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.

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

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 2012: the Descent

Passing Camp 1 on the way down

On our way down from the summit Pasang and I meet Mark Dickson and Ang Gelu, Ian Cartwright and Kami, and Mark Horrell and Chongba – all already negotiating different sections of the summit pyramid. We shake hands, and part ways. The only inji-climber from the Junkies’ team I am yet to see is my friend, Margaret Watroba. I tell myself that, perhaps, we’d already passed but failed to recognize each other due to our single-minded focus, on the summit on the way up and survival on the way down, or just exhaustion. Besides, with climbers dressed in nearly identical down suits and boots, with goggles and oxygen masks over their faces, it’s hard to tell friends from strangers…

 I let go of all the thoughts which could worry me, and carry on down, slowly and carefully, but soon find myself loosing all ability to focus. My body feels like it is made of lead, and my mind, too, is heavy like a sleeping elephant. It is when we reach the Third Step that I realize just how sick and exhausted I really am. My legs are so limp that they won’t support me and my arms – so weak, they can’t hold me on the rope. I make myself look at the corpse in the snow under the vertical Step for ‘motivational’ purposes before I begin the descent. Once at the bottom, I can only bring myself to make a couple of small steps, and sit down to rest and cough. It’s not a safe place to stop, as the body behind my back reminds me. I must get up and continue downwards; this thought and the movement it eventually triggers – everything is in slow motion.

 When we reach the top of the Second Step, I finally see Margaret. The chest infection we both caught in the tent village near base camp has taken greater toll on her than it has on me (Margaret summited Everest from the South Side in 2011; she is 62 years old, I am 25). My friend is struggling, running out of energy, oxygen and time to make it to the summit. We sit down behind her, Cheddar and Nima Nuru to rest – again – when Margaret, very quietly and gracefully, decides to turn around. Knowing exactly how she feels, I am humbled by her courage and integrity. It is not only for her own sake that she makes the choice to descend now: it is for the sake of her Sherpas and the whole team, who would have to put their lives at risk if a rescue in the death zone was necessary. As she turns her back on the summit, I sense that she will return for and get it next year.

 I look down from the top of the Second Step at the long drop to the Rongbuk Glacier underneath – again, for ‘motivation’ – and begin climbing down. Slightly past the foot of the Step my knees bend under the weight of my exhaustion once more; then, I must get up again. When at length Pasang and I reach the top of the First Step, I’m finding it nearly impossible to get back on my feet after taking a ‘cough break’. Seeing how weak and unfocused I am, Pasang suggests that I rappel instead of down-climbing. My fingers are ‘dumb’ with fatigue, and my climbing partner has to help me with the figure 8. He climbs down first. Then, I get in position to rappel; I can’t do it as my arms will not hold any weight at all. There are people immediately behind me and I cannot go back, so I simply let myself tumble to the bottom of the rock face, slowed down a little by the rappel device. Pasang looks at me and, it seems, cannot believe what he’s just seen. ‘I know, I know…’ I mumble into the mask. Anywhere else I’d be embarrassed for such a display of climbing skill, but at over 8000 meters embarrassment is too long a word to pronounce and too small a feeling to bother with.

 We are now between the First Step and the Exit Cracks. The yellow tent town of Camp 3 is in clear view below us, seemingly close, but I don’t believe I’ll make it there. I am now staggering rather than walking, lingering at every rope anchor and, finally, I am unable to make another step. ‘I can’t do this,’ I whisper into the mask repeatedly, as if this unhappy mantra was my breath, and lie down. Resting on dark rocks under warm afternoon sun, I listen to the lullaby my mind is singing me: ‘You need to rest, to close your eyes – just for 15 minutes. A little bit of sleep will give you strength. Go to sleep, go to sleep…’ It’s a peaceful death: falling asleep in the warm sun, and never waking up again; or not so peaceful: waking up to an empty oxygen bottle at night and stumbling off the mountain in confusion. Suddenly, my daydreaming is interrupted as an array of faces appears out of the black emptiness of my mental exhaustion: my mother, my niece, my friends… Last night, as I was going for the summit, they were praying and cheering for me, sending me their love and strength from all over the world. And what did I do? I let myself get carried away by summit fever, and now I’m going to sleep. What a selfish pig! They love me and trust me, and I’m… what?… tired? Just tired?! Angry at myself, I wake up from what could have been my last dream. ‘Hey?’ I hear Pasang’s worried voice. ‘Sorry!’ I apologize. Still, I can’t find the energy to get up. ‘I can’t do this!’ every cell in body is screaming, so I slap myself on the face as hard as I can. Again, Pasang is looking at me like I am completely crazy. ‘I know, I know…’ I say, and we carry on down.

