Doug Sovern’s Everest Adventure
Update: Editor’s note. Doug’s Mount Everest adventure story is one of our first real-time adventures. Well, as real-time as it could get in the year 2000. Doug had a satellite phone and we would post stories as soon as we got the phone call or email and once we got a postcard. Then we would relay his message to the world. It was the advent of social media. And, it is one of my all-time favorite, guest adventures. Not only were we at the cutting edge, but Doug Sovern also had an amazing adventure and reports six people die. If you’ve seen the movie or read Jon Krakauer’s book, Into Thin Air, this may seem familiar, but at the time, it was all news hot off the press. And, for another point of view, don’t miss our story about Göran Kropp, who was there. For the reader’s convenience, we’ve taken all the updates and put them into this one story. Enjoy!
Screenwriter and KCBS news reporter Doug Sovern is on his way to Mt. Everest. He, along with two other trekkers, a guide, and two sherpas will hike for a week to Lukla. There they will meet with eleven others and hike for another week to Base Camp. This hundred-mile hike involves climbing to Kalapattar at 18,000 feet. From there, they will descend to Base Camp where they will meet with a group of mountaineers who will climb to the summit. Upon their return, Doug will join the summit team on their hike back to Lukla. Doug will be updating us via satellite phone, weather permitting, so be sure to log on for updates! The following is an account of his exciting trip so far.
I’m in Thailand, on a layover at the airport, dropping you a line from an Internet kiosk. They are everywhere! And so much cheaper than calling on the phone. The journey seems endless, from San Francisco to Taipei to Bangkok, and now waiting for the last leg to Kathmandu. Asia looks wonderful from the air and even from the airport terminals! It is swelteringly hot here in Thailand, 93 degrees. Our summit team is already well-established at Everest Base Camp, and is setting up the higher elevation camps as I write this. They’ve already been up and down to 21,000 feet to start acclimatizing. I will meet up with my fellow trekkers of the Support Team tomorrow in Kathmandu, and then Monday we begin the arduous but hopefully splendid 100-mile hike to the base of the mountain, to join the mountaineers! Talk to you again real soon from… somewhere?
Doug’s Adventure to Base Camp Begins
Hello, again, this time from Kathmandu! All of you who responded to my last message… thank you! I just read your emails from this little Internet “cafe” (read: ten computers and a coke machine) in the colorful Thamel district. One rupee per minute for Internet access! (That’s about one and a half cents… let’s see PacBell match that!)
Kathmandu is as fascinating and lively as advertised. It is about 90 degrees, and quite congested. The new part of the city is nothing to write home about… so I won’t. The older part reminds me a lot of Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar, with its narrow winding streets crammed with souvenir shops, gawking trekkers, beggars and bakeries. If you even stop for a moment to look at something, the vendor starts haggling with you, and if you say “herdaichu” (just looking) or say no, they assume you’re just bargaining for a better price and follow you down the street. Never mind that you really don’t want to lug an ornately carved scimitar to Everest with you… although it might come in handy if I encounter a yeti!
I am on my own at the moment, because the rest of the group has not arrived yet. I was met at the airport by a sherpa, Mingma Sherpa, who works for Mountain Madness, but now he has gone off, leaving me to fend for myself until the others get in. It’s a little daunting at first, footloose and guideless in a foreign land, but it quickly becomes easy and fun, and I have spent hours wandering about. I am careful to note which way I came and leave a trail of theoretical bread crumbs… I met some musicians in the street and ended up getting a lesson on a small sort of mountain violin, the name of which begins with an S and has just evaporated from my mind. I bought one of the wooden instruments and a bow from a guy named Raju, for roughly ten dollars. That also included the lesson, and permission to record him playing for me, and then me struggling through a C scale. It will thrill the KCBS listeners when I return, I’m sure…
There is some political unrest here, to my surprise. A Maoist insurgency, in the west. A local official was murdered yesterday and 13 of the rebels were killed in response. The British Foreign Secretary was here today, advising the government to learn from England’s experience in Northern Ireland… perhaps not the best example for the Nepalese to follow! Anyway, the Maoists, apparently frustrated by the results of democracy here, as best I can learn, have been making trouble but keeping out of the trekking and tourist regions, because they know where Nepal’s bread is buttered. Or yak buttered, as the case may be.
