Three steps. That was it.
Three steps before I cave in, bent double with my hands on my knees and lungs scraping the air for oxygen that simply wasn’t there.
Silently, I gave up many times on the 5am climb up Kala Patthar. I would have voiced it to Chilling but the young guide had stalked off comfortably and my fuzzy, dehydrated tounge was too firmly glued to the roof of my mouth to call him back. Somehow my legs were finding the energy to take three more steps while even the engery to think straight was disappearing down a sinkhole, just out of reach.
Water can do miracles for combatting symptoms of acute mountain sickness, but when it’s minus sixteen degrees in your room your water tends to turn a little… solid. I had set out pre-dessicated from the night sleeping at altitude and the cold dry air sapped the little moisture left out into thick billowing cloud banners.
In a dizzying spin I felt too exhausted to continue but too proud to go down; success would be down to whether my could keep up their autonomous stomping.
Three steps at a time.
Two days after arriving in Lukla we wandered into a frosty Namche Bazaar, the first freckles of snow falling to the stone streets that coiled the burrow between gear and warm looking coffee shops. The hike so far had already revealed the first sights of Everest through a canopy of pine trees and crossed many hanging steel bridges – peristalsic with human traffic and Yak trains as the milky river frothed and broiled below.
Hope and I had plenty of time to get acquainted on the walks and over dinner. At 67, she’s relinquished her own acupuncture practice but still works part time and delivers care to outreach patients like homeless or suffering addicts. The same evening we arrived saw me perched on the bed with ten needles in vital points in my ear and either side of my fresh scars, smeared a deep purple with the cold. She was an avid trekker in the USA and it showed – I might have had the edge uphill but she’d race car burn on the downs. Even ascending she was only a few clicks of the trekking poles behind, cruising.
We had a day to acclimatize in Namche which, requiring a stiff climb to a nearby viewpoint, is not entirely synonymous with a rest day. The snow blankets dripped from trees in the morning sunlight as the smell of wood smoke wafted through the trees surrounding the National Sherpa Museum, where there was another bewitching panorama, an amphitheatre of towering mountains, sentinels of rock and ice.
We left Namche on a steady, contouring path towards the tiered flanks of Ama Dablam (Mother Jewel), a rising ramp of cliff-cut stairways proclaimed the beginning of a tiring climb to our lunch stop. My body, craving sugars, urged a Coka Cola down my gullet and two helpings of Vegetarian Dal Baht, the Nepali equivalent of and Indian Thali – mixed dishes and free refills. I recognised a pattern that was unfurling across the whole trek – tiring trudging until two Dal Bahts for lunch, then rocket man in the afternoon. Unlucky for me no one would serve Dal Baht breakfasts.
For nearly every higher sleeping place, there’s a descent to the rivers percolating through the valley and a haul to regain all the lost meters and then some. It was in exactly such a fashion we reached Phorse, a town smouldering in heady dung fire smoke, laced with narrow dry-stone walled walkways and with freeze dried clothing hung out on lines. An old lady chased me off angrily with a plough while I was out for an afternoon walk for a reason I couldn’t decipher.
Somewhere before Dingboche (4363m) the trees fail, falter and retreat to lower elevations. Short scrub brush stands hardy in field of grass scalped by grazing yaks and donkeys. Many paths carve, foot deep, in parallel across sprawling plateaus. We’d take our second acclimatizing day in Dingboche where, eager to push my pulmonary adaptations to their limit, I drove hard and breathy to a viewpoint above the village. In our spare time I wandered the rustic street admiring the hulking body of Ama Dablam above. The favorite trekking mountain, Island Peak, skulked ashamedly under Ama’s shadow and something inside me went up like blue touch paper.
Long term goals. Not something I usually bother to set – I’m more of a seat of my pants kind of a character. But then, in that moment, I saw what could be accomplished if I started working towards a goal maybe two or three years in the pipeline. She was beautiful and powerful. Sheer elevation seems like such a crass measure of a mountain looking up at the rising ridge that holds level, robed in ice fluting, before sharply pitching skywards for the summit. I could climb that – in fact most of the climbing is well within my ability should I get back climbing for only a few months – but I got the burning, inexplicable desire to break a new, dangerous line on it. And that would need projecting. I felt all the little tasks, the regular training and Alpine weeks tumble into a scheduled and I felt connected to a world I had held at arm’s reach for probably too long. Already inspired, I thought of pushing the twin beds into a double in my room, although maybe I should be embarrassed I hadn’t realized this sooner. In any case, things were going from good to better.
