Project 314 Blog #8 – Arrival at basecamp

May 12, 2023

Jake Meyer

Client Accounts' Director
Photo of helicopter on landing pad at basecamp

Days 14 and 15 – Basecamp

Graphic showing the team are in basecamp
Saturday 22nd April – Day 14

Our alarm clock this morning was the rather surprising and pleasant sound of the helo arriving at 0600. Crikey – the flight team were obviously much more keen to make the most of the morning than they had been (or at least been able to) the previous day.

The Sherpa team jumped quickly into action, taking the large tarpaulins off the stacks of supplies. Every bag and box had its weight in kilos on it, ready for sorting. For the journey from Tseram into Basecamp (up to a height of 5500m), the helo was limited to 250kg of cargo, regardless of whether that was human or equipment. Mingma joyfully pointed out that “1kg overweight equals not good”, and made an ‘exploding’ gesture with his hands. I suspect that the tolerances aren’t quite that tight, but even so, it was obviously important that each load was carefully balanced.

Petr and Attila jumped into the first ride, along with a few extra bags of team equipment. The chopper lifted off quickly and started soaring up the valley. Within a minute or so, the sound of its rotors had disappeared, replaced by the chirping of the birds and the soft clanging of the yak bells.

Within 15 minutes the helo was back, and the Sherpa team were ready to fill it with kit. No passengers this time, so in went a carefully selected 250kg of bags and boxes. Again, it sped off into the distance.

The process was incredibly efficient, and I suspected that there was an equally effective team at BC who were doing the unloading, meaning that the heli was only on the deck for a minute or so, before buzzing back down to us. Every other trip was like a Formula 1 pit change – with refuelling of the bird from a 60-gallon barrel and hand pump, and even refuelling of the pilot with food and tea. Western safety standards didn’t seem to apply here, with Sherpas smoking relatively close to the barrels of fuel and cans of kerosene, and at one point, the pilot jumping out of the helicopter, whose rotors were still turning at full pelt, and 3 passengers inside, so that he could have a pee. I assume that the helicopter equivalent of the hand-brake was still on, but it did rather make me worry that anyone in the chopper could have pressed any button or pulled on any stick and something catastrophic might have happened. Fortunately, everyone inside kept their hands to themselves, and the pilot was soon back in his seat and in control of his whirlybird.

What was also clear, was that the pilot has his own supply of oxygen, administered through a nasal canula (rather than a full mask). Whilst it was clear that he flies at altitude almost everyday, especially during the climbing seasons, I suppose that it was rather reassuring to know that he was able to maintain his thought-process and hand-eye coordination at this altitude.

After several sorties, Attila and Petr came back in one of the helo’s return journeys. They’d had an hour or so up in basecamp, so a chance to pay their respects at a closer proximity. I’m not sure how I expected them to be having been that close to Peter’s resting place: sorrowful, melancholy or emotional – but they were both in good spirits. Attila had huge grin on his face – although I suspected that this was more about the excitement of the method of travel, rather than the poignancy of the visit.

The bulk of the team (now down to seven of us, as Waldo, Luis and Vakim had chosen to hike into basecamp the previous few days) went up in two trips – three people in each, with their personal luggage. Finally it was time for me and Nuri to get our flight – I sat in the front whilst he squeezed onto the rear bench-seat with a number of large bags and boxes. In what seemed like only a minute, the pit-stop change was over, the pilot applied the power, the engine roared, and we were airborne.

We rose quickly, with Tseram our home for the past 5 days, rapidly shrinking as we gained height and soared up the valley. Within a couple of minutes we were passing Ramche – the furthest camp which had taken us 3 hours to hike too a few days previously. It looked like a set of toy buildings as we passed several hundred metres overhead. By this stage we were over the Yalung glacier: it’s tumbling scree and rock covered hummocks disguising the hundreds of metres of centuries-old ice underneath. The snow from the previous evening had given everything a gleaming white dusting, and with the absence of any greenery below, we could have been flying through an entirely black and white scene.

