Everest Part 3: Air

<– Prelude: Pemba

<– Part I: The Height

<– Part II: Sagarmatha

Day 6: Air

Gorapchep—> Kyangjuma / 3550m (11,646ft) O2 sats 90

After I got back from Base Camp yesterday, I was absolutely spent. My muscles weren’t tired exactly, but it’s hard to describe the physical sensation of altitude to which you are truly not acclimatized. It is as if each of the cells in your body has its own individual case of asthma and is wheezing. All your organs are wheezing. They work, but you feel a kind of sluggish you didn’t know existed. It is hard too imagine digesting anything, because nothing inside of you feels like it’s doing anything except lying in bed, wheezing.  

With this in mind, I would now like to share that as I approached the hotel on my way back from Base Camp yesterday, right there in the yard was…

A LOCAL SOCCER GAME.

Are you kidding me??

In my wheezy brain, this was one of the most incomprehensible sights of my entire trip to Everest Base Camp. I was practically counting my steps back to my bed. When I got to bed, I was going to hear a knock on the door, and a happy hotelier was going to be standing there with a celebratory hot chocolate for me on the house. And, try as I might to drink this gift because it was so lovely and festive, it was to go cold on the tray, because it just seemed to complicated. AND OUTSIDE, THESE KIDS HAD THE NERVE TO BE PLAYING SOCCER.

Later that evening, we all gathered around the hot stove. The whole group had made it to Base Camp, but the Brit felt too unwell to come downstairs. I was doing comparatively okay, but I barely swallowed any of the noodle soup I had for dinner. We heated our hands, chatted a while, took our oxygen saturation levels for sport, and went to bed.

This morning, Laura (#2) was still too nauseous to drink or eat and couldn’t really get out of bed. She’s a fit marathoner who took a reasonable route up with two acclimatization days. Eventually, her husband decided it was time to call an evacuation helicopter. Out of about ten people I got to know during this week, two were evacuated. Once you know to listen for it, you can hear many helicopters throughout the day. Seriously, hanging out at 16,000+ feet is no joke. As for me, I was making do, but my O2 sats had been in the 60s for almost three days, and I couldn’t wait to get down to thicker air. 

After tea Thorsten and I said goodbye to Franco and Laura and their guide Narayan, and began our descent, along with Thorsten’s guide Dinesh and porter Kisan. Maybe it was mostly psychological, but by Lobuche I wanted breakfast. We continued, retracing our steps at four times the speed we’d labored them the first time. I passed a guy I met at the start of my walk. A few of us have been keeping track of each other in group chats. This guy had lost the trail back around Dingboche and spent an entire night outside with no sleeping bag. I was pretty impressed that he was still on his way up to Base Camp, after that. 

I arrived back at Thukla Pass, this time approaching from the other side, where the regal memorials rise in to view with indescribable majesty—the peaks on the imminent horizon leaning in as if the curvature of the earth itself is drawn toward them. It occurred to me to make sure I got another photo from this angle, where the saddle of the pass yawns dramatically at the sky; but I was so tired. I just wanted to get below Thukla and feel strong again. And, I thought, I had taken pictures once—humbly, I hope, and out of awe and admiration. But now I should just keep my camera where it was, and honor this beautiful place by passing through peacefully. 

We arrived back at Thukla by mid morning, and from here I made the choice to say goodbye to Thorsten and Dinesh and Kisan. Who, like reasonable people, were descending on the steeper route down to Pheriche, which was the route I’d come up a few days ago, idiotically giving myself even less time to acclimatize. Now I wanted to see the parallel path, slightly longer, that most people take on the way up through Dingboche. But also, I knew that I was going to have to rejoin myself in solitude at some point. It had been a great gift to walk quietly along behind others during the hardest days of the trip, and it was difficult to separate. But Thukla was where I’d come in to company, and it was the place where my path was to go its own way again. We exchanged contact information, and then I was alone with my map.

Dingboche

And I felt quite alone.

