In 1996, Skip Horner, my good friend and climbing mentor, sent out his list of trips for 1997. Included was a trek in Nepal which included a climb of Mera Peak, at 21,247 feet (6,476 meters), the highest trekking peak in Nepal. I had not done any big climbing since my 1993 Everest attempt and was far less fit than I had been then. Yet a trip to a part of Nepal I had not seen, climbing a 21,000 foot mountain, on a trip led by the man who had so radically altered my life was very appealing. I was turning 50 in January, 1998 , Skip would be newly 50, and it seemed this might be the perfect way to celebrate this milestone age. I sat with the idea for a few days, meditated on it, talked about it with the folks who know me best…and told Skip I was going. Here are some journal excerpts from that trip.
10/6 En route Bangkok
10:30 am LAX And so it begins. Delightful connection on the plane from Denver with a 70-ish gentleman, Bruce, 32-year friend of Bill W., retired IBMer, now traveling, Peace Corps, mostly in Africa, ran the Zambezi, rock climbs – living his life to the fullest. We didn’t talk at all until after the meal and then only because he turned to me and with no preamble, asked, “So tell me your biggest hopes and dreams and fears.” The kind of question I would ask. I told him that, and also that I’d rather hear about his. He told me, and I asked questions, and we went back and forth as the connections became apparent: Bill W., climbing, adventure travel, caring who people are rather than what they do. showed him my book, he his photos of the Nile and Murchison Falls. Face-to-face, eye-to-eye, connected conversations. An auspicious beginning!
I look around to find people who might be on our trip. Certainly no one would pick me to be on our trip based on how I look! I quite like that. It used to be the other way around. I wanted people to identify me as someone who was going into the mountains. Today I am dressed for comfort on a long plane trip and to look like a woman rather than in a way that announces I am Macho Margo Mountain Climber. I am a woman who is going into the mountains. I have no need for anyone else to know that. I like the wholeness of that statement!
10/8 Bangkok – Kathmandu
7:15 am Amari Hotel Looking out my Amari window on Bangkok: no clouds, smoggy, below leading out from hotel is a canal with small, tin-roofed huts, one on top of the other, lining each side as far as I can see. Trees and lush bushes all but cover the huts in places, telephone poles and TV antennas belie the feel of another century. Motorbikes stream almost endlessly in both directions on the path in front of the huts on this side of the canal, another time-warped effect of the woman pushing a heavy wooden cart filled with pots. A jet rises from the roof of the apartment building in front of me, another sharp poke in my faltering sense of time. A foreign city and yet in some ways no more foreign to me than the slums and ghettos of my own country. I prefer this kind of foreign. Motorbikes, most with a girl on the back, crossing the canal on a wooden bridge held up by crooked pilings; building that could almost fit into an American city and yet not quite. Is it so different? Perhaps not. Culturally different, of course. And humanly the same.
A small brown bird with wise eyes hops across the windowsill, stopping to wonder why I sit here looking at her, then, indifferent to the reasons, taking flight as I remain, as if in some parallel universe, inside the foggy windows. Another. This one black with a bold, orange beak and missing most of the feathers on his head and neck. Ill, I fear; clearly a “he” as the first was a “she.”
10:20 on plane Well fed, well conversed, 4 cans of Diet Pepsi in bag. Marvelously varied buffet at the Amari: sushi, waffles, miso soup, pancakes, Thai noodles, Corn Pops, papaya, canned fruit, coffee with a kick. Sweet to be in Nola’s company once again (we climbed Elbrus together). Peter Livingston, Dede’s business partner, is pleasant, bright, seems forthright, familiarly east coast. Jordan still has a delightful goofiness about him that is so very appealing and belies what I know to be his great business success. Mike seems to be the humorous one of the group and has traveled with Skip and Elizabeth a good bit. Russ owns the Chapter One book store in Victor where Skip lives, a genuinely delightful man. Tom is Tom: quiet, earnest, pleasant, often by himself. A wonderfully diverse and, at least so far, compatible-feeling group.
I watch myself talking a good deal, offering information where it isn’t asked. I set a new standard for myself: I am a woman who listens well. Ask questions more often than answering them. Be more interested than interesting. Focus out rather than in. A shift. I am different than I have ever been on a trip. I want to experience that difference and come from who I am today rather than who I was 2 years ago or 5 or 8 years ago. Come from the new sense of inner strength rather than needing the physical strength or the having more experience in Nepal. Just be who I am today. In the present.
12:20 Nepal time Everest to the right. Clear, classic. So much feeling. My victory, my disappointment, Rob, Doug, Lobsang, Jan and Sarah, Helen, tears. Full heart. Welcoming Nola to the Himal. Welcome home, Margo. There is indeed a part of my soul that is home in the Himal in a way it is nowhere else.
Day 1 Lukla , on trek
11 am Lukla The familiar fuschia-colored, permanganate-tinted, hand-sanitizing water and blue tarp of a trekking lunch. Choppered with my eyes turned out the window to the terraces and multihued trees.
7:30 pm 10,700 feet Snug in a tent with Nola, well fed by rice curried potatoes, curried buffalo meat, banana, Bournvita. Stuff everywhere. It will take a day or two to get into a routine and find what needs to be out and what doesn’t and what goes where.
