Authors: Bear Grylls
I wrote as we sat and rested:
We now can’t see Everest at all, as it is hidden by the vast mountain of Nuptse, on our right. Even from Base Camp we won’t be able to see her – not until
we’re 5,000 feet higher up, and well into the climb itself, will she reveal herself.
Two hours later we reached Lobuche, a clearing along the glacier with a few huts that accommodated those heading up to Base Camp. It was a foul-smelling place. Because of the nonchalance that
the cold and altitude caused, people couldn’t be bothered to keep the area clean, and they spent most of their time in the huts, drinking and complaining about the bleak conditions.
The loo here had degenerated into a seething mass of faeces, and nobody any longer even bothered to use it. Instead people crapped in any clear place they could find. The cold ensured that this
place was never far from the hut. That night as I sneaked out to try and go myself, negotiating a route through the stinking minefield, I realized that hygiene was now a distant blur of the
That evening, as we sat wrapped up in our down jackets, round the tin stove that burnt the dried yak dung, we talked with the Nepalese who were there. Soon the chang was produced, followed not
long after by an old guitar they had. None of them could play, and they were excited to hear that I did; that was until I actually did play, and then their enthusiasm somewhat waned. Well
‘American Pie’ isn’t easy with six strings, let alone four. The next day, though, they agreed to let me borrow the guitar for the time I would be up at Base Camp.
As a lot of one’s time is spent there mentally preparing for what lies ahead, I felt that to have a guitar was a real coup. Although I’m not sure the rest of the team quite saw it
like that over the next few months. Heathens.
At 6.30 a.m. I strapped the guitar to my rucksack and we said farewell to the Nepalese. They grinned and bade us good luck in what the Tibetans call the ‘poisonous gas’: the thin air
of high altitude. We lowered our faces to the morning chill, and headed off for the last five-hour stretch that would bring us eventually to Base Camp.
We hadn’t got far, though, when the first effects of the food we had eaten began to kick in.
‘Won’t be a second, Mick,’ I announced as I scurried off behind a large rock on the glacier to get rid of the better part of me that morning. But it wasn’t all of me by
any means. Frequent stops every ten minutes along the way followed, to the great amusement of Mick.
Getting the ‘runs’ though, is part of life when climbing in the hills of Nepal. The locals never wash much, and their food cannot be kept fresh for long – so their resistance
to bacteria is therefore higher. I had been brought up on picking my pork chop up off the floor at home if I had dropped it, but, even for my stomach, some of the food we had at Lobuche was proving
a bit much. The best and only way to cope with these ‘part of life’ occurrences was just to allow the body to work its course naturally. When it expels whatever is reacting against you,
you feel instantly better. Bunging yourself up with Imodium or other diarrhoea tablets just delays the whole process.
By mid-morning I was much better, but a little dehydrated. We were slowly contouring our way along the side of the glacier, winding through the ice and debris of rocks that had been deposited
along the route. These piles of rocks create a vast wasteland, and we followed an old yak-trail to avoid becoming disorientated. We were exhausted though by this clambering up and down huge
boulders, and rests became more and more frequent.
Part of me felt maybe only now was I beginning to realize the ‘enormity of the task ahead’, to quote Mallory; the enormity of this challenge that maybe should have remained just a
dream. I was struggling at even this height. How on earth was I going to be able to go up into the extreme altitudes that we knew lay ahead, kilometres vertically above where we were now, when I
was currently worrying about the 100 feet or so of height change that day?
My goals at this time were so small, and I couldn’t really focus on much more. But maybe that would be the key. I remembered hearing that to eat an elephant one has to start with a small
bite. But at present I was having difficulty digesting even that.
As we continued along the route, we came to a cluster of stone memorials. These had been built in honour of some of the men who had died on Everest. Each one being about eight feet high, with a
photograph wedged in the middle. These served as a chilling reminder of the authority of the mountain. Rob Hall’s memorial stood quietly there, with a few prayer flags billowing on top of it.
The tragedies keep happening, yet people still come back. I wondered if that showed bravery or recklessness; and couldn’t decide. The numbers though tell the story simply – 162 lives
lost on her slopes.
The final three hours towards Base Camp took us right into the glacier itself. From this point on, being so early in the climbing season, there was no established route, and we weaved our way
along, heading in the direction of Base Camp. At certain points in the glacier, we would glimpse the Sherpas’ tents in the distance. As we then descended back into the mass of rocks and ice,
the tents would once more become hidden from view.
Dramatic drops that led down to frozen lakes below endlessly blocked the route. We would then be forced to try another route, winding through the maze of glacial rocks. Going up and down huge
scree slopes and scrambling over these vast boulders the size of trucks soon left us both anxious and tired. We knew this was how that porter had got lost only a week earlier.
There was an entrancing quality to the surface of the glacier. Much of it was covered in loose snow and rocks, but in parts we could see far down into the depths – beneath us were hundreds
of feet of shimmering, glassy ice. On occasions the ground would groan as the glacier shifted below.
At this stage in the season we expected to find Base Camp empty, save for a small group of our Sherpas sent by Kami, who were starting to prepare the ropes and other equipment. It was them that
we were hoping to meet. The majority of what we required for the climb, along with more clothing, would arrive by yak in ten days’ time. So at the moment we had nothing more than just basic
trekking equipment. I tucked my old chef’s trousers into my socks to keep the draught out, and pulled my tweed cap down tight to avoid losing it to Tibet.
Everyone should permit themselves certain luxuries in life. Stan, for example, a very old friend, consistently made a point of stowing his pyjamas in his bergan on field exercises – to the
bewilderment of his sergeants. But for me, my pair of tatty old chef’s trousers and ultra-hairy Richard Hannay tweed cap filled my needs nicely. I think certain other climbers in due course
showed a slight distress at the British attire around Base Camp, but as I’d once heard said: ‘Beware: strength is often hidden in absurdity’; although in our case I’m not
sure that was entirely true, but it was worth a try!
