With the sun bearing down on a jagged Himalayan horizon, casting golden light and long shadows on the snowcapped peaks surrounding me, I stretched up to place a small stone on the summit cairn of Kala Patthar. Clad in the bright blues, yellows, reds, whites, and greens of Tibetan prayer flags, this precipice of rock and earth, rising nearly a thousand feet above Everest Base Camp, was categorically the highest I’d ever been – a fact not unnoticed by my lungs, heaving heavily to compensate for the lack of oxygen in the air. Here, at an altitude well in excess of 18,000 feet, the air is half as dense, and therefore has only half the oxygen, as at sea level. Turning around slowly to avoid sliding off the precarious summit block into thin air, the scope of what we had trekked weeks to see came into full view: Mount Everest, at sunset.
We had fought off colds, a stomach virus, herds of stubborn-ass donkeys, herds of stubborn-ass tourist groups, the ever increasing altitude and lack of oxygen, and the sheer punishment placed on our bodies by trekking with packs full of gear over a hundred miles through the highest of high countries. But, our long walk through the Himalaya actually started in Kathmandu weeks earlier, as we wandered the streets of Thamel, outfitting ourselves for this adventure. Because we’d been traveling for many months, most of which had been in tropical climes, we had very little of the gear necessary to trek to high elevations on rough terrain. Luckily, Thamel is home to countless counterfeit outdoor shops, selling supposed North Face and Marmot gear from China on the cheap. All told, we bought about three dozen items at a cost of just under $350 at these shops, from thermal underwear to hiking boots, maps to rehydration powders, trekking poles to wool caps, some of which we would later donate to Sherpa porters and the rest to be sent home for future adventures.
Once we had our gear in order, we had to find passage to one of the few inroads to the place locals call “Solu”, short for Solukhumbu, the region with the world’s highest concentration of massive peaks. The vast majority of people (19 of 20) entering this land opt to fly into Lukla via the Tenzing-Hillary Airport (often cited as the world’s most dangerous), saving themselves the additional 3-5 days walk in from the “low country” towns of either Salleri or Jiri. Partly because of our desire to explore the lowlands and the authentic Nepalese villages below Lukla, and partly because we wanted to condition our bodies for the coming high altitude ascent, we opted to take a Jeep to Salleri and hike in. After searching high and low for tickets, we succumbed to fate and had a travel agent book them at a 39% markup, costing us $50 for the pair. Early the next morning we were dropped off at the Cabahil bus station, which, at 5:00 am, was bustling like a New York subway at rush hour. Wandering aimlessly through the beehive of bodies, jeeps, busses, and mud puddles, we asked someone who looked like he had a clue and were ushered into the back seat of a Jeep with 10 other people. Yes, we were 12 people in a single Jeep. After what seemed like a remarkably short 12 hours, considering the circumstances, we were in Salleri, and had made it to the trailhead to the heavens.
After a night in the neighboring village of Phaplu, we hiked a total of 12 miles through the towns of Ringmu and Taksindu before arriving in Nunthala for the evening. Day one proved to be one of the most difficult of the entire journey, given the distance, how ill-prepared our bodies were, and because of the elevation gain and altitude; Taksindu pass alone goes at more than 10,000 feet. In Nunthala, we found the first of many “Everest Lodge and Guesthouses” in which we would stay. One of the beauties of trekking in certain parts of Nepal is that even on long walks into the depths of the Himalayan backcountry, one doesn’t need to carry a tent, given the plentiful “tea houses” scattered along the trail. Most of these charge very little or nothing for the room, so long as we promised to eat our meals at the lodge. The guesthouse in Nunthala was no different, as we paid $2 for the room and about $6 each per meal, with dinner and breakfast being the most common required meals.
