I wake up with the sunrise. I have a slight headache, but that’s expected at this altitude. I almost welcome it. It hides my nervousness. I get out of the sleeping bag, put my shoes on and fish out the hot water bottle that kept me warm all night. I go down the hall to the hole in the floor they call a bathroom. I shiver as I pee and watch the fog come up from the warmth of my bodily liquids. I wash my face with the water from the hot water bottle and brush my teeth. This water tastes like rubber, but it's still warm, and I paid four dollars for it yesterday, so I am using it to its full potential. I wonder why people climb mountains. We are days away from the nearest road accessible by a vehicle. It's freezing, we pay ridiculous money for rooms with nothing but four walls and a roof, there is little oxygen in the air, the food is terrible, and I haven't showered for a week. Is it an ego thing?
I leave the lodge and take in the vista at 5000 metres above sea level. It looks like I am on a different planet. Half-satisfied with the universe's answer I walk to the dining hall. The team is already there, including Vivian, who is not joining us in an attempt to summit. I muse for a moment about staying here with her. It's my first attempt at high-altitude trekking, and the ten days we spent hiking here from Lukla at 2700m is plenty more than most first-timers can boast. Most people’s first mountaineering attempts finish even below our initial starting point. I look at my team attentively, trying to gauge how they feel.
Anton looks pretty agitated. He is repeatedly re-checking all the equipment and being noisy about me being late, breakfast being late, and sherpas being late. It looks like a mild meltdown, and I smile at him. "It's gonna be fine, Ant, relax." He stares at me blankly for a second and returns to his OCD routine.
Jay is in a playful mood. "Could be sipping margaritas in Dubai now, huh?" he says. "What's wrong with us that we call this a vacation?" "Curiosity is a bitch, Master Jay" I respond. He shrugs with a smile. He is the oldest of us and the core of this expedition. A brilliant guy who used to be a businessman and government official in Russia. Made a fortune. He quit to open a yoga studio, lead nagapasa games (the world knows them as Lila) and write a PhD on the history of religion. Yesterday, he led a game for us here at 5000m, and we finished in an hour with all five of us playing. I understood what I must do this year and where to do it, from playing that game.
Tina finally looks alright after the last few days of struggling with the flu. "Good morning. You look much better. Are you climbing with us?" I ask her. "Wouldn't miss it even if I was sick. Remember, I brought the group to Everest base camp while having COVID," she laughs.
We recheck all the equipment, load up on breakfast, and pack a bunch of energy gels and water for the climb. We spend a while putting the climbing shoes on correctly. The pair I bought is not suitable for this climb. Too light. Sherpas scramble to find a pair to rent for me. They bring a beat-up pair, ranked for 8km. They are twice as heavy as the ones I bought and feel loose on my feet. Oh well, that always happens when you purchase equipment but have no idea what you’re doing. We exit the lodge and meet with our guide, Taz, and the two high mountain sherpas who will guide our ascent today. They help us get into the harnesses and attach snowcats and rope to our rucksacks in a way that won't hurt us on the first leg of our hike. Around 8am we get onto the trek and start towards the first camp at 5200m.
The weather is fantastic. After a couple of days of gloom, the sky is finally clear of clouds, and the sun is shining bright. It will change sometime in the afternoon, and we must move quickly to avoid getting stuck. We split into two groups. Anton, Jay, Taz, and Sherpa Tenzen are going first, and Tina, Sherpa Noi and I are behind. There are a few others that start today, too. Everyone has been waiting for this break in the weather. My mood is very upbeat. I feel strong and excited about what's ahead.
I remember how this trek began almost two weeks ago. We met in Kathmandu and spent a few days buying and renting the missing equipment, packing and having fun. At the end of the second day, around 2 am, we loaded onto a bus and started our journey towards the remote airport with flights to Lukla. I hoped to catch some sleep on that road, but by some ridiculous serendipity, at the same time, my friend arrived to pick up my old Citroen from the people who were supposed to sell it in LA. They asked me to collect it a month ago, and my mate only got around to it then, and they were extorting $5000 USD. I spent half of the trip angrily texting with them and got the car out, paying $2000. I was furious. The shitbox is worth no more than 10k, and these guys were supposed to sell it. Not only did they fail at that, but they have also charged me a fifth of the car price for three weeks of parking — for the rest of the trip I daydreamed about burning their shop in LA down. I knew I wasn’t going to do it, but damn, did I want to.
