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Everest 2003: Ben Clark

Dispatch 29,  May 4, 2003: 6,400 Basecamp

The climb did not begin today. The mountain is shrouded a plume of snowy white debris and winds of hurricane force. This is the beginning of an already building situation of International concern in our community at Everest base-camp

Like any community there are problems to fix and solutions to engineer within this environment where over 350 people now live.  The primary concerns of staying healthy and sustaining life are met with ease by medical facilities provided by a Russian expedition from St. Petersburg and the British. Supplies are restocked via daily shipments fro Lhasa, Tibet. Kathmandu was also a provider of goods until recently when the border was shut down to guard against the spread of SARS. Although we are safe from this rare disease in basecamp, it has been a major cause of concern and blocked facilitation of many of the electrical and agricultural demands of base-camps needs.

Mount Everest base-camp is a place that has been built twice a year for over twenty years and has also grown into a sustainable economy capable of creating it’s own suburb, a place called bartertown.  It is the equivalent of any series of rudimentary conveniences you might find nestled alongside the Interstate exit to a cities primary means of access.  If you seek a need to glamorize it; it is to us as Buckhead is to Atlanta. Bartertown exists for food and entertainment purposes and for emergency restocking needs. 

The real story here is that despite the industrial makings of a community, it is the people knit together the strength of Mount Everest Base-camp.  Northern Ireland, A catholic and a Protestant climb together, St. Petersburg, Russia, a team led by one of Russia’s greatest athletes shares the luxury of their generator with two separate American expeditions. The British Royal Navy has computer and camera problems, we seek to correct them.  It is a world bonded by a common goal, and now facing directly an unknown and epic tragedy.

The last few days have seen winds that the Sherpa’s say they have never before witnessed on Mount Everest. Reports fly from camp to camp, tent to tent until insidiously all of us believe we are next to go home.  Why?  Mount Everest is having a 50th anniversary party of it’s own. It is cleaning it’s slopes camp by camp, 8300 meters, 7800 meters, 7500 meters, the North Col. In the days following it’s initial onslaught several Sherpa’s have made their way to these camps to find nothing but shredded nylon and tattered ropes.  For those of us who rest here patiently watching our own tents fly into the air and across the gravelly landscape of base-camp, it will be days before we know if our hopes are scattered about high in the Himalayas with our supplies for climbing the upper mountain.

Keep Dreaming, Ben Clark

Dispatch 30, May 5, 2003: 16,400’ Mount Everest Base-camp

More reports ring in as more hearts ring out sorrow.  Like a lion shaking flies from it’s mane, Mount Everest is clearing away unwanted guests.  Many come here with hopes of clear days and generous windows for perusing to the summit as if it were a walk, those days are gifts, weather days like this are more common.

On large commercial expeditions it is easy to be protected from the calamities of your average Everest Storm. It is also common to live the experience as if you rode around in the pope mobile and therefore saw the world through a protective bubble.  What has started to happen amidst this dream-crushing storm is more than a silver lining to a cloud of sorrow; it is the essence of climbing, camaraderie!

The smaller teams, teams from around the world and generally here for the love of adventure and climbing, are pulling together and stringing whatever preliminary plans we can formulate to see to it that all our dreams are not lost.  Many of the reports have already been confirmed that several of the tents at the North Col have been destroyed and are now lying on the glacier, torn to bits and over a thousand feet lower once the wind was finished with them.  The tents are not the primary concern; it is what was in them.

Standard climbing practice dictates that on a peak as large and with as many camps as Mount Everest, a climber will carry gear to a higher camp and leave it there that the entire load is not on the climbers back each trip.  Many climbers, myself included, made the trip to the North Col twice to leave our specialized down high altitude climbing suits, gloves, and sleeping bags so that we can conserve energy on our summit attempt. This practice is called “caching” and is the same practice that 95% of the climbers felt comfortable doing.  This year’s Everest is not so forgiving; thankfully the international community of climbers here is more understanding and willing to unite for this common goal.

As more reports drift in we are all taking stock and working towards finding solutions to lost gear and supplies.  I find it hard to believe there would be any other way to go about this mountain, no matter what country you come from, it is hard to get here and even harder to give up if your fellow man can help!  Each day people from six countries gather around the computer to check the weather forecast and plan our ascent.

Keep Dreaming, Ben Clark

Dispatch 31, May 6, 2003: 16,400’ Mount Everest Base-camp

Like any other day during this storm it was unsafe to venture upward towards the mountain.  I chose a different path. Concerned and deeply moved by the culture that surrounds the mountain and in turn gives it it’s meaning, I traveled through the gale to the RongBuk Monestary to visit a Llama or High priest who has been praying for our expedition.

I did not come to Tibet to undergo a metaphysical transformation of religious beliefs. I also did not come here to absorb the trendy “Free Tibet” lingo of radicals who have never been here or seen the squat toilets we share with Tibetans.  For what it is worth, I have not seen an absence of smiles and some Tibetans are proud of the growth in opportunity since the Chinese occupation.  I don’t say this because I am a thoughtless man, I say it because I am critical, analytical and truth seeking. These traits keep me objective and grounded in reality despite such surreal liftoffs from the daily American routine.  Sometimes though, the truth is a stretch I must swallow and endorse, no matter how fantastic. 

I visited the monk to investigate the tales and legends of Mount Everest or Chomolungma its Tibetan name.  Although based on folklore and widespread variations over 5 million people on both sides of the peak do not call it Everest, when translated they refer to it as “the Mother Goddess of the Earth”.  I argue against numbers regularly, but not 5 million people in the direct vicinity, not against my own experience here.  It is an experience on a mountain with people from 15 nations interwoven with conversations and exchanges with a Llama, a high priest who has lived 4.5 miles from this mountain for over ten years.  

The Llama has visited us regularly since we had our puja blessing ceremony and told me that he prays for me regularly.  I let him use my sat-phone and he returned with seeds blessed by the Oracle of the State of the Dalai Llama, he said these would protect me. I walked away from ABC as the storm began its approach. When the winds began to ravage the mountain he told me it was because something is angering the peak.  The largest commercial expedition, one utilizing a contest and that has overlooked and used the culture here lost all their tents on the upper mountain.  He offered me a Coke for my return to base-camp as a gesture to me for caring so much about learning about him and his culture. 

When I returned to base-camp, our cook had returned from the ghost-town and wind torn ABC. He had news. Out of the tents at the North Col, perched on an unprotected ledge, crowded out of the protected area by large commercial expeditions, lies a single tent where once there were six.  This tent has no fly on it and broken poles, but by the mercy of something, that tent is still there, in it lays our gear to continue the climb. 

Somehow, we have beaten the odds! Somehow we were of the few granted mercy by the mountain.

Keep Dreaming, Ben Clark



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