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LIFE AT A HIGH ALTITUDE BASE CAMP: THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY

We human beings have always had an insatiable desire to explore, pushing ourselves into extreme environments we can’t naturally survive in. High altitude peaks are one of these places, and the bigger the mountain the bigger the effort to climb it. So if you’re prepared to try, chances are you’re prepared to suffer a little along the way. But today we’re shifting our attention away from physical labor and paying a tribute to the thing all mountaineers rely on: base camp.  

On a mountain, base camp is the main point of supplies, shelter and communications. Base camps vary, but expedition life across them is generally pretty similar: an odd mix of mundane domesticity, logistical challenges and the occasional flash of life-or-death drama. 

I’m using my experience at Aconcagua’s base camp (around 4300m) and subsequent two camps (5050m and 5570m), plus anecdotes from mountaineer friends, to share with you firsthand the good, the bad and the ugly of life at high altitude camps. 

The Good

Unsurprisingly, there’s a whole load of good that comes with experiencing life higher up! 

Nature

Firstly, the natural beauty. The sunsets and sunrises are unbelievable. The higher up you go, the more surreal they are. The night sky is unpolluted and totally crammed with stars. You’re at the roof of the world witnessing nature at what feels like it’s most raw and beautiful, a sight few people ever get to see. The terrain surrounding camp is wild and enchants the imagination, the sight of first light on faraway summits fills your soul with something indescribable. With few people to distract you, no skyscrapers or devices, your connection to the natural world is much more powerful. Up here, you realise that incredible strength and fragility can exist in the same environment, the way it can in any one person. 

Camaraderie

There’s nothing like a shared something to gel people together, whether it’s the shared challenge of being isolated in a remote area or attempting a summit push. People are always coming and going at base camp, but there’s not that many of them at any one time so if you pay attention you’ll quickly come to recognise familiar faces. Within an expedition team, that recognition is often vastly accelerated, with groups becoming more like family than friends. The friends you make here tend to be friends for life, because you are uniquely bonded through the shared ups and downs (which we’re coming to!) of expedition life. You have quite literally seen each other at your best and worst, relying on one another at all times and rallying each other onwards when things get tough.

Personal Growth

Your body is going through something challenging, but so is your mind. “Up here” is a special place to be not only because of the striking natural beauty but the shift in perspective that comes with being removed from your daily life. You work, single-mindedly, towards one goal, while becoming increasingly aware of something much greater than yourself. There’s plenty of room for introspective study here, the eye-opening rewards of which no level of discomfort could ever take away. You examine yourself, and the life you’ve led up until this point – what makes me happy? what do I really want? what have I been avoiding? – and perhaps when you get back down to ground level, these reflections will make you live a little differently. But, that being said, let’s move onto some of the less pleasant things you can expect at a high altitude camp… 

The Bad

The Food

I mean look… what did you expect!? You’re not getting Michelin-starred anything up here. You’re not even getting enough-to-satisify-my-college-living-standards anything up here (which is saying a lot considering some of the things I used to eat). At the Aca base camp, meals were prepared by camp staff. It was the best you got on the mountain, and was expectedly hit or miss. But surprisingly, some of the hits were real hits. One night we had lasagne that was better than most lasagnes I’ve had in my time. But more often that not, food is just fuel you need to shovel into your system to keep going (and bear in mind altitude kills your appetite). At the higher camps you’re preparing your own food, which again is normal and fine (porridge, noodles), but those first few days back at ground level after your expedition will be a testament to how badly you’ve craved all your favourite dishes. My first three days back were a blur of pizza, steak, and ice cream.

The Cold

At this stage of “bad”, the cold is just a nuisance. Your stuff freezes if you’re not vigilant about keeping it close to your body, which I experienced almost every morning without fail with my contact lenses (the solution completely froze over and I’d have to crack them out or wait for it to thaw). Toilet runs at night are met with groans of despair, as one begins the lengthy and uncomfortable extraction process from the sleeping bag, stumbling past sleeping tent-mates, and trying to keep business fast so as to preserve special regions from not freezing in the cold night air. If you’re not going outside, then you might be going in a bottle, which is as logistically awkward as it sounds. When it gets really cold you might be wearing a summit suit too, which is fun (in that you feel like a giant teletubby, and it does exactly what it says on the label RE keeping the wearer warm) until you need to go (which involves fiddling with a temperamental butt flap that never seems to want to unzip – or worse, zip back up). 

