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Sunday, June 25, 2000

PEAKING OUT

A humbling experience in the Himalayas


Staff writer

"We have to focus. This is going to suck. We're going to hate it. It's going to be 12 hours of misery worse than we ever imagined."

That is the pep talk my tent mate Andrew Shipley delivered the day before we began our assault on Imja Tse, also known as Island Peak, a 6,000-plus-meter mountain in spitting distance of Mount Everest. Shipley's profession is economics; no wonder they call it the dismal science.

Ship was right, of course. It was going to be miserable, no matter how beautiful -- and distracting -- the scenery, no matter how much we psyched ourselves up, and no matter how good a shape we thought we were in. And Ship was right: It did suck and it was desperate, but for reasons he hadn't imagined. At least that is how it looks now, back in the lowlands, where the air is thick with oxygen, the weather is considerably warmer and the plumbing facilities are a lot more comfortable.

He delivered his inspirational message as we rested in our tent, recovering from a "warmup" run up Chhukhung, the mountain that loomed out of the ground behind us. Chhukhung is a baby Himalaya, a mere 5,800 meters. From our camp in the village that shares its name, it's only 1,100 meters to the top. It didn't look too impressive when we started out, but after a half-hour trek, we rounded a bend on the trail to find a real mountain towering in front of us. From there, it was three hours to the summit, a gently sloping ridge, dotted with cairns, and a mind-bending panorama of some of the highest mountains in the world: Lho Tse, Makalu, Island Peak, its granite face beckoning.

It was beautiful and exhilarating, waaay up above the clouds, looking back down the valley at villages we'd passed as we sped up the trail. At least, I think it was exhilarating. I spent most of the time at the summit staring at my feet, or the ground near them, trying to catch my breath.

Three hours up -- one breath every two steps -- and an hour to get down. I had a headache both ways, a fairly certain sign of oxygen deprivation, although I blamed the intense sunlight and the glare. Coming down, my brain jostled with each step. Mild but continuous nausea completed the picture. It was an exhausting warmup -- and that was "a little Himal."

When madness strikes

About 350,000 people visit Nepal each year; most of them are pilgrims from India. About 70,000 (at least as of 1997) go to trek. We too had succumbed to the allure of the Himalayas and opted for the Solu-Khumbu region, in the east of the country. It's the home of the famous Sherpa people, the location of Mount Everest and some of the highest mountains on the planet. Despite the big-name peaks, it is only the second-most popular trekking region in Nepal: That honor belongs to the Annapurna region to the west. According to one estimate, about 15,000 people visit Solu-Khumbu each year; more people visit some national parks in the U.S. on a single weekend.

For reasons that seemed to make sense at the time, Ship wanted to climb a glaciated peak -- a big one.

Bitten by the mountaineering bug -- an extremely virulent pest for the unprotected -- he'd attended climbing school in the States the year before and come back full of enthusiasm. He is like that.

Unfortunately, enthusiasm can also be infectious. I like to think that had I not agreed to come along, he wouldn't have gone or he would have gone alone. I didn't like either option. So, trying to be a good friend, and somewhat enamored of the idea of going to Nepal to climb a mountain or two -- and especially enamored of being able to say I was going to do that -- I signed on. Not the best of motivations, I later learned.

We were a week into our expedition. We'd rushed headlong up the Everest highway, blowing through the rest stops and breaks that our guidebooks recommended. Tham, our guide, was a tough and experienced sirdar who had climbed with legends such as Reinhold Messner. (His confession that he had climbed with Messner -- they were pals, no less -- both inspired and intimidated us. On the one hand, we entertained bold thoughts of tackling Ama Dablam, the ice-covered dagger that is a staple of Himalayan photo books. Vertical snow fields? No problem. Oxygen-deprived slogs across waist-deep snow fields? Off we go. On the other hand, it was pretty tough to complain about being tired, a nagging headache or even the state of the toilets to a man we had just enshrined in our pantheon of climbing gods.)

Tham wanted to make sure that we had a great trip. Our endless prattle about "bagging a peak or two" impressed upon him that our top priority was getting to the summit. That focused his thoughts on exploiting the window of opportunity that the weather provided. Until one of us actually complained, he was going to push forward. Being macho mountain men -- staring at computer screens all day will do that to a soul -- neither Ship nor I was willing to speak up.

When madness strikes, you can't just go sprinting up any of the hundreds of mountains in Nepal. That sort of insanity has to be sanctioned: One needs a permit to climb in Nepal. Permits for the big boys -- Everest, Lho Tse, Makalu -- cost thousands of dollars and are a source of considerable income for the government. But the Nepal Mountaineering Association has also designated 18 mountains as "trekking peaks," which means there are fewer formalities to go through to get a permit and it costs a lot less -- about $200.

The problem is that the designation trekking peak is, in the words of one guidebook, "an unfortunate misnomer." These are "serious mountaineering challenges," technically demanding and even dangerous. One mountaineer thinks that "lesser peaks" or "nonexpedition peaks" would be a more appropriate label. I was unaware of the uniquely local interpretation of the phrase until we made camp the day before our final ascent.

