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  Mt. Everest :  George Dijmarescu tells the story of Everest 2007


A Tribute to Sherpas: The Unsung Heroes of Mt. Everest

{INTRO}

Friendship Bridge, border line Tibet-Nepal

I could see Kanchenchunga, which borders Nepal with India, as a distance hump in what seemed the limits of human vision. A casual observer could easily miss it as the third highest mountain in the world from my vantage point on the summit of Mt Everest. Knowing where to look for Himalayan giants is a bonus that comes with experience and the snowy flat summit of Cho Oyu could never be mistaken for anything else. I stood there admiring how wonderful our planet is, contemplating the documentaries and news reports on global climate change, imagining where my family was and what they were doing, and marveling at the sheer number of climbers, both Sherpas and international visitors, on the mountain this year.

This year marked my ninth summit on Mt Everest; a journey I have been privileged to make every year since 1999. The rigors of Everest are second only to the first great adventure of my life when I decided to escape my communist homeland of Romania in 1985 by swimming across the Danube River  to Yugoslavia, Italy, and eventually the United States. I had the good fortune to meet my wife Lapka in 2000 and we have made five summits together as well as two children.

Our second child was born this year, so Lapka was unable to travel with me from the US, but her sister Ming Kipa became my unexpected climbing partner. I was also fortunate enough this year to share my climbing experience with a group of talented Sherpas from Rolwaling Trek and their group of Japanese climbers. In the past few years I have witnessed striking contrasts between Sherpa guides who are ultimately the paid guardians, life support, and motivators on the mountain and us, the climbers, who pay to create our own climbing adventures in the protected web of the Sherpas.  The ambition of the climber, especially novices, must be tempered by the Sherpa to ensure a successful climb and the members of the Japanese group with whom I encountered was about as determined as I have ever seen.

{BC}

Everest as seen from BC

I look forward to climbing Everest each year, as it is a welcome break and almost a deep meditation compared to my hectic life at home. One would expect that the logistics of the trip would get easier after journeying here each year for so many years, but I was unexpectedly late to the 2007 Base Camp (“BC”) due to some permitting issues resulting in a desperate dash to find a climbing partner. I rang my sister-in-law Ming Kipa from my hotel in Kathmandu to see if she was up for a little climbing as my partner…she excitedly asked me, “How far away are you? I’ll be right there.”

Ming Kipa (AKA Doni) on the way to Everest

By the time we reached BC we were still missing some of the necessary preparations for the journey up the mountain and BC was already teeming with activity: a small canvas and fabric city of all colors busy with climbers going up and down for acclimatization.

I ran into my good friend Dawa Nuru Sherpa of Thame and he was disappointed that I did not hire him for the 2007 climbing season, but he had found a job with Rolwaling Trek of Kathmandu. For many years Rolwaling Trek had been hired by Japanese climbers to handle their expedition logistics and personnel. Rolwaling Sherpa are renowned for their loyalty, strength, and knowledge. I initially settled down in BC in a spot near Rolwaling Trek and they were kind enough to invite me for a tea and some conversation. Since Dawa Nuru was in their team, he introduced me to the group as a good friend, and they accepted me as such. “I know you for many years” remarked Pasang Kidar the sirdar [lead Sherpa] who was also with them.

Rolwaling Trek had three separate kitchens and staff for their three groups; one of which had arrived earlier and departed BC shortly before we arrived there, the other group was composed of one Japanese member and two Sherpas, one cook, and one helper on the kitchen staff. The third group was Pasang Kidar’s group of three Japanese climbers. All three members were born either at the end of World War II or shortly before then. The leader of the team was a short-mustached climber who mainly kept his thoughts to himself.

We all went together to the liaison officer to request yaks for transporting our luggage to the Advanced Base Camp (“ABC”). There I noticed the meticulous organization of the Japanese group leader with his large folder containing all the E-mail communications with RolwalingTrek. He was clearly not satisfied with the number of yaks being allocated to his group and was going to push the issue with the China Tibet Mountaineering Association (“CTMA”). The insufficient number of yaks allocated to each climbing team by the CTMA seems to be one of the greatest sources of drama before the climbing begins. I have had the same problem every year, but the rules are imposed at a “higher level” and even if a liaison officer sympathizes with teams, rules are rules, four yaks per person up and three down. Sherpa staff always get one yak up and one down.