One last note…the Everest climb is going so well, according to Mingma Sherpa, that the team may summit before we trekkers even get there! The Mountain Madness team is leading the way, setting up the fixed lines at the higher camps, and will likely be the first to attempt the summit, which means they may ascend a few days earlier than planned. If that happens, they will wait for us at base camp, and we will simply celebrate their success with them, and then trek out together. Oh, well, better early than late, or never. They have to take their best shot whenever the weather allows… That is all for now, from Nepal. Isn’t this better than a postcard? (Imagine a pretty picture of Everest here…)
Last Call for Mount Everest
Hello again… this will be my last posting from Kathmandu. Tomorrow morning, we leave for Everest. We are all excited and anxious. Ah, yes, I am no longer alone. My teammates have arrived. For the first week (Jiri to Phakding) it will be myself and two guys in their mid-40s from Buffalo. They were Ski Patrol members together in upstate NY and have remained best friends. One is a construction worker, the other an out-of-work aluminum worker. They seem very fit and really cool. I figure they can drag my ass out of the mountains when I collapse…
Today we met with our sherpas, to make final preparations. Pemba Sherpa will be our sirdar (leader) for the Jiri leg, then we’ll hook up with 13 more trekkers, our American guide, and Lakba Sherpa, who will be the Sirdar to Base Camp. They will all fly to Lukla, to meet us. We will have one week of extra acclimatization, which means we’ll be less likely than they to suffer altitude sickness, but we’ll also have one extra week of grueling up and downhill exhaustion, so we’ll just have to see who’s better off!
We spent the afternoon with Lakba today, visiting the Monkey Temple, Patan Durbar Square, and Pashupatinath, the holiest Hindu site. Back to that in a moment. Lakba was a climbing Sherpa on the ill-fated ’96 expedition, and says it was ridiculously crowded. He says it “was very bad, and very sad” for Scott Fischer, Doug Hansen, Rob Hall and the other people he met on the mountain that year who died. He has already been to base camp this year, having escorted Chris Boskoff and the summit team in, a few weeks ago, and says this year is even MORE crowded! I feel bad being part of the commercialization and congestion of Everest. I’ll just keep telling myself I’m here as a journalist, but let’s face it, I’m just another ugly American tourist… which brings me back to the temple.
There are dogs and monkeys everywhere here, not to mention the sacred cows that sleep in the middle of the insane traffic. At the Monkey Temple, I was trying not to step into the middle of someone’s Kodak moment, so I veered around a group photo, not really watching where I was going. I accidentally stepped on a sleeping dog, tried to jump off to keep from hurting him, stumbled over the dog, stepped on another dog, fell on top of a monkey and went crashing into some steps. It was extremely embarrassing. I smashed my shin on the steps and wiped out a whole family of Buddhist pilgrims. I’m lucky I didn’t drop my camera or tape recorder, or get bitten by any of the animals! They were remarkably mellow, but it caused quite a stir among the humans. I’m sure the tale of the spastic American is getting a big laugh over many bowls of dal tonight, all over town. I didn’t break anything, but I have a huge welt on my leg and a scrape on my hand, not the best way to begin the trek.
At Pashupatinath, we witnessed a cremation, which was bizarre. The widow was wailing and weeping forever, while her husband went up in flames on a pyre on the edge of a holy river. All of this, before dozens of camera-clicking tourists. I took one or two photos, late in the game, and did not record her crying. It all felt rather intrusive and strange. Can you imagine a family funeral in the states, with tourists pointing and taking pictures? No one seemed to mind though… Americans always get the worst rap for being insensitive louts, but, in my limited experience, the Europeans are often much worse. The people I’ve traveled with have been sensitive to local cultural concerns, but some of these French and German tourists are stunningly oblivious. They stroll around in short shorts and tank tops, flashing cameras and watches and bankrolls thick enough to choke a sacred cow. Maybe they don’t read the same politically correct guidebooks that we do. On the other hand, I’M the one who went sprawling at one of Tibetan Buddhism’s most holy shrines, so I guess the gods are mad at me, not them.
