Ferocious winds are howling. Our base camp is destroyed. Will this be my farewell to Everest?

Everest Diary: Base Camp
Click to follow
The Independent Online
THERE WAS a sound like the roar of a fleet of 747 jets overhead as great plumes of snow and vapour flew from the west shoulder of Everest.

Ferocious winds whipped down Everest's Western Cwm last night and this morning, demolishing nearly all our Himalayan Kingdoms Expeditions tents and many of those of other teams. Our advanced base camp has been destroyed.

Fortunately no lives have been reported lost, though for a while we feared one of our Sherpas had suffered a frostbitten hand as two of them battled through the Cwm.

The scene at Base Camp around breakfast was reminiscent of photographs of wives at pithead gates after mining disasters. Groups of Sherpas and climbers clustered near their mess tents gazing up towards the head of the Khumbu Icefall and the entrance to the Cwm.

Out of the Cwm itself, snow billowed in whirlwinds, snaking down the upper icefield.

Our own camp was unoccupied - but with the likelihood of vital equipment scattered by the wind, a question mark hangs over any summit bid.

Gear, missing or otherwise, was not our first thought this morning. Nima Dorjee and Pemba Tsering, two of our most experienced Sherpas, left before dawn with a colleague, "Big" Dorjee, from an American team to try and reach Camp 2 to assess storm damage. They were somewhere in the maelstrom of blowing snow we could see hundreds of metres above us.

In addition, a handful of Sherpas based at Camp 2 for others in the international circus of teams were hanging on in a large dome tent, trying to keep it from collapsing despite two broken poles.

Strangely, though the mouth of the Cwm is only 600 metres above Base Camp, we stood watching in relative calm and sunshine. However, there was no mistaking the menace of the wind's roar and the concern of the Sherpas, who on any other slack morning would have turned to playing cards and laughter.

The timing of the blast is sobering. It is pretty well two years to the day since nine climbers died when similar fierce winds caught them out above the South Col.

As the sunshine gave way to steady snowfall, most of the day was spent criss-crossing between camps of different nationalities piecing together information. Shyam Prasad Pun, Camp 2 cook with the US team of disabled climber Tom Whittaker, had watched sleeping bags and bits of tents hurtling down the Cwm, some of them maybe our own.

Tents belonging to the Iranian team also took to the air like magic carpets - unbeknown to their owners who, tired of hanging around Base Camp for a weather window, have gone down the valley to Namche for a rest.

Nima and Pemba reached Camp 2 at about 11am, did what they could to secure the wreckage and then set off back. It was a vain effort. In white-out conditions and unable to see their way in the heavily crevassed Cwm they were forced to turn back and take refuge with Shyam and the others in Whittaker's battered dome tent. With only patchy radio contact, it was feared for a while that Nima had a frost-bitten hand. Later, after apparently plunging his hands in warm water, we heard he had regained the use of his hand, but only time will reveal the extent of his injury.

Their damage report on the camp was less encouraging: the cook tent had been blown away, three of the five team-member tents were flattened with gear still inside them and the other two are missing, as are all three tents used by the Sherpas.

Until we know what has been lost and what can be salvaged, it is impossible to know whether we are still able to mount a summit bid if the weather improves. All our down-jackets, salopettes, and other high altitude gear was in the tents.

As for the effect of the wild weather on our higher camps, with luck our four tents at Camp 3 at 7,200m on the Lhotse Face will have been buried by snow and can simply be dug out. The one tent that our Sherpas erected at the South Col could well be history, though the oxygen bottles and other gear should still be retrievable.

With a bit of luck, the wind will have eased sufficiently tomorrow for Sherpas, and possibly some team members, to go up the Icefall and go into the Cwm to start the salvage operation. It is expected to be a combined effort by most of the international teams here - the disaster having hit everyone.

Meanwhile in Base Camp, climbers will again be engaged in the frustrating business of trying to interpret weather forecasts and guess the movement of the jet stream, at the moment blowing directly over Everest.

It is a change in the track of these high-altitude winds that creates the calmer weather window climbers try to exploit each spring. But over the past week we have watched plumes of cloud rushing across the mountain tops at speeds of up to 100mph, and more are forecast.

David Callaway, our New York physics professor, has been growling about El Nino causing an upset in the jet streams, maybe delaying the window by weeks or even shutting it altogether.

t A full collection of Stephen Goodwin's Everest diaries, with photographs can be found on The Independent's web site - www.independent.co.uk