I woke up to the clanking of harnesses, and looked at my watch: it was just before 7 am. Reluctantly, I loosened the string around my sleeping bag’s hood, and popped my head out into the icy air of the tent. The sun would not reach base camp until after 8 am, and I could not imagine getting out of my sleeping bag and changing in such cold, but I would have to: the three climbing Sherpas were heading up for what I’d told them would be the last attempt to fix rope up to Camp 2 – it was too cold to linger at base camp and wait for the weather window, which might or might not open before we freeze and the morale sinks below sea level. ‘Don’t risk anything,’ I told the boys as they walked away.
Later in the day, I went to the frozen Pumori lake to look for a spot to swim. I walked to the middle of it, gliding on the thick ice, looking away from Pumori, over whose summit clouds rushed at ridiculous speeds, and onto Everest on the other side. She was black, and rocky, and beautiful, and the sole sight of the mountain made me feel content, but also deeply sad. ‘If there was just one more thing I could do before disappearing, I would climb back to touch my forehead to your icy, white brow, Chomolungma,’ I whispered into the strong wind. ‘Can you see me, standing again before you? Can you hear me? Would you have me back?’ In his book Everest: The West Ridge Tom Hornbein describes the exact feeling I had standing there in the middle of the lake between Pumori and Everest: ‘It is strange how when a dream is fulfilled, there is nothing left but doubt.’
After 12 hours on the Southwest Ridge of Pumori, the climbing Sherpas would come down, and the expedition would be over. I would not have my team risk their lives or almost certain frostbite for my doubt to go away – because it wouldn’t, no matter how many summits I reached. After leaving me to celebrate a success, it would come and sit by me when my friends have gone to live their lives; doubt would hold my cold hands and whisper in my ear: ‘you were just lucky, Princess; you are unworthy, unworthy, unworthy…’
Tired of that voice in my ear, I made an announcement to the Sherpas before I went to my tent that night. ‘I have an idea,’ I said… I told them they would go home, while I would stop in Pheriche on the way down, wait for the permit to be issued, and then go to climb Cholatse – solo. They laughed my ‘idea’ off at first, but when they realized I meant what I was saying, they began to worry.
‘You’re not going anywhere alone, Mila,’ Dorje said to me sternly. ‘How are you going to fix rope? How are you going to carry everything? How…?’
‘I started climbing long before we met,’ I replied, ‘and I actually know how to fix rope, and hammer in pitons, and place ice screws, and pitch tents. Not that I’m great at it, but I can do it. I can certainly carry more than you usually let me do.’
‘How are you going to come down?’
‘Slowly and painfully, but carefully.’
‘No, if you go to Cholatse, we all go to Cholatse.’
‘No, I want to climb alone,’ I insisted.
‘You won’t be climbing alone. We’ll plan something now, and we’ll go together.’
Touched as I was by this display of loyalty, I truly didn’t want any of the Sherpas climbing with me anymore. For them, climbing is a job, for me – a passion; thus, while I can, perhaps, be justified in pushing past my limits, they should not feel compelled to follow where only a madman/woman would go. I didn’t want the responsibility – it weighed too heavily on my shoulders. For once, I wished that it would be just my doubt and I, climbing together as far as we dared. It was not to be, however. When I woke up next morning and prepared to go for a swim in Pumori Lake, one of the Sherpas was assigned to follow me and make sure I wouldn’t accidentally dive under the ice. Although my team have seen me swim in frozen lakes many times before, it still took me a while to convince them that I was not feeling suicidal.
The swim was cold and invigorating, and gave me the strength to stay calm and collected when the expedition team left base camp next morning. On descent, I was again accompanied by one of the Sherpas, who would look concerned every time I would stop to look at a possible route of ascent on the fascinating Cholatse. ‘What do you think?’ I asked him about a line I painted on the mountain. ‘Looks fine. But you can’t do it alone.’ Down in Pheriche, where we stopped for the night, the wind was wild, ceaselessly throwing sand and dust in one’s face. It was still early in the day when we arrived, which gave us much time to talk about my newest bad idea – Cholatse solo. The conversation made me realize that there was no way I would be allowed to stay and climb on the mountain unsupported. In the evening the rest of the team arrived with the yaks, carrying expedition gear, and, looking at my team’s tired faces, I said nothing of Cholatse. The sirdar observed me questioningly, ready for almost any craziness to come out of my mouth, but I simply smiled. Of course, I would not drag the boys to Cholatse after a failure on Pumori – the whole point of leaving Pumori was to deliver them safely home to their real lives and their families. I told myself before going to sleep that night that that was what I would do: return to Kathmandu with my team, take a rest, and come back – alone – to Cholatse.
Before flying out from Lukla next morning, one of the Sherpas and I visited the monastery in Phakding, which I support – Pema Choling (https://sixthsymph.com/pemacholing-monastery-khumbu-nepal/). I talked a little to the boys and their teacher, and was amazed to see how the kids had grown. They looked at me in wonderment and had no idea who on Earth I was, which I liked. Whether I was or wasn’t made no difference; it made me feel free to go and climb alone. However, when I returned to Kathmandu just before Christmas, Phil Reid, one of the guests at the hotel where I live, made a very generous donation – two boxes of clothes, shoes, medicine, books, etc – to the monastery, and as I thanked him on behalf of the kids and the monastery, I wondered if I truly was as free as liked to think. After all, I would hardly return if I went to climb Cholatse unsupported, – I could climb but I’m not sure I could descend – and if I wasn’t there, who would fulfill my promise to help the boys? They may not remember me, but I remember that they’re cold at night. And so my doubt and I will have to wait until that changes before I am free to go and climb solo.