I walked and walked, losing elevation by the minute. I didn’t stop for lunch, only to occasionally adjust my clothing. Well below Dingboche, the oxygen-deprived environment remained vast and barren. I didn’t mind the absence of people, but I felt a terrible longing for trees and for needles underfoot, to provide order and comfort. For a path with two sides, instead of a mere carving in enormous open space.

Around Deboche, I came across two porters on their way to Namche. One was carrying five blue barrels and the other a load of goods in boxes. I wondered if I could make it all the way to quaint, hotel-packed, latte-serving Namche, where I’d slept my first night of the trip. I considered whether the porters might make road companions, but they alternately walked too fast for me to keep up (yes, while carrying those loads), or stopped for extensive periods of beer drinkin, and this proved difficult to plan around. So I just kept walking. 

I walked 20 miles. Around 5:15, in a frosty dusk I somehow welcomed, I bobbled in to a guest house in Kyangjuma, a few kilometers short of Namche. The hotel owner said it would be an extra 200 rupees (about $1.75) for an attached bathroom. This sounded amazing. I ordered a real dinner of daal bhaat and ate most of it. I was still over 11,000 feet, but I felt like a different person. My O2 sats had, over the course of 8 hours, gone from 65 to 90. 

I got a call from Dinesh, Thorsten’s guide, and an update on where they’d arrived (Deboche) and on how Laura and Franco were doing after the helicopter evacuation (fine). Back in internet contact, I sent messages of my whereabouts and well-being. I had my first good sleep in a few days, and was so glad to feel normal that I didn’t even feel any aches.

 

Day 7: Docking

Kyangjuma —> Lukla 2840m (9317ft) / O2 Sats 95

On the way up, at the elevation of Kyangjuma (where I passed through the first time with Tenzin Dorje Sherpa, the climber and yak herder), I felt myself high above the ground and adventurous in the cold. But on the way down, it feels cosmopolitan. The bucket of water in the bathroom isn’t frozen, and I am normal-tired, not wrecked.

After a cup of tea, I hiked about an hour to Namche Bazaar and stopped for breakfast. Unlike a week ago, this morning Namche was unveiled and shining. Its steep alleyways were nevertheless caked in layers of hardened Februrary ice, and I did a good bit of sliding around in trying to find a place to sit down for breakfast…because with a night’s sleep at lower elevation, I was HUNGRY! I ordered an amazing breakfast at the Khumbu Lodge and ate it looking out at lovely famous Namche. I called my parents. I moved to a coffee shop. I got a latte, and lingered.

I was taken in by a poster on the wall comparing various sites along the route to Everest Base Camp at different points in time. Namche: houses and potato fields where visitors camped then, a hip ampitheatre of cafes and hotels now. Pheriche: fields with stone-shingled huts in 1977, a village of tin-roofed guest houses now. Dingboche: a remote traditional village in the fifties, a mixed crop of buildings now. These images were fascinating. These were places I had been now.

But far more jarring were photos of glaciers from the 1950s and 1970s, next to the exposed rock those same massive ice sheets had become in just a few decades. The river by Pheriche, delicate fifty years ago, was dramatically widened by glacial melting in its twin photo. These changes might have seemed abstract, from far away. But standing in Namche, I momentarily felt the full force of this injustice. How could we do such things to this magnificent wilderness? When it is so much larger than we are? When it has been here so much longer? It demands so much less and gives so much more than we do. The pain of destruction stared blankly at me from the poster, incomprehensible. I ran my finger over the peeling vinyl covering that showed me where my feet had been just hours ago.

I leisured in Namche until 11am. And then it was another 15 miles back to Lukla, where I was determined to make it for the night. I didn’t take many photos on my way back. I felt the natural arc of my journey returning to its source. I had come out of the gate with fire, and now like a rocket falling back to the ocean by the natural progress of gravity, I was ready to dock at home. I was pretty tired by this time, and my toes hurt from ramming against my shoes downhill for 35 miles, and I was walking slower. I missed the boys and Didi and Prem, and the office team, and our List of Things to Do.