 The steep Exit Cracks pose the last obstacle on the way to Camp 3. I can’t remember how I make it down, but I’m guessing it wasn’t pretty. From the foot of the Cracks all we have to do is follow the slope to the campsite; we sit down again before my climbing Sherpa believes I’m ready to take on this ‘monumental’ task. Although I’m only the third inji to make it back to Camp 3, tired as I am, I cannot continue the descent to the North Col. I sit by the tent like an abandoned rag doll, my whole body numb with exhaustion, pain and shame. I am thinking about the dead of Everest – of climbers just like me, with the same dream; with mothers, and children, and friends, and a home somewhere – about how they will never walk into Camp 3 like I just have, or get into a warm sleeping bag like I soon will, and then, in a few days – go home to be happy at times and unhappy at times and just alive, like I still am. This summit day, one of the hardest of my life, will never end for them, and I am so, so sorry for those climbers and their loved ones! Sitting there, in the loneliest place in the world, I remember how close I was to going to sleep, too, and I recall what – who – made me open my eyes again.

 Pasang takes my crampons off for me, and we crawl into the tent. We doze off for a while, then, he begins to melt ice for our tea and soup. Soon, all the Junkies’ injis and Sherpas return to Camp 3, all – too exhausted to go any further. We spend a cold and windy night in the death zone, but nobody can sleep: the wind all around is too loud and angry, the exhaustion is too great, and the bright flashing images from summit day keep the mind working. It’s only in the early morning, after coughing for hours, when I finally see nothing and feel nothing – I must be asleep. It will not be long, however, before I open my eyes again and see that everything inside the tent is covered with a thin layer of snow. My feet are seemingly frozen and my hands are cold, too; they’ll have to warm up as I continue the descent to ABC almost 2000 meters lower. Quickly Pasang melts some snow to make water and tea before we leave the tent.

 Pasang and the other Sherpas have a tough day ahead of them: taking down Camp 3, the Junkies’ one remaining tent (and its contents) at Camp 2, and a part of our North Col Camp 1; then, they will carry all of that down to ABC on their backs. I cannot fathom how the Sherpas can do it – I can hardly imagine getting myself with a half-empty backpack down to 6400 meters… Someone like me could never reach the summit of Everest and come back to tell the tale without the help of these mountain supermen. All I can do in thin air – and not very well, and not always – is put one foot in front of the other and, wasting my breath, whinge about how hard it is. Everything else that had to be done for me to succeed and survive was done not by me but by the Junkies’ leader, Phil Crampton, and his team of Sherpas: sirdar Dorjee Sherpa, Pasang Wongchu Sherpa, Pasang Nima Sherpa, Kami Nuru Sherpa, Ang Gelu Sherpa, Nima Nuru Sherpa, Cheddar Sherpa, Chongba Sherpa, and our awesome cooks Da Pasang Sherpa and Pemba Sherpa. In fact, I think I have contributed ridiculously little to my own summit success, so I am very grateful for it to all the staff and team members of the Altitude Junkies 2012 Everest expedition.

 My descent through the vast, windy Everestland on the 20th of May is uneventful: still very weak, I fall once, getting entangled in an old rope between Camp 3 and Camp 2, but the safety line holds; then, I get severely windburned on the long, exposed snow ramp leading to the North Col – I’ve always wondered what windburn was, anyway; then, I think I’ll die of exhaustion (yes, again) as I ‘arrive’ at Crampon Point, but our kitchen boys are there with hot and sweet milk tea, and I’m back to life after drinking six cups of it. Eventually, Margaret catches up to me, and we stagger into ABC together, coughing in unison; after a light dinner, we drop half-dead in our tents.

1
At ABC after descending: sunburn, windburn and joy!

The next day is a rest day at ABC. Then, we head down to Base Camp, walking along the Miracle Highway for the last time; it’s melting. At BC we celebrate with a gorgeous dinner and sparkling wine. I am persuaded to have a little bit of the latter and, although I don’t drink, I agree, happy to entertain my entertaining team mates. We rest and pack for the next two days, and on the day before our departure for Zhangmu I go to my turquoise glacial lake for a good-bye swim. The lake is bigger than I remember but not warmer: it looks different, yet, it feels the same.