… Perhaps for lusting after all the achingly beautiful Nepalese women, including the one who runs this Internet shop… Oh, by the way, that stringed instrument I mentioned yesterday is called a sarangi.
There’s been a change of plans regarding our trek to Everest. The government has decided to close the Lukla airstrip on May 15th, for a year of remodeling. This will severely curtail action to Everest, since every expedition either flies in or out of Lukla, often both. We are scheduled to fly back, out of Lukla, May 16th. Now we will have to leave there by the 14th or 15th, which means instead of spending four glorious nights and three exciting days at Base Camp, it’ll probably be only two stunning nights and one thrilling day.
This is not so bad, because I was trying to imagine what in the world we would DO for four nights at base camp, besides shivering, feeling sick and being bored. I need a few hours there, at most, to do interviews and hike to the Khumbu Ice Fall, so shortening the stay should be okay. On the other hand, we learned today that the earlier support trekking team, which hiked into camp and then left, had lots of altitude trouble, and only five of the fourteen trekkers made it all the way to camp. So, I might not even have to worry about the length of the stay, since I might be retching and heaving a few thousand feet below! Hope I have the problem of being disappointed with a shorter visit…
The change also means we will have four days in Kathmandu after trekking, instead of two. This opens up some new possibilities: whitewater rafting, a jungle safari, bungee jumping or mountain biking. The rafting is on a raging Tibetan river with Cat 4 and 5 rapids, and since I have not done any whitewater in years, I’m inclined to skip that! The safari takes you down to Chitwan, where you ride elephants and see Bengal tigers, but that’s the lowlands and I did not take any malaria pills this time, since there are no mosquitoes in Kathmandu or the mountains. So that becomes problematic. That leaves bungee jumping… on the longest bungee cord in the world, over the third deepest river gorge on earth…which worries me because of my back trouble. If all goes well on the trek, and I am assured it’s a smooth jump, I might finally try that sport for the first time!
The leading candidate, though, has to be the mountain biking. The idea of biking in the Himalayas, up to 8 or 9000 feet, is extremely appealing. I bet the descent is incredible! Not to mention the scenery. I, of course, brought none of my biking gear, but I could probably rent enough to carry me through… All of this is very much up in the air (pardon the pun), of course, dependent on what happens on Everest… Ah well, time to go. Hope you’ve enjoyed these missives from halfway around the world. There should be occasional satellite phones, perhaps every 5 or 6 days, on the way up the mountain, but probably no more computer access, so don’t expect another email for 3 weeks!
Six People Die On Everest So Far
Location: Namche Bazaar
Into Thin Air
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Hey everybody…sending this from Namche Bazaar, at 11,300 feet, the last real town on the trail to Everest. The trip is magnificent, the time of my life. I did have some lower back spasms the first day on the trail, which slowed me down and threatened to end my trip right then and there. A combination of massage, stretching, Advil and Tiger Balm got me back on track, and I’ve been fine ever since, but it requires constant vigilance. My stomach has been fine and I have no altitude sickness (knock on wood!) The views are unparalleled, the people extraordinary.
Unfortunately, the monsoon season is blowing in early, which has meant rain, hail, and thunder most days, but often not until we’re in camp for the day. Up on Everest, the blowing winds and snow have forced all of the summit teams back down to Base Camp, so no one’s been able to try for the top just yet.
Six people have died here so far: two Mountain Madness sherpa porters (one with the summit team, one with one of the trekking groups) and four trekking tourists. All from acute mountain sickness, except a German man who had a heart attack. It’s extremely important to know your limitations, and accept them when they appear! We’ve already lost two members of our 16-person group: they helicoptered out of here this morning, back down to Kathmandu, because they just couldn’t do anymore. They’ll be fine. Another of our hikers collapsed in convulsions from dehydration yesterday. He’s something of a head case and I don’t know what will happen with him; physically he seems fine now though.
