In the footsteps of the mountain heroes

Everest Diary: Base Camp
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The Independent Online
I'VE read most of the classic books about this place, but nothing prepares you for seeing Everest Base Camp for the first time. Our group had become quite spread out on the four-hour walk up from Lobuche. I had been taking photographs of the black triangular summit of Everest before it was lost from view again behind the mountain's own west flank. So I walked into this sprawling, multi-coloured encampment alone.

It was like entering a strange town and realising you haven't got any address for the place you are staying. The bright yellow domed tents of the large US contingent were just below us, but where among the 100 or more tents in groups on the glacial moraine was the Himalayan Kingdom's camp? The Americans didn't know. There are no broad boulevards, pitches have been levelled out for mess tents and team-member tents wherever the Sherpas, who arrive in advance, think best.

The site is strung with prayer flags radiating from Buddhist chortens - like large rectangular cairns. Expedition kitchens look like almost permanent affairs, low stone walls reminiscent of Scottish Highland "black houses". Yet none of this is permanent. The whole of Base Camp is on the Khumbu glacier, its surface littered with piles of boulders and stones. Scuff away the surface as you stumble from one tent to another and you are liable to slip on ice.

I passed by the other British team aiming for the summit via the South Col - another commercial expedition like our own, led by the Edinburgh based climber Henry Todd and found our own tents just beyond the Iranian encampment. It had started to snow, and after a meal I went to my A-frame tent to recover from the walk up 5,400 metres and start on my diary. The tent will be my home for the next five or six weeks. Temperatures will drop to probably minus 10C at night and I have three insulating layers under a goose down sleeping bag.

As I write, the Iranians have begun chanting, though it doesn't sound like prayers, and I can hear occasional rock slides down the moraine cliffs safely to the north of the tents.

On our route up here, just above Gorak Shap, the last rudimentary hamlet, we came upon a chorten commemorating Rob Hall, the expedition leader killed on Everest in the 1996 disaster. Hall's confident, smiling face still looks down from fading posters in many Khumbu lodges, inviting climbers to spend up to $65,000 a head on what were the top drawer Everest trips. The gung-ho spirit of those years was said by people on the mountain last years to have been replaced by one of caution.

For all the many groups here, some like the Iranians flying their national flags, no one has yet ventured up above the ice fall into the Western Cwm, the glacial valley that is the gateway to Everest on this Nepal side.

Henry Todd's Sherpas have fixed a route through the ice wall - there will be ladders spanning gaping crevasses and up ice cliffs - and groups like our own will pay to use this perilous highway.

However, when the Sherpas went into the ice fall today, they found part of the top section of the prepared route had collapsed and it is now being re-rigged.

For us, though, the next few days will be spent around Base Camp, acclimatising, checking our gear and, in my case smoothing out some of the rocks beneath the tent.

Dominating the Base Camp panorama, along with the ice fall, are the west ridge of Nuptse and Pumori, both 7,000-metre peaks. But the summit of Everest is hidden from us and I am left to ponder the limited glimpse I had of it earlier today, a wind plume spreading from its 8,848-metre top.

Noel Odell said of the mountain in 1924 following the disappearance of Mallory and Irvine: "It seems to look down with complete indifference on me, mere puny man." That was from north side in Tibet, where the mountain fills the horizon 60 miles away. There is no big view from this Nepal side. None the less, the dark pyramid of the summit, which is all I could see, looks forbidding enough.