Up from Lukla in a different direction than ever before. I’ve always headed up the Khumbu. Today we went east, toward the Hinku Valley. It felt a bit weird! Our half hour walk was a bit over 2 and a bit more that 1,500 vertical. Certainly more than we expected and not a push. Some pretty good up sections, through marvelous thick forest. Loamy soil, moss, huge rhododendrons, quiet walking, very different from the Khumbu. Rob showed up for a bit. At the airport in Kathmandu after the trucks were unloaded, a Sherpa picked up my bag, and when I looked up, it was Ang Tsering, sirdar (head Sherpa) for the Adventure Consultants Everest climbs and other trips. What a great treat! Another auspicious sign for this trip. There have been many of those. Warmed my heart to land in Lukla and finally be in the mountains. There are 4 teams here tonight. I am most surprised. Though we’d be pretty much on our own. I have tired eyes tonight, and writing holds little appeal
Day 2 On trek
3:30 pm Rain falling on the tent roof, like yesterday. It appears the monsoon has not yet sung its last note. Beautiful clear morning. Cold, frost on the ground. Surrounded by mountains on 3 sides, some directly above us, some further away. All snow dusted or covered, jagged-ridged, with a hanging glacier here and there. An exquisitely powerful surprise as we arrived in fog and rain yesterday, and it didn’t clear til after dark. Very little sleep last night, maybe 4 hours. Noticed the tent smelled real musty, and my throat got sore an hour into the night. By midnight my nose was clogged as well, and today I am runny-nosed and scratchy-throated. Upper respiratory stuff – again!!! This afternoon nose is running more than stuffy, throat scratchy rather than sore. I choose to believe it will move through quickly. I do not need to make this trip any more difficult or strenuous than it already is. I choose to let go and not be stuck in my discomfort. The two ways to let go of hard: to let go of the physical symptoms and to let go of being stuck in them. I can do that. I don’t have to go to, “Oh, God, not again.” It is not what I would choose, and it didn’t affect the hike today.
2,300 vertical of definite up, much of it quite steep, most of it rocky and uneven, mantra harder on that kind of terrain, and still helpful. Aware of quad muscles talking in a way that might have been quieted by leg work in a gym, and I did just fine. There is no hurry here. Even summit day is no more than 2,500 vertical. There is plenty of time. Back down the same 2,300 as this was an acclimatization day. We will move up there tomorrow
Peter seemed to struggle today and was exhausted at the end of the day. Possibly acclimatization as much as anything. He is very fit for 65, and this is a big trip for anyone. My going today was neither terrified nor awful. It was just fine. Good training as well as acclimatization. Turned my ankle twice on the way down. Not badly. Clearly my mind was elsewhere. A message about being in the present. I hear and heed it. I am enjoying the trip a great deal. Magical surroundings, good people, hard physical work. It’s a yes.
Still aware of talking about my stuff and things that make me look good more than I would like to. Focus on being interested rather than interesting It is an attractive way to be.
I close by honoring both Nola and myself for being strong enough to do this trip and by rekindling my willingness to release the respiratory stuff.
Day 3 13,000 feet
1:45 pm Again snug in a tent, cozy in my bag and the thermalounger. It is snowing outside. The monsoon continues to make itself known. Up at 6 this morning to cover the same ground as yesterday, this time staying up here, at the foot of the pass. My legs were discouragingly sore and heavy today, and I was correspondingly slow. Though it again took me about 2 hours, and I certainly stopped more to shoot photos. Thighs tight and sore. I will stretch and rub them out with Traumeel.
The walk was lovely. More clouds this morning than yesterday and clear as the sun rose over the mountains. We started walking about 7:50, and I was once again mesmerized by the rhododendrons and numerous mosses and bushes and boulders. There is an almost tropical feel to the lower section, then the gloriously backlit, moss-covered rhododendrons. Great photo material, then above tree line, scrubby grass and lots of moss-covered rocks. The higher amount of moisture here than in the Khumbu is evidenced by the flora.
I was much focused on the weakness in my legs and being slower than everyone else – much more than I would have liked. It only makes it feel harder. I let go as best I could and got into mantra-energized Go Mode the last half hour. Slow and steady. I have all the symptoms of a cold and am beginning to cough. I find it difficult not to be discouraged and frustrated. I don’t feel awful, and I don’t feel 100% I don’t need to make this trip any harder than it already is. I release the need for physical illness and embrace the willingness to simply be Margo, whole, feminine, strong, sore. It’s okay to just be me, including not being as strong as I’d like. I don’t need an illness as an excuse or to weaken me. I can just be me.
Peter and Tom went back to Lukla this morning. Peter was completely exhausted yesterday and just felt like he wasn’t strong enough to do the trip. Tom’s knee and hip were very sore, and he just didn’t want to wear them down anymore. I suggested they go up the Khumbu, and we are hoping they’ll meet us at the other side of the Mingbo La.
Tomorrow we head up and over the Zatrawla La (La is a mountain pass), which we are fondly calling the Za Tra La La. It’s just about 15,000 feet, and we’ll stay high from there until we cross the Mingbo. I look forward to being in the Hinku. Wonderful to be in unknown territory, even with the number of other trekkers around. At least one other group all 3 nights, and it appears that will continue. Our campsite here is rocky and uneven, and the Sherpa had some work to do to create ten sites for us. They are marvelous! Happy, singling, smiling, even with giant loads and hard work to do. Tenzing is our cook, with a smile that lights up his face and the world around him. His wife, Ang Phurba, is with him and whacked Jordan on the butt this morning. Very cute.
I am feeling better than when I began to write. I’m grateful for that.
Day 4 13,300 feet
2:15 pm I have moved from real concern when I woke up to a sense of gratitude and comfort. Slept okay and awoke with a very tight chest and a cough that was dry but very painful. Near tears a couple of times as we packed up, had breakfast, and headed up to the pass. Thoughts of, “Oh, God, not again,” again. Moved up the hill breathing rhythmically, using the mantra from the outset, staying connected with Spirit, continuing to confirm my willingness to let go of being ill. And I got better I climbed. Cough still painful and breathing very carefully over both passes. Highest point was 14,600, and as we descended, I coughed less, and it got much looser. I am delighted and intending to have it all gone before we go over the Mera La and head up high. I do not need to be ill!
Moved well, up and across and down. Just slow and steady, the slowest but Nola, still thinking more than I’d like about being fit or not fit, strong or not strong. I am not here to prove anything.
