Matching my pace to my breathing, the uphill climb felt easy. There was no rush as today’s hike was not about a destination, but acclimatization. If you rush to altitude, your body can not adapt quick enough and you will get headaches, nausea, lethargy, and spaciness. It’s called acute mountain sickness, and it is to be avoided. Worse degrees of it cause fluid to pool in your lungs or brain, which can be deadly. So, we take our time.
Our approach trek to Everest is spread over a leisurely 9 days to avoid all those predictable problems. At 12,000 feet I can feel the altitude through my pulse being about 5 beats per minute faster than normal. But a year’s worth of training is paying off, and the pace feels relaxed.
The daily clouds are closing in, right on schedule. A white yak eyes us cautiously from his position near the drop off to the valley floor. Far across the river, a rarely climbed 20,000 foot peak skips inand out of the clouds.
The trail skirts around a wall made of hand-cut and hand-stacked rocks. The clouds are closing in fast, but a patch of blue sky catches my eye. About 20 miles away, a wall of 20,000 foot peaks crosses the landscape. And ten miles further north juts up a dark triangle. The snow plume being stripped off its summit by the jet stream winds is so huge that it looks like a cloudbank.
Everest. The local Sherpa people call it Chomolungma, the Goddess Mother of the Earth.
Even at 30 miles away from me, I can see how far is soars above everything in sight, and really, everything on the planet. My pulse quickens and I feel myself smile. It’s Everest!
I have been dreaming of climbing it for more than 40 years. I have been consciously developing the skills for three decades. For the past year, I have trained harder than ever before. Getting the chance to attempt Everest does not come easy.
Even being able to see the sacred peak does not come easy. To see it today, I had to fly halfway around the planet, and hike for two days.
Then, the racing winds shove bubbling clouds in front of the mountain, and the vision is gone. Ten seconds of beauty is all that the goddess would allow us today. That’s okay, There will be more glimpses in the weeks ahead as we slowly approach base camp and continue the sufferfest of acclimatization.
If we work hard enough, and the gods are kind to us, perhaps in 50 days or so we will be at the summit.
I stare at shifting clouds but I still see Everest in my mind’s eye, just as I always have.
We stop by the Kumjung monastery to see how reconstruction is going since the earthquakes destroyed it two years ago. The building is nearing completion, and the painters are putting the finishing touches to the exterior. Running on deeply honed instincts from growing up a painter;s son, my eyes lock on the foot of the ladder to make sure its steady. The dirt is not very compact, but the side rail is jammed against a rock, so its good enough.
My father has been gone for 15 years now, so I can no longer show him photos of painters that I always take during my travels. I take the photo anyway and think of him.
The observational and analytical skills that he taught me over 20 years are hard wired. They have served me well on climbs and rescues for 36 years. When the stakes are high or the situation uncertain, I trust these instincts fully as they have kept me and others safe many times.
After a traditional dhal bhat (rice and lentil soup) lunch in an old style communal lodges we begin the 1,200 foot steep descent back to Namche Bazaar. The clouds envelope us and I welcome the brief chance to walk alone for a while. We pass by a long row of hand-carved rock slabs. These mani stones are covered with the same prayer over and over again: Om mani padme hom. Paying respects to the birth of Lord Buddha, there are thousands of mani stones here, holding dozens of prayers each. The wall stretches for 100 meters, the longest in the Khumbu Valley where the Sherpa people live.
As the clouds close in tighter, I can only see 40 feet ahead. I can barely discern the human outlines of my teammates. Its as if I am walking down a foggy tunnel, generally following the others in front of me, but also having to make my own choices. I think of my father who diligently cleared a path for me to follow. I ponder the skills, the hustle and the enthusiasm for adventure that he nurtured in me.
My mind drifts across the years of climbing that have led me back to Everest once again. Are the shadows ahead the instructors and partners that have taught me how to climb? Are they the mentors that taught me how to teach others to climb?
The mists close in tighter and I only see ten meters of rocky path in front of me. Will the trails ahead eventually lead me to the summit of Everest? Will I make the right declensions when the tough times arrive, accompanies by uncertainty and fear?
I’ll have to find my way by blending together the trail left by others with my own instincts. Its what we all must do to find our way forward through the mountains and the mists.