In recent years, Everest has become a mountain defined more by tragedy and controversy than its history and inherent allure as the world’s highest mountain. With so much contention surrounding the place of Everest in modern mountaineering, what is it that continues to draw people to the mountain? In 2016, artist Derek Eland embedded himself in Base Camp in an effort to find out; exploring the motivations and experiences of would-be Everest summiters in their own words. In this article he recounts the key moments from his time in the shadow of Everest.
How I got there
I’d been a war artist in Afghanistan in 2011 where I’d spent a month on the front line filming, photographing and collecting handwritten stories. The results were described in the international press as ‘staggering’ and ‘ground-breaking’. High praise to live up to when asking myself ‘what next?” My life-long obsession with Mount Everest eventually led me to become the first Artist in Residence at Everest Base Camp.
I wasn’t driven by the famous Mallory quote: “Because it’s there” but more by what Edmund Hillary said, “It’s not the mountain we conquer but ourselves”. I wanted to try and find answers to the question: why do people need to climb or visit Everest? After the Nepal earthquake in April 2015 I decided to somehow turn this idea into reality.
The plan was to construct a ‘Diary Room’ at Everest Base Camp. The Diary Room would be open for the duration of the April-May 2016 climbing season and act as a place where people could write down their stories about why they were there, a bit like a confessional.
The media soon picked up on the project and there was a surreal 48 hours when the story went global and it was on the news everywhere. After being featured on BBC Breakfast in the UK I realised the pressure was on, failure was now not an option, I had to make the project work.
Everest Base Camp
My first glimpse of Everest Base Camp was just above Gorak Shep when I saw a mass of coloured dots in the distance, surreally placed at the head of an enormous valley. As I got closer, the mass of coloured dots separated into small multi-coloured tents. I’d been to Glastonbury the year before and my first thought at this point was “It’s like Glastonbury on the moon”. This weird out-of-place tented village stretched for a mile between the Khumbu Icefall and the Khumbu Glacier. Dozens of small clusters of tents, each one a different expedition, from nearly 30 countries worldwide. A thousand people, all living, breathing, existing and working in this extraordinary village for ten weeks a year. Appearing and then completely disappearing, as if it had never been there.[caption id="attachment_28014" align="aligncenter" width="900"] Everest Base Camp, April 2016.[/caption]
Having spent time as a soldier and as a war artist in Afghanistan the overriding sense I had about Everest Base Camp was that it was like a war zone. There were four helicopter landing sites and the constant buzz of the helicopters made me feel as though I was in a film about Vietnam.
For many of those travelling to Everest Base Camp, as a trekker or climber, it’s the trip of a lifetime. Some have invested everything they have to climb Everest, they have planned these trips for years and they each have a personal reason and motivation to be there. It was these reasons that I wanted to explore through my residency – Why are people here? What is driving them? Why are they prepared to take risks with their health and perhaps even their lives?
The Diary Room
I was extremely fortunate to find the perfect place for my Diary Room tent at Everest Base Camp. Location is everything and because the expedition I had joined was situated right by the main path through the camp, my Diary Tent ended up on the main path too. Climbers, guides, camp workers, porters and trekkers would all have to walk past the Diary Room if they were to head up the Khumbu Icefall.[caption id="attachment_28016" align="aligncenter" width="900"] The Everest Base Camp Diary Room.[/caption]
With such a prime location, people soon started visiting the Diary Room, often more out of curiosity than because they knew I was there. They wrote their stories about why they had come to Everest on hundreds of postcards, the same colour as Nepalese prayer flags, using pens I had tested in the freezer at home. As always with these projects people were initially surprised that an artist in residence wasn’t surrounded by easels, paints and brushes!
Quickly the Diary Room started to gather real momentum and climbers, trekkers, Sherpas and other camp workers started to visit it and I was truly fortunate that the wonderful ‘Icefall Doctors’ had their camp next-door to the Diary Room.
They were some of the most amazing people I’ve ever met – Sherpas who had spent years climbing and guiding and summiting mountains, including Everest, many times each. They had then decided that they would work as Icefall Doctors, an incredibly hazardous job itself, fixing and maintaining the ropes and ladders that make up the route from Base Camp to Camps 1 and 2. They would often come over and visit the Diary Room to write their incredible stories of numerous summits and their dangerous job.[caption id="attachment_28017" align="aligncenter" width="900"] Icefall Doctors outside the Diary Room.[/caption]
By the end of the project hundreds of stories were written by people from 24 different nationalities in 12 different languages. They were an honest, immediate, moving and humbling account of what people were doing there. The emerging themes were of tragedy, pilgrimage, redemption, and aspiration.
I had also brought an instamatic camera and film to Base Camp and took hundreds of passport type photographs of people during my time there. In spite of the extreme environment and the strain and exhaustion of being at Everest Base Camp the photographs were like holiday snaps, with virtually everyone smiling at the camera. With the Khumbu Icefall looming in the background these photographs became my record of ‘humans of Everest’.[caption id="attachment_28025" align="aligncenter" width="900"] 'Humans of Everest'.[/caption]
I learned and became part of many people’s stories during my time at basecamp, but one story stands out above them all, and sadly, for tragic reasons.
