I’ll be ready when the time comes in a few days.

The route to 8,200 meters has been fixed by Eric Simonson’s team already. Our team was forced to abandon two high camps last year because of weather conditions, so we’ve got hundreds of meters of rope and many oxygen tanks waiting for us in the jet stream, assuming they were not avalanched this past year. This will make our lives (actually, the Sherpas’ lives) much easier and give us an early summit window.

Everest attracts a wildly diverse international crew, and over 12 expeditions are here with us at ABC. I would be specific but it’s early, and I don’t fancy an ice ax coming screaming through my tent. It’s a dangerous mountain, and already we’ve seen some things that make us scratch our heads or worse. On the way up to ABC, we passed a single climber who was taking two steps for every rest break, and we weren’t exactly burning up the mountain. This is normal for 23,000 feet and above, but the pace meant his hike to ABC would continue into the darkness. Next, there was a team frantically searching for a lost member who had set off alone at 9:00 am and hadn’t been seen since. I do not know his status, but we assume he’s been found. Finally, I saw men with shaved heads and nothing but Walkman earphones to protect their craniums heading up to the Col today in a nasty snowstorm. It takes all kinds; I’m just happy to be part of a crew where good advice is being sought and given constantly.

The only positive to Suz’s absence is that I can play the 12 Springsteen tapes I brought for my Walkman. Batteries are gold here, so I expect to be sleeping with mine along with my warm water bottle, my booties, my sun cream, and my headlamp.

There are a lot of high-altitude, in-extremis stories being swapped nightly at the dinner table, so I generally keep my trap shut. It’s not like I’m going to “wow!” anybody with a walk up Shasta or Whitney. When people want stories from me, they want Wall Street stuff, so again I find myself keeping a stealth profile. Chris Warner told me when I signed on that “Russell Brice doesn’t take dentists with him,” but if there is a dentist, I’m him, so I figure it’s best to just strap on the pack and slog along as best I can toward the tail end of an immensely strong pack.

Everest is one of those things in life that so many people talk about, but so few really know. Well, I realized a while ago I just had to know it firsthand before I died, and the adventure is every bit as raw and wild as I’d hoped. I know I’m in the best hands on the mountain; people say there is no guiding above 8,000 meters, but there is leadership and sometimes that’s enough. And everywhere I look down here there is a leader, from the Sherpas, to the guides, to the members themselves.

ABC will be home for over a month, so we’re hoping that our appetites come back and that the pounding in the backs of our heads diminishes. I think we have the best camp on the mountain, and I’m eating better (well, when I can eat, that is) than when I dine bachelor-style in NYC.

In a few days we strap on the crampons, don the heavy rucks, and make a carry up to the Col. The adventure has only just begun; it’s been tough enough already, let’s just hope that my penchant for misery kicks in and gets me through some of those eight-hour days when we’ll be fighting 100 kph gusts on the north ridge.

Pray for warmth and red blood cells.