High Crimes, Chapter 11

Posted on: March 12, 2008

Everest, Advanced Base Camp. [Photo] Michael Kodas

Editor's Note: The following story—an excerpt from the recently released nonfiction novel High Crimes—reveals the dark underbelly of high-altitude mountaineering: theft. Above 8000 meters, loss of valuables can also mean the loss of life. For the few who engage in this niche thievery, the high stakes for the victim are not only acceptable but, in some cases, desirable. Continue reading to find out more.

Alpinist gives special thanks to author Michael Kodas and publisher Hyperion for their permission to reveal these atrocities to our readers.

Excerpted from High Crimes by Michael Kodas. Copyright (c) 2008 Michael Kodas. All rights reserved. Published by Hyperion. Available wherever books are sold.

Chapter Eleven

Chinese Base Camp, Mount Everest—April 17, 2004

Climbing teams on the world's highest mountains move like yo-yos—climbing up the mountain to set a new high point, spending a night or two there, then descending to recover from the effort and adjust to the thinner air. To acclimatize on the north side of Everest, most climbers will make one or two trips from Base Camp to Advanced Base Camp and back, before moving in at the higher camp. When they feel comfortable there, they make a round trip or two up to Camp One, the first of the three high camps that lead to the summit.

For their summit push, climbers plan to spend a night or two in each of the high camps on their route. On their summit day, they start climbing before midnight in hopes of reaching the climb's most difficult section—the aluminum ladder scaling a bluff called the Second Step—around first light. By midmorning, they should be standing on the summit in order to have enough time to descend to a lower camp by early afternoon.

The first hike to ABC and back is vital, both for the human body's acclimatization to the altitude and for the team's adjustment to working together. For most, Interim Camp is essential to that trip—a rugged way station that breaks the thirteen-mile climb from the 17,000-foot Base Camp to the 21,500-foot Advanced Base Camp into two arduous but manageable parts.


But on the morning of the Connecticut team's first hike up the mountain, we stood amid bedlam. Dozens of yaks arrived in small herds. Their drivers weighed our loads and haggled angrily through the morning as team members packed and repacked the barrels and duffel bags that would ride atop the beasts to ABC. Anne had resolved George's dispute with Dawa Sherpa over the number and cost of the yaks Asian Trekking was providing us, a deal that George resented. "Anne has stabbed us in the back," he said when the subject came up. Now as the yaks moved out, George and Lhakpa, our Everest veterans, stayed in the cook tent while those of us who had never been there before struggled to make sense of the mess.

Carolyn and I, with coughs and stomach illnesses to recover from and dispatches to send back to the States, decided to ascend a day after our teammates. It was imperative that we have a tent in Interim Camp. We had hardly spoken with Lhakpa, our "leader on the mountain," since our arrival in Base Camp, but we stopped her twice before she headed up, and she assured us that we would have a shelter. Later, the rest of the climbers reported that the chaos only worsened in the intermediate camp. They waited for hours in the cold before the yaks with their tents and sleeping bags arrived, and few of them could find their gear before the sun set. Dinner—some salty water soup—wasn't ready until after dark. In the morning they could barely stomach their breakfast and had no water for the six-mile hike to ABC, 2,000 feet higher in the atmosphere.

As the team started out on that day's climb, Anne, our other leader, reminded the Sherpas who were breaking camp that they needed to leave a tent for Carolyn and me. She was told that our Tibetan porters would know where to take us: a small mess tent nestled in the hills. All the mountaineering tents were broken down and packed onto the yaks. But back in Base Camp, we were only just hiring the porters, so there was no way they would know where we were intended to camp.

By the time Carolyn and I completed the hike to Interim Camp late that day, snow was lashing sideways and darkness was falling. Our fingers were numb, our feet soaked, and our lungs sucked desperately at the thin air. We stumbled over the rocky hills that separate the 19,000-foot-high camp into clusters of tents in between the seracs—pinnacles pushed up by the moving glacier—that circle the moraine like fifty-foot sharks' fins made of ice, but we couldn't find our shelter. The two teenage Tibetan porters who helped us carry our gear spoke no English and looked both puzzled and frightened as we hunted for the dome of nylon that our teammates were supposed to have left for us. Without it, we were looking at a night out in a storm on Mount Everest.

The large military mess tent was our last hope.

"I don't know where your camp is," said a man in sneakers and jeans slouching in the corner. "But at least come in for a cup of tea. It's really miserable out there."

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