In the evening in Dingboche, I look out our lodge’s windows to see the sun setting upon the mountains and have to go outside. I find a seat perched upon a stone wall and watch as the slanted rays cast cold blue light upon the steep, snowy slopes. Ama Dablam is a towering pyramid to my left, her base in dark shadow, her peak illuminated in white light. The other mountains around me turn clear blue by the setting sun; one is so bright, it looks translucent.
Staring at these towering Himalayas in all their shining majesty, my breath catches in my throat and I am suddenly dizzy. The cold is in my lungs, freezing my blood. I get up, go inside, but the lodge’s dining room is hot from the yak dung stove and crowded with trekkers who exhale huge quantities of carbon dioxide. I sit on a carpeted bench in that stuffy room and clutch my chest, finding in each breath not enough air.
The suddenness of this lack of oxygen, and the fear it brings, sharpens me to a point. I am one thought: I cannot breath, I need more air.
I go upstairs to our chilled room and take big breaths, sipping the icy air, finding that it does, indeed, fill my lungs. I am relieved, but nervous; we still have another 3,000 feet to climb.
The next day, we hike another 1,500 feet to the small village of Lobuche. Halfway up, my head begins to ache.
A Nepali guide to a group of trekkers from India asks if Emma and I are all right. I tell him about the headache. “Drink lots of water and wear chapstick,” he says. We will run into this guide half a dozen times between now and arriving at base camp, and every time he sees us he asks us how we are and gives us a little trekking advice.
In Lobuche, my head hurts more. I am not prone to headaches, and this may be the worst I’ve ever had. It makes me nervous. On the wall of our lodge there is a sign indicating the symptoms of acute mountains sickness. One of them: headache.
Of course, headaches are also simply common at high altitudes. So should I be worried? I drink bottles of water with cherry flavored electrolytes, Emma and I say a prayer in our cozy room, and the headache goes away.
That night, though, I am paranoid. This high altitude does a number on my sanity. I cannot fall asleep. I take full breaths of thin air, and with each expansion of my lungs, I wonder, is there liquid in them? Am I breathing normally, or am I gasping?
In reality, I am breathing better than I have since rising above 12,000 feet, but you can’t tell a restless mind that.
I sleep fitfully, dreaming about the mountains and the snow. When I awake in the dark in a stupor, I think blindly that my pillow, angled up and away from me, is Mount Everest.
According to my Lonely Planet guide book, the hike from Lobuche to Gorak Shep should only take two hours, and then it is a three hour hike to base camp itself. Of course, the guide book doesn’t take into account the raging wind ripping down the valley right into our exposed faces. This final hike is the hardest of all. Every few minutes, we must stop and turn around, using our backpacks to shield us from the brutal wind.
I am aware that we are now surrounded on all sides by the towering Himalayas. The earth is ground gray stones and looming boulders. The mountains are bright white and silver. No tree or shrub grows here, only dark green moss and lichen. I see little of this, though, with my head bent down against the wind.
My thoughts are only on getting there, getting to our lodge in Gorak Shep, getting to our destination: base camp. And also: a slight tinge of worry about the headache that’s returned.
It takes us three miserable hours to get there, but like everything on this trek, it’s worth it when we summit the ridge above Gorak Shep, a village of only several stone lodges, to see the triangular peak of Mount Everest with her familiar white contrail standing permanently above us.
We leave our heavy packs at the Buddha Lodge in Gorak Shep and start down the rocky trail toward Everest Base Camp, our destination which we’ve come so far to see. Hiking without a pack is wonderful. I feel light and free. I could run if only the path weren’t so steep and my lungs weren’t hurting from so much heavy breathing at this high altitude.
Soon, Everest appears on our right, a triangular peak behind the snowy mountains before her. She is clear this afternoon, and as we cross a narrow ridge that overlooks the Khumbu Glacier, she grows larger.
She is dark grey with white streaks of snow. I wish I didn’t have to concentrate so hard on placing my feet amongst the boulders. I wish I weren’t breathing so hard. I wish it weren’t so bitterly cold. Then, I could stare endlessly at her slopes, and consider what it means to see the tallest point on earth.
We are a string of trekkers from every corner of the globe hiking one by one toward the orange tents and tattered prayer flags at the base of the Khumbu Ice Fall that marks Everest Base Camp. Each of us have come so far to see that mountain, the tallest point on earth, and to stand at the camp that leads to her top.
I wonder why so many trekkers have come here. Simply to see her? To say that they did it? To know that they can hike this far this high this long? We cross the glacier, a thick slab of light blue ice covered in dust and gravel, and then we are here: at Everest Base Camp.
Many trekkers and bloggers told us that base camp is anticlimactic, but in what universe could this be the case? We are surrounded on all sides by the Himalayan Mountains. A sliver of Mount Everest is still visible behind snowy Nuptse. Trekkers cheer one another as they reach a pile of stones and prayer flags that mark the end of this pilgrimage. I cannot believe we are here. After 18 days of hard hiking, sometimes over 8 hours a day, sleeping in frigid lodges, not showering but once, we’ve reached base camp.
If it is anticlimactic, it’s only because nothing really happens at the end of this pilgrimage. One trekker from Baton Rouge asks me if I’m going to bury anything here, to leave anything behind. Surprised, I tell him I hadn’t thought about it. You should, he says. Why, I ask, is that common? It is, he says, it’s a way to mark the end of this strange route.
Emma and I find a boulder some ways away from the celebratory trekkers to sit in silence and eat Snickers. I wonder, what does it mean to see the tallest mountain in the world? What does it mean that we’ve come all this way to see this cluster of orange tents on a glacier at the base of a mountain? Certainly it is the wildest, most stunning place I have ever seen. And certainly I have pushed my mind and body to limits never imagined to get here. But now what? I’m surprised to find that we’ve reached the end. I’m ready to find the next peak, to keep on trekking. I could walk all the way to Shambhala. I am also ready to go home.