With me it’s vise versa: now back in Kathmandu, I look the same after as I did before Everest, but I don’t feel the same: there’s something enormous, dark and cold stuck in my chest and, no matter how much I cough, it won’t come out. Everest is now a big part of me, with its conquerers and its victims, its icy nights of millions of stars and white windy days, with its hypnotizing power… I will never forget smiling at the rising sun on the Second Step of the sometimes merciful but, really, wrathful Chomolungma, or weeping for Her dead, who welcomed me. What can I say? I have summited Everest, but it remains a dream to me, as, perhaps, it should, to a mere human.

Everest 2012: The Summit Push, Part II

Sunset on Everest, view from BC

I’m sitting in the tent at 8300 meters, bent over my sleeping bag. Every time I lean back for a rest, angry cough immediately makes me sit up again. I drink as much water or tea as I can, and check my watch often – I am waiting for 10:30pm, when I plan to start getting ready to leave – for the summit of Everest. Meanwhile, I talk to my summit day climbing Sherpa, Pasang Wongchu, with whom I was previously climbing on Manaslu, Ama Dablam, Ganchenpo and Cholatse, about our ‘strategy’: times, oxygen etc… It is never mentioned in the conversation that, sick as I am already, I could get worse while we’re climbing, and helping me down would be desperately hard work. The very narrow traverses over vertiginous drop-offs of 3000 meters and steep rocky pitches, such as the notorious Second Step, make rescues in the death zone impossible: one has to reach the summit and return on their own two feet, or stay on the mountain; no one could ‘carry’ you to the summit or back down – it is ignorant and cruel of people, who have no mountaineering experience, to suggest otherwise. Pasang and I are both well aware of the risks that pushing for the summit entails for each of us, but, having climbed together before, we know that we can trust each other’s judgement: I would turn back if I felt I absolutely had to; I would turn back if he said I should. Yet, as the sun sets, and the icy evening descends upon the highest campsite in the world, turning back is not what’s on my mind. I choose to think only the most trivial thoughts, and sit, wait and hope that, when I start walking, I feel stronger and warmer than I’m feeling now.

It takes a small eternity to put my boots, harness and crampons on, but at 11:15 pm I am outside the tent, ready to leave at our team’s departure time 15 minutes later. The weather is cold, naturally, but not the coldest I’ve had to climb in, and the wind is not too strong. Headlamp beams of the climbers who have left Camp 3 before us dance along the route to the top of the world. I can’t see any features of the route – just this dance of scattered lights, some close to me, and some – too far away.

At 11:30 pm on the dot we take our first steps towards the summit. They are so unbearably hard on my drained body that I have to shut my mind down completely – all it can do now is tell me to please, please stop this torture and turn back, and I don’t want to hear that. The pace I’m walking at is, perhaps, a bit too fast (not in sea-level terms, of course) as I have to sit down and rest at almost every other rope anchor. Yet, I have to push myself, or the ‘reasonable Mila’ I’ve been trying to silence will start talking again: ‘I can’t do this, I can’t do this…’ – she is such a whinge!

Soon we reach the famous Exit Cracks – the steep rocky pitch which leads climbers onto the North Ridge. I have been warm until then but, stuck in line behind slow, inexperienced climbers I begin to freeze: I am loosing feeling in my hands in spite of wearing two layers of gloves plus down mitts, and my toes are painfully cold; I massage my palms and move my toes non-stop. I cough and shiver for some 30-40 minutes, until it’s my turn to go. Pasang and I climb onto the Ridge, and continue up. On our way we pass a few climbers; most memorably, a young Chinese woman with her guide. She is slow and insecure on her legs, and he shouts at her angrily. I am sorry for her, and I wonder how she can carry on like that.

Another long traverse – crampons against cold, bare rock, a couple of cold rest stops, a mouthful of cold water against my cold, aching throat; cold, cold, cold – and we reach the First Step. It is a famous feature of the North Side geography – a steep rocky pitch, similar to the Exit Cracks but a bit longer and harder. I have no recollection whatsoever of climbing it on the way up – I must have been struggling too hard to remember…