I watched the exchange between the Japanese group leader and the CTMA officer with Pasang much like two mates watching a dispute in a football match: the group leader the incredulous football player pleading with the officer who was like a referee that had already blown the whistle. Of course, the officer, like the referee, will have his way and we will either have to pay for extra yaks and have the loads delivered at our destination or find other means to haul up important gear. Pasang and I have already seen this show many times, but we patiently wait for the 2007 version to play out.

“This is my 24th expedition on an 8000 meter mountain; I started as a kitchen boy when I was just 14 years old,” exclaimed Pasang.

“I climbed mostly with Japanese people and it’s a little difficult for me since I have no education,” he remarked.

The sirdar is a 5’7 wiry Sherpa with an ear ring on his left year and an eagle tattoo on his right arm.

“I got this tattoo when I was 17 years old. I used to wear long hair and I die it with various colors. When I started to come to the mountain, we did everything our sirdar said and never questioned him. Now I am stuck with this tattoo but is high enough to be hidden under the t-shirt.

“What can I do? I have it,” he points out in a controlled tone.

Now married with children and the responsibility of providing for his family, Pasang has had to do many things to facilitate his current position in RolwalingTrek. As the son of one of the eight owners he has chosen the field job and not a desk one.

“After couple of years, when I was almost 17, I left the kitchen and went up to the summit of Mt. Everest, then the kitchen job was just part of my past,” he reflected.

Pasang has summited Mt. Everest eight times, and other mountains in the neighborhood: Cho Oyu, Shisha Pagma, Manaslu. It is quite evident, even for the casual observer, how respected he is just from the number of other Sherpa that stop to shake his hand and chat with him.

The yak situation finally resolved and after taking enough time to get the proper acclimatization in BC, we set the date for going up to ABC on April 27. Pasang had to stay behind because one of the trekkers had to go home and he needed to arrange the jeep and all logistics. The three Japanese climbers decided to stay behind as well.

Dawa Nuru, and Nima were headed up with a cook to set up the camp at ABC. Rumors were that it was quite difficult to pitch a tent at ABC due to a record number of climbers all scrambling to find a spot close to the source of water, the ice glacier. After a march of almost five hours we arrived in the Interim camp late due to some yak problems and the small group decided not to put up the kitchen tent but used Dawa Tashi’s camp instead as a temporary shelter over the night. The evening fell quite rapidly and the chill of the evening started to bite; the tent was filled with steam from the two cooking stoves hardly keeping up with the demand for hot drinks.

A formal dinner was prepared with noodle soup being the staple for the day and afterwards we, one by one, retreated to our own tents for a little rest. The Sherpa spent the night together in the larger dining tent in a fraternal and practical manner: more bodies, more warmth. Sherpas are the masters of facilitating the best situation for themselves.

I spent a comfortable night in the Interim camp and, since I was a little sour from the long hike, I slept soundly and did not even notice morning light. I managed couple of hard-boiled eggs for breakfast and was shortly on my way up to ABC. The first steps were heart wrenching, I was breathing hard and in just few minutes I managed to crack a little sweat.

By this age I know my body quite well and, being just over two hundred pounds, I need almost an hour to get to a pace where I feel most comfortable. This stage of the climb turned out to be pleasant one with the blessing of good weather and the lack of wind. I stopped often to take pictures with my new toy: a Nikon SLR camera toy that I had purchased a few months prior to my journey. It gave me the ability to shoot far better pictures than I had ever taken on previous climbs with the only drawback being the heavy weight of the SLR and its lenses

From left to right: Pasang Kidar Sherpa, Dawa Nuru Sherpa, Nima Nuru Sherpa

{ABC}

This was my 19th trip to ABC over the years and I could not remember a day better than the day I arrived. When I arrived in ABC I was stunned to see the sheer number of tents and climbers returning from upper camps. I thought back to my permitting issues and feared that my late arrival would result in no place to set up a camp. Ming Kipa and I climbed on with this fear firmly rooted in our hungry stomachs.

Prayer flags were everywhere and we walked under the flags and not over them to observe the tradition. The additional bright colors of prayer flags and the movement of its fabric in the wind made the temporary camp look like a shrine. I passed two large commercial expedition tents that occupy the best spots in ABC every year.

Good luck followed the good weather and we found a place just below a large Chinese team camp. Nowang Tsiring, my newly hired Tibetan kitchen boy, struggled to lay down our own kitchen tent.

