Posts Tagged outdoors

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 6: Demonic Faces, Busted Eye, Burned Socks, etc…

My bedroom window in Lobuche

I think I know my acclimatization habits by now. Once I hit the 4000m mark altitude begins to play its mental tricks on me.

Last night my heartbeat woke me up at 3 am. I had my hand rested under my ear, and my pulse began to creep into my dreams. I saw construction workers and their machine rolling with a persistent sound, DUM… DUM… DUM… until I opened my eyes and discovered that the construction machine was my heart. I was amazed at the amount of work that little muscle was doing, even in my sleep, just to keep enough oxygen pumped to my brain.

I turned inside my sleeping bag and tried to fall back to sleep. I began to see faces of ordinary people I ran into the days before changing into demons. I was wide awake but I had no control over those visions. I remembered the hallucinations I got on Kilimanjaro on my first acclimatization trek above 4000m, and I immediately understood what that was. Still, none of that disturbed me. My body was warm again and that is all that mattered. I actually found those changing faces quite entertaining.

We started our trek in the morning with snow and frost surrounding our path. At this altitude vegetation had already started to change. There were no longer lush green trees on either side of our narrow trails. The blue river that came down from the glaciers was now half frozen. We could still hear it in the distance.

At the beginning of our trek some puppies were rolling on the ground and chasing each other. We stood and cuddled some of them and the mother fell in love with us instantly; she trekked with us all the way to Dughla. We were supposed to gain a further 700m in altitude so we went as slow as possible, breathing systematically to avoid headaches. The dog would run ahead of us, wait, and the minute we reached her she’d start stretching out and yawning: “What a slow bunch… You bore me!”

When it was time for the Dughla Wall she finally left us and went back to her puppies, and we began our steep ascent. By the time we got there I was already beginning to feel weak, and with the rocky path I saw ahead of me I decided to fold my poles, stuff them in my bag, put my hands in my pocket, and rely on my two feet. That created an illusion of being light, it helped me focus on two feet instead of four, and left my hands free in case I needed to pull myself up a rock or use it for support. It was also a good way of avoiding seeing my hands shake on the pole. I didn’t want to be reminded of my weakness, I already knew.

The wind was very strong and the weather was freezing. I was once again faced with the dilemma of needing to take in as deep breaths as possible but worsening my cough with the freezing air I inhaled. Wearing the balaclava under the burning sun rays was no option for me, and each time I breathed through it my breath ended up fogging my sunglasses. So I had to accept the coughing for as long as I could maintain a rhythmic breath.

Chortens built as memorials for climbers who lost their lives in their attempts to summit Mt. Everest were strategically placed at the top of the Dughla Wall. You arrive at a new altitude, struggling for breath, and you are faced with a stark reminder of the smallness of man–a humbling gesture that guards the human ego.

In front of Scott Fischer's memorial. I wished I'd met him in his lifetime.

I walked with careful feet from one chorten to another. The place was silent except for the sound of the fluttering flags. Some were names I was already reading about in my book, some I hadn’t heard of before. Scott Eugene Fischer, who died in the 1996 disaster, Sean Egan, Hristo Prodanov… Known and loved  by their friends and families, each one of them continues to inspire, each of their legacies continues on the mountains, surrounded by prayer flags fluttering in the cold wind.

Maybe I shouldn’t have been too convinced with my smallness, however. I was getting depressed as the walk to Lobuche, our destination for the night, felt like the worst trek I had ever been on. I could barely walk even though the ground was almost even. I got separated from the rest of the group for the first time. Karma stayed with me, carrying everything he needed on the full two weeks on his back, patiently eyeing me in case I needed to stop for rests. And I felt gravity pull me down further with each step. It dawned on me that not only do I make mistakes, I actually repeat them; my backpack was once again needlessly heavy. I had filled it with three liters of water, forgetting again and again that there are often places to stop and buy water along the trek.

There’s no stronger way of saying how freezing it is in Lobuche. I’m running out of words to describe it, and it keeps getting colder as we go higher up. Every bit of my limbs had been becoming almost motionless. The minute we arrived I took off my boots and went to sit by the heater. My feet were so cold I rested them immediately on the heater. They were just beginning to warm up when I began to see smoke coming out of them and I could smell something burning. I jerked my feet and there were two holes in my socks. Amr burst out laughing, and when Omar pulled up a chair and came to join us I told him what had happened. “That’s a very common thing,” he replied. I loved Omar’s cool, relaxed responses to my complaints. They were almost always “That’s normal” or “That’s common.” They made me feel alright. And now that I burned my socks, I felt like I’m officially a member of the mountaineering bunch; as if I got closer to experiencing the little losses of life on the mountains.

I’m sitting now in the dining room with minimum lighting at 4950m. I feel slightly nauseous, and I have a visual patch in my left eye that continues to cover everything I try to focus on. I had bent down earlier and got up fast when suddenly there were stars all over the place. Now the stars have all resided and left me with this fish-shaped patch I see each time I close my eyes. I see far away objects only by closing my left eye. Another little mountain life loss, I guess.

