Rugged Tales

Wherever my feet may take me…


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What’s it like to climb Everest?

Trekking is one thing; climbing mountains is quite another. I blogged about my trek to Everest Base Camp with my awe-inspiring friend Victoria Tracey and her summit expedition team. While I trekked back down they stayed high in the mountains, making their preparations and – many long weeks later – attempting to reach the summit. So what’s it like to climb Mount Everest?

Far more rugged than anything I’ve done, or can ever imagine attempting, here is the account Viki wrote of her bid to stand on top of the world’s highest mountain.

It began in the early hours of the 13th May. Breakfast at 04:00; crampons, harness and headlamps on; out into the night for our last trip up through the Icefall. Ice and rock crunch beneath our crampons, the sherpas hum and chant – praying for our safety – we breathe hard and we keep climbing. I am overwhelmed by how much the route has changed since our last trip through. Crevasses yawn deep and wide, teetering seracs loom above our heads, ladders have multiplied and are perched at ever more improbable angles throughout the route, and avalanche debris is visible seemingly everywhere. I marvel at the power of nature and hope it stays quiet as we thread our way through. It does, and we reach Camp 1. We rest.

At 06:00 on the 14th we gear up for the move to Camp 2. The journey takes us through the relatively low angled Western Cwm where the heat and sun is the biggest fear. To date we haven’t experienced that, in fact, I have had some of my coldest moments here. I put hand warmers into my mittens and we set off. It’s never warm, but the weather is benign and we reach Camp 2 without incident. We rest.

The 15th is our big move up the Lhotse Face to Camp 3. It’s steep blue ice – careful and concentrated footwork is needed – and it’s unrelenting. The last time we did this it was tough. Very tough. My stomach knots in apprehension. I say nothing and put on my crampons. The climb is hard, I am slower than last time, my hacking cough (now 40 days old) is hurting me. I get to Camp 3 and Justin puts a hand on my shoulder and asks how I am. I try to talk and breathe and not cough and not cry (Why am I so weak?) and my throat closes and I start to wheeze. I am too tired to be frightened that I cannot breathe. But Mingma and Justin are there and an O2 mask is pushed on my face and I can breathe again. I move impossibly slowly up to the tent 20ft away. (Where is the girl that everyone always laughs at for walking so quickly?!). But the oxygen is magic. I feel better and better and eat and eat. My tentmate arrives and we commiserate and hug; “Isn’t this meant to get f***ing easier”?! Sometime later Peter is there. He checks my O2 saturation… 90%. At sea level I would be intubated, at Camp 3 it’s outstanding. We smile at each other. My climb will not end today. We rest.

The 16th begins hours before dawn. The move to Camp 4 (the South Col) is huge. It’s our first time climbing on oxygen and I am nervous about whether my goggles will fog and how hard it will be to climb when I can’t see my feet. In the final analysis it’s much less bad than I feared and today is wonderful. I climb to the top of the Lhotse Face, traverse over to, and surmount, the Yellow Band and head for the steep Geneva Spur. My feet follow the path beaten by my climbing heroes and I can’t believe I am here. It is hard work, impossibly hard work, but I feel amazing. I see Adrian, my Guide from Ama Dablam and we hug and share a joke. This place is amazing. I pull over the top of the Geneva Spur and realize we have a long rocky traverse to get to the South Col. It seems to take hours to complete, but finally I am there; the South Col… arguably the highest campsite in the world. It’s barren rock… I could be on the moon… the wind is howling… tents bend at improbable angles in the wind, their flies torn and flapping… debris is everywhere. I am tired now. Incredibly tired. But I look up. For the first time, I can see the route to the summit of Everest. I have a picture of this view pinned above my desk at work and now I can see it with my own eyes. I am impossibly proud of myself for getting here. But there is no time for that, Phunuru urges me toward a tent. It’s about noon and if we are going to leave for the summit I will need to start getting ready at 7pm for a 9pm departure. I have expended thousands of calories in energy and injested very few and need to work to try to address that.

Time passes and Justin is in the tent. The winds are set to drop later and if that happens we will go, if not, we may spend an extra 24 hours at the Col. This is a daunting prospect, even on oxygen we will weaken here. Our fragile bodies are not meant to be at 26,000ft. But I am not worried as we have this conversation in the tent which is bent almost double in the wind. My friends are with me. Justin and Peter are here and Greg is at EBC and whatever will be, will be. Justin will bring us the final decision in a few hours so my tentmate and I settle in. We pretend to rest.

