Still glowing from reaching our goal, the village of Phortse, Dean chose a path through the village that went past the Khumbu Climbing Center, the building Dean had helped design as a graduate at Montana State University and then later, lived in Nepal for 2.5 years to start construction. The project is funded by the Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation, run by Jenni Lowe-Anker and her husband, Conrad Anker, a world famous mountaineer and climber. While the building has been in construction for the past 8 years, the school has been going for over 15 years, teaching Sherpa and high-altitude workers the technical skills vital to their safety in guiding and working on the mountains.As we walked through the site, I saw that all the external walls had been erected and the current building team was working on the supporting structure for the roof. The plan is to have the entire building complete for the 2019 climbing season (March – June) with a grand opening ceremony in the spring.
Just beyond the climbing school is the Namaste Lodge where the proprietors, Lhakpa and Ngawang, welcomed us with delight. Well, they were mostly delighted to see Dean as he’s considered an extended part of their family. But they were very happy to make my acquaintance and immediately demonstrated their famous hospitality over a cup of ginger tea. After exchanging initial pleasantries and finishing our tea, they showed us to our room and I collapsed into my sleeping bag exhausted but proud.
That night, we shared the dining room with 4 boisterous Germans and after having rested throughout the afternoon, my appetite had returned to enjoy a full plate of dhal bhat – lentils, rice and vegetable curry. Unfortunately, my stomach did not cooperate and I found myself perfecting my squat technique shortly after. We had planned on continuing our trek up to Pheriche the next day but after the 7 hours of torture experienced on the way to Phortse, I asked Dean if we could take an additional day to rest before continuing to trek.
My sinus infection hadn’t improved, meaning that I carried tissues and ColdEase in every pocket. Now my stomach was choosing to rebel, forcing me to visit the back house several times daily and my appetite to disappear. I spent the morning sitting in the sun, chatting with Ngawang about our respective families and asking a number of questions about her life. Both Ngwang and Lhakpa have spent time in the US, so their English is fairly good and we were able to communicate easily.
A new set of trekkers joined us at the lodge around noon and I enjoyed speaking to a woman who shockingly enough, lives about 1 mile from us in Denver. What a small world! Dean had been down at the site, working with the current building team, Bud and Mike, but wanted to show me around the village a little since we intended on leaving the next morning. So in the afternoon, we slowly hiked up one side of the village, the hill being much steeper than anticipated, and worked our way over to the local Buddhist monastery (traditionally called the Gompa) perched on the hill overlooking the entire village. We enjoyed the view down valley, looking across and up to Mong La and the trail that we had painstakingly travelled the day prior. The peace was only broken by the “ooing and ahhing” from the nearby group of Spanish speaking trekkers, reveling at the same beauty.
In packing that night, we discussed my health and weighed the risk of continuing our trek. While the brutal sinus pressure had subsided, I was still constantly blowing my nose and my cough had worsened. I hadn’t kept any nourishment in my body for the past 2 days, my appetite had vanished and so far, my body wasn’t responding to the first day of antibiotics. By any account, things weren’t looking good. As I took an Ambien to ensure a good night’s sleep, I told Dean that we would reassess in the morning and I quickly proceeded to fall into a deep slumber.
Eating my toast and Larabar the next morning, I wasn’t feeling any better. Alarms were going off in my head, red lights flashing “Danger!” But when asked what I wanted to do, that little voice inside my head said that I wasn’t ready to throw in the towel.
Just before the sun had peeked over the looming peak of Thamserku, we slowly made our way up to the top of the village, stopping every few minutes for me to lean on my poles and catch my breath. A Sherpani woman was on the hill above us, herding her three yaks out of the village to graze, so I could clearly see the path we had to take – which according to Dean, would be the most difficult uphill of our day’s 6 – 7 hour hike.
While enjoying the sunshine at a porter’s ledge, where the trail finally had stopped climbing out of the village, Dean again expressed his concern over how long it had taken us to make the climb and my apparent lack of energy. I shrugged it off. We’d finished the hardest climb of the day and I figured if I could just warm up a little, I’d start to feel better.
As we tackled the next section of trail, a 3 foot wide cut in the side of a cliff, I experienced a few moments of light headedness and my right trekking pole slipped over the side of the sheer drop. In that moment, I knew that this was as high as we would climb.
The little voice inside me screamed. You see, I’m not a quitter. If there’s one thing I know about myself it’s that I charge into things, head first and open hearted. It’s both a strength and a weakness. God damn it – I wasn’t ready to give up. I could do this! But the thing is, I couldn’t.
I then did one of the hardest things I’ve ever done – I turned around.
Tears filled my eyes as Dean hugged me, again stating that there was no shame in turning back. I didn’t want to hear it. I did feel shame, as well as the overwhelming grief of the death of my dream. We stood there for what felt like ages – probably closer to 10 minutes – perched on the side of a cliff in the sunshine while Dean’s arms encircled me as I cried.
Everyone was very sympathetic once we returned to the lodge and I was immediately whisked back to our room to lay down. Dean tucked me into my sleeping bag, ensuring an appropriate supply of tissues, Strepsils and ColdEase within easy reach, and I proceeded to cry myself to sleep.
