Notes from Dolpo, Part II

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View from my tent in Phoksundo early in the morning

It’s 3 am, and I am, as is usual with me at this hour, wide awake. An enormous full moon is shining so bright on our campsite by the shore of Lake Phoksundo that I could probably read without my headlamp. We are at 3700 meters in the Himalaya in late autumn, which is to say that it’s cold outside, but I tell myself not to be lazy — when else will I ever see such a moon in such a setting? — and crawl out of my warm sleeping bag and tent into the night mountain air. Tears and a smile come simultaneously as I look at the surreal scenery around me. What a joy and yet what a shame, too, that I should be the only one to see this night in all its majestic, hypnotizing beauty!

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Ringmo Gompa

In the morning the group takes a short walk to the Ringmo monastery. Like an illustration from a book of ancient legends, it stands quietly over the aquamarine waters, keeping their secrets and peace. One of our assistant guides asks the lama, who looks after the gompa, if it might be possible to swim in the lake. He says no, and, looking straight at me, speaks of a time forever ago, when human beings were still strong and wise and when Ringmo monks could fly over the lake like birds. That time is long gone now, but the magic lives on in the lake, and it must not be disturbed. Plus, he adds, it’s just too cold to swim in. I enjoy the careful but brave curiosity with which he looks directly into my eyes, surprised to find in them what I know he does… With a smile and a nod I communicate to the lama that he needn’t worry: I won’t steal any magic from this place. As much of it as possible must remain in this world, if not within human hearts, then, at least, resting at the bottom of this most beautiful body of water.

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Entrance to Ringmo Gompa

We spend another night in Phoksundo, and I once again go outside at my usual hour. I want to remember for as long as I live having the light and the darkness of Phoksundo all to myself. Next morning after breakfast we leave the lake following the very narrow trail made famous by the film Himalaya/Caravan, where one of the salt traders’ yaks falls into the water. It’s a beautiful walk that may give some vertigo and others – an adrenaline rush. Wanting to be alone on the trail, I begin to speed away from the rest of the group until it’s just mountains, Phoksundo and Ringmo monastery I can see. Before turning the corner and starting the long, dusty descent to the lunch spot, I smile at the gompa in the distance one last time, telling myself that Phoksundo was worth dreaming about.

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Leaving Phoksundo

In one of the yak herders’ caves near the lunch spot I hide from the relentless wind and wait for the rest to arrive while the cook and the kitchen boys get to work on the food. They impress me as the fastest-walking, hardest-working and least noticeable members of the support team, and it’s them I will trek with in the future, instead of with the group. After a 3-hour lunch break in the cold wind, we head into the nearby pine forest to look for a suitable campsite for the night. In less than 1.5 hours we find ourselves in just such a place, and as I help out with the tents, I ask the assistant guides if we could not perhaps place my little yellow home slightly away from the others, not because I am disturbed by the moving around, snoring or coughing of my team mates but because I abhor this feeling of imprisonment that walking single-file and sleeping, albeit in private tents, right next to each other, gives me. There is no shortage of space, which has become such a luxury these days, in Dolpo, so I am determined to enjoy it whenever I get the chance.

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At the top of Kang La

Next morning we head for the pass camp at 4700 meters below the Kang La. At just over 5300 meters, it doesn’t seem like an insurmountable obstacle to me given that I have only recently returned from a very pleasant short prep trek to Tilicho Lake and across the Thorong Pass in the Annapurna region. Before we leave for the pass itself the following day, the leader of the group asks that instead of the kitchen crew I walk with the trekkers, just in case. I know it will take them about 3-4 times longer to cross the pass than it would do me, and I’m not looking forward to the death march in the freezing-cold wind. If only I could find something to keep myself occupied… I ask my team mates if anyone would like any help on the way, and a gentleman volunteers to be looked after during the descent from the pass, which will require crampons as the terrain is slightly icy. The ‘job’ keeps me somewhat mentally and physically busy, and reminds me of the good old times when I was not just one of the clients.

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Shey Gompa

Many hours later we safely make it to Shey Gompa, a place you may have read about in Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard. The group will spend two nights here, camping nearby the famous monastery itself. It’s chilly and humid in the small village over which the holy Chystal Mountain rises like a fortress guarding an invisible city. On our rest day here we do laundry, clean up, and in the afternoon head over to the monastery for a tour. Shey Gompa, which I’d been hoping would leave a deep impression, does not quite do that. I take photos of the beautiful wall paintings, listen to the lama’s stories about the very hard life at the monastery and the village in winter but remain unmoved. Although I appreciate, and very much, where I am and what I have the privilege to be seeing, it doesn’t touch me in the same way that Ringmo did just a few days earlier.

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Inside Shey Gompa

After another night at Shey, we move on to cross the trip’s second high pass, the Sela (5095m), before reaching our next campsite in Namgung. This will be one of my favorite days of the trek. The barren trail snaking through the moon-like scenery will take us to the top of the pass used by Tibetan salt traders, and from there as far as the eye can see there will be just blue sky and golden mountains bathed in cold sunlight. Standing in the middle of this spectacular high altitude desert reminds me of the legend the Ringmo lama told us. Although I am well aware that I live in a very different time and space from the flying monks, I want, if only for a moment, to forget about that: I open my arms and allow the powerful gusts of wind to lift me off my feet, making it feel like I could fly away any second. Some of my team mates hiding from the same wind behind the mani wall look at me like I have finally lost it completely, and I wonder if they know what they’re missing out on.