When I arrived at Everest Base Camp I was made to feel incredibly welcome by the climbers and Sherpas of the team I joined, the Satori Adventures Spring 2016 Everest Expedition South. The expedition was largely made up of climbers from India, including husband and wife Pradeep and Chetna Sahoo, and the team of incredible Sherpas. I started filming, photographing and documenting the expedition, from the Puja ceremony at the beginning, to training climbs on the Khumbu Icefall and planning meetings.
A few weeks after the Puja ceremony Chetna celebrated her 50th birthday. That night in the dining tent the lights were suddenly dimmed. One of the cooks came in with a huge cake all lit up with candles. Chetna blew out the candles, the cake was cut and a ritual took place which I’d never witnessed before – Chetna went around all of us, Sherpas and climbers alike, feeding each of us a piece of cake by hand, almost like communion. After we had shared the cake someone played some Bollywood music on a smartphone and Chetna and her husband Pradeep danced together. Others then joined in and by the end everyone was dancing. It was one of the most extraordinary things I’ve ever seen: ten adults, all in woolly hats and down jackets, dancing around inside a tent at 5380 metres above sea level. Perhaps it was the intensity of the place and a release of energy and stress.[caption id="attachment_28029" align="aligncenter" width="900"] Chetna’s Birthday.[/caption]
A few weeks later I followed my team the night they headed out of Base Camp for their summit attempt. I’ll always remember the clanking of climbing gear, the noise of the boots against the ice and rocks, the coughing and the overriding sense of anticipation. I followed them until they disappeared out of sight, the last head torch finally flickering and fading and then…darkness. For an age I stood there watching and listening.[caption id="attachment_28030" align="aligncenter" width="900"] Heading for the summit.[/caption]
A few days later I was suddenly called out of my Base Camp tent at 6am. This had never happened before in my six weeks at Everest. It was the cookhouse waiter who said “Please sir, can you get up and go to the rescue helicopter landing site now, our team are being rescued and need you to help them”. I quickly got dressed, grabbed a camera and headed out breathlessly across the glacier towards the man-made helicopter landing site, all the time thinking to myself “I hope everyone is okay, I hope everyone is okay…” It was the morning of the 22nd of May 2016 and the drama had only just begun.
After a considerable wait the first helicopter arrived from Camp 2 and out if it emerged a climber, walking, but clearly in pain, his face blackened by the cold and exposure. It was Rafiq a member of my team.
The second helicopter brought Chetna Sahoo, her Sherpa, Phurba, and her husband, Pradeep. Chetna was carried out of the helicopter and was barely recognizable – her face blackened and swollen, her gloved hands held aloft in considerable pain - but alive. She was placed on the ground and we took off her climbing gear. I took her crampons off then looked at her face. She looked back at me through half closed eyes. There was suddenly a hint of recognition, then a smile. We hugged.
Chetna had summited Mount Everest but then had been stranded overnight high on the mountain, near the summit, with her Sherpa. She had been found and rescued at a height of 8,606 metres by the world's first Sherpa Rescue Team, part of Everest Air. It was the world's highest altitude rescue and an extraordinary feat of human endurance and bravery. As the noise of the helicopter faded, the medic and mountaineer, Jeff Evans was able to start his assessment of the injuries. At this point Chetna’s husband, Pradeep said, “It’s a tremendous job the Sherpas have done. Even God cannot do that kind of work”. Jeff replied with the words, “Yes, God can’t do it, but the Sherpas can”.[caption id="attachment_28031" align="aligncenter" width="900"] Chetna’s rescue.[/caption]
Ang Furba Sherpa and climbers Eric Arnold, Goutam Ghosh, Paresh Nath, Subhash Paul and Marisa Strydom were lost on the mountain while I was there. I’d met them all and some had written their stories in the Diary Room. Goutam Ghosh was part of a climbing team from West Bengal and at his memorial service in India his final handwritten words were read out.[caption id="attachment_28024" align="aligncenter" width="900"] Goutam Ghosh’s story from Everest Base Camp, April 2016.[/caption]
‘This is the fourth time I am here to climb Sagarmatha, but could not summit until date. It was 2009, when I came here first, being a member of a team from the NIM (Nehru Institute of Mountaineering). It was a kind of rebirth for me when I survived the massive avalanche on 7th May, the same year. Whatever I have gained in my life is only for the Himalayas; that's why I come back everytime. Whenever I get time or feel that Sagarmatha is giving me a call, I will come again and again - because I believe this is the place to live.’
The work from Derek Eland’s Everest Base Camp residency can be seen in the UK at The Gallery at Rheged, from 29 April – 2 July 2017 at https://www.rheged.com, and in the USA at Telluride Mountainfilm from 26 May - 29 May 2017 at http://www.mountainfilm.org.
Further exhibitions of the work will follow in Nepal, India and the UK from 2018 onwards.