It’s a GO! The wind is howling, there is not a star in the sky and I am at 26,000ft about to head 3,000ft up. But I am calm. My mind is clear and I think about risk. Mingma comes to help me change oxygen bottles. There is hissing, the regulator isn’t sitting right and oxygen is being released. But I am calm. I look at Peter, we’ve talked about this, “We need hot water”, I say. “We need hot water” he agrees. Phunuru disappears and then returns with a new regulator. I feel a flicker of apprehension, but the new regulator makes a solid seal. With Mingma’s help, I shoulder my pack and turn into the wind.

Almost immediately we are heading up a slope of blue ice. I concentrate hard on making good steps and not slipping. The wind seems to be picking up and snow and ice start to blow in hard from the left. I refuse to be distracted and the ice eventually gives way to a steep snowy slope; the Triangular Face. We keep moving. The wind keeps howling and the snow keeps blowing. I am covered in rime ice; a thick layer forms on my down suit, my jumar (which keeps me from sliding back down the safety rope should I fall) and on my clear goggles. As the ice on my goggles builds, my field of vision decreases (next time you’re on a flight in a storm, look at the windows… that icy covering is exactly what, and all, I could see). Part of my brain cackles with laughter; ‘You’re approaching 27,000ft and you cannot see a bloody thing!’. The vaguely lucid, not maniacal, part of my brain just implores me to be cautious. The route steepens and snow starts to be interspersed with rocky steps that require careful navigation. The wind keeps howling and the snow keeps blowing. The rime ice is now thick on the fixed line and my jumar (which should only slide upwards and so stop me falling down the mountain) is no longer gripping the rope. (The teeth which bite the rope are full of ice so the device can now slide bi-directionally, effectively rendering it useless). “Better not fall”, I think to myself and grab hold of the rope with my other hand. We keep moving and the wind keeps howling. I do an extremity check (wiggle fingers and toes) and all is well. Justin and I had talked extensively on how to keep hands and feet warm a world away in Ouray earlier this year. That plan is working well and I allow myself a small moment to feel pleased with myself. It’s very brief. My vision issues are now further hindered by the fact that my headlamp is almost out of juice. The new batteries that I had dutifully put in a few hours ago are being sapped by the cold. I have spare batteries tucked into the chest pocket of my down suit but they may as well be on Mars… it’s infeasible that I could stop, take off mittens and change the batteries. But I do slide one hand out of a mitten and scratch at the surface of the goggles. Mercifully the ice is all on the outside and I can sort of see again. Joy! I quickly thrust my hand back in my mitten and wiggle everything frantically. The chemical handwarmer in there is doing its job valiantly and everything feels good. I allow myself a(nother) small moment to feel pleased with myself. But now headlamps are turning and descending towards me. The wind is not dropping and the snow is not stopping and people are turning back. We keep moving. Then, as he always is, Justin is there. He’s just been up to the Balcony a couple of minutes above us (~27,600ft) where the wind is gusting to 50mph. “It’s time to turn around VT”, he says. I can see his eyes. He looks utterly bereft to be ending our team’s summit dreams. I feel nothing.

We turn and start down. The wind keeps howling and the snow keeps blowing. It’s steep and treacherous and suddenly all I can think about is how much my body hurts, how terrifying descent is and how incredibly, mind bogglingly far away the South Col is. My eyes fill with tears, “Oh my God VT do not lose your sh*t now”, I think to myself. Mingma must sense my anguish and puts his hand on my shoulder. He stays behind me and Justin stays in front of me for what seems like the eternity it takes to make our way back to the South Col. As we return, the sun is starting to rise. The lifting of the darkness brings no joy. We are hours of climbing away from real safety. I clamber into the tent.

