A Look Back (and Forward)

A photo of Everest outside a gallery in Kathmandu
A photo of Everest outside a gallery in Kathmandu

It’s about who and what stays with you, when all the rest move quietly aside, when it’s neither necessary to keep kicking you so you stay down, nor possible to help you up any longer. And as you lie, and breathe, and wait for absolutely nothing, you begin to really watch your dreams. Mostly, they are memories, awkwardly assembled by the subconscious into puzzles, which look like nothing real but never fail to evoke a feeling.

After everything that’s happened in the course of the past year, I can’t help but watch my dreams carefully. I had a dream of climbing Everest without oxygen, but another idea, this of Muay Thai, kicked and punched it out of me. As my friends, who follow this blog, know, I walked to Everest base camp in April, looked up at The Mountain, and went right back to where’d come from. You can read about what was going through my head at the time here: https://sixthsymph.com/2013/04/13/everest-2013-requiem-for-a-dream/

My return to Thailand and Muay Thai after the expedition forced me to deal with many conflicting thoughts and feelings about the decision to trade 8000-meter mitts for boxing gloves; I was on an indefinite break from climbing. An accidental visit to the hospital in Bangkok revealed I was very ill, and soon enough I began to experience the truth of the diagnosis in my very bones. Then, suddenly, I was that person on the ground, whom life was stepping away from – as I encouraged it to do. When the pain became unbearable and the loneliness frightening, in rare moments of sleep I dreamed not about wearing a champion’s belt around my waist, or completing my PhD, or emerging safe and sound after a record-setting deep dive or ice-swim, or writing a book, or anything but… the mountains. In one recurring dream, a cloud of snow and wind holds me without touching, suspended above the clouds and the Himalaya, with mountain peaks rising like waves of an uncontainable ancient flood under my feet. Time passes, and people, whole civilizations, die and are reborn, but little changes up there, where Eternity lives. I always awaken from this vision calm and brave; it must be because in it I see this that I love more than I know. It is not mountaineering as such, nor the support and love I get from people, who emphathize with the climber in me, nor is it any mountain in particular – it’s how I feel in the mountains that I treasure and the person I become when I try to touch something unchanging.

I hope, this post doesn’t make it sound like I regret my decision to abort the Everest expedition last spring. I truly don’t. My heart was not in it: it was hurting, and confused, and angry. I felt and still feel too much awe and gratitude for Chomolungma to climb on her slopes with the wrong motivation. I know people, for whom mountains are steps to a certain social standing or a pedestal, on which to place their ego. I understand and wouldn’t dream of judging those, who approach climbing differently from me. My own approach is, perhaps, too sentimental, but I kinda like it this way. Thus, I don’t want to turn back time: to un-make the Everest decision, un-do Muay Thai or even to un-fall dangerously ill. Instead, I want to thank life for all these experiences, because when the storm of the physical and mental events of the year started to quiet down, what remained standing – perhaps, the only thing that did – was The Mountain, and I was relieved to see Her!

My recent test results from the hospital are looking reasonably good and promising, which means I can start hoping again. I will not say yet what it is I am hoping for for the 2014 spring climbing season, but I can tell you that, all going well, it will take me back to the Himalaya – the place I dream of even when I am more dead than alive. Following over 3 months in bed on drugs, I will need some serious training if my hopes are to have a strong foundation. Given that I still like Muay Thai just as much as before, it will once again be my training tool of choice for the possible climb. I have just seven months to bring myself back to life. Can I pull it off? Well, if I keep seeing that dream, then, maybe!

Keep your fingers crossed for me and, if you wish to follow my return from the dead (I actually do look a bit like a zombie right now)/preparation for the next climb, drop by the blog again soon!

Love,

Mila

P. S. I would like to give my most heartfelt thanks to those of my friends, who have been waiting and listening even when I wouldn’t come and wouldn’t talk, who flew across the globe to see me, and I wouldn’t see them; who supported me unconditionally. You know who you are, the amazing people I am bessed to have in my life: Michelle P., Kim S., India H., Eileen H., Jaimie S., Liz., E. N., and many others, Thank You!

P. P. S. Good luck to the teams climbing the gorgeous Manaslu this fall season, especially, of course, to Altitude Junkies!