The up to the pass was not as steep as the climb yesterday. I felt stronger than yesterday though knees were sore on the way down. Rocky and barren up, several inches of snow from yesterday so slippery in places, asking for focused presence. This side, dropping into the Hinku Valley, is less rocky, more scrubby grass and mud. Less snow, more wet. The view from the first pass was exquisite, Rocky, jagged peaks in the direction from which we had come. Prayer flags at the top, old and worn. A quiet moment with the 3rd step prayer for me. Sweet. Feeling good. Small down, traverse, then little up to second pass, then down into the clouds once again.
I am cozy, content, comfortable, grateful to be here. Yes, I would prefer it to be sunny. On the other hand, if it were sunny I’d probably feel obligated to go for a walk, and I’m quite happy in this yellow dome surrounded by down and pile and stuff sacks and plastic bags containing all manner of stuff. The “gong” (metal spoon against metal pot) sounds for tea. Perfect timing.
Day 5 11,100 feet
7:40 pm Our “simple” walk down a couple thousand feet turned out to be a pretty sharp up out of camp to a series of short, steep ups, one very slippery with partly melted snow, and downs, some steep, some not, leading to almost 3,000 vertical down, following the river, starting above tree line, moving down into a wonderful almost rain forest of rhododendron, fir, bamboo and other plants I didn’t recognize. When I first looked out this morning, the mist was so thick I could hardly see the tent only a few feet away from ours. It lifted some and then closed in again so we walked mostly in a gray mystery, never seeing where the valley floor lay. Certainly sunshine would have been preferable, and I had a real good day. Chest tight in the morning and better than yesterday. Felt strong, moved well, cruised downhill. I love that I love going downhill! Just plain had a good time.
Walked by myself or with a Sherpa for much of the day. Enjoying my own company, a song from the 60’s Broadway show, Wait A Minim playing in my head. Camped a couple hundred feet above the river in a little clearing – Tashi Denpo. The rain began shortly after we arrived and continued on and off, coming hard the half hour before dinner. Then partly clearing, the nearly full moon and a few stars visible among the clouds. The rain has stopped. We all – Sherpa and Westerners alike – pray for the wet weather to end. It is most unusual for this time of year. Pray to Lama Koncha – All Gods – for sunny weather. And have a conversation with my mother about it as well!
This is a fun group, covering many careers and personality types. Conversations range in topic from investment banking to Louie L’Amour, most sparked by laugh-out-loud humor. Michael, Jordan, and Nathan are the comedians, each with their own unique style. Lots of laughter. It’s been a good day in spite of the weather. And sunshine would be lovely!
Day 6 No journal entry
Day 7 Taknak or Tangnang, 13,800 feet
5:40 pm A beautifully clear cold morning. Michael loaned me his sleeping bag cover, and I took 2 hot water bottles to bed. Couldn’t get warm yesterday afternoon and was real concerned about the night but it was OK. It’s good to be in a tent by myself for a couple nights. Definitely colder, and nice to spread out. I love Nola dearly, and it is still lovely to have my own space for a bit. Soup ready.
7:20 Well fed, air thick with pea-soup fog, images of the next week playing in my head in a crystal-clear, high-altitude-pure invitation. So different from this morning when I was cold and felt grumpy and almost wondering what I’m doing here – and not quite. Then we started walking up to the lake about 1,000 feet above camp. Steep walking on scrubby grass. And then the sun finally hit and the flowers came alive, and there was no doubt about why I’m here. My outsides warmed with the sun, and my insides acknowledged the doubts of the morning and embraced the song of the chuffs playing on the currents, silhouetted black against the gray rock and white-and-blue snow and ice of Peak 43 and Kusum Kanggri and the icefall above the lake. Sonam took my pack for me, almost insisted on it, and I welcomed the freedom of its absence. Photography easier, walking freer.
We spent almost an hour by the lake, from varying views, breathing in the magnificence of God’s work around us. Then over the moraine and on up to the Dig Kharka. The clouds had come in by then with a slight wind pushing them, and we donned pile on heads, torsos, hands and headed smartly back to camp. I do enjoy going down more than going up, knees included. An afternoon of hearts and organizing, tea and conversation brought us to dinner of rice and dal, potatoes and spinach, with a very good raisin cake, and discussion of the days to come.
Tonight I am filled with confidence about the climb and all the days to come. Walking into uncertainty with confidence. The full moon shines through the fog with a suffused brightness that says, “Yes, Margo, you can.” Jonathan checked in this morning, also agreeing. I have less tolerance for cold than I used to, and I can deal with whatever shows up. I want to climb Mera Peak. I know I can. I believe I will.
Day 8 Khare 16,300 feet
What a great day! Sun from the get-go until almost 5 pm. Hooray! A 3 hour walk, including stops. Same route as yesterday and another hour up and over a morainey ridge. Just slow and steady. Pretty clear that I didn’t drink enough yesterday and expected to be very slow and wasn’t. Followed a lovely stream for part of the way, running fast and clear and cold over its rocky bed.
Increasingly incredible views of Mera as we ascended. It’s a huge mountain, and from this side, most impressive. Looks virtually unclimbable to me. Great shots to use in a slide show! It is the same mountain we will climb, just from a very different angle. Nice chat with Nathan on the way up, about beliefs and attitudes and life. He is a bright, talented kid, carving his way in the world in a nontraditional, uncharted manner. Having the courage to know that what might seem the “easy” way, a regular job back in the states, would eat away at his soul. A talented searcher, commanding attention with his nonconformist, sometimes pretty out there views and behaviors. I might be put off by his manner under different circumstances and would, by my own judgmental walls, miss the opportunity of interacting with a very bright, curious, courageous mind.
Also chatted with Dawa on the way up about mutual acquaintances. He is married to the daughter of Ang Rita who works at the Himalayan Rescue Association and worked with the ’95 Bob Hoffman Everest expedition with whom I spent time. Fun to talk about that and find out more about him. He started as a kitchen boy at age 10 when his father died and he had to go to work. A nice kid, eager to talk about the people we both know.