The clouds had once again moved in when I clomped in to Lukla. Its stone-laid street reminded me of a ski town, misty in the fog. I was so ready to have a hotel that when I found a hotel and nobody came to the desk for five minutes, all I could think of to do was go across the street to an “Irish Pub” to figure out my options, and order french fries. That turned out to be a great strategy. I have never had such fantastic fries in my whole life, and let me tell you I have eaten a lot of french fries. 

I found another hotel. I took a hot shower and then raced about chattering in the cold air, flailing at my clothes while the hot water evaporated off me. Lukla is still at 2840m (9318ft), after all, and it is February. I had dinner, did a little writing, and organized my belongings once more for the morning. I set my alarm for 6am so I could get to the airport before the first flight to buy a ticket home.

Everest Part 2: Sagarmatha

<–Read Part 1: The Height

Day 4: Joining forces

Thukla—> Lobuche / 5000m (16,404ft) /O2 sats high 60s

When I woke up this morning I felt immensely improved. My sats were still in the low 70s, but my appetite was somewhat back and the nausea and headache were mostly gone. I had originally thought I’d go up to Gorapchep and maybe even Base Camp today, but even I can learn to slow my roll in response to lack of oxygen. I planned instead to make a short hike about 300m higher to Lobuche. 

I decided to first take a walk for an hour or so around the area on the descending route that leads back down toward Dingboche. When I arrived back in Thukla from my short excursion, there were a handful of hikers there on their way to Lobuche. I was feeling the need for company, so I joined in behind them.

Thukla Pass

The indescribable beauty of Thukla Pass

The walk began with a steep rocky climb up to Thukla Pass, which sits in the palm of a stunning panorama of ocean-blue peaks. This site is home to memorials for climbers of many nationalities who have died on peaks in Nepal. The wind comes gusting through the half-crescent pass, keeping hundreds upon hundreds of fresh prayer flags in constant flutter. I was awed by the power and beauty of this place. We found the memorials for Scott Fisher and Rob Hall, who both perished in the famous 1996 Everest climbing disaster that is documented in Into Thin Air. One of my most vivid pre-Nepal memories remains reading that book on the bottom bunk bed in my freshman college dorm room. I placed a stone on each of their memorials, and we went on.

From Thukla Pass I clomped along behind my new companions, who included two Nepali guides and porters, a German, a Brit, an Italian and me the American (“there must be a war joke in here somewhere,” says the German). We reached Lobuche by 1:00 and I had the whole afternoon to rest. 

My head had a dull throb and my body felt oddly heavy. I lay back in my bed. My room was warmed by a buttery sun pouring through the window. I stayed like that for a few hours, picturing my blood circulating delicious air. In the evening, we all clustered around the heating stove in the dining hall, and ate light meals that our altitude-confused stomachs would accept, and played cards.

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Day 5: Sagarmatha

Lobuche —> Gorapshep—> Everest base camp / 5364m (17,598ft) / O2 sats 65

I have borrowed a fantastic pair of hiking pants from my long time friend Pemba Sherpa, but the button has broken. However, I am my father’s daughter, and you can be sure that I have a random collection of safety pins with me, because you never know when the button on your hiking pants is going to abandon you on exactly the day you are going to Everest Base Camp.

I arrived with my pants pinned at 6:30 for breakfast. I hadn’t been able to get a phone signal to send out any messages of my well being in two days, all liquid everywhere was frozen; hot cups of tea, once served, quickly threw off the efforts of the hard-working stove and turned to water, then ice. We ate small amounts of porridge and eggs and set off through a glacial valley at 5000 meters above sea level. I didn’t think to check the temperature, but once we got going, it actually wasn’t intolerably cold. And once we crossed the horizon line of ecstatic clear sun that was making its way toward us, we let out sighs of gratitude and I put my big futzy gloves away.

