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Everest Search Team Prepares to Leave Base

Second in a series. The 1986 North Face Expedition has reached base camp at the foot of Mt. Everest and is preparing to undertake its search for the bodies of George Mallory and Andrew Irvine, British climbers who disappeared in 1924 while attempting to reach the Everest summit. In the second installment of a series chronicling the search, expedition leader Andrew Harvard, with the help of journalist George Bell, recounts the difficulties encountered in traversing Asia and setting up a base of operations 17,000 feet high in the Tibetan Himalaya. Progress reports will appear periodically.

September 14, 1986|ANDREW HARVARD and GEORGE BELL

BASE CAMP, Mt. Everest — Even getting to base camp has become an adventure. As our expedition prepares to move to an advance camp at 21,000 feet, we exchange stories of the physical and political perils encountered along our separate ways through Asia.

We came in two groups. My group traveled mostly by rail through China to our rendezvous in the remote Tibetan mountain village of Xegar. The group led by Al Read traveled 150 miles by truck from the Nepalese capital of Katmandu, across the Chinese border to Xegar. Read's group brought with it the First Earth Run torch--a United Nations flame that will eventually complete a journey around the globe. As the torch makes its way from our base camp east to Japan, we will carry a small replica of it with us in our attempt to reach the 29,028-foot summit of Everest.

Read's contingent had left the capital in grand style. The day before the departure, the torch had been ceremonially lighted by the King of Nepal, Brindra Bir Bikram Shah Dev. Although the trip from Katmandu to Xegar would normally take about a day and a half, road and bridge damage caused by the torrential monsoons that had recently concluded extended the journey to a full six days. The heavy rains had virtually washed out the narrow dirt road leading north out of the capital.

As the trucks slowly made their way along the rutted lane called the Friendship Highway, the expedition members could see all around them the ravaging effects of the monsoons. Landslides had uprooted the crops growing on the hills of the Tatopani (hot springs) region. They had also destroyed much of the terracing that farmers had laboriously carved into the hillsides.

Impassable Bridge

Approaching the border, the team learned that the Friendship Bridge a few hundred yards short of the international boundary had been rendered impassable by a mud slide. While considering the next move, the group watched another enormous river of mud roll down a hillside not more than a mile away. A team of 30 porters unloaded the expedition's 4,000 pounds of supplies from the trucks, carried the gear over a slippery trail around the mud drifts, and reloaded it onto new trucks for the final leg across the border and into Xegar.

My group had arrived in Xegar two days earlier than Read's. When Read's contingent pulled into the village aboard the open trucks Aug. 24, vehicles and people alike were literally covered in green dust.

Ours was the first expedition to obtain Chinese permission to bring Nepalese Sherpas over the border into Tibet, and it was the first visit to China for the 10 Sherpas accompanying Read.

They stood by and watched with great curiosity as the two groups reunited in Xegar. We hugged one another, sending clouds of dust billowing from our clothes.

The reunion between our film director, David Breashears, and some of the Sherpa climbers, especially Ang Phurba and Pemba Tsering, was particularly charged. Phurba and Tsering had been part of the support group that had helped Breashears complete the first microwave transmission from the summit of Everest in 1983, producing live video images for American television. In Xegar, they came together again as climbers, determined to test themselves on Everest one more time.

Our group's journey to Xegar was not as perilous as the other's, but it was not without its memorable, and sometimes trying, times.

Labyrinth of Negotiations

On arriving in Peking, we were assigned an interpreter, Mr. Jhao, and a liaison officer, Mr. Sung. For two days, they led me through a labyrinth of negotiations with the Chinese Mountaineering Assn., the government ministry that issues climbing permits for the Himalayas, and various Chinese sports officials. We were never quite sure what was happening until the last minute. Our logistical arrangements and fees were finally agreed upon at the end of an almost ritual-like all-night session featuring copious quantities of beer and tea.

Once aboard the train from Peking, the negotiations resumed. After some hallway diplomacy, our group was accommodated in the front cars. We sank into the deep cushions and stared through the window curtains at China speeding past. The 36-hour train ride to Chengdu was forced on us because no airplanes were available. However, it became a blessing in disguise, affording us an opportunity to survey a China that had undergone many changes since I was last here in 1981 on another Everest expedition.

By the second day we were deep into mountain country. We spent a night in Chengdu and left the next morning on a flight to the Tibetan capital of Lhasa. Elevation: 11,850 feet.

We spent three days in Lhasa, mostly for the purpose of acclimating to the high altitude. There we enjoyed our last hot showers and access to telephones.

Two-Day Bus Ride

From Lhasa it was a two-day bus ride to Xegar, a fortified village that includes an ancient holy monastery. White-washed houses cling to the flanks of the town's lone hill, crowned by a ruined dzong, or fortress.

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