At around 4 am flashes of lights and hushed voices seep into Camp 2 through the dark. I haven’t been asleep and, tossing and turning on my bruises, I wait for the visitors to go away. Eventually, they do, but I still can’t close my eyes, my mind full of blazingly bright images of the summit day.
It is 6 am and Dorje is awake now, too. He reaches for the stove, melts ice and makes me tea. Slowly and lazily we begin to pack. My guide will carry all the heavy gear down the mountain leaving me with a puffy but light backpack. I try not to think of how tired I am or how much my legs hurt. Another pill of Ibuprofen, and it is time to go.
I clip into the safety rope outside the tent and immediately realize that the descent to Pangboche will be a hard one indeed: my legs are rubbery and sore and I have no sense of balance. The Austrain duo and their Sherpa seem to fly past Dorje and I while we, as my guide says, ‘take it easy.’ Yet, no matter how slowly we go, we are bound to end up at the top of the Yellow Tower before I am ready. I clip in, thread the rope through my figure eight and feel that I have zero strength in my arms to control the vertical descent. My guide notices my distress and holds the rope for me while I slide down to the foot of the Tower. Leaving that obstacle behind us, we continue to Camp 1, where we stop to rest for about an hour and gather up the gear we’d left there on the way up. My guide’s backpack looks increasingly like a thoroughly decorated Christmas tree, while mine is neat, and light, and pretty – I feel useless.
The first fixed rope on our way up Ama Dablam is now, on descent, the last one, and the grey boulders, the shape-shifting scree paths and the trails snaking down long moraines lead us back to base camp. My guide is way ahead and only occasionally turns to check on me when he hears another moan or growl as I stumble and fall: I lose count of how many times my legs fail me. My pants are covered in dust, there are feathers sticking out of a hole in the sleeve of my brand new down jacket and my head is hanging off my neck like the most unnecessary of accessories.
On the path down the last moraine before base camp I am stopped by a Russian climber heading up. ‘You are so strong,’ he exclaims while I barely manage to keep myself on my feet in front of him. He knows about me from Christophe, offers his congratulations and asks for advice on how best to go about the climb. His expression surprises me: it is a mixture of envy, respect and curiosity – all caused by the fact that I’ve just walked up and down a big steep hill, and not without a lot of help. His friend soon catches up and in him my presence seems to cause the same emotions. Wishing the pair good luck, I stagger away; I don’t understand people.
My guide is nowhere to be seen, too far ahead of me, when I begin the descent down the last hill into base camp. Suddenly, I slip on the scree and, rolling over myself, land on the ground with my head stuck between two large rocks, as if ready for the executioner’s axe. I groan and endeavour to move but it seems impossible: my spine is all pain and my legs won’t obey me; the backpack is pressing me down into the dust. And I simply can’t help laughing: I would have loved for the admirers of my strength to see me now and to laugh with me. Inevitably, I get up again and deal with a couple more felicitations from fellow-climbers before I rejoin my guide and we continue together past base camp.
I have some more Ibuprofen, fall and get up some more, and at 3 pm, both of us exhausted, my guide and I arrive at the lodge in Pangboche. In the dining hall the owner of the lodge, the same lady who had sounded so sceptical about me climbing Ama several days ago, offers me tea and listens quietly to Dorje’s account of the ascent. More locals gather around to hear the tale and stare at me – the dusty broken puppet with feathers sticking out. I go to the shower, then, hide in my room, embarrassed.
The next day we trek only as far as Namche Bazaar because our porters let us down, and the day after we stop in Phakding before trekking to and flying out of Lukla to Kathmandu on the 24th of November. We are welcomed by friends and a fantastic Thanksgiving celebration. I change into my Thamel dress, look around my gorgeous room, and already the story I have just told seems like a thing of the past. I anticipate a period of hibernation in which little of me will feel truly alive. It doesn’t mean I’ll be unhappy – it means only that I will be so much less than what the mountains give me space to be. I miss them, I miss me.
‘But you look nothing like a climber!’ one of my new acquaintances repeats an all-too-familiar exclamation.
‘I’m not a climber,’ I reply, ‘I’m just someone who loves mountains. A lot!’
As I later found out, the voices I’d heard at Camp 2 the night after summit day belonged to the party of six Sherpas on their way to recover the body of the Russian mountaineer, Victor Novitsky, whom I mentioned in Part IV. Due to the difficulty of the conditions on location, the Sherpas could not accomplish their task. To my knowledge, they keep trying.
My sincerest condolences go out to the victim’s family and friends and my deepest gratitude – to my Sherpas, Dorje and Pasang Wongchu, without whose unfailing support I would not be here to share this story.