I'd be the first to admit that in my youth I was a travel junkie. I've been to more places than I can recall, and truth be told, looking back it seems most places are awfully alike. I mean, yes, there are certain landmarks and sights that will stick in your mind long after you have left it behind, but those are few and far between.
Mount Everest, though, is something out of this world. Now, I'm no mountaineer, nor am I some inveterate adrenaline junkie. In fact, it may well be the only mountain I've ever climbed (I didn't reach the summit though). My first (and, I'm pretty sure, last) serious climbing expedition more or less came about through sheer chance.
I was fresh out of university at the time. Settling down to a nine-to-five job was out of the question, a sentiment shared by my best buddy Jake, who then proceeded to drag me on an impromptu tour of most of Western and Eastern Europe. With that, the travel bug got me good, and we set our sights on the adjoining continent. In a span of slightly less than a year, we traversed a substantial part of Asia. Yes, a year. You may not realise it, but Asia is enormous. China alone took us nearly four months.
Now, you may be wondering where we got the money from. I wasn't born with a silver spoon in my mouth, but Jake was. And I'm ashamed to say that as a callow young fellow I had no qualms about partaking of the generosity that my best friend and his parents poured on me. In a way, perhaps, they saw me as the brother that Jake never had.
But back to the story. We were in Tibet, tired from province-hopping across China. By then, we had been on the move for a year and a half or so, and I think it's safe to say that our travel itch had been well and truly scratched. That said, neither of us was looking forward to going back to the tedium of our previous lives, and in a way we were looking to end the entire experience with a great big bang. So when we ran into Rachel, Jake's one-time squeeze back from the early university days, at some obscure teahouse in Tibet while she was on her way to an expedition to the Everest summit, it was like the stars had aligned themselves just for us. I'm not sure if she actually invited us to join her, but honestly I doubt either way it would have been any different.
The next few days were a blur of equipment-buying frenzy. Jake and I had never been to any place higher than the mist-wrapped hills of Guilin, China, much less done any serious climbing before. Looking back, it was of course an exceedingly foolhardy and reckless idea, but when you're in your mid-twenties and at your physical prime, it is easy to underestimate the innocuous-looking deathtrap that is Mt Everest. Still, I don't think we ever really thought we were going to reach the summit—we just wanted the bragging rights to say we had attempted the world's highest peak.
But we were completely out of our depth and we knew it. The one incident that always springs to mind when I come to this point of the tale is when Jake was told that he had to get crampons (the device with jagged metal spikes that you attach to your footwear to get a better grip on ice or snow), causing him to sputter in mirth and disbelief. "I'm not a girl, man!" he cried, thinking crampons were some sort of ice-proof tampons female mountaineers had to be equipped with, much to bewilderment of this hulking Aussie dude in Rachel's expedition who was just trying to be helpful to a pair of newbies who were dangerously ignorant of the most basic climbing know-how.
In case you're wondering how a pair of clueless novices like us were even allowed anywhere the mountain, I should tell you that we were hardly the only inexperienced climbers on the scene. Apparently, the well-to-do had a habit of seeking thrills and glory on the blizzard-swept faces of Everest, paying hefty sums to take part in commercial expeditions that promised to take you up as safely and effortlessly as possible, safety and effortlessness being relative here. These expeditions were usually led by expert mountaineers looking to earn a little extra cash and accompanied by a whole entourage of Sherpas, who carried the equipment and supplies (oxygen, dozens and dozens of tanks of oxygen) that would keep all of them alive in the oxygen-thin snowscape that had claimed the lives of hundreds before them.
Rachel's expedition was somewhat similar in that they took in anyone who could pay (and we—or rather, Jake's parents—could), though the clients were all climbing enthusiasts who had some serious mountaineering experience to speak of. Except for us, the newest additions, of course.
Anyway, I'll skip over the preparation phase. It is extremely tedious and slow going. Much like mountain climbing itself actually. Because you are essentially wrapped in layers and layers of clothing to keep out the cold, and the air is cruelly short on oxygen, the best you can manage is usually a slow, lumbering gait. On the surface it hardly appears to be a feat of physical exertion, but I can assure you that underneath the effort and exhaustion are very, very real.