As we rounded the corner above Oktang, the full bulk of the Kanchenjunga massif came gloriously into view. Unlike Everest (especially from the north) or K2, which are very much obvious, singular peaks, Kanchenjunga is a behemoth which stretches across the horizon. The four main peaks, each of which is over 8450m high, stretch for 3kms. Either side of this, it drops to passes (cols) of still 7000m before joining 7300m Talung/Kabru ridge to the south and 7700m peak of Jannu to the west. It is a glorious amphitheatre where epic peaks and ridges tower above you in nearly 300 degrees, with only the outflow of the Yalung glacier acting as the doorway to this magical high-altitude kingdom. It is little wonder that for many years in the early-mid 19th century, before Everest was formally measured, it was assumed that Kanchenjunga was the highest mountain in the world.

Despite the wonders of this new vista, I was also searching for the sight of the basecamp. A scattering of yellow and orange tents surely wouldn’t be that difficult to spot in the monotone landscape? Having been hugging the east side of the glacial valley, with the surrounding mountains looming over us ominously, we suddenly started to bank towards the centre of the icy basin. There, standing lone and sentinel-like was a castle of rock, jutting out above the glaciers below. On this island, standing several hundred metres proud of the frozen torrent blow were the yellow specs that I was expecting.

But they were so small and insignificant! Perspective is always a difficult thing in an environment devoid of recognisable scale such as man-made objects or even trees. But the camp seemed to be clinging desperately onto a minute bastion of protection amidst this raging crash of ice below, and the sheer steepness of the mountain above. It was hard to believe that this would be our home for the next month or so, but easy to see why the trek into basecamp was considered so treacherous. We later found out that it had taken the others over 12 hours to reach basecamp, including having to climb several hundred metres up using fixed ropes to reach it. It really was like assaulting a besieged castle.

We came in at an alarming speed, aiming for a group of sherpas standing next to a landing ‘pad’ not much bigger than a double bed. With the air-traffic controller (perhaps the bravest or maybe the stupidest sherpa) knelt at the head of the bed giving hand signals, the pilot flared at the very last moment, touching down with a precise gentleness. We really were experiencing a master at work.

Within seconds, the basecamp pit crew swarmed onto the helo – opening the rear door on one side to start unloading the freight, and helping Nuri and me with the doors on our sides so that we could alight. The unloading must have been furiously effective, as we were barely off the side of the pad before the whine of the engine peaked and the helicopter lifted off, yawing rapidly before dropping down off the side of the outcrop like a dive bomber. The skids had been on the dirt for less than a minute. Now we could appreciate why each journey for the near 50km round-trip was only around 15 minutes – it was a beautiful demonstration of efficiency of both the pilot and the ground teams at each end.

With the sound of the chopper rapidly receding down the glacier, and the over-stimulation of the flight experience quickly dissipating, I took stock of our surroundings. Perched high on this rocky outcrop, still thick with a white crust of snow, it felt like we’d found ourselves on some Vietnam style mountain-top artillery firebase. Narrow well-trodden pathways ran like trenches between bunkers containing tents. The whole camp was not neatly nestled onto a flat two-dimensional uniform top, but scattered higgledy-piggledy up a 20 degree incline, meaning that no two tents appeared to be on the same plane.  The network of paths connected all the tents via slopes and snowy steps – part MC Escher impossible stair system, and part leisure-centre swimming pool intertwined network of (frozen) water slides. And, as mentioned earlier, all centre-stage in this epic arena of rock and ice.

The rest of the team seemed to have quickly made themselves at home and were drinking brews outside our dining tent. It was great to catch up with Luis and Vadim – who I’d missed for the previous few days, and listened incredulously as they relayed their heroic trek into basecamp. Despite listening in with rapt attention, at no point did I think ‘I wish I’d been there with them’ – it sounded horrendous!

Stepping into our dining tent was a wonderful sensual overload – the large box tent was festooned with fake flowers and greenery and had a series of table and chair sets like the world’s smallest restaurant. Each table was bulging with jars, tins, bottles and boxes of every imaginable condiment, drink and snack. Boxes of biscuits and fruit teas, jars of jam, olives and gerkins, bottles of chilli sauce and ketchup. Crikey – after a condiment diet limited to ketchup and green-chilli sauce for the past week, it was like arriving in in an edible paradise. With accoutrements like this, who’d want to actually leave basecamp and climb a mountain!

In the porch of the dining tent was a table of charging cables linked up to a generator, and as you entered the main space, there was a drinks station with large flasks of hot water, hot milk and black tea. I immediately made myself a hot chocolate with hot milk, and collapsed into a chair, thankful for finally having arrived in basecamp. It now felt like we were climbers, rather than just trekkers. This was the first proper stage of the expedition, and the previous hiking was rapidly feeling like a distant memory.

