Everest Diary: Base Camp - No dignity in death for trekker who tripped too far
Monday 11 May 1998
For all its mean appearance, three low lodges just above the sandy pan of a dried-up glacial lake, Gorak Shep is the goal of thousands of trekkers who take the Everest trail. Above it rises Kala Pattar, a hill with all the aesthetic mountain beauty of a slag heap but one which affords fine views of Everest and its neighbour Nutpse and Changtse.
But too often Gorak Shep, if not Kala Pattar, proves a stage too far for poorly acclimatised trekkers and there are deaths. It has just been "Golden Week" in Japan when various public holidays are rolled together to give a spring holiday. We saw several crocodiles of Japanese trekkers down the valley and the likelihood is if the trip was being squeezed into an extended week or fortnight, they would not have time to acclimatise properly.
The circumstances of the death of the Japanese trekker in Gorak Shep have taken some unravelling. Gossip around Base Camp, where teams are idling away day after day waiting for better weather, produced several different versions of the story.
The most reliable version is that he was 53, had a heart pacemaker, and died in his sleep in a lodge bed. His two distraught companions burnt incense according to their Buddhist custom and tried to arrange to have his body helicoptered out. Unsuccessful in this, they were then confronted with a delicate problem. How to get a body stiff with rigor mortis out of the Khumbu and home to Japan?
There are no roads here. It is a good two days' walk on a rough track to Namche, where there is an airstrip, and another two days to the regular strip at Lukla. To get to the roadhead at Jiri takes a week. And the only means of transport is porter or yak.
Porters carry everything and anything in a tapering wicker basket, supported by a string thong across the forehead. But how to get the body in the basket? The bereaved trekkers realised they were going to somehow have to fold their dead companion in two but quailed at the brutal task. Apparently their dilemma was solved by an unsqueamish Canadian who, so the story goes, broke the corpse's spine.
This is not an easy scenario to imagine. It cannot be a simple business to snap a spine. But one way or another the deed was certainly done and the body folded up. I have spoken to an eyewitness here at Base Camp who saw the porter setting off from Gorak Shep - a pair of legs and a head protruding from the top of his basket.
We had hoped not to see Gorak Shep again until we walked out from Everest after our summit bid, successful or otherwise. But the weather is not doing us any favours and I, at least, will soon be thinking of taking another hike down the valley just to pass the time and stop my muscles wasting away altogether.
With the jet stream more or less overhead, winds of up to 100mph are blasting the top of the mountain, creating impressive cloud plumes. There seems little prospect for improvement over the next five or six days and already one team has decided to go down the valley again to kill time in more comfortable surroundings.
Perhaps we have been presumptuous. A place on an Everest permit does not guarantee you a shot at the summit.
A year ago, in the pre-monsoon season, an Indonesian team summited on 30 April, but no one else got there until 23 May and a last group on 30 May.
Everest has remained inviolate since. In the post-monsoon climbing season (last autumn) bad weather prevented anyone getting up the mountain - however many thousands of dollars they had paid for the trip.
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