The journey into Nepal was an adventurer’s dream. After our flight from Kathmandu, we took the week- long trek through the beautiful high countryside and small villages leading to Everest base camp. Worn trails and stone paths led us across rolling hills and sloping valleys, with the Himalayan peaks looking down at us all the while. As we became accustomed to the Central Asian alpine scenery, we learned about its inhabitants as well. The people we met were every bit as proud and captivating as the mountains surrounding them. At every stop, we were greeted with smiling faces and warm hugs. Families who had little to share, heartily invited us into their homes. Everyone we met was eager to help or make a friend, even though they expected nothing in return.
The base camp itself was not unlike the sites we’d been through on other mountains around the world, except everything was bigger. The three-month haul up the mountain required a small army of support, along with tons of gear. In any given season, there might be fifty or more teams trying to make their way up the mountain, each consisting of anywhere from 5 to 25 people. Base camp, sitting at 17,000 feet, is where all those people and their equipment come together in a sprawling collection of tents and piles. There were parties from every corner of the globe. Some were experienced climbers who had saved for a shot at their holy grail. Others were wealthy adventurers who had purchased the best gear and help money could buy in hopes of finding a way to the top. No matter their background, everyone was keenly aware of the excitement and danger that lurked in the weeks ahead. Everest was a place where you could find glory or die trying, and scores of people each climbing season did. While the mountain is popular with the public and the media, (a simple web search will yield hundreds of books, articles and movies), few people appreciate how difficult it actually is to climb.
During the three-month undertaking, you don’t just go up once. In fact, through a series of ascents and descents to and from the camps on the route, you actually have to go up and down the lower sections of Everest about 5 times. This is partly to do with your gear. All of the oxygen canisters, coats, ice axes, and other implements required for a shot at the summit must be moved by foot from base camp to the top. This represents literally tons of equipment for each person, and, at the risk of stating the blatantly obvious, moving it uphill through fields of ice at high altitude is no easy task. More importantly, however, is the need to acclimatize as the body just can’t function there without taking some time to adjust. Consider this: If you could be flown by helicopter to the summit of Everest right this second, with all the best equipment to take with you, you’d be unconscious within five minutes, and dead within ten. Not because of the frigid temperatures, rather, it’s that the oxygen is so thin your brain would swell in a matter of moments. Even at base camp, which is higher than many of the greatest mountains outside the Himalayas, it’s not uncommon to see headaches, vomiting and other effects of altitude sickness. It’s only by taking months moving into and out of the camps, inching your way up the mountain, that you can give your body a fighting chance at surviving to see the top.
Beyond the problems of air and altitude, Everest carries the same weather and terrain dangers as any other high-altitude peak. Blizzards, avalanches, and falling rocks kill climbers each year. Assorted illnesses and falls routinely claim victims as well. It’s understood when you set off from base camp that the best you can do is look out for the obvious dangers, and then pray that you’ll be alright. In that department, we were open to any help we could get. Nearly every team that passes through base camp stops to see the monks who hold a blessing ceremony for climbers on their way up. We had the good fortune of passing through at a time when a Rinpoche, a high-ranking Buddhist religious figure, was milling about. He was exactly the way you’d picture a monk should be. At about four feet tall with heavily lined dark skin and a heavy accent, he looked like an earthly Yoda in his saffron robes. At our request, he agreed to perform the blessing personally. After we’d all gathered, he offered us what we came to learn were the prerequisites for praying – Russian vodka and Chinese whiskey. Once we had all imbibed, he read from a copy of the Tibetan Book of Prayers that appeared to have predated fire. It had a sort of leather covering and ancient pages held together with a kind of yarn. We arranged ourselves and our climbing gear in a circle around a chorton, a small pile of rocks in the center. For over an hour he rumbled the passages in low tones, more of a chant than a recital, dabbing each of us and our equipment with yak butter. When he had finished blessing our expedition, he went around to each of us to offer words of good fortune and encouragement. In the dim light from the tent fire, and with nearly two dozen of us in the room, he hadn’t realized Erik was blind, and no one had told him. As he placed his hand out to shake hands, Erik felt out in front of him and offered his hand at an angle away from the small monk. The Rinpoche turned to me with a confused look, forced a pained smile, and in his broken English asked, “he also going?” When we explained about our blind friend, the Rinpoche became quiet. After a moment of contemplating, he asked us each for an empty film canister, which we produced. He disappeared momentarily, and then returned with the canisters. Each had been filled with dried rice he had blessed. He instructed us to take the canisters with us, and toss a pinch of the rice into the wind as an offering any time we felt particularly frightened or endangered. I remember thinking to myself, we’re on Everest, how would I know when that would be? Just beyond base camp lies Everest’s first major challenge, as well as one of its most deadly.
