Posts Tagged Everest

Part 7: The Struggle to Sagarmatha

Sagarmatha (Everest) from the summit of Kala Patthar. It was a beautiful clear day.

It took me two hours of shivering with everything on to get my body warm enough to sleep last night. I began to feel that this was no longer an enjoyable experience. Either it was colder than my capacity or I was way weaker than I used to be. At times there is an unspoken joy in the suffering, one that lies in knowing that it is all for the sake of the place and the experience, but last night my continuous panting, coughing, and nose blowing felt like pointless torture. I missed my home, my bed, my mom, my cat. All I wanted was to be go back home. And to top it all, I had reached a part in Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air book where he began to explain in detail the suffering some of his climbing partners went through minutes before they died. “Get me out of this place!” I shrieked, and I miserably cried myself to sleep.

I woke up at 5 am and jumped quickly out of bed in panic; it was 30 minutes past the time I had set on my alarm and I had to get ready to the biggest day so far. We were going to summit Kala Patthar, which rises to 5545m above sea level. Kala Patthar was our acclimatization attempt for Island Peak, and it was our closest point to Everest. The view of Everest, we were told, was actually better from the summit of Kala Patthar than from the Everest Base Camp. It was going to be a long day and there was no time for breakfast before our departure. I rushed out of my room and found everyone already on their feet waiting for me, so there was no chance for coffee. I tried to say good morning but no voice came out.

I went first in line on the trek. The day was already starting to break in and that gave me a renewed sense of energy. Our incline was so gradual that once again I was tempted to go faster than usual; I didn’t feel any need to slow down since the terrain almost felt flat, or perhaps I was subconsciously making up for coming out of my room later than everyone. As any experienced trekker would guess, however, I soon began to pant. We were gaining altitude and that meant that we were entering a domain where a small movement of getting up from a chair or walking briskly to a nearby table could leave a person short of breath. I discovered that the fast pace I began with was not a good idea. Soon that visual blur I had begun to feel in my left eye the night before was getting bigger. I started to feel as if a heavy force was pushing me back and down to the ground. Once again, my feet began to twist as I walked like a drunken and my hands felt heavy on the poles. I was pressing the poles noticeably, shaking them as they hit the ground. I felt like an old woman struggling to reach her bed for the last time in her life.

All I could think about at that moment was how each time I thought I was going through the misery day of the trip another day would prove me wrong. It was a misery phase and I wasn’t sure when it would end. I wasn’t suffering from altitude problems; it felt more like an altitude challenge that was shaking me on the inside. It felt as if my lack of confidence over my endurance this time was somehow read by an evil spirit that dwelled on these mountains. It smelled my weakness and began to hit me where it hurt the most. For the first time I began to grasp the true fear of the mountains: It was the fear of the known rather than the unknown. It was the natural, legitimate fear that any human, even the best of climbers, could have.

My fear generated anger at myself. I could no longer take Karma’s reassuring smiles at me. Everything was so blurry that I imagined him telling me “See the price your slacking makes you pay?” In my mind everything had a negative meaning.

With Sagarmatha and Lhotse in the background, Amr (R, since it’s hard to tell who’s who in these conditions) and I did our first achievement pose, hoping for a bigger one in the future.

Unlike Kilimanjaro’s Machame route, the trek along the Khumbu Valley in Nepal is two ways back and forth. Trekkers exchange greetings as they meet along the way. I loathed each trekker that seemed so relaxed and happy on his or her way back down, smiling and greeting me and expecting an equally cheerful reaction. I don’t believe any of them heard my breathless ‘hello’.

By the time we reached Gorakshep my eyes felt like they were going to explode. I was in no shape to engage in any conversation no matter how minimal. I dropped my backpack and my poles and sat down, rested my face on my palms and waited for breakfast. When Omar looked at me and asked how I was feeling I had already been fighting back my tears, but I lost the battle and couldn’t speak. I gestured with my hand that I was finished and my tears burst out. I was embarrassed and upset. He began to suggest alternatives. Hani was going to split with us from Gorakshep to go to Everest Base Camp while we were to continue to Kala Patthar, so Omar suggested I go with Hani to Everest BC instead. I immediately refused. To me, any reformulation of the route because of my mere weakness signaled defeat, and I wasn’t sure I could take that yet. “I just need to have my break-down moment,” I told him, and then it was time to eat.

