We’d been trekking for eight days now, four to eight hours a day of climbing in the increasingly hostile Himalayas with the air getting thinner and thinner with each step higher. Today is the official day we summit to Everest Base Camp, at a lovely and welcoming (not) 5,360m above sea level. At this point Stefan and I are eager to make it, and there’s not a small piece of me excited to start the trek down to livable conditions. Nothing could have prepared me for the sheer inhospitality of the mountains above the tree lines and the villages which dot the trail are becoming more and more sparse with less supplies and less available food.
The main positive is that the animosity of the Himalayas seems to be directly related to its unrelenting beauty which, along with the altitude, takes your breath away. The thinness of the air means you can see the mountain ridges with crisp clarity, and they appear deceptively close. The peak of Everest doesn’t look so far away or so hostile even though it’s killed one in five climbers who have attempted to reach its summit – but hey it’s not the mostly deadly mountain. That morbid award goes to Annapurna, also located in the Himalayas, in which almost one in three people die who attempt its summit. Her sheer and majestic mountain face had been accompanying us most of the trek and she is also considered one the most beautiful mountains in the world.
It’s easy to start personifying the mountains out here, easy to see how people who live at their feet believe that the peaks were once homes to vicious and wild goddesses who had been tamed by a great Buddhist many years ago and now offer the people prosperity and protection.
Everest, also known as Chomolungma (among other names), in Tibetan Buddhism is home to the great goddess of Miyolangsangma, who’s virtue is inexhaustible giving and is known for riding a golden tigress dispensing jewels to those she favors. Before each Everest Summitting season (usually in April and May when the weather is warmer and the monsoon winds are favorable) there is a ceremony held lead by a devout Buddhist monk who beseeches the favor of Miyolangsangma to grant safe passage to the mountaineers. Western and Eastern Everest climbers alike have, during their near final ascent up the mountain, seen the mirage of an incredibly capable female mountaineer easily ploughing her way through the snow while others struggle around her who had never been accounted for down at base camp. There are also many accounts of people having dreams of a beautiful woman coming down from the mountain and either welcoming them, warning them, or pleading for help in respecting the sanctity of her home.
In his book, ‘Touching My Father’s Soul: A Sherpa’s Journey to the Top of Everest’, Jamling Norgay writes how one of the Sherpas back in 1996, right before the third deadliest storm to strike Everest, dreamt that Miyolangsangma had been upset about how commercialized and desecrated by tourism her home had become and that she was angry how those attempting to summit her weren’t doing it out of respect but for financial gain and ego. In the following days both tour guides of the two large groups attempting to summit Everest with their clients died due to exposure along with six others. The story is documented in ‘Into Thin Air’ by Jon Krakauer although his version has been highly disputed. It’s also portrayed in the film Everest which captures the trek to base camp fairly accurately, if shortly. I highly recommend, if you do read ‘Into Thin Air’, to also read about the same disaster and trek from the point of view of someone with better insight into cultural expectations and experiences to give you a better-rounded understanding (i.e., Norgay’s book).
It’s easy to scoff at these accounts while sitting warmly at home down at sea level, but when you’re in the mountains it’s a different story. Maybe the high altitude and inherent hypoxia contribute to the feeling of mysticism, or maybe it’s the physical toll your body takes during the trek. Hiking on average six hours a day is a toll, but then add in the inability to sleep (a common issue in altitude), the freezing cold, and lack of creature comforts.
No matter what I write there is no ability to communicate the sheer cold that permeates every
single thing you do up in the Himalayas above 4,000 meters (13,000 feet). Due to there being no trees or vegetation except poisonous flowers, yak dung is collected, dried, and burned in the dining room of the lodges every day at 5pm. Lodge is a deceptive term since this is no Alps or Colorado lodge with thick walls, cup of creamy hot chocolate and plate of cheese, and a roaring pleasant fire you can peel down your layers and kick up your de-booted feet, no no not here in the Himalayas. These lodges are virtually bare minimum structures with paper thin walls that only block out the wind but not the cold. That dastardly cold which seeps in through every crack and cranny to dig into your bones without respite until that 5pm yak dung gets thrown into a furnace that we all huddle around – guide, porter, and trekker alike. When the yak dung is used up in an hour or so the cold hungrily creeps its way back into the lodge, into our souls, and into our morale once again as we sink down into our heavy down jackets.
