Leadership

Daily update: Escape from Island Peak

Mike hits the highlight of his trip: summitting 18,400-foot Kala Patar. Unfortunately, that's the highest he'll get to go.

4/22/00
Dingboche, Nepal
4:45 P.M. local time (7:00 A.M. EDT)

It was harder than expected to separate from fellow climbers Bruce and Gerry and all the Nepal team. (It was a little harder on our wallets than I expected, too, when Bruce added up the tips that the team was due from us.) But part we did, from new friends we had come to depend on for all kinds of help and small kindnesses, and Dave and I will make our way slowly down over the next few days. Future destinations: Lukla on the 28th, Kathmandu on the 29th, and heading for home on the 30th. Arrival in the U.S.A., May 1.

Mike and Dave head down the valley to safety.


It may be stereotypical, but among the things I can't stop thinking about is a great burger. Oh well. In the meantime, Dave's gonna hate me, because I sorta have to play the nursemaid. Eat! Another bite! C'mon Dave, it's been three days, what do you think your body is running on at this point? He can thank me (or not) later.

He does look a lot better though. I think, in addition to altitude, he was developing an aversion to camp food. I was getting tired of it, too. So many starches: bread, rice, potatoes, bread, potatoes, noodles, rice—all at the same time. So much garlic in the soup, which our cook team called "high-altitude medicine." For the chicken soup part, I'm sure my mother would agree. And although they do serve a salad of sorts with cucumbers, carrots, and occasional tomatoes in a kind of white sauce, after my stomach bout, when I see salad, I hear "DANGER, DANGER WILL ROBINSON!" There's only so much a health-conscious American can take.

As for Island Peak, well, there are bodily limits, too, and I think that I was fast approaching mine. Every day was a miracle of exertion, and I respect my newfound abilities. My climb up Kala Patar was the high point. Just think, I was standing on the boulders, okay, clutching the boulders, at 18,400 feet (5,608 meters). But on the way past Gorak Shep (where we had camped that last night) to Loboche (where I was hoping to encounter a slightly less green David), I had to have Mingma Galjai carry my pack. Wiped. Empty. Reserves gone. Not much left for a big push up to 20,285 feet (6,183 meters). Besides, it's snowing very uncommonly for the season. Every afternoon we are pelted with it, and the rumors we hear about peak attempts are not good. So my heartfelt wishes go for the safety of Bruce, Gerry, and the rest who are pushing on. I'm sure Bruce will exercise good sense—he's been a wonderful leader dealing with the itinerary and health changes—and not go for a summit that is unobtainable.

You might be interested to know what it was like for me to climb Kala Patar. I mean the physical experience of it. The trail is mostly a gradual ascent, with a few steep spots until that last (excuse the expression) testicle-shrinking climb over boulders. But the altitude always takes away what little strength you have. Although I did stop to catch my breath two or three times and to catch the glory of the tremendous peaks of the Himalayas rising above me, mostly I plodded on; one step at a time, using the slow rest step to make it possible to climb for two hours without taking breaks (breaks only make it harder to get started again).

I looked at my feet. The toes of my boots came into my field of vision—well-worn leather, my friends, scuffed and dusty. I talked to myself: "Step. Rest. Step. Rest. Step." I heard my heartbeats, my labored breathing, my boots hitting the dusty trail. Occasionally I slipped off a rock and used my trekking poles to recover. Sometimes the trail fell away, and when I put my pole down for support it hit nothing but air. I looked up, just a bit further down the trail to see if it changed direction. Once I looked to far and the distance to the summit was too daunting so I determined never to look that far again. No time, no space, just Step. Rest. Step.

Finally, I heard from a distance, "That's the way to keep at it, Mikey!" It was Bruce and Gerry, yelling encouragement. I lifted a pole in salute and then got back to plodding, trying to block them out so as not to disturb my zone. Then I came to the last ascent to the summit—this gigantic pile of boulders that just seemed like it was thrown down from nowhere. No dirt, no support, just a hundred feet of scrambling over rock, and now with almost no reserves. Why, I had barely enough current to dimly light a flashlight bulb for a second or two. And I was afraid of falling. But I plodded on. The weather shifted to afternoon cold. My cheeks were burning, my bare arms, cold. I wouldn't stop to put on fleece until the top. Finally, I did it—Bruce and Gerry shook my hand, and I gazed at a view denied to those at lower elevations. There was the God-Mountain: Everest, the summit clearly visible above us—The Hillary Step—the last hurdle before the summit. Far, far below, dots of red and blue—the tent city of Everest Base Camp. The Khumbu Ice Fall—that treacherous glacier that Everest climbers must pass on the way to Camp 2—the one where they string aluminum ladders across crevasses, and everyone passes through with all their gear. A frozen Tarn. Wow! I was at 18,400 feet. Giddy, not just with altitude. And now all I had to do was climb down.

More on our descent tomorrow.

By the way, no description can adequately convey what the exertion feels like. I wish it could, but here's an experiment you can try. No matter what your physical condition is, exercise to your limit—a strenuous walk, a jog, a run—until you feel light headed, like you might faint, or throw up. Now keep going. Now you feel like we do shortly before the end of every day's ascent.

Dave wants me to remind you that the end of each day is always UPHILL. You're always tired, and it's always the LAST HILL.

It's entirely worth it, by the way. But it's time to come down.

Peace,
Mike
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Mike Jackman is an editor in chief of TechProGuild, an editor of PC Troubleshooter and Windows Support Professional, and also works as a freelance Web designer and consultant. Together with his co-editor in chief David Bard, he is traveling to Nepal to report on high-altitude technology and to climb 20,285-foot Imja Tse. In his spare time (when he can find some), Mike’s an avid devourer and writer of science fiction, parent to two perpetually adolescent cats, and a hiking enthusiast.

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