I just finished 19 days of wandering solo, self-guided, through the valleys, summits, and glaciers of the Himalayas. The finest mountain scenery available on earth was at my disposal each day, as were all four cardinal directions. There were two separate instances—no one was around, thankfully—when I laughed and cried aloud, completely overwhelmed by the immensity of it all.
I suffered. I thrived. I feel as though I lived, and I aged, in a place that hasn’t aged since bearded holy men spread Bon, Buddhism, and Hinduism to the world along the same passes with bare feet.
The roughly 30 pounds of gear and water I was carrying began to feel more like 300 as I steadily ascended to thin-air places where the sun barely has to try to burn you. I went to desperate heights where men are willing to fight bare knuckled over Snickers bars, and a warm Coke costs $6. Sugar-laden things I wouldn’t have even glanced at near sea level, now they were coveted, sought after, and highly anticipated. Madness comes easily while living in the clouds.
From frosty, pre-dawn starts under dimming stars to panting for breath on ancient stairways carved into impassible passes, I mechanically put one foot in front of another to walk into one of the biggest adventures of my vagabonding life.
The journey began with flying into Lukla, what is deemed the “most dangerous airport in the world.” Makes sense. The runway is short—unbelievably short—and on a steep incline so pilots are forced to land uphill. Oh, and it dead ends into a mountain. Sticking the difficult landing would scare the average Top Gun maverick a pale shade of white. From inside a rattling, rivet-popping plane you get to watch the pilots furiously pump the flaps and reset breakers. In my case, I got to watch them argue over something on the control panel. It’s quite the ride.
And it should be. The flight costs roughly US $5 per minute in the air. But once they pop that hatch and you climb down to kiss the ground, you quickly forget all about the wild ride: The Himalayas are standing in your face.
I climbed to the tops of Gokyo Ri (5,357m / 17,575 ft) and Kala Pathar (5,644m / 18,519 ft) for better views of “The Everest,” as it’s called by the Sherpas; or “Sagarmatha” in Nepalese; or “Chomolungma” in Tibetan—all meaning roughly the same thing: Holy Mother. Sherpas—some of the toughest, softest people I’ve ever met—are convinced that the mother goddess of the world resides on the mountain.
Personally, I’ve met more prominent mountains. Everest kind of lurks shyly in the background among a posse of sizable bodyguards: Nuptse, Changtse, Lhotse, and her snowy daughter, Pumori. My favorite, Cho Oyu, the sixth tallest in the world, was far more captivating, especially as the wind pulled tears from eyes atop Gokyo Ri. But make no mistake, Everest is the top of this world, and it’s literally littered with skeletons adorned with North Face logos who wanted to touch the top. I found it fascinating to realize that occupied Tibet was just behind that snow-capped barricade of behemoths.
After crossing the national park clockwise (opposite the usual direction) by means of two glaciers and the Cho La, a temperamental mountain pass I’m certain tried to kill me, I no longer found myself mostly alone on the trails. The eastern side of Everest National Park is busy for certain. Prior to crossing over, I was often the only human within eyesight, happily stumbling along on blistered feet toward the next plate of dal bhat enjoyed next to a dung-burning stove in one of the tea house lodges.
I made my way along the snaking Khumbu Glacier—the highest glacier in the world—and dropped into Everest Base Camp, buzzing with activity because climbing season was in progress. EBC is the type of place where you can accidentally strike up a conversation with someone from National Geographic or the BBC. There, I paid respects to the Holy Mother herself, or at least the Khumbu Icefall—Everest’s doorstep and one of the most challenging parts of the climb. Just last year, in the exact spot I was standing, 18 people were killed in an avalanche.
The prior year, 16 Sherpa “Ice Doctors” were also buried in an avalanche as they laid out the climbing route for the 2014 season. The ice, perpetually carrying boulders and climbing artifacts from higher up to Base Camp, is still in debt for a lot of bodies. Occasionally, a glove shows up with some finger bones inside. Although Pumori was mostly to blame for the avalanche last year, even standing too near Everest isn’t always a safe prospect.
Things have changed a lot since Edmund Hillary—a lanky beekeeper from New Zealand—and Tenzing Norgay summited Everest for the first time in 1953. Gore-Tex and high-tech gadgets replaced wool and leather to greatly supplement intestinal fortitude. The tab to climb Everest can be US $100,000 or so. Just the permit, the piece of paper required for me to go any higher from where I was standing, costs $11,000.
