It’s a true wilderness here – particularly at night when the sky is filled with stars and moonlight. The snow reflects moonlight, making it almost as bright as day, but the hills and mountains take on different shapes and colours. At first sight, there seems to be nothing but snow and rock. However, we’ve seen snow buntings and ravens, plus plenty of yak dung, which seems, strangely to be thrown as an essential part of Sherpas’ football practice. Where possible, we have pitched our tents on little hummocks of dry ground, Arctic tundra on which there is saxifrage, lichens and other unusual plants.
We aim to keep the area as a pristine wilderness, and have enforced a ‘No peeing in the snow’ rule which seems to be being obeyed. There was a big rubbish problem, dating back some years, at other camps, but we have seen almost no litter since entering the Annapurna National Park, which started at Dhalaguiri Base Camp. We have lost sight of the terrifying ice faces of Dhalaguiri mountain and have now rounded the corner to pass behind it. We have sent some of our most elite climbers up Damphus Peak – Stuart and Iestyn being the pioneers two days ago – but yesterday Sherpa Dome assessed the climb in trainers, returning just four hours, with no ropes, crampons, ice axes or any of the paraphernalia that Westerners need.
After the initial chaos, the camp is now an impressive engine. Power supremo Denzil has rigged up one wind turbine and several solar panels, which allow all the sophisticated electronic medical tests to run. One of the most crucial is the power-hungry centrifuge used by Doug, Sven and Jenny to separate blood samples. They are measuring how the immune system works under stress at altitude. This involves volunteers stepping up and down on to aluminium steps while their pulse rate is monitored, in time to a metronome which increases in speed until they are gasping for breath. Highly toned athletes have been reduced to hanging on to their helpers for support, almost at the point of collapse. This is known as the ‘maximal stress test’ and was quite hard at Bangor at sea level. If the volunteers’ blood samples cannot be centrifuged before the power fails as the sun goes down at 4pm, all the volunteers’ suffering would be wasted.
Chris Woolf is delighted with the results of his study into periodic breathing and cardiac output. His volunteers have to breathe into a carbon dioxide monitor while heart rate, blood oxygen saturation and blood pressure are monitored, as well as their chest expansion.
Group dynamics are changing now that we are all together, with climbing and research creating different liaisons. No romance stories will be told here, but several people are competing to have their hand held by Dome when the path is particularly vertiginous.