The four men – Dorje, Pasang, the lodge owner and the cook – stare at me in disbelief. We are in the mountain village of Gokyo by the side of Lake Dudh Pokhari at four thousand seven hundred metres. Our boots are soaking wet from breaking trail in a blizzard and we are drying them and our damp clothing by the large metal stove in the dining hall.
‘You didn’t think I was joking, surely, about swimming in the lake?’ I ask my Sherpas. ‘I don’t have a sense of humour.’
‘But there’s no water,’ Dorje protests.
‘Of course, there is – under the ice.’
‘We’ve had very cold December and January this year,’ the lodge owner informs us with a grin, ‘The ice would be very thick.’
‘We have ice tools, right?’ I call to my boys for support, but they say nothing for a couple of minutes.
‘Maybe, it’s better to go tomorrow, when it’s not snowing quite so hard,’ Dorje tries to bargain.
‘Today or tomorrow, I’m still going to do it. Now, at least, we’re all wet and cold already.’
‘Ok,’ Dorje says at last, ‘what do you need?’
‘Two buckets of hot water in the shower for when I return, a blanket, and for the fire in this stove to keep burning.’ The lodge owner nods and instructs the cook to make the necessary arrangements. Dorje and Pasang quietly pick up their ice axes, two ropes, and we are ready to go. I can’t help smiling as I observe their tense, worried expressions.
‘It’s fine,’ I say cheerfully, ‘I know what I’m doing,’ but my tone fails to convince the brave mountain men.
We walk through the deep snow lying on the icy shore of the lake and stop when I think we’ve reached the point where I’d gone for a swim three years earlier in December. Granted, the weather was very different then, and there was a bit of water in the shallows. Moving some five or six metres away from the shore, we begin to hack at the ice with our axes, but I already know by the sound of the ice that it’s over a metre thick.
‘Right, stop; we need to find a place where there’s some movement of water, ice will be thinner there.’ We head back towards the lodge and soon realize that the only place where it would be possible to go for a dip is the crossing between the village and the lake. Using shovels, ice tools and boots we make a hole in the ice large enough for me to lie down.
‘The previous record was two minutes,’ the lodge owner tells me, as I take off my membrane pants and parka; I will be wearing long underwear in the water. ‘Is it true that your heart is supposed to stop after two or three minutes in zero-degree water?’
‘Not in my experience,’ I reply, and step off the ice and into the shallow water. My heart begins to race as my body becomes submerged, but it regains its calm rhythm in a few seconds. Cold crawls deeper and deeper under my skin, and I welcome it; I am at home in the water, never afraid of it.
‘Five minutes,’ Dorje announces, and I wake up from my cold dream. I know that my toes are frozen solid and my fingers are barely moving. I am dying, slowly.
‘Eight minutes,’ Dorje says, worried, and I know it’s time to go; reluctantly, I crawl out of the water. With my rigid fingers I try to change into dry clothes, and it takes forever. Dorje and Pasang carefully put boots on my unmoving feet and rush me back to the lodge, where two buckets of hot water are waiting in the shower. I stagger slowly behind them because I don’t want to get back to warmth – between the lake and the lodge I walk a fine line between the quiet of death and the violent, painful shivering of life which, I know, will soon invade my body. I am very tired.
In about an hour I stop stammering and can hold a cup of tea without spilling any on the blanket wrapped around me. The boys are playing cards, while I, warm by the stove, stare at Dudh Pokhari through the falling snow, already soaked in twilight. I miss home.
In the morning I wake up feeling incredibly strong. As the boys and I break out of the deep snows of Gokyo towards lower elevations, I feel no fatigue, no hunger or thirst: I believe I can walk forever. We reach our destination for the day all too early, so I suggest that we continue on to Namche Bazaar; in total, the trek that day takes us nine hours.
Then, we descend to Phakding, where we make some arrangements to support the monastery where we’d had our puja before the climb. After a night of rest, we hike to Lukla, which we will leave in glorious weather next morning.
Back in Kathmandu I will think of the Cholatse expedition as the most interesting and challenging of the season. Instead of helping me escape from February, it showed me that I could live through it, maintaining my integrity and strength. No successful ascent would have been better mind training for my next climb, the climb of my life – Everest this spring.