On the way to Gorapshep

The hike to Gorapshep was only about 2.5 hours and maybe 150m of climbing. It took us over rocky glacier bed dressed with ice and snow. We arrived at Gorapshep, where we’ll stay for the night, around ten in the morning. I clomped heavily up a wooden staircase to my room, emptied most things out of my backpack, and came down for a cup of tea. Even tea looked intimidating to digest; my O2 sats would sit around 65 for the next day. It feels like all the cells in your body are concentrating on breathing and nothing else.

Before we could get too content resting in warm sunlight outside, the German and I set off for Base Camp with his guide, Dinesh. But Thorsten and Dinesh were a few hundred meters ahead of me for most of the way, and I walked the hour and a half up to base camp mostly in the quiet of my own steps, boots grinding on ice and rocks. We had long since left behind anything green. It is amazing to think that nearly 800 people a day come through this way in the trekking season. In February, that number is about twenty, and I might just as well have been on the moon.

The first thing I recognized was the Ice Fall. Anyone who has spent any time learning about Everest has spent many imaginary hours scrambling precariously across ladders lashed together and fixed over the dangerous crevices that separate Base Camp from Camp One. In real life, the Ice Fall is far more otherworldly than I had understood. It is not a smooth cracked glacier but an enormous army of aqua-blue ice walls, lined up one to the next as far as the eye can see. 

And there in the distance, next to the base of the Ice Fall I spotted a cluster of yellow tents. Base camp. (In a few months, there will be about 2000 people here, but now the area is empty except for a dozen tents huddled together in the wilderness.). The arrival is marked by a large rock with EVEREST BASE CAMP 5364m spray painted across it. 

Climbing teams before the ice fall

Two intrepid winter climbing teams at Base Camp are dwarfed by the Everest’s mighty Icefall.

Before I could do any normal tourist things, such as the obvious thing of taking a picture next to the spray painted rock, I got to chatting in Nepali with Norbu, a Sherpa climber with the German expedition.

Well, then this happened. Norbu Sherpa—who has summited all 8000m peaks in the world except for one in Tibet—invited me over to the German climbing camp. Normally tourists aren’t permitted in the expedition areas. But next thing I knew I was sitting in the dining tent, having a peek at the shower and sleeping quarters, drinking some coffee hot off the stove, and discussing the impending winter summit attempts with a combined group of Sherpa climbers from the two expeditions. One of them was the guy – the ACTUAL HUMAN – in charge of deciding where to lash ladders across the Ice Fall. So that’s how I got the selfie below of me and a group of world class Sherpa climbers hanging out and shooting the breeze at Everest Base Camp and now my life is complete.

Chillin with winter expedition Sherpa climbers

There was some discussion about coronavirus and whether or not the Nepal government would close climbing from the Tibet/China side of Everest (apparently the ministry of tourism is reluctant to lose the income, but the consensus among the climbers was that nobody wants coronavirus). And then Norbu Sherpa and the gang took me over to the Spanish camp, which is a much bigger team of 14 people and led by renowned Spanish climber Alex Txikon, who is making his fourth attempt at a winter summit, something that hasn’t been done on Everest since 1993. 

So this takes us to me hanging out with Alex Txikon in the Spanish kitchen, while the cook prepares imported Spanish meat over the propane stove. Actually, at that moment I didn’t really realize how well known Alex Txikon is, partly because I was so amazed by the fantastic Spanish cooking extravaganza before my eyes. (It smelled amazing; how did they get all this stuff here; who can eat at this altitude?) Txikon has made winter climbing his trademark calling and has succeeded in numerous winter summits. His team had arrived at Everest just two days ago and planned to be there for the next month.

I asked Txikon what they do on the days they aren’t climbing. I was thinking, probably lots of pushups and rope-skipping.

“Read, write, relax,” he said. “Be in nature.” And though I didn’t ask, he added (and I paraphrase), “Here on Everest, they just put people in the summit. That’s not what it’s about. It’s about working with nature. It’s about planning, not luck. It’s not about the summit. So many people who come here, they aren’t climbers. They don’t understand or appreciate what is to plan and interact with the mountain.” I filed away how he used the word “plan,” so many times. It was, in a way, plain to see what he meant. All these people living here all winter at 17,500 feet—where I survived a few hours mostly on adrenaline—did not have an ounce of entitlement about them. They were gently in a relationship, one of respect and diligence and patience.

