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Everest North Side Expedition:  Dick Bass, Jim Wickwire, Dick Bass, John Roskelley


Sent via Itronix GoBook MAX notebook computer and Telenor Satellite Systems

2:40 p.m., Sunday, April 20, 2003; Everest base camp, Tibet: It's been an interesting nine days since my last update via email. I much prefer writing about our experiences, rather than recording them on voicemail because it seems so impersonal talking into a satellite phone. Then, of course, the pre-recorded woman's voice tells me I've run out of time just as I'm in mid-sentence. With email, I can at least go back and correct myself. Besides, I'm starting to let the recording run all the way through just so I can hear her voice, which tells me I'm either loony or lonely.

April 11 Recap: As I said over the satellite phone, Jess and I started up early on the morning of the 11th and it's a good thing we did. The 2,000-foot vertical gain and seven miles of walking took us just under four hours. As we enjoyed several cups of Sherpa tea (heavy on the milk and sugar, just like the British) in front of our pre-pitched tent, the first of hundreds of yaks and their drivers started to enter camp. Intermediate camp is just that, it's a stop over before proceeding the next six miles to advanced base camp (ABC). Once acclimatized, the Sherpas and some of the stronger climbers skip this camp and go all the way from base camp to ABC. It's a major push of 13 plus miles and 4,000 feet of vertical, from 17,000 feet to 21,000 feet, but it gives us another day at ABC and above and eliminates stocking another camp with food and equipment that's seldom used. I used to do the trip in one day all the time in years past, but it might be a push for me now that I'm a lot older.

It was pandemonium as the yaks entered camp. Intermediate camp is perched on an icy point where the East Rongbuk Glacier takes a tight turn to the left as it drops to the main Rongbuk. It's a narrow valley, flanked by 5,000-foot walls. The campsite, if you can call it that, is an area of short, close-to-vertical ice walls, with morainal rubble on the surface between them. As I've said over and over, this is a banner year for expeditions. Never have so many tried to use this camp at the same time. Thus, the confusion on where to put the yaks, yak herder's tents and expedition members.

A word about yaks. They're the most useful animal on the planet. They're a Home Depot and Fred Meyer on the hoof. They carry loads of up to 200 pounds and more, depending on the terrain. Some (usually designated by being hornless) can be ridden, at least for a period of time. The wool is used for tents, clothing, rope or just about anything that can be sewn. The female yak or “nak” produces a rich milk that is used for butter, which is typically used in Tibetan butter tea (few westerners, me included, appreciate the taste of this tea). Yaks produce a lean and tasty meat, which we've been enjoying for the past two weeks. I think the yak is one of the finest animals in the world and has more of a personality than many family pooches. More often than not, they'll move off the trail if someone is in their way, but common courtesy (and sense) dictates that we're the ones that move off trail.

As they entered camp, the yaks didn't know where to go. Their normal route of travel was blocked by an assortment of colorful tents. As smart as they are, they quickly realized that guy-lines were not a hindrance. In fact, they were kind of a game. As we watched, several of the tents went down as the heavily laden beasts lowered their massively-horned heads and plunged forward. Hour after hour of chaos ensued. Even our tent took several confused yak-attacks. By dusk, most of the strings of animals were somewhere in the area, their loads having been dropped and stacked near whatever expedition's choice of campsite was available.

Jim finally arrived behind all the yaks and their herders. He had chosen the sensible path of no resistance and had casually waited until all the animals had passed him on the trail. He did bring us news of Dick's attempt to reach intermediate camp. As it turns out, Dick was not feeling up to par. His back was still giving him severe pain, so he had turned back before reaching the half-way point to Intermediate camp and the steep climb out of the Rongbuk Glacier trail. He had avoided the hard part, but had to wait hours while the yaks passed him on the return trail.

We tried to get a jump on the yaks the next day, but failed miserably. The yak herders were up and had their charges loaded before we had a hot cup of Sherpa tea in our hands. Cecil B. DeMill couldn't have concocted a more impressive move of men and animals that morning. I left early to video the hundreds of yaks strung out along the medial moraine that led to ABC. I hate to admit it, but it took a lot to keep up with (and stay between) various strings of animals. They move steadily and, as poorly acclimatized as I was, it was difficult to keep from getting a horn up the...well, it wouldn't have been pretty. In fact, one old Tibetan yak geezer (or herder), wouldn't let me pass him and kept running ahead of me so I wouldn't interfere with his yaks. Consequently, I had one large horned animal at my rear, who, after several miles sensed I wasn't a threat, seemed eager to quicken my pace with a horn in the right spot. Caught between a geezer and a gouger, I prudently moved over and took my place in line elsewhere.