In the lodges we all gather and play cards, swap stories, and enjoy each other’s company until night comes and we wearily take ourselves to bed for a sleepless night. I dread night the most because there’s nothing and no one to distract you from the cold and from the bizarre high altitude induced dreams. It almost feels like you’ve been drugged or are going through withdraws with body aches, racing dreams, waking every hour or two, and counting down the hours for when dawn comes and you can surround yourself with the sanity of others insanity. According to a science article written on PubMed:
High-altitude (HA) environments have adverse effects on the normal functioning body of people accustomed to living at low altitudes because of the change in barometric pressure which causes decrease in the amount of oxygen leading to hypobaric hypoxia. Sustained exposure to hypoxia has adverse effects on body weight, muscle structure and exercise capacity, mental functioning, and sleep quality. The most important step of acclimatization is the hyperventilation which is achieved by hypoxic ventilatory response of the peripheral chemoreceptors. Hyperventilation results in increase in arterial carbon dioxide concentration. Altitude also affects sleep and cardiac output, which is the other determinant of oxygen delivery.
Basically, the poor sleep quality that nearly every non-mountain goat experiences is due to the lower oxygen levels in your body. During sleep your autonomic nervous system tries to either balance out or increase oxygen levels by weird sleep patterns which wake you up. I have woken up panting many times, holding my breath in some pre-onset sleep apnea horror, or had my mouth so dry and cold I thought I was dying. The holding breath one is the worst because it’s usually accompanied by a dream where I’m being suffocated, and I wake up moments before I have full control of my body where it takes a second or two before I can finally get the gasp of sweet thin mountain crisp air like someone coming up from a five-minute free dive. Then I lay there panting for a few minutes, heart racing, convinced my body has a chokehold over my precious life. You can’t take sleeping pills either, because we were warned many times that since sleeping pills are a depressant, that in altitude and its strain on your body, you have a much higher likeliness of finding yourself in a permanent sleep state to never be woken up again.
The other dreaded thing about nighttime is the need to pee. I erroneously stopped my copious fluid intake in order to pee as little as possible at night since the toilets are holes in the floor, often poorly maintained, and frozen over. When the need to pee wins you crawl out of your down sleeping bag and expose yourself to the cruel sub-zero elements after making sure that you’re not peeing onto ice (which will splash back) all the while knowing that there’s no way to warm up afterwards other than to wait in your down sleeping bag, shivering profusely.
I met these two guys in one of the lodges who were originally a group of five but two had to be helicoptered out due to the common-enough and deadly HAPE (high altitude pulmonary embolism, HACE can also occur which is high altitude cerebral embolism) and the third had to be rapidly descended via foot due to dengue fever to be treated. Every night we’d hear stories of helicopter rescues, coughing blood, people vomiting, and interspersed in these stories would be bouts of coughing from either the storyteller themselves or from others caused by the famed Khumbu cough which plagues many a person in cold high altitude. Medical personnel are not entirely sure what Khumbu cough is, but the belief is that it’s caused by the change in breathing in high altitude as the body tries to adjust, the cold irritating the mucous lining, and the general malaise that accompanies one in altitude. Regardless it’s an annoying predicament because each cough takes precious energy and breath, and as I started to come down with it I was left breathless after each uncontrollable coughing fit. It is a common ailment, and research has shown that nearly all people who spend enough time in altitude develop some degree of this cough, even those who’ve lived there their whole lives.
We departed Lobuche at 6:30am and arrived at Gorakshep at 10:30, and in that time I counted 15 helicopters, some rescue and some cargo. Paban, our guide, said that was nothing – in December, when the climate is even harsher, there are more rescue helicopters as people succumb to the elements. I can see why, as every inch of my body is covered to protect against the dust storms blowing up on the trail, my hands still numb from the chill, and head light from lack of oxygen.
