There were too many moments.
Moments that took our breath away, literally and figuratively. Moments where we were rendered speechless by the majestic Himalaya Mountains and the incomprehensible warmth of the Sherpa people. Moments where we felt the exhilaration of accomplishment, crushing exhaustion, and gratitude, always gratitude.
We flew nearly 7,000 miles to Nepal in October for a chance to see the Himalayas in all their grandeur, scale a few high peaks, bond with friends and experience a foreign culture.
The plan was to spend three weeks trekking on the Everest Base Camp circuit, summiting two 20,000-foot mountains and an 18,000-foot peak. We would walk for hours every day, slowly, so we could properly acclimate, and sleep in tea houses as we wound our way higher.
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Our group was an experienced bunch: Scott Schissel, 47, of South Hill; Jay Griffin, 36, of Puyallup; Scott Matetich, 36, of Seattle; Carrie Kavanaugh, 36, of Edgewood; and Andy Knell, 44, of Virginia.
“My main objective was just to lay my eyes on the biggest mountains in the world, and to have an open mind on whatever happened,” Griffin said.
By the end of the trip, we’d hiked nearly 100 miles and climbed about 34,000 feet.
A DIFFERENT LAND
It was a full day of travel from Seattle to Guangzhou, China, and finally to Kathmandu, Nepal. There was a whirlwind of tourist stops at Buddha stupas, monkey temples and colorful markets before our guide, Nima Gyaljen Sherpa, drove us to the domestic airport for our flight into the mountains.
The wait for our journey to Lukla seemed endless. The terminal was crowded, stuffy and disorderly. Weather held up our plane, and we kept busy by weighing our bags and then ourselves on the airport scale. We placed wagers on who would lose the most weight after weeks of constant activity and limited calories. I mentally combed through my gear, worrying I wouldn’t have enough layers and wishing I’d brought more luxuries than a small jar of honey peanut butter, a handful of chocolate truffles and a paperback book.
We eventually piled into a 15-seat plane with its nose pointed toward the world’s most dangerous runway, a 65-by-1,500-foot strip of asphalt atop a 9,100-foot cliff. No safety message was broadcast. A flight attendant handed out hard caramels and cotton to use as earplugs and we were off. We shoved our faces against the dirty windows and snapped pictures. By trip’s end, my iPhone 6 would hold more than 1,600 photos and I still didn’t feel like I’d captured enough.
It was immediately apparent we were in a different land.
Barefoot porters crowded arriving visitors hoping for work. There were no cars — the dusty walkways were crowded with yaks who paid no mind to people in their path. Quaint tea houses and stores were set against a lush backdrop and towering snow-capped peaks. Trekkers crossed suspension bridges strung with prayer flags. Mule trains held up pedestrian traffic. Barren rooms cost $2, and menus offered the same few dishes but with different spices.
The word “simple” leaped out of the landscape and the Sherpa lifestyle.
I felt like I’d hit the reset button on my life.
We spent two days walking to Namche Bazaar, a trade center and the gateway to Everest. We explored the hillside town and took jaunts up to Khumjung, a village with green-roofed homes and stone walls that houses a yeti scalp, and the Hotel Everest View at 12,729 feet. Our trek took us to a handful of towns like Tengboche, which has the largest Buddhist monastery in the Khumbu region; Deboche, where our rooms came with a view of Mount Everest; Dingboche, where we finally got a shower; and Chukkung, where we got an up-close glimpse of our first mountain, Island Peak.
We’d only been in the country seven days but we already felt like veterans. Showers and clean clothes were a distant memory. We’d figured out that dal bhat was the best dinner option (a dish of rice and lentils with a curry paste), to always carry toilet paper in your pocket and expect to pay $5 to use a slow Internet connection for an hour.
“There’s this major gap between where I live in the U.S. and where I traveled in Nepal,” Schissel said. “It’s not just about the mountains, it’s about getting immersed in the culture.”
On Halloween, we took on 20,305-foot Island Peak.
After a 12:20 a.m. wakeup and four pieces of toast, a few hours of scrambling up a rock gully dropped us onto snow just before the sun rose on the horizon. Our porter, Dorjee Sherpa, clad in jeans and without a headlamp, led the way. Our two rope teams navigated around deep, icicle-filled crevasses and used our ice axes to pull ourselves up a short vertical wall before we laid eyes on the summit ridge.
It stopped me in my tracks.
The 330-foot stretch was steep and teeming with a line of people slowly moving up the fixed lines. We clipped our jumars to the rope and joined the crowd.
Some people were letting their weight rest on the rope, too tired to press upward, so we had to wait patiently or unclip and move around them.
Slide the jumar up a few inches, step, step. Deep breath. Repeat.
“That’s when it being crowded was a good thing because I could rest without looking super slow,” Kavanaugh said. “It was definitely very challenging.”
I was uncomfortably warm. My heels ached and burned from standing on the steep slope so long. I stared in awe and envy at Nima as he effortlessly ran up and down to check on our team. Knell, Griffin and Matetich were already resting on the summit by the time I topped out.