Seek the summit, yes; but you shouldn’t be here if the summit is what matters to you the most.

“Hello,” said an enormously tall, fresh-faced German man as he popped into the Spanish kitchen tent. 

“Hi,” I said. 

Actually this man was climber Jost Kobusch, who like Txikon can be found in the newspaper, and who told me he’s attempting a route that hasn’t been taken up Everest in 40 years. 

“So, um, what are you doing today?” I asked. 

“Oh, fixing a thing,” he said. “It broke up there.” That was about the extent of our discussion, but Kobusch had a gentleness and authentic exuberance about him. He looked as happy to be fixing a thing up on a cliff over the ice fall at Mount Everest as some people look fixing their cars in the driveway with a beer on Saturday. 

I ended up spending about two hours at base camp—quadruple my planned time. Thorsten had long since headed back. I asked Anup, one of my new Sherpa besties, to take my obligatory photos on the “base camp” rock. And then finally, before leaving, I took some time to myself, outside of the adventure. To be with the Mountain.

I sat down across from Everest, whose summit just pokes out between Nuptse (so recognizable) and Lhola. An icononic plume of snow drifted from its peak. A mid-day half moon floated in the endless, empty galaxy of sky just above, as if to say: Everything Else, This Way. I built a cairn. And suddenly I heard myself think to this mountain, “You set the path for my whole life.” And it is true. If not for Everest, I don’t know if I’d have been in Nepal.

People journey to this place in all kinds of ways. For many it is the adventure of a lifetime. I understand that for me, as much as I delighted in every the walk up and all its color and beauty and fatigue and unobtrusive companionship, this walk was a pilgrimage. It was about sitting face to face with our Earth Mother, Sagarmatha. I have been coming here for so long.

What a gift it is, to be in this world, and to be free.

*

Everest Part 1: The Height

(<–Read Everest Prelude: Pemba)

Day 1 – Not Yaks

Lukla → Namche Bazaar / 3440m / O2 sats 92

The air strip in Lukla is world famous, and for good reason. One end is abutted against a vertical wall of land where the hills leap toward the sky, and the other end is abruptly concluded by an abyss. Takeoff from Lukla literally entails driving down a relatively short motorway and off the side of a cliff. Landing is the reverse: dropping down out of the sky and flying full speed at a meager strip of pavement on the edge of a canyon, at the other end of which is a wall. The cheers that erupt from the passengers after this thrilling landing are almost unwitting, a primal reflex produced by the exhilaration of (still) being alive. It was captured by my new friend Mac from China.

Since flights to Lukla can only occur in near-perfect weather, a handful of us had spent the last two days together ensconced in the Kathmandu airport. Each morning we showed up in the dark at six am as required, and waited the entire day for the weather to clear in Kathmandu and Lukla at the same time. We ate airport snacks, we tried to rent a helicopter together, we bonded through the searing disappointment of dashed efforts to fly to Lukla. And then, poof! On the third day, we were in Lukla by eight in the morning. We exchanged contact information and started a chat group to keep tabs on each other, which was nice because a few of us including me were traveling alone.

Most of the day was a gentle rolling climb without any areas that were too steep. When I saw my first herd of yaks I got so excited I jumped up on a wall, took out both my SLR camera and phone, tried to video and photo the yaks and the same time and didn’t quite accomplish either. Then five minutes later there was another herd of yaks, and then another, and soon I was just trying to stay out of the way of herd after herd of yaks made wide by their rucksacks. Then, late in the afternoon I found out that none of these herds were yaks. They were mules and “jopiya,” a mule-yak blend. Yaks, it turns out, are only at the higher altitudes.

I had thought to maybe stop in Monjo, but after days of sitting in the airport with unemployed adrenaline, I was elated to be outside and free. So at two o’clock I crossed through Monjo and began a challenging two and a half hour climb up to Namche bazaar. This ascent covers about 3000 feet of vertical elevation over the course of four and a half miles. For many travelers, the road from Monjo to Namche is an entire day’s hike. But the truth is that the tireder I got, the better I felt. 

