Mountains Beyond Mountains
I watched, helpless, as the duffel bag with all of my possessions—clothing, sleeping bag, passports, and wallet—tumbled down the mountainside, gradually gaining speed, before launching itself off a cliff and out of sight. Oh shit.
After solo backpacking trips in California and Iceland, I had decided to take my mountain mania to the next level with my first foray into high-altitude mountaineering. Nepal had long been on my list and, after some quick research, I learned about “trekking peaks,” a classification for 28 mountains below 7,000m that circumvent the bureaucracy and hefty price tags associated with big mountain expedition permits. Overwhelmed by the hundreds of tour operators, I eventually settled on Annapurna Foothills and, two weeks later, was en route to climb Mera Peak (6,476m / 21,2467ft) and Island Peak (6,189m / 20,305ft).
I began my month-long adventure with a day-and-a-half in Kathmandu with its tangled electrical cables, wafts of motorcycle petrol, and gaggles of women in embroidered saris. As I explored the red-brick temples in Durbar square and bargained for fake Oakleys with a precocious 16-year-old, I couldn’t stop smiling. The frenzy of these streets filled me with giddy anticipation.
I also met John, my trekking companion, a kind-hearted Irish man in his mid-fifties who has spent the last 25 years living in Australia. We had both signed up for the same trek, and I would quickly become fond of his boisterous laugh and wry, self-deprecating sense of humor.
At 4:30 am on Monday September 24th, John and I rushed to the airport with Dawa, our guide, to catch a flight to Lukla for the first day of our trek. Unfortunately, our good flight karma was in short supply. Lounging on dilapidated benches in the humid domestic terminal, I groaned every time a thickly accented crackle from the loudspeaker rambled about stormy weather and issues with air traffic control. Finally, after seven hours of sleep-deprived frustration, we decided to travel by land instead.
The Jeep ride was a 12-hour saga on winding, dirt roads marred with potholes and river crossings. With no seat belts, we bounced around in the back seats, trying (and failing) to get some shut eye. As we sputtered along the cliff’s edge, our young driver blared Nepali tunes and maniacally swerved to avoid oncoming trucks, motorcycles, and stray animals. Eventually, the sun set and the fog rolled in—Level 2 of the Indiana Jones VR experience had begun. When we finally arrived in Phaplu (2,469m / 8,100ft), dazed and exhausted, we were relieved to find the comfort of a bed and eager to start on foot in the morning.
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For the first six days, we clambered through narrow jungle trails, gradually climbing in elevation. The path was steep and winding with loose, slippery rocks. The monsoon had come late this year, so every day was an opportunity to test our Gore-Tex gear to its limits. Despite the rain, trekking in the jungle was a mystical, multisensorial experience: clean, moist air; rushing waterfalls; and bamboo forests shrouded in mist. The ground, a sea of undulating green, was overrun with ferns, orchids, and, every once in a while, a family of yellow mushrooms housed on a rotting log.
I soon encountered my new nemesis: the leech. These ravenous creatures were unrelenting, jumping from damp leaves and biting through my socks just to get a taste of me. Since leeches release a numbing agent and anticoagulant, you often don’t realize that they’re there until your clothes are soaked in a small pool of blood that seems more reminiscent of a knife fight than an innocent jungle trek.
Every night, we stayed at rustic lodges made of stone or corrugated iron called tea houses. The small dining rooms, lined with simple plywood tables, were heated by a central furnace where we dried our gear after a long day. In an adjoining kitchen, the lodge keepers, often shy young women, would brew fresh ginger tea and cook the national dish of dal bhat (rice, curry potatoes, and lentil soup). The language barrier made communication limited, and, every morning, as we waved goodbye, I wondered how odd it must seem for them to spend the trekking season secluded in the mountains while foreigners with fancy gear cycle in and out—here to confront the elements for our own simple gratification.
Our main insight into Nepali culture was through our guides. Dawa, the trekking guide, spoke the best English and was both the logistical coordinator and spiritual guru of the trip. He reminded John and me that it was about the journey, not the destination—a lesson many mountaineers forget in their blinding summit fever. Ngawa, the climbing guide, was soft spoken with a childlike giggle that danced in his eyes. Our exchanges were brief, but, as a walking mountain encyclopedia, all I had to do was point at a peak and he’d recite its name and altitude.
We were also accompanied by two porters, Mingmar and Chitra, who were about my age. Thinking about them scrambling along the rocky trail with 30kg (66lb) on their backs, I still feel conflicted. On the one hand, being a porter is a respectable way to make a living in Nepal and a starting place for most aspiring guides. On the other hand, I felt like I was cheating my way to the top and overextending my position of privilege. Despite their heavy packs, Mingmar and Chitra could have run circles around me. Their fitness and cheerfulness, rain or shine, were humbling.