Ang Dawa of Thame, an old Sherpa friend, noticed the struggle with the large tent and came to help. Two other Sherpa came and helped set the tent to accommodate us for the duration of the expedition.

Nowang Tsiring later hiked went down to the glacier to fill a large sac of ice. The stove was well on its way to making droplets of water one drop at the time. It took an eternity to make a gallon of water out of ice. I decided not to pitch my personal tent and instead resigned to the confines of the kitchen tent while Ming Kipa retired to her own tent after dinner. Everybody was tired after the long journey and silence filled the air in our camp. The night was considerably colder than at BC but our trusty sleeping bags kept our bodies at a comfortable temperature. The ice on the roof of the tent was a testimony for the cold reality of living at the foothills of Mt. Everest.

The morning sun was there before anyone realized and the ice at the top of the tent started to melt, sending drips of water all over the kitchen and me. Looking outside in the morning was encouraging as Everest looked calm and the sky was a serene blue. I felt privileged to have such a unique view. For the next two days we did absolutely nothing other than reinforcing our tents with larger rocks. The kitchen also received a new stone table where Nowang could melt the ice and cook an occasional dinner.

As I was carrying and stacking the rock blocks on top of each other I managed to drop a large block on my left middle finger. It took just a few moments before I had an injury that looked as black as frostbitten finger. I could feel every heart beat in it. The immediate discoloration in addition to the excruciating pain made me believe that I cracked the bone. I decided to nurse the finger on my own instead of seeking help.

That evening I decided to call a meeting for my three-person expedition. I told Ming Kipa and Nowang that we were blessed to be just three people and that we should be able to handle the whole trip in a democratic way and avoid the quarrels that can happen in larger groups.

To climb Everest without a full-time cook is an unusual circumstance and we quickly realized that we were facing a difficult task to climb the tallest mountain in the world and cook for ourselves at the same time. We agreed to take turns, as much as possible, and that everyone should be diligent about kitchen needs. Again, being late plagued us with inadequate kitchen preparations and food supplies to keep us healthy during the expedition.

After five days I decided to send Nawang down to BC and make the additional food purchases to ensure our climbing success. I gave Nowang two hundred dollars for his three to four day journey to buy sorely needed chicken, pork, and vegetables.

Ming Kipa and I were resigned to make the sparse supplies brought from Kathmandu last: mainly pasta, some cheese, and home-made bread my mother packed for me at home.

The days passed rapidly with periodic snow keeping us inside in the warmth. My finger was still tender and I noticed that my ability to grab things with my left hand was severely impaired. The color was still black and the swelling was not subsiding.

Surprisingly, we received many visits at our high camp from climbers and Sherpa brave enough to climb up to us. Our small camp, the smallest of all, was now above all except the large Chinese Olympics preparation expedition and we were rewarded with a superior view looking down on all ABC.

Ming Kipa and I made one trip to North Col with ease and we decided that we would stay in ABC instead of going down to BC despite minor headaches and runny noses. We both reached a point where we were very sincere with each other in regard to our own physical and mental conditions. She was eating well and our conversations were filled with laugher and joy.

I was still a little nervous that our oxygen had not yet arrived at ABC, but that thought was soon forgotten when Nowang appeared with two Tibetan porters in tow and a large supply of food rested at the door of the dining tent.

That night we gorged ourselves on meat like a pride of lions after a long hunt. We had meat at the table for three days and I eventually felt the need to suggest to everyone that we be more conservative. Our expedition was still in its infancy and no one could predict the weather patterns or our ability to acclimatize properly for a summit attempt. Our ration of kerosene was also limited: no kerosene, no meal. Most expeditions utilize natural gas, but we had neither natural gas nor a gas stove.

Pasang Kidar finally arrived the next day from BC with the three Japanese members, but had to almost immediately go down once again to BC to accompany one of the trekkers. Two days later he returned with a big smile on his face as if unfazed by the extra trip and effort.

The Rolwaling Trek camp was set just fifty yards down from our own camp and I often watched the three Japanese elders making their way to the dining tent.

Their pace had slowed significantly since we had first met and Funashi, the one female climber in the group, was taking five minutes just to reach the dining tent. The leader of the group was the fastest and Pasang said that Ishi, the third member, was not as fast, but cheerful and making jokes all the time. I hoped that the group would acclimatize well as the current pace might present a major logistical problem for Pasang Kidar and his Sherpa, Dawa Nuru and Nima Nuru as well as the entire team.