As four o’clock approached, the sky became gauzy and cool. Namche Bazaar is a name you may have heard, recognizable even to people who don’t travel in these mountains, and late in the afternoon it appeared over the crest of a hill, like a dream. I felt something lift off of me, a yearning that has been around since my teens, to lay eyes on this amphitheater that has been the way through for so many travelers . By the time my boots were clomping over its stone-laid alleyways, fog was creeping in around Namche’s edges and over its rooftops.

Modern Namche is quite the trekking hub, but now hotels are closed for the winter and the village is cast with the quiet of hibernation. A few months from now, rooms will be nearly impossible to come by, but there were almost no people around. I found a lodge and set my bag down next to a bed by a window. I excitedly used the oximeter Pemba had given me to test my oxygen saturation. At 11,000 feet this is mostly just for fun, the way my rowing teammates and I used to wear heart rate monitors all day in college for unnecessary interesting data about ourselves. My O2 sats were still quite strong at around 92.

I was the only guest in the hotel. I changed my clothes, put my feet up next to a space heater, and ordered tea.

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Day 2: Real Yaks

Namche –> Tengboche / 3879m/ 12,696ft / O2 sats 92

I woke up and pulled the curtain back to find my room in a cloud. I had expected Namche Bazaar to be announced in glorious morning sunlight, but even the yard of the lodge was veiled in fog. I spent a slow morning in my sleeping bag and then having breakfast and tea. My body had a mild soreness that was rather satisfying after yesterday’s long walk, but the dull persistent ache in my head was less enjoyable. I didn’t realize that that was the beginning of the effects of altitude change. 

I set off late, around ten, and quickly became unsure which of Namche’s many footpaths to follow back to the trail. I had a map on my phone that was to be put to good use throughout the week, but it was no time before a passerby simply pointed me in the right direction. 

After making a pretty long walk from Lukla to Namche yesterday, I had decided on a normal day, a choice I considered leisurely. I chose one of the trails that cuts along the edge of the mountainside, is flatter and easier, and has fewer hotels along the way. It’s still a trekking route but on the map it looked like it might also have more transit by locals going about their everyday business. The clouds hung low all day, making the dusted hills look like black and white etchings.

It wasn’t long before I came upon a man herding yaks—and this time they were real yaks. They look nothing like yesterday’s mules. They have wide bodies and long rugged hair. We said hello to each other. 

So that is how I spent the morning herding yaks around a mountainside with Tenzin Dorje, walking at yak herding pace, a light swirl of snow about us. I learned that Tenzin is a Sherpa climbing guide who has summited Everest twelve times, and many other major summits in Nepal as well. He herds yaks in the off season. The yak bells made a gentle, optimistic clanging music as we walked and he whistled to his herd. After descending down to the valley, we stopped for tea in a wood-paneled house run by a delightful young woman named Dixya. She was delighted that I spoke Nepali, and I was delighted for her to teach me to say “May I please have a cup of tea” in Sherpa.

From the cottage, I bid farewell to Dixya and Tenzin Dorje. The afternoon was a long solo climb up to Tengbuche under a low sky. I had considered going another half hour or so up the road to Debuche, but by the time I crested the deserted, snow-covered ridge in Tengboche, I was feeling the chill of the dusty air. And besides, Tengbuche was too beautiful to rush away. There was a monk on skis. I decided to wake up here tomorrow, and got a room in the only open hotel. Even the monastery appeared shuddered.

In the high season, over eight hundred people a day pass through any given station on the Everest Base Camp route. My hotel had long, empty hallways and a long empty dining room where the hotel staff played cards all evening at one end. I was the only guest. Oxygen saturation is only 64% of sea level in Tengboche, but my O2 sats were still going strong at around 92. 

The bucket in the bathroom was frozen solid.