I finally entered advanced base camp after five hours of difficult work. It seemed as though my legs belonged to someone a lot older, but I knew they didn't. There weren't just a few yak strings and their herders, including the geezer, who passed me by, while I wondered who should be climbing Everest and who should be home mowing the lawn. Jess arrived 45 minutes behind me, having enjoyed the walk with some new friends, while Jim sauntered in several hours later looking fresh as a daisy, again having let the yak stampede play out in front of him.

Our campsite at ABC was excavated by the Sherpas several days earlier. It would take a front-end loader an eight-hour day to move as much rock and smooth it into tent sites as our group of five Sherpas accomplished over three days. If this was a tenement house in New York City, we'd be on the second floor. Below us and at the bottom of the heap, are the Indians and Russians. The Russians wanted our largest campsite for their dining tent, but our Sherpas said, "nyet" and the cold war was renewed. We haven't caught them using our toilet tent yet, but if that happens, yak manure could fly.

To the east are more groups, including Austrians and Japanese. As the floors go up, there are some very wealthy expeditions (note I didn't say classy), including a five-star, 17-person Swiss team, the Toyota-sponsored Eco-Challenge Expedition managed by Russell Brice, another high-stakes Brice-managed expedition, a Korean  Expedition and, finally, at the top of the heap–13th floor– is the Chinese “We're-Tearing-This-Hunk-Of-Rock-Down-To-Our-Size” Expedition, with over 100 members. Interspersed between these giants with hot showers, heated dining tents and cooks that wash their hands are a slew (or should I say slough!) of smaller teams that have carved out small tent niches and seem to survive, like us, on good 'ol hard work and parasitism.

The days are going to blur all together now, not only because our heads are spinning with the altitude, but also because at 21,000 feet, we need a lot of rest days. It doesn't take much effort to relax, eat and sleep at altitude, especially on first arriving, except if you're Russian.

While we vegetated, along with hundreds of other climbers from every other nation, the Russians next to us packed up rope, hiked to the bottom of the North Col and put in fixed line. Evidently, they hadn't got the word that the Chinese and Russell Brice Sherpas were supposed to do this section. I think they chose to ignore these big talkers. At any rate, in two days time, they reached the North Col and had the pick of the limited camping areas on top. This started the scramble for camp spots.

April 15 Recap: On April 15th, while I ate breakfast,  I noticed 30 to 40 black dots ascending the fixed ropes to the Col. I knew what the game plan was instantly. Sherpas from other teams were climbing the Russian's fixed lines to claim a camp spot on the Col–the best spots. I wasn't about to wait for our Sherpas, so I announced I was packing up and heading for the North Col to find a decent camp spot for us. By 9:30, Jess and I were lightly loaded with gear and walking up the moraine and through ABC toward the glacier. After an hour and forty-five minutes, we reached the ice, put our crampons on and started the walk toward the base of the North Col route. Walking on the glacier was like walking on the top of an ice cube. Unlike the two times I'd been this way before, there was very little snow, only water ice, until we reached the bottom of the face that led to the Col.

By the time we reached the fixed lines and attached our jumar (mechanical ascending device with a handle attached to our harness and a toothed cam that grips the rope when weight is applied), several of the faster Sherpas were already down and headed for ABC.

The 1,200-foot ascent to the North Col was strenuous at the higher altitude, but with the tracks in place and the rope to pull on, our trip to the top was delightfully easy. The only dangers were seracs that loomed over portions of the route, that although not stable, had not collapsed in months. The trick was to keep moving and not stop underneath these widow-makers, like so many of our Asian co-horts choose to do, whether out of ignorance or exhaustion. I don't know.

Several hours after beginning our ascent, Jess and I arrived at the North Col, at 23,000 feet. I don't know how tired Jess was, but I felt like I'd just run a 2:45 marathon, something I've never done, but know it has to take a whopping toll out of you. We were all alone. Everyone else had staked out their little spot of Heaven and departed. Our job was to find a spot big enough on the Col to pitch at least three, two-person tents. Since all the great spots were taken, Jess walked slowly up toward the north ridge, while I jumped a small crevasse and went south toward Changtse, a sub-peak connected to Everest via the North Col. Jess found a large flat area in the open past the protection of the large serac on the Col, but the winds were fierce and tents would not survive very long on this exposed saddle. My labors proved fruitful, as I found a long, narrow, yet fairly flat, protected spot on the lee-side of a huge serac. We took 15 to 20 bamboo stakes, plus some broken aluminum tent poles from an old abandoned tent nearby, and marked our territory. That accomplished, we ate a small lunch, downed what water we had left and departed, just as the winds and clouds descended on our position.