Just a great day. Walked up 100 feet or so above camp after lunch with everyone. The views of Mera so stupendous. I will have my camera tomorrow. We go up on the snow to work on technique tomorrow. I’m looking forward to it. My demons of self-doubt have been quiet this trip, and I look much forward to the next few days. More excitement than trepidation. Walking into uncertainty with confidence. I like it. I am grateful. My head is less stuck in little annoyances and comparisons. We’re a strong group and have a good chance of all summitting. I believe it will happen. I have a comfortable sense of not needing my guides and inner family as much, rather inviting and welcoming the additional strength and guidance they bring me.
Day 10 Mera Base Camp 17,500 feet
After tea. I’m behind. To yesterday first. Another morning of doubt, teary, just off. Walked up to the ridge above camp before breakfast to admire the astounding view of Mera with the guys, to be moving and not just stuck with feelings that weren’t based on reality. Then the guys went down, and I took a few minutes to cry. Oh, God, how am I going to do this. Kind of sobs that have so often in the past taken me to a dark place for more than a few minutes. “I don’t need to go there.” The mantra for those kinds of times. I can acknowledge the feelings, honor my inner family, especially the kids without getting lost in them. It is huge growth.
Left camp with a pack weighing easily 30 pounds with plastic boots, axe, crampons harness and gear. About an hour plus, a bit to the snow, most of it quite steep. Just one foot in front of the other, slowly, letting my breathing guide my speed. Moving well, feeling strong, pleased and proud. Did some work on the snow – up a fixed line, rappelling down, just getting used to crampons and an axes again. Fun to be on snow, and a reminder of what hard work it is. Clouds came in early and Jordan, Russ and I, who had done the ropes bolted to camp with the others at least an hour behind. Glad to be down out of the cold. Just felt great!! A marvelous day harvested form the seed of a teary, “off” morning. A Venezuelan gal named Marian chatted with the 3 of us for a bit, wondering if she might join our group. Hers is kind of falling apart and will not go higher. Interesting, bright gal, and not appropriate that she join us. At least part of my morning stuff was due to al almost sleepless, quite cold night. Partly wide awake and partly very cold when the bottles cooled off. One of those nights when the best I could do was get through it. And the day turned out wonderfully. It’s about showing up and letting the miracles happen. A perfect demonstration.
Back to today. Took Compoz last night, added some layers to my sleeping setup and slept great. Got up at 10 to pee and then slept straight through til 5:40. Marvelous! Just what I needed. Heavy packs again, me moving much slower. Legs feeling heavy. And still moving, one foot in front of the other, breathing evenly, mantra-ing, aware of how much strength I get from my mantra. Today it was love, grace, will. Went up the snow from where we started yesterday rather than doing the rock route and upper traverse. Good practice, and Pemba had said the upper traverse was pretty messy from all the porters. It was OK and very, very slow for me. Close to tears a couple of times, sent the kids to the beach as the tears were theirs. Actually felt stronger at the top as the angle lessened and my walking became more rhythmical. And very aware of how much I would like a rest day tomorrow. Barring bad weather, which I do not wish for, we will go up.
I was whole-body-tired and somewhat discouraged when we arrived here. Concerned I do not have the strength to summit. My head playing with the thoughts around what the hell is Skip doing pushing us to the summit without a rest day. Now fed and rested some, I know I’ll be fine. Just slowly, slowly. So incredible what a positive effect taking care of myself physically has on my emotions and perspective. A reasonably short day tomorrow, with the biggest push being the grunt from here to Mera La. Dave thinks no more than 3 hours. I can do that. It doesn’t matter if it takes me 4. And it won’t. The cold of the morning will warm soon enough. We were hot today, and there’s no reason to believe it will be any different tomorrow. Just take one day at a time. The bang-bang of Ang Phurba’s call to dinner. Perfect timing.
Nola and I hugged and cried a little at the miracle of our being here. She cried at the La with great reason. When her breast cancer was diagnosed, she didn’t know if she would live, much less climb again. Our miracles of life may be far apart, and they unite us in a sweet way. This climb is in some ways sweeter for me because it comes from a physical strength that is averagely trained and a part of my life rather than being its main focus. My strength is not gone. It is a part of me, outside and in.
Day 11 Mera High Camp approximately 19,000 feet
We had a leisurely start up to High Camp as the porters had dropped down 1,200 feet to sleep and had to hike back up. The hardest part of the day was the short steep up back to the Mera La. Then pretty much a trudge. The weather continues its pattern of cloudy afternoons. About 3 hours to camp and then lunch al fresco on a rocky point about 50 feet below the tents, getting chillier as the clouds grew thicker. Concern about the cold and sleeping far more than the cold and climbing. Early to bed as we’ll be up at 4 am. One more oh-dark-thirty start!
Ran into Wally Berg, a guide I’d known on Everest on our way up and his way down. I mostly remember him from ’95. He remembers me from ’93. I do like being a party of this community – a climber.
Dinner was a near disaster as we ate in the kitchen tent and the fumes about did me in. Ate my soup outside, and Tensing opened a flap behind the stoves so I could be in there. Then they lit a lantern that wasn’t burning completely, and I left, coughing. Coughed hard for several minutes, used the inhaler and walked around for a bit. The sky was clearing as it has most evenings, and it was truly lovely. Breathed slowly, the air into my lungs and the beauty into my soul. I can do the cold in the morning for as long as it takes, put one foot in front of the other as many times as I need to. Tomorrow I will climb Mera Peak.
Day 12 Mera Summit, 21, 247 feet and down to Mera Base Camp
4 am Bed tea was closer to 4:30 and 4:50 porridge made a 5 am departure impossible. Dressed in everything I had – 4 layers top and bottom, feet cold to start, but not as bad as I had feared. No crampons to start. Snow was soft, angle low. Beautiful sunrise, partly cloudy, magnificent colors, heart singing, one foot in front of the other. Couple of moderately steep sections, 2nd requiring crampons. Couple of parties left much earlier than us, pretty wasted as they passed us on the way down. Seems the price of the cold during the bitter night hours between 2 and 5 was high. Skip’s choice to go late proved a good one. They reported 6 hours to the summit, total.