We had gone to Nepal to climb Island Peak, or Imja Tse as it is known in Nepalese. Ship wanted his glaciated summit, and Island Peak fitted the bill. Although it is over 6,000 meters high, is covered with snow year-round -- with the attendant danger of avalanches -- and a rope and crampons are needed for the final ice-covered "pitch" to the summit, it too is a "trekking peak."

The mountain gets its name from its triangular face, which resembles an island in a sea of ice. Dubbed "Island Peak" in 1952, the summit was reached the first time a year later. From a distance it's not particularly impressive, but that is because it is framed by some of the highest mountains in the world. To a climber crossing the dried lake bed on the approach, it begins to look like a formidable challenge. From base camp, at a little over 5,000 meters, the sheer absurdity of the term "trekking peak" is abundantly clear.

Attitude is everything

We reached base camp after a three-and-a-half-hour hike up the valley that has been carved out by the glacial runoff. It was relatively flat and very quiet. The only sounds were footsteps, breathing, the rustle of clothes, the clack of our walking poles, and the river. Lower down on the trail, there is a constant stream of hikers, porters and traders herding yaks up the trail. At this point, the only people are climbers and their teams.

Base camp is scattered among the boulders of Pareshaya Gyab, the name on the map for a flat area just before the real climbing begins. Streams of prayer flags whipped in the wind, and a mist rose from a lake that is out of sight behind a moraine. Although the walk that day was the easiest of all the treks during our week on the trail, I was totally drained. By then, I'd grown fond of sitting down and doing nothing.

We weren't alone in base camp. The tents of a German group were pitched nearby, and from them we could hear coughing, sneezing and an occasional voice carried by the wind. The Germans had already reached the summit and returned by the time we made camp. Several other hikers were already heading back down to civilization. One young woman, traveling alone, nodded in our direction and simply said "nice peak" as she passed. Ship liked that approach. "Simplify" he said approvingly, as he ruffled through his pack looking for the third of his four sets of sunglasses (one for low-level use, one to get lost, one to get broken and one more for the glacier.)

Attitude means a lot in the mountains. In the lodges along the trail, there tend to be two types of people. Some are gregarious, loud and opinionated. Others are quieter and more aloof. Some of them are pilgrims, some are shy, some are absorbed with the surroundings, some are sick.

We tended to keep to ourselves. We had our own team of eight people: Tham, the kitchen crew, and four porters. Although we usually stayed at lodges, we slept in our own tents and ate our meals separately from the other guests. "We're not competitive," said Ship, after we had begged off from a conversation with one especially loud and informed trekker lower down the trail. "We're spiritual. We're pilgrims." We both laughed at the thought. Then Ship went looking for the Internet cafe.

Bad omens

This pilgrim was worried. I burrowed into my sleeping bag and tried to catch a few hours of sleep before attempting the summit. Three omens boded ill for the next day's effort. First, I heard the unmistakable crack of an avalanche off in the distance. Second, I heard an equally unmistakable crack in my knee as I rolled around in my bag. And third, I had an attack of "restless-leg syndrome." Restless-leg syndrome is a condition of uncertain provenance, in which nerves in the leg demand to be moved. It is impossible to ignore and comes and goes with no rhyme or reason. It isn't painful, but it is uncomfortable as hell. The symbolism was hard to miss.

Those intrusions turned my thoughts in strange directions. I lay in my bag, cataloging recent failures. It's probably not the best way to prepare for a climb, nor the best mind-set. But uncomfortable sleeping bags, a penetrating chill and the prospect of serious -- and possibly dangerous -- climbing has a way of gripping the imagination and not letting go.

Climbs start early. You want to be on the summit before the weather changes. Accidents invariably occur when people take too long to get to the top or linger at the peak.

We awoke at 2 a.m., greeted by Kumar, our kitchen boy, who offered us his standard "Good morning, sir." I was unsure that a) it was good and b) that it was even morning, but gratefully accepted the hot water to wash with and hot coffee to drink.

(There are lots of ways to travel in the mountains: solo, in groups of friends or strangers, carrying everything yourself; or getting a team to do the work. We'd opted for the expedition approach, and apart from a tiny bit of guilt, we had absolutely no complaints. I long to hear Kumar's greeting to this day.)

Every morning was brisk, but that morning seemed especially cold. We struggled out of sleeping bags, dressed and downed a quick breakfast. There was no moon and the canopy of stars was beautiful, but offered precious little illumination. We'd bought headlights only days before, but the batteries quickly froze and the lights went out within five minutes. We replaced the batteries with new ones, but they died just as quickly. Chilled, chagrined and chastened, we stumbled up the trail in the dark following Tham's bouncing flashlight beam. Sangay, our cook, brought up the rear.

Gotta have rhythm

There are two routes up Island Peak. The direct route heads straight up the South Ridge; the other circumnavigates the mountain to the North Col and then heads up the North Ridge. The first route is more direct, about half the distance of the other trek, and it is the one we were using. In blunt terms, it's a straight slog up the mountain: 1,000 meters in altitude over roughly two km in distance. Unfortunately, finding the trail in the dark can be difficult. We were looking for cairns in a boulder field: rocks among rocks. After a few false starts, we found the trail and began to climb.