What a thrill to be on the North Col at 23,000 feet with my son. I went on my first Everest expedition in 1981, a year before he was born. Twenty-one years later, I marvel at his confidence and ability to climb where few people would dare to tread. To be given this once-in-a-lifetime experience with him is a "summit" within itself. Our kids disappear from home too fast after high school. Too often, we only get a snippet of their lives from then on. The time I've had with Jess on this trip has allowed me to appreciate his successes; understand his failures; and listen to his dreams. If there is a torch to be passed, he will take it and run a lot further with it than I did. I can already see it in his eyes.

I gave him a quick hug on the Col. All right, it wasn't the same type of hug I give my thirteen-year old daughter, Jordan, or even like the ones I used to give my wife, Joyce, thirty years ago. It was a manly-type hug. Kind of like those football players do after a touchdown. Almost a bump chest type, but our hands met first. He didn't say it, but I think he really appreciated the touch.   

The descent was quick. Rather than set up individual rappels, we hooked onto the rope with a carabiner and sling attached to our harness, wrapped the rope around an arm and slid down the 150 to 300-foot sections of fixed line. We were at the bottom within a half-an-hour. A little over six hours after leaving camp, we were back, exhausted, but satisfied with our work.

April 16 Recap: On April 16th, we took a break, while three of our Sherpas carried loads to the Col, expanded our tent site and returned. The other two Sherpas were with Dick, who was now working his way up the East Rongbuk, camping in quarter steps, rather than eating the whole trek in two days.

April 17 Recap: On the 17th, Jim, Jess and I, along with several Sherpas, made another carry to the Col. I started out fuming because of a stupid error on my part. Two days before, after coming off the face and the glacier, I had taken off my new Gore-Tex gloves to remove my crampons. For some reason, I had not checked and double-checked the spot before turning my attention to the descent. Exhaustion, I suppose. I realized my mistake only as we got ready to depart for another carry. My gloves were gone and that was that.

In the two days since we had come down from the Col, a hundred climbers had passed by that area and everyone has to stop there to put on crampons. As I approached the rock where I had taken my crampons off, there on top of the rock were my gloves, held firmly in place by another rock. Needless to say, I was taken back and more than a bit surprised. No one had stolen my gloves! My respect for my international colleagues, struggling toward the same goal of climbing Everest, jumped light years. It's one of the main events I'll remember on this trip.

April 18 Recap: We took another rest day on the 18th and watched the build-up of ABC. Yak train, after yak train rambled through, yak bells ringing, yak herders whistling and "yupping", turning their burdened animals this way and that, trying to find a path through the hundreds of tents that had obscured and eliminated the original yak path. I don't know how they got through because even the climbers were having to walk through other expedition's camps, apologizing profusely, yet knowing these climbers shouldn't have put their camp on the trail in the first place.

We heard through the chain of information carried up by the yak herders that Dick was on his way. Sherpas from other teams stopped by to have a tea and talk about the man who spoke with everyone and always had an encouraging word, and would recite a poem that fit the occasion. We knew, with luck, Dick would be with us that afternoon.

Around 3:30, after more than a few false starts on false information to get the video camera out, Dick could be seen within several hundred yards of camp, talking to yak herders, Sherpas, climbers and anyone else passing by on their way to camp. Jim went down to shepherd him in as I pushed "record" on the Sony 2000 to capture his many, many words about ABC and just getting there. I had to yell, "cut", several times just to get the cramps out of my legs and arms, but he continued to tell us of his journey, which was slow, but eventful. As per Dick, he praised all the Sherpas who helped him achieve, "this small step", and couldn't think of any where else on this earth that he would rather be. We all agreed.

April 20: On April 20th, Jess and I scrambled down from ABC to base camp in five hours for some much needed thick air at 17,000 feet and to get a break before working on the route to 25,700 feet and above. I don't think we'll be making it back to base camp before at least one summit attempt, once we leave this camp.

Spring has come early this year, so perhaps the summit will be accessible a few days earlier than normal. With this many people on the mountain, we're going to have to draw numbers to arrange the climbing order. Like I've said before, this is the most unusual expedition I've ever been on. I have never seen this many climbers trying to get to the top of any peak, whether in the Cascades, the Tetons or the Himalayas. There should be a lot of success in the weeks to come, but there could also be a lot of tragedy. Just like at a busy intersection, when this many people come together, with varying talents and conditioning, there are going to be some major screw-ups. It's easy to get caught up in the move to go too quickly. I'm planning on our team playing it's own game, moving with acclimatization, waiting for good weather and, of course, counting on good karma. Hopefully, we'll stay healthy and have an opportunity to succeed. At that point, it's one foot in front of the other and, at the higher elevations, that boils down to mental discipline.  

John Roskelley, Jess Roskelley,
Richard Bass, Jim Wickwire

Dispatches

 





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