Everest 2013: Requiem For a Dream

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The Everest Memorial

A cloud has caught on her steep summit pyramid, and streams downwards; the black frozen rock of the ridges peeks through its airy whiteness. I stop in the middle of the path on the moraine leading to Everest Base Camp, and take a picture of my stone idol, Chomolungma. Somewhere up there, where the summit pierces the cloud, as if cutting through a dream, beats my heart: I always say that I left it up there – so no one could have it, not even I. I put the camera away, and carry on to EBC at the foot of the notorious Khumbu Icefall, which has already swallowed one life this climbing season. As it shows off its enormous teeth of ice to the morning sun, I pray for the Sherpa ‘Icefall Doctor’, who died in a crevasse just two days earlier.

Khumbu Icefall on the way to Everest Base Camp
Khumbu Icefall on the way to Everest Base Camp

‘Are you afraid?’ I ask myself. No. I am worse than afraid – I am indifferent to the task, which lies ahead of me and to the outcome of the expedition. This feeling – indifference – has been with me ever since I landed in Kathmandu after my stay in Bangkok. I carried it on my shoulders all the way up to 5300 meters; I slept with it; I fed it; I hoped to appease it, so, satisfied, it would leave me and give room to the passion and love I used to always feel for the Himalaya. Yet, my indifference only grows bigger and fatter as I approach the foot of Everest. After trekking for 6 days, ill, I kneel beside my backpack in my tent at the foot of the Icefall and Everest, – home to be for the next month-and-a-half – and like a ghost of somebody long-gone, indifference kneels by my side and wonders: ‘If this is truly your dream still, to climb Everest for the second time, then, why am I here? And if it isn’t your dream, then, why are you here?’ These are good questions, even put to one belatedly, and they must be answered before it is too late.

The answer to the first question surprises and devastates me. Mountains were her dreams, and Chomolungma – the grandest, most sacred of them. She is gone now, she, in whose skin I live. I think, what she learnt about herself and others after Pumori made her want to go: made her want to do a solo on Cholatse in winter – a suicide mission; made her want to be punched, and kicked, and humiliated to no end until she would finally stop dreaming. Her last dream came true – she disappeared, and nowhere within me can I feel her presence. It seems that her dreams vanished with her.

Everest and Ama Dablam from Tengboche
Everest and Ama Dablam from Tengboche

The answer to the second question is that some things must be seen and touched to make one believe they are possible, real and irreversible. I had to see and touch Everest to believe I didn’t want to climb on The Mountain again. I would trek to Everest Base Camp through the land I used to love, looking at the skyline and the ‘friends’ of my past, the harsh and stunning Himalayan peaks, following trails, on one of which, one day in 2009, I remember feeling spotlessly, perfectly happy for a few minutes. Yet, no matter how hard I would try to feel what the ‘I’ from just a few months back doubtless would be feeling, I couldn’t see anything but blurry images from the past: they were overflowing with love, curiosity, ambition, passion, hope, pain – her everything. What they lacked now was life: they were but beautiful pictures to be hung on the wall and admired, but one could not live in a frame.

When I stood at the foot of Chomolungma this season, I realized that climbing on Her slopes would be like trying to stage a scene from last year’s summit photo and improve on it to make the perfect picture. ‘Move slightly to the right, don’t forget to cry with emotion; hide that oxygen mask…’ What would such a picture be a picture of, if not one’s own greed and vanity? Not even she, who couldn’t stop dreaming of Chomolungma, would want such a photo on her wall, let alone I. Although I do not share her dreams, I respect them as a memory of someone, who was superior to me in a million ways. I could have climbed – if anything, I am stronger and more experienced now than I was last season – but what good is any of this, if the Dream and the Dreamer have both been lost?

I spend two nights without sleep at Everest Base Camp, watching condensation form on the thin walls of my tent and listening to the rumble of avalanches and the creaking of ice all around base camp. In the dark and the cold I try to reason with myself: ‘You are already here. Just… do it! Think of all the people, who are supporting you in this, who call you inspirational, to whom what you do means something – even if it no longer means what it used to mean to you! Climb for them!’ But I can’t – I can’t inspire what I don’t truly and honestly feel myself.

