How artist Derek Eland journeyed to 17,590 feet to expose human motivation and vulnerability on the most demanding mountain in the world.
If you were to find yourself at Everest Base Camp in April 2016, you would have crossed paths with audacious climbers—several who would soon lose their lives on the mountain—heroic guides, Sherpas, a set of uniquely specialized high-altitude doctors, and one ambitious artist. While many in the camp were preparing for one of the most crucial feats of their lives, Derek Eland was facing his own Everest: a six-week art project at 17,590 feet. His studio would be a 15-by-8-foot yellow-frame tent decorated by a string of Nepalese prayer flags and a sign marking it as the “Diary Room.”
Within the nylon walls of the Diary Room, Eland encouraged climbers, guides, doctors, and cooks alike to reveal their most raw emotions, fears, and motivations while on the tallest mountain in the world.
“I had thought that the climbers in particular would be very reserved and a little reticent,” Eland said, “but the reality was that they needed the release that the Diary Room provided—a quiet space where they could go and write down what they really felt and thought—their hopes and fears, struggles and challenges, and perhaps above all, the real reasons they were there.”
I realized afterwards that the project had been my own Everest.”
As a result, Eland collected some 300 handwritten postcards in the colors of Nepal’s traditional prayer flags, in 12 different languages, from people of 25 different nationalities, and sewed them to the walls and ceiling of the tent. The Diary Room quickly became a kind of a community center within the camp. While some came to free their thoughts, others came simply to read and commiserate.
“The responses were immediate, compelling and emotional, and so the idea of using Diary Rooms as a way of exploring what it’s like to ‘be human’ emerged as my art practice.”
Eland, a native of the U.K.’s English Lake District near the homes of Everest legends Chris Bonington and Doug Scott—who he knows personally—says he has been obsessed with the mountain for as long as he can remember. Though most of all, it is the speculated first ever summit in 1924 by George Mallory and Andrew Irvine that holds his imagination. And though he had even done any mountaineering himself, Eland felt it only natural to combine his two passions—art and Everest.
He first executed the Diary Room in 2010 while getting his Masters Degree in Contemporary Fine Art where, over the course of six weeks, he collected 4,000 post-it notes from locals about what they loved or wanted to change about their city of Carlisle, U.K. After this success, he implemented the Diary Room with people who victims of natural disasters and with people who were living with dementia. And in 2011, he took the project to war.
Acting as an official war artist embedded with the British Army in Helmand, Afghanistan, Eland wanted both soldiers and civilians to share their feelings and everyday lives in three Diary Rooms positioned on the front line in shipping containers and structures of the like. The resulting exhibit was described as “groundbreaking” by the international press and was covered in more than 30 countries.
“The responses were immediate, compelling and emotional, and so the idea of using Diary Rooms as a way of exploring what it’s like to ‘be human’ emerged as my art practice,” Eland said.
After the 2015 Nepal earthquake, Eland knew it was time to take it to the mountain, but it wasn’t going to be easy. The British expedition that had promised their support at Base Camp let him down just two days before he was due to leave Kathmandu for Everest, forcing him to join a generous Indian climbing team at the last minute. As the team became involved with dramas on the mountain Eland struggled physically with the altitude, then suddenly he found himself looking after rescued team members as they were helicoptered off the mountain—including the world’s highest ever mountain rescue of an Indian woman and her Sherpa guide.
Living in a one-man tent in terrible weather, on constant lookout for avalanches and rock fall, while trying to run the Diary Room and acting as caretaker for the rescued as a side job had its consequences. Eland lost much weight, and upon returning home six weeks later, took six months to recover from the emotional and physical perils of the trip.
“I realized afterwards that the project had been my own Everest,” he said.
Now, the 300 postcards he collected have become a sort of relic from the mountain and of the 2016 climbing season, a year that claimed six lives. Two of the deceased, Marisa Strydom from Australia and Goutam Ghosh from India, had written stories in the Diary Room before taking their final steps on Everest. These are the stories that Eland said touched him the most.
A Diary Room world tour is in the works for 2018. For now, the notes exist in Eland’s book, “Artist on Everest – Being Human at Base Camp.”