Alistair Caldicott

Into India, Out of Africa

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Excerpt from Chapter 3 - Nepal - Everest Base Camp

I pause for breath at the top and spend time looking at a collection of tombstones commemorating those who had lost their lives on the slopes of Everest over the years.

One of the most familiar and poignant names was that of Michael Matthews engraved on a shiny gold plate with the numbers '1977 - 1999' underneath. He was believed to be the youngest British person to conquer the world's highest peak, but perished shortly afterwards on the descent. He was born in the same year as myself, but his life was terminated at the ridiculously young age of 22.

Attempting to get inside or underneath the psyche of people who take on these challenges long held fascination for me. Whatever it was, I felt a little of it contained inside myself.

Joe Simpson encapsulates it well in Touching the Void:

'When you're on the mountain pushing that line of living and dying, you live for that moment, with a very clear perspective of what being alive is. When you come down the mountain, that sense of perspective tends to fade, which is why you want to go back. So you're not going back for some adrenaline-junkie hit, you go back to live fully. Non-climbers say: 'Do you have a death wish?' No I don't. It's one of the most life enhancing things to do.'

The metaphor can be applied, not just to mountains, but to all challenges involving risk. But I was particularly able to identify how the environment now around me can strip people down to the rawest and most basic emotions.

Outside the temperature is around minus fifteen, bitterly cold with a fresh coating of snow on the ground. I can do no more than lie in my sleeping bag feeling terrible while crowds of people come in and out for breakfast. Breakfast for me is half a chocolate bar.

Illness is generally prevalent all round. Headaches, runny noses, chesty coughs do not seem to go away. The days can sometimes seem long with precious little entertainment to fill them except the patient wait for the following day's progress. Conclusively it is not a place for prolonged human habitation.

At 8:30am we proceed to climb the mountain of Kala Pattah, which translates as 'Black Rock'. It offers some of the best views of Everest you will get without actually climbing it. For the first real occasion it is as if I am intimately looking across at the world's highest mountain from something approaching an equal level, rather than distant horizon gazing.

And on all sides the views are unquestionably spectacular, arguably some of the finest mountain scenery on earth. The climb up is steep and demanding, necessitating several stops for oxygen and to marvel at the surroundings.

From high above, the Khumbu glacier looks deceptively small as it turns the corner to become the intimidating icefall, the point where the going on Everest transforms into really tough, where you get the ice axe and crampons out.

The wind on the very top seems like it will blow you off the mountain altogether if you hang around too long. Nupse peak (7800m) looms large to the right, heavily overflowing with fresh looking snow. Deep blue glaciers shimmer and glisten in the morning sun.

There's quite a bit of human traffic steadily moving towards the top where the wind takes on a new bitingly fierce strength, so strong that you cannot properly hear someone next to you speaking. Having not properly accounted for such a piercing wind, I feel particularly exposed only wearing shorts and two tops, generating a few surprised comments from onlookers. Yet the chilly temperature is somehow disguised by the intense brightness and radiation of the morning sun. At one point my hat flies off, but luckily gets stuck on a rock and I manage to retrieve it.

We encounter very few people as we progress directly up and across the Khumbu glacier. There is a definite frontier-like feel penetrating deeper and deeper into inhospitable terrain. The views of mountain peaks are less expansive and spectacular than from Kala Pattar, but there is a greater feel of intimacy and humbleness of size. The landscape around us on all sides is barren, yet wildly beautiful. Nothing but rocks and ice.

There are plenty of ups and downs traversing mini-mountains of scree. Solidly frozen ice lakes and still caves are decorated with sharp dangling ice crystals slowly dripping with melt water under the strong sun. Giant boulders are improbably balanced on top of sturdy sticks of ice. The piercingly chilly wind belies the stillness of a perfect, calm blue sky, its vivid blue colour accentuated by being so high up in the atmosphere. The gushing noise of glacial streams can be heard rushing underneath the rubble of rocks.

Progress is steady as we regularly pause for breath and to wonder at our surroundings. Sometimes it is like being on the grey bumpiness of the moon; other times it could be the blue and white pristineness of Antarctica. I will be doing extremely well to ever visit either place, but have cultivated a vivid imagination.

Everest itself looms larger as a forbidding black pyramid until it is completely obscured from our vision by Nupse. Also visible are Pumo Ri (7165m) directly to the north and further round Lingtren (6749m) and Khumbutse (6665m). The true vastness of the Khumbu glacier can only be fully appreciated from close up. I am able to inspect the scrapes of erosion and peer down into deep, dark, never-ending crevasses.

Everest Base Camp has been described as the world's highest garbage dump. Yet so much of it I saw is so pure and clean that someone could have gone round polishing it all to a shine and tidying shortly before I arrived. Base Camp is not really a sudden definable entity as I imagined it might be. There are no signs to welcome you at the entrance – there is none.

Small pieces of evidence start to emerge to let you know – abandoned oxygen canisters and empty tins of food.

The peaks way above look assuredly calm against a backdrop of deep blue ocean of sky. But this belies what is really going on up there – very fierce, strong winds continue to tear across the top at this time of year. This is why there are no expeditions currently going up and we have the entire Everest Base Camp area to ourselves. Voices eerily echo occasionally.

We reach the Khumbu Icefall, as far as you can possibly climb on foot before reaching for the technical climbing equipment. The Khumbu Icefall is probably the most technically demanding aspect of an attempt to reach the top of Everest.

Dave actually starts to climb the first few steps of the ice which, from a distance, looks pretty spectacular – a small black speck slowly advancing up an impossibly daunting face of blue and white ice blocks, some the size of office blocks. Elsewhere there are plenty of colourful small Buddhist prayer flags and the occasional tombstone marking where this mighty mountain had claimed a life. And there have been a few over the years.

A long day's walking climaxes with a descent all the way back down to Lobuche in the cooling evening wind. Behind us, the white colossus, that is Nupse, is brilliantly illuminated in warm orange and benign red by the low evening sun. Another Himalayan summit that just cannot stop demanding your attention.

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