 

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Day 3: Loner

Tengboche —> Periche—> Thukla / 4640m (15,157 ft) / O2 low to mid 70s

I’ve been feeling quite strong, so today I decided to take a route that many hikers take down, but fewer take up. It took me to a higher elevation, in Thukla, than the more common stop at Dingboche 200m lower. I felt fine hiking all day, but the last bit is a continuous 400m climb to over 15,000 feet, and when I sat down in my room, I definitely felt the altitude. So, point penalty to Spero for over-enthusiasm. 

The day getting to Thukla however was lovely. I awoke to a glorious, shining morning in snow-covered Tengboche. The monastery, dormant and friendless in yesterday’s afternoon’s mist, presided confidently over the sleeping buildings and searing white ground around it. Unlike the hushed mystery of yesterday’s walk in the low hanging clouds and fog, today was a sunglasses and SPF-50 kind of day.

I wound along the river, and the terrain changed to glacial riverbed warming under an electric blue sky, encircled in mighty peaks. I ran into a number of people portering goods to and from Namche Bazaar to higher elevations. The first was a pair of young men who, when I came upon them as I was crossing a bridge, had set down their loads on the other side and were hysterically laughing while taking photos of each other leaping into the air. They had left Namche the SAME DAY—-the place I hiked from yesterday—and made it here by about 11am, on their way to Periche. (That’s my day and a half of efficient hiking.) They said they were each carrying 96kg and getting paid about .35/kg. 

Next the path moved into the glacier bed and became more vaguely defined. Fortunately, around this time I happened upon a pack of porters carrying sheets of corrugated tin and slabs of faux-wood paneling to Periche. So any time I wanted to confirm the route, all I had to do was look for a walking door moving across the plain. I found this so funny that I took about fifty pictures of doors with legs resting in the gaping wide mountain landscape.

As I left the doors with legs behind, the afternoon became more and more solitary, with only an occasional hiker passing in the opposite direction. I crossed a pass in where the morning sun had given way to theatrical, solitary and proud gusts of wind, and Pheriche appeared in the valley. When I arrived down in Periche, I was utterly gratified to see a hotel with door-loads all around it, awaiting the day’s delivery that was coming along behind me. I stopped in at a hotel and chatted with a few locals who said it would take me about another two hours to hike to Thukla. So up I went. 

The climb was stunning, but there was something lonely about the desolate landscape and the wind gusting up the plain from behind. The afternoon clouds had settled in again, and the skies were no longer optimistic and bright.  I arrived in Thukla around four, feeling far away from everything. And, once I set down my bag, admittedly nauseous. There is a very big difference between 12,700 feet and 15,150 feet. My O2 sats had dropped to the low 70s.

When it was clear I was “feeling the height,” two gentle and matter-of-fact hoteliers made me vegetable soup and filled up my bottles with hot water for free. I knew immediately that tomorrow I’ll have to take it very easy and adjust to the altitude. I invited the hotel dog into my room to stay for company, but he wanted to sleep directly on my pillow, and ended up curling up just outside in the hall instead.

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Bonus: Find the Walking Door on the Way to Pheriche

Everest Prelude: Pemba

 

During the hot summer of 2001, I was drawn to Nepal by the Mountain. Also, the mountains–these grand Himalayas where the world places so much of its imagination–but mostly, the Mountain itself. At some point in young adulthood I began reading books about Everest, and I simply knew I would go. It was never about climbing it, but about following it. Because, as my mom would say, it was there. 

I never could have understood nineteen years ago that the road to the Mountain would be so much longer and more magnificent than I had imagined. I originally visited Nepal with an international group that was studying medicinal plants, and during that muggy August week in Kathmandu, I optimistically rented a bike and made a 36 hour journey into the unknown that foretold something of the road ahead. I didn’t know what a vast constellation of adventures lay before me in the decades to come, or about the family and community that would adopt me as a daughter, or the public health project I would unintentionally co-found to address an issue about which I had no expertise. So many cut fingers and thunderstorms and shelled peas and paint-splattered clothes lay between me and Mt. Everest. But in recent years, my heart has wandered back to that horizon, which has remained an untouchable idea, visible in the real world only from a distance. 