Physical Discomfort

Again, at this stage of “bad” (which I’m treating as a halfway point to “ugly”), physical discomfort is all the things you expect and simply accept up here. To be honest, everything I’m categorising in “bad” is really just “normal” – it’ll all become second nature to you in time. Still, that’s not to say that if, on any given day at ground level, you offered me a choice between dragging those chonky 8000m+ La Sportiva Olympus Mons boots on my feet for 18 hours versus a pair of fluffy slippers, I’d turn my nose up at the slippers! For entertainment value, let’s get back to it… The physical discomfort of countless nights spent in a sleeping bag, tiny tent or heavy altitude boots can add up. I didn’t feel bothered by much of this until the final phase of our attempt, when suddenly my calves were cramping up like crazy and my neck was stiff as rocks. Funnily enough, when I returned to our hotel in Mendoza I discovered the spa offered a special selection of “post-Aconcagua” massages for sore, stiff mountaineers. You best believe I took the offer up.

The Ugly

The ugly is a leap beyond the bad. It’s the plain, downright, UGLY, and I’ve listed them here in (rapidly) ascending order of ugliness. 

Bathrooms

The most glamorous toilet in our base camp was a very precariously balanced stool over a hole in the ground. The whole set-up was surrounded by corrugated metal, which unsurprisingly did 0 to contain the smell. One of the most hilarious horrors was the fact that if you shifted your weight slightly on the stool, you ran the risk of one of its legs slipping into the ditch and throwing you off it completely, mid-business. This happened to all of us at least once in the night, making for great plans about how we would retrieve one another in the event of actually falling in – harnesses and rope at the ready! Higher up on the mountain there are no toilets, so you do your business in the wild, in designated areas decorated in other people’s business, or if you’re on a mountain like Aconcagua (which has strict rules about keeping the park clean) you’ll be provided a bag by the park rangers to do your business in. Yeah, you shit in a bag. A very highly valued bag of shit: losing it will set you back up to 3000 USD. (Littering is a hefty fine!) 

Hygiene Habits

…all but lost, given that it’ll cost you to use showers, you can’t drink straight from the taps and there are no mirrors. If, like me, you lose your hairbrush, you can expect to go full Tarzan for the next few weeks. We used only face wipes to wash our faces, which did the trick but still couldn’t quite remove every layer of gunk that built up in our pores over the weeks: layer upon layer of sunblock, moisturiser, and dirt. (The first shower I had back at the hotel had water running off me completely brown from dirt). Basically, everyone looks and smells like crap. But that’s how you know they really love you for you!   

Next Level Cold

Cold in the “ugly” stage is more than just a nuisance, it’s potentially life threatening. If you’re not properly covered up, you run the very real risk of frostbite – which can come when you least expect it, and shockingly fast. While not at a camp, I do need to include the anecdote here of my descent from the summit. I could barely feel my fingers despite wearing heavy expedition mitts, so one of my teammates dug his nails hard into my fingers to see if I could register anything at all. I did, only very faintly, but for the next few week my fingertips continued to tingle. One of my friends got minor frostbite.

Health

Again, high altitude exposure is associated with a unique set of risks, and it’s shocking how quickly things can take a turn. Headaches, disturbed sleep, nausea, impaired metal performance and dizziness are all symptoms of altitude sickness. There are actually three main types of AMS: acute (mild) altitude sickness (AMS), high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE), and high altitude cerebral edema (HACE). AMS, being the mildest form, is very common. These symptoms feel like a hangover: the dizziness, headaches, and nausea. I experienced all of this, especially at my first few days of base camp. Many large expeditions have their own doctors embedded within them; otherwise, organised medical services are available at base camp and lower down the mountain. At my first appointment at the base camp doctor’s medical tent, I discovered that my levels of oxygen saturation were very low. I was gasping for breath at night, my head hurt like hell, and simple tasks required a lot of breath. I acclimatised over the next few days, and eventually felt like normal. HAPE is a buildup of fluid in the lungs which is dangerous and potentially life threatening. HACE is the most severe form of altitude sickness: fluid in the brain. This is certainly life threatening and requires immediate medical attention. When serious medical issues occur, it is imperative to leave base camp as quickly as possible and descend to lower altitude. These are the realities of entering this environment. 

Love it or hate it… It’s there!

Now we’ve touched on a little more of life at high altitude camps! We’ve touched the tip of the iceberg, so I might do a part 2 soon in greater depth because frankly expedition life is fascinating, funny and thought provoking. For some, base camp (or camp in general) is a temporary asylum, the thing you have to do along the way for your shot at the summit. For others, it’s the ultimate summer camp, a place unlike any other on Earth. Personally, I see it as the second. I loved my time at base camp and I really do miss it. The community is fantastic – you are in some of the best company on the planet, with some of the most interesting people you’ll ever meet, in an extraordinary environment. No matter how you see it, wherever a big mountain journey is concerned these points will form the backbone of your experience. 

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