The morning sun shines through the teahouse windows as my climbing partner, John, and guide, Krishna, enjoy a hard-earned breakfast. Spirits are soaring after summiting Nepal’s 17,775-foot Gokyo Ri, but my insides feel like they are being processed through a meat grinder.
I poke listlessly at my food. With every passing minute, my head pounds harder, my stomach struggles to keep food down and the thought of moving feels insurmountable. My team urges me to get moving. Unable to react, I ignore them. My body wants rest, which is hard to come by at over 15,500 feet.
I’ve felt this way before. In 2010, I suffered a terrible bout of altitude sickness back home in the U.S. Rockies while on a ski trip. As soon as I recognize the similarities, I jolt into action.
I need to descend, quickly, and rescue myself.
Twelve and a half hours later, I collapse in a teahouse 6,000 feet lower. I’m tired from a full day of foot travel, but I’m relieved to see my headache, stomach ache, and lethargy disappear.
. . .
The expedition starts on a 20-seat plane, jostling in the turbulence. Out the front window, I see what looks like a storm front. As I squint, I realize that those strange-looking clouds are actually mountains, rising high into the sky like gates to another world. Without warning, the ground begins screaming upward to meet our descent; the plane slamming into a tiny runway before screeching to a halt. We’ve arrived in the small town of Lukla, perched on the side of a mountain.
As I step out of the aircraft, I pinch myself. When I was 10 years old, I read Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air; it left me fascinated with big mountains. I decided I wanted to be a doctor to help climbers and Sherpas and stuck with that plan until I was 20.
Ultimately, I decided a career in medicine wasn’t for me, but my love affair with the Himalaya never disappeared. I still dreamed of seeing the sunrise over Mount Everest.
Upon leaving Lukla, I face an eight-day journey, over 8,000 vertical feet, and more than 30 miles between me and my goal.
On the second day, the weather becomes menacing. I feel great despite the onset of an unexpected storm. Before me lies the Hillary-Tenzing Bridge, rocking violently with the onslaught of wind and snow. Nervously, I step out onto the steel cables. The river below ripples like a bright blue thread fluttering in the wind and I gulp as a 50-mile-per-hour gust knocks me sideways. Panicked, I grasp the side of the bridge and crouch, then shuffle along, contemplating being blown away like a paper napkin.
After safely arriving on the opposite side, I look down the valley through the howling mouth of the canyon. The view makes me realize how far I’ve come — not just since that morning, but also as an outdoor woman since I first began training for this journey.
Six months prior, I began preparing for the expedition by taking extended backpacking trips that included bagging nine summits over 13,000 feet. When I couldn’t hike, I would head to the gym and put the stairmaster into overdrive. There were botched summit attempts, screaming winds, surprise storms, blinding whiteouts, dangerous terrain, and animal encounters.
Each challenge presented a new opportunity to learn.
Each challenge also prepared me for the journey I’d just completed. The climb from Lukla to Namche Bazar, ending at 11,286-foot elevation and marking the halfway point of my trek, has been a challenging one. But, after the past six months of training, it also felt like another day in the mountains.
Namche Bazar, a smattering of buildings squeezed into a U-shaped hillside, is the last settlement with permanent residents along the route. I look around, trying to understand what life must be like in a place where all imported goods arrive via helicopter or donkey. The feeling of finally being in a place I’ve only seen in pictures is strange; it’s as though I’m just a part of one of those pictures, except instead of a photograph on a pixelated screen, I can smell the earth, feel the breeze, and hear the sound of village children playing with barking dogs.
Fat snowflakes fall relentlessly for two days, causing the city’s painted monastery and colorful tin roofs to disappear in a sea of white. I fret about the weather: What if I never accomplish my dream of seeing the sun rise over the top of the world?
Then, I let go of my worries. For the first time, I settle into the rhythm of the Himalaya.
Four a.m. on day eight finds me bouncing to stay warm as I check the thermometer on the outside of the teahouse. It reads 0 degrees. We’re in the town of Gokyo, one of the highest settlements in the world at 15,584 feet, with Gokyo Ri — our objective — looming just over 2,000 vertical feet above us.
…I look down the valley through the howling mouth of the canyon. The view makes me realize how far I’ve come — not just since that morning, but also as an outdoor woman since I first began training for this journey.
The full moon casts its light over the peak. With our challenge illuminated before us like a beacon, my team sets out for the summit.
By this point on the expedition I’m tired: tired of being cold, tired of wearing the same filthy clothes, tired of feeling the symptoms high altitude. Instinctively, I push the negative thoughts out of my head. I know from my training that mindset is everything, so I focus on my internal rhythm. One foot at a time, I pick my way through boulders, snow, and yak poop.
All of a sudden, the struggle comes to a halt. Though we still have a way to go to the summit, the warmth of sunrise reaches us and the gravity-defying peaks surrounding me begin to glow. The sun sends sparks flying across the landscape like a flint against a knife.
I fall to my knees with joy. All of the training, planning, learning, and 20 years of daydreaming rush at me like a tsunami of emotion. Every ounce of sweat that’s seeped from my pores in the past six months was has been for this moment.
I feel reborn with the new day. I work my way to the summit of Gokyo Ri, one step and one breath at a time.
…I let go of my worries. For the first time, I settle into the rhythm of the Himalaya.
Then, the grade gives way. There is no more upward climb. All around, I’m surrounded by gravity-defying peaks, with the mighty Mount Everest poking out just higher than the rest. I am filled with a deep sense of accomplishment.
After a vacant, windless, and sunny summit we count our blessings and begin our descent. Little did I know, I had begun to slur my words. A feeling of gnawing hunger starts to twist itself into a nausea I can’t shake. I tell myself I’m hungry and continue to work my way down the steep slope. My head begins to feel like a vice grip is tightening against my temples, like some type of invisible torture device.
Slowed by the pain, I tell myself:
Stay positive and you’ll feel better.
You’re just tired and hungry.
I ignore the onset of altitude sickness and press on. The steep ground and irregular skyline give me vertigo. My teammates know I am hungry, but they don’t know I am struggling to keep it together. John playfully tosses a snowball my direction, and the sudden movement causes me to jerk. I fall, sliding about ten feet down the rock and gravel path.
Krishna jumps into action and John scrambles to help. I sit, teary-eyed and dumbfounded, placing bits of snow against my cuts and scrapes.
Though teary-eyed, I’m dumbfounded at what I’ve accomplished. Despite the pain, struggle, and worry about my health, and though I will end up spending the next day facing altitude sickness and descending 6,000 feet, I hold onto the magic of standing 17,776 feet tall.
. . .
About the author
Meg Atteberry is quirky freelance writer and outdoor nerd. You can find her scrambling up peaks, climbing a couloir, catching some fresh powder in the backcountry, or backpacking in her home state of Colorado. When she’s not exploring her own backyard she’s out discovering the remote corners of the globe, one messy adventure at a time. She’d rather be dirty than done up.
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