Sunday, April 23, 2017

It's Not The Altitude; It's The Attitude

by Guest Writer: Darsha Dodge

“You’re…what?”
“I’m going to Everest.”
“When?”
“Next month.”
“I know you’re serious, but…you’re serious?”
“Yes.”
“With who?”
“Alone.”
“Well…uh…okay then.”
 

I had this conversation at least 7 times in mid-January of this year when I announced that I’d be taking a month off of work to make the trek to Everest Base Camp in Nepal. At first, it was a pipe-dream, a delusion, and then, as if God was clearing the path for me, everything fell into place. I had the money – just enough to cover my expenses for the trip and keep my bills afloat while abroad – and our Gift Shop was undergoing a remodel, meaning we were encouraged to take vacation time in order to keep our sanity. The only thing left was organizing my academics for those few weeks, and in an unlikely twist of events, the only professor whose classwork I’d be missing just so happened to have traveled to Nepal previously, fallen in love with it, and agreed to allow me to make up nearly a months’ worth of work so that I could go. That was the last piece to fall into place. I had the tickets booked – with time in New York City and Dubai along the way – the guide reserved, and my duffle bag packed (and let me tell you, that was an adventure in and of itself!).

On February 17th, I stopped by work to hug everyone goodbye – including the person who unwittingly pushed me into taking time off – got in my car, and drove 6 hours to Denver to catch my midnight flight to New York. I spent my 12-hour layover riding the metro, searching for a mysterious Staten Island pizza joint, and walking around in the cold but sunny Central Park. Late that evening, I boarded a flying city (seriously, Emirates A380 Airbuses are m-a-s-s-i-v-e) bound for the United Arab Emirates, turned my music up, and spent 13 hours in the most luxurious economy-class flight cabin known to man. We landed in Dubai around 2 the next afternoon, where I promptly transited through UAE Customs (a terrifying experience), and spent the next several hours wandering around this east-meets-west, old-meets-modern city, where the worlds’ tallest building dominates the skyline just miles from crowded and dusty streets packed with vendors trying to make enough to survive. I also got a first hand look at Jumeirah Beach (pictured below). 


As a white woman who speaks only a few sentences of basic Arabic, I have never felt safer in a foreign city. I took a taxi to the beach, where the sun was starting to set the sky ablaze behind the worlds’ only 7-star hotel (the Burj al Arab), and walked in the cool sand while the azure water lapped at the bottom of my jeans. I walked down the pathway of Dubai’s marina, a towering metropolis dotted with elegant restaurants and expensive high-rise housing, and stopped to eat a fancy waffle (didn’t know there was such a thing) while listening to the call of prayer coming from a decadent mosque just across the canal from me. Here I was, almost 22, standing alone in a foreign city, in a part of the world where “white women just don’t go,” and I was comfortable. 

There is a certain magic, I’ve found, in being completely alone in a foreign country. There's a certain sense of responsibility that comes with the freedom of being who and whatever you want. But the adventure hadn’t even really begun yet, and I boarded an early morning flight to the bustling Nepali capital of Kathmandu, where my trek was to begin.

In the west, we have rules. Traffic laws. Social norms. Things like, “don’t pass people on the wrong side of the road while driving well-over the speed limit,” and “personal space is an important thing.” Nepali’s don’t follow this way of thinking. After 45 minutes of arguing my way through customs (“You here for trekking, go this line.” “You need this paper, go find.” “Where you from? Ah, American…woman…alone…interesting.”), I was thrust violently into a throng of people struggling to find their rides. After spotting an adorably short Nepali man holding a sign with my name and waving excitedly, I put on my sunglasses in the coolest way possible (I decided to channel my inner Indiana Jones for this adventure) and made my way over to him. This was Min, my guide, who would become a close friend and father-like figure over the coming weeks. We made our way to an old Suzuki taxi, where the driver slammed on the gas and began weaving erratically through Kathmandu traffic (which includes cars, pedestrians, motorcycles, dogs, and the occasional cow), dropping us off at our hotel and proving that I’ve never been happier to see solid ground. A few quick introductions, safety briefings, and gear runs, and I collapsed into bed with the windows open and the unrelenting noise of the backpackers’ district of Thamel singing me to sleep.

