We start out as flakes fall gently around us and soon there are no longer trees, just a tar-black rocky landscape mottled with layers of snow. Soon the men out pace me and once again, I’m left behind with Rob and Sherpa Neema. As the other men get farther away, their coloured coats look like small prayer flags strung across the base of the snow-covered mountain.
Finally, the trail we’re on is now empty of trekkers, possibly because of the earthquake and embargo scaring them away, or because we are up so high on the mountain. But then I see through the falling snow a group of Sherpas walking towards us. They look awkward as they juggle something between them, possibly a long wooden board carried horizontally with three Sherpas on each side. That’s strange, I think, because one of these guys could just carry it on their back. But as they get closer I see that it’s a ladder and strapped to it is a small person wrapped up like a mummy. Only small hiking boots are sticking out. My gut starts to clench. Something is wrong, very wrong.
When we meet up with Tim at the next teahouse in Thukla at 4620 meters, Tim fills us in. Judging from the size of the body that was wrapped and the tiny woman’s hiking boots sticking out, he suspects that the Sherpas were carrying down a young woman, maybe in her 20’s and fit, who had died that night up on the mountain. He says it happens more than you’d think, where an inexperienced guide uneducated in altitude trekking doesn’t put the trekkers through the proper acclimatization. Or people try to trek on their own without a guide and haven’t done their homework. One of the trekker gets a headache and lies down in his or her tent. The guide or friends don’t check up on them, and then finds them dead in the morning from HACE (High Altitude Cerebral Edema.) No one ever hears about it outside of Nepal. We only hear about disasters when a dozen people are killed in avalanches or freak snowstorms. According to Tim, tiny women, especially from Asia, have the hardest time to acclimatize. They just don’t have the lung capacity. You can be a tiny woman and still make it, and you can even do it on your own without a guide, but you have to be VERY knowledgeable about the region, listen to your body, and understand that trekking at high altitude has its dangers.
We trek on and come to Monument Ridge where stones are piled into towering monuments in memory of the people who have died trying to summit Everest. It hits home even more after what we’ve just seen. One of the piles has Scott Fischer’s name painted on it from the 1996 disaster.
Canadian Shriya Shah-Klorfine, 33, has her picture on one of the monuments. She died descending from the Everest Summit in May 19, 2012 from being guided by inexperienced Sherpas.
I’m feeling a bit gloomy from being around so much tragedy, until I hear someone singing and see Forrest standing with a thermos of tea waiting for us.
He’s bellowing out another Joni Mitchell song. He’s been trekking this trail so many times, I guess he now sees these monuments as a celebration of their lives, rather than their loss. When you live on the edge, it’s the attitude you must take.
After warming up with tea, we start trekking again and as we go higher, we cross multiple streams running through the snow. I have to step on wet rocks that are almost submerged in swirling water. One slip and I’ll be ankle deep in water, which will suck as I only have one set of boots. And at this temperature, nothing will dry. We walk along narrow trails and as I look down the sides of the trail, I realize one slip and I’ll be like a toboggan flying down the mountainside. We’re almost there and Sirdar Carson meets us just below a ridge with more tea. I really need the break and I drink the tea down before one final push.
Finally we make it over the ridge and I look down and see Lobuche Base Camp at around 16,500 feet. It’s late in the day and in the fading light, I see tiny yellow tent domes huddled together in snow with huge jutting rocks of black granite sticking up around us.
It looks like a giant hand has scooped out a place for the tents and shoved all the giant rocks to the side.
We go straight to the mess tent and there we are served more tea. Herman is sitting with his head in his hand. He has a headache and Tim is keeping an eye on him. Greg slouches on his stool, he feels terrible. I’m coughing into my arm, but I feel pumped that I made it.
And then the surprise comes. Desee serves us dinner, and it’s the best dinner on the whole trip: Dal Bhat with curry chicken. This guy is amazing. I threw up on him first day of our trek and he still serves me dinner with a smile. As we eat, Tim entertains us with stories of all the summits he’s taken clients up on. Once he was stranded with four men in a snow cave for days. We hear about a lead yak that Tim had to replace after it led a train of yaks to base camp. On the way out, it fell into a small crevasse and broke its tail, got infection in its tailbone and died. It cost the owner $250 to replace the yak, plus the many hours to train a new lead yak.
It’s dark, and although only 8 pm, I wear a head lamp to crawl into my tent and once again climb into the sleeping bag with my clothes and down jacket on. It’s about -10C and my coughing has become worse. I realize that I’ll have three days of sleeping in this tent at this temperature while Rob trains for the Lobuche true summit. And then we get the bad news. A big snow front is coming through, and it’s about to begin tomorrow.