It was about two or three A.M. and I was violently shivering at Interim Camp in what was supposed to be a 20-below North Face sleeping bag, but instead was a synthetic cover stuffed with newspapers. The gear shop in Kathmandu rented me the equivalent of one of those “Rolax” watches you can pick up in Hong Kong on the street. The “Rolax” might make you late for a meeting, but a faux sleeping bag at 19,000 feet will turn you into a popsicle. I mumbled and chattered audible obscenities while trying to find ways to stay warm; top and bottom thermals, a down jacket, down pants and two pairs of wool socks in my bag weren’t enough. I looked ridiculous and it was the first time in my life I really felt claustrophobic.
No matter what I tried, I could not keep my feet warm and eventually had to take off the second pair of socks because they were cutting off my circulation. So, every 1/2 hour or so, I’d have to rub my feet for ten-minutes, stomp up and down displaying the tap-dancing skills of an awkward octopus to keep the blood flowing. My bones were cold. As I was doing my tap dancing, I wrote a song called Eff You Sleeping Bag Man that went a little somethin’ like this:
Eff you sleeping bag man
Eff you sleeping bag man!
Eff you sleeping bag man!!
EFF YOU SLEEPING BAG MAN!!!!!!! (repeat)
The sweet harmonies produced by this song kept my heart warm, but not my body. The night dragged on into infinity and kept getting colder and colder until the sun finally broke over the crest of the mountains. As the sun crept over ridge and filled the valley floor, I knew I would be able to keep all my toes. A very inauspicious start to the most important day on my Mount Everest trek: the push to Advanced Base Camp (6,400 meters).
After a few bites to eat, Chandra (our Sherpa) and I set off with our spirits high and our Camelbaks (and bodies) frozen solid. Walking through the seracs in the vein between Interim Camp and the moraine leading to ABC was a welcomed change in scenery. The route from Base Camp to Interim Camp puts you behind Changtse and a host of other lesser peaks, which ultimately block your view of Mount Everest, so, by this point, we hadn’t seen Her for three days. In fact, about the only thing we saw during this period were rocks, dirt, an army of Tibetan yak men looking for free food and tea, the yaks themselves and the respective pies they would bake and deliver with regularity. I saw so much yak shit, that when I did sleep, I would dream of yak shit zombies chasing me all around the Himalayas causing me to wake up gasping for air (the zombies were gone, but the smell wasn’t).
We switched-back up to the top of the moraine while trying to find a rhythm. Typically, in the high altitude, the worst part of an ascent is the beginning when you haven’t found your rhythm; you are out of breath within minutes and questioning how you could possibly sustain another ten hours of this movement. For me to get my rhythm, I would look down, start singing a song in my head and watch my feet taking deliberate and conscious steps forward. It only takes me about five-to-ten minutes to find my rhythm: each body part moving in perfect harmony with all the others; my breathe following and eventually settling in at a rate just slightly above resting.
I had just hit this stride when I looked up and immediately lost my breath again when I saw this:
Then I looked left and saw this:
Have you ever been in an old church or basilica that was just so impressive you knew that you were in the presence of something Greater? Well, I haven’t. As incredible and amazing as the Sistine Chapel is, in the end it is always something that was built by men (albeit extremely talented men) as an expression of their devotion to something or someone bigger than themselves. Through observation, man can collectively learn and understand “how” this world works, but the “why” is the Big Mystery. Looking up at the most massive and brooding mountain in the world made my place in it feel beyond insignificant in the grand scheme of things…and it was absolutely terrifying.
The shark-fin pinnacle you see above is fairly unique to Mount Everest. Due to the warm, day-time temperatures caused by the air in the high Tibetan desert, these apartment-sized seracs melt during the day before the sun drops. Amazingly, even though these seracs are traveling downhill and would normally point that way, these seracs are all pointed uphill, towards Mount Everest. The mountain’s mass is so large that it actually pulls some of the objects around it towards itself. Walking up the moraine, you are passing through tens of thousands of seracs that are all bowing towards Her in reverence.
Almost-frozen toes, yak pies and the uncooked chicken at the tea house were all small prices to pay to stand where I was standing at that moment. All the suffering, the doubts and the discomfort converted to a deep-burn in my soul fuel a euphoria that cannot be matched by anything.
After regaining our composure, Chandra and I began the long slog up to Advanced Base Camp.