Our team, now complete, finally leaves Namche Bazaar on the tenth of February: we will stop in Phortse Thanga and Thore before establishing base camp at around four thousand seven hundred metres on the Cholatse Glacier. The weather is sunny during our trek, and the sky is cold and clear, comfortably distant. However, the destroyed roofs of the small houses we pass and the countless trees, lying, dead, down in the valley are vivid reminders of the Hurricane and the proximity of danger.
I walk slowly and somewhat aimlessly as I no longer have a summit to reach for. I have decided that we would not be climbing Cholatse but I know the mountain has something yet to show me, so I must get to its foot, at least.
After breaking trail through over-the-knee-deep snow towards the glacier, we finally see the Devil Mountain, and an almost extinguished flame begins again to flicker in my chest. Cholatse is glorious, and I want it more than any other before it. Its ridges curve at wonderful angles, and under the bold sun the ice encrusting the summit glows like an enormous sapphire. The slopes and the summit, however, are also covered in clouds of thick fresh snow; it would require rare luck rather than skill not to cause an avalanche in such conditions.
While the boys unload our yaks and put up tents, I sit on a large brown rock and stare at Cholatse, now temptingly close to me. I look, and listen, and feel for ‘a sign’, for something that would make me believe that my team can ascend to the summit and return safely, but the mountain is looking down on me in silence, its two sharp ridges like open arms reaching for the people I have brought with me to climb it. ‘You can’t have them,’ I whisper to Cholatse or to myself, I hardly know, ‘I won’t let you have them.’
‘We’ll go off to explore the route to Camp One tomorrow,’ Pasang and Chongba tell me in the dining tent in the evening, and I cringe at the thought.
‘Remember what I told you: the moment you feel uncomfortable, you turn back. I’ll happily go swimming instead.’
‘We have to try,’ Dorje interrupts me, ‘it’s our job.’
‘But it’s also just a mountain. I don’t care if we climb it or not. Training for Everest is what this expedition is about; we can’t afford to get hurt now, none of us.’ I’m lying, I do care. I don’t want to think about Everest yet because that’s in April, or never; what do I know? It is Cholatse I want now, and my team would climb it for me if I asked them to; it’s their job, they say, and they take it seriously. In all honesty, if my team were a group of less decent people, I would have insisted that we climb. These men, however, have proven to be my friends, and their safety is sacred to me.
Pasang and Chongba promise me that they will be careful, but when I see them moving steadily away from base camp towards the South West Ridge, my heart seems to shrink to the size of a small pearl. I remember why I prefer to walk alone: because this way I can afford to be fearless.
To distract ourselves, Dorje and I talk about the upcoming Everest expedition until at four pm Pasang and Chongba return, and Dorje and I can now both sigh, relieved. In my mind I thank Cholatse for granting the boys safe passage. While they are resting and having tea, we all look at the pictures of the route which Pasang had taken.
‘We can climb up to Camp One. There’s a lot of vertical rock-climbing involved, but we can manage. Beyond Camp One, however…’ he points at the gaping mouths of the wide crevasses lining the way to the summit.
‘No,’ I say, ‘enough. We’re going swimming.’
‘But we can tag Camp One, at least. Chongba and I have to go anyway because we left some rope and snow anchors up there.’ The Sherpas all nod in agreement.
‘Forget the stuff you left up there. I don’t want anyone on the mountain; I don’t want to go to Camp One. We’re done here.’ I almost choke on my words as I force my mouth to let go of them. ‘Let’s talk Everest instead…’
The next day the winds return. At base camp we are waiting for the yaks which would take our gear back down to Lukla. I leave the boys to chat in the kitchen tent and climb up the moraine to get closer to Cholatse. Gusts of wind throw snow and sand in my face, and the Devil Mountain, dark-grey, stands proudly among low clouds. When I feel far enough from base camp, lost enough, I sit on the cold ground behind a large boulder, watching the storm dance over Himalayan peaks. Soon, I become part of the scenery – a rock among rocks. It is a strange and peaceful feeling – this of being Cholatse and not the greedy girl who craves to climb it; of being the strength the Hurricane had ‘told’ me to search for. As I get up to return to base camp, I am not the same person who’d left it just over an hour earlier: I am the storm, I am the mountain, and I am nothing.
Early next morning Dorje, Pasang and I say good-bye to Chongba and Jangbu, our cook, who will return to Lukla with the expedition gear. Our mini-team, travelling light, will cross the Ngozumba Glacier over to Gokyo in a blizzard so that I could go for a ‘swim’ in my favourite mountain lake in the world, Dudh Pokhari.