The air was getting colder and thinner with each step. A few of our climbers complained about having difficulty breathing. It started snowing…
The near-loss of our porter Dorje to altitude sickness was a sobering experience for our expedition…any trace of hubris dissolved, and no one questioned anything our leader Wang Chuk said ever again. Except, maybe…me.
We plodded upwards quietly on our way to Everest base camp, waiting for us at almost 18,000 feet.
This final embarkation point welcomed a confluence of expeditions with colorful flags representing many countries’ bids for the summit. This was the last place for mountaineers to acclimate and prepare mentally for the scaling of glaciers, snow and icy rock on their way to their chosen peak. The Nepalese Army had a team there, but was hurdled by the discovery of two of their young conscripts having had a few toes turn black and break off in their boots on the way up. Once again, the reality of where we were and what we were doing found deeper purchase on the slippery slope of our consciousness.
We spent the morning at base camp, taking a short trip across Khumbu, the glacier that dominates the local landscape. The scariest part of the journey so far had been the 8-foot aluminum ladder spanning a 7-foot crevasse – basically a vertical crack in the ice, that plummets down and tapers in. If you fall off the ladder and the anchors don’t hold, you’re going down fast…until you stop abruptly at the bottom, being squeezed between two walls of ice. These stress fractures in the glacier’s slow-moving body are a part of its journey and can be a few dozen feet in depth, or so deep that if you did go down, you’d never be seen again. Rope rescues do happen, but are very dangerous, requiring one of the Sherpas to rappel down and attempt to extract you from the grip of that icy vise.
Our next stop was a settlement named Gorak Shep, which at the time consisted of a single small stone building. We would stay overnight in this empty rectangle of rock and in the morning ascend to our destination peak, Kala Patthar.
Kala Patthar, which translates to “Black Rock,” lives up to its name, sporting dark ice-glazed boulders all the way to the top at its 19,501-foot elevation. It is known to have the best view of Everest. It would take us about three hours of climbing to reach the summit.
At nightfall, we all slipped into our sleeping bags, excited that we were so close to our goal.
Then, early morning. Most of us woke up bleary-eyed.
Wang Chuk waited patiently for everyone to awaken before announcing that a storm was coming in and that we were not going up to the peak. We would stay in Gorak Shep that day and start heading back down to Lukla in the morning. It was a judgment call based on experience and safety for his clients.
Not going…what? I hadn’t come half way around the planet to not go! I was devastated. Then, with some self-cognitive disbelief, I heard my mouth say: “I’m going.” A hushed silence blanketed the room. Wang Chuk responded by saying he couldn’t stop me, and neither could he assign me a Sherpa. It was then that Tikka, an experienced guide who became an expedition friend, volunteered to go with me. Soon after, Dan the Dutch guy joined this rogue contingent on a three-hour climb to the top.
Off we went.
After about a half hour, a light snow started. Tikka turned back. A few steps further and Dutchman Dan was done – joining Tikka in returning to Gorak Shep.
Checking in with my gut feeling: was I crazy go it alone for hours with the threat of a snowstorm? My practical mind made it clear that one could easily get lost and freeze to death trying to find the way back to the safety of a small stone building with a warm hearth. There was nothing else out there – no trails, no roads, no people…nothing but rock and ice. But surprisingly, every intuitive faculty I checked in with gave me an unequivocal green light to proceed. I rely on my intuition and I trust its guidance in difficult situations. This may seem reckless…but I felt I had plenty of, uh…reck! My gut said “Go!” So I went.
The hours of focused climbing passed quickly in the quiet belly of the impending storm. With intuition purring alongside me, I broke through an inversion layer and just as I reached the summit found myself above the clouds in hazy sunshine. I sat on the peak stone, resting, while realizing that on every side except the one I came up, it was thousands of feet down to the next plateau. The heights were dizzying and I was holding on to the rock with all I had.
Surprisingly, at nearly 20,000 feet, I wasn’t alone…Birds? Birds! I had no idea birds could live at that altitude and they seemed to be just as confounded as to what I was doing visiting them, unannounced, alone, and without proper wings. They came very close to me, unafraid and curious.
I couldn’t stay long; I had to find my way back before the storm and before sunset. So I indulged in a couple of photos, the first being a “selfie” taken with a small film camera with a timer (remember those?). Above my head to the right you can see the last ridge and the summit of Everest. The other photo captured one of the curious birds hanging out with me.
I was on fire. Adrenaline surging and happy hormones racing through my system. I felt so alive, but also realized that if I wanted to stay that way, I still had to make it back.
I practically flew down the slopes, being careful not to lose footing on the rocks, which, out there, would likely be fatal.
Everyone has gifts…one of mine is a good sense of direction. I traveled fast with a singular focus – and near sundown, with the storm having waited graciously for my return before getting serious, I opened the door to the warm interior of the one house in this “town” of Gorak Shep.
My arrival precipitated a palpable silence. The card games stopped, conversations too. They all stared. No one returned my hello or seemed happy to see I was alive and well. No one would talk to me. So – unforgiven for having gone and making it back, I had some warm food and tea and quietly crawled into my sleeping bag and closed my eyes.
