My Inglorious Quest to the Bottom of Everest
By David Scott
To climb Mount Everest you first have to trek to Everest Base Camp, elevation 17,500 feet. That is effectively the bottom of the Everest climb. Then, there is another 11,500 feet of mountain up to the top of the world. Most people take two weeks to do the trek to Base Camp, ascending from village to village in the ancient Khumbu Valley and along the way slowly acclimatizing their bodies to the diminishing oxygen in the air. Move too fast up the trek and you risk altitude sickness, which can make your brain and lungs leak fluid and swell as your organs work overtime to absorb the precious little oxygen. It can be relatively mild or it can be lethal. High on the mountain, altitude sickness claims more climbers’ lives than anything else. The only cure is to descend before it’s too late. This year on Everest, five climbers died and at least sixty-six had to be rescued mainly due to severe altitude sickness. I caught a mercifully mild case recently as our Real Sports team made its way to the “bottom” of Everest to look into the growing commercial exploitation of the mountain and its people, the Sherpas.
(The segment airs on the August 21 edition of Real Sports at 10 PM ET/PT on HBO.)
LUKLA Elevation 9,383 Feet
Our Real Sports crew of five arrives from Kathmandu by helicopter. The Khumbu’s terrain is so tough that wheeled vehicles are useless. We won’t see a car, truck, bike or even an ox cart until we leave the region in two weeks. Here, everyone travels by foot and by foot it’s a long, slow climb. I feel pretty good at this altitude though I’m the oldest and least fit of our group and I have my doubts.
NAMCHE BAZAAR Elevation 11,286 Ft.
Time being money, we’re on an accelerated schedule to get to our Everest Base Camp shoot. Dr. Nima Namgyal Sherpa, who practices medicine and mountaineering here is copiously monitoring our health and guiding our trek. We helicopter up to this colorful centuries-old village carved into the steep valley. The regular population is 1,647, but during the climbing season it’s bustling with trekkers and climbers from all over the world. There are gear shops and restaurants and satellite television in the small mountain inns. My heart rate steps up. I can feel the strain of acclimatization beginning to creep in.
PHORTSE Elevation 12,959 Ft.
The first steps up from Namche feel hopeless against the vast surroundings. It’s dusty and steep and the “path” is barely discernable at times. Locals call it “Khumbu flat” which means it’s just less steep then all of the more extreme inclines. Two trekking guides, Sonam and Chirring, are at our sides, gingerly escorting us. After about 40 minutes I’m trailing the group and starting to panic. Every three or four steps I double over vainly trying to recover my wind. Looking up at the endless trail, what little confidence I had left evaporates. I’m now moving so slowly it’s hard to see the rest of my group ahead. By the time I catch up to the others at a little tea house, I’m distraught. Oxygen content in the air is now about half that of sea level.
KUMJUNG Elevation 12, 343 Ft.
They say, “climb high, sleep low.” It’s a strategy for adapting to the thinning air. But I’m in no condition to go anywhere. My head is foggy and aching and I’m having terrible photosensitivity. The rest of the team chows down some stir-fried noodles and continues up the path before descending slightly to Kumjung village to sleep “low.” I’m damn near incapacitated for the next two hours. Chirring finally pushes me onward and upward. On the trail we encounter two porters from the Rai ethnic group. The Rai carry the supplies of climbers and trekkers up to Everest Base Camp. Beyond that is mainly the province of ethnic Sherpa workers. The two men are slight – no more than 140 pounds. One carries three 4x6' planks of plywood on his back, strapped to his forehead. The other has twelve long 2x4's tied together and hanging from his forehead on his back. Within minutes they are so far ahead of us I can barely see them.
I’m sick with a splitting headache and I can’t eat. It’s cold and cramped in the tea house where we flop and I hide in the dark in bed. Dr. Nima prescribes Diamox, a diuretic that mitigates altitude sickness by regulating acid in the body. He also announces that he’s sending me back down to Namche while the rest of the team continues the trek up. This means for the next six days I’ll be separated from the group. That’s tough to take, psychologically, but I’m in no condition to protest. He puts me in a helicopter and sends me down with Chirring. If I can’t recover, the shoot is in jeopardy.