At Kothe (3,600m / 11,811ft), the landscape transitioned to a wide valley freckled with sparse highland shrubs and moss covered boulders. The weather started to clear and, in the mornings, my heart quickened as we caught brief glimpses of snow-capped peaks framed by thick clouds.
As we climbed higher, the air thinned and a twinging, altitude-induced headache shadowed my every footstep. I was fit, but I knew that altitude sickness cripples even the strongest athletes. I was determined to give my body the best chance of summiting, so I diligently chugged 6+ liters of fluid every day, including lots of ginger tea and garlic soup. When we arrived at Khare (5,045m / 16,552ft), we were rewarded with a well-needed acclimatization day to rest and prep our climbing gear while gazing at our first unobscured views of Mera Peak.
From Base Camp (5,350m / 17,552ft) to High Camp (5,780m / 18,963ft), I finally felt like a “real mountaineer.” The snow line started at 5,400m (600m above Mont Blanc) and we strapped on crampons to get better traction in the hardpack. High Camp was perched on a cliff’s edge above a sprawling blue glacier. Compared to my previous camping experiences, this was rather luxurious with a real pillow, two-inch mattress, and hot tea delivered to the tent door. Despite these perks and my Michelin Man outfit of double socks, triple leggings, gloves, a hat, and a puffy parka, I spent a restless night shivering inside my sleeping bag. It was early in the season, and, because of recent snowfall, groups before us had been forced to turn around. My mind whirred—was I capable of making it to the top?
Over night, John had developed serious symptoms of altitude sickness and decided to rest. So, on summit day, it was just Ngawa, Mingmar, and me. We were joined by another guide-porter-client combo—the client, a British 26-year-old named Matt who I had befriended over the last few days. It was energizing to feel like part of a bigger team as we headed out just after midnight.
Under an ink-black sky sprinkled with the brightest stars I have ever seen, I had no sense of distance or elevation. I just propelled myself forward—quads flexing with the rhythmic cha-chunk of my pole in one hand and ice axe in the other. The air was frigid and my headlamp illuminated the cloud of condensation after my every exhale. My only focus was to keep moving and avoid tripping on the rope that connected me to Ngawa.
Then, the sun began its symphony in the sky, casting bold tangerine streaks into the wispy clouds and revealing a breathtaking panorama of the surrounding peaks, including views of five of Nepal's eight 8,000m peaks: Everest, Kangchendzonga, Lhotse, Makalu, and Cho Oyu. After five hours and 800m of grueling uphill slog, I willed myself up the final ascent. Quads trembling, I stepped onto the summit and was overcome by sheer, unadulterated bliss. I had made it.
After 15 minutes embracing and snapping pictures, our fingers throbbed from the chill of the -15 C (5 F) winds, and we plodded down the mountain, reaching High Camp two hours later. I refueled on noodle soup before packing up, saying bye to Matt, and continuing down the valley with John, Dawa, Ngawa, Mingmar, and Chitra. With a headache in full swing from the lack of sleep and many hours of physical exertion, I collapsed in my tent when we arrived at Kongme Dingma (4,900m / 16,076ft) and was fast asleep by 6:30 pm.
For the next three days, we trekked in a more remote part of the Khumbu region under a glorious bluebird sky. On the banks of a roaring glacial river, we stretched out on boulders and munched on Snickers and yak cheese. In the evenings, we ate in modest tea houses with plastic tarp roofs and yak dung to insulate the walls. Once filled to the brim with tea and rice, we would retreat to our respective tents where my teeth chattered through the predawn hours as I curled around my hot water bottle for warmth.
On Day 15 at Amphu Labstu Base Camp (5,400 m / 17,716 m), I emerged from my frost-covered tent at 5:00 am, ready to get an early start on the technical pass that lay ahead. Unfortunately, John’s symptoms of altitude sickness, which had diminished during our descent from Mera Peak, had returned with a vengeance. Trekking up the next valley, he had had to stop every ten meters to catch his breath and was often overcome by fits of heavy coughing. Now, he was breathing through an oxygen tank and looked frail. It was disconcerting to see such a dramatic change from his usually optimistic disposition.
Given that there was no easy evacuation route, Dawa had called for a helicopter on his satellite phone. I paced nervously as we waited. They needed clearance from John’s insurance company and apparently many pilots were on holiday for the Hindu festival of Dashain. So, after six long hours, we finally waved goodbye as John and Dawa took off in a flurry of snow and rotor blades—a jarring reminder that health should always supersede ego in the mountains.
Little did we know, the day was about to get a lot rockier. With Ngawa in the lead, we climbed Amphu Labstu Pass (5,780 m / 18,963 ft), yanking fixed lines out of the snow with our ice axes and zigzagging between jagged ice shelves bejeweled with icicles. From the top of the sharp ridge, we looked into the adjacent valley where Island Peak awaited. With my heart beating in my ear drums, I carefully lowered myself down the fixed line as my crampons screeched on the exposed rock. Ahead, Ngawa was setting up an anchor and Mingmar stopped to help, putting down the duffel bag he was carrying for more dexterity. As I came around the corner, the tension in the fixed line caused the duffel to topple over, falling, as if in slow motion, down the mountain while the three of us watched in horror.
