After breakfast we walk out the back side of Gokyo and cross a wide, shallow stream that takes us to the base of Gokyo Ri. At 17,570 feet, she’s the tallest peak of the trek—2,000 vertical feet from where we stand. We head up a trail flanked by mounds of ridiculously white snow on familiar terrain: packed earth, large boulders, loose rock. Keep the core tight, bistare, bistare. A young couple on their way down steps off the trail and waits for us to pass. “We left at three this morning,” says the woman, perky and fresh, flashing a smile. “We wanted to see the sunrise.” More smiling. “God, it was amazing! So worth it!” Chipper comes to mind, light on her feet, poured into those hiking pants, gorgeous. I remember thirty.
We start again, panting those first minutes until the heart finds her rhythm and the lungs fill. The air is thin and crisp. We don’t talk; everything we’ve got goes to the mountain. Prayer flags whip in the wind on the spiky ridge overhead. “Chhongba,” I yell between breaths, “is that the summit?”
“No, that is false summit.”
Of course it is. I won’t repeat Tess’s comment, only to add that it seems like we’ve been out here since July. Moving through the clearest air imaginable feels to the lungs like slogging through mud, the legs heavy as logs. The physical challenge turns mental. I pull the mind into the present: plant the poles, lift the leg, place the boot, make the step.
Lynn and Steve are waiting at the top. I step onto the summit and turn full circle. White peaks everywhere, colorful prayer flags, people, gear. Down below the houses of Gokyo spread like legos at the water’s edge. We hug one another. We cry. We give our cameras to a stranger. He snaps the shot.
Behind us, beyond the wide swath of the Ngozumba glacier, sit Everest, Lhotse and Makalu, three of the five tallest mountains in the world. On the back side, the mighty Himalaya gradually recede to the vast Tibetan plateau—nearly one million square miles of moonscape known as the Rooftop of the World.
I step away from the ledge, set my pack in the snow and untie the khata from Ami. On this day 26 years ago, I stood with Jim and my parents in the international terminal at O’Hare in Chicago, waiting for the flight carrying five-month-old Ali from Seoul, Korea. November 19th: Ali’s Arrival Day, her second birthday. I kiss the yellow scarf, drape it over the line strung with hundreds more, and tie it with a double knot. “This is for you, Ali,” I say into the wind. “This is for both of us.”
I was a runner during those early years with Ali, destined to discover that no amount of exercise—no amount of anything—could turn a compromised brain into a normal one. I had no idea what we were in for, didn’t want to know and if someone tried to tell me, I didn’t believe them. Mostly I did what people like me do best: I kept going—without a trail map, a Sherpa or a departure date. Over time, our ordinary days and months and years slowly unfolded into our own remarkable story. Along the way I learned what it means to be fueled by something more powerful than muscular strength and stamina. I looked into the eyes of fear and disappointment and called them by name. I learned the limits of willfulness and effort, and I learned about love, the juicy, no-matter-what, forever kind of love. Ali was four when we moved to Denver. The friends I found in Colorado traveled frequently to Nepal, bringing back treasures and sharing their stories. Maybe one day was the best I could do at the time. Barbara knew better twenty years ago, and now I know better, too. I am a traveler.
We’re down from Gokyo Ri in half the time it took to go up. Lama and Matt are waiting at the bottom. We eat, rest for an hour and leave, eager to sleep at lower elevation. Lynn has diligently calculated our ascents since we walked out of Shivalaya. On day 15, we’ve climbed more than 40,000 vertical feet.
We cross the river a few hours out of Gokyo and walk into a farmstead in Nha La owned by a man who herds yak and leads expeditions. He has summited Everest sixteen times, the first at age nineteen. He teaches high-altitude climbing to Sherpas at the Khumbu Climbing School in Phortse, a four-hour walk (for us) from his farm.
“Do you train for Everest?” Matt asks during dinner.
“No,” the man says. Lama explains: the man runs to Phortse and back.
We ask what it’s like to be on the top of Everest. He stares at his shoes, thinks about his answer. He’s taller than most Nepalis. Expedition posters from Everest, Cho-Oyu and Ama Dablam decorate the walls.
“You get a little tired,” he says, finally, and laughs. That’s it?!
Our mouths hang open. “Do you use oxygen?”
“No, I do not.” He pauses. “I carry oxygen bottles for the other people,” he says, shaking his head. “Yah, it’s a heavy load.” He’s laughing again. Joy fills the room. The man is amazing.
The next day we think about him running when we climb, drop down and climb again into Phortse. Across the expanse we see the trail we took to Gokyo, snaking along the ridge on the opposite side of the gorge. At our backs the towering Cho-Oyu pokes through feathery clouds.
In Phortse we meet up with John and Bai Dahnu, who’ve spent two days at Tengboche’s Mani Rimdu festival. We also meet up with the short trek group—Ally (Matt’s wife), Nick and Gail, Kelly, and Becky—all friends from Denver. We hike another five days, visiting the monasteries at Pangboche and Tengboche and the nunnery in Deboche, then climb back up to Namche for one more night in Lama’s brother’s lodge.
We spend the morning reading and dozing on the lawn above the terminal while we wait for the fog to lift in Kathmandu. The landing strip on the other side of the chain-link fence is one of the shortest in the world; the airport, the world’s most dangerous. There are no runway lights—there’s barely a runway—and no control tower, just more letting go.
We fly out in a 19-passenger DHC-6 Twin Otter. Lama claps when we’re airborne and again when we touch down in Kathmandu.
“Hey Lama,” comes a voice from the back of the plane, “nothing is impossible!”
“Yah,” he answers, breaking into a laugh. “Nothing is impossible.”
Special thanks to Lynn Hetterich, who supplied many photos for this series.
Much love, dear friend. You and Steve made it all possible.