The Everest base camp is, in my opinion, one of the most egregious misnomers there is. This "base" camp lies around 5,000 metres (17,000 ft) above sea level. Yes, more than half-way up the mountain. It took us a more than a week to reach there. Along the way we witnessed several "sky burials", which sounds a lot prettier than it actually looks. It is the traditional way by which a certain sect of Tibetan Buddhists dispose of the dead. The bodies are left out on the open mountainside and vultures are invited to feast on the flesh of the dead. It is not a sight you are likely to ever forget.
Noticing my lingering gaze on the macabre sight, Temba, one of our Sherpa guides, offered some words of comfort. "When spirit left the body, it just an empty shell. Spirit now free."
"Right." Free or not, I didn't think my spirit would enjoy the sight of vultures gorging themselves on my flesh. My body gave an involuntary shudder as I forced myself to turn away from the gut-wrenching scene, with the memory of one of the carrion birds tugging vigorously at one particularly stringy bit of flesh seared in my mind.
Setting out from base camp, days melted into weeks, a blurry mess. When your brain is starved of oxygen and your body hasn't had a proper meal in weeks—altitude sickness is a bitch, it makes you puke up most of what you have eaten—you tend to get a bit muddle-headed, to say the least. I daresay that many of the climbers who perished while attempting to conquer Everest may have lived if their brain had just a bit more oxygen and their stomachs a little more food.
But they didn't, and now some of their frozen, lifeless bodies litter the snow-padded slopes. Yes, you read it right. People who die while high up in the mountain tend to stay where they die, sometimes a mere stone's throw from the designated routes used by practically everybody. Some of them have even become a landmark of sorts, a morbid marker indicating how far along you are on a route, and also a grim reminder that death is much closer than any of us would like to think.
Rather surprisingly, we reached Camp 4 without incident. Camp 4 is the highest camp on Everest, the launch-pad from which the hopeful will make a final push towards the pinnacle. The camp is 8,000 metres (26,000 ft) high, one foot in what they very aptly call the "Death Zone" of the mountain. Not a misnomer this time. Far from it. The entire campsite is just a small snowy plain dotted with tents and blanketed by a thick silence. Everyone there is in his or her own private world. You're like a blinkered horse, seeing nothing but the summit—and possible death. The anxiety—and terror—is almost palpable.
The only mercy is that your mind is really far too numb at this point to properly contemplate the notion of your own demise any more than a four-year-old can. Having only roughly a third of the oxygen you are used to having at sea level, you'd be lucky to have one-third of your usual cognitive abilities. Everything starts to take on this surreal tinge, as if none of it was actually happening to you.
It was in that state of mind that we settled in for our first night at Camp 4. Jake and I were warmly ensconced in our sleeping bags in our tent, too tired to even talk.
"My god, do you hear that?" Jake's eyes were suddenly wide, and he spoke in a husky whisper. I knew at once what he was talking about. It must have started out nearly imperceptible before slowly wafting its way to our attention. It was the soft babble of voices in an earnest, quiet discussion, and it seemed to emanate from right outside our tent. At this altitude though, as I mentioned, one hardly has the energy and focus to utter a few inane sentences, much less engage in a full-blown conversation, especially out in the open. As we listened more closely, the menacing, vindictive undertone of the voices became frighteningly clear, even though the words were ancient- and alien-sounding.
"Could it be the Sherpas?" I whispered, knowing full well that their language was nothing like what we were hearing. Jake's slow, nervous shake of his head confirmed it.
A thick, paralysing fear began to fill the claustrophobic tent, and a dizzying dread buzzed painfully between my ears. Just as my head felt ready to burst from pure terror, some deep-seated instinct suddenly kicked in and I flung the tent flap open in a fear-fuelled fury, wildly lancing the darkness with the beam from my torch.
Nothing. Nothing but the gloomy desolation of the icy landscape. The voices had vanished.
We spent the rest of the night tossing and turning, unable to find the sweet respite of slumber.
The next morning, the disturbance of the previous night remained unfortunately fresh in our minds. As the push for the summit was to be made only nearer to noon, when it was warmest, Jake suggested that we spend the morning taking a look at this scenic spot not far from our camp site, what some climbers called the Eagle's Nest. From this vantage point it was said that you could see much of the Himalayan range spread out beneath you in all its majesty, a breathtaking sight.
