You can read this piece starting at any month of the year and circle.
Summit! I plant the flag I’ve been hauling in my backpack, part of the essentials, a necessary validation for my efforts. My fingers are numb from the cold, despite the exertion. I know better than to strip off my gloves, what with the altitude and the funny things it does to the brain I might forget to put them back on and freeze them. I take a few pictures of myself and the flag, of myself, of the breath-taking view. That’s for my ego and posterity. Another summit ticked off. It’s very windy and barren and a bit crowded with everybody milling about. We can’t dawdle. After thirty minutes, I start herding the group. We can’t stay exposed to the high winds. I worry that the members of our little group will get dehydrated and confused. We must start the descent. One last look – I can’t believe I’ve done it. I can see the Earth’s curvature.
We descend cautiously. Sure, you’re cautious ascending but the reverse is treacherous as well. You still need a team to help you navigate your way down. The same issues going up exist going down, except you are no longer fuelled by adrenaline. Again, you need to fight your tendencies to self-destruction and prop yourself up. You will yourself to keep going. The goal is no longer to summit but to rejoin the ranks of the mortals down below. You fight the urge to fall off the face of a cliff, a glorious end after this brave summit. Except dying nullifies the win. You need must keep going to complete the cycle. And so you do. One foot in front of the other.
Coming across human remains is always a shock. You are faced with your own mortality, and failure to survive in this harsh environment. And then there is the ethical aspect. Should you protect the body, bury it, try and bring it down though you are tired? Will you put your own life at risk to bring solace to unknown parties? Or will you give the mountain its due? All those humans climbing it, without regards for her feelings. She may need her share of flesh to consume. I am aware those are strange thoughts, feverish thoughts. I say a quick prayer in my heart and move on. We should wear dog tags, I reflect, so they could be returned to the family. I will lie and say he looked peaceful, like he just sat down for a minute. Actually, I’ve never seen such an expression of fear. He was struck down with fear in his heart and the image will haunt me for years to come. Mercifully, I don’t know that at this point.
I am in the foothills, reluctant to leave. I stay in the village, trying to support myself while living with a family. I don’t want to be a drain on resources. I bring a bit of fame to the place. Foreigners who want to climb the mountain turn to me. I eke out a living on consultant fees. I may yet write articles for Mountaineering magazine. Spring here is fierce and short, blossoms competing in speed and fragrance. It’s hard to believe I feared dying from exposure a few short months go. I am smack in the middle of a verdant landscape, no longer lunar, but quite earthly. I accompany the family’s young herder as he leads the flock to pasture. He wears skins, like a prehistoric man. He walks with a staff. I imitate him the best I can, with a warm coat and ski poles. We are an unlikely pair.
Nights are cool, but days are mild. I teach Bao some English every day. He wants to grow up to be a mountain guide, so he will be sought after if he speaks English well. He is smart and lively. He finds ways to feed us both, with goat’s milk and hot tea. We’re stationed near a stream which makes for the best tea I have ever drunk. We also have strips of tough dry yak meat. To my companion’s unending mirth, I spend a lot of time foraging. He won’ t try my discoveries at first. Every day, I make a salad of dandelion or other edible plant. He affectionately calls me a goat. As the goat is a prized possession, I am not offended. He plays the flute for me. I play the harmonica. The goats hang around when we play, grazing to our music and laughter. I journal and meditate. I patiently untangle knots and tangles in my heart and mind. I have left a mess behind me and another within. Living outside helps.
Relentless rain. Miserable soaking wet. Bao is unconcerned. He wears a large hat. He gets soaked indifferently, but we keep a fire going with dried dung he’s been collecting. The mothers have calved and the newborns shiver. The males have established a guard perimeter to protect the herd. We are also on guard for predators. Bao tells me if I see an eagle, to extend my arms out to appear bigger. He says also to protect my eyes and make lots of noise. He teaches me to whirl a slingshot. Pebbles abound. I understand now the Indian gods with so many arms. Protection, attack, gratefulness, sharing. I hope I will not be tested.