Our EBC and the Khumbu Icefall
Our EBC and the Khumbu Icefall

The morning I make the final decision to abort my expedition, I go towards the gaping mouth of the Khumbu Icefall. It is still very early and cold, and I am the only one outside. I walk as far as I can from the sleeping base camp to get as close as I dare to Chomolungma. I can’t see Her, but I feel that She is there. I talk to the stone Goddess in a whisper, and, before turning away, throw something into the Icefall’s white mouth – something she, the Dreamer, treasured. ‘Good-bye,’ I say to the Dream, and to her, who had dreamt the Dream so well and fulfilled it, and to my heart, which remains where she left it, ‘good-bye!’ Simultaneously, an enormous serac collapses onto the Khumbu Glacier from the slopes of Nuptse. ‘Good-bye,’ thunders Chomolungma in reply. Then, I know I am free to leave.

Leaving Khumbu
Leaving Khumbu

A helicopter picks me and a couple more people up at base camp and ferries us to Lukla. From there we fly to Kathmandu next morning. I will rest here for a few days before starting to pack again and leaving Nepal to travel elsewhere. As you may have guessed, I will be taking an indefinite break from mountaineering. I will, however, continue to support Pema Choling Monastery, and you can rest assured that whatever donations you have made or might make in the future will find their way to the children.

Thank you for dreaming with me, for believing what I believed in and for supporting me! I will continue to blog, and, I think, I already know what I will be writing about. Drop by if you’d like to join me on a different kind of adventure!

Love,

Mila

Everest 2013: Bangkok to Kathmandu

Sitsongpeenong Muay Thai Camp, Bangkok
Sitsongpeenong Muay Thai Camp, Bangkok

My training for Everest has exceeded my expectations in just how tough it has been on my heart and mind as well as my body. It’s a knockout, I’m afraid.

I actually love Muay Thai. Just two months ago I could not have imagined myself saying that. I was beyond surprised by the fact that I didn’t want to leave Bangkok and stop training: stop getting up at 4:30 am to go for my daily 10 km run in the dark, stop embarrassing myself at the gym with my kitten-punches and chicken-kicks, and my big ass, and my awkwardness. I am terrible at Muay Thai and I know it, but I enjoyed myself so much as I struggled to learn even a little of this martial art, that it almost – almost – didn’t matter. Except, sometimes it did: it hurt when I occasionally made the mistake of lifting my eyes off the ground to see people laugh at me, or when some would sneer at my claims that I was going to become a fighter. Perhaps, I don’t look like a fighter. On the other hand, according to most of my new acquaintances, I also don’t look like a mountaineer or an ice-swimmer.

Lumpinee Stadium: Sagetdao Petpayathai VS Singdam Kiatmoo9
Lumpinee Stadium: Sagetdao Petpayathai VS Singdam Kiatmoo9

I had a hard but good time training Muay Thai in Bangkok, sharing the gym space with some of the most amazing currently active nak muays. My trainer was wonderful, strict but fair, and I can’t wait to come back to train and fight under his guidance. I was fortunate to meet many strong and determined people at the camp, and would like to wish them all the best with their progress in Muay Thai and any other pursuits they follow. I am very grateful for this throughly enriching experience to everyone, who shared it with me: to those, who became my friends, and made it easier, but also to those, who made it a little harder than it need have been. You have all taught me lessons required for the biggest ‘fight’ of my life so far – this against every possible human weakness, on Chomolungma.

Do I feel ready for the challenge of climbing without oxygen this time? I believe, I do mentally, but my recurring circulation issues, sickness, extreme exhaustion, or just a strong gut feeling could all force me to use the gas on summit push after all, in spite of my current plans. I will use it, if I must. After all, in climbing Everest, with or without O2, I am merely aiming to do something that would make me stronger and wiser, and happy with myself, if only for few minutes on the summit; something that would make my friends and loved ones proud of me; something that would help raise money for a worthy cause. I hope, I am never so vain as to do anything just to make it into record books. I have not danced/dived/swam/fought/climbed, nor am I climbing now for regalia or fame: I do what I do out of love of life and genuine curiosity.

