The Adventure of a Lifetime
Location: Mount Everest
It was three in the morning when it hit me, as I groped in the darkness for the zipper to the toilet tent. I looked up at the silhouetted mountains framing our campsite, standing tall and craggy against the deep blue moonlit sky. “My God,” I thought, “I am actually at Everest.” I turned in a slow circle, gaping at the sleeping giants of the Himalayas: Sagarmatha, Nuptse, Pumori. The thought of climbers trying to sleep on a snowy ledge thousands of feet above left me gasping. Or perhaps it was the altitude. In any case, the inability to breathe served me well as I stepped into the primitive and overused toilet facilities. The epiphany was over, erased by a rude return to my near-constant focus on basic survival.
“Welcome to Base Camp, guys,” climber Francois Bedard bellowed as we arrived at 17,500 feet, “the most dangerous place on Earth!” He wasn’t kidding. It took us two weeks of hard trekking to get here, hiking five to ten hours a day from the town of Jiri, 6,000 feet. Three of the 16 members of our all-American trekking group didn’t make it. Two, exhausted, left by emergency helicopter. A third succumbed to dehydration and mild altitude sickness and stayed behind at 16,000 feet while we slogged on to Everest Base Camp.
Along the way, we learned Nepalese folk songs while sitting around the hearth with our Sherpa hosts. We bore grim witness to a cremation at Pashupatinath, one of the holiest Hindu sites. We were honoured with the blessings of the High Lamas at the Tengboche and Pangboche monasteries, among the most revered Tibetan Buddhist shrines. We devoured what must be the world’s finest yak butter apple pie at the Mount Everest Bakery, a sweet oasis at 11,000 feet.
And, finally, we were rewarded with a few days of quality time with some of the world’s most accomplished mountaineers, including our own Mountain Madness summit team. Stir-crazy after weeks of waiting for the weather to clear so they could try for the top, the climbers passed their time in camp with card games and a daily soccer match, which invariably disintegrated into a snowy field full of gasping, coughing climbers desperately seeking substitution from the game.
But then, in mid-May, just as our brief Base Camp stay was ending, the snowstorms subsided, the jet stream was merciful, and there was a procession to the summit, with dozens of climbers reaching the top of the world, including three of the eight on the Mountain Madness expedition. We trekkers were more than satisfied to reach our own pinnacles: the summit of Kala Pattar, an 18,500-foot rock pile that looms over Base Camp; the legendary camp itself; and, for six of us, the treacherous Khumbu Ice Fall, where we climbed the fixed ropes through towering blocks of ice and snow and stepped nervously over and around deep crevasses.
And it didn’t really sink in until I made it safely home to California, and fondled the pointy chunk of quartz-white rock I took from the mountain as a souvenir: this was truly the adventure of a lifetime.