Mt Everest CityDespite Covid-19, Everest is more crowded this spring than at any time in climbing history
Red, yellow, green, colourful tents stand out amidst the brown debris of the Khumbu Glacier as Base Camp grows into a small city 2km long and a population of 2,000 people. It takes more than one hour to walk from one end to the other, across boulders and crumbling ice pinnacles.
This year, there are 42 expeditions with nearly 400 climbers just for Mt Everest. But Base Camp also has more than 100 mountaineers from 11 expeditions attempting Lhotse, 25 climbers headed for Nuptse and ten members of two teams attempting Pumori. Each has retinues of high altitude guides, cooks, dish-washers, and support staff. This is home for many of them for three months till end-May.
Mornings begin with the hiss of pressure cookers and clanking of LPG cylinders from numerous kitchens. There are people making short treks to the toilet tents located beyond the creaking crevasses.
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The reason for the crowd this year is that there is a backlog of expeditions from 2020 when climbers had to abandon their attempts as Nepal clamped a lockdown on 25 March. As befitting a small town, Base Camp has cafes with WiFi, wooden floors and heating, tables full of snacks, hot drinks, chips and more. There are hot shower rooms, meeting rooms, charging stations for electronic devices, and even a recreational tent with yoga in the mornings and movies in the evenings.
"Base Camp life has improved significantly, with helicopter delivering fresh food directly from Kathmandu,” says expedition leader Garrett Madison of Madison Mountaineering. “We used to keep meat frozen on the glacier even ten years ago. Now we can make video calls to family, and this helps not missing home a lot."
Helicopters with more than 600kg cargo ferry the loads only up to Gorakshep, and are not allowed to Base Camp. From there, porters and yaks carry expedition gear and other items to Base Camp.
The climbing outfitter Climbing the Seven Summits even has spacious Executive Dome Tents with large windows overlooking the Khumbu Icefall, king-size beds with down duvet, pillows, easy chairs and coffee machines. This is like climbing Everest ‘business class’, and there has been some ridicule of it on social media. But the company’s Mike Hamill justifies it saying that there is enough roughing it on the mountain, and some climbers who can afford it want creature comforts at Base Camp.
The Executive Dome Tents of the company Climbing the Seven Summits offer creature comforts at Everest Base Camp.
Even before dawn there is activity at Base Camp as climbers and their guides head up the Icefall to Camp I on the Western Cwm. They want to cross the most dangerous parts before the sun comes up and increases avalanche danger.
By the time the sun comes up from behind Everest’s west shoulder, expedition tents come alive with breakfast calls. The Bahraini Everest Team was here first in late February, and located its camp farthest up the glacier.
In the expedition tent, the cook is busy all day preparing three meals. As soon as breakfast is finished, it is time to work on lunch and then dinner. Western climbers need carbs, but do not like dal bhat, so there is lots of pasta, meat, and chocolate desserts.
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It does not take long for the first of many helicopter flights to arrive, bringing essential supplies and evacuating climbers with altitude sickness or other ailments. Four climbers have already been evacuated, and three of them have tested positive for Covid-19 in hospital in Kathmandu. Covid-19 attacks the respiratory system, and symptoms are similar to acute mountain sickness, with one exacerbating the other.
Rumours of another lockdown have cast some uncertainty over the season, as reports come in of a massive surge in new cases and fatalities in various parts of Nepal.
High altitude guide Ang Phurba Sherpa is nervous about the pandemic resurgence since it may jeopardise his earnings for another year. But for now, he is happy that the expeditions are back in the Khumbu.
"Expedition months are earning months for most of us who depend on mountaineering business, and last year was a washout,” he says. “It is a dangerous job, but it is our profession. We try to go up and down the Icefall at night to reduce the risk. This is the life of a Sherpa."