Regardless, I stood there at Base Camp in awe, a childhood dream realized of finally reaching the place I’ve seen in so many documentaries. Unfortunately, the clouds dropped and cut my time there shorter than I would have liked, but what a feeling! I had to scurry out of there quickly or risk begging for a place to spend the night. I’d choose the BBC tent if it came to that.
I held my ground as the rotor wash from one of the many landing helicopters (watch video) nearly blew me off the mountain, and thought about how, statistically, some of the tents I was looking at would remain empty at the end of the season.
Sadly, some of the climbers I saw wouldn’t be coming back for high fives and hot meals.
Although Everest is far out of my reach in many ways, I bit off more than I could chew at one point on this trip. It was inevitable. Nothing new, getting in and out of trouble seems to be the modus operandi of my adventures over the last 10 years. Despite vigilant efforts, I ended up lost in a winter storm while crossing a glacier on May 3.
- Here’s the story of survival with the only near-death photo of myself that I know of.
What should have taken three hours at most, took me more than seven in whiteout conditions. I slipped and slid in scree fields as loose stones crashed down around me. I was a nameless, faceless entity doing whatever it could to survive in a place where disappearance isn’t only possible, it’s strongly encouraged.
I felt like a gnat struggling against the immensely drab and threatening moonscape beneath my bleeding feet. The sharp wind bit the skin off my face; I still have numb patches. By all accounts, I shouldn’t have survived, and thought for a while that I wouldn’t. I also felt the same sickening, familiar snap felt in February as my toe broke again and altered the fate of my trip. But that’s a story for next time.
Literally the next day, muscles still sore from the lifesaving effort 24 hours earlier, bone segment in my toe taped into place the best I could, I was caught in another blizzard at 5,420 meters (17,800 feet) while crossing the Cho La pass. A back-to-back survival doubleheader when I was already still a little uncertain and gun-shy from the day before. Crossing the pass eastward required traversing a second glacier of jagged ice and threatening scenery that could make the White Witch of Narnia piss herself.
But, as always, there is one final tally: Alive!
On Going to the Field
Anyone who says that they “conquer” a mountain is deranged. Actually, we crawl up them like children, whimpering in pain and awe of the beauty. Mountaineers don’t do battle, other than with themselves. Soft, squishy flesh doesn’t stand a chance against snow-capped sentinels, as old as the earth itself, who manufacture their own weather on a whim.
The cold granite wouldn’t even realize it had squashed you.
Unless you take to the field and test yourself, it’s hard to know your limits. The Edge needs to be sighted in the fog but respected as a place of which to steer clear until the time is right. Gasping like a goldfish for what remains of the 50 percent oxygen at 19,000 feet isn’t really fun, but somehow it feels necessary. Just as running from Spanish bulls did last year. I crave to be tested. My marks aren’t the highest, but they’re enough to pass.
All mountaineers know that a “successful” ascent is not just about reaching the summit. Success means reaching the summit, then getting off the mountain before she awakens in a bad mood. More people get caught in the trap on the way down.
On many days, I began a leisurely trek under blue skies, daydreaming along, then shortly thereafter found myself scrambling to get somewhere safe as high wind, sideways snow, and generally apocalyptic weather made me feel that I had overstayed my welcome. In short, I felt that I was being gotten rid of—from a place I didn’t belong in the first place. Survival situations seemed to fly in unexpectedly like errant curveballs to smack that umpire right on the chin, just as he’s casually lifted his mask to spit.
I was gone for 14 days; I might have been gone for more…I was gone for all those days, but I was not all alone. I made friends with lots of people, in the danger zone. I think I lost some weight there, and I’m sure I need some rest. Sleeping don’t come very easy…I gotta get out of here… — Alice Cooper in the “Ballad of Dwight Fry”
Elevation is a profound multiplier and equalizer. For once, privileged people can’t throw money at the uncivilized inconvenience of discomfort. That delights me. Sure, they can hire a helicopter for the descent to save a few downhill days, but if they did so on the way up, they’d find their highly valued gray matter popping out of their ears. Elevation makes no exceptions; it’s a killer. It doesn’t even care about generous donations during election year.
