Everest Base Camp is probably the most famous city of its size in the world. Perched on the rock-strewn, ever shifting Khumbu glacier, squeezed between Mounts Pumori and Nuptse, the current population is upwards of 800 temporary inhabitants: 247 Everest climbers and guides, 76 Lhotse climbers and guides, 290 Sherpas, some 200 Base Camp staff and a constant flow of yak trains—their tinkling bells far sweeter than the blare of a coal train, let me tell you.
Everest Base Camp has neighborhoods just like every city. Our camp lies in the southern ‘burbs, near the Himalayan Experience ‘hood. On the main street going into town is the International Mountain Guides borough to the left and Mountain Experience to the right. Downtown there are Rainier Mountain Guides, the Korean University, Happy Feet, the Indian Military, and a dozen others that I don’t know. Each looks fairly similar, with a long, rectangular mess tent surrounded by a dozen or two, typically orange or yellow, dome tents and a couple of vertical blue or green outhouses. Prayer flags flap like community banners from the chortens of each neighborhood.
Despite all the bad press, it’s a surprisingly tidy little place. Climber Jim Whittaker told me it is cleaner in Base Camp now than when he hiked in 50 years ago. There’s little litter, and that which does exist is often remnants from older expeditions before the establishment of the Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee. The SPCC is Everest Base Camp’s city council. They make the rules. The first of which, from a civil engineering perspective, is that every team is required to pack out what they pack in. Tent outhouses are fitted with plastic barrels and the waste is transported down to the village of Gorak Shep where it is used as night soil, or fertilizer. All refuse of any kind must be entirely removed from the mountain with each team. Our expedition is taking our used batteries all the way back to the States.
Life here is surprisingly civil and leisurely. Like at a summer camp, the cook staff provides meals so the climbers can rest, recover, listen to music, take pictures, send emails (yes, we have Internet), talk on the phone (yes, our iPhones work here), or just stare mouth agape at the avalanches roaring off the surrounding peaks. We even have afternoon tea, with salami and cheese on crackers. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not a particular wild city—although maybe I haven’t gotten out at night to the right side of town. Some of the bigger neighborhoods apparently have movie nights, but most evenings teams sit around the dinner table together and talk about the Icefall, impending rotations up the mountain, past expeditions, politics, music, or books. Compared to a two-man ascent of an unknown peak in Pakistan, it’s a scene; compared to a carnival or a circus (as some witnesses have disparagingly done), I must say it’s quite tame. There’s apparently a platinum blonde somewhere in town walking around in a skintight leotard, and there’s a guy who carried his bicycle into town and purportedly has some stupid idea of dragging it up the mountain, but every town has its attention-desperate folks.
The majority of the inhabitants here are not hard-core climbers. They’re semiexperienced mountaineers/clients with the dream of climbing Everest. Most of them have been successful in another walk of life and for some reason have always had the desire to attempt Everest. And, knowing full well how long it took them to learn their own businesses, they’re wisely willing to pay for expertise and guidance to try Everest. It’s easy to mock these aspirants, but why? They could be blowing their $50,000 on blow in Vegas, killing some rare species in Africa, or cruising up and down in some absurdly expensive automobile. Instead, they’re willing to risk their lives going up through the Khumbu Icefall multiple times, willing to puke from altitude sickness, willing to spend sleepless nights on the ice, willing to spend days in Camp 2 with a splitting headache, willing to push their bodies beyond anything they’ve ever even imagined, just to stand on top of the world. That’s passion! I don’t care what anyone says. Indeed, these clients may well have more passion for Everest than anyone else on the mountain, since almost all the others—the guides, the Sherpas, the professional climbers, the journalists—are all being paid to be here in one way or another. The clients: Hell, they’re willing to fork over their hard-earned dough to suffer. That’s right. You come to Everest, and above Base Camp, you suffer.
Some purists have scoffed at the commercialization of Everest in the past two decades, but it’s no different than what happened to the Matterhorn or Mount Blanc in the Alps. At least the Nepalis had the good sense not to take the sacred Everest region away from the Sherpa people and carve the heads of famous politicians into the highest mountain on earth. On the contrary, the commercialization of Everest has been an economic miracle for the Sherpa. Namche Bazar is the richest village in all of Nepal, and many Sherpas are now sending their kids to school in Kathmandu. Some even send them to college in the United States.
Others detractors, most of whom have never been here, snootily surmised that with the increase in guided clients, the death rate on Everest would soar. In fact, the opposite has been true. Back in the good old ‘70s, there was about a 30 percent chance that you’d die if you summited Everest. Today, that number is down to about 2 percent. Commercial guiding has indeed partially tamed the wild animal of Everest, but don’t fool yourself: It’s still a merciless mountain that periodically, if unpredictably, roars and consumes a meal of human flesh.