Skip, Dave, Nathan, Russ at the front with Pemba ahead of all to fix the rope the final 70 feet to the summit. Then Jordan with me a bit behind him – maybe 15 minutes, Marc and Peggy using me for pace, and Nola trailing another 30-45 minutes. Right around 5 hours to the summit for me. Great celebration on the summit. Peggy, Nola and I hugging each other, crying tears of joy and gratitude, each of our own deep feelings. Peggy has 2 sisters with breast cancer, both with very poor prognoses, and her tears were mixed, fear for her sisters and wanting to give Nola’s victory as proof of life after breast cancer. Nola’s tears in celebration of having her life back. Mine in celebration of life, that I can still climb a mountain over 21,000 feet high; that I don’t have to be in superhuman shape to do it. That it is still about putting one foot in front of the other, one more time, in rhythm to breathing and mantra. I am an averagely unique almost-50-year-old woman, and I climb mountains. That God and I and the kids and my guides make a wonderful, whole, strong person. I, Margo Chisholm, ge 49 3/4, am standing on the top of Mera Peak, 21,247 feet high. Thank you, God. Thank you for my life.
Skip and I talk about how different our lives would be if he had not been the guide on that first trip to Africa. Far less rich, he responded. So true for me, nice to know it’s true for him as well.
When I reach the bottom of the fixed line, it’s still sunny and the wind is beginning to be a little blustery. By the time Nola summits, perhaps 45-60 minutes later, it is blowing hard, the sun nearly gone, and we are getting cold. The temperature is 0. Winds blowing 15 – 20 and gusting higher, the wind chill is -30 to -40. Once Nola summits, we hardly notice the cold as we celebrate and Nathan sets up a group photo. On the way down, the weather closes in and by the time we make a brief stop at at High Camp, we are in the whiteout of a full Himalayan storm.
Dawa has performed a heroic feat in following our early morning tracks which are now almost completely lost. Off the track the snow is thigh deep making missteps most inconvenient at best, and dangerous at worst. snow blows under my Spex and into my glacier glasses, both resulting in near sightlessness, disguising scratches on the lenses as footsteps. I struggle to stay close enough to Skip to follow his blur of colors, succeeding until he and Dawa turn off the main trail to High Camp. I cannot see where the track turns and experience, fortunately for only a short time, the fear of being lost in the storm. I can no longer see Skip, and the people behind me are still out of sight. Almost simultaneously I see the track and Dave appears behind me. It’s OK. I’m not lost in the storm. I’m OK. I consciously slow my breathing which had become fast and shallow in my fear.
I was not lost, and we all finished packing as quickly as we could, downed some tea and helped the Sherpa and porters pack up the tents in a near total whiteout. Skip led out, and I remember there being someone between me and him but we can’t figure out who that might have been. At any rate, we descended in a way that reminded me of Denali except for the weather – fast, very fast. I didn’t want to get behind because I couldn’t see and was afraid I’d lose the trail and lose Skip. Snow was blowing sideways, getting into my glasses from the left. I was nearly blinded. Then skip stopped, and I and all the porters also stopped. We were off track, and Skip didn’t know where to go, and there were a good number of crevasses around.
We weren’t far above the La but we could see virtually nothing, and it was too dangerous to guess about direction. The rest caught up but with no Sherpa as they had stayed to clean up camp. We all just stood there and waited, understanding the danger of moving forward without seeing where the holes were. Skip said, “It’s 2 pm, 4 hours until dark. We’re all healthy, we’ve got tents. We’ll wait til we can see.” So we waited. For perhaps 20 minutes, and then the porters got restless and began to hoot and holler a little and move downhill into an area that was clearly crevassed and dangerous. Skip called to Tenzing to tell them not to go there. I had visions of a porter going in a hole and having to do a rescue in these windy, whiteout conditions. Tenzing got out a climbing rope, and the porters each held it in their hand and headed down, somehow without disaster.
We followed them and arrived shortly at the La, put on our crampons and descended the short steep to Base Camp, tired and happy, with a summit under our belts, a 100% success rate, and a true Himalayan weather experience. I didn’t love it while it was happening, and it definitely made for a complete experience and a better story!
I ran through a gamut of emotions from fatigue, small doubt, to elation and gratitude and pride and on to fear and determination nd finally relief to be down. A full day, to say the least!
Day 13 16,000 feet
7:15 pm We all made it to the summit of Mera Peak on a true Himalayan day! It’s getting too cold to write. I will finish this at some point. 2 big days coming up, then the relative ease of the Khumbu. I look forward to that.
(Written on Day 19) Base Camp down to helicopter sign. Rocks, more rocks, nice camp by lake, clouds in again. I don’t remember much about the day. It feels like a day wedged between Mera Summit and the long walk through the Hongu.
Day 14 17,500 feet
What a day! 6 hours of walking through this incredible Hongu Valley. Mark said about 18,000 steps for him, clearly more for my short little legs, a bit more than 9 1/2 miles. Did most of the mileage before lunch, pretty easy walking, at least for Nepal. A little up and down but mostly following the river in its gradual elevation gain. Astounding views everywhere. Chamlam, Peak 41, Baruntse, Pyramid Peak, south face of Lhotse, Nuptse wall, the top hidden by clouds, hiding the Mother Goddess (Everest) until another day.