Please don’t let any of this worry you! I am hiking at a good pace, and monitoring my health. If I’m not meant to make it…I won’t! I’ll turn around and go back down. This morning we came around a bend and saw Everest for the first time, along with Ama Dablam, Lhotse, and some of the other giant Himalayan neighbors! What a staggering thing, quite an emotional moment for some in the group. A brilliant, sunny day today (a break in the weather?) with vast snow faces and glaciers, the wind blowing the snow off the peak of Everest. A sight I will never forget…and we’re only going to get closer in the days ahead! Five or six days from now…we will be at Base Camp (the gods willing…)!
That’s all for now…
Alive and Well on Everest
I’m alive and well at 18,000+ feet. I’ve tried to call people and KCBS the last couple of days but the satellite phones have been crapping out. Probably all the snow we’ve been having here on Everest. Now I’ve found someone with a solid connection and a laptop, so… Greetings from Everest Base Camp! What an awesome adventure! Yesterday, we submitted Kala Pattar, at 18,500 feet, with incredible views of the Everest Summit. Today we actually climbed partway up Everest, something that was not on the itinerary! We climbed up thru the Khumbu Ice Fall, to 18,250 feet, using the fixed ropes and everything. It was the most fun I’ve had in the snow in years. It was a bit hairy, but what a blast! We stopped at the point where people die, and turned around, with our mountaineer pals. Now it’s all downhill from here; we leave Base Camp tomorrow and start heading down the mountain. No one has reached the summit yet; the weather has been unexpectedly atrocious, with heavy snow and fierce winds up top. The snow is chest high up on top, so no one has been able to make it. Perhaps this weekend. Signing off for now… and hoping to do a live shot on the radio shortly.
Exclusive Scoop on Everest
I have reconfirmed those six deaths with both a Mountain Madness official and the guy on the mountain representing the Nepalese Tourism Ministry. I am not surprised you can’t find any record of them from that end. There won’t be any. Remember, we are in an extremely remote region of a Third World country. We are 80 miles from the nearest road. There are no street addresses in all of Nepal, not a single stop sign, street sign or traffic light. They do not have a coroner. They do not do death certificates. If a local person dies, they are cremated and thrown in the river. If ANYONE dies on the mountain, local or foreign, their body is left exactly where it falls and can never be touched or moved. If a CLIMBER dies on Everest, there IS a record of it, and it will be widely reported, on the various web sites, etc. However, if a trekker or porter dies on the way to or from Base Camp, which is the case here, it is pretty much shrugged off, and in fact, may not even be acknowledged by anyone at Base Camp or above. When I asked the ministry official if six was a high number, he shrugged and said “this is normal. this happens always.” Others tell me it is a little higher than average, though. Anyway, four trekkers and two porters have died here this year, and of this I am certain. I talked with a woman who watched one of the porters die. I talked with the doctor who tried to save two of the trekkers. I have personally witnessed three emergency air evac rescues. Rest assured I am not reporting anything I can’t 100% confirm! Having an incredible trip, which is almost over…
Heading down the mountain….
A Successful Journey
Ah, back in Kathmandu, where we’ve traded the stale, yak dung-scented air of the lodges along the trail for the heavy, smoggy air of this congested capital! Yes, we are back “home,” Into Thick Air, back down at 4400 feet, after more than three weeks in the mountains.
Hello everyone! I am happy to report the expedition was a great success, at least from the trekkers’ point of view. Of the 16 in our group, 13 made it to Everest Base Camp (17,500 feet), six made it to the summit of Kala Pattar (18,500 feet) and the same six of us made it about halfway up thru the Khumbu Ice Fall (18,300 feet). Two were helicopter evacuated from the mountain; one got sick and had to wait at 16,000 feet for the rest of us to return. I wish I could report similar success at the summit, but as of this moment, no one has made it to the pinnacle of Everest yet this year.
