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More than a mountain

I kept walking, taking one step at a time, feeling the warm sensation of blood flowing through my legs as my muscles strained to propel my every forward movement. Another breath of air – I could feel my heart pulsating in my chest. Exhale. Another step, and another breath – my whole body in rhythmic timing, and yet I felt detached, even within the awe of this grandeur place. Here I was, slowly inching toward the closest place on Earth that man can get to God, if there even is a God, and yet I was emotionally drifting back to my recent past instead of being in the present.

Kala Pattar

When Don left, my life left with him. I had lost everything of importance – my best friend, my husband to be, my driving strength to deal with everyday life, my hopes and dreams of a future. I felt dead to my life and to my world. How could I continue without him? Desperately longing for nothing that resembled my broken life, I decided to seek the sanctuary of the “mother goddess”, also known as Everest. I quit my sexist job with a gigantic middle finger to find myself unemployed with a plane ticket to the remote opposite end of the globe, and a weather pattern inverse to that of sunny California. 

Ten days later, after my arrival into Kathmandu, Nepal, I was a mere two thousand feet elevation, seven hours hiking distance away from Everest. I had come to Nepal with a friend and had hired a guide and a porter to form a four person team. I took the lead and paced myself once again, far ahead of Santaman, my guide, and the rest of the group. I could feel the every expansion and collapse of my lungs in the much reduced oxygen levels, soon to be arriving at sixteen-thousand feet elevation to Lobuche, a small village consisting of only a few teahouses.

“You should really slow down your place. It’s dangerous up here,” a Norwegian trekker shouted to me as I breezed right pass him on a strenuous portion of an uphill climb. How ironic that physically I was strong, but emotionally I was struggling to keep myself together. Already I had witnessed several trekkers developing high altitude sickness who were forced to turn around from the mountain and head back down to the valley floor. I kept going up a little further and then stopped to rest and wait for the others.

Khumbu Glacier

Everest. What drew me to the void and desolation of Everest, a place that slowly kills with every second? The landscape itself seemed to be a metaphor for my own turmoil. There were only faint signs of life scattered along the inhospitable trail on this barren mountain that is notorious for claiming many lives. I could care less about the dangers and perils. Only one thought mattered, as reckless as it may be: I had clung to the desire of seeking Everest and with it, the hopes of comfort and being far removed from my shattered life. 

A gush of chilled wind blew through, rustling Buddhist prayer flags strung all around the mountain. Reds, yellows, greens, blues, and whites made for a sort of holiday impression. The flags flapped in the background, and combined with the meditative sounds of the soft Buddhist chants echoing in the valley below. The pungent smell of burning yak dung permeated the air. I was once again aware and my attention was brought back to the icy terrain I was traversing. Tugging on my balaclava to seal off any bare neck exposure to the frigid air, it was a mere distraction from my reality. I had been freezing for the past three days, regardless of my eleven layers of thermal clothing, but even the physical discomforts did not deter me.

The faint rustic tinkering of bells grew louder. Another yak train was nearby. Lost in my thoughts, Santaman broke the silence as he leisurely strolled up to me. “Are you happy?” he asked. Looking over at his darkened and weathered, yet friendly face and into his eyes, I wondered if Santaman could see right through me. “Of course. I’m heading to the top of the world,” I jokingly lied, afraid to reveal my emotional frailty.  It was my own burden. He gave me a warm smile, a feeling of reassurance rose within, and he passed on by, making his walk seem effortless on this rough terrain, humming softly to the Buddhist incantations of “Om Mani Padme Hum”.

Stone memorials

Arriving at a plateau section of the trail, there was a heavy and ominous feeling, even before I realized where I was. We had arrived at an area lined with stone memorials on both sides of the trail placed there by those that had lost their love ones on this snowy graveyard of a mountain. Up here in this altitude, the land looked desolate with only rocks and snow. This was a place to stop for a moment of silence, remembrance, and reflection. So many broken dreams…

