I am gasping for air. A million long needles seem to be piercing my body through my skin’s every pore. My eyes closed, I focus on my breath: inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale – slowly, deeply. When I open them again, the beauty around me makes me smile. I am on the steep bank of one of the small icy lakes scattered across the Rongbuk Glacier, near Base Camp. The turquoise water in which I am immersed up to my neck is glowing in the bright afternoon sun, and small pieces of ice glitter here and there in the corners of the lake. I push myself away from the shore and swim towards the other one which, given the water temperature, seems miles away. However, when my feet touch the bottom of the lake again I am no longer cold – there’s just some fiery liquid energy running through my veins. I laugh and stop for a little rest; then, I swim back to where I’d left my clothes, and get out of the water. The wind is strong and, I think, cold, but I am certainly colder. Dressing takes a while because my fingers and toes are frozen. Once finished I climb back on top of the moraine, and stare, mesmerized, at Chomolungma, standing gloriously against the clear sky. I know, I have been looking at the mountain every day, but here, away from everyone, it feels like Everest is looking back at me. I will return to the lake tomorrow – and every day while we are resting at Base Camp before the second acclimatization rotation to ABC and the North Col.
It will be hard to walk from BC directly to ABC, and it will take me 8 hours to get to 6400 meters; it will be hard to climb the North Col again, even in perfect weather; the hardest thing, however, will be coming back to Base Camp after the successful rotation knowing that the next venture into thinner air will be the last one – the summit push.
Before the summit push it is the daily weather forecast that brings the team together in the communications dome at 11 a.m. – we are waiting for the ‘weather window’ which would permit the team to climb to the top without freezing or being quite literally blown off the mountain. The most important factor for those climbing from the Cold Side is the wind – we are looking for something around 30-40 mph. For days now the forecast has been suggesting that the 18th, 19th and the 20th (perhaps, the 21st as well) will be good days to go for it, with relatively low winds and manageable temperatures. We initially decide to make the 20th our summit day: we would get in position for the summit push at ABC, rest there for one whole day after the tiring trek from BC and then climb to the North Col; this would be followed by a night at Camp 2 at 7800 meters, then, Camp 3 at 8300 meters, and late in the evening on the 19th we’d leave for the summit.
‘You just have to stay healthy now, be careful,’ our leader, Phil, tells the team. ‘No swimming, Mila!’ I will not go to the lake again. However, just to keep active Margaret and I, warmly dressed, with Buffs over our noses and mouths, will go on little walks around BC – they will have to be short because of the strong, cold wind. All is well until we decide we want to see the nearby monastery and send some postcards to our loved ones from the China Post office in the tent village some 45 minutes away from BC. Before we leave BC on our unnecessary mission I ignore my instinct warning me not to go. When, three or four hours later, Margaret and I return to Base Camp, I already know I’m falling ill. We drink tea with ginger and honey but its warmth can’t chase the cold wind and the dust out of our lungs. Soon, we both have a persistent chest cough; I become congested and feel my body temperature rise. ‘It’s fine,’ I tell myself, ‘I still have two full days at Base Camp to recover.’
Unfortunately, that’s not the case. On the 13th of May we don’t get our daily weather forecast – perhaps, the most important one of the season. After we go to sleep in our tents, however, Phil receives the forecast and asks the team to gather in the kitchen tent. All the Sherpas and the inji, sleepy-looking, are passing the computer with the forecast from one person to another. We all agree that the 20th does not look so good anymore – we’ll have to aim for the 19th. If we are to have a rest day at ABC, we have to leave the next day, but we are not ready. The Sherpas, after doing two carries to 8300 meters back to back, are down at BC for a more than well-deserved rest, and they certainly still need another day at base camp; as for us, the inji, we need that day before we leave for the mountain to pack, make our last pre-summit push calls/write blogs and just get mentally prepared for some of the most exhausting days of our lives. Thus, we decide to skip the rest day at ABC and give ourselves another day at BC instead: we will be leaving for 6400 on the 15th of May.
That night I start another course of antibiotics. I know that what I have is not the so-called ‘Khumbu cough’, which is superficial, but a full-blown chest infection. I am coughing a lot, and my body feels sick, limp and heavy. At sea level it would take me about a week, perhaps, 10 days, to recover from a sickness like that; after spending some 40 days at over 5200 meters, I dread to think how long for and how seriously i’ll be ill. I have one day – just one day before I have to leave for the summit push on Everest – something I’d dreamed of and visualized for years – and now I know that I probably won’t make it to the top, maybe, not even ABC…
It is a long, bad night at Base Camp for me.