Sometime later Justin is in our tent. There is an (unexpected) option to try again for the summit tonight. I know in my heart that I haven’t got enough to get to the top and back down again safely. I promised myself before the trip that nothing is worth risking my life (or someone else’s life) for. I am done. I look miserably at Justin, wishing more than I have ever wished for anything before it was different. He agrees with me. I am utterly, utterly, utterly ashamed. I have failed. I am so physically and emotionally destroyed I can’t even cry, I just sag in the sleeping bag. My tentmate concludes it’s the end of the road for her as well and discussion turns to descent. We need to leave at noon… about 3 hours hence… and descend the 5000 treacherous feet to Camp 2. This is not a surprise. But the reality is horrifying. I have never been so tired in my life.

It is noon. It is time. Peter goes with our small band, Justin stays with our other two members who are still debating if they will go up. We head out into the wind and start the long journey down. “I don’t think I can do it”, I say to Peter, my eyes swimming with tears. “You must”, he responds implacably, all trace of the gentle, joking friend of the last two months gone. He is right. I must. So I do.

+++++++++++++++

4 days later, stranded in Lukla (I clearly offended the weather gods in a previous life), my heart feels broken. I have dreamt about standing on the highest point on the planet for years… even when I was feckless, dissolute and 235lbs it was something I wished for… and I have failed to do it.

My heart is broken.

But I am not.

My fingers and toes are grubby but utterly unharmed. My hacking cough (and cracked ribs?) will heal. And the 20lbs I’ve lost will (undoubtedly) come back with a vengeance. I am alive.

For this, and for all the joys of this amazing, awful, incredible experience, my debts are enormous…
… to Mingma; who was always there, just ahead, or just behind, me keeping safe. Patience personified.
… to Justin and Peter; who always were there for all of us. Unflappable and inspiring of confidence even when everything felt like it was going to hell in a handbasket.
… to Angela; for her friendship and kindness under the most extreme duress; the complete antithesis of the selfish ‘every man for himself’ mountaineer. I owe you six Fruity Snacks and my sanity.
… to my family; who have helped forge in me the strength of will that I needed to keep my promise not to kill myself or anyone else. And who make me want to come home even when it’s agony to do so.

My heart is broken.

But I am not.

Thanks for joining me on this wild ride.


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Rewind

Trekking down was rather like seeing the trek up on fast rewind. The altitude it had taken us nearly a fortnight of exertion to acquire was lost again in just three days: being better acclimatised, the absence of any limits on the speed at which your body can adjust to decreasing altitude and, of course, the assistance of gravity will do that. The second time round my impressions were different, however. We were very fortunate with the weather throughout the trek but on our return to Pheriche we awoke to a light dusting of snow across a valley that we had seen overcast and misty/unexpectedly warm and sunny on the way up. Suspecting – correctly – that the snow would soon melt away, our cameras went into overdrive to capture a few last ‘Kodak moments’.

The only snow of our trek, adding a picture postcard touch to an already picturesque farm just below Pheriche.

The only snow of our trek, adding a picture postcard touch to an already picturesque farm just below Pheriche.

The intervening experiences at Lobuche and Everest Base Camps had altered my assessment of the tea houses we revisited. Despite the ice on the inside of the window (and the snow on the ground) my room in Pheriche now seemed cosy and warm. Beds that had felt a little hard on the way up now seemed luxuriously soft. Scenery that had seemed barren now appeared quite lush compared to the desolate rock and ice of the glacier.

The season had advanced while we’d been at Base Camp. Crops that had barely sprouted when we walked up were now grown tall. Fields had been planted and – best of all – yak calves had been born. I saw several of these little guys between six and 12 days old (thanks, Mingma) and they were so cute! I considered smuggling one home before remembering how large they grow; I suspect a yak would not thrive in my small London flat, even if I refrigerated it. And I’m not so sure I will either, to be honest, now that I’ve become accustomed to so much open space, fresh air and spectacular views wherever I look – all commodities in short supply back home.

The scenery certainly bore a repeat view, especially when we came upon them at a different time of day. A view that we’d enjoyed in the morning took on a totally different aspect when we passed back that way in the late afternoon.

The Tenzing Norgay memorial stupa again - but different in the softer afternoon light.

The Tenzing Norgay memorial stupa again – but different in the softer afternoon light.