There is tremendous competition among the 25 different expeditions in Base Camp, with lots of intrigue, misinformation and espionage. There’s also plenty of cooperation and mutual support. But the bottom line is, the unusually heavy snows this season have bogged down one team after another, and no one has been able to break through to the top yet. Our summit team, comprised of Mountain Madness boss Christine Boskoff, the legendary Peter Habeler, and Nazir Sabir, have been turned back from the summit THREE times now, after being at Camp 4, the highest camp on the mountain. Chris and Peter continue to climb without oxygen and still aren’t giving up. Nazir is using bottled O2 and seems less optimistic. Some teams are already packing up and making plans for next year. Others still want to be the first to summit in the year 2000! And of course, there seems to be great pressure among the commercial expeditions to get their millennium-climbing clients to the top.
There was a terrible avalanche the other day at Camp 3 (23,000 feet) that buried the Russians in their tent. They had to be dug out and rescued. They’re all fine, but one of them lost all his gear, and had to come down the mountain with just what he had on his back at the time of the slide. You should have seen him staggering down thru the Ice Fall! Absolutely miserable. I got the feeling they weren’t going back up…Come to think of it, they were from Georgia, the former Soviet Republic, where they all eat lots of yogurt and live forever, so these guys should be just fine…It feels good to be back in civilization, eating pizza and drinking Coke. I took my first real shower in a month and shaved. Tonight we go out for a celebratory dinner, to toast our triumph and what has truly been the adventure of a lifetime.
We flew back here today aboard a 20-seat twin-engine Otter that took off from a steeply pitched, downhill, gravel runway that simply ended at the edge of a cliff at 9300 feet, where the pilot had to either get the thing up in the air or kiss us all goodbye! It felt more like a roller coaster ride than a takeoff. Since we survived…it was a blast! The harrowing part will quickly fade from memory…but the incomparable view of the majestic Himalayas as we said an airborne goodbye will not… That is all for now. This may be my last email before I head home Friday morning. I hope to send news of a successful summit bid, but the news from those still remaining at Base Camp is bleak. Would that they could share the joy we trekkers feel! Talk to you or see you all real soon…
Climbers Summiting Everest Left and Right
Date: Wednesday, May 17, 2000, 4:58 AM
One final email word from Kathmandu before I go off and have a hot oil massage, part of my continuing recovery from a month on the trail…I am happy to report that people are summiting Everest right and left all of a sudden, now that the weather has cleared and the route at the top is finally fixed…After Monday’s near-summit by Ang Dorje Sherpa and the Adventure Consultants team from New Zealand, there was a veritable logjam at the top Tuesday, with four different teams summiting!
There remains dispute and confusion over who was the first to summit in the year 2000, but the Russians, Spanish and Brits all claim to be first at the moment. It will all be sorted out soon enough. The Koreans made it also, and of course several Nepalese. Early today, Nazir Sabir of the Mountain Madness team made the top, and it couldn’t have happened to a nicer climber! One of the sweetest men I have ever met, Nazir is a former Pakistani cabinet minister who just started climbing a few years ago and is a tremendous success. Summiting with him was Ben Webster, one of the Canadians on the Mountain Madness climbing permit. Ben’s teammate Claude didn’t make it, apparently. Chris and Peter, the leaders of our Mountain Madness summit team, came back down to Base Camp yesterday after Peter had some lung trouble (remember, they are doing a pure climb, which means no oxygen) but now are heading back up. Chris aims to summit by Friday morning. Peter may end up hanging back and not summiting this time, but since he was the first person to summit Everest without O2 (back in 1978 with fellow legend Reinhold Messner) he really has nothing to prove!
Others are summiting today, as well, too many to sort out at the moment, but after weeks of being stranded by heavy snow and doubting if anyone would conquer Everest to celebrate the millennium…it’s a parade to the top! A regular Sherpa conga line at 29,035 feet! Congratulations to all…signing off from Nepal…and love to my friends and family….and I should be back on US soil Friday night!