The first rays of sunshine appear as we come into the next valley, and I see that the mountain ahead is covered with shiny objects. As we work our way up to it, I realise that there are thousands of mirrors attached to it.
"What are these?" I ask our driver.
"One for each person who died here."
"On this road?"
"Yes, and in this region generally. People come and place them to remember."
I look at the most playful wall of death I've ever seen and experience a powerful cognitive dissonance. There's incredible beauty in this impromptu decentralised monument. However, it reminds me of all the wealthy and successful guys who came here to prove something to themselves and the world, never to return. Suddenly, the Citroen drama seems laughably tiny. I smile for the first time in a few hours at an internal voice that decides not to burn anything down in LA this time.
We arrived at the airport around 8am. We only covered 160km in the six hours of the night, and I still feel sick. The road was so windy I hadn't slept a minute. It was practically impossible. The flight is scary. Small prop planes take off from a short runway, fly under the clouds between the mountains and land on a tiny angled strip in Lukla. We haven't started the trek and I am already on edge.
My most extensive trek before this was in Bali a few weeks ago. We climbed Mount Agung in the rain and with no equipment. It was hellishly cold, dangerous and intense. We went up 1500m and down, all in one night. By the end of it, I could barely walk, as my old leg injury was inflamed. Luckily, that was on the descent, so I had nothing to worry about in my Himalayan trek until the final day. That short climb humbled me. It reminded me to respect the mountain and be well-equipped for it.
According to our itinerary, the day was supposed to be easy, with only a few hours' hike after our landing in Lukla. If only I knew what a big lie that was. Our tour plan had a slow elevation over the first week from 2700m to 3200m, allowing our bodies to acclimate to a low-oxygen environment. I imagined broad valleys surrounding our easy, flat track for a week. An Eden of sorts with smoothie stops along the way, surrounded by snow tops and an easy uphill now and then.
You can imagine my surprise when we started descending and lost almost 600m of altitude in the first couple of hours before starting to climb back up. When we finally got to our lodge after a seven-hour hike, I could barely walk. My leg was hurting so bad, and all I could think was: "There is no way I am going to make the rest of the trail if this is what they consider an easy hike." I was in despair. I made a promise to myself not to be too cocky before the trip. It was an expensive holiday, yet I needed to ensure I would be prepared to stop whenever I felt considerable risk ahead. I promised that even if I had to stop and turn back very early, I would. I couldn't imagine giving up on the first day. Why do I even get on such a trip? What am I trying to prove? I guess I need to know for sure, that I am not a pussy. All previous tests were not enough. Another one is in order.
Vivi pulled out the yoga mats after we entered the lodge and convinced me to get on one. We stretched for 45 minutes on a dirty floor next to the old, grimy metal fireplace, and at the end of it, I felt human again. We sat down for some breathwork, and I slowed down enough to relax. My leg was hurting; I could barely stand on it, but by some miracle, it turned out Ant was a shiatsu specialist. He laid me down and worked on me for a while before reaching a diagnosis: "Your right fibula is out of place, and it's pulling on your knee ligaments. That's why you can't stretch out the painful sensations. It's not your muscles. It's a misaligned bone. Let me put it back." And with a few gentle moves, it got fixed. As we sat down for dinner, I decided to eat a lot during the following days, so that with every bite of food, I would grow stronger. I made a firm intention and kept reminding myself about it every time I ate.
Ten days later, on the way to Mera's base camp, I feel a spring in my step and not a worry in my mind. My body feels good despite being at more than 5km altitude and wearing at least 10kg of equipment. About an hour into it, we ran into the first group. They are undressing, and I hear a commotion.
"I haven’t seen my gloves packed. How can I be sure they didn’t forget them?" Ant is demanding from our guide.
"The porters took everything you left for them, sir, do not worry."
"Don’t tell me not to worry! How can I be sure without seeing them?"
"But, sir, the guides have already packed and tied the bags. It will take a lot of time to untie them."