Everest
Everest

I am sorry that this season’s coverage of my preparation has been scarce. I have had very little time for writing, training intensively while continuing to work. My regular readers will know that I do not post many updates while I am away on the mountain, but usually make up for my prolonged absences by writing expedition accounts upon returning to Kathmandu. This season I might tweet occasionally from base camp. You can follow me here: https://twitter.com/Liudmila_M

I would like to end this last pre-expedition post by dedicating my climb to:

Christophe Manfroi, a friend who should have been climbing Chomolungma this season, but was lost in an accident in the Alps. ‘Come with me where no one else would follow…’

Sitsongpeenong Muay Thai Camp fighters, trainers and students, who made me feel like I was ready for this challenge.

And, as always, to my courageous and beautiful mother.

First view of Everest on the way to Namche Bazaar
First view of Everest on the way to Namche Bazaar

This is it! The expedition leaves Kathmandu on the 2nd of April, and I hope to return from the Everest region at the end of May. Drop by if you’re curious to read about my attempt to climb Chomolungma for the second time. More importantly, take care of yourselves, have a beautiful and interesting spring and be happy always!

Love,

Mila

How NOT to Train for Everest 2.1: Thailand

The view down from Crampon Point
The view down from Crampon Point

I still distinctly remember letting go of the last fixed rope on my way down from the North Col on the 20th of May, and looking forward. Between me and the ‘safety’ of Advanced Base Camp at 6400 meters there lay a vast ice plateau and moraine slopes covered with moving rocks. Crampon Point was where ice and scree joined together. There, I knew, our kitchen boys would be waiting with tea; I could rest there; I could close my eyes at last and just breathe and drink, and not worry about dying alone in the snow. But could I get to Crampon Point? All but my mind was telling me I couldn’t. I started walking, dragging my rag-doll legs behind me. My oxygen bottle gone, the cough was strangling me as I struggled to breathe through my bone-dry mouth. The wind was cold but the sun – relentlessly hot, both beating me down to the ground. I knew that if I stopped walking then, I would not be able to get up again; I had to somehow continue putting one foot in front of the other. Thus, focusing on the dark scree far ahead of me and thinking about cups and cups of sweet hot milk tea, I kept staggering forward. ‘Don’t you dare die now! Not f***ing now! You’re almost there!’ To make it back to safety the day after the summit was one of the biggest surprises of my life – greater, perhaps, than reaching the summit itself. If on summit day or the day of the descent I have just described I wasn’t using supplemental oxygen, I am quite certain I would not have had the strength to make it back down alive. Well, this spring I intend to climb without bottled O2…

I titled my last year’s article about physical preparation for the Chomolungma expedition in Tibet ‘How NOT to Train for Everest’. I believe, it was a good name for the post, which stressed heavily the importance of mountaineering training and gaining climbing experience over physical conditioning. Indeed, I climbed quite a lot in 2011-12, and it certainly served its purpose: I was mentally and physically ready for the ascent of the world’s highest mountain, and not even a severe chest infection prevented me from reaching the summit. However, as climbers well know, that’s only half way, with the descent being the much harder half. No doubt, mountaineering experience and knowledge are still very important at that stage but physical strength – no less so.

Everest and Nuptse
Everest and Nuptse

My climbing adventures after Everest have been… interesting. From the disastrous avalanche and hungry crevasses on Manaslu to the beautiful unclimbed Yangra and the heartbreakingly cold Pumori, the post-Chomolungma expeditions have, as they always do, taught me many tough lessons and given me much food for thought. The Himalaya hurt and soothed me, invited me in and pushed me away. Pumori in particular proved a short but intense climb that left me feeling like I should give my crampons a break. Yet, I still had to train, and train hard, for the unprecedentedly challenging spring climbing season.

I decided on training Muay Thai in Thailand for many different reasons, with the most important one of them being that I simply needed to change. I had changed many times before, as my long-time readers know, dressing up as various ‘characters’: from ballerina to bullfighter, from tech diver to high-altitude mountaineer (here’s a recent short interview, which focuses on my climbing: http://holikenoli.com/liudmila-mikhanovskaya-mountaineering-himalaya/ ). What I have never been is someone who is able and willing to hurt another sentient being. ‘But bullfighting…’ you could reproach me. All I did was attend a bullfighting school for two years to write a paper on the ethics of the sport/art, and I never fought in the ring. I was about 20, and I was curious. Now I feel like I know something about different kinds of pain, and I would not wish to inflict any kind of it on any kind of creature. Perhaps, that is where I fail myself – in that I am ultimately defenseless, both mentally and physically. After Pumori I had to learn to be different.