Pasang had to be very creative in his communication skills with his group since they knew very little English. It appeared that he had mastered a good deal of Japanese words and he was mixing the two languages in a way that the Japanese climbers felt comfortable enough with him.

I asked Dawa Nuru to be the lama for our puja and he agreed to do the blessing and prayers for our small group. Nima Nuru the other Sherpa accompanied him and we had what I thought to be a modest but great puja.

Our modest but great “Puja”

We were then cordially invited to their puja and at some point Ishi broke into tears. Ming Kipa asked him why he was crying and he replied that he had tried Everest twice before without reaching the summit and this time was going to be his last attempt. He explained that it was a cry of joy; perhaps listening to the prayer sounds and the smell of juniper gave him a more spiritual feeling.

The prayers mark the official start of the climb and we wasted no time making our way up to acclimatize ourselves. As we reached the upper part of the North Col slope the weather turned for the worse with snow and increased winds.

We had planned to hike to the top of North Col and come back down to ABC, but the snow, reduced visibility, and bone-deep fatigue made us change our mind. We spent the night at the North Col. The snow subsided overnight but at least half a foot of snow covered many tents and the landscape had been transformed into a white mantle. After greeting the beautiful morning sun we decided on an early start down to ABC.

We had planned to make at least one more trip of acclimatization to Camp One, but rumors were in the air that from May 14 to at least the 17th would be a good window of opportunity for a summit push. None of our preparations for the summit were in place, but we still had enough time to make them; the only thing we had to scrap was any tiring activities at the upper camps.

The decision was made to attempt the summit on May 14. We only knew of one small group of climbers that had the same plan, but we were not concerned.

We prepared our own food supplies and reached first camp without any problems or inconvenience. I could see the concentration, or fear, or both, in Ming Kipa’s eyes as she was now focused on the summit journey; a trip she made four years ago when she was just over 15 years old. This time she did not have the comfort of her brother or sister Lakpa. She was technically alone with me and she realized the need to be as sharp as possible.

 A light snow ushered in the evening and it quickly manifested into a very heavy snow. I was worried about deep snow because of the size of our small group, which would have to make a brave trek through the freshly fallen snow. Breaking trail to Camp Two by ourselves was not a task I was keen to complete. I woke up twice during the night only to witness even more snow falling.

Dawa Nuru and Nima Nuru rose early in order to organize and carry their own supplies up to Camp Three. I could hear them chat over the roaring stove as they waited for the midnight brew. I lay down on my back in the comfort of my warm sleeping bag thanking God I was not tasked with their duties. For a moment I thought they would change plans and scrap the trip, but soon heard the tent zipper opening and off they went. While I tossed and turned with concern Ming Kipa purred like a cat in an deep sleep.

The morning brought more snow, but it was much lighter. The sun brought warmth to our tent and I felt comfortable resting without the sleeping bag while contemplating our next steps. The Sherpa leader of the other group came to our tent to announce that they would delay their attempt by one day because of the deep snow.

Ming Kipa wanted to go, so we started to hydrate and survey the conditions to see what the weather had in store. Sunshine was plentiful and we now could see the trail up to Camp Two. There was no evidence of Dawa Nuru’s foot prints on the white and pristine mountain face. I feared we would be wasting a great deal of our energy trying to get to the upper camp on a fresh trail and I knew very well that Camp Two was a notoriously windy place. Experience advised me and I decided that we should wait another day as well. Ming Kipa was disappointed at first, but finally accepted my decision. We made a deal from that point onwards my decisions would stand.

Later that evening, Pasang arrived at North Col with the three Japanese climbers. All three Sherpa rushed to make sure the climbing party was given everything to refresh and renew them for the journey ahead.

{CAMP 2}

We were on the move toward Camp Two the following morning at 7:30 AM and Pasang and company were a half an hour behind us. In about an hour Ming Kipa took the lead and she was now cruising about hundred yards in front of me. The sleepless night was taking its toll on me and I was now regretting that I did not take oxygen from Camp One. The line of climbers ahead looked like the body of giant snake being lead by a cluster of Sherpa at the head. The snake body would occasionally stopped, but the head moved onwards at a steady pace. Slower climbers were falling behind and teams were becoming separated by natural selection.

Thursday: Part 2, {THE FALL} and more...

 

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