It was a relief to arrive at the small lodge in Gorakshep and get ourselves a meal I’d hardly eat and some warm tea. Looking around the lodge, it’s easy to see how the terrain is impacting us non-Nepalese. Tired, drawn faces, pale grimaces, warn smiles, slumped shoulders, and loud hacking coughs. We’re a tired lot but there’s still an adventurer’s excitement in the air that the land can’t stamp out of us and is the reason why we’re here. For me, I was armed with little sleep, no appetite, a renewed yet firm belief in myself, and a drive to complete my mission, we were about to do the final push to Base Camp and nothing could keep my spirits down.
An hour and a half later, we strike out from the small lodge on a plain that’s swirling with white dust and populated by a few shaggy mountain horses. The horses toss their head and ignore us as we keep our heads down low against the growing wind. Three hours, I tell myself, three hours in this Martian landscape and we’ll have made it. We’re soon pass the plain and on a rocky ledge, following the ever-changing path of the Khumbu Glacier that is fed by the famous Khumbu Icefall, which begins high up on the mountain pass and is one of the deadliest parts that Everest climbers face when making their summit. Our path is winding and turns on itself since it is at the mercy of the glacier and the landslides it creates as it makes its incredibly slow descent down to the valley. There’s no sound but the howling wind and the occasional ominous helicopter with their beating blades. I often lift my head against the wind to squint on enviously in the distance as I see the helicopter land and small ant-like figures climb in before it takes off again to bring them back down to warm conditions.
The one nice thing about hypoxia and sensory deprivation is how easy it is to daydream and wander off into your own mind. My thoughts and daydreams weren’t necessarily completely coherent as I focused on putting one foot in front of the other, but they were dreams of warmth and family. I felt like Bilbo Baggins, dreaming of my warm home in Naples, Florida and the armchair by the fire. I kept thinking to myself that if I can complete this and make it home in one piece to a mild Florida winter, with a fire crackling in the living room, family around me, and the feel of hot cocoa in my hands then I would be truly blessed in this world. Just please, lord, let me make it, I kept thinking to myself. Let me complete this and make it home.
The higher up we got, the more often we’d see cairns on the trail. To me cairns are to honor the dead, but Paban said that they were wishes to the mountain goddess and mountain spirits. In the beginning, I would add stones to some of the cairns we passed and pray for a safe climb to base camp – now, I was adding stones for a safe passage back down.
Tears nearly ran down my eyes when we descended our last climb and could see the renowned Everest Base Camp rock in the distance. We descended past a giant ice crevasse with its inviting turquoise blue depths and chilling indifference to life. I had read in the multiple accounts of Everest summiteers the dangers and the sheer depth of these ice crevasses and the number of lives they had claimed and couldn’t help but feel a shiver go through my body as we passed.
Past the crevasse was the glorious rock that we had all yearned for, so ordinary in appearance yet metaphorically a blaze of glory. Paban brought us together in a group hug to congratulate us and my legs almost gave way from the exhaustion. I had made it – I HAD MADE IT. The joy was short lived as I could feel my internal engine sputter on fumes, I had used almost all I had to complete my mission and now the mission was complete. Honestly, if it wasn’t for Paban, Stefan, and Ika, I would have happily and gladly curled up in a wind protected corner and slept, most likely to my untimely detriment.
For some people the actual sight of Everest Base Camp is anticlimactic as you can’t see much of Everest from the actual camp. Summiteers have to climb up a mountain pass and cautiously approach Everest from the South Summit to follow the footsteps of the first summiteers of Everest, Tenzing and Hillary back on May 29, 1953. Don’t go to base camp thinking the destination is a grand view of the tallest mountain in the world, it’s a base camp, not a view spot. The astonishing views are all around you during your journey and Everest is constantly in your sight until you draw near. You can see the Khumbu ice fall and the start of the Everest Summit which, to me, was incredibly cool. But Base Camp was a metaphorical destination and a power of will for me, as an equatorial sea level creature.
Stefan and I hanging up some prayer flags that I had carried up from Namche at Base Camp. You can see the start of the Khumbu Glacier as well.
