Owen West

Owen West

A weeklong electronic journal.
April 17 2001 9:00 PM

Owen West

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North side Base Camp

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13:45 hours

The Himalayan Experience team held its puja today. Two monks hiked up the glacier from the Rongbuk monastery and the team gathered for the traditional Buddhist ceremony. The Sherpas built a makeshift stove to burn the juniper wood, and when the holy men began chanting, the Sherpas extended the prayer flags, and three long strands were soon snapping in the wind.

"What exactly is this for again?" one of my teammates asked, fanning his face free of the billowing smoke and inching out of the circle.

"The lama is asking for protection to keep you guys safe up there," said my wife, Susanne. "The ceremony is in honor of the mountain herself."

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"Oh," he said. He scooted back in tight to the circle.

At the end of the ceremony, a black chuff swooped overhead and landed on the prayer flag pole. Russell Brice, our Kiwi expedition leader and by far the most experienced guide on the north side, told us that the landing was good luck. The bird then pooped right next to our food offering, and in the silence I told Russ that, as a fisherman, there's no better luck than when a birds shits on you. I put my head under the bird—on Everest you take what you can get—but it just spread its wings and allowed a gust of wind to yank it away.

We have 12 different national flags flying on the strand, which tells you just how popular Russ' expeditions are. A mountain guide since 1979, he first began operating commercially from the north side of Everest in 1994, and no client of his has had so much as a severe case of frostbite. That can change in a second up high, but it does point to a level of professionalism I felt even in our first meeting in Kathmandu, Nepal. Looking around the table at my fellow teammates, it was obvious that we had an incredibly strong team, and I could not pick out the weak link. But perhaps on expeditions, like in poker games, if you don't know who the redheaded stepchild is …

Russell is flanked by three yak-strong mountain guides on one side—Andy Lapkass and Chris Warner from the States and Asmus Norreslet from Denmark—and by eight high-altitude Sherpas on the other. We first met the Sherpas in Tingri, Tibet, a wind-swept border town right out of a spaghetti Western, complete with a one-eyed dog and a kid in a cowboy hat with the unnerving habit of winking at strangers as if sharing some terrible secret. They strutted up to the team confidently, wearing easy smiles, Carrera sunglasses perched on their foreheads, blue jeans and fleece jackets. Most of them stood around 6 feet, and all of them moved with that jock-gait that comes with having been there, done that—and looking to get some more.

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"They look like the knights of the Round Table," said Suz. "I'm feeling better about this already."

Led by Loppasang Sherpa, the sirdar, we have Phurba, Karsang, Chhuldim, Dawa, Pasang Lama, Da Nuru, and Dorj Gyalgen who will be going up high to fix ropes and prepare the camps with the guides. Our team cooks are Lachhu Basnet, Kul Magar, and Ram Sunuwar (whom I first met last summer during his New Jersey tour), and they're every bit as critical as the high-altitude studs.

The Sherpas have a separate chain-of-command, much like the military's NCO corps, but it's clear on this expedition they're equals as team members and superiors in terms of altitude expertise. Between the Sherpas and the guides, we have a stunning 11 Everest summits to call on. Sherpas have been unsung mountaineering heroes for nearly a century—indeed many of the "private" and "solo" expeditions you've read about cut the Sherpas out of history entirely. I'll not do that, but I fear this brief Base Camp "Diary" won't include much Sherpa activity. They'll be a step ahead of the team until we join them above the North Col (23,000 feet). Yesterday, I asked Loppsang if he planned to join some of us on an acclimatization hike.

"Acclime?"

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"For fitness. To get in shape for the altitude."

He laughed, shook his head, and went back to packing barrels for ABC.

The clients are also strong, however, and all of them have been far higher than I (18,000 feet).

From Great Britain come Roy Tudor Jones (26,908 feet on Cho Oyo) and Kieron MacKenzie (Everest vet from last year's trip).

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Ellen Miller is from the United States, and besides being a Cho Oyo summitter she's a two-time Eco Challenge vet.

Jamie Vinals is working on his seventh summit, the first Guatemalan to do so.

Marco Siffredi, from France, is one of the world's top snowboarders and wants to snowboard (gulp) from the summit, just as he did from Cho Oyo in the fall.

Evelyne Binsack and Robert Bosch are Swiss mountain guides. Evelyne hopes to be the first Swiss woman at the summit, and Robert hopes to be there to photograph her.

Naoki Ishikawa from Japan is hoping for his seventh summit here, having traversed from the North Pole to the South Pole last year.

Jess Stock, from Scotland, is an entrepreneur/adventurer with several ascents and wicked ski descents to his credit.

It's a hard crew that doesn't need spurring from the guides to go on some hard acclimatization hikes. Many of them have already climbed to over 20,000 feet from Base Camp, and while it's important to remember that an ascent of Everest is a two-month endeavor—and never a race—the veiled competition speaks to the seriousness of this crew and will help, in the end, to bring us closer together.