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The Planet Ice Project: Mt. Everest

James Martin, writing exclusively for GreatOutdoors.com as he photographs and researches his book, Planet Ice, reports from Mount Everest.
By James Martin - July 25th, 2007

Editor's Note: 

Writer and photographer James Martin, author with Mark Twight of Extreme Alpinism, has turned his attention to the vanishing ice of planet Earth. Embarking on a new book, Planet Ice, Martin will blog exclusively for GreatOutdoors.com over the next two years as he visits the polar regions, the last of the Equatorial glaciers, and the ice of more temperate mountains, to document how they show, all too clearly, the devestating results of global climate change. For this, his fourth dispatch, he heads for the Mount Everest and it's diminishing glaciers.

Our pilot found the Lukla airstrip on our second flight from Kathmandu. He flew under the clouds, twisting through a canyon, and landing on a short, sloped runway. After a ten second taxi, we disembarked and were confronted by a line of prospective porters hoping for work. My guide selected two men he knew and after an hour of repacking, we headed north toward Tibet.

Over the next eight days I followed the superhighway of the Himalaya up river to Everest Basecamp. New suspension bridges spanned rivers and streams, well-maintained trail connected the villages, and comfortable tea houses offered decent food, electricity, hot water, and a clean place to sleep.

The trail afforded only glimpses of mountains for the first two days. We rested on the third day at Namche Bazaar, the metropolis of the Khumbu, replete with high speed internet and an alley of shops featuring a comprehensive selection of North Face knock offs. Perched on a high slope, the village is ringed by impressive snow-dusted summits.

I always thought Ama Dablam was the most beautiful mountain in the world, wonderfully symmetrical, clad in hanging glaciers, and steep on all sides. It appeared through haze on the high trail to Tengboche Monastery, but by the time we arrived, cloud blocked the view. I awoke the next morning to the sound of gongs, bass drums, and chanting from the monestary. No cloud marred the blue sky. Dawn backlit Ama, casting a shadow in the air. This was the perfect Himalaya moment.

After a pleasant walk we arrived in the Dengpoche on the far side of Ama Dablam, which presented a steeper but less lovely view compared with the classic Tenboche perspective. The summit of Lhotse dominated the west, and lonely Island Peak appeared easy enough for duffers to ascend.

The village consisted of small slate-roofed stone houses with the land divided by rectangular stone fences. We were above treeline now in a land of rock and snow. The locals tilled the thin soil within the fences to grow potatoes. At dusk a waxing moon rose next to Ama Dablam, and a cold wind swept down from the glaciers.

We climbed over a high point on the trail in a near drizzle one morning to find a city of monuments to the dead. Each pile of stones or small stupa memorialized a fatality in the mountains. Most were built for sherpas, but many westerners were also honored. Strings of prayer flags radiated from the tops of the larger monuments, their colors saturated in gray light.

There are two tea houses at Gorek Shep, the last stop before Base Camp. I was installed in a room wide enough for 3 sleeping pads. A poster torn from a Surfer magazine adorned a plywood wall. A single energy-efficient bulb hung from a wire stapled to the ceiling, and to enhance its energy conserving properties, it didn't work. Since I wasn't looking for five star accommodations, I didn't care. You couldn't beat the view.

Kala Pattar is a neighboring hill attached to the south-east slope of Pumori. A use trail climbs over a thousand feet to the top and its classic view of Everest, Nuptse, and the surrounding peaks. I hurried to the top as the clouds thickened and the sky spit snow. I tried to sink deeper in my parka while waiting for the magic light. The ceiling descended. There would be no view or photographs infused with color this day.

In the last few miles to Base Camp, the trail paralleled the lower Khumbu Glacier, a jumble of ice and rock. The summit of Everest appeared between unnamed summits. Base camp sprawls over the glacier near the entrance to the Khumbu Icefall, surrounded on three sides by titanic rock walls.

Even if you've heard about scale of Base Camp, the view is disorienting. Hundreds of tents dot the glacier. Prayer flags send a thousand messages on the wind. A crumpled, burned-out helicopter awaits transport to the lowlands, and the Base Camp Bakery is serving excellent apple pie to climbers sick of freeze-dried food.

Although the camp bristled with tents, most of the climbers were at higher camps poised to make their summit bids. (More than 500 people made the summit this season from both the Nepal and Tibet sides) Alpine Ascents graciously set up a tent for me thanks to their association with Shangrila Treks and their indefatigable owner, Jiban.

I scanned the landscape to see if the ice had changed compared to the days of Tenzing and Hillary. The absence of ice at the base of the Lo La cut off access to the Sherpa's route into Tibet. What had been a glacier hike was now a sheer cliff. I was told that the Khumbu itself lost thickness each year. I tried to imagine the Himalaya without glaciers, dry as the Hindu Kush.

After dinner I stood outside the cook tent alone as the light dimmed. Stars wheeled over the Khumbu, and no sign of the human entered my vision. The glacier groaned in the distance. Moonlight lit a few stray clouds. I could imagine being here before commercial climbing attracted the crowds, but the laughter of the Sherpas brought me back to the here and now. Tomorrow I would turn around for the quick hike to civilization.

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