No matter social class, race, net worth, or general disdain for burning calories, everyone is forced to grind their way up the valley one raw blister and freezing night at a time, until acclimatized. Uncle Wang’s bra-clasp factory may pay for shark fin soup, but it still won’t get you out of walking the walk.
Even at the top, comfort is as rare as real coffee. Nothing can grow. Literally everything has to be carried up by man or beast. I technically stayed in the nicest lodge in Gorak Shep, last stop before Everest Base Camp. It cost me $2 per night. The food helped me become better acquainted with the frosty squat toilet. My water bottle, sat dutifully next to my bed each night, was frozen when I awoke. Clouds of charcoal breath hung in the room above my bed, like a tiny weather system.
No, Mercedes, there won’t be any turn-down service for your foam pad tonight. The savages have risen up and are having it their way. Daddy’s doing all that he can, but until then, take your Diamox pills and try not to go into a coma.
Life and death aren’t far apart at high elevation. Poor decisions aren’t granted the same leeway enjoyed at sea level. There are no mulligans or do-overs. Sadly, there are constant reminders of this. Throughout an afternoon of walking, you pass scores of chortens (rock memorials) and tombstones for fallen climbers and trekkers. From the 1996 disaster on Everest made famous in Into Thin Air to the recent earthquakes, I paused at dozens of markers. Some held “We Miss You Son” and similar heart-wrenching epitaphs.
Honesty and gut checks are no longer optional; this is the place to ditch the bravado. You must speak up and react if your insides just don’t feel right. I heard of two AMS deaths—sad losses that could have been prevented—in my valley: one retired Korean man and one 20-something American girl. They fell as victims to elevation within the same week I was climbing toward Gokyo.
Elevation is a strange beast. At my highest point, I was only getting around 50 percent of the oxygen I would normally enjoy with each breath. That’s bad news for a guy who spent most of his time growing up in Lexington, Kentucky, only 300 meters above sea level. Unpleasant, indeed, but well worth the price of admission to see a place as magical as the Himalayas.
My pulse sometimes hit 110 bpm while doing nothing more than reading a menu. Periodic breathing—unexpected spurts of panting that come and go—kicked in a couple of times while talking to loved ones on rare calls. I sounded like I was going into labor or something.
Some symptoms, such as headache and confusion, are serious: you’ll need to retreat within 24 hours or risk big trouble if they don’t subside. Other symptoms are just downright annoying. For more than 10 days, I averaged around four hours of sleep a night. Dreams get weird—carnival, clown-music weird—with altitude. I was up to pee an impossible amount of times each night—a very annoying prospect considering that composting toilets were sometimes located in a snowy foyer or down a dark, freezing hallway.
Finally, fearing permanent prostate damage, I asked a doctor met on the trail. The reason for everyone’s 15-times-per-night toilet rotation is that blood thickens at elevation; your body manufactures more red blood cells to carry tasty oxygen. To make room, liquids are ushered out of the body in a hurry. I finally gave up and unceremoniously christened one of my two Extra-BPA, fake Nalgene bottles purchased in Kathmandu as an official pee bottle going forward. The horror of doing so, aside from the potential of sleepily grabbing the wrong bottle some dire night, meant that I was able to exactly measure in liters output versus input. The math never worked out in my favor.
On top of the great dehydration battle, I couldn’t shovel food to my face fast enough. The body craves salt, sugar, water, electrolytes, protein…that $7 plate of spaghetti with sickly-sweet ketchup as sauce just doesn’t cut it after a cold, 10-hour day on an uphill trail.
I did discover the joys of eating yak steak to get protein and was blessed with several good ones. Much to the chagrin and disbelief of vegetarians everywhere, most Tibetan monks—including the 14th Dalai Lama—eat it. Beast of burden, covered in a brown mushroom gravy, is particularly delightful. Only, the last one I ate must have been butchered by a blind man with an ax; the texture was so funky that I’m quite sure it had organ tissue and matted hair under all the sauce. The yaks, those hairy, useful, silently conniving bastards, did finally enact their revenge one day. More on that later.
These Aren’t Muir’s Mountains
Although there are plenty of good tidings to be enjoyed.
