|Our Really Big Adventure|
| The col at the start
of the Khumbu Glacier was packed tight with cairns, both large and small,
remembering the lives of those who have died and whose frozen corpses still
remain on Everest. It was the exploits of these men and women that have
made Everest what it is today and, in part, it is what attracts me to the
region. Morbidly I couldnt help but think that the col was going to
be a little more crowded in just a couple of months. Across from us was
the American Everest team spotting names and pausing in front of Scott Fishers
cairn. I wondered what they were thinking as they stared at all that remained
of those that went before them: did they have total faith or were they pondering
their own mortality?
The Khumbu Glacier was a welcome sight as it stretched in front of us, like an art deco path leading to Everest. The trail was easy now, alternating between the glacier proper and the surrounding moraine. Occasionally beneath our feet we could hear the gurgling of streams, hidden by the frozen surface. The walk was magical, gentle so we could admire the fantasy world that surrounded us, an occasional slip bringing us stumbling into reality.
Everything needs its counterpoint and the pristine Khumbu Glaciers is Lobuje, proof that man can turn even the most beautiful and remote location into a shit hole. Lobujes only blessing is that the temperature never rises above freezing so while the huge pits of human effluent may give you pause, at least their inert state doesnt make you gag. Lobuje used to be the highest settlement where Everest hopefuls would spend time acclimatising, however even these hardy men and women, who can fill a piss bottle in their sleeping bag, have forsaken Lobuje for a new, even higher, settlement called Gorak Shep. We stayed in Lobuje.
Four paracetamol and two ibuprofen did little to shift the pounding in the front of my head. The headache had come on slowly and I had gone to bed to recover, but things had gone from bad to worse and it was joined by a sense of dizziness as I gradually upped the painkiller dosage to the dangerous side of caution. These are two of the classic symptoms of Altitude Sickness, which I shouldnt have been suffering from. I was well acclimatized and had already been a lot higher than Lobuje. However, at this altitude (5,000m) you have to assume everything is AMS and I reached for our unopened pack of Diamox, a drug that increases your respiration. We had met several people who swore by it and the volunteer altitude doctors positively encourage its use. Two hours later I felt like Rainer Wolfcastle during the filming of Radiation Man in the Simpsons as he is being carried away by a wall of acid shouting The goggles do nothing
It was so cold the next morning that our water had frozen in its bottles and a sheet of ice lined the inside of our window. Any pleasure or excitement we might have felt about our final day to Base Camp was stolen by the misery of the cold. We acted as though on autopilot, our bodies clumsy with the cold. We wore nearly all of our clothes but it was our hands that really suffered; it simply wasnt possible to pack with our thick mountain gloves on and by the time they were on and insulating our figures, they were cold beyond warming. Determination and ambition was the only thing that got us out of the teahouse that morning.
The air was too thin, or we were too weak to walk briskly and we got colder. Unable to think properly from the pain we repeatedly sat down, wallowing in our misery. Something just wasnt right; people were passing us, without any apparent difficulty - could AMS be striking us? We seemed incapable of significant forward motion, if we kept going we werent going to make it to Base Camp and we would be forced to spend the night at an even higher elevation, something that is to be absolutely avoided with any symptoms of AMS. The decision was clear, but it took our stunned minds half an hour and several aborted forward forays to realize that we had to turn back.
Little can describe our state of mind as we stumbled, defeated back to our lodge. People stared at us, but no one approached, afraid our negative energy would contaminate their group. We sat with blank stares contemplating the distance we had come and precautions we had taken, all to be defeated at the last hurdle. We were not yet prepared to give up and suggested giving it another go in an hour. Even as we said it we knew it wasnt going to happen, it wasnt safe and we didnt have the strength. We could stay another day in the cesspool that is Lobuje and hope that we would acclimatise for a bid the following day, but there were no rooms to be had. We debated for over an hour, but the depressing truth was that the only viable option was down.
Our first step downhill brought home the finality
of the decision. There was no going back now and Everest Base camp would
likely remain an exciting start to other people's adventures, not the
end of ours. None-the-less we felt lighthearted as if the weight of the
decision, which had been weighing us down, was now removed. Given the
objectivity of distance, we realized that it would be madness to taint
the fantastic experiences we had had with fruitless misery.