Spring brings a lull before the ice-storm ahead

Everest Diary: Dingboche
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The Independent Online
From the ridge sheltering the Sherpa village of Dingboche from the north, the first thing that struck us was the new green of barley shoots in the patchwork of stone-wall enclosed fields.

Spring is just taking hold in these most northerly fields of the Khumbu and after weeks of looking on nothing but ice and rock the effect is profound.

It is like a lure. Further down the colours will be warmer as the rhododendrons, primulas and briar roses start into bloom. But Dingboche, at 4,350m, is as far down the valley as our Himalayan Kingdoms Expeditions group will descend. In three days, we will be back at Base Camp waiting for the weather that will allow us to make a bid for the top.

The five-hour descent to Dingboche took us past the memorials to Sherpas who have died serving climbing expeditions in the Everest region. Decked with prayer flags, these sad memorials stand along a crest with the highest peaks of the Himalayas to the North and the lower valleys of the Khumbu, where the men would otherwise have tended their fields of potatoes and buckwheat.

Our retreat to one of the many trekker lodges at around the 4,000m level is standard procedure for Everest climbers shortly before their big push. I have certainly got thinner and my muscles have become wasted during our weeks of acclimatisation at high camps, including Camp 3 at some 7,200 metres on the Lhotse Face. Hopefully a few days of yak steaks, hash browns with cheese, bread and honey and the Nepali-brewed San Miguel beer in the Snow Lion Lodge will put a bit of fat back on.

Base Camp, when we left, was in a state of transition. Some climbers were still up high completing their acclimatisation and others had already left for a spot of R&R in the (comparatively) oxygen-rich air of places like our own Dingboche. Meanwhile, Sherpas from the various expeditions were completing the job of fixing lines to the South Col and stocking the high camps with oxygen.

Several of us have brought down coughs and various other ailments that we hope will clear in these more normal conditions. My own, fairly slight hack, seems to have gone almost overnight. But there is a gamble to staying at a lodge. Trekkers are quite likely to have brought up new bugs and the Sherpa children are positive germ factories.

Getting back to full health is a primary objective of Lily Leonard, who has the distinction of being the team member who has been highest on Everest. In 1995, the 41-year old American reached 8,500m, just below the south summit, when chest-high snow forced a halt. "If I hadn't been successful for some other reason to do with myself, I guess I might not have come back. But I felt it was just bad luck and in normal snow conditions I could have reached the summit," she said.

Lily is shaking off a bad cough, but it, and the exigencies of time, have probably put paid to a bold plan to climb not only Everest but its neighbours Lhotse (8,501m) and Nuptse (7,879m) in the same trip.

An administrator in a brokerage office in Hong Kong, Lily took to climbing when, as she says, she "became too old and too slow to chase a squash ball". For five years, she was member of the then colony's squash team. Gratifyingly, to me at least, she is not one of the "it has to be Everest" brigade. Lily's first intention was to climb Lhotse. "I wanted to climb an 8,000m peak. Lhotse is a more technically interesting peak than Everest and it's cheaper." And now she says if she could pick any peak to be successful on, it would be K2, the world's second highest mountain and a tick that would carry more kudos among mountaineers than the one for which we currently are bound.

"The beauty of mountaineering is it is an excuse to go different parts of the world. I think I will get as much satisfaction if I am successful in this venture as I did in climbing Ama Dablam [6,856m, the chisel-head peak that dominates the approach walk to Everest], or visiting the temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. And it isn't just the getting to the top or a simply visual experience. It's the smell of the juniper, the friends you make, and the whole feeling of a trip that makes it worthwhile."

Lily's summit prospects should be helped by her not having a broken leg. Though she did not know it when she turned back at 8,500m in 1995, she had fractured the head of her femur in a fall while descending from Camp 3 on an acclimatisation trip. "If I could get that far with a busted wheel, even though I'm three years older, I think I'm in with a good chance," she says.