First, Milan. Our guide is alive and recovering. That’s about what we know.
We have reached the town where he was taken to last night, Dughla (4,620 meters), not quite Pheriche, but a significant drop. But today he continued (somehow) down to Pheriche. We need to stop for the night, as Dozi dropped off Milan after a hike down of about 6 hours throughout the night and immediately returned back up to us. He has been up for over 36 hours, working most of that time. Despite bloodshot eyes and the obvious strain he has told us he can absolutely keep going another few hours to Pheriche today if we want. He needs rest. A lot of rest. So tomorrow we’ll catch up with Milan and know his condition.
* * *
Long day. Kala Pattar was the toughest hike I’ve ever done. It’s less than two miles but took me three hours. After we made steady progress up about 45 minutes or so, nausea was hitting Maggie unrelentingly and more intensely. There is no physiological reason it hit her instead of me that day. And when she uttered the words that both of us knew one of us might at some point have to say and futilely hoped would not be personally heartbreaking in the moment, I felt a terrible sinking. “I need to turn around.” I asked if she wanted me to come with her and she said no.
Maggie brought the Diamox (which I kept calling Dioxin; very different), Maggie’s the one who inspiringly insisted we should make a go at Kala Pattar today, and the one who suggested in the first place that we get a porter. Change any one of those items and there’s a solid chance I wouldn’t have even made it halfway through the trek. Who knows. But every day is a roll of the dice and today came out against her for no rational, fair reason.
American mountain climber extraordinaire Ed Viesturs’ motto and mantra is “Reaching the summit is optional. Getting down is mandatory.” Even though our adventure is mild compared to the summiters of 8,000-meter peaks, it’s significant for us and there is so much in our fickle minds’ and bodies’ reactions that we can’t control or predict. All we can do is roll with it and listen to our bodies. When you’re trained to push yourself to the tip of your limits, it’s incredibly hard to listen effectively to your body without thinking that you capitulated. But at this altitude, you will literally die if you don’t.
I later learned that very shortly after Maggie turned back, she threw up on the side of the mountain. Which I think is awesome. Not because I’m an ass and like it when people vomit, but it’s proof positive that she pushed herself to her limit, recognized it, and did the right thing. There’s no logical reason it hit her and not me, or that it hit some of the much-more-fit-than-me people I saw turning back and not me, or that it didn’t touch the sixty-something-old folks who passed me practically whistling and skipping to the top.
At this elevation, thoughts are hard to keep in my head. However I did feel some guilt that it hit her instead of me, but truth be told I also felt significant relief and gratitude that she didn’t ask me to come down with her. Which I also felt guilty about.
I took baby steps, never one foot making it past the mid-sole of the other shoe. Any faster and I would feel a teeny twinge of nausea. There was no rush. The biggest obstacle would be going too fast. I knew there was a nausea threshold I would hit if I moved too “quickly” and was paranoid of hitting it.
I could see a huge bath of sunlight on the mountainside next to me but it didn’t come over the mountains to reach me for a seeming eternity. Under two pairs of smartwool, my toes were still freezing. I kept wiggling them and reminded myself that as long as I could feel them, they’d be okay.
It didn’t help that for much of the hike you can see the entire path before you. What would take 10 minutes at sea level was taking ten times that at this altitude and incline. The last stretch is climbing straight up over piles of large rocks spilled like a disheveled pile of gargantuan Legos. And then…there’s a series of prayer flags and one steep, pointy, awkward boulder that maybe three people could mount the top of simultaneously. It’s nice to have so obvious a summit. At the time I got there, I was alone for about 15 minutes in the intermittent, bitchslapping wind gusts. I made alone the brief video that Maggie and I had said we’d make together for our mothers, who had requested each others’ contact info and were quietly worried but supportive on the other side of the earth, awaiting any news from us.
At approximately 18,500 feet, I was feeling very high up, higher than any point in the continental United States and only a couple thousand feet below Mt. McKinely. I was completely incapable of focusing on anything. But that also meant I was incapable of dwelling on anything. Huge thoughts of life and death were hitting me (we still knew nothing of Milan’s state) but they went right through me. All I could do was keep looking around, take photos, and take it in without any reflection, just an optimistic sense that I was absorbing something significant. The panorama is startling, and the direct view of Everest’s south face bulk is mesmerizing (see photo at top), even if you can’t focus on it very long.
The hike back down took about 45 minutes, and that included many stops for photos—it’s amazing how easy it is to go down in altitude. When I reached the lodge, Dozi had already returned, and Maggie was feeling better physically, though inevitably fiercely disappointed that she was denied summiting Kala Pattar.
The rest of the day has been long, fast, and hard. We decided to skip the Cho La pass and return by the route we came, checking in on Milan. We were able to phone our agency, who suggested we spend a couple more nights at Gorak Shep and a new guide would meet us. One night above 17,000 feet was bad enough—constantly sucking on air for scarce oxygen and curled frozen in our bags.
The hike to Dughla was long and beautiful, but I did not take many photos. We were on a mission. One image that I’ll add here is of a cairn that we somehow missed on our way up, in the yard of memorials. It’s the memorial to Scott Fischer, one of the guides who perished on Everest in ’96 and a remarkable human being, who led some of the earliest real efforts to clean up the debris littering Mount Everest. He died on his fifth Everest climb, as a guide who lost his own life fighting to save the lives of his clients.
Everywhere in the last couple days are reminders that all of us are guests here, not conquerors. You get what the Himalaya decide to give you that day, and I feel incredibly lucky that we have been allowed to experience so much.