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.
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.
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.
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.