‘The Second Step should be close now; perhaps, another hour,’ I tell myself. The Second Step is a long, difficult climb up vertical rock, rock with as much history as the mountain itself. Its technical difficulty is such that two ladders have been anchored to it: one small one at the foot of the Step and one tall one, which leads to the top. It is between them, where climbers tend to struggle as they get past a couple of large, protruding rocks, which requires some skill and, perhaps, a bit of courage. The problem is that the Second Step is very exposed – there’s a 3000-meter drop off all the way to the Rongbuk Glacier under your feet, and all that’s standing between you and a ‘speed descent’ is 8.5mm rope, an aging ladder and your strength. It’s an intimidating thought, so I chase it out of my mind, and start for the Step. It will be another 20-30 minutes before I reach the first ladder – the climbers ahead of me are moving up the Step very slowly. It is the coldest hour of the morning, right before sunrise, when the first pale, bloodless-pink strip of light cuts through the still-dark sky. I wish I had my camera, but I’d given it to Pasang to keep warm, so I simply stare at the white peaks, all far below, at the sky, shedding its night skin, and at the light, which will soon bring a little bit of warmth to the death zone’s unwelcome visitors… Climbing the first wobbly ladder is no problem. However, the rocks, hovering over the white abyss, require me to abandon all half-hearted attempts at graceful climbing: pulling hard on the rope, I straddle one of them, cough a piece of something up, get on my knees, and go for the second ladder – but not before I’ve looked around me. I’ve never seen anything more special: already higher than any mountain on Earth, I am standing at the edge of the sky, a part of this mellow dawn and of the great, harsh Chomolungma… ‘Will it be worth it?’, I remember asking myself on the way to Camp 3. ‘Of course, it’s worth it.’ The second ladder is no trouble to climb.

From the top of the Second Step I can see the Third Step – the last one on the way to the summit, now also in clear view; it looks so close… As Pasang and I approach the Third Step, I notice someone I know sitting in the snow to my left. Inside his red hood his face is black – I cannot make it out but I recognize the suit and the posture. He is one of the dead of Everest, one of the many bodies, which rest on the mountain; he is also the ‘visitor’, who woke me up on my first night at Base Camp. That night I was very cold, but his nights up here, how cold they must be! It hurts me to look at him. Suddenly, I am freezing, too; I can feel the pathetic remains of my strength and determination leave my body as I cry quietly into my dark goggles. ‘I’m so sorry,’ I whisper into my mask, ‘I am so infinitely sorry!’

Under the Third Step another body, dressed in a yellow down suit, lies in fetal position, very close to the rope leading up the Step. Having waited, as usual, I take my turn climbing up. When I’m almost at the top, I see a climber come to the edge of the Step, with his Sherpa behind him, and sit right on the rope. I try to get around him but the rope won’t let me do so without unclipping: there’s already one corpse at the foot of the Step, so I won’t do it. As the climber watches me struggle, he also directs my efforts to get past him – he simply won’t move. ‘Move back, please!’ I growl at him in my sick, gurgling voice, angered by his insolence. Immediately I have to giggle when the human obstacle almost jumps back and, effectively, out of the way. Never knew I could be quite so scary!

‘Now, up the snow ramp, and there it is, the summit,’ I tell myself at the top of the Third Step. Silly me! The way does lie up the ramp but that’s not the end of the way. After the snow ramp there’s still a very exposed, narrow traverse to negotiate, then, another small rocky ramp to climb, and then, the summit is just up the slope – and it feels like such a long slope to me. As we make our final steps towards the summit, we meet Pasang Nima, Grant and Phil, on their way down. We shake hands and chat briefly before going our separate ways. Several more steps, and I stand in the strong summit wind, which dances dementedly around me; I can see the whole of the sky.

Yours Truly and Pasang Wongchu Sherpa on the Summit of Everest (19.05.2012)

Here it is – the world’s most famous ‘mountain’ of prayer-flags and khatas, which marks the summit of Everest. I have seen it so many times before – in movies, in pictures – and now I can touch it, touch the very spot where Light first touches the Earth. It’s 8 am, and there are about 8-10 people on the summit, taking pictures, laughing. Pasang takes my camera out of his pocket and snaps a photo of me next to the prayer-flags. Then, I take my backpack off, and reach for a small bag of white cotton, where I’ve been keeping things to take to the summit: a khata from Pema Choling Monastery’s kids, a thread bracelet from a friend, who dreams of climbing Everest, and something from my mother – these three things I leave for Chomolungma to bless, and pray that She take care of the people whom they belong to. Then, Pasang and I take another summit photo with my camera (the battery in his is frozen), and agree to head down. We change our O2 bottles, look around one more time, and leave.

Although we’ve only spent about 20 minutes on the summit, it’s enough. Now, on the way down, I feel strangely calm – in spite of the cough, and the wind, and the utter absence of strength in my limbs, and the fact that I am hours away from the relative safety of camp… In fact, I feel so calm, I am almost falling asleep as I’m walking along the terribly narrow traverse on the side of the summit pyramid. I think, I’m as calm as someone dying in peace.