I took a worried look at the sky. A warning that was constantly drilled into us like a mantra was that clouds portend a storm. But the sky that met my eyes was an intense deep blue completely devoid of the slightest puff of condensation. And I knew I could certainly do with a distraction after what happened last night.
"All right, let's go. But we should hurry."
Knowing that the rest would probably protest if they saw us leaving on our own, we quietly slipped out of our tent unnoticed. Though we had never been to the Eagle's Nest before, we had heard about all the landmarks leading to the place. About 100 paces west of Camp 4, you'll see an outcrop shaped like a giant fist. From the outcrop, turn 45 degrees to the right and continue for about 200 paces. Simple.
A more experienced mountaineer would have told us not to trust the seemingly good weather, for the veterans know that up in the mountain a blizzard can spring from literally thin air sometimes, making it extremely unwise for two rookies to venture out on their own at any time, much less when in the Death Zone. And as it turned out, Fate was not smiling on us that day. Barely 50 paces from the camp, a strong wind stirred to life with little warning and shrouded us in a flurry of blinding white.
If you've never been in a heavy snowstorm before it's difficult to describe just how disorienting it is. You have icy shards flying all around you, tearing at your face and leaving a frosty blindfold across your goggles, which you have to constantly swipe away. Everything—and I mean everything—is this brilliant, piercing white. You have no idea where anything is, not the sun, not the crevasse you might be about to step into, not your teammates, even if they were standing right beside you. But worst of all is the howling. It's the screams of a thousand tortured souls all at once, a soul-tearing keening that's like an icicle straight through your heart. Covering your ears seems to only amplify it, causing it to take on an even sharper, shriller screech that reverberates endlessly within your skull.
And then the worst thing imaginable happened—my foot caught something hard, and I fell forward, face-first, into rock-hard ice. I must have passed out briefly, but I was soon awoken by voices, dark and familiar voices. Voices that reached my ears through the dreadful cacophony of the storm, carrying words in an unintelligible language that still managed to convey a deep, unearthly malevolence that struck me to the core with terror. I knew, somehow, that they were words that presaged death—my death. I tried to push myself up but my arms merely flailed uselessly, unable to overcome the weight of my backpack keeping me pinned down like an collapsed, overburdened donkey.
As fatigue washed over me, I felt a wrenching cold take hold, not from without but from within, a solid block of ice slowly spreading towards my extremities. The voices continued to call out to me, but the threatening edge had softened to an almost soothing, welcoming timbre. Fear dissipated, replaced by a numb paralysis. The garish white world around me started to fade to grey—
A gloved hand stuck itself in my face, nearly punching me in the nose. I mindlessly grabbed at it, and I felt myself being pulled to my feet. My best friend's familiar grin greeted me, flooding me with gratitude and relief. "Someone nearly froze his ass off, I see." His face was red from the exertion of helping me to my feet, but otherwise he didn't seem in the slightest ruffled by the experience. I was shaken though. I knew how close it had been—up in the Death Zone, if you close your eyes anywhere but in the safe confines of your tent, you don't usually wake up.
Looking around, I saw that the tempest had subsided. As the feeling slowly flowed back to my limbs, I turned to follow Jake, who was already a fair distance ahead. "Wait up, man!" I yelled, but he didn't turn around. Cursing under my breath, I did my best to keep up, wondering why he was in such an awful hurry.
A sudden realisation gave me pause. There was something wrong. I squinted into the distance, trying to get a clear look at the fast-retreating figure. I couldn't believe my eyes at first, thinking it was an optical illusion of some sort. Or that I was still reeling from the trauma and hallucinating. Jake wasn't walking. He was gliding. Feeling my hair stand on end, I resisted the urge to get as far away as possible and instead followed him—or what appeared to be him.
I hobbled along as quickly as my protesting body would allow, my heart thumping erratically and wildly, as if it had a life of its own. With a sudden seizure of fear I realised there were no footprints in the snow ahead of me. In disbelief, I cast my gaze further into the distance as my legs struggled to keep up with my eyes. Nothing. No footprints.
It was only because I was studying the ground so intently that I suddenly caught sight of a familiar-looking boot jutting out from the snow. With a heart full of dread, I dropped to my knees and frantically started burrowing away like a crazed dog.
And there he was, his face a frozen mask of serenity with which he had calmly met Death—my best friend, and saviour, even from beyond the icy grave.