The next day was plagued by intermittent rain, the resulting mud, and the droppings of our biggest challengers on the trail – the donkeys. At first, we found the donkeys endearing and cute. That lasted less than a day, as they routinely bumped into us and clogged up the narrow trail, refusing to move, helping to cement their reputations as stubborn asses. Donkey dodging and piss puddle hopping, we made our way to Bupsa, about seven miles further on. If memory serves, this tea house too held the moniker, “Everest Guest House,” and it was there that we would meet our first two trail buddies, Jean-Claude and his Sherpa guide, Phinju. Like any long walk, the people you meet on the way are one of the great joys, as you revel in the glory and hazards you’ve all just experienced as kindred spirits, while at the same time, appreciating a fresh perspective on life and the world from someone who is most likely from unfamiliar lands. The downside to meeting them is that, when your paths inevitably split, you never know if you’ll ever see them again.
After an 11 mile day through more of the same – low hanging clouds, enveloping soaring hillsides, with valleys carved out in endless terraces of varying shades of green – the sun had long sunk below the mountaintops and dusk was upon us, when I poked my head in the first of Charikharka’s tea houses. There they were, alone in a room dimly lit by a single 40 watt halogen bulb: Jean-Claude and Phinju. Sticking my head through an already open Dutch door, and belting out “Bonjour!” to the French speaking pair, they didn’t react the way I expected. Perplexed silence. When I realized that I probably appeared to them as a dark, hooded silhouette in the doorway, I took off my cap, letting the feeble glow project on my face, and we all had big laugh. This wouldn’t be the last time we partied with the Frenchies, as we saw them one more time, in Monjo, before our paths diverged.
Two more days and we would be in Namche Bazaar, the epicenter of the Khumbu region. Along the way, we passed over countless suspension bridges strung across vast gorges that had been carved out by the barreling down of glacial rapids from the hinterlands above. More than once, I recalled the escape scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, when, as his Thuggee attackers closed in on him, Indy snaps the bridge and everyone goes tumbling into the emptiness below. I knew these bridges were safe – strong enough to hold dozens of donkeys carrying heavy loads – but some, given their height and wobbliness, made me a little queasy passing over. It was here, before Namche and after Lukla, that the trek began to change. First, there were significantly more people on the trail, those 19 of 20 who flew into Lukla instead of taking the longer road less traveled from Salleri. Overwhelmingly, these were the members of packaged tour groups, likely booked in their home country before even setting foot in Nepal. There’s definitely a difference between the indy trekker (like us) and those in these packaged tours, both of whom seem to believe they alone have a golden ticket to THE Nepalese trekking experience.
Also, in addition to donkeys and packaged tourists now sharing the trail, we had another companion as well: the porters. Although we’d seen porters below Lukla, their numbers increased significantly once we passed the region’s only airport, and were now on the path more often taken. And above everyone else on the trail, these porters had the highest claim to the right of way. For good reason, as much of the time they were carrying nearly their body weight in gear. You see, one of the benefits of paying more to be in a tour group is that you don’t have to carry all your own gear – most people in this category only carry a daypack with their layers, snacks and water, while their Sherpa porters run on ahead with gear bags weighing in at roughly 80 pounds strapped to their foreheads. One time I asked a porter how much he weighed. He said 42 kilos. The weight limit for porters to carry is 35 kilos. The bag looked to weigh at least as much as the porter, if not more, but what could he say? These Sherpas are said to be paid $15 per day for their services (though it’s thought they actually earn more like $10), much more than a farmer could earn in a single day, which is why they do it, but sometimes at great risk to their health.
Finally in Namche, one day behind schedule (but who cares about schedules when you have an open ended ticket out of there), we met up with a Polish British couple who were heading in our direction, up the Gokyo Valley. Most people choose to go to Everest Base Camp and only base camp, but we were more interested in the sacred turquoise lakes nestled high up in the adjacent valley. Our plan was to spend a day acclimatizing in this bastion of comfort – Namche had bakeries, bars, and even barber shops – before heading north. Since we had come down with head colds, this was also an opportune time to take a breather. We explored the town a bit but most of the day just hunkered down in our comfy lodge drinking tea and using the internet for what would be one of the last times before looping back down two weeks later. We sketched out our plan with our new trail buddies, Tomasz and Aga, and decided to head up the following day to the town of Khumjung.
