Breslow on the phone at Base Camp, contacting NPR in Washington.
Cooking tents in the advanced base camp; 21,000 feet. In the background are the Pinnacles of Mount Everst.
I received the final go-ahead from NPR to cover the Wyoming Centennial Everest Expedition — aka Cowboys on Everest — just three days before the Aug. 1 departure date for the three-month trip. I sprinted out to REI, dropped $2,000 on long underwear and Gortex, subleased my apartment and was off.
We were climbing the mountain from the north, which meant traveling across China and then overland through Tibet. Along they way, the team of 40 or so climbers, accompanied by thousands of pounds of provisions and gear, endured a Chinese bureaucracy bent on extorting outlandish fees, monsoon rains, landslides that threatend to swallow our decrepit bus and an earthquake that knocked out the final bridge between us and the mountain.
Our base camp, located at 17,000 feet on the Rongbuk glacier, provided heartstopping views of Everest's northern face. It was there that I set up shop with a satellite phone the Cowboys inherited from a departing British team — a big clunky model powered by a generator, not the sleek suitcase versions we now employ. This would be one of NPR's first forays into sat. phone technology and was the reason I, a novice climber, lobbied hard for the trip. I would be able to send back reports that caught the immediacy of an expedition in progress. Remember, this was 1988, the early days of instant information and also a time well before every person with a down jacket and a pair of thick socks would attempt to climb the world's highest peak.
Over the next two months the Cowboys arduously tromped their way up the mountain. I followed behind, carrying not much more than a tape recorder and, as I got used to the thin air, a growing daydream that, hey, maybe I could summit the mountain too. This was not to be. For any of us.
The days were spent acclimatizing, plotting routes, fixing ropes up ice walls and negotiating bottomless crevices. The nights were passed tossing fitfully in double sleeping bags, trying to catch your breath and not mix up the bottle in which you relieved yourself (it was way too cold to leave the tent) and your water bottle. In the morning your lips, which had been seared by the sun during the day, would be sealed together. Prying them apart was a messy task.
As the weeks passed I would gather enough material for a story or two — a profile of a climber, a gasping first-person account, a story about Yaks — and periodically hike down to base camp to file the pieces back to Washington, where they would be mixed and broadcast, usually on All Things Considered. Over the course of the trip I filed 15 or so stories. The challenge, aside from not losing too many brain cells, was to report objectively on a team of men and women with whom I was sharing every moment for months on end.
The expedition eventually made its way up to Camp Five at around 25,000 feet... still 4,000 feet and several days short of the summit. At this point 100 mph winds shredded our tents and sent us scrambling. We regrouped at Advanced Base Camp at 21,000 feet, tried advancing again, and again the winds proved too dangerous. It was time to give it up.
So the Wyoming Cowboys and I trudged back across Tibet, sorry not to have summitted, but also happy to have breathed the rarefied air at the very top of the world (almost)... and return with all our fingers and toes.