Once again, I’m the last from our group in Kathmandu, but after laundry (twice), meetings, coffees, debriefs, lists, packing away and repacking, and of course a few beers, it’s nice to have some time to contemplate the season. Nepal has seen many changes good and bad (the 2015 earthquake being the worst of the bad) since my last visit, including a huge influx of Chinese hotels and shops in Thamel!, rebuilding, new water pipes, elections… it’s a place of change and it’s changed more than ever, but it always maintains its magic.
Facebook has just reminded me that three years ago today, Willie flew all the way from here to San Francisco with Everest (a puppy) who now lives in Oregan, a beautiful home after the streets of Kathmandu. Plenty of others would love a passport to Oregan I’m sure, myself included! I also learnt first thing this morning of an overnight terror attack in London (not my home now but my home country and passport!, and where many many friends live). Thoughts and prayers for all involved, and another stark reminder that we are living in such a dangerous time. Those of us privileged enough to travel must remember how lucky we are, and it’s always inspiring to be in the chaos of Kathmandu, where despite traffic, dust, heat and multiple religions, everyone just gets along peacefully and patiently and people just don’t get angsty! Perhaps people here just have less pride….
From the perspective of our expedition, words can’t describe how happy and relieved we are that our group has had a safe season, far beyond any success! And, that everyone from the group is now with, or on their way to, their families. In this group I put our Nepali staff first, they risk their lives for their jobs and for us, and we look after them responsibly, as they do us, but nonetheless unavoidable accidents can happen, so we are thrilled this season presented no more undue natural disasters. My last season was avalanche year (2014) and let’s just say I was not relaxed whatsoever when I would hear the perfectly normal rumblings of the icefall at night, it kept me wide awake worrying. And Willie would tense up each time the ice moved under out feet in our glacial home, not surprising after 2015. We are thrilled to have been back for a season with such success, teamwork, happiness, and friendship within our team, and three of our climbing Sherpa team even summited Everest for the first time!
We were hugely saddened to see some of the other expedition providers (and of course not all) this season NOT looking after their Nepali climbing staff responsibly, or the mountains. I don’t think there is (and can’t personally reconcile) ANY excuse for this – doing the right thing by our staff and nature is the ONLY choice for us and always has been.
We can no longer use the term Sherpa here as this is just one Caste in Nepal and many of the new Nepali staff on the mountain which have appeared to meet new huge demands are not all Sherpa Caste by any means. But whatever caste, or nationality, climbing staff need to be properly trained and not be unaccompanied first timers, as such then get properly paid, and insured, and furthermore from the outset be properly clothed, equipped with good equipment AND radios, and given proper weather information before making summit day decisions, as well as being assigned clients who have been properly screened. This way, we reduce avoidable risk to objective dangers only, as much as we possibly can. And if something is to happen, they must be properly evacuated and medically cared for as well, not abandoned!
There is an enormous amount of information to consider in today’s huge market selling ‘guided’ trips up Everest, but if someone is looking for a low price on Everest they MUST be aware that for a provider to considerably cut costs, they may well be cutting costs by being irresponsible, and responsible tourism means how we treat locals AND the mountains, in addition to how many extras get included on a trip. Please don’t feel this is aimed at you the reader, but at someone looking for a ‘cheap trip’.
And finally, if you have dragged your way up Everest with the massive infrastructure it has, probably the hardest thing you’ve ever done, you couldn’t walk afterwards so paid for a helicopter out, (but you can’t remember that part now, a bit like childbirth!), do NOT expect this infrastructure will be present at another 8000m peak! You should be well versed in all the clipping and rappelling necessary, re-fixing ice screws or even fixing entire sections of rope, and getting all the way down again, or you may well get into trouble.
OK rant over and back to our amazing season.
The BBE 2017 team met in Kathmandu in the second week in April and made our gentle trek up to base camp accompanied by three lovely new friends: Mary, Harley and Mike who joined the trek and departed at the end of April back to the USA. Various stomach bugs along the way but at least we got them out of the way! The Khumbu was as breathtaking as ever and the trail somewhat crowded, but overall we were thrilled to see infrastructure has returned to the villages on the trail post earthquake, at least here, and the trickle effect of tourism bringing money to those who lost everything in 2015 is playing its role as well as ever, especially in Kathmandu, from restaurants to laundry, equipment stores, gifts, and all the cash that eventually ploughs its ways back to into the economy of Nepal. One friend and visitor to base camp reminded me that wow, there’s a reason this trek is bucket list, and they were truly overwhelmed with how amazing it is up there!