The basic rule for acclimatizing at altitudes over 10,000 feet is that you should only ascend 1,000 feet per day (for sleeping), regardless of how far or high you walk. Since Namche was a hair over 11,300 feet, our next logical stop was the next village on, at 12,400, only a short hike away. Sleeping in to recoup from our colds as much as possible, our buddies ascended before us. About half way up, we met Niko, a Belgian who now lives in Khumjung and has worked with his local neighbors to help bring vital services, like health and investment, to the village. He led us through the maze of stone walls that make up the town to a guest house high on the hill. After lunch, we went for an acclimatization hike up over 13,000 and returned to find a caudery of Asian Australians chilling in the lodge on their way back from base camp. They had just completed a fundraising and awareness initiative for Eyes 4 Everest, an NGO that provides vision services to the people living in this remote region. As it happens, two of this party had gotten engaged at base camp. Naturally, after watching the video they showed us, we were taken by their story and drawn to recount our own recent episode of a mountaintop proposal. Needless to say, this group was in high spirits having just successfully completed their ascent to base camp, gotten engaged, and raised money for this purposeful organization. Excited to be going downhill now, they gifted us their Diamox to help us acclimatize, which helped regulate our breathing, allowing us to get a decent night’s sleep at altitude. The next morning we awoke to the views we’d been waiting all week to see. The clouds had finally parted revealing the peaks of Thamserku and Kongdae Ri, both soaring well over 20,000 feet into the heart of the troposphere. We realized then that, one, the lagging monsoon season was finally turning for the better, and two, in order to really see the full breadth of what surrounded us, we would need to hit the trail early, before the day’s warmth drove the inevitable canopy of clouds into the upper reaches of these high valleys.
With the snow encrusted mountaintops shining in the early light of day, we set out for our next stop, Dhole. And the views we were rewarded with around each bend ushered in a new stage to our trek – amazement and wonder. While the villages of the low country were charming in their own right, and the scenery early on, though obscured all too often by clouds and rain, was notably picturesque, what we began to experience on our walk to Dhole was something else altogether. Jenna and I were beside ourselves in awe. So often, out of the corner of our eye, we’d catch a white shape high in the sky. Assuming it to be a cloud, we’d glance up, only to find that it was no cloud, but a mountain rising 10,000 feet above us, the light from the sun shimmering off its snowy ridgelines like a colossal prism. The small villages we passed through from there on were unlike those we’d seen while negotiating the lower foothills; these exist for the sole purpose of catering to foreign trekkers, like us. We arrived in Dhole, one such village, nestled in a glen at 13,500 feet, in time to do another acclimatization hike up to a viewpoint for the sunset. Made even more dramatic by the blanket of clouds swirling below us, the peaks to our south and west played the part of ocean cliffs battered by a salty spray, as vapors billowed high into the air and at once encompassed the mountain’s base. Turning to the north, the first of four 8,000 meter peaks we would see came into view: Cho Oyu, with its alabaster dome turning a salmon pink in the setting sun. The landscape just kept getting better day by day, and as this one came to a close and the rest of our squad retreated to the warmth of the lodge’s fireplace, I climbed further up to watch the moon rise over the sea of clouds in the south, as the last shards of sunlight set everything to the north ablaze in vivid color.
