Everest / Alpine Expeditions

Keith Cowing: Living At Everest Base Camp

By Keith Cowing
Keith Cowing
May 1, 2009
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Keith Cowing: Living At Everest Base Camp
An evening stroll
Keith Cowing

26 April

My last side trip before heading for Everest Base Camp was to climb Kala Pattar. This large dark structure has a summit at – which is slightly higher than what I will be living at when I arrive at Everest Base Camp. Kala Pattar is an unremarkable hill amongst giants that looms above Gorak Shep. The only reason anyone bothers to climb it is the unparalleled view it offers of Mt Everest.

Keith atop Kala Pattar. Mt. Everest is over his right shoulder.

Due the exceptional scale of the terrain here, even the world’s tallest mountain can be hidden from view. Tashi and I set of first thing. We took our time owing to my acclimatization plan while others zoomed ahead of us. Luck was on our side and we arrived to find the summit to be all ours. After a few minutes of picture taking and a radio check with IMG at Everest Base Camp we moved up a bit for one last picture.

Mt. Everest has very little snow on its summit right now.

Just as Tashi wrapped me in the large bundle of prayer flags that adorn the summit a sudden gust of wind nearly blew the two of us off of Kala Pattar. Seeing this as our signal to depart we headed back to Gorak Shep. the rest of the day was spent relaxing.

27 April

Today was the day! After 11 days of trekking and many months of planning, I was finally going to see Everest Base Camp with my own eyes. As was our habit, Tashi and I got an early start. After a mildly strenuous hike we arrived at Everest Base Camp. Everest Base Camp is a rather ad hoc and spread out affair. Some times the path through it is clear, other times it is not.

IMG’s camp is located at the northwest shoulder of Everest Base Camp as it turns to confront the Khumbu Icefall. After another 15 minutes or so, we arrived. By sheer coincidence, Scott was arriving just ahead of us. What timing. Hand shaking, a nice welcoming hug, and I had arrived at my home away from home for the next month or so.

IMG’s camp at Everest Base Camp with the Khumbu Icefall in the background

Scott quickly showed me to his tent (next to his), the mess tent, the comms tent (where I will be spending a lot of time), and other important locations. The remainder of the day flew by. After a a week and a half of sleeping in tea lodges where the food and accommodations ranged from very good to very bad, I was settled in at a place, while spartan, that takes food and hospitality very seriously.

My bags and my new tent

One of the hardest things I had to do today was to say good bye to my new friend Tashi. He started out as my Sherpa guide but became much more than that. He is a sterling individual and I will recall my trek through Nepal with him for the rest of my life.

Keith and Tashi at Everest Base Camp

28 April

My first full day at Everest Base Camp. After more introductions and settling in, Scott and I set to work putting all of our Education and public outreach plans into place. This includes a series of daily chats via Skype with our friend Miles O’Brien back in New York.

These chats with Miles involve bringing our BGAN Internet satellite phone, some ethernet cable and my Mac laptop to a location that has some nice background scenery. I then aim the BGAN unit while Scott completes the connection. We have set upon doing these chats at 8:45 am Nepal time/11 pm EDT so as to get the best possible lighting.

Scott doing a Skype chat with Miles O’Brien

I then connect up with Miles via iChat to see if he is ready and he calls me via Skype. That’s really all it takes. After we exchange hellos, he activates the recording feature on his Mac laptop and we do the day’s “show”.

Miles is becoming quite the triple threat. Journalist, TV news guy, and now Internet blogging/webcaster. In addition to his own questions, he now solicits questions via Twitter and Facebook. Thanks to his diligence, these videos have started to go viral. We hope that this trend will continue as the time approaches for Scott’s summit – and some of the interesting things he has in store.

After our morning chat, Scott and I start our daily routine – one that is punctuated by people coming off of the mountain and heading up it, landslides every 20 minutes or so (some are rather spectacular), and scenery that never ceases to amaze.

The NASA Trek Team at Everest Base Camp.

