On day five we reached Dingboche, sitting at nearly 14,000 feet. Probably the most hospitable looking village we had seen in the Khumbu, Dingboche sets in the middle of the valley, shadowed to the north by Lhotse, and Amu Dablum to the west. A small alpine river flows next to the settlement, collecting snowmelt for the low foliage that grows at the limit of elevation’s tolerance. Baby yak roam the village, in this last vestige before entering the harsh landscape of rock, wind, and ice above. In the evening, James and I climbed to a natural spring overlooking the village to pump water on the low slopes of Lhotse. Our fingers froze as we filled our bottles, watching the darkness begin to overwhelm a village that is without any kind of reliable source of electricity.
After another day of acclimatization, we headed higher towards Lobuche, at the foot of the valley leading towards Everest and 16,200 feet above sea level. That night, we woke to the sound of screaming sometime around 3am. “Nene, Nene!” It sounded like the person was shouting. There was desperation to the scream, as if someone was running through his or her neighborhood calling for a lost dog. After a few minutes, the man’s screams devolved into passionate and violent crying. Commotion filled the teahouse, with the shuffling of feet and engaged conversations. I lay awake pondering what could have been happening, and what might have caused the stir. The delirium of half sleep and exhaustion eventually won over, and I eventually drifted back into sleep.
We awoke the next day to find out that a man had died during the night. He was a 28-year-old Norwegian named Renee (hence the shouts). He had ascended to Gorak Shep the previous day, another several hundred feet above Lobuche. He had fallen ill with AMS, Acute Mountain Sickness, or altitude sickness. A helicopter had attempted an evacuation twice, both times being forced away by high winds. During the night, he had lost consciousness, and was carried down by porters to Lobuche. He was placed into an oxygen bag, where he passed away after only ten minutes.
His newly windowed wife, along with friends and family, gathered sobbing by the stove in the dining room. The morning air carried with it the solemn fear that comes along with recent death, and the sudden and unexpected calm that comes in the wake of emergency. Other trekkers took in the fact that a young man, who had previously scaled peaks in the region much higher than the trail we were currently on, had succumbed to the elevation. Why had his body failed him? If it had happened to him, how easily could it happen to us? Guides and porters carried with them the burden of responsibility, and the knowledge that one of their own had failed in his duty to keep his clients safe. In turn, the event would mark the end of the guide’s career, and perhaps even legal repercussion. Guiding is a good, lucrative job that often supports entire families in a place were jobs are unbelievably difficult to come by. Finally, the man’s wife, forlorn and in shock, staring into the void and wearing an expression clearly stating, “What the fuck am I supposed to do now?” One day she was on vacation with her husband, enjoying the majesty of the Himalaya. The next day she was a young widow faced with the problem of getting her late husband’s body out of the high, remote mountains of Nepal and back across two continents to Norway, among much else. The cruelty and proximity of the tragedy shook everyone, Nepali or otherwise. We left Lobuche as hastily as we could.
Later that day we reached Gorak Shep, the highest settlement in the Khumbu. After a quick lunch, we pushed another 2 hours across glacial moraine towards Base Camp. Flooded with relief at having reached our goal with our health intact, we sat for a moment and reflected on the journey that had brought us there. We returned to Gorak Shep, exhausted from 9 hours of hiking at altitudes containing only half of the oxygen available at sea level.
The next morning we woke up before 5am, donned headlamps, and began our climb to the summit of Kala Pattar – an 18,514-foot-tall peak at the foot of the Pumori ridge. In the valley below Everest, the mountain is well concealed behind Nuptse. Kala Pattar is high enough that it provides a fantastic view of the concealed summit. We were the first on the trail, and were rewarded with a night sky devoid of smog or light pollution. It was a ceiling of stars so dense and bright that it nearly lit the ground we walked on, clearly the most impressive night sky I’ve seen anywhere in the Northern Hemisphere. The predawn temperature was well below zero, but the sky was cloudless and there was no wind. The climb is rigorous, totaling to about 2,000 feet of elevation gain and beginning at an altitude of 16,500 ft. As we climbed higher, each step became the highest I had ever been. We finally were given some perspective on the tallest mountain in the world, as other mountains shrunk away the higher we got, while Everest just keep revealing itself as larger and larger. Our fingers and toes were quickly numb, and our muscles burnt and strained, drowning in the lack of oxygen. Dehydrated, eyes blurry and watering, coughing and dizzy from the altitude, we reached the summit around 7am. Having left so early, we had the summit entirely to ourselves. Eight days of walking, 35 miles of constant up and down, 10,000 feet higher than where we had started. We sat and relaxed, lungs bleeding and bodies beaten, and watched the sun come up from behind the tallest point of land on our planet. No wind. No clouds. No distractions. Just us and the sunrise of our lives.
Waking up stiff, a thick layer of ice on our windows, feeling incapable of sitting up to put on my filthy pants that had gotten so cold during the night that they felt wet, I began to worry that I would expel all of my energy getting to base camp and not be able to get back. While we were going predominantly uphill, there was a lot of down too; we would climb a mountain just to go back down in order to cross the river, again. I wondered what kind of a person had made these trails – a masochist for sure. I walked slower than what should be allowed to qualify as walking, at times one step every few seconds. Our guide would tell us at breakfast how much walking the day should involve: “3 hours walking. But, sister can’t walk, so 5 hours slowly.” Often at the top of hills, as I finally made it to the top huffing and puffing, he would look at me sadly and say, “James, I hope it you can make to base camp.” For some reason he thought both James and I had the same name.
After leaving Dingboche, the first “reasonable” place to establish a town, as Kevin put it, we slogged further upward to Lobuche. This was the first teahouse that offered more than one thin blanket. The beds were adorned with fuzzy purple comforters almost a foot thick. Our first warm night in days, we slept great until panicked yells and intense sobbing yanked us awake. The next morning we choked down gritty plain pancakes while watching the man’s friends give official statements, his widow sob by the yak dung fire, and Sherpa guides murmur to each other with somber faces. I felt an urgency to get out of there, but also afraid to keep walking higher, to the altitude that had killed this man.
All day, every step, I felt sure that I would get altitude sickness as well. Every cough, every slight pressure in my forehead, every tiny ailment felt like a sign that I was getting sick. The day was a delirious haze of anxiety and exhaustion as we finally approached Gorak Shep, ate a quick lunch, and made the push to base camp. The path is dusty and rocky, but underneath is the mammoth Khumbu Glacier. It snakes up and down large brown mounds, meanders up a ridge, and then drops steeply down. I stood at the top of this decline for several minutes, debating whether I would have it in me to get back up it. But then I realized that if I was going to give up at this point, I should have given up back at the first strenuous hill. So I descended, alongside a train of yaks carrying food for summit expeditions. It’s frowned upon for trekkers to actually enter camp, so there is a symbolic gathering of boulders covered with heaps of prayer flags a few hundred feet from the small cluster of yellow tents. These rocks are covered with sharpie graffiti, making shout-outs to friends at home, memorializing family members lost, celebrating the accomplishment of making it this far.
As my brain didn’t seem to be working at full capacity at this elevation, I just remember two substantial thoughts crossing my mind. The first being incredible relief and accomplishment at finally making it, much to our guide’s surprise. The second, a sense of awe and slight horror that this was just the first step for people hoping to summit Everest, over two miles higher than where we were standing. I didn’t dwell on this second thought for long, for other trekking groups were arriving, and nothing sounded better than bed. So we slogged back to Gorak Shep, where I slept soundly knowing that from here on out we were heading downhill.