After lunch was all moraine, some of it very steep and loose, leading to a high lake and flat moraine dance into camp. Hard going. I felt quite leg weary and yet was the 3rd one into camp behind Russ and Michael. Russ commented that he was impressed with how I made it in. I admit to being hugely pleased! Much more to say, but the dinner gong has sounded. I was incredibly energized after tea, fed and watered and excited to be here, under the shadow of the Mingbo La, only a day away from the Khumbu. It feels like going home to be going there. I will catch up at some point. It’s been a glorious, hard-work day in an astoundingly magnificent place despite the weather continuing to disappoint. Almost no sun at all today, temp probably never above 40, light snow now, as has been so common. Lots of help to lift my weary legs on the moraine from my friendly spirits: Gary, Rob, Mother, Jonathan. God’s will for me to be here. Weather and all, I am blessed.
(There were no journal entries for Days 15 and 16. The following are created from my memory many years later. They are as accurate as my memory allows.)
We awoke to lots of snow on the ground and more still falling. Clearly we were going nowhere. This in itself was not a big deal. However, we were running low on food and even lower on fuel. It became clear as the day – and heavy snowfall – wore on, that if we were not able to cross the Mingbo La into the Khumbu Valley the next day, we would have to retrace our steps back up the Hongu Valley and over the Mera La to find fuel and enough to feed our crew and members. This was not only discouraging but more than a bit daunting. It had been a long haul up here and it would be even longer going back, with the ever-deepening snow. If the snow continued, we would not be able to cross the pass for several days. We could survive with very limited food. To run out of fuel, however, meant no water, and that was a much more serious issue. We were a bit between a rock and a hard place. It made for a long day in the tents, with “what ifs” playing loudly in my head. Even a game of hearts in the dining tent did little to lift my spirits. As I climbed into my bag that night, I sent prayers to all the deities and gods and spirit weather manipulators I could think of for a sunny day tomorrow.
Day 16 Over the Mingbo La, app. 19,200 feet
Well, the wide blanket of prayers did its magic. The snow stopped in the wee hours, and I climbed out of tent in the early morning to a clear day, the sky visibly sliding from gray to blue as the sun rose and warmed it. We would cross the pass.
It was only about 1,500 vertical to the top of the pass. We figured a couple of hours, with the Sherpa breaking trail in the deep snow. No big deal. We had been told the back side of the pass was very steep and that gear and porters would have to be lowered. Underestimating what a huge undertaking that would be and wanting to lighten our loads as much as possible, Nola and I decided to pack our headlamps in our duffles rather than in our packs.
A quick breakfast and up we headed. My legs were very heavy, and I felt like my energy had already headed back to Kathmandu. My ascent up toward the pass was very, very slow. I was one of the first out of camp and was passed by one person after another. After an hour or so I just plain bonked, hit the wall, didn’t know how I was going to put one foot in front of the other enough times to get to the top of the La. Head down, bent over my ice axe, I was breathing hard when a fellow climber (I unfortunately don’t remember who) caught me from behind and asked if I was okay. I explained that I had pretty much bonked, and he said, “Here, try this,” and handed me a couple packets of Gu, which is pretty much pure glucose and used in exactly these kinds of circumstances.
I squeezed one packet’s worth into my mouth and continued to lean on my axe, breathing hard. I don’t think it was more than a couple minutes before I began to feel the effects of the Gu. It was kind of miraculous. Now I know why they give you glucose in the hospital! Amazing effects. I started up toward the La once more, with renewed energy and a much more positive attitude, knowing I would get there. It might not be fast, and I’d get there.
And get there I did. And then we waited. And waited. And waited. The process of setting up the anchors and ropes to lower the gear and porters down the very steep back side of the La took longer than I had imagined. The Sherpa and Skip had gone up before the rest of us, and I somehow thought it would be pretty well ready to go by the time I finished my oh-so-slow ascent.
Not so, and we were all grateful for the warm sun as we waited while gear and porters were lowered. Before the Mera La, many of the porters had not had sunglasses and only flip-flops for footwear. Now they all at least had sneakers. But sneakers in this deep, deep snow and trying to rappel down the far side! Skip and the Sherpa actually had to almost throw some of the porters – reasonably gently – off the top to get them going. They were tied into a fixed line and could not fall, and they didn’t really understand that so getting them to lean back on the lines and take that first step down took some doing.
Despite the fear, there was much lighthearted kidding and laughter from those who had made their descent, clearly ribbing their friends as, one by one, they descended. Awkwardly, haltingly, sometimes even upside down, and all eventually arriving at the bottom of the couple hundred feet of steepness with great relief.
It was late in the afternoon by the time the whole crossing was complete, and we still had an icefall to maneuver before arriving at camp. Nothing serious, just some slow walking and route finding which was time-consuming and would take several hours. As long as I didn’t have to go uphill, my energy level was fine. I hadn’t planned on running out of daylight.
As the sun began to set, the temperature dropped radically and although several of us were growing quite cold, we kept going, hoping that a campsite would materialize sooner rather than later. No such luck. Darkness fell almost instantaneously as it does in the Himal, and Nola and I had to admit to Skip that we did not have our headlamps. It was a rookie error, and I was very embarrassed, as, I believe, was Nola.
We were still in broken and crevassed territory, and the lack of a headlamp made the going far more challenging. I was able to follow closely on Skip’s heels and manage reasonably well, and there were times when it was more than bit scary. It was also exquisitely beautiful. Here we were, above 17,000 feet, surrounded by towering mountains, their snow glowing in the starlight that is so astoundingly bright at that altitude. I don’t remember there being a moon. Several times I stopped to look back at the rest of the team, only their headlamps visible, moving in a snakelike pattern, like fireflies dancing through the incredible terrain.
It was well after 8 pm when we arrived at camp, exhausted. All who were able to chipped in to help the crew set up the tents. No dinner tonight. Just some hot drinks and soup and bed. Just another average day in the Himal!
Day 17 Pangboche 15,636 feet
6:45 pm Inside a teahouse, with Coleman lantern light and heat from a central stove and Tenzing’s green soup and rice. So much has happened in the last few days, and there is not enough time tonight. We go only to Dingboche, and I’ll have writing time tomorrow.