I let out a whoop, smiled at the guys and plopped into the snow to wait for the others. When we were reunited again, we took celebratory photos and sang Nancy Sinatra’s song “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’.” Our team had successfully summited our first peak together, and we were content to sit atop the mountain for more than an hour, laughing and staring at the Himalayas.
The winds picked up as we retreated from the ridge, one by one, and rappelled down. We moved slower on the descent and it took roughly four hours before we were back at camp. We were dehydrated. Hungry. Tired. Elated.
Our guides brought us fruit juice and noodle soup, which we devoured as we packed for our return to Chukkung. We were in bed by 7:20 p.m. that night. We’d earned it.
IN HISTORY’S FOOTSTEPS
Three days later, we were bracing against whipping winds on the top of Kalapathar at 18,300 feet. It wasn’t a hard day — more of a hike than a climb — but the 180-degree views were worth being back in the midst of trekking traffic.
The peak is perfectly positioned with views of Mount Everest, Pumori, Lhotse and Nuptse. We could even see the Khumbu Icefall in the distance, which we would see again on our trek to Everest Base Camp.
We started at Gorak Shep and walked the trail, following in the footsteps of so many well-known mountaineers who took that route on their quest to climb the tallest mountain in the world. It was one of the highlights of the trip, living the experience rather than watching it on an IMAX film or reading it in a book.
“There’s so much climbing history that has passed through there,” Knell said. “We got to share the same trail with the George Mallorys and Whittakers and Edmund Hillarys. You get to tread in the footsteps of very famous people.”
It was also humbling to stand at base camp and see where the worst tragedy in Everest’s history unfolded. On April 18, 2014, a serac broke loose and triggered an avalanche that killed 16 Sherpas in the Khumba Icefall, a notoriously dangerous zone between base camp and Camp I.
There was one mountain left on our agenda, but only half our team decided to forge ahead with the plan to climb Lobuche. Knell, Griffin and Schissel set out for Namche Bazaar while Kavanaugh, Matetich and I headed for base camp.
Parting ways was tough, but there was a 20,075-foot mountain waiting.
When we woke for our alpine start, it was about zero degrees, cloudy and the ground was frost-covered. Our guides brought French toast and black tea to our tents, and we started climbing with satisfied bellies. The moonlight shone so brightly we ditched the headlamps and followed Dorjee up the rocky path.
The only sound was his soft voice, singing prayers in a language I wish I understood, if only to know the words that brought him such comfort and joy.
We picked our way over icy, slippery slab as the cold slowly sucked the life from my fingertips. Nima patiently rubbed my mitts between his hands before hurrying ahead to start setting ropes. It was slow going as he’d set a rope and we’d ascend behind him, a pattern we repeated multiple times before reaching the top.
We had the summit to ourselves.
We devoured coconut biscuits and cheese and playfully flexed our muscles for the camera, gazing at Everest across the valley. It was another moment.
In the aftermath of the climbs, those things seemed more prevalent than ever.
I’ve never climbed a mountain without being changed. The experience, the challenge, changes you and your perspective in subtle, lasting ways. But on this trip, among the world’s tallest mountains, I was most changed by the people who called them home.
“The Sherpa people exhibit such fortitude in holding up to the world around them and their sense of humor is first and foremost,” Matetich said.
Life in the high hills comes with hardships.
More than one-third of the population lives on less than 50 cents per day. Children must trek over treacherous terrain to attend school or live away from their families for a chance to be educated. Most scratch out a living on a small farm or running a business for the thousands of tourists who trek past each year.
But they are resilient, warmhearted and happy. They want to serve, they want to help, they want to know you.
Porters carry hundreds of pounds strapped to their back as they walk up grueling hills, but they are listening to music and laughing. Shop owners ask about visitors’ families and want to see pictures if you have children. Guides won’t eat until they have served your food and cleaned up the dishes, and they will sleep on uncomfortable benches while their clients snooze in private rooms.
When Griffin finished scrubbing his laundry in a bucket of cold water, Dorjee approached without a word and began warming Griffin’s hands with his own. On Kavanaugh’s birthday, Nima asked the tea house chef to bake a chocolate cake in her honor and had the entire room sing “Happy Birthday.” Knell came across a Sherpa who walked several miles just for a handful of juniper to burn in the tea house to mask the sweaty smell of all us climbers. When I fell ill on the last day of the trip and struggled on the walk back to Lukla, Nima stayed right behind me and insisted on carrying my pack. At Lobuche base camp, our guides immediately went to help an arriving group set up their tents without a word.
Those genuinely nice gestures from genuinely nice people stuck with our group far more than climbing success or summit views.
The meaning was in the moments.
Moments where we pushed our physical and mental boundaries. Moments where we spun prayer wheels and let our problems swirl up into the free space of fresh air. Moments where we grew from the love and compassion rained on us.
It was those simple moments that already have us planning our return trip.