After several drinks (it’s important to stay hydrated up here – especially with the height gain that we’d experienced from Tseram to basecamp of around 1600m), I made my way to my tent, as pointed out by one of the Sherpas. Whilst it had been pitched on the covering of snow, it was clear that there was a solid and flat platform of rock underneath it. Gone was my experience from my last three big expeditions to Pakistan of having basecamp on a glacier, where the ground was always melting and changing underneath your feet (and tent).

I did a quick basic unpack, and then headed over to the mess tent for some lunch. To be fair, I’d been pleasantly surprised by the quality of the food in Tseram, but it was nothing compared to what we’d be eating here. Lunch was 3 courses: soup, followed by sandwiches, spam fritters and Waldorf salad, with fresh papaya for pudding. If our feeding continues like this, we’re not going to want to do any climbing!

Photo of basecamp showing lots of colourful tents against a backdrop of snow-covered mountainsIn the afternoon I went back to my tent for a bit of quiet time. I was extremely conscious that we’d made a big jump in terms of height (1600m as previously mentioned), and that the effects of the altitude wouldn’t take long to manifest itself. Whilst keeping well hydrated really helps, ultimately it would take some time for my body to start to get used to this new stage of reduction in air pressure and oxygen content. My experience on other expeditions had often been rather miserable, even if the ascent profile was relatively gentle – so I was expecting a humdinger of a headache to take hold.

After a couple of hours of dosing in the tent, I could start to feel the pressure behind the eyes, and the start of a thumper of a headache when I sat up. I popped 250mg of Diamox, and a couple of Ibuprofen, and lay back down again. Diamox is a brand name for Acetazolamide, and is a well known preventative for the early effects of altitude sickness. I find that it does have a few side effects – notably acting as a diuretic and causing uncomfortable pins and needles in the extremities. Having used it before though, I was happy to accept these side effects in the hope that it would help me combat the effects of altitude sickness – at this stage notably the headaches.

Having popped my pills, I lay back down again and quickly fell back asleep. When I woke up an hour or so later, the headache was gone, and I was desperate for a pee… hurrah for Diamox and hurrah for my pee bottle! Amazingly, even later that evening after I’d gone to bed, there was still no headache. I popped half a pill before I went to sleep to try and prevent any pain during the night, and snuggled deep into my sleeping bag and soon was away to the land of nod.

Sunday 23rd April – Day 15 – Basecamp 5500m

I can’t say that I had a perfect night’s sleep – but that was purely due to needing to pee every 3 hours. The diuretic effects of the Diamox were working their magic. No headaches at all, and I awoke feeling remarkably refreshed and well-rested.

Up here it gets light at about 0530, but breakfast isn’t until 0800 (meal timings are extremely regimented on rest days in basecamp!). I dosed in my tent whilst the sun started to warm it all up. There had been several inches of snow overnight, and I shook the inner of the tent to get it to slide down the fly sheet. With the cold-insulating effects of my tent’s snow jacket removed, the sun soon started to have a pleasant greenhouse effect, and it rapidly warmed up.

Let me describe my ‘living arrangements’. MTV Cribs this isn’t, but it’s home for the next month or so, and for somewhere as remote as this, it’s pretty much as comfortable as you can get!

The tent itself is a decent-sized 3-person dome tent made by Kailas, a now ubiquitous Nepal mountain tent of Chinese manufacture. It’s essentially the same as the equivalents from Mountain Hardwear (Trango 3) or The North Face (Mountain 35).  Inside I’ve got a 6ft x 8ft 10mm foam mat giving me basic insulation from the frozen ground below. I’ve also got a nice thick 100mm mattress (which gives a much softer cushion than the mattresses that we’ve had thus far in the tea lodges). I’ve even got a proper pillow and pillowcase! Gone are the days of cramming your down jacket into your sleeping bag stuff sack to act as your pillow at night. It’s luxury!

There’s plenty of room for my duffle bags in the tent, and some of the contents have gone into the mesh pockets which run the length of both sides, for easy access. I’m probably not going to win any ‘tidy bedroom’ prizes at the moment, but we’ll get there. My big blue plastic barrel with all my mountain food sits in the ‘porch/vestibule’ at the front – and can act as a handy table for me to put my shoes on top of (it’s a ‘no shoes in the tent’ rule here).