Thankfully we did have a rest before starting our winding path back to Gorakshep where we’d be staying for the night. I don’t remember much of the hike back except for the feeling of a ginger tea in my hand once we made it to the lodge an hour and a half later and a contented sigh of a job well done. Paban suggested that we hike even higher to see the sunset over Everest. Stefan and I made eye contact, and it was obvious we both wanted to say ‘absolutely not, get fucked Paban’, but we both knew that being up here was a once in a lifetime experience and we should get as much of it as we could. So, I took a small nap to shore up some resources to do our final final ascent closer to 6,000m (20,000 ft) above sea level than I had ever been (for reference, Everest is 8,849 m or 29,000 ft).
Strangely enough, the joy of base camp seemed to give me the energy to climb up steep steps of Kala Patthar and we settled into a shallow crater in the ground with a few other trekkers and guides to watch the sun make its descent for the day. It felt like we were nearly on top of the world looking down on some of the mountains around us, seeing their snowcapped peaks and shivering while huddled near to try to block out the wind. Nearly everything that was exposed on my backpack, such as my Garmin GPS locator, formed icicles in the cold.
Everyone had their cameras set up to record a time lapse of the setting sun and the mood seemed serious and quiet, I don’t know what came over me, but Paban had wanted a video of me doing a victory dance at Everest Base Camp and while I had danced, we had forgotten to record it. So, I stood up and walked down the field in front of us with Everest behind me and started to dance. A guide soon added some music and others got up to join me including Stefan and we danced and laughed in the bliss of companionship and accomplishment.
I danced to the point where I semi jokingly sprawled down on the ground wheezing and one of the guides called out to me worriedly that I better make sure I don’t overdo it because the weather was too unpredictable that evening for a helicopter to come if I succumbed to altitude sickness. He had a point, so I got back in the shallow crater to protect from windchill and snuggled up to my teammates as the sun turned Everest a glorious pink, it’s constant shroud of snow being blown off the top giving it a serene halo.
A few days ago, soon after my last post, I experienced the dreaded panic attack that I had been afraid of having. It was while hiking around 4,000 meters (13,000 feet), the same height that I’ve experienced problems before in South America and Borneo where the altitude just seems to hit my body and mind like a freight train. Paban noticed my gasping breaths, my lagging steps, and my eyes wide with the knowledge of oncoming and uncontrollable terror. He was quick to act and stopped us as a group and got his medical kit out. While taking my stats to make sure I wasn’t succumbing to the deadly effects of HAPE or HACE caused by high altitude, he took a measured look at my face. At this point I had small tracks of tears running down my cheeks that I was desperately trying to hide in embarrassment and was running the sleeve of my jacket under my snot nose. Stefan put a comforting hand on my back and gave me a look of fatherly concerned and Paban told me that my heart rate and oxygen saturation were at healthy and good levels. Once he had ruled out an actual medical emergency Paban squatted beside me and cheerfully poked fun of me and told me to toughen up, that I had Base Camp to reach in a few days. He also got serious a moment later and put a hand on mine and said that I wasn’t alone on the mountain and that everything would be okay.
“You’re not alone on the mountain.”
I’m not sure why but those words galvanized me to get up onto my wobbly feet and continue the climb ever yet upwards. I kept my head down and tried to control my breathing as we moved on as a team – I figured if I could cry like a little bitch then I could surely as hell continue our climb. Other trekkers I had met and befriended on the trail and in previous lodges saw my dejected and Bambi-like gait and began to cheer me on. I raised my first in the air and shouted, “I got this, see you at the top boys!” amid their raucous cheering. The camaraderie and enthusiasm from people who mere days ago were strangers brought fresh tears to my eyes that I surreptitiously hid with my large sunglasses and buffer and soon we were at the following lodge in a small village for lunch. There I slept for two hours and drank heavy amounts of hot cocoa which perked me right up and got me past the panic and the 4k slump.
And three days later as I sat in the shallow crater on Kala Patthar, snuggling with my teammates while watching the sun set on Everest having touched and reached my metaphorical summit of Base Camp after dancing with abandon, I truly did not feel alone on the mountain.