6 am we were up, dressed, packed, and headed off to the airport to catch a mountain flight to Lukla (9,318 ft.), the worlds’ most dangerous airport, where the long trek to EBC begins. After a lax security check and some hardboiled eggs for breakfast, Min and I pushed our way into the waiting area, where I met Blaine, a friendly and talkative forty-something man from Alaska, who had only intended on trekking to Namche Bazaar with us and ended up staying the entire trek. We boarded a cramped prop plane (where I elbowed my way past some Swedes for a left-side seat – where the Himalayan views are!) and took off on the bumpiest 45-minute flight that exists in the world today…a flight that ends with 1000 feet of landing strip that slopes upward drastically. This is where our adventure was to begin.

Trains of yaks wearing bells passed us on the narrow and steep cobbled path, and we faced our fears crossing suspension bridges swinging over deep drops in the Dudh Koshi (Milk River). We overnighted in Phakding (8,690 ft.), where we made friends with a British couple, Paul and Faye, who schooled us in pool, and met a Scottish fellow named Christopher who would become near and dear to me by the end of the trip. The next day brought a grueling uphill climb to Namche Bazaar (11,287 ft.), the Sherpa capital, where we had stunning views of Thamserku and the Kongde Range…views we paid for with a steep climb to our acclimatization point…or really anywhere we wanted to go in the village! Our second day in Namche meant we got our first view of Everest, Ama Dablam, and Nuptse – after an “easy uphill walk” to the Everest View Hotel. We met up with many of the other teams who were on their way to various destinations in the Himalayas, enjoyed some coffee, and spent the evening watching my favorite climbing movie (“Everest,” released in 2005) and eating popcorn. From Namche, we pushed onward to Tengboche (12,684 ft.), site of the famous Tengboche Monastery, where we were fortunate enough to witness the prayer chants for Tibetan New Year. I also, in traditional Darsha-fashion, made friends with the local street dogs. 


It was a cold night, but being able to see the summit of Mount Everest from my window made it all worth it. We climbed on to Dingboche (14,271 ft.), passing our Scottish friend along the way, and spent that evening chatting with Nicole, a fun and adventurous Aussie who was going guide-less to Base Camp. Skipping our second acclimatization day in favor of using it as a rest day on the descent, we continued on to Lobuche (16,177 feet), where I fell seriously ill almost immediately. I spent several hours lying face down in my bed, every movement a pain, stomach doing backflips, head pounding, ears ringing, and unable to even walk straight. Blaine, Min, and Nicole sat me in front of the wood stove, wrapped me in blankets, brought me hot tea, and sent for a doctor from the Pyramid Research Center just outside of Lobuche. It was the only time in my life that a group of men were making decisions about my health that I was not involved in – and the only word I understood of the entire hushed conversation was “helicopter.” The doctor stayed the night with us, insisting I be on oxygen (which I refused, as it would be impossible to acclimatize higher if I took it), and by the next morning, I was almost completely back to normal. To Min’s surprise, we pushed higher to Gorak Shep (16,962 ft.) and then made the summit of Kala Patthar (18,193 ft.) – the highest altitude we would reach during our ascent! I won’t say that I didn’t cry on the ascent and descent – I was unbelievably exhausted and mildly afraid my brain would swell up from cerebral edema – but the view was undoubtedly worth it, even though my nice porter kid kept looking at me like I was a sad puppy. 