Postcard from the Top of the World
Date: May 18, 2000
Mostly sunny today across the kingdom, but there’s an overturned yak on the Dalia Lama Highway… Okay, so I recycled last…. [Unreadable.] Having an extraordinary time in a stunning country. I hope everyone’s enjoying the emails. By the time you receive this, we should be plodding to Everest. This is a dazzling land – I only hope the trek isn’t as grueling as everyone keeps saying… Take care!
The Adventure of a Lifetime
Location: Mount Everest
It was three in the morning when it hit me, as I groped in the darkness for the zipper to the toilet tent. I looked up at the silhouetted mountains framing our campsite, standing tall and craggy against the deep blue moonlit sky. “My God,” I thought, “I am actually at Everest.” I turned in a slow circle, gaping at the sleeping giants of the Himalayas: Sagarmatha, Nuptse, Pumori. The thought of climbers trying to sleep on a snowy ledge thousands of feet above left me gasping. Or perhaps it was the altitude. In any case, the inability to breathe served me well as I stepped into the primitive and overused toilet facilities. The epiphany was over, erased by a rude return to my near-constant focus on basic survival.
“Welcome to Base Camp, guys,” climber Francois Bedard bellowed as we arrived at 17,500 feet, “the most dangerous place on Earth!” He wasn’t kidding. It took us two weeks of hard trekking to get here, hiking five to ten hours a day from the town of Jiri, 6,000 feet. Three of the 16 members of our all-American trekking group didn’t make it. Two, exhausted, left by emergency helicopter. A third succumbed to dehydration and mild altitude sickness and stayed behind at 16,000 feet while we slogged on to Everest Base Camp.
Along the way, we learned Nepalese folk songs while sitting around the hearth with our Sherpa hosts. We bore grim witness to a cremation at Pashupatinath, one of the holiest Hindu sites. We were honoured with the blessings of the High Lamas at the Tengboche and Pangboche monasteries, among the most revered Tibetan Buddhist shrines. We devoured what must be the world’s finest yak butter apple pie at the Mount Everest Bakery, a sweet oasis at 11,000 feet.
And, finally, we were rewarded with a few days of quality time with some of the world’s most accomplished mountaineers, including our own Mountain Madness summit team. Stir-crazy after weeks of waiting for the weather to clear so they could try for the top, the climbers passed their time in camp with card games and a daily soccer match, which invariably disintegrated into a snowy field full of gasping, coughing climbers desperately seeking substitution from the game.
But then, in mid-May, just as our brief Base Camp stay was ending, the snowstorms subsided, the jet stream was merciful, and there was a procession to the summit, with dozens of climbers reaching the top of the world, including three of the eight on the Mountain Madness expedition. We trekkers were more than satisfied to reach our own pinnacles: the summit of Kala Pattar, an 18,500-foot rock pile that looms over Base Camp; the legendary camp itself; and, for six of us, the treacherous Khumbu Ice Fall, where we climbed the fixed ropes through towering blocks of ice and snow and stepped nervously over and around deep crevasses.
And it didn’t really sink in until I made it safely home to California, and fondled the pointy chunk of quartz-white rock I took from the mountain as a souvenir: this was truly the adventure of a lifetime.
The boon of Doug’s journey
Alaska Bike Ride for an AIDS Vaccine
Editor’s Note: Though Doug doesn’t use these words, we believe that his charitable bicycle ride to give back to the community is like the boon of his adventure to Everest, just like Jason brought back the Golden Fleece, so too does Doug return with a prize.
I recently returned from Everest, which was the trip of a lifetime. Now I’m embarking on a new adventure, to make sure other people even HAVE a lifetime. In August, I will participate in the first-ever Alaska AIDS Vaccine Ride. Two thousand of us will pedal our bikes 510 miles in six days, from the tiny town of North Pole, Alaska to Anchorage. Each rider must raise at least in tax-deductible donations. The money will directly benefit the cutting-edge research of three renowned medical teams working to develop a vaccine against AIDS, at UCLA, Emory University and the Aaron Diamond Research Center in New York, led by Time Magazine Man of the Year Dr. David Ho. In my journey through Africa last year, I saw how this disease is devastating to our planet. Now travels to good use, by doing what I can to help stop the epidemic.