Dreams at altitude are funny things: vivid and memorable. There are a few ideas why; most revolve around the brain’s response to the hypoxia and ancillary stresses of getting to altitude in the first place. Curled up in my sleeping bag, wearing every stitch I own, with the occasional suffocating breath shaking me awake, I dream of a casual afternoon with Yassir Arafat (who’s dead) riding in the steam locomotive of the Kathmandu subway (neither of which exists). He teaches me the right way to tie my keffiyeh (he wears an agal).
Hypoxic dreams give way to a clear dawn. 5200 meters up, the stars are stunning; they glow, beaconing against the noticable blackness. Those bright pinpricks in a dusky sky fall back shyly as the sun comes out. There’s plenty of fair warning: the cwm is flanked by stratospheric peaks with near-vertical walls, and the brightness of dawn comes long before the sun’s searing rays. At this altitude, there’s nothing to shield you. This high, you’re naked.
The sun’s rays meet me on the move. By 6:30, I’ve laced up frost-rimmed boots, eaten a Snickers, taken two Immodium and 300 milligrams of caffeine, and set out. I’ve ditched everything except some food, the GPS, a water bottle, the camera and the ice axe, and started hopping from stone to shaky stone along the glacier, heading blindly north though the maze, guided by occasional glimpses of the icefall.
The camera shows I’ve shot 666 frames before setting out. We’ll see what hell today brings. I’m smiling.
The day begins much like yesterday ended; walking is easier, more fluid without the bag. The ice axe cheerfully clanks against the stones; I warm up and dry out quickly under the sun. By nine or so, I’ve cast eyes on the icefall at the bottom of the acculumation zone: the dragon bares his teeth, each a few stories high, cracked and jumbled and resonant blue, with thin rivulets of stone and water seeping out between them.
It’s midmorning. The rockslides intensify; sharp mezzo-sopranos harmonizing the glacier’s choral march down the cwm. As I get closer, the stones between the seracs grow bigger; as they heat up under the infernal sun, they grow looser and tumble down, one by one. It may be inconsequential detritus to the heavens, but closet-sized wet boulders when viewed from below. Each hangs precariously, half-embedded in the melting ice and half-resting on equally shaky neighbors.
I realize the icefall is too loose and uncertain to climb alone and unroped. Looking right, I see the remains of yesterday’s avalanche. Part of the offending plate still lies attached to the mountain, sheltering a sandy, smooth, traverse; an easy 300 meters. If I move fast enough, it’s unlikely the split wall will fall. At sea level, shirtless and barefoot, 300 meters takes less than a minute. It’s worth the gamble. I stop out of range of the falling ice, pull down half a liter and refill the bottle, eat another candy bar and stow the camera. For a second, it’s silent. The breeze pets my matted hair; I take three deep, full breaths, pull the stops out, and surge forward.
It’s laughable to call it sprinting, but up here, movement is murder. It’s a fast shuffle, both feet on the ground at the same time, camera bag bounding on my back, with the stupid bottle digging in. Five or six steps in, I’m out of breath. A dozen, and I have to slow down to a fast walk. Two dozen, and I start seeing stars and little bits of spittle gather in my beard and I don’t care. I stumble for a moment, and look over my right shoulder at the precipice over my head. The sun reflects off the wet ice; it’s the headlights of the Mack truck dead ahead, in your lane. Stopping is stupid; scurrying away is the sole salvation.
I spit – it dribbles down my scarf – and step again and again. My feet sink into the soft sand and each step now means pulling them out, the dirt and grit clogging the laces and gaiter. I pull against the pressure and let the other sink in deeper and place the first and take a breath and swear in silence as not to shake anything loose and balance with the axe and feel the bottle wearing a hole in my back and put the first down, now so much higher than it’s sunken parallel, and pull the other fucker out and take another breath and shake the dust off the laces and take another step and it’s a battle every inch and the damn ice is glaring at me and it’s a hundred more to go. The axe sinks in halfway up the shaft and the other foot is stuck and there’s a pause, one more breath and silent cussing. I dig the left out now, blindly doubled over with the shelf ready to stab me in the back, and put it forward and the blessed right has sunk only a little and the axe needs to be pulled out by the leash and it’s another meter onward.
This syncopated hell lasts a full half hour before I clear the shelf and make it to some blissful, jagged, jumbled boulders that have the common fucking decency to move only once when you breathe on them. I settle into position on the right flank of the icefall and wipe the spittle off my chin and close my eyes, the last Snickers bar in my hand. It’s eleven. Fuck it, call it lunch.
The accumulation zone – blessedly frozen smooth and flat – is a short, exposed climb away. I sling the axe; three or four breathless but proper rock moves let me mantle over the frosty ridge and onto the infinite white sheet. It’s sunny; the glare off the snow makes the blue sky look dark. I blink and take another look; everything’s inverted and the world’s turned inside out. The ground is bright and the sky is dark, the rocks capricious and the snow unyielding, the big broad world behind and a meager pile of rocks ahead.
I take another step towards the brink.
Actual movement along the snow is a walk in the park compared to what came before. There’s caution to be had: the crevasses here, should there be any, are occluded under a thin rime, and I take the time to skirt around what could be soft spots. Twice, I sink in to the knee – there’s a stream meandering over the icefield that softens up the snow – but it’s no matter. Movement is fast; there’s a chance to settle into a pace, to breathe and think.
Sherpas have been handed the moniker “Tigers of the Snow;” the name has stuck, echoed by an ethnography and a more popular book. However, arguably the most famous literary mountain cat is Hemingway’s leopard, described in The Snows of Kilimanjaro and dead alone at the top of Africa:
Kilimanjaro is a snow-covered mountain 19,710 feet high, and it is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. Its western summit is called by the Masai, ‘Ngaje Ngai,’ the House of God. Close to the western summit there is the dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude.
I don’t claim to know what the leopard, or I, may have been seeking up there. But half a kilometer from the prayer flags, I pass a dead yak, mummified by the ice, and would like to venture that the yak was seeking nothing.
At 14:30, the slope breaks to show the chorten. I see that I’m done, and break as well. I cry as I take the last few steps: not weep or well up or let slip a melancholy tear, but find myself racked by four sudden, rhythmic sobs. I close my eyes, take off the glasses, spit, and wipe the tears on my now-filthy scarf and look up. And then I know the first half is over.
Tibet stretches out into the distant haze. Cho Oyo base camp is a few miles away – a dozen cheery tents amidst the boulders beyond the frozen blanket. Cho Oyo itself smiles down on me – homely, pear-shaped and with no makeup, quietly wearing it’s 8,201 meter, millennial frame. The chorten’s flags flap in the breeze between Nepal and Tibet; I add two strings of my own. For half an hour, the sun smiles on me; clouds whirl around like ascendant dervishes, but are ashamed to occlude my respite. The rays glisten off the melting ice; the rivulets stream down the patient stones, and join souls and shapelessness to become the furious torrents that feed three countries.
The pass pulls me close after 12.3 kilometers; it takes 5 hours 20 minutes, with 3 hours 30 minutes stopped time. It’s 780 meters of climbing, and 278 of descent. I top out at 5728 meters.