The morning was no different – I had been summarily estranged. Wang Chuk did look relieved that I was safe, and shook my hand without saying anything. All the Sherpas were also very nice to me, but I would not spend time babysitting the disappointments of those who stayed behind and spent the entire day confined to that small building.
There was only one main path for the descent back to Namché Bazaar and I felt confident I knew the way. As I slipped on my day pack, I told Wang Chuk that I would wait for them at our hotel, and I flew. Luckily, altitude sickness doesn’t occur on the way down, and I was so energized I was practically running. The sun was shining brightly which made for very pleasant downhill trekking, but I was getting hungry – with nary a power bar left – I had to refuel.
At the time, there were no restaurants or markets along the cold mountain path, but the Nepali and Sherpa people have a great tradition of hospitality. A tired and hungry traveler can pop his head into a doorway of a private home and ask the matron, “Yaha ko keh kanna, pa in cha?” Which should translate roughly to “Excuse me, ma’am, is there food available?’
The front door of the simple abode was ajar and inside was a short, elderly woman milling about in her small home. So, with a deep breath I knocked and addressed her with this phrase. She almost passed out laughing when she heard me intone something that I hoped resembled her language – to which she enthusiastically replied “Pa in cha! Pa in cha!” Yes, I’ll make some food for you! While she was preparing my meal I plied her with other phrases and pictures that had her clutching her belly in mirth. The meal was simple and delicious and while finishing up I tried to pay her for it, but she would have none of that – this was just how it is done here.
While I was eating, word got around that there was a foreigner having a meal at grandma’s house. I think she telepathically paged her family to join in the fun. Soon, I was swarmed by a half dozen smiling children about 10 to 12 years old who were as fascinated with me as I was with them. My trusty Lonely Planet phrasebook got a workout that day. I said my goodbye and thanks to grandma and set off downhill.
The cadre of kids surrounded me as I hiked down the mountain while they tried to teach me their favorite song.
It’s been 31 years and I still remember the catchy tune. Each lilting verse in the song ended with the repetitive refrain of three words, “ban ko pat!” delivered loudly by my new friends. They were so pleased that I sang along with them. It was a sublime moment. Then, having ventured far from their home, they bade me well and as a unit, ran laughing back up the hill the way children are wont to do.
Fed and re-energized, I pushed on, encouraged by the sun as it warmed the green earth below the tree line.
As I powered down the mountain, I noticed a “store” of sorts where travelers could get a steaming plate of Momos and a beer before embarking on the last leg down to Namché Bazaar.
I didn’t need much convincing, as I had done what I came here to do. I was ready for a meal and a beer or two. As I sidled up to the wooden bar and ordered refreshments, an older traveler next to me noticed the Canadian flag patch on my backpack and proudly showed me the maple leaf embroidered on his cap. I shared that I was currently living in Toronto and that was enough for him, dubbing me a “fellow Canuck” with the clink of our beer bottles. I think his name was Harold…
I asked Harold what he was doing there and he relayed that in the year previous, an important and beautiful monastery burned down to the ground, taking with it hundreds of works of art, priceless ancient scriptures, scrolls, and statues. He was there to help restore it with funds that were coming in as donations from all over the world.
Finishing his beer, Harold said, “Come, I want to introduce you to someone…” He then opened the door to a private room where his friends were relaxing and said, “Alón, meet Sir Edmund Hillary.”
Nothing could have prepared me to hear words introducing me to the first man to reach the summit of Mount Everest in 1953! His wife June was with him.
Sir Edmund Percival Hillary was 70 when we met. He moved slowly with the support of a cane, but graciously got up to shake my hand like the gentleman he was. Wow.
I don’t know how it happened that his wife June and Harold were staying behind…but Sir Edmund asked me if I would accompany him on his slow hike down to his next destination.
It was just the two of us. One arm of his working the cane, the other in mine to steady himself. We didn’t talk much. No paparazzi-style questions. Just there. Just then. One step at a time. A quintessential moment, etched forever into my memory.
In 2008 I read that both he and his wife June had passed on peacefully, which brought tears to my eyes – honored to have known them.
That’s my story, which is true to the serendipity factor and intuitive guidance I mentioned in Part One – and which has led me to myriad remarkable opportunities and saved my ass many times while traveling in some scary places.
Having made it down to Lukla and saying farewell to Sir Edmund, there was one last, terrifying goodbye kiss from Sagarmatha, the watchful Goddess of Everest: taking off from Lukla Airport’s short, downhill, and at the time, unpaved gravel runway. If your plane was carrying too many people or too heavy a load and couldn’t get to a certain speed when the short bumpy runway disappeared underneath the wheels, you went down, adding to the scrapyard of twisted metal strewn across the mountainside and becoming another sad entry in the historic chronicle of the world’s most dangerous airport.
Our group of climbers, strapped into our seats, watched in horror as the plane ahead of us wrestled a crosswind and dropped out of sight when it ran out of runway. A few frozen seconds later it became visible again, fighting to stay airborne and thankfully, succeeding. Once again, my gut said we’d be fine…and we were, taking off without plummeting and less than an hour later, landing easily on the flat tarmac of Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan International Airport.
“Tashi Delek!” (Hello, goodbye and “wassup?” in Nepali)
Alón Sagee is Chairman and Chief Troublemaker of the San Francisco Audiophile Society.
Header image of Gorak Shep courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/McKay Savage.