In fact, it is very simple. One walks straight uphill. It is like a never-ending staircase, littered with stones and rocks that you can't see but can feel with every misstep. It would be a grind at sea level; at 5,000-plus meters, it is murderous. You look for a rhythm. Three steps, one breath. Then two steps, one breath. Then one step, one breath. Then two breaths, one step. Distractions are few, discomfort is a constant. The pitch varies a little, but it never gets easy. The trail never levels out, it merely gets less difficult. And just when you think you've got things under control, you hit a patch that knocks the self-confidence out of your soul.

It's slow going. Ship was energized. He wasn't running up the mountain, but he found his rhythm and was drawing on a reserve that I did not have. I suspect it was motivation. Ship has goals. He wanted the mountain. I wanted the adventure, the novelty, the stories that it would produce and the champagne we'd drink when it was done. I didn't know if I had the drive or the desire to push myself when my body wanted so badly to stop.

Discomfort was unceasing. For the most part, you only think about the next step, the next breath, the next rest. Your mind knows that concentrating on each move forward is a mistake. It searches for distractions, but the body is relentless, demanding that you focus on the weariness that grows with each step. When your mind does break free, the first question is why: Why bother, what's the point, who am I kidding? But somehow the rhythm continues: one step, one breath, one step, one breath.

After several hundred meters, we hit a snowfield. The wet adds to the difficulty and the discomfort, but it's only a difference in degree and not in kind. One step, one breath. I slipped more frequently, and grew more frustrated, but it was only a small field and not the glacier. That was even more disheartening.

More irritating still was the ease with which Tham bounded up the mountain. I watched his flashlight beam disappear ahead of me as he strolled -- there is no other word for it -- up the trail. Even Sangay, the cook for God's sake, bounced up the trail with ease. And me? One step, one breath.

'Tea, sir?'

After five hours, we reached the gully that marks the beginning of the glacier. We had traveled two-thirds of the way up the mountain and gained three-quarters of the altitude. I was whipped. Utterly drained, I decided I would turn back. I knew that Ship wanted the summit and I worried that I would slow him down too much. It was laziness or a lack of discipline masquerading as selfless sacrifice -- at least that was what I was going to call it. I later discovered that from that point on, it was slow going over snow but we had passed the steepest terrain.

Sangay and I rested a few moments -- at least it seemed like a few moments -- before we headed down. Perhaps it was just the release of tension, but as soon as I decided not to continue, I was hit by a blinding headache and an incredible wave of nausea. When my head cleared, I looked up to see Ship and Tham re-emerging from a gully and begin working their way across the glacier. As soon as they were out of sight, Sangay and I began our descent.

Strangely enough, it was no easier than the climb. I was wearing old boots -- ancient boots actually -- that once were top of the line but now served only to amuse our team. (They tackled the trail in tennis shoes, flip-flops and rubber boots like those worn in fish markets.) Later Tham told me they had wondered all along what I was doing with those museum pieces. I gave them to him for his collection of climbing oddities.

Whereas going up had been uncomfortable, going down was agony. The top of the boots slammed into my shins with every step. It felt as if bolts of electricity were being shot through my entire leg. We stopped even more frequently than during the ascent.

Incredibly, less than halfway down we met Kumar, climbing up the mountain -- more like bounding -- with a teapot in one hand and a backpack full of food. "Tea, sir?" he asked, while offering a boiled egg and other goodies to eat. At that point, the mere thought of food was more than I could bear. After a brief rest, he continued up the trail and Sangay and I continued down.

It seemed to take as long going down as it did to go up. I'm pretty sure that's not how it's supposed to work. I got back to camp around noon, crawled into a sleeping bag and promptly passed out. Three hours later Ship returned, tired and triumphant. He'd made the peak, following two groups of climbers who had crossed the North Ridge. "It was a scary traffic jam." He managed a few pictures at the top before his camera froze. After 10 minutes at the summit, they headed back. Ship, ever practical, was worried about exposure.

He was ecstatic -- or least what passes for ecstatic after a climb. He too crawled into his bag and pretty much died. I wasn't sleeping then, however. Instead I was going over the events of the last 24 hours. Ship had been right: It was miserable, and it did suck. But for different reasons than I had expected.

We all have our fantasies. We like to live with illusions -- delusions sometimes. I like to think I could have continued, that had I known the hard stuff was behind me I would have gone on to the summit. I'll pay lip service to the notion that I was more concerned with Ship making the summit than anything else. Maybe we pushed too far too fast: If we'd taken more time to rest on the walk in, I would have been in better shape for the final push. And finally, I can always blame those damn boots.

But there's still a kernel of doubt. On Island Peak, I ran out of gas. And no matter what the excuse, the plain truth is I turned back. Failing is never pretty.

Ship is pushing for another trip. I'll play hard to get, but I think I'm eager to return. Partly because Nepal is a beautiful country and the Himalayas are stunning. But also because I'm curious. Was it me or was it the mountain? Then again, it might be that my judgment is clouded. As Ship pointed out, "The best part about climbing is going down."



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