The wind began to get up over the glacier, and it got considerably colder. I wished now that I had some of my proper climbing clothes with me. I just wanted to reach the tents; it had been a
long few weeks for the two of us out here, and we were both desperate to get there and start settling in. An hour later, though, we were still floundering around in the glacier, and not appearing
to get much closer. We didn’t talk, but rather just numbly dreamt of the sanctuary we hoped Base Camp would offer.
By the time we reached the tents it was blowing hard, and we were both cold and tired; but at last we had arrived. We went round to the flap of one of the tents, undid the zip, and peered in.
The dirty faces of four Sherpas broke into welcoming grins. They were sitting round a tiny stove, clutching steaming mugs of hot tea.
‘Why so late? We worried much. Come drink.’
We looked at each other and smiled.
We were now at 17,450 feet.
‘Well here’s another fine mess you’ve got me into.’
Oliver Hardy to Stan Laurel
DIARY, 12 MARCH:
Mick has a throbbing headache, and I can hear him throwing up outside his tent. He has hardly spoken a word in the last twenty-four hours since arriving here, and seems to
be suffering quite a bit from the altitude at Base Camp. I’m putting on a semi-brave face, but feel pretty crap myself. It’s all a bit worrying sitting here, and already feeling
Early reactions of the body of not having enough oxygen in the blood are headaches and lethargy. The latter is never normally a problem; but when I’ve got to be helped in just getting
a simple tent erected, it makes me feel pretty pathetic. Especially as I collapse in it afterwards and then look out of the flap, up to the vast mountain of Nuptse above, knowing that she hides
the monster of Everest behind her.
I put down my diary, and thought that I would try to sleep a bit. Night had already come, and it was only 6.30 p.m. It felt bitterly cold – colder than I’d ever
known. I saw on my temperature gauge that it was — 20°C.
It was still winter time at the moment, and I knew that it would slowly begin to get warmer as the weeks went by, and spring arrived in the mountains.
I snuggled down into my sleeping bag, and closed my eyes. A bit of sleep should sort my headache out, I hoped.
Thoughts flooded my mind: I remembered the famous Everest climber Hornbein’s description of Base Camp. He’d called it a ‘world not meant for habitation’. I was beginning
to understand. It made me question just how bright all of this really was. I wondered also how Mick was feeling and soon, bereft of any answers, I dozed off.
I woke up at 1.00 a.m. with a deep pounding in my skull. The literal ‘bear with a sore head’. The stuffy air in the tiny, enclosed tent wasn’t helping, and it was a toss-up
between letting the harsh chill of the night frost come in, or enduring the headache from the less oxygen-rich, trapped air. I spent the rest of the hours until dawn with the zip closed, sipping at
the lukewarm water in my thermos.
One of the factors of living at high altitudes is coping with condensation inside the tents. All one’s exhaled breath freezes on the inner layer of the tent and around the top of your
sleeping bag, and as the sun rises, this begins to drip. By 7.00 a.m. each morning your bag is damp, and you’re invariably woken up by ice-cold water dripping on your face.
My first morning at Base Camp I spent half an hour trying to dodge these drips, and then reluctantly scrambled out of my bag, struggled into some warm clothes, and got out of my tent –
squinting because of my headache.
Mick was still no better, and his tent was ominously still all zipped up. Little birds chirped round the front of his tent flap, and I sat there watching them, wondering jealously why they were
only congregating outside his. It took a few minutes of observing this to realize that the birds were only there because they were feasting on Mick’s sick that he had deposited there during
the night. I grinned, and breathed in the cold crisp air as the morning sun began to shine on my face.
DIARY, 13 MARCH:
I’m trying to drink as much as possible to help the headache, but I certainly don’t feel like eating anything. A small bit of rice was all I managed for
breakfast with the Sherpas. Luckily the food will improve here dramatically when all the others arrive in a few weeks’ time, but in the meantime we’re strictly on
I watched them all go off early this morning to begin work on the ropes, and to have a look at the first part of the climb. They seem so strong and at home at this height. I can only look
on, ‘sick’ with envy – literally.
This morning I spent much of the time unpacking and sorting through my equipment. The guitar now seems a bit of a burden and I can’t find any room for it in my tiny tent, now that
it’s full of kit. On top of that, it has broken a string during the night – it must have been too tight and have snapped in the cold.
Base Camp is already over 1,600 feet higher than the summit of Mont Blanc, the highest peak in Western Europe. Tucked away at the top end of a glacier, it sits in a barren
landscape of rocks that are strewn like marbles across the ice. Often likened to the moon in its harsh and uninviting surroundings, pinnacles of glassy ice reach up, twisted and chiseled amongst
the rocks. At this height nothing can grow.
When you first arrive, you struggle for hours to build a level platform for your tent, forging a base out of tiny stones amongst the ice. Glacial boulders balance precariously on pinnacles of
ice, and as the glacier groans and moves beneath you, these shift and slide randomly about.
As the weeks go by, and the ice around moves, so does your tent. Soon you find yourself perched on a contorted bit of ground and you need to start again – repitching your eighteen square
feet, of what becomes known simply as ‘home’.
Mountains soar upwards on all sides, thousands of feet above. You can imagine the mountain gods peering down and viewing the tents as tiny orange specks amongst the miles of rock and ice far
below. These mountains form a natural amphitheatre around Base Camp, and huge hanging glaciers are draped along the vast walls on all three sides. These collapse at all hours of the day and night,
causing thunderous avalanches. Sitting here, you hope that your camp is situated far enough away, so as to avoid these terrors.