Climbers set up Himalayan base camp

December 23, 1990|By Chris Warner | Chris Warner,Special to The Sun

AMA DABLAM, NEPAL — Chris Warner, a project director with Outward Bound in Baltimore, is preparing to climb Ama Dablam, a 22,494-foot peak in the Mount Everest region of Nepal. The ascent by Warner, 26, and Glen Dunmire of Estes Park, Colo., will be the first of its kind on the mountain's west face. Periodic reports from Warner will appear in The Sun.

AMA DABLAM, Nepal -- The 1990 American Direct Expeditiohas established its base camp on a five-acre grass plain at 15,110-feet elevation, directly beneath the west face of Ama Dablam. Our four tents and cook shelter sit in a nook, bounded on all sides by 300 to 400 feet of rocky rubble piled up by Mingbo Glacier.

After a seven-day march in from the airport village of Lukla (9,30feet), it felt good to wash away the dust with a noontime shower drawn from an ice-covered stream. Afterward, I shivered until 3 p.m.

At night, the temperature falls below zero, and during daylight, the warmth of the high-altitude sun is deceiving.

Sherku Sherpa and Gylgen Sherpa, who had walked our supply train east from Katmandu, met us in Lukla on Dec. 2. We then transferred our supplies to eight yaks and one porter and hiked into the heart of the Sherpa Kingdom in the Mount Everest region of the Himalayas.

Our first rest day was taken at Namche Bazaar (11,300 feet), the economic center of the Everest region. In Sherpa, Namche means big forest. Eighty years ago, three houses were clustered in the dense woodland of Namche. Today, there is a forest of tourist lodges and trinket shops -- and only three trees.

The purpose of the rest stop in Namche Bazaar is to acclimate our bodies to the altitude. Making that biochemical adjustment is hard work, so we fueled our bodies with apple pies and cheese parathas.

Namche Bazaar has an American wild-West feeling about it. While tourists stop here to fatten themselves for the climbs to higher altitudes, Tibetans in sheepskin clothing, their faces heavily weathered and their long hair tightly braided, roam the narrow stone trails of the village.

The Tibetans arrive in Namche Bazaar after passing through the Nagpa La, a 19,000-foot pass on the Nepal border. Through the snows of the glacial pass they drive yaks, laden with the carcasses of goats, deer and Chinese sneakers.

Five miles and 1,000 feet up the valley from Namche Bazaar, the Buddhist monastery of Tengboche sits atop a forested ridge. Ama Dablam, Lhotse and Everest kill the sky behind the monastery. Every expedition to the Khumba Valley stops at Tengboche for a puja, or ceremonial blessing. We were to be no different.

A Tibetan led us through a doorway into a passage not more than 4 feet high. Feeling our way in the darkness, we found a ladder and climbed into a tiny room. There, warmed by a smoky fire, swaddled in blankets and cared for by an elderly nun, we met the 85-year-old lama who has run the monastery for more than 60 years.

The lama was wrapped in the maroon robes of the Tibetan monks, his ceremonial hat was perched on a bald head. He looked at us through round, black, plastic-covered glasses, and we bowed before him.

The lama took the Khada scarf from around my neck and chanted incantations for safety and strength. With $10 wrapped in a silk scarf, I placed our donation and prayer flags on a small table at the lama's side, and he began a lengthy prayer while sprinkling holy water on the flags and scarfs. He then blessed a quantity of rice, tossed some atop the scarves and flags and gave the balance to us for use later.

Afterward, we sat and talked with the elderly religious leader of the Sherpa Kingdom. We felt we were in good company. In 1953, the lama had presided at the puja for the British Everest Expedition, blessing two fellows named Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay.

Once base camp had been set up, we suspended the blessed prayer flags over the tents and cook shelter. Then, we set about preparing crampons and ice axes for the climbs ahead.

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