How civilised does an expedition base camp have to be?

Photographs on Explorersweb of members of the 7 Summits Club expedition team playing table tennis and pool in their entertainment tent at base camp on Everest’s north side will have raised the blood pressure of a few purists who believe such luxuries have no place in mountaineering. It’s certainly true if you’re looking for a wilderness experience, but in that case Everest isn’t really for you. For the great alpinists like Reinhold Messner, suffering was all part of the experience, but only a small minority of mountaineers regard it as essential.

Members of the Russian 7 Summits Club expedition play pool in their dome tent at Everest Base Camp, Tibet (Photo: 7 Summits Club)
Members of the Russian 7 Summits Club expedition play pool in their dome tent at Everest Base Camp, Tibet (Photo: 7 Summits Club)

A bit of pampering at base camp has long been a part of expeditions to the 8000m peaks, ever since the early days of Himalayan exploration. Long periods of time need to be spent acclimatising to extreme altitudes and waiting for an appropriate weather window as camps are gradually established higher up the mountain. Living is harsh in the high camps and appetite loss is unavoidable. Good food at base camp and something to combat boredom is necessary for all but the most hardened ascetics.

Top Russian mountaineer and owner of 7 Summits Club, Alex Abramov, certainly knows how to do this better than most. When I was on Everest last year his team held a party in their giant dome tent and invited everyone in base camp. Their hospitality was extraordinary, and they provided enough food and drink to keep the party going till the small hours. When I climbed Elbrus, the highest mountain in Europe in the Russian Caucasus, a couple of months after I returned, I decided to use 7 Summits Club as my expedition operator, and I enjoyed the same hospitality in their back yard. I’ve climbed a lot of high mountains and I never realised vodka is good for acclimatisation, but Alex assured me it’s true as he passed around a bottle in the dining hut at Barrels on Elbrus’s south side. I was happy to take a man of his experience at his word.

But just how civilised does an expedition base camp have to be? Here are five things to consider when choosing an expedition operator.

1. Food and drink

This is something the best operators take extremely seriously. Appetite loss is going to affect every climber at some point during an expedition to high altitude, yet we need all the calories we can get to cope with the load carrying and exertion required to get up the mountain. It doesn’t help if the food is ropey, and to put it simply the climbing is going to be a lot easier on a full stomach.

The tradition of serving champagne at Everest Base Camp remains to this day
The tradition of serving champagne at Everest Base Camp remains to this day

When he led the 1922 British expedition, General Charles Bruce realised the monotonous diet of tsampa and potatoes did the party no good the previous year, so he ensured they were also provided with a number of delicacies such as tinned quail and champagne. They even had a bottle of 120 year old rum to open on his birthday. By contrast when the famously ascetic Bill Tilman led the 1938 expedition, he drove the other team members mad with his uninspiring selection of food. With Eric Shipton he once spent a season in Garhwal, India, surviving on a diet of tree mushrooms and bamboo shoots, and he believed the art of expedition provisioning lay in getting the maximum number of calories for the least weight. Mostly this meant pemmican, a concentrated mixture of melted fat, dried meat and berries which would have made a Big Mac seem appetising. Noel Odell was outraged.

“I am no believer in the necessity for truffled quails and champagne … but for a sustained sojourn at really high altitudes a carefully selected and varied diet is essential; and some alcohol has its uses after a particularly exhausting day.”

I’m definitely in the Odell camp. On my last two 8000m peak expeditions with Altitude Junkies, I looked forward to four o’clock, when we had happy hour in the dining tent, and enjoyed a couple of glasses of red wine with cheese and Pringles. I’m someone who doesn’t worry too much about having a varied diet as long as the food is tasty, and I was more than happy with the yak or chicken sizzlers provided nearly every evening at base camp on Everest last year.

Some expedition operators go a stage further. Jagged Globe often provide their 8000m peak expeditions with a gourmet chef, Gavin Melgaard. I still remember Gavin’s roasted lamb shanks and steak and kidney pie on Cho Oyu a few years ago, and other nice touches like pork scratchings in the packed lunches on climbing days. He also did the simple things which others neglect, like providing an ample supply of fried eggs and bacon for breakfast every morning. On one memorable evening he served up some delicious Korean meatballs, which really were the dog’s bollocks (actually I made that last bit up). Jagged Globe’s 2013 Everest expedition dispatches make compelling reading for those of you with an interest in gastronomy.

2. Communications

Most expedition operators on the commercial 8000m peaks will provide laptops and satellite internet connections for climbers to blog
Most expedition operators on the commercial 8000m peaks will provide laptops and satellite internet connections for climbers to blog

There was a time not very long ago when I loved being somewhere so remote that nobody knew where I was. I could happily be out of touch with world events for weeks. These days we’re all much better connected digitally, and if you read my post last week, Following the Everesters, you will know how much I enjoy watching the Everest season from the comfort of my armchair.

Most expedition operators will provide a satellite internet connection at base camp on the commercial 8000m peaks, and some even have 3G connectivity. The quality of service can vary dramatically from mountain to mountain and from expedition to expedition. At base camp on Everest’s north side last year our satellite connection was blocked by the high hills on either side, but one of my team mates had his own laptop with a China Mobile connection which he shared with us, and during the daytime a nearby 3G mast enabled us to send emails and tweet using our smart phones. On the south side of the mountain everything was much easier, with a 3G connection all the way to the summit, where the British mountain guide Kenton Cool famously once made a phone call to his wife. This year conditions appear to be reversed, with climbers on the north side blogging freely, while those on the south complain of intermittent connectivity. On Manaslu a couple of years ago we had four laptops to share between a handful of climbers, while on Cho Oyu I had to share a single laptop with 15 other people and didn’t end up blogging much.

