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Nov 12, 2001
Into Finn Air - Forbes

Mayhem erupts on Mt. Everest as an e-mail goes astray.





"It's all bullshit on Everest these days."--Sir Edmund Hillary



I stood in the sharp sunlight near my tent at Nepal's Everest Base Camp, in May 2000, sipping a mug of tea and scanning the route I was to take for my summit push the next day. After almost two months of acclimating on Mount Everest and filming for the Travel Channel, I was eager to take a crack at the top. But this, it turned out, wasn't going to be my day. • My momentary bliss state took a heat-seeking missile as my burly Scottish expedition guide suddenly sprang from a nearby tent and blindside-punched me, sending me sprawling onto the glacier moraine. Then things got scary. • Waiting for a helicopter out over the next few days I found myself guarded by Sherpas, hiding out from a furious posse of American "environmentalists." Avalanche, asphyxiation and exposure are hard enough to endure on the craggy flanks of Mount Everest. But I'll bet I am the first climber to face disaster from a leaked interoffice e-mail. • I had come to the Himalayas on assignment for Discovery Communications, the Maryland-based parent company of the Discovery Channel. Discovery sent me to film a climbing program for its Travel Channel and post dispatches about the trip on its website. In 20 years of climbing I had summited such worthy peaks as Denali, the Matterhorn, Mont Blanc and Aconcagua (See FYI, Winter 1997), so Discovery figured I could handle Everest and maybe spin a good yarn out of it. • Unfortunately, their budget couldn't cover the typical $40,000 to $65,000 cost for a slot on a guided expedition, so I began contacting low-cost outfitters who could set me up with the bare necessities. The most enthusiastic taker was Henry Todd, who ran a one-man company out of his house in Edinburgh. Todd was so keen to have a Discovery correspondent cover his outfit that he hopped a transatlantic flight to Washington, D.C., to sell me his services in person.

I liked the man the moment he showed up on my doorstep wearing the kind of Michelin-tire-boy down jacket rarely seen in climes south of the Mason-Dixon line. Although he was a large ruddy man who spoke freely about rugby brawls and other cheery pastimes, he had the plummy accent of an upper-crust Englishman. Mentally I was calling him Sir Henry. "You'll be on your own up there," he warned me. "I don't guide the mountain. In fact, I've never been to the summit."

Fine by me. All I needed was someone to supply affordable tents, food, oxygen, Sherpa support and, most importantly, the elusive permits for an independent climb. I was impressed by Henry's eagerness and by the endorsement he received from a prominent British climber I contacted. And the price was right. The following spring, I arrived in Nepal to share his facilities at Base Camp with 23 other clients.

Base Camp, which was hosting two dozen different expeditions and around 300 climbers, could hardly be called rugged. I'm not even sure it could be called camping. Sprawled across the moonscape at the foot of the massive Khumbu Icefall, a sprawling Hooverville provided trailer park ambience, all-you-can-eat buffets, and enough computers, modems and satellite phones to start a trading floor. Teams of Sherpas busied themselves fixing ropes and ladders from the entrance to the Icefall--a kind of frozen 2,000-foot tidal wave--and then all the way to the summit. Although frequent storms and the highly debilitating altitude mean nothing should ever be taken for granted on Everest, this was climbing right out of the Abercrombie & Kent catalog. I have to admit, I liked it.

For two months I puffed back and forth to increasingly higher camps to acclimatize my body for a final push. Above the Icefall, the route continued up a glacier valley, the Western Cwm, which slopes upward for three miles until it slams into the granite and ice shoulder of Everest, whose summit pyramid looms like a dark blade. Four camps were constructed along this route, and in the higher encampments frequent storms forced me to stay zipped inside my sleeping bag for days at a time. During one weeklong siesta, I became so desperately bored that I read five John Grisham novels in a row. Then, I reread them.

But I had work to do, too. Three times a week I wrote online dispatches that were sent back to Discovery via Henry's satellite modem. My videos were carried by Sherpa runner to an airstrip down the mountain, flown to Kathmandu, FedExed to Bethesda, Maryland, and posted on the Discovery website within a week. Back home, the site generated flattering reviews in the press, and was eventually getting over a million hits a week. Up on the mountain I was receiving the sort of Internet fan mail I had never gotten on previous assignments. Even the climbers I had featured on the website were getting fan mail. Eventually I had an inch-thick stack of signed appearance releases from fellow mountaineers vying to get on the program.

Even in the midst of pleasurable times, however, the sheer eccentricity of Everest's climbing scene offered its unsettling moments. True, there were the usual cheery altitude jocks I played soccer with at the daily 4 p.m. game on the frozen moraine next to Base Camp. But, well, there were others, too: like the American ex-car salesman who had been accidentally filmed making unwelcome overtures to my teenage Sherpa cameraman, and then tried to make off with Discovery's camera, which was eventually repossessed with a quick left fist. There was the English climber who in all seriousness accused me of trying to read his mind. Then there was the climber who insisted the Sherpa porters carry his backbreaking steamer trunk all the way through the Icefall to Camp II.

Certainly the long-term altitude intoxication played a part. After all, for weeks at a stretch Base Camp's inhabitants were fueling their brains with about half the oxygen available at sea level. Even so, there was a touch more madness on Everest than in other high-altitude climbing venues I'd encountered.
   
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