I had my doubts and reservations before I left Kathmandu for Bangkok, so I watched movies and videos about Muay Thai to get myself all excited about the upcoming training. Ready and eager to learn, I showed up to my first private class in the north of Thailand. To no surprise of mine, I was completely terrible: I couldn’t stand up right, punch or kick, or knee, or elbow, or ‘teep’ or… anything. What was surprising was that some western students from the gym had the brilliant idea of videoing my first session on pads (which wasn’t pretty, for sure) and playing it back adding commentary, sighs and outbursts of laughter where appropriate. My trainer, too, looked at me in amazement at how much of a ‘beginner’ I really was. His countenance was understandable as most Muay Thai students come to Thailand to work on the skills they began developing at home; few people just walk into a training camp and say: ‘I know nothing, teach me everything’. That, anyway, was my introduction to Muay Thai: learning to ‘walk’ at 26 to the sounds of laughter from my much more advanced peers and incredulous stares and smirks from Thai trainers and fighters. To be honest, I wasn’t sure I was up for it all – again. I had been the funny beginner too many a time before and knew exactly how hard it would be to fight for what I still wasn’t sure I really wanted. I attended one more training session at another gym, which went as badly as the first one, and decided to leave the idea of learning Muay Thai for a while, dedicating some time to travel in the pretty Thailand. Yet, Muay Thai had already conquered itself a place in my mind, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. ‘How easily you gave up,’ I kept scolding myself, ‘how quickly you threw away a beautiful idea – because somebody laughed at you and thought you were an old, clumsy white lady. And so you are, but you’re more than that. Or are you? Get back in there and find out!’ Oh, it is wonderful when stubbornness replaces reason and talent, albeit temporarily!

Instead of finding a relaxed, unassuming camp by the beach, I decided to train in the heart of Muay Thai, Bangkok, at one of the city’s and, therefore, the world’s top camps. There, I thought, the training would be harder, the demands – higher, the trainers – better, and the example set by some of the best nak muays (thai boxers) out there – fantastic motivation to train hard and progress quickly. The laughter, of course, would be louder, too, because, although the camp, as almost every camp in Thailand, ‘welcomes’ beginners, the trainers find us hard to deal with… That, too, is understandable, because there seems to be some confusion as to what a ‘beginner’ is. Some people refer to themselves as such after years of training; others, like me, wish they could be so humble!

Training
Training

I certainly wished I had been humbler with my ambitions when the first day of training started – at 5.30 in the morning, with a 10k run. Running has to be the most painful form of exercise for my body’s many injuries, and doing so much of it every day sounded like a grim prospect. I only managed 5k on the first day, after which, out of breath and energy, I slowly walked back to the gym. There Muay Thai training proper started with a session on pads. One of the trainers called me into the ring and told me to ‘shadowbox’. ‘Yes, right,’ I thought, ‘but HOW?’ Recalling what I’d been shown at the two previous training sessions I’d attended, I started staggering across the ring waving my hands – boxing gloves and all – in the air. I imagine it must have been rather a disturbing sight for the eyes, which are used to watching the best of thai boxers. Next, the trainer put the pads on his hands and, throwing his right arm forward yelled ‘Yaaaaaaaap!’ ‘I don’t know what to do!’ I yelled back at him, eliciting but another ‘Yap’ in response. So, swallowing my shyness and confusion, I just punched the pad, and another one was instantly offered up for punching. I hit that, too, pretty pleased with the fact if not the way I was was actually punching something. But then something unexpected happened: the trainer stepped away, bent slightly forward, and, placing the two pads in front of his abdomen, yelled ‘Kick!’ Kick? Right. Umm. What would Chuck Norris do: (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f67LgpJBPPE )? Well, what I did looked, perhaps, a little different but certainly had similar visual – if not physical – impact on my audience. I was hopelessly bad. I kept on trying however, ever-conscious of how embarrassing it all looked. When I left the ring, it was time to punch and kick the bag for a few rounds. Again, I was, of course, a mess. Luckily, the 1-hour training came to an end. A different trainer trainer led a session of conditioning exercises, and a foreign Muay Thai student was put in charge of the stretching.

