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 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.

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

Pumori 2012: Khumbu

Pumori Base Camp. Weather before team departure.
Pumori Base Camp. Weather before team departure.

I look at the men sitting around me in the kitchen tent, lit only by the climbing team’s and the cook’s headlamps and… a small candle. The three climbing Sherpas, who have just come down from the Southwest Ridge of Pumori after battling 60-70mph winds trying to fix rope along the route, look utterly spent. Their faces are gaunt and sunken in the scarce light. They are warming their hands, which my whim to climb Pumori in winter could have cost them, against aluminum cups of steaming hot tea. ‘If the wind is too strong on the ridge, come down with your gear, don’t risk anything,’ I told the three Sherpas over 12 hours ago in the morning when they were leaving base camp to work on the route. The winds, weather forecasts predicted, would only get stronger above 6500 meters from that day on, and climbing would be impossible anyway. A long wait at the frigid base camp would also be difficult for the boys and, perhaps, too difficult for me. I hoped the forecasts would, perhaps, be wrong, but the faces of my Sherpas tell me the winds were indeed as relentless as expected. The bulky backpacks they brought down are unequivocal signs that we are not returning to the route. I am relieved to see everyone healthy if tired and disappointed, but I am also sorry to witness the end of what could be my last Himalayan dream.

‘I’m sorry, Mila,’ Dorje, the team’s sirdar, tells me, thinking that it is the impossibility of climbing Pumori that casts a shadow over my face.

‘Don’t be sorry,’ I say – to both him and myself. I then thank the boys wholeheartedly for their hard work fixing rope on the steep and exposed Southwest ridge, for waiting for days at the lifeless windy base camp when the weather halted their progress, for truly believing that I could, in fact, climb such a technically difficult route in winter and for putting their lives at risk to fulfill my dream. Six pairs of eyes look at me, six men hear my voice, but they don’t listen.

‘A waste of money and gear,’ Dorje sums up the sentiment.

‘Just money and gear, though – not fingers or anything else irreplaceable,’ I insist. ‘If we still have all our fingers and the will to climb together, we can try this again at another, more appropriate, time. Meanwhile, I have another idea…’

Kangtega from Pangboche
Kangtega from Pangboche

I like my voice that night – I recognize it again, at last. It sounds calm and certain; it knows what’s important. When the expedition was leaving Kathmandu, my voice and my whole attitude were different.

‘I can see that you have a strong team,’ someone, whose opinion counts, told me a few days before departure.

‘Yes, it is a strong team, except for me,’ I said.

‘I can see that, too,’ was the response of my interlocutor – a vocalization of what people see when they see me: someone, who is carried to the summits in a basket on the backs of her climbing Sherpas. Past my appearance and countenance people all too rarely see how much I actually love to climb and how hard and seriously I work at doing it well. Leaving Kathmandu before the Pumori expedition, I was not, as I used to do, simply setting out to scale a mountain that attracted me but also to prove that I was equal to the hardest of mountaineering tasks. I’d forgotten that to reach the summit is, in reality, not at all ‘the hardest of mountaineering tasks’.

Ama Dablam
Ama Dablam

Trekking to Pumori base camp at 5300 meters took us 6 days. It was cold, hard to walk and even harder to breathe – as always. The busiest trekking trail in Nepal leading to Everest Base Camp looked empty – disappointingly so, as the winter sun was still friendly and welcoming, and the weather, if windy, was clear. Many of the mountains I passed I recognized as friends: the gloriously steep Thamserku, towering above Namche Bazaar and the trail to Tengboche, Ama Dablam – the most beautiful mountain I have climbed yet – standing tall and proud across the river from Pangboche, Cholatse on the way to Lobuche, which taught me to appreciate the people I climb with more than the mountains I crave to climb, and, of course, Everest, where a part of me fell asleep somewhere below the Second Step, and never woke up. I feel at home walking amongst these stone bodyguards of the mountain gods, whom I worship, and who don’t know I exist. It is, however, with a heavy heart that I step onto the site of the Everest Memorial, where out of the frigid ground small chortens grow like brunch-less, bloodless tree trunks, decorated with memorial plates, telling trekkers and climbers about those who came before them – and would never leave now.