As the duffel disappeared over the cliff’s edge, I naively thought it would land in a pile of feathery snow. Bolstered by this false illusion, I rappelled down an icy rock wall with surprising nonchalance and continued down the route in knee-deep powder as we scouted the terrain. But as the minutes passed, I became more desperate. Why today, of all days, had I decided to put everything in that duffel instead of carrying my valuables with me, like usual? My mind leapt frantically between my most important possessions—my passports, my wallet, my journal, my sleeping bag...
Before my spinning brain got out of control, Mingmar hollered from below—he had found it! Initially relieved, the reality of the situation soon set in: the duffel had careened down 400m (1,312ft) of cliff side, ripping open and scattering my belongings. It would be near impossible to find everything, especially the smaller items, amidst the crevices.
But we didn’t give up. For the next two hours, we scrambled along the cliff, without ropes or safety devices, to recuperate the items—one-by-one. Mingmar, mountain goat extraordinaire, bounded from one rock to another to rescue my passport pouch, electronics bag, and favorite turquoise Patagonia T-Shirt. By some remarkable twist of fate, we were able to find everything. I mean EVERYTHING, even my sleeping bag, which had fallen an additional 100m. The only real casualties were my damaged GPS and headlamp, which had cracked, but were still covered under warranty. What a miracle.
I shuddered to think what would have happened if we had been in a more remote area or if bad weather had set in. The mountains are harsh, unforgiving critics of clumsy mistakes. One false step, and you’ve twisted an ankle, lost your belongings, or worse.
For the next four hours, we walked in vigilant, militaristic efficiency. No words exchanged, just the stomping of boots on the dusty trail. Mingmar’s American jams, consisting of Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift (cool by Nepalese standards, but equivalent to the taste of a middle school American girl circa 2010) blared from his phone, offering an upbeat soundtrack to our otherwise weary demeanor. After sunset, the foggy haze descended into darkness and we marched on, beckoned by the faint lights in the distance: the mountain village of Chukhung (4,710m / 15,453ft).
When I stumbled into the wood-paneled dining room, I was perplexed to see so many foreigners. So far, we had been mostly alone in the tea houses. Here, there were at least 25 people. Welcome to the “Everest Highway,” as Dawa called it, a major route for Westerners trekking to Everest Base Camp or other popular passes. For better or for worse, I realized that my early season solitude on the trail had come to an end. Time to make new friends and enjoy more creature comforts, like a sink with running water and spaghetti with tomato sauce. Depleted after our unexpected rescue mission, I took a rest day to drink tea and play cards before setting off for Island Peak—the final goal of the trip.
After a restless night at Base Camp (5,200m / 17,060ft), I choked down some porridge and began my second summit push. The first 800m consisted of rocky switchbacks with some Class 3 scrambling. Under another cloudless sky, I saw a shooting star framed by the faint silhouette of frosted peaks. As my toes turned to popsicles, I thought to myself: Why am I doing this? I could be on a beach right now, but instead am choosing to spend my time and money on the brink of suffering. Mountaineering is truly the definition of “Type II Fun.”
At 6,000m, Ngawa and I transitioned into mountaineering boots, crampons, and harnesses, roped together as we navigated an undulating snow-covered glacier with fixed lines. The last 200m was a 60 degree slope, requiring you to kick the toe of your crampons into the icy wall and then pull yourself up the rope with an ascender. Short of breath, I counted ten toe kicks before letting myself take another break. Trying to wash away my aching lactic acid build up with chocolate and mango juice, I kept moving. I knew I was keeping up a good pace, but, no matter how many meters I climbed, the summit seemed so far. Mind over matter, right?
After a painful final push, I sat atop Island Peak (6,189m / 20,305ft), gazing out over a majestic Himalayan scene. I could see Mera Peak, a tiny pyramid amidst a sea of giants, and Amphu Labtsa Pass, which will be infamously sealed into my memory. I finally understood why people mountaineer, pushing themselves past their physical and mental limits for this rush of euphoria. Surrounded by miles of bright white towers basking in the early morning sunlight, I felt small and insignificant, yet endlessly powerful and endlessly grateful.
My trip to Nepal was a trip of personal records. Highest peak: Mera Peak (6,476m / 21,2467ft). Steepest slope: Island Peak (60 degrees). Longest time without showering: 21 days. However, as I flew out of Lukla, the world’s deadliest airport, in a rickety 10-person plane a few days later, I didn’t think about the stats. I felt radiant; unstoppable. I had proven to myself that I was capable of more than I ever thought possible and I wondered how, once faraway from the grandeur of these peaks, I could cling onto the sense of purpose that I had carried with me every step of the trail.