Unsurprisingly, though, it was a journey without too many surprises as we encountered the reverse sequence of villages and vistas that I recalled from the trek up. But on the last afternoon, on the final stretch back to Lukla, I heard someone call out my name and I turned to see three friends I’d first met on a trip in Africa in 2009 walking the other way on the trail. ‘Surprised’ would be more than an understatement. Last I’d heard, they were in London and Singapore (where I’d visited them last year) respectively. It really is a small world, and meeting them in Nepal was an amazing piece of serendipity. According to Lonely Planet, between 35,000 and 37,000 people trekked in the Everest region last year so the odds of seeing someone I knew were tiny!

My chance meeting was all the more enjoyable for being so completely unexpected, but as we got back within sight of the airport I reflected that that was enough of a surprise to be going along with. What I most wanted now was a predictable and reassuringly uneventful flight back to Kathmandu…


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What goes up must come down

Everest Base Camp is a watershed: your choices are to climb up or walk back down. Climbing (as the attentive reader will have spotted from my last post) is not for me, so down it was.

The day of our departure dawned sunny and mild. I drank in the views from my tent for the last time as I packed up and headed for a final camp breakfast. The climbers were also leaving that day, heading back down to climb Lobuche for the next phase of their preparations. We all walked out of camp together, pausing by the entrance sign for a team photo before heading off back down the trail to Gorak Shep.

The IMG Hybrid team and their trekking companions - together for the last time!

The IMG Hybrid team and their trekking companions – together for the last time!

As we descended, the weather – and my mood – clouded over. I was sad to say goodbye to the climbers, and although I had nothing to add to the proceedings it felt somehow wrong to just abandon them to the challenges ahead. But abandon we must: a little past Lobuche, they headed up along the right hand side of the valley and back to Lobuche Base Camp, whilst we climbed the left hand side back to Dughla and Pheriche. It started to snow as I watched them grow smaller and smaller in the vast mountain landscape until, finally, they disappeared round the curve of the hill. I already missed their company, and wondered when I would see them all again.

In the chilly, gloomy weather and this sombre frame of mind I came upon the largest concentration of memorials to those who have lost their lives on Everest. Rising stark against the leaden sky on a hilltop above Dughla they were an unwelcome reminder of the risks my friends will face in seeking to achieve their ambitions.

The memorials to those who have lost their lives on Everest.

The memorials to those who have lost their lives on Everest.

I remarked to my fellow trekker, Dale, that I would prefer not to be passing so many memorials just after having said goodbye to everyone. “Why couldn’t we have come upon monuments celebrating all those who’ve climbed successfully instead?” I grumbled. “Well,” he replied, “for one thing there isn’t nearly enough room.” And it’s true: the thousands of successful summits dwarf the fatalities, the ratio is still improving and IMG has a particularly impressive safety record. Thankfully, there has never been a safer time to climb Mount Everest.


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Preparations

For me as a trekker, arriving at Base Camp was all about admiring the scenery, taking lots of photos, and trying not to lose my footing on the ice. But our climbers had more serious concerns – preparing to climb Everest, for example.

First up was a puja ceremony to bless the expedition: an essential prerequisite for the Sherpa team, an opportunity for the climbers to bring items of their equipment for the blessing, and a chance for trekkers such as myself to join in with the wider team and gain a fascinating insight into Sherpa culture.

The morning of the puja dawned bright and sunny, but with an icy cold wind that made me wish I’d put on a few more layers for the long ceremony. Even in my down jacket, my hands buried deep in the pockets, I was distinctly chilly. Needless to say, the Sherpas were made of sterner stuff: most didn’t even bother with gloves, so presumably they have much better circulation than me. Or perhaps it was a strategic cradling of cups of hot tea that enabled them to keep their extremities bearably warm.

Prayer flags are strung out over the whole camp from a flag pole erected in the centre of the altar as part of the puja ceremony.

Prayer flags are strung out over the whole camp from a flag pole erected in the centre of the altar as part of the puja ceremony.

The strong breeze fanned the smoke from burning juniper branches, and the lama’s chants, across the crowd. Handfuls of rice and tsampa (roasted barley flour) were thrown into the air. Sungdi strings were tied around our necks. A flag pole topped with more juniper branches was erected on the centre of the puja altar, and prayer flags run out in all directions to spread the blessings over the whole camp. Ceremonial food and drink (including beer, coke, tsampa cakes, Tibetan biscuits and Mars bars) were offered around, and enthusiastically consumed. More tsampa flour was smeared on our faces (apparently to symbolise a grey beard and hence long life). A good time was had by all.