I was weened on hiking, hunting, and climbing in the mountains, but those mountains are of a different breed. They’re teeming with life and embrace me with green, pine-needle arms on sunny Saturdays. Deer snort and fox squirrels angrily drop acorns to shake bushy tails in my direction. The high-elevation Himalayas are a completely different creature—like a toothy animal that appreciates the adoration and attention but may turn fangs on you at any time.
Although the forlorn moonscape of brittle moraine and glacial deposits is overwhelmingly majestic—it seems more than the eyes can communicate to the brain—there’s just something cold about it, too.
It’s like walking around the inside of a beautiful crypt. No matter how much jaw-dropping scenery there is, nothing fades a certain menace that persists at all times in the background. You can turn the volume down but can’t switch it off. I felt the same impending potential for disaster in my gut while tiptoeing my way back across the mined beach in East Timor after walking up on a U.N. warning sign.
Tempting the Himalayas is addictive—it feels good and bad at the same time. Like scratching a mosquito bite until skin and blood collect under your fingernails, then you scratch some more even though you know you really shouldn’t. The pain is relieving but damage is sustained.
No trees and very little plant life aside from lichen survive. Gray dust and sharp, shifting stones prevail. Learning towers of scree threaten to topple; unattended puffs of smoke tell of rocks doing things on their own accord. Ancient boulders as large as 18-wheelers look as though they cracked in half easily; something was bigger, meaner, and more bent on destruction than even themselves. What’s stomping the land around here, anyway?
Nothing seems immune or safe from some invisible threat that could sweep in with dark-cloud wings on a blissful morning. The landscape seems to have turned upon itself, tearing and writhing asunder, oozing with power. This is the exact place where India is being crammed beneath the Tibetan Plateau—it isn’t going quietly. Geological, tectonic hell has broken loose. Everest is literally growing each year.
In the jungle, one feels like a visitor to a green, well-functioning machine that may or may not want to kill you. Here on the summits and passes, the first impression is that nothing is safe. Time is limited—linger at your own peril. The granite sand is running out; good weather won’t last. You’ll have frost in your beard within the hour. That pile of boulders the size of small automobiles will be easily scattered during the next shakeup. Nature is stretching—get out while you can and watch the show from a safe distance.
Descending below the frost line and suddenly realizing that I was surrounded by green life once again made me laugh out loud with glee. I stopped and fondled each bud on a tree just to make sure they were real.
From Yunnan to North India, Appalachia to the Andes, one thing is consistent and the Himalayas are no exception: mountain people are good folks. There’s nothing like a hard landscape to soften the heart; a few nights of stealing warmth around a glowing dung-burning stove cleanses the soul. Unlike the host of soulless scammers who hiss offers of hash from the shadows of Thamel in the capital, the residents of mountain villages were invariably kind and sympathetic to me.
One of the best memories I have from this visit happened in a small settlement in the Gokyo valley called Machermo. I was the only Westerner in the lodge on a blustery night. One by one, red-cheeked Tibetans and Nepalis came in from a winter storm to warm themselves with milk tea by the antique stove. Backs were slapped with blue hands, and laughter built into an impromptu session with a few winter-strained voices singing and a traditional stringed instrument being plucked. They certainly didn’t do so for the benefit of the one tourist; no one cared about the few filthy bills I had in my pocket.
For an hour or so to forget the cold, a few of us humans did what we do best: be human.
Thank You, Nepal
I did what I came to do in Nepal and don’t regret a single minute of the discomfort. I can’t think of anyplace more worthy of a little joint pain and frostbite to explore. Recovery is imminent. And like many great adventures, the injuries are soon forgotten and a keen sense of accomplishment lingers. I get to carry that feeling through whatever is left of my life. Another childhood dream realized: I’m on a roll.
I learned a lot. Especially what it feels like to be truly alone, swallowed by a landscape so immense it makes you weep. And the feeling of raw, head-spinning freedom with no fences in any direction—also enough to make a grown man break down. The roar of the silence mingled with freedom to surpass the solitude experienced during last December’s #TheYucatanExperiment.
Through scenery and landscapes I can still barely fathom, somehow my bigger picture of this planet was tweaked. I now have a better understanding of the magnitude of what is possible in nature. In life. This is one big, beautiful mess we’ve gotten ourselves into. Wow.
May there be a road.
More Nepal pics here.