Magical tumble of blue ice blocks stairway to the summit

Everest Diary; Base Camp

IT IS NOON and we are sitting in the expedition mess-tent drinking teas with Dawa and Glychen, a couple of Sherpas working for the Singaporean expedition. They are old friends of some our team, and looking as cool and relaxed as if they were having a day off.

In fact before New Yorker David Calloway and I had finished breakfast, the pair had completed a three-hour round trip through the Khumbu Icefall, a height gain of some 700 metres to Camp 1 at its head, crossing gaping crevasses on aluminium ladders lashed together, and always with the chance of one of the teetering ice-cliffs crashing on to their route. The Icefall has made many Sherpa widows. As load carriers, they make many more journeys through this barrier to Everest than the climbers who hire them, increasing the odds of an accident.

Our own Himalayan Kingdom's team will take a tentative look at the Icefall ladders tomorrow and, all being well, go the whole way up to Camp 1 next week. But the three-hour round trip, carrying a 24kg load on the way up, heavier than you are supposed to take as baggage on an international flight, was impressive. Newcomers like myself are expected to take up to six hours just for the one-way climb up, and with the lightest of packs.

Take away the idea of climbing the Icefall and the tumble of glistening blue ice looks magical. But it is constantly on the move, the frozen waterfall between the glacier above in the Western Cwm and its continuation literally beneath us here in Base Camp. Each of the house-sized cliffs leaning out at ever more precarious angles will fall before long. As the late Dougal Haston wrote: "One can only go in and hope ... When one finally comes out of this icy mess into the Western Cwm, it is like being in a newer, brighter land."

Looking back from the foot of the Icefall, there is the whole of Base Camp spread out over an area maybe as big as Green Park, but a bit more awkward to traverse. My own tent is perched on a bouldery hummock a couple of minutes walk from the mess tent and kitchen. Beneath the stones is the ice of the glacier and occasionally in the night there is a "crack" as it yields to the pressure to move down stream. Two flimsy structures house the toilet and a shower - having a shower depends on there being enough sun to heat a plastic bag of water to suspend over one's head. And at the moment it is snowing.

Our first three days here have been spent, like other expeditions, establishing the operation necessities for a long stay and climbing Everest. More than 40 barrels of gear and food were brought up by yaks and their lower-level cousins, dzohs, and some have still to be unpacked. Yesterday, we erected the radio mast that will keep Base Camp in touch with climbers on the mountain. And on an individual level, team members have been adjusting crampons to fit the bulky insulated boots needed to keep out the cold at high altitude.

We went to the foot of the Icefall to try out gear strange to some us on the short ice-cliffs. There has been a fair bit of mockery in the climbing press in recent years about commercial groups being instructed in basic ice-climbing at Base Camp. But unless they have been on this type of Himalayan expedition before, few climbers will have had experience of moving up and down fixed ropes, still less crossing ladders while wearing crampons. I'm not too proud to practise before I'm doing it over a bottomless crevasse.

Healthwise, the bugs that struck in the lodges on the walk-in through the Khumbu seem to have been beaten off, and, despite the 5,400m height, no headaches were reported at breakfast. Our acclimatisation though is not yet complete and I can imagine that without the diary to write, a touch of Base Camp Fever might set in.

Writing the diary though is the easy bit. Our satellite phone has packed up, following a trend set by satellite phones with two other expeditions, and I am reduced to trailing over the piles of glacial rubble time after time to beg the use of a phone with a well-equipped American group. There are few, if any, other phones available and the price of a call is pounds 10 a minute, so a replacement cannot can come soon enough. The alternative, of course, is to go back to the days of using runners to get news back to the outside world. It has its attractions. Now why didn't I bring those cleft sticks.

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