This winter I knew, with the same certainty that first brought me to Nepal, that it was time to visit Everest at last. So I called up my oldest (by time, not age) Nepali friend Pemba Sherpa, who was on the cook and porter staff of the medicinal plant study group back in 2001, when we were both in our early twenties. Pemba has since become an extremely successful tour guide, and at a hotel in Kathmandu he produced for me a backpack, a pile of gear, and instructions to take on my journey. We played with the oximeter and found my oxygen sats to be 95 while sitting in Kathmandu. I downloaded an offline map and purchased a plane ticket to Lukla. 

I’ve decided to post my eight day trip to Everest Base Camp as a separate travel journal. But before it starts, let’s begin at Fire and Ice Pizzera in Thamel, where Pemba and I reminisced over dinner the night before my trip began. We jumped back to August 2001, when we met, and from there travelled backward through the chapters of his incredible life. 

Pemba in me in 2001

Pemba and me in 2001

Pemba was born in a village in Solukhumbu called Soloban. In the 1980s there was no school in Soloban and Pemba spent his days herding, even during the snowy winter months.  I remember him telling me once, “my feet were like rocks!” His herds used to take him from time to time to Lukla. Once, Pemba stayed a hotel for a some days while his goats grazed there, and the hotel owner told him that if he wanted to, he could consider getting hired as a porter for tour groups coming to trek in the Everest region.

Soon after, fifteen year old Pemba decided to leave Soloban without telling anyone. He went to the hotel and said he was ready to work. It was the mid 1990s and there were no phones or regular means of remote communication. It would be six years before he saw his family again.

With the lights of Fire and Ice Pizzera bouncing off wine glasses, Pemba recounted how the hotel owner assigned him to porter on a fifteen day tour with a Spanish group. 

His wage was two dollars a day. Among Pemba’s jobs was to bring tea to the guests in their tents each morning. There was one guest who didn’t drink tea, but every day when Pemba presented this guest with the tea tray through the opening of the tent, the man would put a 200 rupee tip–about two dollars–in the teacup. This continued for the whole trek: the guest never drank tea, but every day he tipped Pemba two dollars. Four dollars a day for fifteen days was more money than Pemba had ever seen in his life. 

At the end of the trip, the tour group produced a tip for the entire trek staff, and part of that went to Pemba. But in addition, he had made a special impression on the guests, and they pooled an extra $100 for him. And finally, he was gifted with several expensive branded down jackets that, at that time, were almost impossible to get in Nepal. He took that stuff all back to Lukla and sold it off and made another $300. He ended the two week trip with an unimaginable seven hundred dollars in cash. 

“‘Well,” Pemba laughed over our pizzas, “I said, ‘this is what I’m going to do!’” 

Pemba in 2001

Pemba on our trip in 2001

He ended up taking a bus to the city, living with a relative of the hotel owner, and working his way through the tourism industry. He began studying languages – English, Japanese, German. He had no way to contact his family back home, and his aunt was living relatively nearby in Boudanath, but there weren’t many people from Soloban in Kathmandu during those years and there was no way for the two of them to discover each other. One day a customer at the mountaineering supply shop where he was employed asked if he wanted to join the cook and porter staff of a plant study expedition for foreigners.

That was the trip where we met in 2001.

Pemba’s career took off in the following years. He speaks seven languages proficiently and has still never had any formal schooling. He runs a massively successful trekking business and has travelled to over forty countries. He has poured resources back into his home village of Soloban, rebuilding a school and helping to organize health care services. He was recently nominated to run for local political office. When I hiked to Soloban from Jiri Bazaar with Pemba and Prem in 2008 (the week our Aidan decided to show up twenty days early…), Pemba was received like a prince. 

“Call me if you have any trouble,” Pemba said, as we bid goodnight. “The path is easy to follow. It has always been your dream.”

–> Read Part 1: The Height

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Headed to Everest Base Camp, 2020