Day 18 Dingboche
4:50 pm So. A deep breath. I am in a tent by myself on a terrace in Dingboche. Jonathan’s chorten drew my eye on the way up – or perhaps Tanner’s chorten now. (Derived from ancient burial mounds, a chorten is a spiritual monument usually containing relics of some kind. Chorten is a Tibetan word, commonly interchanged with stupa, the Sanskrit version.) I will visit in the morning. A beautiful walk up. Easy, unhurried, many photos, deep breaths, memories, spirits, tears, gratitude, smiles, sadness looking at Everest, gratitude also. Walked much of the way by myself, some with a couple from Seattle who are headed to Pumori, guided by 2 Poles, one named Richard Polowski, who’s done 8 or 10 of the 14 8,000 meter peaks. including a winter ascent of Nanga Parbat. Interesting people, both dry type jobs at home that allow them 5 weeks vacation a year and year-long sabbaticals every 7. Sweet to share a passion with a partner. It is still a dream of mine to do trips with a partner.
Lunch at the confluence of the Imja Khola and Dudh Kosi. New tea houses in every town as the number of climbers and trekkers continues to rise. 1998 is the Visit Nepal year. According to Pemba Norbu, our sirdar, it is a good thing. I sometimes think we Westerners make judgments about a culture changing that are not ours to make. Certainly the deforestation of this valley is a sad, sad happening, and who are we to say the economic gains made by the tourist trade do not make up for the loss of the Sherpa culture. I saw a Sherpani carrying a load in shorts today. It was a shock. There is no right or wrong here. Tradeoffs whose values and consequences are far beyond my knowledge or even understanding.
The time in the Pangboche Gompa (a gompa is a monastery) was sweet. Breathing in the Dharma and listening to Pemba tell the story of Lama Sange Dorje who flew from Tibet and tried to land at Thyangboche but slid down and came to rest at Pangboche. There is a rock with his footprint held sacred in the Gompa. Sweet to watch Sonam prostrate himself 3 times in the Buddhist tradition. Didn’t have the strong sense of Jonathan I’ve had in similar places in the past, just an awareness. I continue to believe Jonathan’s not being around as much is about my own growth and decreasing neediness rather than a lack of connection. Even now, everyone nods yes inside me.
Waves of sadness periodically, about the people I miss in my life: Jonathan, Rob, Gary, Mother, the Dailys. And equal waves of joy for simply being in this place I so love. And not making it hard! It’s difficult enough as it is, and it’s a relief to not have to make it more or different for me than for the others. I admit to enjoy the solitude this evening, despite the cold. I have enormous respect and care for Nola, for her determination, for her strength in returning to the mountains so soon after her cancer, and we operate very differently in the world. I welcome her companionship most of the time, and tonight, I’m enjoying the solitude.
I am , in a way I don’t quite understand, reluctant to go back to the missing days. We found out today that despite our own difficulties, we made out better than anyone else. Conflicting stories, and it seems clear that at least one cookboy has died in attempting to cross the Amphu Lapsa. Pemba says it was one of the KE expedition staff, and the leader of the Himalayan Expedition group says it was from a group crossing from this side, and that the body is in Chukkhung. So much conflicting information.
What we do know is that 87 people were at the base of the Amphu on the Hongu side and 30 on this side when the storm hit. The KE group, Wally Berg’s group, and probably Al Burgess’ group all turned back and met with resupply at the Mera La, requested by runners sent for help. Sounds like they pretty much lived on Power Bars for several days. The Himalayan Kingdom people were the only ones to cross, as they had the high altitude food they were going to use on Imja Tse. They set their ropes the day we crossed the Mingbo and then crossed the pass yesterday. We saw them at lunch today and learned how fortunate we were and how much worse everyone else had it. Skip’s choice to use the Mingbo rather than the Amphu was more auspicious than we had surmised, and we were very, very grateful.
Day 19 Dingboche
6:30 am It is snowing – again. A couple of flakes falling as we left dinner last night but some stars visible, although dimly through light cloud. Listened to music as I wrote and didn’t notice anything when I went to sleep. didn’t sleep well, kind of stuffy and scratchy throat, and heard the snow start some time before midnight. Still going at 2 and 5 and now. I have decided, we all have decided, to go down.
2:20 Ama Dablam Gardens, Deboche 12,000 feet Clearly an appropriate choice. It is still snowing with only a short break in the middle of the day. So we sit in the warmth of the dining room, energy pretty low, rock and roll on a CD player, some kind of telephone on the wall – the culture shock begins. Russ is fighting a chest thing, Skip is under the weather with some bug or another. That’s what was up yesterday, apparently started when he had a bit of beer in Pangboche the night before last. I choose not to be dragged down in my own energy. The humor is still evident which is good.
found out in an offhand way from a man from Boulder that John Denver was killed in a plane crash. It just left me dumbstruck. He has always felt such a part of me because of his music, and I feel so for Annie and the kids (Annie was my therapist during my Aspen years.). So very out of the blue. As much as anything, I am aware of being alone when I get news of death. Being alone for so many important things, with no one’s shoulder to cry on, no one to process with, grieve with, celebrate with, whatever with. It, right now, makes the news bigger than it would be at home where there would be people to share it with, other people who knew him, to share the sadness and celebrate his life and the joy he brought to so many people. To talk about how sad that he was still dealing with alcohol when he died. Just to share it. The best I seem able to do here is hope someone will notice my tears or sadness and ask about it. That is closer to old behavior than I want to go and yet I don’t feel comfortable asking for comfort from anyone here. A dilemma that happens far more often in my life than I would like. And for now, it’s the best I can do. The most appropriate thing to do is go to my tent. And so I will.
