THWAP-THWAP-THWAP-THWAP-THWAP. A chopper stirs me from my early morning slumber. I graze the edge of my tent, unleashing snow flurries of my own moist breath frozen to the nylon through the night.
This is the second morning of my spring at Everest base camp. It’s a scene.
Base camp is smeared over a mile-long stretch of the rubble-strewn Khumbu Glacier at 17,600 ft or so. A collection of over a thousand mountaineering tents, communications domes and dining rooms are perched on makeshift rock platforms on the constantly crackling glacier. In the era of commercial mountaineering where peaks are sold as commodities, companies compete with each others’ base camp perks, from big screen TVs and couches to open bars. My base camp, for the record, isn’t absurd but does offer respectable modern accommodations: a shower and a spacious carpeted dining tent. Good times!
With all the amenities, daily heli flights and ample testosterone-fueled posturing, I’ve found it easy to forget about this place and why I actually decided to show up. I require a strong personal connection to the mountains I choose to visit. In this day, it may be harder than ever to establish that relationship, but I find it essential to meet the mountains on their own terms.
Where am I? What’s the mood of the Khumbu this early spring?
After dinner, I stumble out of our dining tent and head out onto the glacier. The Khumbu is a giant river of ice, flowing downhill at one to a few meters per day. By the end of the season, I’ll have drifted perhaps a quarter mile. I stand over a precipice of ice and rock. Penitentes, giant pillars of ice formed by the intense low-latitude sun, catch the moonlight to form ghostly shapes. As a mist rolls in, I gaze up at the base of the route—a chaotic pile of ice known as the Khumbu Icefall. It’s grand, if not completely uninterpretable chaos. This year, the route trends to the left side up teetering blocks of ice and beneath overhanging glaciers clinging to Everest’s west shoulder.
I often hear people back home lament about places such as these. ‘UGH, the [Yosemite] Valley is so crowded these days. I’d never go to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, the North Rim is way better,’ and so on. It’s not the places’ fault. Let’s not make Everest apologize for being the highest mountain in the world. It is we who should approach these fragile and magical places with humility and respect.
I wander out further onto the glacier through a maze of ice ridges not unlike cresting waves on a stormy sea. Some of these fins of ice reach forty or fifty feet high. In the icefall itself, they’ll be the size of apartment buildings, teetering over bottomless crevasses. The mist briefly parts to reveal the flanks of Everest and stars above. As snow begins to fall once again, the orange and yellow tents are like glowing candles guiding me back to shelter.