If you haven't read the previous post, I suggest you start there. ;)
At 1:30am, I wake up to an alarm clock. I have a mild migraine, which feels natural at this point. Slowly, I get myself together and climb out of the sleeping bag. Our tent is leaking, and there’s frozen condensation all around. Shivering, I put on my pants, jacket, and camp shoes and climb out of the tent. It's pitch black. The only light I see is from the stars above and a few dozen flashlights around the camp. People are getting ready for the final push. I make my way to our kitchen tent. Everyone is there: smiley Jay, nervous Ant and a calm Tina. We all have some porridge, except for Ant. All he’s eaten since yesterday morning are some Snickers bars. We try to convince him to have breakfast, but he is beyond convincing. Our guide, Taz, fails to get up. He is feeling sick and stays in the high camp. It poses a threat, as now we can only stay in two units until the summit, and if one of us has to go down, we will have only one sherpa left.
I have two competing internal narratives. Part of me wants to summit. The other part remembers all the pain of yesterday and is telling me to quit. For a moment, I sit down and meditate on both desires. On one hand, I need to carry on with the challenge. It has changed since I started on this trek. If you'd asked me in the first days if I wanted to reach the peak at all costs, I'd say no. I’d say I would stop whenever I felt it was time. It would be a lie, though. Deep down inside, I was driven by the same need to achieve as most people who come here and nearly everyone who dies here.
As with everything significant in life, the line between healthy and destructive motivations is razor-sharp, and the difference is tiny yet crucial. At the beginning of this trek, behind my poker face was a little boy trying to impress his father. Not my actual father, who loves me unconditionally, but an image of my father from childhood. The one who always told me that the only goals worth aiming for should make me a billion dollars. Anything less is just not worth considering. That persona died sometime in the aftermath of his assassination attempt, but it lived rent-free in the back of my mind. I realise it has lost its power since yesterday.
My daily city life has no real challenges in it. Sure, there are tons of small daily tasks and work things I call "battles", but it doesn't compare to walking another four hours in horrible conditions with no option to quit or turn back. And yeah, sure, I’ve had enough extraordinary troubles in my life, but only in these mountains did I feel alone against the world. Coming through such hurdles when everything is on the line makes you feel powerful. And the pain that you experience on the way is just a cost of doing business. It's necessary and worthwhile enduring for the reward of that feeling of calm power. My only motivation now is a healthy desire to test my limits. I have rested enough since yesterday to replenish some strength and can go further.
On the other hand, there's fear. Fear of not making it, fear of letting the team down, especially now that Taz is out of the picture. There was also fear of being able to turn back, yet I find that it's gone, too. Who cares if I don't make it? As long as there's a spare sherpa, I can always turn around. And it needn't be at the expense of the team's safety. I can make that decision when it arises. The most potent fear that remains is the fear of another pang of altitude sickness. I snap out of my meditation, still uncertain what to do.
Ant is preparing for an injection of dexamethasone. There are only two left. Jay says he doesn't want his injection so I can have it. Tina talks me into it, and I reluctantly agree. Ten minutes later, I feel the migraine release its hold on me and an influx of energy. That decides it. I am going up. Slowly, we pack up, check all the equipment, and put our climbing shoes on. Our legs are puffy, so fitting them into the boots requires much effort.
Around 2:30am, we walk out into the night toward the summit. We go slow, in two groups. Jay and Ant are walking with Tenzen, while Tina and I are walking behind them with Noi. We keep a similar pace, and it's just step after step in the darkness for the first couple of hours. I don’t know if it's truly the best part of our trek or if I am high on dexamethasone. With nothing to look at, I enter a state of blissful meditation, only focusing on my breath, the next step, and the ground directly in front of me.
We reached 5,991 metres altitude in about two hours when Jay decides he'd had enough. His hands have been freezing since yesterday despite wearing two sets of warm gloves and chemical hand warmers. He hasn't felt his fingers for some time and thinks it's time to turn back. It's not worth risking losing fingers over some silly mountain. We try to convince him to push for a few metres to cross the 6km mark, yet he is unmoved. We laugh that we will count it as 6km anyway. In a few months, Jay will learn that his poles were too tall, preventing blood flow to his hands and causing trouble over time. Presently, I feel a slight pang of guilt for taking his dexamethasone. He takes Sherpa Tenzen and begins his descent.
We tie Ant into our trio and start over. Instantly, we feel his anxious energy in our well-oiled machine. He is horrified with us not having start and stop callouts. He starts teaching our sherpa and us to call our movement and sync our steps, which doesn't work. We feel like a circular firing squad for the next two hours, but slowly we progress. I can feel Ant's annoyance rising despite him repeating that it's cool and we can all saunter. The sun starts growing, and we find ourselves in a dreamy space, above all clouds, in a barren, snowy landscape. Ahead of us is a shoulder of the mountain, after which we should see the summit. We push and push and finally find ourselves on that saddle. The altimeter shows 6200 metres. We are 250 metres away from the summit, but those 250 metres will take us another two hours. It is also the last safe place to turn back. There is a group going down, and I can join them. If one of us needs to turn around later, we will all have to go down together.