Like magic, I began to feel life running through my veins again after I ate, and my determination to reach Kala Patthar and get as close as I could to Everest was renewed. We began our further push from 5100 to 5545m. Omar went first in line and I was immediately behind him. Because of his long legs, his steps were more like strides, which had kept him at a considerable distance from us most of the time, allowing him to stop many times to take pictures while he waited for us to catch up. I was focusing on his boots with my every step, expecting them to start disappearing, but after about an hour I was surprised to realize that I was still behind the same boots, and I wasn’t tired.

As silent and seemingly aloof to those who don’t know him, Omar was a doer more than a talker. His positive vibes still spread out to all of us and I could tell that he genuinely cared about his clients. His steps were as small and as slow as mine. He wanted me to get to the top and he was taking me there. It was almost like we all needed that pace so the order of the line did not change; we continued behind him like ducklings following their mother, making the same turns at the same angles.

With Omar and Amr on all the space available on the Kala Patthar summit

Kala Patthar is strategically located in the middle of a valley, surrounded by enormous peaks. It is a thin slope that rises to a sharp cliff. On the last few meters we had to leave our backpacks and poles and crawl up to the cliff against a sweeping wind. I was holding on to each rock and I could feel my entire body being pushed around from all directions. At the final point the space was barely enough for the three of us, and we had to remain seated. I looked to my left and my jaw dropped. There was Everest, or Sagarmatha, standing magnificently next to its 8500m neighbor, Lhotse. The colorful Buddhist flags placed on Kala Patthar were ruffling strongly in the direction of the two magnificent peaks, sending out prayers and blessings to the Goddess of the Sky, which seemed to be barred from us by Lhotse, its guardian.

Trying to take as deep breaths as the altitude would allow me, I could not take my eyes off the mountain as the history I was reading about in my book spread before me, represented by mere names repeating themselves in my mind: Chomolungma, Deva-Dhunga, Sagarmatha… Seated at the border between Nepal and Tibet, Sagarmatha had always had two local names, one Tibetan, Chomolungma, meaning Mother of the World, and one Nepalese, Deva-Dhunga, meaning The Seat of God. Sagarmatha was the name attributed to the great mountain in 1960 during a border dispute between Nepal and Tibet. Each name sounded and felt stronger than the other, because they were names attributed to the mountain by its own people, who sensed the true spirit of the place and were one with it. Everest, on the other hand, was a name given to the mountain by the surveyor general of India, Sir Andrew Waugh, who gave it in honor of his predecessor Sir George Everest – despite the latter’s objection – when he was told that the highest peak in the world was discovered by a Bengali, Radhanath Sikhdar! This was in contradiction to the official policy back then to maintain the local names of the mountains.

For that reason Everest, the name, to me means nothing.

It was as if I had reached the point of salvation as I sat at that peak and drew in deep breaths. The sound of the ruffling flags calmed me down and I felt like I was being abundantly rewarded by divine company. I went through a long, draining journey that began in a run-down Alexandria airport just to get to be that close to Sagarmatha, to take pictures of it, and with it. I was happy again. And I had the lungs of a horse! So I paced down afterwards and began to spread out my smiles at the trekkers who were yet to reach the top. I was, for the first time, the one who received all the loathing by breathless trekkers still struggling to reach the top.

It felt so damn good!

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Part 5: The Mountain Goat

First sighting of Everest (L) and Lhotse summits outside my window

I woke up this morning with a miraculously warm body. We were supposed to wake up 30 minutes earlier than usual (in my case that translates to 1 hour and 15 minutes) to attend the morning ceremonial in the monastery. I looked out my window. Day was already breaking in and the sky was crystal clear. Out in the distance loomed Ama Dablam, a dramatically steep mountain that rises to 6856 m. It was deemed “unclimbable” until 1961, when it was successfully summited by four brave mountaineers from New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the US. It is now preserved for highly skilled climbers.

And that beautiful piece of nature that dominates the scenery throughout the route to Everest was right outside my window. “What kind of a lucky bitch am I”? I thought with a smile.

Soon there was a knock on my door. I went to open the door thinking it was probably Karma reminding me of the ceremonial, but I found Omar. “I want to show you something,” he said.