Viki and I sporting fetching tsampa flour beards - and plenty of warm clothes!

Viki and I sporting fetching tsampa flour beards – and plenty of warm clothes!

Suitably blessed, fed, and defrosted after the ceremony our climbers turned their attention to the technical skills required for the mountain. And as they strapped on climbing harnesses and compared carabiners the climbers underwent a transformation. While we’d been walking in to Base Camp the group had seemed relatively homogeneous. The climbers, being generally fitter, tended to walk a bit faster and they shared more climbing anecdotes over dinner, but the casual observer would have been hard pressed to tell the difference. With the introduction of climbing gear into the mix, however, the sheep were rapidly sorted from the goats, and the most striking change was in our guides. During the trek in Justin and Peter had proved to be congenial and effective tour guides. But once the climbing gear was broken out it was clear that only a small percentage of their skills had been visible during the trek whilst, like an iceberg, the greater part of their talents had remained hidden below the waterline.

Fixed line training session for the IMG hybrid team climbers on the Khumbu glacier.

Fixed line training session for the IMG hybrid team climbers on the Khumbu glacier.

Whilst the guides took to this new environment like ducks to (frozen) water, I watched with a mix of awe and relief that I would not be called on to participate, as they put the group through their paces. The climbers practiced crossing ladders (which I understand will be plentiful in the Khumbu icefall) and, the following day, ascending a fixed line on one of the glacier’s large ice formations and repelling down the other side. It was great to watch the guys in action, but seeing them tying complicated-looking knots, ascending with a gadget resembling a staple gun and doing clever things with some kind of figure eight thingy, only confirmed me in my view that I was born to walk rather than climb. I would be happy to trek around the Himalayas until further notice – just so long as I don’t have to clip in to do it.


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En suite

Comfortable as the IMG camp was, only so much is possible in the creation of convenient restrooms from scree, boulders and ice. The camp toilets were an impressive feat of civil engineering: constructed from rocks artfully piled into a seating platform over a strong plastic sack (to enable all waste to be packed out), topped with a fluffy seat cover – presumably for insulation rather than purely decorative purposes! – and covered with a roomy tent, the toilets were all a trekker could hope for from a campsite on a glacier.

The closest 'throne room' to my tent in the IMG Everest Base Camp.

The closest ‘throne room’ to my tent in the IMG Everest Base Camp.

They were, however, situated a hygienic distance from our sleeping quarters and getting to them was a bit of a palaver. As one climber quipped “We’ll have to repel to the bathroom!”. And when the distance and tricky terrain were combined with darkness and frigid temperatures only the hardiest soul would be game to visit them at night. The IMG kit list accordingly recommended bringing a pee bottle. But how are we women to get the pee into the bottle without the advantage of inbuilt apparatus, so to speak? Enter the pee funnel…

After some internet research, I purchased a Shewee, the UK’s top-selling brand, and practiced at home as recommended by the manufacturers. So far so good. But when I arrived at our first camp I realised I’d made a fundamental error in my preparations: all my practice had been done standing up but the IMG tents, while commodious, offered only enough headroom for kneeling. On the first night I lay wakeful in my sleeping bag, weighing the evils of getting dressed and hiking to the toilet in the freezing cold against the risks of making my first kneeling attempt in a tent full of essential (and difficult to launder or replace) gear. As nature’s calls grew louder and the temperature fell another few degrees I decided I had to at least give it a try.

The first obstacle was the uneven ground, which meant Viki and I had rolled together into the centre of the tent. I cringed as I opened my sleeping bag, jostling her all the way while an infeasibly loud ‘ziiiiiiiiiip’ shattered the silent mountain air. I clambered out, pulled on my head torch, and folded my sleeping bag out of the way as Viki (a pee funnel expert) had recommended. I assembled my apparatus, assumed what I hoped was the correct position…and was seized by performance anxiety. I waited…and waited…and tried to relax, but it was no good. I tried to think of something else, then tried some visualisations, and finally some reassuring internal monologues. Eventually the deadlock was broken, but what I would normally expect to accomplish in less than a minute took around a quarter of an hour.