Pumori from the Everest Memorial
Pumori from the Everest Memorial

It is from here that I first see Pumori in her full stature. She seems to be one of the chortens, and I wonder briefly if she is waiting for my name to be inscribed on her Southwest Ridge. There have been no successful ascent of the mountain in 2012, and it doesn’t feel to me like we will be granted passage to her summit, either. Nevertheless, the beauty of Pumori fascinates and draws me like a magnet, and when next morning I stand at our base camp at the foot of the mountain, I forget all about my fears and premonitions; I am ready and excited to go climbing.

Blog Update: Another Cold White Christmas

Pumori (photo via Wikipedia)

This season winter came to Kathmandu and the mountains early. The capital of Nepal is now already as cold as it usually gets in January, and our October/early November Ganesh expedition was about as cold as my winter ascent of Ganchenpo. A winter ascent would be a serious trial in such unusually low temperatures, which only makes it more interesting for me to try. And what could be more exciting for a true altitude junkie than to attempt a winter ascent of one of the most beautiful and recognizable peaks in the world – the stunning Pumori in the upper Khumbu region just 8 km away from Everest? This is not a rhetorical question. The answer to it is, to try to scale the same mountain – a dangerous climb even on the normal route – via the notoriously difficult and steep Southwest Ridge. A scene of several accidents, the route has taken more climbers to failure than success. In terms of technical difficulty, it will be by far the most challenging climb I have ever attempted: it features overhanging terrain, long vertical walls of rock and ice and exposed traverses. My greatest enemy in the mountains – the cold – will be another serious obstacle on the way to Pumori’s summit at 7161 meters. It will take all my luck and courage to succeed – in summiting or deciding to turn around before I get myself or any of my friends in trouble. The reason my team and I chose the more difficult route over the normal one is that the latter, although technically easier, is well-known for its high avalanche risk. Those of you, who have read about my recent Manaslu expedition, will understand why I particularly want to avoid at least this danger.

Pumori, photo from EBC trek 2009

Why Pumori? Why such a ridiculously technical climb in such a cold season? Aren’t there other mountains to climb: lower in elevation and, thus, warmer, with easier routes? And, speaking of warmth, how long has it been since I’ve been to the beach or gone for a long dive in the sea? Well, it is Pumori because, in addition to being a most alluring peak its own right, it is close to the unforgettable Chomolungma. In fact, it was George Mallory, who died tragically on Everest during the 1924 expedition, who gave Pumori her name, and mountaineers often refer to the mountain as ‘Everest’s daughter’. As such, it is part of Everest, which, although I have climbed it, is still a dream, that somehow feels unfulfilled. Thus, I climb on. It makes sense to me to try a more challenging climbing route now than I would have dared do before: it’s not that I am a better mountaineer now, but I am calmer, and I can enjoy the challenge a little more – even if I loose it. As for the beach… there’s a glacial lake at the foot of Pumori, so I’m bringing my swimsuit :).

Leading the expedition will be my regular climbing partners and friends: Dorje Sherpa and Pasang Wongchu Sherpa. Sangye Sherpa and a ‘newbie’ on our team, but not on the Southwest Ridge, Dawa Sherpa, will also climb with us. Our cooks, Pasang Nima Sherpa and Pemba Sherpa, will make sure we are eating well while off the mountain. On our way to Pumori base camp, which follows the same trail as the famous Everest Base Camp trekking route, we will stop by the Pema Choling Monastery above Phakding, where I hope to see the kids in good health and deliver my friends’ donations. Many thanks to all of you, who have shown interest in the project! The donations page for the monastery is not yet up and running, but, if you would like to support the cause, please, check back once in a while, as we’re only a few days away from getting things working:

https://sixthsymph.com/pemacholing-monastery-khumbu-nepal/

Millions of thanks in advance!

We leave for Lukla on the 4th of December, and expect to reach base camp within 7-8 days. To keep my friends and readers updated on our progress, I will tweet occasionally throughout the expedition. You can follow the climb here:

https://twitter.com/Liudmila_M

Given that we expect the expedition to last about a month, I will most likely be on the mountain for Christmas and New Year, as well as the season’s other big event, the end of the world on the 21st of December. For all three of them I wish you love, warmth, courage and happy new beginnings! Thank you for following my expeditions in 2012! I hope to be back in 2013 with better poetry and more exciting adventure stories for my readers. Drop by if you’re curious ;)!

Love,

Mila