The Khumbu Ice Fall is a large glacier field with huge crevasses cut into its floor that descend thousands of feet down, and sometimes more. A jumbled mess of chaos running about a mile long and sloping upward a few thousand feet, its traps shift daily as glaciers burn and expand under the sun. Passing through is extremely treacherous, a thought that never leaves your mind as the frozen columns groan and crack around you. The only way through is by stepping over a series of aluminum ladders that have been roped together as makeshift bridges to carry you over the dark pits. The Sherpas liked to tell us that if we fell, the crevasses were so deep that we’d end up back in America. I wasn’t inclined to doubt them. There are a thousand ways to die in Khumbu; falling is only the most terrifying of them. Everyone we’d spoken to had stressed the importance of moving through the Ice Fall as quickly as possible, and I could see why. The longer you were there, the bigger the risk that a chunk of ice would break off from one of the surrounding walls and crush you or that the ground would shift and you’d be swallowed by a deep crevasse. Worse still was the psychological effect. Simply put, the Ice Fall terrorized your mind. As I made my way across the first series of ladders, which swayed and moved under my weight, my heart rendered most of my body numb. The only thing keeping me from a freefall into the endless, dark oblivion below were a few discount ladders tied together by some sort of Sherpa Kmart boat twine. A kind of minor panic set in with each step, until I reached the end of a pit, only to feel a moment’s relief before facing the next one. Things were going slowly, but I was making progress. Until I reached the long crevasse bridged by six ladders, that is. One or two had been tolerable, but this was sheer insanity. It stretched on and on, the middle ladders sagging noticeably downward. I told my legs to keep going forward, but my body refused to move. I finally took the first step, only to watch the ladder at the far end jolt and slide. I closed my eyes and tried to regain my calm, taking one small rung at a time under my feet. The flimsy support below me was still gliding right to left as sweat poured down into my eyes. In my fear, I did the worst thing you can ever do in the Ice Fall – I looked down. What I saw wasn’t nothing, it was worse than that. The sheer blackness extended down forever, and it seemed to be drawing me closer. I could feel it wanting to swallow me, like the frozen gateway to an icy hell. There was no sound, no movement or expression, only its unrelenting pull. Paralyzed, I thought of my pinch of rice. Moving slowly so as not to upset the balance below me, I carefully took the film canister from the side pocket where I’d stowed it and dumped every last grain into the pit. We all had a good laugh, and I was able to pull myself together. Having gotten past my terror, I was able to regain my focus and work my way to the far end and onto solid ice. With each section completed, I had to turn and try to calmly guide Erik across verbally. I had explained to him what we’d be crossing and the dire consequences if he got it wrong. Watching him from a dozen yards away, every step was nerve-racking. Holding onto ropes for guidance and feeling the edges of the ladders beneath him to make out his steps, Erik made his way over the crevasses. I was surprised at his strong progress, until he came to the middle of a long section and stopped. The ice around us had been groaning from the punishment offered by the afternoon sun. I was worried my friend was suffering from the same brand of terror that I had, and I wanted to comfort him. In the calmest voice I could muster, I asked “Are you scared?” Erik paused and put on his most thoughtful expression. “I’m fine, but I’m not sure this construction would be in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.” Erik flashed a big grin and I broke out laughing in spite of myself. How could he be making jokes at a time like this?
Later, I found out the secret to Erik’s quick progress in the Ice Fall. Because he couldn’t see, he didn’t have the temptation to look down and be distracted by the fear of falling. For him, the ladders were just like any other place on Everest, or any other mountain for that matter. He had to focus and concentrate on each step, or he wouldn’t make it. There was no room in his attention for what would come before or after that, only the immediate task in front of him. Over the next few months, we shuttled through the ice fall more than a dozen times. It was never easy, but I had learned my lesson from Erik’s example after that first crossing and it served me well on Everest, and afterward, in life. Taking on any large project, like climbing Mount Everest, can seem overwhelming. The way to get through it is to focus on what’s in front of you and celebrate the minor victories. See the big picture, know why you’re doing what you’re doing, but don’t let that keep you from moving forward. The only way to beat a large mountain is with millions of small steps.