The next day’s walk was another stellar one to Machhermo (14,600 feet), where the four of us took in an information session from volunteering doctors about AMS and other, more severe high altitude conditions. The day following, we pushed on to one of our two high camp terminuses, the mountain hamlet of Gokyo. From Machhermo, we walked along the western moraine (a build up of stone and soil on the sides of a glacier, as it cuts through the land) of the Ngozumpa, the largest glacier in the Himalaya. Looking down on this undulating field of rock and ice, speckled by small glacial pools tinted grey to beryl, we were startled to hear its thunderous cracking, as the sun’s warmth ushered it ever so slowly down the valley up which we’d come. Turning a corner and crossing a bridge, we were welcomed to the first of Gokyo’s sacred turquoise lakes by a vast field of cairn capped boulders, themselves covered by a blanket of the stuff that is half algae, half fungi: lichen. After a few quick snaps of the camera, we hurried on to the second lake. Much larger than the first, it was set in a sort of amphitheater, surrounded on one side by a sloping cirque leading up to peaks stretching 20,000 feet into the sky, and on the other by gentle rolls of the shrub grass covered moraine hills. Taking our time in this wonderland, we strolled along the lakes’ stoney shorelines and gallivanted through the hills amongst the Tibetan snow-cocks, eventually making it to the town of Gokyo, sitting on the banks of the third and largest of the lakes. These hold the status as the highest freshwater lakes in the world, with the sixth and final of the group clocking in at over 16,000 feet. We had made it. We were 11 days in, and the adventure was just beginning.
The next two days we spent in the Gokyo area tested our mettle both physically and emotionally. After ascending a combined 23,000 feet since Salleri (the locals call it “Nepali flat, ‘little’ up, ‘little’ down”), we were trail hardened, well acclimatized, and chomping at the bit to get our first view of Everest. Of the many day hikes accessible from Gokyo, we identified two that would get us the highest. We chose to first tackle the westernmost of the region’s three high passes, Renjo La. Heading out early, we caught the lake at its most placid with the black and white of the summit crags reflecting off its glassy surface, as trekkers completing the three passes circuit sped past us in spite of their comparatively heavy packs. About half way up, the mountainscape opened up and Mount Everest came into full view. Despite its status as the world’s highest peak, its neighbors looked just as, if not even more, impressive than the vaunted Sagarmatha (the Nepali name for Everest, Tibetans call it Chomolungma), given the angle from which we were viewing it. Here, Thomasz decided to head back, but we pushed on to the pass, another hour and a half away. For both Jenna and I, this was as high as we’d ever been (yet), and despite our having acclimatized over the preceding week, we were definitely feeling the lack of O2. That is, until I opened up the secret elixir known as my top 200 iTunes tracks on my iPod. I’ve always been in profound amazement at the power of music, but the boost it gave me bounding up the mountainside had me literally dancing with all the excess energy. Jenna gave me one exhausted look and just put her head down. When the going gets tough uphill, I just crank the tunes and get that shot in the arm. She prefers to grind it out silently, letting nature’s serenity flow quietly through her veins. Eventually, we both got to the top of the pass, and looking over it were rewarded with a view of an entirely new set of mountains, those of the Thame Valley, and a saline lake, haloed by a ring of gold, in the basin below. Even though we were a bit further away, our vantage of Everest was even better, and we stayed up there for over an hour (at an elevation of 17,700 feet), chatting with some Israeli septuagenarians for quite some time. The fact that they could cross that pass at their age was in itself inspiring and the image of their faces with the highest the Himalaya had to offer in the background, will live with me forever. “Best view of our lives!” we commented, before heading back down to a dinner of “Dal Bhat and something else” in Gokyo.
