On top of the world with a sinking heart

December 11, 2009

NEPAL

Nepal’s cabinet meets at the Gorakshep base camp region of Mount Everest December 4, 2009. The cabinet began a meeting close to the base camp to send a message on the impact of global warming on the Himalayas, days before global climate talks start in Copenhagen. REUTERS/Gopal Chitrakar

Covering a Nepalese cabinet meeting at 17,000 ft was an exciting assignment, but challenging as well. Mountaineering teams, expeditions and trekkers normally take 10 days to reach that height to avoid altitude sickness. I was given just two days to achieve it, carrying oxygen bottles along with appropriate shoes and warm clothes!

From Kathmandu I flew in a small twin otter aircraft to Lukla,  gateway to Mt. Everest, the landing a challenge for even experienced pilots as it’s a tiny airstrip. After a night in Lukla, it was a short helicopter ride the next day to Shyamgboche, situated at some 14,000 ft. A night at a luxurious hilltop tourist hotel there provided the chance to shoot some beautiful moonlit pictures of the Everest region.

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A view of Mount Everest is seen at moon rise from Syangboche in Nepal December 3, 2009.   REUTERS/Gopal Chitrakar

Next morning the organizers helped us reach the base camp. Since not all choppers could fly directly to 17,000 ft fully loaded, we were ferried in small numbers. A Russian-made MI 17  helicopter that normally could carry 30 people took just 12 at a time to our first stop to Lobuche. In the last hops to our final destination at Kalapathar, the chopper only took eight, another example of  how the height challenges technology. At the base camp I used my oxygen mask initially to avoid altitude sickness, but some friends who boasted large chests and strong lungs managed to do with out it. This inspired the rest of us to take off our masks too.

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Photographer Gopal Chitraker takes off his mask at Kalapathar region of Mount Everest December 4, 2009. Courtesy of Basant Chitrakar

The weather was on our side, sunny and warm, traits that normally don’t last more than a few hours according to locals. Climbing to 17,000 ft and spending a night there is typically not advised by the medical experts. One may sleep forever!  I remember an incident some seven years ago when a Thai airbus crashed on a hill near Kathmandu killing all the passengers. A team of experts came to investigate and took a chopper to that accident spot. One of the Boeing experts died on the spot due to altitude sickness, and that was at just 11,000 ft!

It was heartbreaking to see the mountains getting naked. There has been less snow generally in the mountains, and numerous landslides. These were among the reasons Nepal’s politicians took the risks of helicopter rides and altitude sickness to underscore the effects of global warming with a meeting in the endangered area. I could see the ministers were suffering and acutely aware of the altitude. They did, however, send a clear message that would be hard for Copenhagen to miss.

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A helicopter carrying Nepali ministers attending a Everest base camp cabinet meeting lands in Nepal December 4, 2009.   REUTERS/Gopal Chitrakar

One comment

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Global warming is, of course, in evidence there as elsewhere in the Himalayas.
The Nepal cabinet more likely meets at Everest once yearly to promote tourism, nothing more. Nepal is a desperate country. It is an impoverished, failed state in every respect. Eco-tourism is its biggest source of foreign income, aside from foreign remittances.
So, I suspect the cabinet meets there to exploit it as a tourist destination, plus to protect the wilderness from tourism’s excesses. Nepal is big on eco-tourism issues.
By the way, the adventure days of mountaineering are long gone, unless you climb the peak. All it takes to get to an Everest base camp is time and money, visas and permits. It’s more a bureaucratic challenge than anything else.
Neither side (Nepal or China) really puts you at the mountain base. You are far from it. Tibet is the easier way up.
DO watch out for altitude issues. And, if take a lousy picture of a clear Mt. Everest, it isn’t the mountain’s fault.

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