I’ve set up 2x 60W lightweight solar panels outside the tent, which trickle charge a 50k mA battery pack, which can either have up to 4 USBs plugged into it, or even a UK 3pin plug when set to AC – which means that I can charge my laptop direct from it. The solar panels are excellent – something that’s on (extremely) long-term loan from my dear friend Ben Saunders (polar adventurer extraordinaire), who lent them to me for my first K2 trip back in 2009, and even though he knows full well that I’ve got them, hasn’t asked for them back yet (cheers Ben – they’re still going strong!). Whilst there is power in the mess tent (from 1800-2000) provided by the generator – it’s nice to have my own independent power supply, and not have to fight over the plug sockets with the other team members.

I’ve already described the situation of basecamp, our wonderful rocky outcrop in amongst our colosseum of mountains. What’s rather incredible is the regular sound of avalanches happening all around us, as seracs break off the sides of mountains and come crashing down the slopes in impressive plumes of snow and ice. We’re perfectly safe where we are, basecamp has been sited here for very good reason, in that anything that might break away above us would get funnelled away either side before it came anywhere near us.

Today was a rest day – a day where we didn’t do anything on the mountain, but allowed our bodies to acclimate to the altitude. It sometimes feels rather lazy, however it is a vitally important aspect of any high-altitude expedition – and there is still plenty to be done here in basecamp to keep us busy. We sorted out our personal kit and did our errands (for instance writing my blog is one of mine). There is shared kit to arrange, as well as washing ourselves and our clothes.

Today I had my first ‘hot’ (bucket) wash since leaving Kathmandu – even the shower in the hotel in Ilam was cold when I jumped in. Up until now it’s been cold bucket washes with water often direct from the glacial rivers/streams – so very refreshing, and certainly no risk of lingering in the shower. I’ve found that the best time to wash is when you’ve just got back from a hike, and you’re warm and sweaty and as long as the sun is shining, the water temperature is refreshing rather than torturous.

Supper this evening was chicken steak sizzlers! Lovely juicy breast of chicken on proper hot individual skillets, with chips, noodles and salad. I’d be perfectly happy to be served something like this in a restaurant on holiday – so to have it served at 5500m up a mountain is truly incredible! Pudding maintained the high-standard – a freshly baked cake, dripping with icing, with ‘Welcome Kanchnzuga Team 2023’ (sic) written in green icing. If that wasn’t enough, Nuri then brought through a case of beer, and we all had a can to celebrate our first full day ‘on’ the mountain, and the proper start to our expedition. With this to celebrate, we hung one on, and didn’t head to our own tents till at least 2030! Crikey – what dirty-stop outs we are!

 

 

Related articles

a photo of a purpose-driven leader embracing the rest of their team

What is a Purpose-Driven Leader and Why Should You Become One?

Purpose-driven leadership aligns an organization’s mission with a higher purpose, fostering engagement, innovation, and resilience. This blog explores defining purpose, aligning values with goals, enhancing emotional intelligence, cultivating culture, and measuring impact, guiding leaders on their journey to inspire and drive meaningful change.

Image showing a double exposure of a person and an office building with the words The Future of Leadership

The Future of Leadership in 2024

Part 1: Talent Wars Attracting and retaining good people used to be fairly simple. You advertised a job, paid a reasonable wage and loads of people applied. You short-listed, interviewed and then picked the best one. Easy life. But not a life familiar to most...

Contact Us

IDG UK
IDG House Royal Berkshire Hotel London Road Ascot SL5 0PP UK
+44 (0) 207 798 2848

IDG India
301, Tower 2, Montreal Business Center Baner Road Pune 411045 India
+91 955 271 5800

IDG Middle East
5th Floor One Business Centre DMCC, Jumeirah Lake Towers, Dubai UAE
+44 (0) 1276 686644

IDG UK
IDG House Royal Berkshire Hotel London Road Ascot SL5 0PP UK
+44 (0) 207 798 2848

IDG India
301, Tower 2, Montreal Business Center Baner Road Pune 411045 India
+91 955 271 5800

IDG Middle East
5th Floor One Business Centre DMCC, Jumeirah Lake Towers, Dubai UAE
+44 (0) 1276 686644