“Yes! Ama Dablam!”

“No. Everest.”

“WHAT??”

I led him into the room and, to my embarrassment, he had to find his way around the pile of used tissues that lay near my bed. He cleared the mist off my window and pointed out. Just to the left of Ama Dablam there were two magnificent summits that stood facing each other. There stood Sagarmatha, the Goddess of the Sky, and Lhotse, an 8500 m mountain that reaches up to the sky with a sharp edge, as if performing a ritual of supplication.

I fell silent. I had made it far enough to be finally granted the chance to see Sagarmatha with my bare eyes. The strong wind was blowing snow off its summit like a bridal veil, or a “long silk scarf” as Jon Krakauer had put it in his Into Thin Air book, which lay on my bedside table.

Outside my window was a view worth a lifetime of coughing, panting, and shivering. At that moment everything fell in the right place. I knew I was doing the right thing.

Inside the monastery

At 7 am sharp we were in the monastery, sitting on the floor on one side of the temple, silently watching the ceremonial. Four monks sat opposite each other, wrapped in thick cloaks and reciting Tibetan prayers, stopping briefly for quick sips of warm tea. Their soft voices and synchronized, soothing chants were in perfect harmony with the place. I understood nothing, but I felt peace and calm in my mind and soul. There is something about Buddhist chants that transcends meaning; the sounds and the melodies in themselves work like a hypnotizing wave of calm that spreads through the air. I felt captivated — at least long enough until the cold floor worsened my cough and my toes began to freeze.

We began our trek afterwards and for the first time I felt grateful that it started with a long descent. I normally hate going down on treks but I had just had breakfast and did not want to exert myself so immediately afterwards. I had also developed a new strategy of going down fast and trusting my instincts on where to place my feet. This helped pull a lot of strain off my knees.

As with all my treks, the pride didn’t last for long. Soon we began to go up again to gain further altitude. We were heading to Dingboche at 4260 m. My breathing became labored and I began to secretly long for a break. I was granted one as we reached a spot where a number of trekkers had stood taking pictures of a mountain goat that stood nearby. Mountain goats in the Himalaya are known to be incredibly fit animals that can go up and down the mountain with impressive speed. It stood there near a large rock staring at space, as if it was posing for the enchanted photographers that were gathering before it.

The mountain goat posing for photographers!

A female mountain goat is what my name means in Arabic. The male mountain goat is teis, a funny sounding word that eventually ended up being used by people to ridicule each other. So I pretty much prefer to use “mountain gazelle” whenever someone asked me what my name meant, which happened often; it’s an old Arab name that is least common in Egypt. As I expected, when I first met Hany and Amr they both asked me what Arwa meant, and I said: “Mountain gazelle,” hoping to preserve the graceful effect the sound of my name had. “Wow!” They responded with amazement. Feeling rather guilty, I continued, “which is a pretty way of saying ‘female mountain goat’!” And they burst out laughing.

The higher up we went the harder it became for me, the female mountain goat, to maintain my earlier pace. Everyone within a few feet away from me could hear me breathing with much difficulty. It began to dawn on me that I was not only physically ill-trained, but mentally as well. I began to seriously dread Island Peak. The wind was very strong, we were trekking barely above 4000 m, and I was no longer able to take steady firm steps–I was walking like a drunkard. ‘How are you going to pull yourself up with a rope at 6000 m in the wind when you can barely hold on to your trekking pole right now?’ asked the evil sound in my head.

A mental exercise is not just about believing you can do it, or merely focusing on each step one at a time; it takes a complete mental readjustment to harsh conditions. It is a true challenge to a person’s ego. You have to find a way to survive without any of the luxury details you often take for granted, while being so faraway from home and from loved ones. It is about forgetting that such things – or people – exist. I believe this is an art well-mastered by serious climbers who take up challenges such as Everest, Ama Dablam, or K2. But a little bit of it can also come in handy to those who trek in the same environment.

I arrived in Dingboche with a renewed sense of insecurity. I was tempted several times to ask Omar or Karma whether they thought I really could make it up Island Peak. It would not have been a question as much as it would have been a call out for reassurance. The only answer I would have wanted to hear was “Yes of course you can!” so that I would feel good about myself again. But it’s not something for others to decide for me. And I know that if I don’t change my train of thought and make the evil sound in my head disappear with some magic wand then I sure won’t be able to summit Island Peak. I had to work this out somehow. Alone.