Dal Baht and something else was kind of our nightly ritual. Dal Bhat is the local fare in the Himalaya, from Nepal through India and into Bhutan, and consists of steamed white rice with a lentil soup and a side of veggie curry. Some was better than others, but we ordered at least one plate of it every night for one simple reason: it was refillable. The “something else” was just so we would have some variety alongside the Dal Bhat. We planned our next high point to be the centerpiece, Gokyo Ri, at sunset for the next day, having heard very good things about it from trekkers who had summited the night before. We knew it was a risk, since enormous cloud systems rolled up the valley every afternoon like an airborne tsunami, and we may not be able to see anything from the top if the cloud cover rose too high. But we took some assurance in the fact that, for at least the prior two nights, the clouds stayed well below the summit, producing some of the most incredible views to be had on all of planet earth. So the next afternoon, we headed up through the fog and clouds, hoping that when we finally reached the top, the clouds would be beneath us and we’d be able to bask in the setting sun. As we approached the summit of this relatively minor peak (again, about 17,700 feet in elevation) the mist surrounding us began to dissipate, and as we reached the crest, we were at once completely above the bed of cottony cumulus. We looked around in amazement as all four 8,000 meter peaks jutted celestially into the blue sky, the brightness of it all, clouds, sun, and snow, nearly overwhelming in its pristine beauty. It was a flash of nirvana, and then, not a moment later, it was gone. Like a tidal wave in timelapse, the sea of clouds that we’d only seconds earlier escaped, came silently roaring back from below, engulfing us, and erasing the heavens from before our eyes.
This was about 4:30. More people joined us in the fog hoping to watch the sun set at what would have been 5:30, had the clouds cooperated. When it was apparent that the moment had passed, everyone departed. Everyone but us, that is. We waited, shivering in the smoky dusk, until after 7:00 to make our descent, the entire time hoping and expecting the full moon, which had risen just after the sun had gone down, to penetrate the unrelenting blanket of clouds, but it never did. By 8:00 we were nearly all the way back down to Gokyo when, over the course of about five minutes, the sky opened up entirely, exposing the nearby promontory that were still within eyeshot, painted gently by the silvery brush of the moon. At that point however, having waited over two and a half hours at the top of Gokyo Ri in the freezing cold, without even the prospect of a clear view, we were over it. We’d such high hopes, and those hopes were dashed. We took a chance on the clouds and it didn’t pay off. We sulked down the mountain in frustration and darkness. I was mostly upset that I didn’t take any pictures when we had a split second opening as soon as we reached the top. It was the capture that escaped. But it became clear to me the more I thought about it that when we topped out, we had embraced, told each other how special it was to share this experience, looked deeply into each others eyes and envisioned the rest of our life together, and that, however fleeting, was much much more special than any photo I could have possibly captured from the top of Gokyo Ri.
Waking up the next morning after our third night of “sleep” at nearly 16,000 feet, combined with the stress we’d put on our bodies in getting this far, and the emotional toll of it all, we set forth as a foursome to cross the Ngozumpa glacier. Maybe the disappointment of the prior evening was lingering with us or maybe it was some combination of the factors I just mentioned, but we weren’t in the best of moods. Nonetheless, crossing the glacier felt like walking on the moon. Picking up the earth and grinding it to dust over untold millennia, the Ngozumpa was a rolling plain of ashen powder, boulders, and pools of meltwater. The trail was easy enough to find given the fair weather but had we been the only ones crossing in snow or clouds, we’d likely have gotten turned around and lost. But this day, we made it expediently to the other side, racing past a tour group team to the village of Dragnak to ensure we had a spot in one of the few lodges there.
The Cho La Pass Resort was comfy and the owner warm. Good thing, because in the middle of the night I started vomiting from what would turn out to be the quintessential 24-hour bug. And it wasn’t just me either. I actually had to wait in line outside the shared bathrooms in the middle of the night as other people we getting sick all around me. I guess this was a thing, here in Dragnak. At dawn, we told Tomasz and Aga to go ahead and head for the pass, we’d be behind them in a day or two. As it turns out, it would be two. A few hours later, a helicopter came to evac two people (fellow pukers) who were unable to continue on with their tour group. The danger of rolling with a guided group is that you have to keep to the group’s pace, even if you shouldn’t. By the sounds of it, these two Asian tourists ascended too quickly and were not properly acclimatized, got sick, and paid dearly for it. After eating only crackers that day while screaming though a Dean Koontz thriller that was one of the few books at the lodge, I was starting to feel better. But we decided to stay one more day so that I could slowly re-fuel and get my blood sugar to where it needed to be to properly seize what we saw as our biggest challenge of the trek: the Cho La Pass.