When I was finally by myself in my room, I was happy the training was over for the morning (there would be another 2-hour session in the afternoon), yet totally crushed by the clear understanding that a) I could never be good at Muay Thai because I’m simply too old to learn; b) I would keep trying regardless just because I’m stubborn; c) what little self-esteem I had would be punched out of me. I asked myself then if I should stay and commit fully, as I do, to this pursuit, unnatural for me, or leave and try to save some confidence in myself for Everest without O2, where I will doubtless need it. Well, I was way too curious to leave yet…

Everest 2013

Looking 'a little' tired on the summit of Everest
Looking ‘a little’ tired on the summit of Everest

It has been almost a year since the day I posted an article here called Everest 2012. I still remember typing it up, smiling nervously, happily and incredulously at the title. I’d climbed and trekked like a maniac and worked days and nights, earning the nickname ‘Red Bull Didi’, to pay the astronomical expedition invoice. Once I clicked ‘Publish’, my impossible dream to scale the world’s highest mountain became a daily struggle not to get crushed by the experience.

I lived and breathed Chomolungma for a year – all for 20 minutes on the summit. When the expedition was over, and I returned to Kathmandu, the colorful photo from the top of the world and many beautifully rich memories were all I had left. It felt like all my happiness, everything I could ever accomplish, all the love and passion I had in my heart – all stayed there, on Everest, in the past. One of the most heartbreaking thoughts of my life was the one that crossed my mind when I sat by the summit prayer flags, touching The Dream with my hands of flesh and blood: ‘this is the one place I will never come back to; I will never want anything as much as I wanted this – and have it, and hold it, and have to let it go. This is it!’

In spite of coming close to dying on descent, a week after my return to Kathmandu, I wished for nothing more than a chance to be on Chomolungma again. Training for the climb and subsequently being on the mountain had made me a different person – a person I liked. If my newly-developed qualities were to survive, I had to continue challenging myself even more, if possible. There is no greater challenge on this planet that I can think of than climbing Everest without the use of supplemental oxygen, and so I return to The Mountain this spring. I wish to give Mother-Goddess of the World what I keenly feel I owe Her: my gratitude, but also my life, – for her to give back to me, ever more worth living, or to keep on her airless, icy slopes.

According to this article (http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/everest/blog/2012-05-18/to-os-or-not-to-os)from last year, over 3500 people have climbed Everest, 5% of them – without the use of supplemental oxygen. Another article (http://www.mounteverest.net/story/Everest2005WomenonTopMar232005.shtml) from 2005 says that ‘about 90 women have summited Everest so far, but only three of them did it without oxygen. They were New Zealander Lydia Bradey in 1988, British Alison Hargreaves in 1995, and American Francys Arsentiev in 1998. Sadly, Francys died on descent.’ I imagine, by now there must have been over 100 ascents of Chomolungma by female climbers, and definitely a third successful climb without O2 by Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner in 2010.

Do I stand a chance? No. However, I can and will try my absolute best, as always. If there’s any life left in me after the attempt, whether failed or successful, I will return to Everest base camp, rest for a few days, and, weather and health permitting, climb back up – to Lhotse, the world’s fourth highest mountain at 8516 meters. Is there so much as a remote possibility of me pulling this off – any part of it, not to mention the whole undertaking? Hardly. This is a very unrealistic plan, with, perhaps, only a 5% chance of success, and even survival being… rather uncertain. These are not great odds, but they are good enough for me – an average person with dreams not fit for such. Cursed as I am with my unbridled imagination like Albert Camus’ Sisyphus is with his rock, I can’t help climbing and falling back, and climbing, and falling, over and over again.

Just like last year, I will post several articles here about the issues associated with climbing above 8000 meters above sea level without supplemental oxygen, about my training for the climb(s) and the logistics I plan to use for them. The expedition, as well as all my recent ones, is dedicated to raising funds for the disadvantaged kids of Pema Choling Monastery in the Everest region of Nepal. You can read about the charity project and, if you wish, make a donation here: https://sixthsymph.com/pemacholing-monastery-khumbu-nepal/

Drop by if you would like to follow my preparation for the climb, which will undoubtedly be by far the hardest I have ever attempted, or simply the last.

Love,

Mila