We spent the night on the glacier in Gorak Shep, where other teams were also at the same level of “done” that we were; no one could eat solid food, hold their head up for long, or carry on a conversation for more than a few seconds. Early the next morning, after a night spent shivering in 4 layers of clothing, three pairs of socks, a sleeping bag, and two yak wool blankets, we headed out for the pinnacle of our adventure – the reason we were all here – Everest Base Camp. My knees were swollen up like cantaloupes, my feet were covered thickly in rough callouses, and it was the single most exciting morning of my life! We walked, climbed, and trudged on for a couple of hours before descending sharply out onto a rocky moraine perched in front of a wide field of blue glacial ice – the Khumbu Ice Fall – undoubtedly the most dangerous part of climbing Mount Everest, and the most recognizable feature of Everest Base Camp. Millions of tons of sparkling glacial ice cracking and yawning behind us, Blaine and I skipped excitedly out to the piles of rocks wrapped in prayer flags, surrounded by mementos, urns, and rocks with messages to deceased loved ones written on them. There were only a few bright orange tents – belonging to the Spanish climbing expedition – as the day we reached Base Camp was the first official day of climbing season, and most teams would be arriving soon. We took turns photographing each other, leaving mementos we brought, listening to Min whistle and sing in Nepali, and staring in awe at the feat we’d just completed. Everest Base Camp, at 17,594 feet, was our final destination. This was what we’d slogged on for, what we hadn’t showered in days for, what we’d been eating rice and soup for.

As we stood in the shadow of these giants, I couldn’t help but think of the immensity of what I’d just done. 8 years prior, I’d been given a set of Tibetan prayer flags, which I’d kept in every room I’d lived in since…and now here I was, standing at the base of Chomolungma – the Tibetan name for Mount Everest (meaning “Mother of the Earth”) surrounded by them. I thought about my favorite climber – Scott Fischer – who died in the 1996 disaster, and who stood in much the same spot I was at some point. 
Here I was, an androgynous blob of polar fleece, khaki, and exhaustion, and I’d never felt like such a strong woman. I was 21, standing at the base of the world’s tallest mountain after spending nearly two weeks trekking through the remote Solukhumbu region of Nepal, having not showered in days, and having nearly been forced to descend due to altitude sickness. I felt strong. I felt invincible. I felt the prayers and well-wishes of the amazing people who supported me during my journey. 



Something about me in that moment - standing in the vicious Himalayan sun, staring up through the ice fall – something changed. I was at the bottom of the top of the world, and everything negative that I’d ever thought about myself – about being too much or not being enough, about my abilities or lack thereof – I left it there at the base of that mountain. We strolled back into Lukla a few days later, caught our plane back to Kathmandu, and spend our final night with the great people that we’d met during our travels. Min hugged us both, put on his sunglasses, shouldered his massive pack, and strolled off casually into the chaos of Kathmandu. Blaine left that evening, and after a fun night with Christopher and our new Austrian friend (Anita) involving delicious Nepali rum and an interesting rice-based alcohol (which was probably paint thinner passed off as consumable) I boarded my flight back towards reality.

It seems like a lifetime ago that I was standing there on that glacier in the middle-of-nowhere Nepal, staring up at the jagged peaks ringing us, watching Blaine leave a collection of rocks for his aging mother, listening to the thunderous crack of avalanches raining down around us. Sometimes, when I’m lying in my warm bed at night, I can still smell the wood-burning stoves that definitely saved our toes from certain frostbite, I can still hear the chime of the bells from the yak trains carrying supplies up and down the mountain, and I can still feel the unrelenting wind that chapped and cracked our sensitive skin. My map of the region that I haggled for in Namche hangs on the wall, along with my trekking permit, a certificate of completion for my adventure, and two photos of me from Base Camp and Kala Patthar. The ceiling of my room is decorated with the large prayer flags I packed back from Nepal. These are tangible things, things I bought and carried home. The real treasure of the trip was finding out that sometimes you find yourself in the middle-of-nowhere, and sometimes, in the middle-of-nowhere, you find yourself.

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