I sat in the dining room sipping my favorite hot lemon drink, staring at the Sherpa who sat engrossed in a book across the room. I could no longer resist the urge, so I turned to Karma and asked him. As I expected, Karma had no answer. He smiled at me and said “We will try.”

So I will try.

 

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Part 4: For Those Who Stand

A chorten in memory of Tenzing Norgay and all the Sherpas of Everest

Last night I was cold. Cold. I wore two thick layers, a down jacket, and sat inside the dining room in front of the heater. I looked at Omar and complained, “I’m cold,” as if it were somehow his fault and that he should fix it. “With your down jacket on?” He was surprised. “With my down jacket on,” I confirmed.

My brain would not stop spinning around. A mild headache was slowly finding its way into my head, my eyes felt bloated, and I was only half-way through the altitude scheme. Our target was to reach 6189 m.

“Not you miserable creature,” my mind snapped. “That’s for them!”

Shrinking to the evil sound in my head, I went to sleep with a sad sense of insecurity. And I ended up waking every two hours with trouble breathing. “This is ridiculous!” I said to the opposite empty bed at 2 am, and started a new nose blowing session.

With a night like that for a rest, I found today’s trek to be challenging. It took my muscles a while to realize what I was trying to get them to do, but things went fine from then on. Our journey today was to Tengboche, which sits at 3867 m. The breathtaking Himalayan grey and white peaks began to loom in more closely, offering a silent picture of the trials, tribulations and successes of men long gone, giving me a glimpse of the passion and madness that drives man to these sacred ends. I was trekking in a world of trees, exotic bird sounds, and peacocks. Enduring the coldness of the wind I felt creeping through my lungs.

We stopped for a brief break on an edge near a large chorten that was placed as a memorial for Tenzing Norgay – the first Sherpa to reach the summit of Mt. Everest with Sir Edmund Hillary – and all the Sherpas that followed in his footsteps. The sky was grey and overcast, the summits surrounding us were now at 6, 7 and 8 thousand meter heights. The size of each mountain was so large it was hard to fathom how far away it still was; it was as if their summits stood halfway to the sky.

Karma stood on the edge and began to explain to us the names of the mountains we were looking at. Each mountain had its own climbing story, each knew certain climbers and expedition leaders who either made it up to the summits or perished in their attempts. You could come to Nepal’s Himalayas 10 times over and still have more mountains waiting for you to try. It’s a climber’s Disneyland!

The wind began to blow harder and I could feel it blowing right through my throat. I didn’t want to stop and fetch a new layer, so I continued in the hope that it would soon slow down. It didn’t, and I began to cough again.

We arrived in Tengboche a little after 3:30 pm. The lodge we are staying at is owned by an old monastery that was rebuilt with the help of Sir Hillary. The place is like a large square of landscape with the lodge, the monastery, a German bakery on each side of it, and a lazy old dog that only ran and played when the children approached him. On other times he would only move from one tourist to another seeking more love, and getting it.

The minute we arrived we walked in the thick fog to the bakery. As Omar related its story to us, the bakery was established by a German woman who was struck by the spell of the place. She remained in Tengboche and opened her own bakery and taught the Sherpa all about German baking. She is now back home and the Sherpa are running the place, giving us a delicious treat of cakes and good coffee–an indulgence every trekker and climber could sure use, especially in this kind of weather.

I dove into my chocolate and icing cake, ignoring the lazy dog that sat near me eyeing my fork. I did it long enough until I felt my blood warm again and handed him a small bite. I was fine with that, I was the one who’d been going up and downhill for hours while he hung around and got cuddled by everyone. No guilt attached.

In my room now, I’m wearing my down jacket, I’m stuffed into my sleeping bag and sitting with it on the bed with the bed cover on top (Sleeping barely on the beds in these lodges is impossible. The air is cold and damp and so are the beds). I keep stopping and watching my vapor breath as I think of the next sentence to write. I can’t help but smile with pride whenever my coughs allow me. I think I’m quickly adjusting to unconventional situations here. I went into a public toilet by mistake today and handled myself perfectly on one of the filthiest toilets I had ever been to, I have now mastered the art of squatting flawlessly whenever there is need (I even took the time to explain it to my all male teammates, for some of them were not up to squatting at all), and I brushed my teeth and spat on a urinal under a sign that read “For those who stand.”