Cho La is not much higher than Renjo La and Gokyo Ri but this time, it wasn’t going to be just a day hike. We’d have to lug our big packs full of gear up and over this nearly 18,000 foot notch in the mountain, the western ascending side, a steep face of scree and boulders, the eastern descending side, a full on snowy glacier. But we wouldn’t be alone. This is the most popular of the region’s three high passes, and after a dose of the old magic elixir and a little bit of heavy breathing over four hours, we were at the top with dozens of other people. In similar fashion to Gokyo Ri, as soon as we cleared the pass, clouds rolled in, but we had time to celebrate a bit and snap a few memorable photos. Heading down the glacier was fun, and as we came off it and headed toward the village of Dzongla, the couloir opened up, and her majesty was revealed to us, Ama Dablam, the most beautiful peak in the Himalaya. From whatever angle one views her, Ama Dablam is a mountain of epic beauty and grace. If there’s one summit I’d like to bag before I die, it’s hers. In Dzongla, we met a guy who’d actually climbed it. No big deal to him, since he’s climbed Everest and Denali, and topped out Cho Oyu without oxygen.
We thought that crossing Cho La would be our most difficult day, but as it happened, the day following was the biggest ass-kicker of them all. Our goal was to reach the town built on the original Everest Base Camp, Gorak Shep, which is twice as far as most people go in a day from Dzongla. But I also had a personal goal of seeing Mount Everest at sunset. I calculated that if we could get to Gorak Shep by 1:00, we could at least have a go at Kala Patthar, depending on the weather, of course. Well, we made it by 1:00, ate a quick lunch, dropped our bags in the tin box in which we’d be “sleeping”, and checked the skies. Not a cloud in sight. We’d come to 16,800 already, what was another couple thousand more? Heading up, we were slow. We’d already hiked twice as far as most trekkers go and climbed 2000 feet that day.* About a third of the way up, the tip of Mount Everest came into view. I flipped on my iPod and turned up the volume. Time for the magic elixir, I thought. But this time, there was no magic to be had. I guess getting sick, crossing the pass, and hiking double time to Gorak Shep in consecutive days had taken it out of me. I was hurting…and Jenna was feeling about the same. Hiking and stopping, hiking and stopping, we eventually made it to the summit of Kala Patthar. The air was thinner here than at any prior point and we were more exhausted than ever. But a few minutes on the summit and we were feeling right as rain and the clouds were being held at bay by the invisible hand of the mountain gods. We stayed up there at 18,500 feet for a good hour, soaking in the view, feeling a sense of redemption after being stymied by clouds on Gokyo Ri, and basking in the unadulterated alpen glow joy of an Everest sunset sendoff.
Waking the next morning after poor sleep (we were at nearly 17,000 feet, at this point) we thought about heading over to the new base camp for about .2 seconds (it’s not climbing season, so base camp is nothing more than a pile of rocks bereft of a view of Everest itself) before getting the heck out of the crowded, expensive, cough riddled, tour group monopolized Gorak Shep. We booked it 11 miles, virtually all downhill, to the sleepy town of Pangboche, and the following day, were back at it, again racing down to the famed monastic village of Tengboche, perched on a bluff stretching out in front of the majestic Ama Dablam. Since we didn’t have to worry about altitude, we were thus unbound and had our sights set on Namche Bazaar, the town we’d stayed in less than two weeks ago. It seemed like around each bend would stand yet another, when out of nowhere, we heard familiar voices from just off the trail. It was our friends from Gokyo, Tomasz and Aga! They had been two days in front of us, but by double timing it to Gorek Shep and skipping base camp, we’d caught them. We all headed into town together and when we got to our lodge (after all racing to take hot showers) enjoyed a round of hot lemon with honey tea.
