Saturday, July 9, 2016

The Last Long Day

In my award-winning "We Said Go Travel" essay, I describe my
experience of trekking the Three Passes in the Everest Region.
The full-length memoir, Footsteps of Gopal,
can be found on
Day fourteen of trekking in Nepal. We've just arrived in Gokyo where an enormous frozen lake dominates the landscape. My husband Tom, our long-time friend Marcus, and I hope to complete the Three Passes Trek, circumnavigating the valley where Mount Everest reigns supreme. We’re in the company of a wonderful guide and two porters who are transporting the bulk of our gear. Since April 2nd when we landed at the World's Most Dangerous Airport in Lukla, it's been non-stop adventure. We’ve spent ten of fourteen days hiking in altitudes over 15,000 feet, exceeding 18,000 feet on our first pass, Kongma La. Tomorrow, we’ll tackle our third and final pass, 17,680 foot Renjo La. To my relief, it will be our last long day.
The truth is, I’ve reached my breaking point. Not only am I bone tired, but I'm anxious about the weather. There's speculation about an approaching heavy snowstorm, and if predictions pan out, Renjo La will be impassable. After lunch, Tom and I cozy up beneath four luxuriously thick velour blankets, savoring the warmth of our shared body heat. As I rest, snug in our cocoon, windblown sleet pelts the window. I peer outside, and on the ridge above our teahouse, amid the swirling snow, seven ghostly figures wend their way to Gokyo.
Will that be us tomorrow?
“I don’t need to be a hero,” I confess at dinner. And because an alternate trail exists via Machherma down the valley, I propose that we split up. I’ll enlist one of the porters to act as my guide, and in four days, we'll reunite. It’s optimal; I can bow out gracefully while everyone else completes the trek.
Three sets of eyes meet mine with searing disapproval.
First to respond is Gopal. “You’re very strong, Ma’am,” he asserts. “Very strong.”
I know I am, but . . .
“You can't give up now,” Marcus says.
But, I’m so tired . . .
“Everyone's tired,” Tom concludes, “but we're just a day away . . . .”
From completing the Three Passes. Where everyday, someone is either airlifted out or carried down the mountain. All talk of heroics aside, I must complete this trek; there is no other option.
Pass day: 6:30 a.m. I shuffle in my boots against the cold. Tom powers up the video camera. “How cold is it?” he asks. His exhalations condense and then vanish in the low-moisture alpine air.
“Siberian cold,” I answer. “Colder than a witch's tit cold.”
A translucent veil of clouds dilutes the sun. We skirt the edge of the frozen lake and begin to climb the trail. Rock hopping across a stream, I pause to catch my breath. And that's when Gopal points out the first leg of the pass. A stairway of switchbacks zigzags straight up the nose. Way the heck up there, seemingly clinging to the rocks, a party of trekkers progresses like a pack of sloths.
I break down. My lower lip trembles, tears cloud my vision, and for a fleeting moment I'm filled with despair. But there’s no turning back. When I first stepped out our teahouse and entered the chill of a new dawn, my fate was sealed. I must surmount the insurmountable, digging deeper than I've ever dug before. No matter how badly my hands ache or how exhausted I've become, if ever there were a time to ignite the flagging strength within me, the time is now.
This is our last long day.
Fast forward to 5:00 p.m. We’re gathered 'round a yak dung fire, cradling cups of sugared tea. Exhilarated, I retrace every step. The rewarding views of Everest from atop the dreaded switchbacks. The silent, snow-laden landscape before the last pitch of our climb. The welcome sight of prayer flags fluttering on the summit. The expressions of our porters, jubilant from ear to ear. When I close my eyes I can visualize our final push to the top, the congratulatory pats on the back and high fives all around. Gratitude, in the purest sense imaginable, courses through me; a wellspring of hope and inspiration that will endure until my trekking days are over.
Suddenly, Gopal is speaking. He waits until this moment to reveal the details of his own personal achievement, and his face lights up with pride. After two failed attempts in twenty years to guide a successful Three Passes Trek, I can't believe . . . ours is his first!
"Did he just say what I think he said?" astonished, I ask Tom.
He nods.
I'm soaring higher than Mount Everest on the great wings of my joy.