Today was special for Scott. Around 9:30, several dozen NASA trekkers showed up for a visit. In addition to seeing his old friends, Scott has handed a large care package from home. Scott took the group on a tour of basecamp and then out to the foot of the Khumbu Icefall.

After lunch, we used our BGAN satellite phone for a chat with the current crew of the International Space Station. This is Scott’s second chat with the crew from Everest. We are hoping for a third from the summit itself.

Scott talking to the crew of the International Space Station from Everest Base Camp. And yes, that is Flat Gorby.

29 April

I have now settled into a routine. When it gets dark, it gets cold and people retreat to their tents. While it is light, however, people are out and about ding whatever it is they do.

We have three meals a day in the mess tent. The food is uniformly good, usually excellent. Not only is this done for morale purposes, it is also a necessity for climbers who are fueling their bodies for the tasks ahead.

Mess tent

As was my experience on my three long stays on Devon Island in the Canadian High Arctic, meal time is when a lot of information is exchanged. Here, the mealtime discussions focus on climbing – who is on the mountain and is heading up, who is heading down, what the weather will be like, planning for fixing ropes and other things necessary for the climb, and also the latest plans are for how IMGs clients will make their way to the summit.

When I am not eating, I am usually in the comms tent working on my web pages, journal entries, and other things that go with being Scott’s media sherpa.

30 April

We started the day by doing laundry. Both Scott and I had two week’s worth to go through. The process is as you might expect, big pans of water, soap, and lots of hands-on scrubbing. This is followed by putting everything through an old fashioned wringer. The, you use your tent and nearby rocks to lay everything out. When enough people do this it looks like there was an explosion at a nearby REI.

As a nasty hail/sleet/snow storm hit us, Scott and I decided to prepared the DNA plasmid samples that he will be carrying up the mountain for Lynn Rothschild, an astrobiologist at NASA Ames Research Center. I constructed a special carrier out of a large container that once held cough drops. Meanwhile, Scott was McGyvering another special payload he will be carrying. More about that later.

Special container for DNA plasmid samples.

Overnight, Ed Wardel, an experienced mountaineer/videographer from Tigress Productions (shooting a third TV series for Discovery Channel on Mt Everest) set out to climb some of the ladders that are in place at the Khumbu Icefall. On his back was a special microwave transmitter that was connected to an infrared equipped version of their famous “sherpacams”. I was supposed to hang out with Nick, their engineer, but I was dead tired. The footage they got was spectacular. Discovery Channel should be posting it soon.

1 May

I awoke this morning after a restless sleep. Once again the rapid breathing had awoken me a dozen or more times. A big breakfast and some tea and it was time for yet another Skype chat with Miles O’Brien. This time he was holed up in a hotel in Columbus, Ohio.

After the Skype chat with Miles, Scott and I set to work on how to operate our Gigapan camera mount most effectively on Mt. Everest. Our original plan had been for Scott to take it up to Camp 2, take some panoramas (the highest we know of) and then bring the camera back. That plan quickly expanded. Now we are looking at how to get the unit to the summit of Mt. Everest. Time, logistics, expense, and other variables have yet to be worked out. Stay tuned.

While Scott attended to other chores, I processed a test Gigapan panorama we took today at Base Camp. I also converted some video that Ed Wardel took on the icefall overnight. I then shipped my web versions of his video off to Discovery.

Once again it was McGyver time. I built a sun screen out of battery and candy carboard packaging, duct tape, and Velcro that will allow Scott to more easily use our “Jaz” spectrophotometer (on loan from Ocean Optics via NASA Ames Research Center) as he carries it to high altitudes and exceptionally harsh (and bright) sun light.

As I write this summary the sun is starting to hide and the temperature is starting to drop. Soon I will be covered in down clothing from head to toe. A hearty meal and after-dinner chatter, and I’ll be climbing into my cocoon once again.

Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA Space Station Payload manager/space biologist, Away Teams, Journalist, Lapsed climber, Synaesthete, Na’Vi-Jedi-Freman-Buddhist-mix, ASL, Devon Island and Everest Base Camp veteran, (he/him) 🖖🏻