Since they were going to stay and relax in Namche another day, we headed down to Lukla to catch our flight without them, promising to meet up again in India the next month. On the way to Lukla there are a couple checkpoints, and when I took out my TIMS card and park pass to show it to the attendant, I heard a laugh and felt a pat on the back. I turn around and there they were, again, Jean-Claude and Phinju, our first trail buddies we met on the way up! They had completed the three passes trek in the time that it had taken us to only do two of the passes (granted we took 2 sick days), and were headed back down to fly out of Lukla the following day, just like us. We were hiking at different speeds down to Lukla but planned to meet up at the same lodge next to the airport; Phinju even called ahead to reserve us a room. We hiked for what felt like forever on Nepali flat, across the same suspension bridges and over the same terrain we’d come up what felt like ages ago, until we were at the final push up to Lukla. Having eclipsed 17,000 feet four times and slept at 16,000 for the better part of the last week, despite our weak knees and tired muscles, the oxygen rich air that filled our lungs made us feel like superheros. We might as well have been running up the last hill into Lukla, even though it was still at 9,000 feet. Our final night was one of relaxation and decadence as we leisurely sipped from a large pot of tea and ate not one, but two Snickers candy bars.
The next morning, Phinju, bless his heart, got up with us to help us get to the airport, check our bags, and actually make it on the flight. As expected, the terminal was an absolute madhouse at 6:00 am, and having Phinju there was a big help. We thanked him profusely as he draped white prayer scarves over our heads and bid us farewell. We’d heard horror stories about this airport, known infamously as the most dangerous in the world. Because of the obvious topographical restrictions, the runway is less than a third as long as most standard runways and for that reason, it is pitched at a whopping 12% to help landing planes come to a stop before crashing into the mountainside. For take off, we’d be heading down that slope in a small 20-seat twin engine plane that we hoped would begin its climb before the runway cliffed out.
The rising sun was inching down the tops of the heavily frosted mountaintops when our plane touched down abruptly, and swiftly rolled into place next to the terminal. Excited but nervous, we ran out to it, making sure to get on the right side of the plane so that we would have a view of the spine of the Himalaya from high above. With an aisle down the middle and one seat on each side, the cockpit was open for all to see and contained myriad knobs and gauges that seemed antiquated at best, if not a bit ancient. An attendant walked by, dropping a hard candy into my palm, and then we were rolling. Ten seconds later we were in the air, drifting clamorously through the Dudh Koshi Canyon, and as we rose out of it, we were treated to one last, brief view of Everest and the long, white strand of sky islands puncturing the thin layer of morning mist laid out below.
Maybe it was all the jostling of the small plane as it buzzed like a metal dragonfly over the foothills, but my life, in stages, sort of flashed before my eyes. I felt the wonder of my early years, as I saw myself playing in the hills and forests of Pennsylvania, following a stream through the woods until there was a stream no more, just to see where it led. I sensed the discovery of my adolescence, when my friends and I would push the limits of what was possible, physically, emotionally, socially, to try to find out who we really were. I thought about so many of the people who had influenced me, the hundreds of miles I’d hiked on the Appalachian Trail and pitches I’d climbed throughout Arizona, the books I’d read and the movies I’d seen about people whose lives inspired my path, and I realized, in that moment, high above the roof of the world, that for as long as I live, our time in the Himalaya would stand alone as a moment I look back on with gratitude and awe.
*At that point, because of all the “Nepal flat”, we’d also climbed a total of 34,000 feet since starting in Phaplu, well in excess of the rise of Everest itself, which clocks in at 29,000. By the end of our trek we’d amassed nearly 40,000 feet in total elevation gain and a combined elevation gain and loss of 80,000 feet over a total of 112 miles.