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View from the top of Sela Pass

As soon as the cooking team catches up, I grab my trekking poles and run down to Namgung with them. We are now traveling through scenery unlike any other I know of on Earth, and as if through a different era.

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

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: Solo

I woke up to the clanking of harnesses, and looked at my watch: it was just before 7 am. Reluctantly, I loosened the string around my sleeping bag’s hood, and popped my head out into the icy air of the tent. The sun would not reach base camp until after 8 am, and I could not imagine getting out of my sleeping bag and changing in such cold, but I would have to: the three climbing Sherpas were heading up for what I’d told them would be the last attempt to fix rope up to Camp 2 – it was too cold to linger at base camp and wait for the weather window, which might or might not open before we freeze and the morale sinks below sea level. ‘Don’t risk anything,’ I told the boys as they walked away.

Everest
Everest

Later in the day, I went to the frozen Pumori lake to look for a spot to swim. I walked to the middle of it, gliding on the thick ice, looking away from Pumori, over whose summit clouds rushed at ridiculous speeds, and onto Everest on the other side. She was black, and rocky, and beautiful, and the sole sight of the mountain made me feel content, but also deeply sad. ‘If there was just one more thing I could do before disappearing, I would climb back to touch my forehead to your icy, white brow, Chomolungma,’ I whispered into the strong wind. ‘Can you see me, standing again before you? Can you hear me? Would you have me back?’ In his book Everest: The West Ridge Tom Hornbein describes the exact feeling I had standing there in the middle of the lake between Pumori and Everest: ‘It is strange how when a dream is fulfilled, there is nothing left but doubt.’

After 12 hours on the Southwest Ridge of Pumori, the climbing Sherpas would come down, and the expedition would be over. I would not have my team risk their lives or almost certain frostbite for my doubt to go away – because it wouldn’t, no matter how many summits I reached. After leaving me to celebrate a success, it would come and sit by me when my friends have gone to live their lives; doubt would hold my cold hands and whisper in my ear: ‘you were just lucky, Princess; you are unworthy, unworthy, unworthy…’

Cholatse
Cholatse

Tired of that voice in my ear, I made an announcement to the Sherpas before I went to my tent that night. ‘I have an idea,’ I said… I told them they would go home, while I would stop in Pheriche on the way down, wait for the permit to be issued, and then go to climb Cholatse – solo. They laughed my ‘idea’ off at first, but when they realized I meant what I was saying, they began to worry.

‘You’re not going anywhere alone, Mila,’ Dorje said to me sternly. ‘How are you going to fix rope? How are you going to carry everything? How…?’

‘I started climbing long before we met,’ I replied, ‘and I actually know how to fix rope, and hammer in pitons, and place ice screws, and pitch tents. Not that I’m great at it, but I can do it. I can certainly carry more than you usually let me do.’

‘How are you going to come down?’

‘Slowly and painfully, but carefully.’

‘No, if you go to Cholatse, we all go to Cholatse.’

‘No, I want to climb alone,’ I insisted.

‘You won’t be climbing alone. We’ll plan something now, and we’ll go together.’

Touched as I was by this display of loyalty, I truly didn’t want any of the Sherpas climbing with me anymore. For them, climbing is a job, for me – a passion; thus, while I can, perhaps, be justified in pushing past my limits, they should not feel compelled to follow where only a madman/woman would go. I didn’t want the responsibility – it weighed too heavily on my shoulders. For once, I wished that it would be just my doubt and I, climbing together as far as we dared. It was not to be, however. When I woke up next morning and prepared to go for a swim in Pumori Lake, one of the Sherpas was assigned to follow me and make sure I was ok. After the swim

After the swim

The swim was cold and invigorating, and gave me the strength to stay calm and collected when the expedition team left base camp next morning. On descent, I was again accompanied by one of the Sherpas, who would look concerned every time I would stop to look at a possible route of ascent on the fascinating Cholatse. ‘What do you think?’ I asked him about a line I painted on the mountain. ‘Looks fine. But you can’t do it alone.’ Down in Pheriche, where we stopped for the night, the wind was wild, ceaselessly throwing sand and dust in one’s face. It was still early in the day when we arrived, which gave us much time to talk about my newest bad idea – Cholatse solo. The conversation made me realize that there was no way I would be allowed to stay and climb on the mountain unsupported. In the evening the rest of the team arrived with the yaks, carrying expedition gear, and, looking at my team’s tired faces, I said nothing of Cholatse. The sirdar observed me questioningly, ready for almost any craziness to come out of my mouth, but I simply smiled. Of course, I would not drag the boys to Cholatse after a failure on Pumori – the whole point of leaving Pumori was to deliver them safely home to their real lives and their families. I told myself before going to sleep that night that that was what I would do: return to Kathmandu with my team, take a rest, and come back – alone – to Cholatse. However, that, too, was not to be.

Sunrise on Ama Dablam
Sunrise on Ama Dablam