NAMCHE BAZAAR (REVISITED)
Within just a few hours at Namche I’m starting to feel better. It’s amazing what incrementally more oxygen content in the air means to the body. By mid-afternoon my headache and heart rate subside and I’m eating pizza with Chirring in a Namche café. By nightfall I feel almost normal, but now I’m not sure I’m at all cut out for higher altitude. The reality is not everyone adapts well, regardless of fitness or age.
PANGBOCHE: ELEVATION 13,123 Ft.
Everyone’s every move here depends on the weather. Cloud cover can descend or dissipate within minutes masking or exposing the gargantuan mountain ridge. Dr. Nima thinks I’m healthy enough to fly up to Pangboche village and make up some ground. I’m not so sure. Just the two hundred-yard hike up to the helipad leaves me winded. We have to wait out the rain and clouds so Dr. Nima calls an old friend in to cook up some spicy ramen noodles right quick. Turns out he’s a retired “icefall doctor,” the Sherpas who specialize in charting the route through the notorious glacier that starts the technical climb up Everest from Base Camp. Of all the risky jobs Sherpas do on this mountain, the doctors may gamble with their lives most of all. But he’s one of the lucky ones. Now, he just cooks noodles. He adds some local greens to the salty broth and serves me up the perfect boost. In an instant, the chopper whirls onto the pad. Helicopters here fly around like taxi cabs for those who can pay. Within five minutes we cover the ground of a tough six-hour trek and land. Tomorrow we’ll be strictly on foot.
DINGBOCHE: ELEVATION 14,435 Ft.
Chirring and I start out early morning on a five-hour trek to the village of Dingboche – population 200. The first couple of hours aren’t bad as I learn to pace myself for the long haul. Dr. Nima calls it, “learning patience.” The terrain is rough and rocky and endless, winding up and around dusty mountain passes. By the fourth hour I’m moving at an almost absurdly glacial pace. Chirring is dutifully strolling beside me offering a welcomed but one-way conversation. My own mouth is only open to breath. I have to make smart oxygen choices and silence seems an obvious one. Finally, we arrive at Dingboche’s enormous Buddhist “stupa” strewn with colorful Sherpa prayer flags. I get a short break and a meal and we set out again to hike another three hours above the village and back. Climb high, sleep low. Ugh.
LOBUCHE: ELEVATION 16, 076 Ft.
Two things mitigate this exercise in suffering: the legendary generosity and charm of Sherpa culture; and the fact that most of the time you cannot believe your eyes. For 360 degrees, all you can see is great mountains gloriously perched in the heavens. As the sun moves throughout the sky, they shimmy and shift, change colors and play hide-and-seek with the clouds. Lobuche sits well above the tree line and this tiny outpost has little more than a few stone huts and dormitories occupied only during climbing seasons. I’m in pain again. My heart hasn’t stopped racing for days. It’s bone-achingly cold through the night. Dr. Nima isn’t taking any chances with me now. Tomorrow I’ll be in Base Camp and have to be strong enough to do my day job, so Chirring gives me my first taste of supplemental oxygen. I drain the bottle. Producer Jordan Kronick, who has held the crew and shoot together for the last few days sends word our director of photography has just recovered from a 24 hour spell of altitude sickness. We’re on the raggedy edge but our week-long shoot at Base Camp now seems within our grasp if I can hold it together for one more day.
EVEREST BASE CAMP: ELEVATION 17,500 Ft.
Another five-minute chopper ride with my trusty oxygen tank in tow and we put down on Everest Base Camp. I notice the rocky surface here is different. The boulders are big and rough and sit atop ice. During the day you can see the hot sun slowly melt the ice bed and boulders that were solidly settled hours before start coming loose. The sound of rocks tipping over and sliding down hills, and the relentless avalanches falling from on high, make the place feel like it’s on the verge of collapse. But the team is buoyed by reunion here. The hard part is over and now comes the harder part: bringing home a story worthy of the pursuit. Tune into Real Sports next Tuesday, August 21st to find out what happens next!