That was until, after more stark alien scapes, somber climber memorials and some pre-Dal Baht steep sections that had one Britisher sincerely ask whether I was “ok”, I tried to sleep at Lobuche. Sure, I’d drank some coffee while Hope and I played cards with some other new trail mates, but after a days walking I should’ve been out like a light. Instead, tossing and turning, brain disengaged but still buzzing on white noise, I lay awake for 7 hours.
Above 5000m it could only be the altitude. Restlessness is a common mild mountain sickness symptom and probably a preferable one compared to the sounds of endless hacking and vomiting permeating through the paper thin guesthouse walls. I hadn’t really felt any effects until that night when at half 4 in the morning I was forced to drop a Diamox to see whether I could get at least an hours sleep, the next day being the final climb basecamp. I struggled off to sleep with tingling toes and lips, desperate for some rest.
I inserted a little food in the morning and chewed it until it went away, devoid of the remotest sense of appetite. If morning drudgery had been bad before, the departure from Lobuche was quite simply horrendous. Exhausted, my mind was in panic about the severity of unusual symptoms I was experiencing. Dizzyness, but nothing to stop for. Headache, but only tickling the edge of my awareness. A strange, greenish hue to my vision… Wait, what?
I worried through fifteen minutes of it before my eyesight twisted back to normality. I’d had similar experiences with concussion, so wondered what on Earth was going on inside my skull..
The barren land threw us boulders upon boulders to cross. Dusty rock hopping, prow after prow, false summits one after another. Under the wash of propellers flying only meters overhead we reached Gorak Shep, the small village that had been concealed until the very last few meters. The choppers barreled supplies to the remoter areas, were commissioned for tourist flights out of Kathmandu and, more forebodingly common that your expect, chartered for the rescue of sick or injured trekkers and climbers. Helicopter buzz had been a faithful if disconcerting companion since we’d left Lukla nine days ago.
With only time for a final bowl of thick and glossy chocolate pudding, energy for a low appetite (Hope was steadfastly sticking to Sherpa Stew!), our team cleared the plateau at the valley floor and rode the rising ridge before dropping steeply down to our right, towards the bottom of the Khumbu icefalls and Everest Base camp itself.
It was a surreal moment. During the nine days of climbing there had been lows, for sure. And in these lows I’d imagined the feeling of getting to the top, if only elated to be walking downhill from that point. But I’d found such wonder in the mountains and meaning in the contrast between their beauty and the everyday suffering they’d put us through. Getting to base camp meant that was nearly over. We celebrated for sure, took in the view, but there was no atmosphere at base camp. Just a bunch of people taking photos and a handful of prayerflags – the only colour on another wise desolate spray of dirty ice and rockwalls. The last trapse after lunch had almost been too easy to justify the reward.
“We made it!” Chilling muffled happily through the scarf wound tightly around his face.
He said it the same time I waded over the last high step to the summit of Kala Patthar and, rather than going for the celebratory hug I’d intended, fell feebly into his chest and clung on to steady myself. Pulling away I looked up, trying to regain the composure to appreciate the view.
The biting cold, the dehydration, the lack of sleep and the record time (despite basically clawing up the second half) made this breaking dawn view all the more spectacular. I could go down now happy, content I’d found the fringe of fitness and battled through it. I’d even stolen a good night’s sleep in the freezing Gorak Shep after my miserable night in Lobuche. Thumbs up!
We threw a party when we got back to Lukla, smirking contentedly at all the trekkers we crossed on the way down and admiring the ghosts of our own journey up. Safe to say though, after 12 days trekking sans alcohol I was properly pissed at the end of a handful of beers and some red wine – the latter being an absolute mistake, with most of it lining my hotel washroom sink. I don’t think we could have climbed in through my secretly ajar room window, well after the main doors were locked, had we not all been so drunk.
Chilling raced into my room only a couple of hours after we’d got back in and, rousing me from unconsciousness, managed to bundle me into the plane alongside a contentedly sober Hope.
And that was it – the adventure was over.
I’d gone to the mountains not entirely sure what I was looking for and found some things I can’t entirely explain. I felt like a new man, rebirthed, but it was back to old ways and long days in the saddle – I was already wishing my way out of Nepal and back into mother India.
And more escapades.