But it was done! I carefully screwed the lid back onto my pee bottle, checked it, tidied up, checked it again, put it carefully away in the corner of the tent, checked it once more for luck, and prepared to get back into bed. A little shaky – though whether from the cold or the adrenaline I couldn’t say – I tried to straighten out my sleeping bag, but managed to somehow get it both upside down and the wrong way round. Impressive! Muttering to myself (very quietly) I flipped it over, only to clout Viki on the way past with the hot Nalgene bottle I’d forgotten was still stuffed into the foot box. D’oh! Finally getting it straight I climbed back inside, turned off my headlight and repeated the whole noisy, jostling zip procedure before settling back down, my heart pounding. I was relieved (in all senses of the word) but also mortified at the kerfuffle I had caused over a simple biological function. All in all, I reflected, it would have been quicker and less disruptive to have got dressed and gone off to the toilet tent.

In the morning, however, only the sight of my full pee bottle prevented Viki berating me for insufficiently hydrating (an essential part of successful acclimatization to high altitude): she had slept through the whole thing and thought I hadn’t needed to use the facilities in the night. While I am immensely grateful for all the advice I received about pee funnels from Viki (and other women on the trek and on the net), at that moment I was most appreciative of her ability to sleep through an in-tent commotion of almost Armageddon-like proportions. Thus reassured, and after a bit more practice, I am now completely converted to the benefits of en suite facilities I can enjoy in even the remotest corners of the planet.


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Home base

I’ve never camped on a glacier before, or even stood on one come to that, so staying at Everest Base Camp was quite an experience. I expected it to be cold and was not disappointed. Thankfully my sleeping bag proved up to the job, and the nights were not as cold as they could have been. Even so, by the time we went to bed (around 7:30 or 8:00pm) there was usually a thick layer of frost on both the outside and the inside of the tent fly sheet. During the night, my breath condensed on the outside of the sleeping bag in front of my face, the droplets freezing so that by morning the red fabric appeared to be adorned with a stylish sprinkling of rhinestones.

While I’d expected it to be cold I hadn’t expected it to be quite so noisy. Avalanches and rockfalls from the surrounding peaks were frequent, and sounded rather like a rumble of thunder. The often strong winds made a similar sound as they barreled up the valley, so that it was sometimes only possible to tell the difference when the wind buffeted the tent – or not. The shifting of the glacier itself made sounds ranging from the gentle creaks of an old house when the heating goes off, to the slam of a car door, to a gunshot – the latter more than a little disconcerting when it came from directly beneath my tent, and doubly so when I could feel it. I consoled myself that the Khumbu is a ‘dry’ glacier, so a crevasse was unlikely to open up beneath me. But there was still the regular sound of a ball smashing through a greenhouse whenever the movements of the glacier cracked the ice on one of the many frozen pools. With all that racket, I can’t say I slept well while at Base Camp!

But sound effects aside, the mere existence of the camp is actually pretty amazing. An estimated 1,200 climbers, sherpas and support staff will be staying at Base Camp this season, and the facilities provided for this small town are impressive – doubly so considering that every single item in the camp has been walked up the mountain, on the route we’ve just trekked, carried by an animal or a person, or helicoptered in.

The IMG Classic team tent area.  My tent was the leftmost one of the four just to the right of the big green tent (behind the solar panels).

The IMG Classic team tent area. My tent was the leftmost one of the four just to the right of the big green tent (behind the solar panels).

The IMG camp has separate tent areas for each climbing team, each with its own kitchen, (carpeted) mess tent and toilets. The toilets, paths and tent bases were works of art, constructed by the sherpa crews by hefting piles of rock and scree into position. There are also a couple of hot (gas-powered) showers, solar powered charging for all your gadgets and wifi, though it’s (understandably) not cheap. Shared facilities include a helipad and a medical clinic.

A helicopter delivering medical supplies is waved onto the helipad at Everest Base Camp.

A helicopter delivering medical supplies is waved onto the helipad at Everest Base Camp.

All in all, I was astounded at how an apparently inhospitable glacier in such a remote corner of the world can be remodeled into (relatively) comfortable living accommodation for so many people. As I walked around exploring, and admiring the spectacular ice formations, I was tempted to try a little remodelling of my own….

Attempting a little 'remodeling' of my own on the Khumbu glacier!

Attempting a little ‘remodeling’ of my own on the Khumbu glacier!