We arrived to EBC feeling great on April 17, to the most phenomenal BC we have ever had, thanks to our hardworking staff who had already been there 6 – yes 6 – weeks already! Moving rocks, over and over, for places for tents, and even carrying first loads up to Camps 1 and 2 to establish our BBE spots for us. Raju Rai, our chef, cooked amazing meals for us for the next 7 weeks, we wanted for nothing, even a stealthy pet weasel. By the time we headed for our mini sub expedition to Lobuche East on April 20, it had been snowing a good bit (over a week daily) and conditions we unfortunately not ideal there, so we decided to change plans and make an extra rotation in the icefall instead. We headed back to base camp, and got on with it! The team headed up on a 6 day rotation to Camps 1 and 2. We found the icefall to be in very good condition this year, thanks to the legendary SPCC, and fast. Tragically, this was the week that we lost our dear friend Ueli. Our humblest and deepest thoughts and sincere best wishes go out to his family, and we thank them for sharing him with us and the mountains during his extraordinary climbing career, where his exemplary feats of true unsupported alpinism inspired us so deeply, as well as his true and pure love for the mountains and being in them, which always shined through unmistakably.
The team returned from rotation 1 and rested. Soon it was time for rotation two by now mid May, and the team once again did great. 3M then decided to go down to Namche Bazaar for some rest with thicker air, and beef up for summit push. As long as you keep your legs moving, we think this is a great way to give the body some rest before the big climb to 8848m! Living at base camp at 5350m saps your energy and muscle, and there was no sign of a summit window any time soon, so off they went!
Later that same week, upon their return, the first summits went ahead in quite windy conditions. This season was the weather forecasters nightmare. From one day to the next the forecast kept changing, and windows, few are far between, were moving and changing! Nonetheless, a nice 3 or 4 day window was not appearing, we were still determined to wait. Teams were making summit bids in winds of up to 30 knots, which added to summit temps of always below -20oC, was making windchill temps of -40oC or maybe even below – not surprisingly, there were many cases of frostbite. We believe these were largely avoidable, there were warmer summit days later.
Funnily enough, Damian had said in early April we may summit on May 25, and this is exactly what happened! We were now actually looking at a short window for the 26th, still nothing compared with what we were used to, which was the first day winds were truly dropping after days and days of high summit winds with the odd dip here and there such as on the 22nd which was a great day for many who summited this year. Nonetheless not trusting the multitude of forecasts we had we sent the team up to camp 2 early to rest there and be ready for a change of plans. By the time they were in Camp 3, the winds looked stable(r) but not perfect and we preferred to spend a day resting at camp 4 before going up, with the plenty of oxygen and food we had up there this was entirely feasible. Our conversation with the team upon arrival at the South Col on the 24th was a little like this (this being a very shortened version!): “Per forecasts winds are now dropping at the South Col to a more reasonable level, but summit forecast for tomorrow morning still higher than 26th.” Damian and Willie were not convinced, the winds they were experiencing in the actual moment were lower than the forecasts and lowering each hour. They told the team to buckle up as it could be tonight, everyone was on tenterhooks and sure enough, well after 9pm the call came in over the radio to BC – “NO wind! We’re going up!”
In base camp this means getting ready to sleep in the comms tent – mattresses, coffee, a hot water bottle on the laptop in order for the all-night blog to happen, and so on, and up in the south col tonnes of prep! O2 for everyone, melted water into thermoses, snacks, goggles, down mits, all those extra warm items only needed for summit day, and the odd mascot or flag too!
At 1110pm off they went. Each call we got – no wind! NO wind. A beautiful starry night, everyone doing great, NO wind. By the time we got the no wind call at base camp from the SUMMIT at 0810, there were tears of joy (especially in base camp and Sandy, UT!). We couldn’t have wished for more. All climbers who left the South Col had now summited the highest mountain in the world! Damian Benegas 5th Summit, Willie Benegas 12th Summit, Reagan Rick, Ed McCullough and John Oldring 1st Summits!!! And Mac’s 7th Seven Summit. Lopsang Sherpa IFMGA, Lhakpa Sherpa, Dawa Sherpa (1st summit), Pasang Bhote (1st summit!) and Chedden Lama Sherpa (1st summit!). Even the entire way down to Camp 2 two days later, the “BBE Boys” climbed as a TEAM together in unity, and as a family.
Everest is not climbed by any one individual. We could not have done it without our amazing Sherpa and Bhote team who carried close to 80 bottles of oxygen up and down the mountain in addition to tents, meals, sleeping bags, and stoves! Lam Babu Sherpa IFMGA, Lopsang Sherpa IFMGA, Lhakpa Sherpa, Dawa Sherpa, Khangdu Sherpa, Rinjin Bhote, Yuberaj Rai, Ang Rita Sherpa, Pasang Bhote and Chedden Lama Sherpa. As well as our base camp crew who literally work around the clock in addition to before and after the trip, spending three months in base camp! Shiva, Raju, Laxmi, Jetha and Maila, we can’t thank you enough, and, as you will see from the photos here we had a lot of fun along the way too!