Day 20 Dingboche – Khumjung
11:30 am Just below Thyangboche Sunny, warm, smiling heart. Thyangboche was full of emotion for me. Jonathan, Rob, Gary, even John Denver. Gary from a smiling God face, Rob in the Buddha’s eyes saying, “It’s time to let go.” Jonathan drawing away. A sense of ending. Sadness. Aloneness, similar to last night, death presence. Not dark, just sad. Time to be by myself. Tears. As I started down the hill, though, I felt more whole with each step, my back straightened, my step lightened, I walked into the wholeness of Margo. It isn’t that my guides are leaving, it’s that my need continues to be less as I grow into wholeness, and they know that more than I do, so they withdraw which can feel like abandonment until I am ready to embrace the new wholeness. Today I embrace it fully, and the sadness and fear are gone.
8:20 pm Khumjung 12,500 feet In an open field next to a potato field where a woman dug potatoes from 2:30 when we arrived til dark, backbreaking hard work with unceasing rhythm, small potatoes in one basket, larger in another. It was cloudy enough to not make it worth photographing. Goraks all around, one hopping almost into the dining tent to grab a piece of cracker Skip had thrown. Gathering on the big rocks above us like “The Birds.” 3 little boys, maybe 5 or 6, playing on the rocks with no Mom shouting, “Be careful,” finding some discarded paper and making paper airplanes. Writing postcards and chatting with Nathan in the Everest Bakery.
Lovely walk up from lunch, with Ama Dablam and Thamserku, Khumbila and Kwangde saluting our passage. I like this town – more of a town town than only a tourist place despite the new 3-story satellite-dished Khumjung Hotel. Kunde, Khumjung, Namche, and Thame all have 24-hour electricity for lights and heat, with most of the wiring underground. Only Thame to Namche has poles, apparently. We’ll see that day after tomorrow. Pemba says some homes here and in Kunde and Khumjung also have TV’s. It’s amazing to me. Inevitable, I suppose, given TV was in Lukla in ’93, and still amazing. The next trip will be to somewhere more remote. Though I must say that ending early is a soft way to begin reentry. We are definitely winding down, and I am not unhappy about that. It will be fun to be in Namche. And who knows what changes have happened since I was here 2 1/2 years ago.
Day 21 Khumjung – Namche Bazaar 12,300 feet
7 pm 3 weeks out today. In some ways feels like longer and in some not that long. Snowing again this morning. Unbelievable! The weather continues to defy anything I have known about October in Nepal. Consistently shitty with only rare exceptions. We’ve still had only one totally clear day – that, thank God, for the Mingbo crossing.
It’s just after dinner, and I need to vent. I feel like a pariah because of my cough. I’m embarrassed by it, feel judged because of it, most of all wish it would go away. It’s easy to plug into the memories of ’92. I am not sick now, though. Just this almost incessant tickle and rasp and scratch in my throat and trachea. I am neither making it up nor making it worse than it is. That is truth. There that’s better.
Day 22 Namche Bazaar
11 am Sitting in my thermalounger on our terrace 200 feet above the main village. We all passed on Thame and are enjoying our first rest-day-by-choice of the trip. It’s sunny with just a hint of breeze, enough to have a little nip. We walked up to the Everest museum and out behind to watch Chomolungma tease us from behind the clouds. Heard a woman having a conversation with another woman about which mountain was which and offered to help. Mentioned I’d been on Everest and was giving a quick version, and a woman who was part of the same trekking group asked if I’d written a book. She was all excited to meet me and had her picture taken with me. She’s 63 and climbed Kili in August. It’s such a kick when that happens! Then others interested, writing down the name of the book. Fun!
7:30 A great afternoon despite a truly wracking cough as a result of all the smoke and mustiness and incense. Some shopping in town, than an hour on the patio of the Thame over tea and Fanta, apple pie and cinnamon rolls, watching the town pass by. It’s the festival of Darsa, and the hugely increased number of Hindi were celebrating. A group of youngsters with a bad PA system and an odd accordion-ish box thing were singing and dancing, making their way around town. Did a bit in front of P.K.’s drawing quite a crowd, when a Tibetan-driven strong of 8 yaks sent performers and crowd alike hugging the store walls and display tables. Quite a scene! They just easily started again once the yaks had passed. Most amusing.
The whole group visited the home of Kamcha, a Sherpa who did trips with Skip many years ago. Now 65 and 2 years retired, he’s bright and quick with a remarkable memory, remembering little specifics about long ago trips that even Skip had forgotten. Delightful man. His wife, Ang Hapka, quite simply twinkles. She welcomed the 8 of us even though Kamcha was out doing his daily constitutional with prayer wheel and beads. He arrived after a half hour or so, I greatly enjoyed listening to Skip and him reminisce. After another half hour Ang Hapka said something to him with a look that seemed to say, “Now, Dummy.” Kamcha said she wanted to know if we were interested in Tibetan carpets. Several of us were eager to see them, and she brought out some beautiful rugs, one of which I bought which has dragons on a blue background that Ang Hapka had made, herself, 5 years ago from sheep and yak wool brought over the Nangpa La from Tibet. A sweet time, to be with a Sherpa couple in their own home, talking with them not as a part of our crew but rather as friends.
Momos (yummy meat or vegetable stuffed dumplings) at Pemba and Nima’s tea house, watching the action pass by the door, watched closely by their 2 1/2-year-old niece. I need to get out of this musty, smoky air! As much as the comfort of the teahouses has been welcome the last few nights, the air has greatly exacerbated the cough. Only another day and a half. Today was a sweet day to have at the end of the trip.
Day 23 Namche – Lukla
9:30 pm No rain! My first walk to Lukla without rain. And on the rainiest trip of all! Long walk, slow uphill after lunch. Supporting Dawa in making it through his upset stomach. Just taking in the last day in the valley. Am drinking an orange soda which tastes divine, feeling a sweet sense of camaraderie with these 9 individuals with whom I’ve shared so much. Peter was waiting for us today. A nice reconnection. My last night in a tent for a while, and I am enjoying it. And it will be good to be in a bed.