Episode 178: Basecamp Buzzkill

Everest Evolution? Yesterday we finished the drive to Everest’s North Side and set up camp for a couple of nights at the Rongbuk Monastery. I’ve been here several times before and while the view looks the same (the 13,000 ft / 4000m North Face of Everest) the environment here is very different.

We had an uneventful night in camp and today we wanted to spent the day walking around Basecamp which is about 7km up the road from the Rongbuk. There was a shuttle bus available and most of the group climbed aboard but a few of us decided to walk. Roger and I were the last to set out on foot and decided to visit the cave where Buddha visited hundreds of years ago. I didn’t get the chance to revisit the cave in 2007 with Scott Jacobs (can’t remember why…) so it was a nice side trip to return on this visit.

After Roger and I finished viewing the cave we continued the walk up to Basecamp. It will never cease to amaze me just how much the cliffs and various rock formations along the ridges on the west side of the valley resemble the Colorado Plateau back in the USA. As in 2007, the little shanty village or “Bartertown” has been moved further away from BC than it was in 2003. I’m still not exactly sure why but at least the authorities are still allowing it to exist. There’s a lot of tourist traffic up here and Bartertown is a great place for a number of Tibetans to make a living catering to those tourists. You can buy food and tea, alcohol, cigarettes and trinkets as well as a place to sleep for the night. Think of it as a high altitude strip mall.

Further on up the road we came to the entrance to Basecamp. It’s a few hills formed out of glacial debris on both sides of the road. There’s a public restroom as well as a small office bunker housing the CMA/TMA, the Chinese Mountaineering Association and the Tibetan Mountaineering Association. These are the organizations that run things around here. The law. There’s also a small guard post with a road blockade. I’d seen it before, but never seen so many military personnel here before. Roger and I were escorted into the little guard shack where the guards searched our bags. Roger had the flag of his alma mater and I had a banner for my spine surgeon’s practice that we planned on taking pictures with as Everest loomed in the background. We were informed in broken english that there was a no-banner policy at Basecamp these days and that our banners were to be confiscated.

We were then told that our group was just a short walk up the road at a viewpoint and we could meet them there. We walked to the final debris hill, climbed to the top and saw the team quietly taking pictures and looking a bit deflated. Once we joined them we received the full story about how Basecamp works those days from Nicole since she speaks Mandarin and was able to speak at length with the guards.

Apparently the hill we stood atop was the farthest we were going to be able to go. It’s located right at the southern edge of Basecamp and while it has a very nice view of camp and Everest this was as much as we were going to be able to see. Tourists are not allowed into camp these days. Period. No walking around admiring the views, no visiting individual camps, no speaking with climbing teams. Nothing. In fact, they don’t even want you to take pictures. Nicole was able to talk the guards into letting us have our cameras! Thanks for that, Nic!

All in all it was a total buzzkill. We had just had an amazing visit to the Kangshung Face and had the entire East Side of Everest to ourselves. I was looking forward to showing the team the North Side because of the international community of climbers and the throngs of people would be a very interesting contrast for everyone. I was looking forward to a good time exchanging Everest stories with people I’m sure I’d recognize at BC.

Unfortunately the contrast we experienced was that of rules, rules and more rules with a healthy dose of regulations and red tape. Bummer.

The experience left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. I have so many wonderful memories of my time spent up here in 2003 but it looks like this may be the last time I visit the North Side unless there’s a sweeping policy change up here. In my opinion, it’s just not worth the effort to get here for the average tourist. Maybe the climbers feel differently but I can’t talk to any to find out.

The experience of camping at the Rongbuk was wonderful, though. The monks were cheerful and welcoming.

I hope against hope that never changes.

Jon Miller

Total Running Time: 28:11