"I don't care. I must see that my warm gloves and the warm stuff for the night are there."
"But, sir, the porters are already ahead of us."
"This is all very unprofessional. I don't care how, but I must see my equipment!"
"Ok, sir, I will try to organise it."
I decide not to intervene. Ant is clearly freaking out. It's the fear. I do not expect to make it to that summit, so all I feel is excitement. After all, excitement is fear, with the negative expectations removed. I like Ant despite his borderline autism. In part because he has managed to fix my leg over the last two weeks, working every evening on my whole body and sometimes fixing me in the middle of the trail. In part, because he managed to get me through that horrible pang of altitude sickness I had when I overdid the acclimatisation hike a few days ago. However, I mainly grew to like him because of his childlike openness. When we started this hike, he was a stuck-up guy, talking in cliches of Russian war propaganda about brotherhood between Ukraine and Russia, proxy war with the US and fakeness of Bucha. I feared my dear friend Tina was going to shred him to pieces. She runs a big volunteer organisation helping victims of war in her hometown, Chernihiv. Instead, she held back and started talking. So did I. We started explaining certain things to him, and he listened. He listened and gradually began changing his mind about the war. He started seeing the other side, slowly undoing the unconscious decisions he made while living under the influence of Russian media. So despite being an asshole today, he gets a pass.
On our next break, I take out my Zoom recorder. Tina starts to sing Ukrainian folk songs. It feels surreal. We are almost at base camp. There is no living soul in sight except for a few climbers like us, and her voice is rolling around the snowcaps of Nepal. I drink my hot water and smile. It is unbelievably beautiful around me. I feel fresh and vital despite the altitude. My mantra, yoga, and shiatsu miraculously worked, and over the last two weeks, my body has adapted to this life. My leg has healed completely, and little changes in thinking have resulted in significant shifts in the physical realm.
Our next break is at the base camp. We eat some energy gels and a Snickers. We put on our snowcats and tied ourselves together with a rope. As we start the climb, I notice the extra weight on my feet. I've found my piece with the heavy, uncomfortable shoes in the last few hours, but now, with snowcats, they get cumbersome. My hip flexors feel each step. Each step takes effort. There are 600 metres of altitude to gain before the next camp. My confidence becomes shaky, but I decide to power through. We are now tied together, me, Tina and our Sherpa, Noi, so we need to walk in sync. Quickly, we fall into a groove of taking 40 steps and taking a break for a minute. We don't really discuss any of it. It just happens. We don't need to signal stop and start either. It is clear without words when we start and when we stop.
The contrast with the second group can not be more obvious. We hear Ant bicker with their Sherpa, Tenzen, repeatedly for not calling out the movement. I can't help but laugh about it with Tina. It makes our ascent slightly less stressful, knowing that we have a chill corner at a pace that works for us, even if it means we are slow. Hours pass in our methodical ascent, and the weather worsens. The clouds are coming in, and before we know it, we are inside them. It gets dark and cold momentarily. I barely have time to put on the warm jacket and gloves before the temperature drop seizes all my joints. Suddenly, I realise how tired I am. My legs are barely moving. We are down to making about ten steps before every break. There is still about 200 metres of altitude to gain, and I have no energy left. We load up on Snickers bars, warm water and energy gels, but they stop working. My body demands rest, but no rest is possible inside the clouds. So we power through. Suddenly, it all becomes too much. I can feel a familiar lump in my throat starting to form.
For more than a decade now, ever since I was 20 or so, I have had trouble crying. My life has given me more complicated and demanding challenges repeatedly, and every time, I doubled up on my commitment to stomach it and move on with a smile. I carried so much suppressed anger and sadness that when I started my healing journey in my late 20s, it was like a fountain of oil bursting out from the ground. Even so, I couldn't cry. I felt the emotions come up to my throat and get stuck there for years. I've done countless Vipassana retreats, and I could not cry. I've done years of psychotherapy, and I could not cry. Finally, after a few years of serious acting training, I could allow the tears to come, but I could never fully release into an all-encompassing wailing.