 

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A Beautiful Monster

Kilimanjaro summit from the plane window. The full mass of what appeared from the mountain was impossible to see through just one window.

The flight to Nairobi was a long one so rich with Egyptian stewardess’ “hosbitality”: “Would dju like tchea?”, “I am sorry za blankets are finished.” My excitement still overrode everything because all I could ever think of was the fact that it was finally happening. All those months of anticipation and training are about to be put to the test.

After a long wait in Nairobi airport waiting for the connecting flight to Arusha, the sun was already out as we began to board the little Precision Air plane. I didn’t know then that sunrise would continue to be my sign of hope throughout the week. It meant I was getting closer to my target.

The plane was so small and almost everyone on it seemed to be set to climb Kilimanjaro. My backpack was so wide because of the foaming mat and the inflating mat that I had to walk sideways along the aisle. I definitely did not look like someone traveling light. I ended up seeking help from a cool looking British climber who himself had great trouble putting my bag in the compartment at the top of the seat. I immediately began to feel self-conscious.

But as the plane took off I sat with so much excitement looking out the window with my bag sitting on the ground in front of the empty seat next to me. I could not hide my ongoing grin as I kept looking out the window. A thick condense layer of clouds was underneath us, but I knew I would still be able to see the top of Kilimanjaro. It did end above the clouds, didn’t it? It was a high mountain.

Soon a nice majestic dark summit began to appear piercing the clouds. I stared at it but quickly decided that it was probably too pointed to be Kilimanjaro’s summit. It was rather short above those clouds too. Then soon a much larger one appeared. I almost jumped with excitement and I really wanted to ask everyone on the plane if that was Kilimanjaro, but I hesitated because I didn’t want to ruin all the composure I tried to build after the backpack scene. I had to look like a cool climber so familiar with the mountain and was just going there for the 6th time for fun. But the minute the flight attendant showed up I had to stop him and ask him if that was Kilimanjaro. “No madam. Kilimanjaro is going to be on the other side,” he decently replied.

Soon after that I discovered that none of the climbers around me required all the composure I was trying to hold on to. Everyone suddenly shifted like mad to the windows on the other side and kept staring out there with disbelief.

There it was.

It took me a few minutes of staring out the window with a blank mind for me to realize that my mouth was actually wide open. I could not take my eyes off it. It was a monster. So high with its glaciers it seemed to be all on top of the clouds, floating with such ease. The clouds were like loyal servants surrounding it and caressing its edges. This was a mountain I could not take lightly. It was the most beautiful monster I had ever seen.

I was humbled. I felt so small. So weak. And I was in so much awe and love I immediately felt hooked to Kilimanjaro for life. I was finally there face to face with one of the seven summits and the highest free standing mountain in the world.

I was scared.

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It’s Happening! Kilimanjaro is Just a Few Hours Away

My packing mess: Duffel bag with snacks and obsessive little anti-bacterial gel bottles sticking out

It’s finally here. The moment I’ve  been waiting for for three months is only a few hours away. This is the first time in my entire life that I start packing and feel relaxed as I do. No rush with anything, just put the items that have been lying there since I bought them from Britain, fold them one by one and whisper secret wish to each of them that they work well, and voila, the red duffle bag is all packed and happy. This trip should be a lesson for me in traveling light, I still added some extra items I know I can do without, but you know, it gives a sense of security to feel that you have everything abundantly.

My everlasting FPO (Fear of Peeing Outdoors) syndrome, which was diagnosed and named by my good friend and Kilimanjaro veteran Nadia, continues to rule my life. Being not very well versed in the art of peeing outdoors, today at the supermarket I bought 8 little bottles of anti-bacterial gel and an endless pack of wipes. I might have been able to hold it for 12 hours on St. Katherine in Sinai, but I’m not sure it could work for a week in Kilimanjaro, unless it freezes.

I have a rough idea of what to expect on the hike from others who have already been to the mountain. So I did my homework and got the clothes and the equipment I might need. But I know that no matter how ready I try to get or how ready I think I can get, there will always be room for panic over just what might be missing. So I do believe that a mountain experience is a very personal one. It’s me and that mountain. We’ll figure out the language we speak to each other, and it will tell me how to climb it.

The minute I took the decision to go up Kilimanjaro I stopped sleeping at night. I would toss and turn in bed, forever obsessing about getting ready and having the right equipment. My heart would race just by the thought of me taking my patient steps one by one to the top. It was like I discovered an inner passio

n in me that had always longed to express itself and has finally found its way out. There is something that draws me to that summit. I feel at awe each time I look at mountains, and this was the chance for me to experience the full majesty of the highest peak in Africa.

Kilimanjaro is known to be a kind and friendly mountain. It looks serene in the picture I have on my desktop. You only trek up, no supernatural abilities of climbing are required. But the altitude of 5893 meters above sea level has a tendency to work wonders over people’s brains. The lack of oxygen can disrupt muscle functionality and cause brain damage. I get claustrophobic just by thinking about thin air, and I get dizzy in heights, but I still want to climb mountains. No other experience I have been through has given me the same physical or spiritual rewards. So I’m starting with Kilimanjaro and my mind can’t wait for the journey.

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