I have been tested and failed. We lost a kid to the king of the sky. We pelted him with rocks, but he never dropped the kid. We could hear the bleating as he was airlifted, as well as his mother’s calls. Neither Bao nor the mother dwelled on the unfortunate incident. I can’t get the bleating out of my mind. It fuses with the human remains one may come across high in the mountain where the living is fierce. I’ve started thinking about heading home. We resume our English lessons in earnest. I practice with the slingshot at the slightest occasion. Wildflowers get decapitated. My aim is getting better.
Bao’s brother comes and spends the night. Lin has brought food and news from the village. They talk urgently. I can’t make out much of it. Bao shows off his English, gives me news. We prepare a feast with food Lin has carted – freshly-made bread and kumis to celebrate. Bao’s brother also brought a live chicken. Bao ties its leg with a twine he’s braided into a solid rope. We tell Lin about the eagle. Still, Bao is willing to take his chances for eggs. We agree that I will return to the village with Lin. I spend a great deal of time fretting about my pack while the brothers laugh, talk and drink into the night. They sleep in each other’s arms. A few months together is nothing compared to the bond these two share.
Bao will spend the remainder of the season at pasture, with no company other than the wind, the grasses, the creek, the goats and the eagle. I give him a hug and my coat that he has been eyeing since Day one, lavishing me with compliments on its bright colours. He gives me his flute and memories of music under the stars. I think I get the best deal. The trek back with Lin is easier than I remembered. I am stronger and fitter, and my lungs are accustomed to the high altitude. Lin sings as we walk, his voice a deep baritone that he enjoys throwing against the rocks. It echoes loudly, a deep rumble that I believe could set off an avalanche if used foolishly. Lin is anything but foolish. He pointsout to me dangers on the road, holes and unstable rocks. Finally, he is reassured with my footing and only points at beautiful vistas or flowers. We stop to rest and eat when the sun is at its zenith. I have given up on wearing a watch. We can see the village below, another two hours with traffic. The path is wider and more travelled. I miss the quiet of the flock as I get re-accustomed to meeting people.
I am back home. The reacclimatising has been difficult, like trying to breathe in rarefied atmosphere. I’ve had trouble catching my breath and getting my body back into what feels like a frenzied pace. I’ve accepted to replace a climber who dropped out at the last minute from an expedition my friend Patrick is leading. I am meeting the group tonight for the first time. I’ve climbed with Patrick before and will be able to assist him. I have a sponsor, so I am not worrying about the financial aspect so much. I am getting free gear in exchange for pictures and articles. This is a mountain I’ve never climbed so I have been researching routes and weather conditions. I am a whiz at reading clouds.
I’ve spent the whole month in preparation but still I feel hopelessly behind and doubt I can be of help to Patrick, our leader. Much of my preparation is mental though I’ve also been training in the gym and bouldering to build up muscle. I am fit and trust my body to react in difficult situations. I’m up-to-date on my first aid training, with an emphasis on high altitude sickness and disorientation. We will have two experienced climbers with us to corral the group, middle-aged men and women looking for a challenge. No thrill seekers at first blush. The group seems to gel. Still I am concerned with a myriad of details. I will bring my good luck charm and my country’s flag on a collapsible post.
We’re finally here, in the village at the foothills. It feels familiar and foreign all at once. The clouds and the smell of dung. Everything is rocky, a lunar landscape on Earth. A few villagers will help carry our equipment halfway where we will camp to wait for good weather and for our bodies to adapt. The experienced climbers have gone ahead to scout the route and will be leaving anchors behind for difficult passages. The group breaks camp, leaving tents behind to use on our way back. The group is disciplined and focused. They are physically fit. We squeeze through a chimney, roping up the packs and hauling them first, pushing and tugging. We have trouble leaving stuff behind, relying on it more than our wits. I bring up the rear to help the mentally weak. Our goal is for everybody to summit, in their own time, but within a given period. I keep my eye on the cloud and the wind.