I slept through the morning, got up for lunch in the dining room with Dean, and then returned to our room to cry myself to sleep for the remainder of the afternoon. At dinner that night, Dean watched as I half-heartedly ate half a bowl of RaRa veg noodle soup.
My symptoms persisted throughout the night and into the next morning, I could only stomach a cup of tea and a single piece of toast for breakfast. I think this is the time where Dean really got concerned as he started to insist that we head down to Namache the next day to seek medical help. However I still wanted to ride it out and thought another day of bed rest might help.
So reluctantly, Dean left to spend the day rock climbing with the guys from the KCC and allowed me to rest. I laid in bed most of the morning, hovering in that place between wakefulness and sleep, occasionally pausing for a bout of good crying. Not only did I feel miserable but I was also mourning the loss of seeing Everest Base Camp. More importantly, I think I was mourning the loss of the experience and the pride I would have felt in achieving that goal. I had dreamed about this for so long, and now I knew there was nothing I could do to make it happen.
The next morning, Dean made the call. It was time to head to Namche and get medical attention. We unloaded virtually everything from my daypack, overpaid a Sherpani woman to carry our big packs down to Namche, said our good-byes to the people in Phortse, and began the trek out.
I felt good during the 30 minute hike down the hill from Phortse to the river, but prepared myself for the brutal climb up to Mong La. Luckily, this side of the hill is shorter than its sister trail on the other side of the pass. Unfortunately, that means that the path is more vertical, comprised almost entirely of switchbacks and irregular rock stairs. I tried putting in headphones and counting my steps, but towards the top, with Mong La still towering above us, I could only manage 20 at a time before needing to sit down.
After an hour and a half, we finally made it to the top. The lodge owners remembered us from a few days prior and asked if I was feeling any better – I wasn’t. I spent our hour long break with my eyes closed, laying on Dean’s pack in the sun streaming in through the windows. Once lunch was eaten, we said good-bye (and good riddance) to Mong La and cruised down the long hill. We passed a dozen groups of trekkers, in the same state of struggle we had experienced days prior, causing us to christen the hill “Soul Crusher.”
The remainder of the hike was mostly downhill and we made it to Namche just after 2:00pm. We proceeded to the clinic and checked the placard listing the opening hours posted on the side door – Open Monday – Friday until 3:00pm. We had barely made it! As we proceed to the main door and we were confronted with a handwritten sign stating that the clinic would close at 1:00pm on Fridays, and is closed on Saturdays. Welcome to Nepal!
The next day, Dean consulted with Dawa, the owner of our lodge, and called Tsering to discuss our options. He was told that there was a slight possibility of getting a helicopter down to Lukla, otherwise we would make the 2 – 3 day hike out the next morning. At 3:00pm we received a call from Dawa, stating that he could get us a helicopter down to Lukla. Oh, and we had to be at the helipad at the top of the village in the next 20 minutes. We made a mad dash sprint up to the helipad, my big pack strapped to my back while Dean balanced my daypack on top of the large pack on his back, while his daypack was strapped to his front. I would have applauded his strength if I hadn’t been about to pass out. We made it to the helipad with 3 minutes to spare.
As soon as our helicopter landed, Dean hustled me up the step and I scooted along the back seat. He and Dawa then threw in our bags and we were away. The whole operation took less than 2 minutes. Tears had filled my eyes while saying good-bye to Dawa and once seated, I couldn’t hold back any longer. I unceremoniously cried as a large group of trekkers stood at the edge of the helipad, taking pictures of the fascinating performance.
The ride down to Lukla took no longer than 15 minutes and during the journey I was conflicted. I was heartbroken, tears streaming down my face, but we had just paid $300 for this helicopter and damn it, I was going to get my money’s worth of stunning views!
I was still bawling as we disembarked in Lukla and made our way to The Nest, our lodge for the night. We shared the dining room with several trekkers and a group of porters playing dice, all of which were giving me sideways glances as the tears continued to fall. Dean finally got the key to our room and ushered me upstairs. For the next 20 minutes, he rubbed my back as I cried. I felt like a complete failure.
Dean let me cry, allowing me to grieve. After my tears were finished and I was hiccuping like a small child, he said something that blew my mind (as he does on occasion). He reminded me that the reason why I wanted to take this trip was to learn and grow, to put myself in uncomfortable situations to hopefully gain perspective and become a better person. And this is how life works – sometimes, you have to deal with disappointment and unfulfilled expectations. Maybe, this experience could help me learn that some things are outside of my control. Not a welcome message to a person who is super Type A.
As I reflected on it further, I realized that he’s right. Life is all about change. It’s good to have big dreams, to constantly be striving for something. But you also need to know when to recalibrate. The learning happens throughout the journey.
I’ve learned a lot over the last few weeks. I’ve never questioned that I’m made of some stern stuff and that I can push well past my limits. But this experience has helped to remind me that I’m not invincible, my health is important and I need to listen to my body. I need to accept change and count my blessings. And maybe most importantly, this experience has demonstrated that I have someone who loves me more than anything, even the highest mountain in the world.