Not bad. Not bad at all.

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Part 2: Sagarmatha Lets Me In

First sighting of the Himalaya tops through the plane window

Another boring day in Kathmandu airport. This time I decided to explore boundaries and see outside the waiting hall. I followed a barely recognizable stairway and found myself in a small restaurant overlooking the hall through glass. There were couches, but not a single one of them was empty. I felt my joints tremble longingly each time I looked at them, so I decided to turn around, sit on the dining table and order some food.

Soon I found another mysterious stairway leading to an upper floor. On my way towards it I ran into a closed door with a sign that read “Information Public Announcement Office” with a small window. I peered through and there she was! Annoyingly loud and repetitive announcement lady who defeated the whole purpose of getting people’s attention by repeating each announcement 5 to 7 times, making us all resort to blocking our brains to the noise in defense of our sanity.

I was seeing her in action as she spoke, “Agni Air is pleased to announce the delay of flight number 102, 103, 104, 115, … heading to Lukla. Due to the bad weather in Lukla!” She seemed tired, she had her head rested on one hand while she gestured in midair with the other. I spoke to her in silence, “Lady, we are all tired. Why do you have to make it so hard on yourself by repeating it too many times? And why on this planet are you ‘pleased’ to announce the delay??” To those downstairs in the hall, her pleasure never seemed to cease. People would stick around for 6 or 7 hours listening to how pleased she was at the delay of their flights until they’d hear the verdict announcement: “Yara Air is pleased to announce the cancellation of flight number 113, 114, 115, 116, heading to Lukla. Due to the [&%$@] bad weather in Lukla!” How many of them would know she was just as tired as they were?

I turned around in despair and went up the stairs to the roof of the airport. I was so bored I began to suggest to Amr and Hany, the remaining trekkers in our group who still had hope they would go on the original trekking plan, to join me in a jumping game I was so passionate about when I was a kid.

“That’s a girls’ game, Arwa,” said Hany.

Oops! There goes my first girlish mistake in the pan-man company I was in. From the look on their faces I felt like I was asking them to wear tutus and dance with me.

Time went on on the roof. I was beginning to contemplate alternative options Omar had begun to suggest to us for the trip. My dream of going to Island Peak was withering away. I began to look forward to another lower peak where we could still learn about technical climbing. I had been lobbying for the idea and trying to convince Amr that he doesn’t have to go higher than Kilimanjaro specifically on this trip when suddenly Omar showed up and called for us to follow him. As we went back into the hall a miracle was unfolding before us. Most of the people were moving towards the gate and announcement lady was now pleased to announce the “departure” of our flight to Lukla!

Sagarmatha had finally approved of our entrance.

It took four days of waiting, thinking, inventing options and examining alternatives to be able to finally reach Lukla, which marks the beginning of the Khumbu route to Sagarmatha, or Mt. Everest. All I had wanted was to look at that mountain, to breathe in the air that surrounded it, to see its people, the Sherpa whose sharp features had been shaped by its majestic edges.

My mind was overwhelmed with awe at the Himalayas and everything that they stood for. It was like seeking permission to see an unreachable throne surrounded by a mighty fortress. My friends and I would always say that to summit a mountain you need permission from the mountain to climb it.

On that day I discovered that I needed permission from Mt. Everest just to see it.

Runway in Lukla airport

We boarded a little noisy plane with one seat row on each side. I was looking out the window at an enormous landscape of mountains reaching up to the clouds. As we got higher I began to stare at the clouds and expect to see snowy summits penetrating them. Nothing was showing. I realized then that I was looking through the wrong angle.

Way in the distance, so many feet above the clouds, there were the sharp, aggressively beautiful high summits of the Himalaya with all their cliffs and edges. They appeared to be rising above every mountain there is, like royalty looming in the horizon with the most beautiful shades of white I had ever seen. I felt a wave of bliss run through my veins. I was approaching one of God’s most sacredly beautiful places. I was accepted. I was entering the Sagarmatha domain.

