When Chowang Sherpa joined us at Kathmandu airport for the flight to Lukla, he was carrying a flat-screen TV set, still in its box. The TV was on its way to Everest Base Camp. ‘Why?’ we asked.
‘They demand,’ he said simply, meaning his clients. Chowang is the owner of Arun Treks, an expedition and trekking outfitter based in Kathmandu. The short spring climbing season was underway and he had two client expeditions at Everest, both from India. His job was to get the groups there with all their gear, provide guides and cooks, and keep them supplied and happy while they waited for their chance to leave for the summit. There was a lot of spare time at base camp. A TV would be nice. ‘Also there are washing machines,’ Chowang said.
When we landed in Lukla the TV would have been strapped onto a porter’s back. It would have taken several days to get to Everest, carried through village after village, then beyond habitation, across dust and moraine, up beside the Khumbu glacier. A TV would be only part of one porter’s load. Porters will carry as much as they reckon they can bear: they’re paid by the kilo. Every last thing, from toilet rolls to coffee to huge looping coils of wire, the kind used in reinforced concrete, are carried up the rough stone steps and rocky paths. Younger porters often tie their phones onto their loads and play music as they dart along. There are pack animals too: all along the trail you hear yak bells and mule bells, and the shouts of their drivers, and the voices of trekkers – American, Chinese, English, German, French, Basque, you name it.
You also hear the throb of helicopters. If the weather is clear, you are never far from the sound of one; sometimes the exhaust smell reaches you through the mountain air. The machines fly low between the mountains, below the tree line. They take tourists on sightseeing trips and sometimes they carry heavy building materials in slings.
I was in Nepal with two friends. One of them, Liz Duff, is the widow of Mal Duff, a climber and mountain guide who died at Everest Base Camp in 1997, it’s presumed of heart failure. Chowang had been Mal’s outfitter in Nepal, and he’d offered to accompany us on part of the base camp trail. The trail was crowded with trekkers, many groups in matching T-shirts or baseball caps, but the rhododendrons were in flower and you were never far from the next teahouse or bakery, the next yak caravan or suspension bridge or stupa. Who can’t delight in the sight of heavy-horned yaks, heading downhill towards you, or of prayer flags fluttering in the breeze? There are stone walls inscribed with mantras, and stupas with Buddha eyes painted on them, and monasteries high on wooded hillsides. Higher yet, lammergeiers turn in the air. Highest of all, shockingly high, golden fragments of snowy mountaintops suddenly appear from behind the clouds.
Chowang always seemed to be ahead of us, leaning on a rock, speaking on his phone, arranging this, checking that. ‘How’s it going on Everest?’ I asked. ‘There are 380 climbing teams this year,’ he said. I thought I must have misheard or misunderstood. But it was true, 380 Everest climbing permits had been issued, and everyone was up at the mountain, or heading that way. The spring climbing season is confined to April and May, before the monsoon, but even then the opportunities for high-altitude climbing can be very few. To make a bid for the summit, you need the jet stream to drop – or you risk being blown off the mountain. If the weather is poor and no one can move, base camp remains crowded with climbers, would-be climbers, guides, camp managers, cooks – and hundreds, maybe thousands, of trekkers, who hike up for a look, a quick celebration and photo-op, and set off down again within a few hours.
We met a team of Irish trekkers on the trail who were planning to break the Guinness world record for the highest-altitude fitness class – base camp is at 5380 metres. Any kind of exertion, at this altitude, can be risky. We heard about a man who had flown by helicopter directly to base camp, intending to trek back down. He lasted a hundred yards before the altitude felled him and he had to be rescued by the same helicopter. There were other stories of trekkers and climbers who, having reached base camp or even higher, just couldn’t be bothered to walk down again, and summoned helicopters on the slightest pretext. Sometimes they managed to secure a medical note, in the hope that their insurance would pay out. One British mountain guide told us he’d had an argument with a couple of clients because he’d refused to sign such a claim. ‘I said – if you can walk up here you can sure as hell walk down.’ Another guide said that the problem was that people didn’t take the time to acclimatise: they ‘don’t get enough holiday, especially the Chinese. They can’t afford to take an extra few days.’