3. Toilets and shower

When I first started high altitude trekking more than a decade ago a visit to the toilet tent, usually no more than a hole in the ground, was always a bit of an ordeal. Being raised in the pampered western world we’re used to being able to sit down and read a paper. The first few occasions I had to squat I was in danger of falling over, and often needed to grasp a tent pole to keep my balance. It’s much harder to get the job done when you’re in fear of the tent collapsing around you, leaving you exposed to the elements and revealed to your travelling companions in an embarrassing posture with your trousers around your ankles.

Although it's possible to go 61 days without washing, it's nice to have a hot shower when conditions are dusty
Although it’s possible to go 61 days without washing, it’s nice to have a hot shower when conditions are dusty

But humans have evolved for squatting, and after a bit of practice it’s as easy as sitting down. Even so, toilet facilities on expeditions can vary a lot. Our toilet on Gasherbrum in Pakistan was pitched on a glacier which gradually moved over the course of the weeks we were there. The hole was constructed from moraine boulders and quite sturdy when we first arrived, but it eventually started tilting. Towards the end of the expedition, the chances of the whole structure collapsing while in use was quite high, and I rarely lingered inside it for long. Washing facilities on Gasherbrum were quite rudimentary, being a cold bucket of glacier water, but in thin glacier air there are no bugs and very little dust, so you don’t get very dirty. I expect I will disgust some of you, but I’m not ashamed to admit that I went 61 days without a proper wash – a record for me – though I did use wet wipes from time to time after a climb.

By contrast on Everest last year we had separate men and women’s toilet-cum-shower tents. The toilet was a blue barrel with a proper toilet seat, but it was for solids only, which required skilful use of the sphincters. Meanwhile the hot shower was so good I ended up writing a whole blog post about it. Everest Base Camp in Tibet is a very dusty place plagued by constant high winds. You get dirty very quickly there, and it’s not somewhere you want to go 61 days without a wash.

4. Library and cinema

The issue of how many books to take on an expedition used to be a thorny question. I didn’t want to carry around unnecessary weight, but I also didn’t want to risk running out. The seven books I took with me for my two months on Gasherbrum wasn’t enough. The weather was so bad that we spent a lot of time waiting around at base camp, and I hadn’t been so bored for a long time. I assumed I would be able to swap reads with other people, but I was to be sorely disappointed. Everybody else seemed to have bought their books in the airport on the way out to Pakistan, which of course meant dreadful thrillers, so universally awful that Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons shone forth like a masterpiece. I was even tempted to read Jeremy Clarkson’s autobiography at one point, but luckily a weather window opened up at the right moment and I was spared. I played so many games of cards on that expedition that I nearly ended up turning into the jack of clubs.

Sometimes there's nothing quite like reading a good book in a meditative posture
Sometimes there’s nothing quite like reading a good book in a meditative posture

More recently expedition operators have started providing projectors. When I climbed Cho Oyu our dining tent at base camp was converted into a cinema every evening after dinner. This sounds very appealing, but you don’t usually get to choose your team members or their tastes. It soon emerged my climbing partners had the critical faculties of a degenerate amoeba with learning difficulties. Gun enthusiasts and pyromaniacs would have loved it. On average there were six murders a night, and the highlight was somebody getting their throat slit during an interrogation, in what later became known as the “torture movie”. If that’s how you like to be entertained during an expedition then fine, but on the peaceful Tibetan plateau surrounded by beautiful mountains, it wasn’t quite how I wanted to be spending my holiday.

More recently Amazon has come to the rescue. On Everest I was able to operate my Kindle at 6400m without difficulty, and the cover has an integrated light which runs off the main battery and enables me to curl up in my sleeping bag and read into the evening. I carry a folding solar panel with a USB connection, and can charge the device in just an hour or two on a sunny day. I can now fit a sizeable library into my pocket and need never be bored on an expedition again.

5. Pool table and ping pong

I’ll leave a discussion of whether these are necessary to others while I retire to my tent with a good book.

This is just a small selection of the “essential luxuries” you can find in an expedition base camp, but there are many more. For example, I haven’t mentioned the fake palm trees the Swiss operator Kari Kobler is rumoured to install in his giant chillout dome. There are crazier things still, and if you know of any then I’d love to hear about them.

Finally, as a bit of light entertainment here’s another chance to see expedition leader Phil Crampton’s communications-cum-sleeping tent on Gasherbrum. You’ll be surprised at some of the things Phil takes with him to combat the boredom at base camp.

Watch on YouTube

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3 thoughts on “How civilised does an expedition base camp have to be?

  • May 1, 2013 at 7:18 pm
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    Hi Mark,
    Last time I checked, this was 2013 right? I don’t see anything wrong with bringing a few comforts of home with you when attempting the world’s highest mt.
    In my mind, they could make the difference between success and failure.
    Cheers, Lisa

  • May 1, 2013 at 8:40 pm
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    They certainly make it more enjoyable. There are those who say such comforts are cheating, but not everyone agrees on the rules!

  • May 9, 2014 at 1:25 pm
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    Where is the cappuccino machine?! 😮

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