I closed my eyes and thought back to Don. It seemed only yesterday that I was planning a wedding, dreaming of children and the comforts of growing old together. Now here I was, alone, in this remote corner of the earth. I stood facing the daunting Everest and the surrounding Himalayas, same as the people before me that set up these memorials and said good-bye to the ones they loved. It was a reflection of my own sadness. It is a grim place. The grayish-speckled stones stacked neatly upon each other, creating these monuments with engraved epitaphs of the lost spouse, child, sibling, and friend. Prayer flags wrapping around some and strung across others, carry the prayers upon the winds to a god. With a gush of the wind I could almost see the translucent prayers floating upwards to the blue-hued sky. I picked up a few stones that rested before me and gently placed them together on the side creating my own mini-memorial, an attempt for me to say good-bye. I echoed the prayers to any god that would listen and hung my prayer flags to the winds, sharing the sense of loss with those who have come here before me.

I pushed onward and eventually arrived in Lobuche in the mid-afternoon and settled in for the rest of the evening, drinking hot lemon, a local tea house favorite. Entranced in my thoughts, the sounds of gregarious laughter broke the silence as a number of porters, guides, and a European flowed into the makeshift space of a combinational living/dining/bedroom. A rugged, tired looking Frenchman triumphantly crossed into the room. He looked worn and dirty, but his cheeks glowed a rosy pink that lightened the wrinkly creases of his sun-burnt face. He was grinning from ear to ear and had a triumphed look across his eyes and an internal beam of joy. Weary in demeanor, it was no doubt that he had come a long way. Greeted with hugs by the tea house owner and congratulatory praises by his companion guide, this older looking man had reached his journey’s end that very day – a twelve hour round-trip trek up and down on a vertically challenging and difficult portion to summit Kala Pattar, known for its amazing panoramic view of Everest and the surrounding Himalayas. How ecstatic he looked!

Yaks on trail

There was a glance and smiles exchanged as he came closer to warm up by the fire. In broken English he said to me “Tomorrow you be at Everest”, as if he understood that I am a seeker like him. While I was continuing to head up towards my goal, he was now returning back to where he had come from. I looked at the beaming Frenchman, and replied, “Yes, one more day.” Being in the remote grandeur of the Himalayan mountains had felt like a magical sanctuary, far away and removed from my present life. Now only a mere few kilometers trek away from what had initially seemed like an eternity to reach, I suddenly thought, “I don’t want this to end. I don’t want to go back down the mountain.”

I looked around the room and became aware of hustle and bustle. There were others who had arrived – younger and older, from various countries and nationalities, and probably with different pursuits and reasons for being here. I began to recognize that ultimately we share the same goal – life. We had come here to feel life in its various facets – to challenge it, to face it, to reconcile with it. I knew why I was here. I thought I came here to escape, but I was really here to move on.

Bright and early the next day came, there was the Frenchman, sitting across the way. The initial rush of his triumph had worn down. Organizing my pack, I did not pay attention to the on-goings of the many others in the dimly lit room until I looked up, saw the Frenchman, and was taken aback. For there he was, with his head hung low, and tears flowing down his dirt-covered face, leaving a remnant trail of water stains. He was being comforted by an older Swiss woman who was also wiping away droplets of tears from her eyes. I may not have known what his tears were about, but I could feel his pain and I empathized. Everest was only the warm-up. I perceived that he was going on to face a more difficult mountain, his own.

Everest Base Camp

It took one step at a time, one foot in front of the other that allowed me to reach the summit of Kala Pattar and Everest Base Camp. It was nature’s finest artwork displaying the vast multitudes of snowy peaks in every visible direction. Shadowy ledges and jutting snow banks revealed the density of the mountain’s terrain. Below I could see the miles of expanse of mounds and crevices of the Khumbu ice glacier. I could hear the sound of crackling ice and then the rumbling of a nearby avalanche. How small I was amidst these giant formations, and yet, how high I felt! This remote solitude beauty provided solace. I closed my eyes and took a wonderfully crisp, clean deep breath. There in front, I envisioned Don smiling back at me, just like the good times of our past that will never again be. I wiped away my tears and realized the closest to heaven was not atop the peak, but in my memories. I had reached the end of my Everest journey and was heading back down to life and begin anew. The challenge of Everest is more than the mountains. It is facing ourselves and persevering through difficulties and hardships one step at a time. And with that, I took my first step back down the mountain.

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