With around 100 m of space for our plane to land, we reached Lukla’s suicidal runway which sits on a mountainous cliff rising to 2860 m above sea level, and immediately began our trek to Phakding, our first stop for the night.

I could barely recognize myself on this trek. This was not the body or mind that climbed Kilimanjaro two months before. My body was slightly overweight with dormant muscles. My mind convinced me to carry a ridiculously heavy backpack and forget the poles, and I was faced with an almost continuously downhill, steep, and muddy trek–my ultimate nightmare.

Yet the further we went down the route the more excited I became for how different everything seemed to be from Kilimanjaro. I was really getting a brand new experience. There were villages everywhere we went, Sherpa going about their daily lives, yaks carrying loads and wearing bells to alert us to make way for them, and a continuous, soothing river that had a mysterious shade of light blue we never managed to fathom.

Hellos and namastes were in the air as we kept running into people coming from the opposite direction. Trekkers, guides, and villagers alike seemed to always be fresh and happy. I tried hard to focus on the atmosphere around and quiet the nervous, unconfident, and worried voice inside me that was already beginning to complain from aching knees and an uncomfortable back. I was in the footsteps of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay as they began their long journey up Sagarmatha, and that was all that should matter then.

That amazing sound of water coming from the river is right outside the window as I write. It feels like a constant attempt of nature to soothe me. But here is what I’m thinking: If there is any test to the mind over body theory, I think that this journey is it. I have no body to bet on this time. It’s all up in my head, and those tyrannically negative thoughts really need to stop.

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One, Two, Freak Out!

Island Peak (Yikes!) photo by Emil Friis from Everestnews.com

Ok. Take 2. I have the duffle bag half open, I have my toothpaste and toothbrush lying next to it, it’s 11:30 PM and I’m a few pounds heavier. I am packing this time to go to the Himalayas. This is the journey to go meet the Big One. I will be climbing with a group of 7 people I don’t know to Everest base camp at 5300 m altitude, I will be greeting Mount Everest, and I will begin my first technical climb up Island Peak to 6180 m. In snow.

Let’s see … About a month ago I went on an Amazon shopping spree and I bought five mountaineering books ranging from guides to true stories of horrors and successes. The books arrived when I was on a trip to Dubai and when I came back the box remained unopened for three days. I have the books lying in front of me on the desk but I’m too hesitant to read any. I have not been doing any physical training for this trip. I have not looked up any information on Nepal except an hour ago to check out the weather.

I short, I’m freaking out. And when I freak out I go on denial.

My body weight and shape have definitely changed. I’m not sure how comfortable my clothes will be this time around. I’m not sure how my heavy backpack is going to feel on my back. I’m not sure if I can still carry the weight and continue to endure at a high altitude, let alone start my first climb in snow. My brain keeps telling me to drink a lot of coffee in the morning and eat a lot of junk at night. I stare at the TV for hours, hating, loathing the acting and the cheap plots. I have a jammed state of mind with loops endlessly swirling around my head.

I’m still moving on with the plan, though. If Kilimanjaro was about quieting my mind then hello?? I think my mind now needs to shut up!

There still is one thing different about me this time. I have learned my bitter lesson and got myself a lot of dry sacs to categorize my things. Now I have a sac for pants, a sac for tops, a sac for socks, etc. And I love the you-can’t-beat-and-drown-me-this-time feeling I have towards my things! I now look at my bag with command and superiority.

To be fair to myself, it hasn’t really been that long since Kilimanjaro. It’s been only two months. That’s not enough time for my muscles to completely fall out of tone. Maybe go to sleep a little, but not reverse. Muscle memory will hopefully make my body pick up where it stopped.

I made the decision to fly to Nepal in one minute. I read the announcement about the trip and something inside me began to boil. My adrenalin started to pump in seconds. I knew I wouldn’t be alright if I stayed and slackened in Cairo for too long after Kilimanjaro. The longer I do that the worse my mood becomes. And if the motivation for working out is behind me I feel depressed. More and more of the TV mode I’m currently in is only further proof that I need to get on a mountain as soon as possible.

So I guess I took my decision back then to save myself from today. I’m glad I made that decision. I need to throw myself at another mountain. I need to count my steps and look at my boots. I need to wash my ears with the silence and my eyes with the whiteness of the snow. I need to feel and hear my every breath. I need to be free again.

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