Everest 2012: Decisions

I am gasping for air. A million long needles seem to be piercing my body through my skin’s every pore. My eyes closed, I focus on my breath: inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale – slowly, deeply. When I open them again, the beauty around me makes me smile. I am on the steep bank of one of the small icy lakes scattered across the Rongbuk Glacier, near Base Camp. The turquoise water in which I am immersed up to my neck is glowing in the bright afternoon sun, and small pieces of ice glitter here and there in the corners of the lake. I push myself away from the shore and swim towards the other one which, given the water temperature, seems miles away. However, when my feet touch the bottom of the lake again I am no longer cold – there’s just some fiery liquid energy running through my veins. I laugh and stop for a little rest; then, I swim back to where I’d left my clothes, and get out of the water. The wind is strong and, I think, cold, but I am certainly colder. Dressing takes a while because my fingers and toes are frozen. Once finished I climb back on top of the moraine, and stare, mesmerized, at Chomolungma, standing gloriously against the clear sky. I know, I have been looking at the mountain every day, but here, away from everyone, it feels like Everest is looking back at me. I will return to the lake tomorrow – and every day while we are resting at Base Camp before the second acclimatization rotation to ABC and the North Col.

My private swimming pool

It will be hard to walk from BC directly to ABC, and it will take me 8 hours to get to 6400 meters; it will be hard to climb the North Col again, even in perfect weather; the hardest thing, however, will be coming back to Base Camp after the successful rotation knowing that the next venture into thinner air will be the last one – the summit push.

Camp 1 on the North Col, second rotation: (left to right) Dorjee Sherpa, yours truly, Mark Horrell, Phil Crampton, Margaret Watroba

Before the summit push it is the daily weather forecast that brings the team together in the communications dome at 11 a.m. – we are waiting for the ‘weather window’ which would permit the team to climb to the top without freezing or being quite literally blown off the mountain. The most important factor for those climbing from the Cold Side is the wind – we are looking for something around 30-40 mph. For days now the forecast has been suggesting that the 18th, 19th and the 20th (perhaps, the 21st as well) will be good days to go for it, with relatively low winds and manageable temperatures. We initially decide to make the 20th our summit day: we would get in position for the summit push at ABC, rest there for one whole day after the tiring trek from BC and then climb to the North Col; this would be followed by a night at Camp 2 at 7800 meters, then, Camp 3 at 8300 meters, and late in the evening on the 19th we’d leave for the summit.

Jet stream blasting the summit of Everest

‘You just have to stay healthy now, be careful,’ our leader, Phil, tells the team. ‘No swimming, Mila!’ I will not go to the lake again. However, just to keep active Margaret and I, warmly dressed, with Buffs over our noses and mouths, will go on little walks around BC – they will have to be short because of the strong, cold wind. All is well until we decide we want to see the nearby monastery and send some postcards to our loved ones from the China Post office in the tent village some 45 minutes away from BC. Before we leave BC on our unnecessary mission I ignore my instinct warning me not to go. When, three or four hours later, Margaret and I return to Base Camp, I already know I’m falling ill. We drink tea with ginger and honey but its warmth can’t chase the cold wind and the dust out of our lungs. Soon, we both have a persistent chest cough; I become congested and feel my body temperature rise. ‘It’s fine,’ I tell myself, ‘I still have two full days at Base Camp to recover.’

Unfortunately, that’s not the case. On the 13th of May we don’t get our daily weather forecast – perhaps, the most important one of the season. After we go to sleep in our tents, however, Phil receives the forecast and asks the team to gather in the kitchen tent. All the Sherpas and the inji, sleepy-looking, are passing the computer with the forecast from one person to another. We all agree that the 20th does not look so good anymore – we’ll have to aim for the 19th. If we are to have a rest day at ABC, we have to leave the next day, but we are not ready. The Sherpas, after doing two carries to 8300 meters back to back, are down at BC for a more than well-deserved rest, and they certainly still need another day at base camp; as for us, the inji, we need that day before we leave for the mountain to pack, make our last pre-summit push calls/write blogs and just get mentally prepared for some of the most exhausting days of our lives. Thus, we decide to skip the rest day at ABC and give ourselves another day at BC instead: we will be leaving for 6400 on the 15th of May.

The route to Camp 2

That night I start another course of antibiotics. I know that what I have is not the so-called ‘Khumbu cough’, which is superficial, but a full-blown chest infection. I am coughing a lot, and my body feels sick, limp and heavy. At sea level it would take me about a week, perhaps, 10 days, to recover from a sickness like that; after spending some 40 days at over 5200 meters, I dread to think how long for and how seriously i’ll be ill. I have one day – just one day before I have to leave for the summit push on Everest – something I’d dreamed of and visualized for years – and now I know that I probably won’t make it to the top, maybe, not even ABC…

It is a long, bad night at Base Camp for me.