We first saw Everest and its surrounding peaks a short morning’s walk from the prosperous town of Namche Bazaar. After a night of thunder and hail we woke to a blue gem of a morning. An early start, a ninety-minute tramp over fresh snow, through juniper scrub, then suddenly a dream vision of seven and eight-thousand-metre mountains, arrayed at the head of the valley. The summit of Everest rises behind the flanks of Lhohtse and Nuptse; Makalu is further to the east; Ama Dablam stands apart, slender and alone, a more modest 6800 metres. She became our presiding spirit, seeming always to be in view. The guidebooks say that the name means ‘mother and necklace’: the two ridges are like protective arms, the hanging glacier a dablam – a pendant worn by Sherpa women.
It was Chowang, in constant contact with his staff at base camp, who showed us on his phone the photo of the queue of climbers waiting to set off across the Khumbu Icefall. Even he was taken aback. Some days later, another photo emerged, of a snaking line of climbers much, much higher on the mountain, maybe at the Hillary Step. Then came news of the first deaths. It’s been a bad year on Everest: 11 deaths, with people succumbing to exhaustion, to cold, to depleted oxygen. Overcrowding is being blamed; that and the guiding industry, accused of encouraging people who are wealthy – but not necessarily fit enough – to pay $70,000 and live the dream. The Hillary Step is at 8700 metres. You really, really, can’t hang about up there waiting for your turn. But people do: the 2018 report from the Nepal Ministry of Tourism states that last year, which had better than average weather, 563 people summited Everest by the standard South-East Ridge route, including 302 Sherpa workers, 18 Nepali women and 261 foreigners from 39 different countries. Five deaths were recorded.
Access to these high mountains is a huge resource in a place of few resources. The climbing season is short and you need to make some kind of living the rest of the year. Villagers were planting potatoes in tiny fields as we passed. I saw one man carrying a stone mattock down a village lane as a helicopter thudded overhead. At Dengboche, a gang of masons was building yet another trekkers’ lodge. There are many lodges offering rooms and meals, and warmth from a stove fuelled by yak dung. When they retire from the dangers of high-altitude climbing, many Sherpa guides build a lodge. They display photos of themselves in down jackets and goggles, standing on the summits of extremely high mountains. I asked Chowang if he had ever climbed Everest and he said yes, without much enthusiasm. What was it like? He shrugged. He hadn’t liked the descent. He’s building a lodge himself now, in his native valley.
The government can’t stop issuing climbing permits: it has bigger problems to solve, and needs the ready cash. The Ministry of Tourism says that in 2018 about $3.3 million was collected in permits for Everest alone. Nepal’s infrastructure is fragile. Being landlocked, it is vulnerable to blockades. It depends on fuel imports from India, but in 2015 the Indian border was closed for five months as a result of unhappiness with Nepal’s new constitution, which was thought not to guarantee fair representation for the Madhesi ethnic group, whose members mostly live beside the border. Earlier the same year nine thousand people were killed in an earthquake from which the country is still recovering. We spoke to one family in the village of Khumjung about it. The daughter of the house told us that she and her mother had run hand in hand trying to reach other family members, that their house had split apart and they had spent the next three months living in a tent. Her father said rebuilding in the area had begun at once, thanks to the efforts of the Himalayan Trust (established in the 1960s by Edmund Hillary). You see many new, post-earthquake houses, with roofs in uniform green, surrounded by neatly walled fields. Other districts are less fortunate.
We followed the Everest trail as far as the hamlet of Dughla, where we spent the night at a lodge by a thin river, new-sprung from the Khumbu glacier. The following day’s walk led out of the river gorge, up a steep rocky incline to a natural gateway augmented with stupas and prayer flags. Through the gateway is a place of memorials to climbers, many of them Sherpa, who have died on Everest and elsewhere. It’s an affecting place, with a high, dusty, desert-like feel, and outcrops of rust-red bedrock. Ama Dablam, the dignified mother, presides. Some of the stupa-like memorials bear names famous in climbing circles. Some date from the disastrous year of 1996, when eight Everest climbers died in a blizzard on their descent. One is dedicated to some first-rate Chinese climbers who were shot dead in 2013 by Taliban terrorists at Nanga Parbat base camp in Pakistan.
We spent some time at the site because one of the memorials is dedicated to Mal Duff. The place felt strange, bright, almost dreamlike, but then altitude makes everything feel slightly glassy and ungraspable. When we were ready to move on, we left the base camp trail. We dipped down and crossed a little frozen river, then walked an alluring path above a lake, around the lowest flank of a mountain called Lobouche. There were fragrant, brittle herbs underfoot; a crowd of choughs rose from the lakeside. By afternoon, the cloud had drifted in and it began to snow. Out of the mist, a monk in maroon robes appeared. He stopped to exchange pleasantries, then continued on his way.