I look back at the valley. Our sherpa shows us Everest, Cho Oyu, and a few other 8km peaks visible from there. I am tired and happy. Suddenly, I realise I've climbed enough. I do not need to prove anything and have unlocked something internally. Part of my ego responsible for achieving died yesterday. It will probably return soon, but today, it is dead, and I feel no need to finish this task. I don't have to tick this box. I am enough already, and there is nothing left to prove. I've never felt that way before, and it is liberating. I find an unshakeable decision to turn back. I tell the guys this, and Tina tries to convince me to continue. I tell her I can make it, but my main lesson is to stop here. I made a commitment to myself before this trip that if I ever feel that it's time to stop, I would stop.
Throughout the ups and downs of this hike, from all the trouble of the first days, I never had this clear understanding, so I powered through pain and doubts. Ant backs me up, saying that I should stop here if I am unsure if I can make it back down. "Most people die on the way down", he says. A small part of me wants to slap him for his condescending tone, but I observe that reaction with a smile and tell him that he is right. We chill a bit more, have some laughs, and finally, I untie myself and say my goodbyes. Tina, Ant and Noi power through upwards, and I walk down to the high camp.
The sun is violent at this altitude. I cover my face, and joy fills me every step of the way. I've left something I needed to let go of for a very long time on this trip, and with every step, I am becoming lighter and lighter. I make a quick stop at the high camp, have some breakfast soup, and chat with a tough girl from Argentina who has already summited and returned, while we only made it to 6200m. She is smoking a cigarette, and I wonder what internal troubles drive her to do this solo. I ask if she wants food, but she is packing her stuff and wants lunch in Khare. She plans to descend further down today to 4km. It sounds wild on the summit day, given that she was on the same schedule as me. She is trying to cover the distance that took us ten days in just three so that she can make her flight to Buenos Aires. There is no time to chill and soak in her experience, just a quick smoke and back to whatever she is living through, which makes such adventures relaxing.
If we meet again, I can ask, but we won't, perhaps in a different life. I would love to find out what makes her tick. What drives such a focused human machine? I wave her goodbye and carry on down. For the next two hours, I cross a majestic snow field, dream about skiing here one day and watch the peaks of Everest and Cho Oyu. About halfway down, I hear over the radio that Tina and Ant have summited. I am happy for them and feel just a tiny pang of FOMO. In two hours, I am back in Khare at 5000 metres altitude, back in civilisation. It feels easy to be at that altitude. I embrace Jay and Vivi, and we have an indulgent lunch. Meat is not easily digested at altitudes above 3.5km. "Dal Bhat power 24 hour" is what constitutes the local diet, which is an all-you-can-eat dish of dahl, rice and some boiled or pickled veggies. My only source of animal protein for the last week or so were eggs and chicken soup. Most lodges have Western staples, such as pasta, pizza or even Yak steak, but mostly, you are much better off sticking to simple things. But today, to celebrate, we go all out on every fancy name on the menu.
I thank Jay for our Lila game the other day and for turning around when he felt like it. I told him how it impacted me and allowed me to turn back when I felt like it and sense growth. He is happy for me but also makes me notice that a second factor is at play here. All my life, I have been taught to be careful, to play carefully. And today was important in overcoming the internal egoist that needs to prove himself. Still, for full power to be unlocked, I must also overcome that voice of careful consideration within. I sense that he is right; that is the way to power I felt up there. I also know that it is a fight for a different day, and I can be happy with what I have done today.
The day passes, and there is no sign of Tina and Ant. We call them on the radio, and it turns out Ant is suffering with severe altitude sickness, and they are carrying him down. Tina and tiny Noi are carrying this bear of a man down. We send all the porters to meet them at the low camp. A few hours later, they come back. Ant is green in colour, his face swollen, and he cannot speak. We lie him down and look for dexamethasone around the camp. We find some pills, and give them to him. He looks like he is about to die. We are considering a helivac, but it's too late for it to fly today, and we have our helicopter booked for tomorrow morning. We pump him up with fluids and Ibuprofen and take shifts watching over him.
Tina tells us that he lost his shit a mere hundred metres after their summit. He started eating snow and talking nonsense and almost walked into a crevice. She had to carry him all day on her shoulder back to safety. Most of the time, he was entirely out of it. Sometimes, he would snap back to lucidity and try to do something borderline suicidal. Sherpa Noi was so distressed he almost stopped their descent twice to call for a yak. Tina knew that a yak would take twice as long and that it might mean real damage for Ant, besides the cost of it and decided to carry him herself. It worked out, but it took her almost eight hours. I remember Ant's final words, "If you are not sure you can make it down after the summit, better turn around now." Instant karma for his cockiness. And I feel even more proud of my decision to turn around. Sure, I could have helped Tina carry him down, or I could be lost alongside Ant in his fairy world, and in that case, we'd need to be evacuated from there. Tina couldn't have handled us both alone. We spend the rest of the night making plans for a spa and massage in Kathmandu.
The next day, I wake up to the sound of a helicopter landing. I freak out that I overslept and rush outside to find that it's a different group leaving. Hastily, I brush my teeth, pack my stuff and make it to the dining hall. Ant is there, puffy, green and still unable to talk. Our helicopter never arrives, and the weather worsens quickly. We spend the whole day playing cards, arguing with the heli company, and eating the food we have grown to detest over the last few days. Finally, we decide to bunk up in the dining hall because we are tired of lodges and expecting to be out of there by now. I lay in my sleeping bag and laugh to myself, how our expectations of luxury kicked in before we’ve even left, only because we decided to go down by helicopter and in our minds, we should already be experiencing that luxury.
The ego trip never ceases, but hell, is there anything more interesting to watch?
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. Every comment you make here makes my daily punishment lighter, so please - be generous.
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