At an altitude of about 5600 metres, the lump in my throat bursts through, and I find myself crying. With every step, I cry harder and harder. I am brimming with joy, and tears run down my cheeks. I am not crying because I'm tired, scared, and uncertain of my ability to get to the high camp. I am crying tears of pure joy, overwhelmed by the beauty around me. I am shaking as I feel the clouds wrap around me, and I finally acknowledge the enormous energy of the mountains surrounding me. I've been feeling this energy up here, but ultimately, it overwhelms my self-importance, and I can no longer ignore it. And I feel so very small compared to the mountains, yet so very powerful. I feel like an equal to these mountains around me, however little sense that makes. I sense that I am still preparing for my main challenge in life and every step I took along the way counts. It overwhelms me with joy.
My heart is bursting with love, and I am audibly weeping. Tina checks to see if I’m alright, and I smile at her with such radiance that she has no further questions. I use the next hour of our methodical powering through to release every tear I held for years. I am shuddering at times and shaking. Flashbacks come to me. Masha's sudden death. Feeling completely lost after my escape from Russia. My father in a coma. Years of waiting on refugee status. Deepest drug wells I found myself in. The broken hearts I left behind, breaking mine every time. Missiles waking me up in Kyiv. All those flashbacks before my eyes are dissolved in the endless stream of love radiating from my heart, melting away with tears. I feel like a part of me is dying. And with every recollection, my sense of inner strength grows. By the time I am through, we are about 30 minutes away from the high camp.
Suddenly, I realise I am spent. We can't stop here, though, so I power through. My migraine comes in swiftly, almost knocking me down. I power through migraine, one step at a time The next half an hour feels like an eternity. Finally, we stumble into the high camp. We make our way to the shared tent. Sherpas are cooking chicken soup using diesel fuel for burners. It smells horrible inside, and I start to retch. There is nothing to throw up, so I just get out and lie down on the snow. There is commotion around. Ant is very unhappy with Tina. Jay feels sick; somehow, Ant feels it's Tina's fault. His argument makes no sense to me. All I hear is that there's no dexamethasone injection left to spare. I lie there for a while. Tina comes out and offers me soup, but I can not eat. I take two pills of Ibuprofen and climb into our tent. It's around 5pm, meaning we walked for 9 hours straight. We have until 2am to rest before starting our final summit push. I am not going anywhere. I am fighting to survive. Ibuprofen on my empty stomach intensifies my sickness. I want to throw up badly, but there is nothing to throw up.
Tina comes into the tent and tries to talk me into having some soup. I just lie there half-dead and ask her to give me time. The altitude sickness is in full swing. I am barely conscious, held on only by my headache and my nausea. My whole body hurts. I am hallucinating mildly like I am coming down from a bad acid trip. After an hour or so of suffering, I make an effort to take off the shoes, change into down pants and a down jacket and climb into my sleeping bag. I try to pass out but keep on waking up for fear of drowning in my vomit. All this time, Tina is chatting with me, laughing and trying to get me through this hurdle. She talks about returning to Khutor when the war ends, building our community afresh, living a simple and happy life, and sharing the light we all create. “I am not going higher tomorrow.” She laughs, “We don't need to make that call now.”
Tina tries to get me out of the tent to watch the sunset, which is apparently out of this world. I cannot move. She climbs into Ant and Jay's tent. They both had an injection earlier, so they feel better. She gets them out of their tent and into the sunset. Ant's stress melts away, and finally, he looks in on me. Seeing my green colour, his medical reflexes kick in. Tina says she won’t need an injection tomorrow so that I can have one now. He gives me the needle.
Ten minutes later, Tina climbs in showing me photos of the sunset. It's magnificent. She convinces me to have some chicken soup. I force myself to eat it, and almost instantly, I start feeling better. I know I am not going to die today, and it feels good. Why the hell am I doing this? Most people are driven by ego, but mine seems to have died earlier today. Is this beauty worth the suffering? Or do I need this challenge to feel alive? I certainly feel more alive today than I've felt since the war broke out. Eventually my attention drifts and I pass out.
To be continued...
Thank you for reading.
The demons possessing me demand I tell this story. I am but an obedient servant that hopes to escape their prison one day, hence why I am writing this book. Every comment you make makes my daily punishment lighter, so please - be generous.
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