In the morning we spin the prayer wheels and head up-trail toward Pangchung, stepping into the grassy clearing hours later to see our porters and cooks pitching tents, unloading cookware, gathering wood for a fire.
Tess and I crawl into the two-man tent, throw back the flap to catch the last of the afternoon sun. Two pans of washing water sit side by side on the canvas floor. We clean dirty fingernails and dusty feet, wipe the salt and sweat from our chest and back, and change into night clothes in a tent too small to stand in. I re-attach moleskin to both big toes and wrap the upper third of each foot in new tape. I floss teeth and clean my face. The sun drops behind the ridge of peaks. We lower the flap and close the zipper. Before leaving the tent, I take inventory of the clothes on my body: liners plus two pairs of socks, felt booties, cotton leggings, wool pants, wind pants, short sleeve wool t-shirt, long sleeve wool t-shirt, zip-neck long sleeve pullover, zip-neck long sleeve fleece, down vest, wool hat and wool mittens. I grab my down jacket and walk to the fire pit where Matt is teaching Chhongba to sing “Oh My Darlin’, Clementine.” In the next hour all of us will sing several rounds of “Sunshine Mountain” and after that, we’ll learn the motions to “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” We’ll do anything to stay warm.
The leggings Tess left on top of the tent are frozen in the morning. Frost coats our sleeping bags. We greet Tara and Mingma with glee: steaming hot bed tea, so delicious! After breakfast four of us head with Chhongba and Bhai Dahnu into the rhododendron forest at the edge of the clearing. We’re climbing to Lumding La, the 15,000-foot pass nestled in the peaks three thousand feet above us. Damp brown leaves litter the trail. Icicles hang from rock ledges. Snow lies mounded on the forest floor.
Above tree line the trail winds around rocks and boulders, shrub and ground cover. Mount Everest and Lhotse mark the horizon on our right. We stop for water, look to the top of the ridge. “Is that it, Polar Bear?”
“No.” Chhongba herded yak in these mountains when he was young. He hasn’t been up here in sixteen years. His return feels nostalgic, even sacred as he bows and makes an offering at the white khata.
Heads down, eyes on the trail, we climb. Grateful for long legs, I fire up the quads, hamstrings and glutes, plant the poles, engage the core and make the step.
We circle round the backside of the false summit and continue the climb, over, around and on top of rock, boulders and dirt trail. And then we see the pass, marked by a tall pole wrapped in frayed khatas and prayer flags. The trail is buried by ice and snow. There are no tracks, no footholds. No one has brought crampons. We stand in silence, staring at snow-covered rock leading to colorful flags up top, whipping in brilliant sunlight.
Polar Bear goes first, digging his boots into the snow to ensure solid footing. I follow Matt, looking neither up nor down, leaning into my poles, the boot firmly planted before I give it my weight.
Ten minutes? Twenty? Focus that hard and time stands still. Nobody falls. No one slips. We step onto the pass and look across a gorge thousands of feet deep, maybe a mile wide, to an expanse of massive mountains, their snow-covered peaks brushing the blue overhead.
We follow Chhongba another hundred yards along the ridge and sit, mesmerized by the view and the sheer enormity of this place. A breeze kicks up. We pull out hats and jackets, snap photos, and then Steve says what we’re all thinking: “Now we’ve gotta get down.”
A lot of hikers find going down harder than going up. The altitude is more forgiving but the joints feel more stress, knees especially. Hips, too. Balance is a bigger factor, particularly on steep terrain and scree. Steve finishes his thought. “How about we go down before we eat. Once we’re on the other side of that snow, we can wait for the guys to bring lunch.” Everyone’s in agreement: let’s get her done.
Bhai Dahnu leads this time, placing his feet in tracks less than an hour old. Steve goes next, followed by myself, Matt and Lynn. I imagine Chhongba standing on the pass, saying goodbye to this place he knows as home before following us down.
At dinner that night, we squeeze together under a comforter in the dining tent, eating quickly while the food is hot. Time for favorite things. I go first.
“Today we walked on rock and dried leaves. We stepped over boulders and made our way through ice and snow. I have a daughter who has never taken a step.” My voice catches, my eyes burn. “It was a privilege to climb the pass in her honor.” I look at Lynn. Her eyes are filled with tears. I can say no more.
We break camp early the next morning and head down to the Dudh Kosi River to pick up the trail that will take us north to Gokyo. We stop in Chusermo to visit Tsering, our cook in 2010, and sit on his stone wall, devouring our sack lunches: a wedge of sharp cheese, two circles of fried canned meat, a flat cake with shredded carrot. Tsering’s wife, Ami, pours steaming chai from a large thermos and passes a plate of sweet apple slices. I pull the oversized bag of chocolate-covered acai berries out of my pack and pass it down the line. We grab handfuls. When we can eat no more, Ami steps out of the house with a pile of boiled potatoes and the hottest red chili sauce imaginable, strong enough to render even Matt speechless.
A night in Toktok, departing just after dawn to get a jumpstart on the donkeys. Sound strategy but it doesn’t work. We hear the clanging bells before the sun reaches our side of the valley. We’re in shirt sleeves going up “the highway” to Namche, hot and sweaty, tired but strong, determined and happy. The trekkers coming down look depleted and ready to be home, wearing wool hats and down jackets. One by one we step into a tiny clearing for a glimpse of Everest and the tell-tale wisp of jet stream wafting from her tip.
We walk into Namche Bazaar in late afternoon, circle the stupa and spin the prayer wheels thousands of trekkers have spun before us, beseeching the gods for safe passage. We climb ancient stone steps to the house where Lama was born, now the Sherpa Lodge teahouse run by Pembha, Lama’s brother.
We’ve exchanged life as we know it for a new, less complicated routine: eat, walk, eat, walk, eat, and go to bed. There are no cars or roads, no supermarket, athletic club or shopping mall, no client meetings. Logistics are someone else’s responsibility. Lama consults with Lynn and decides where we spend the night, where we stop for chai, where we eat lunch. I have one duffel’s worth of belongings. Everyday I wear the same pair of boots and choose clothing from the same stuff sacks: dressing is simply a matter of how many layers. Personal hygiene is accomplished with a basin of warm water, Dr. Bronner’s biodegradable soap and one air-dry cloth the size of a hand towel. I buy no groceries and have no input about choice of food. Mahesh and his crew feed us well. I crave protein and yes, I would kill for a salad but I miss none of the work that goes with eating, which only affirms what I already know: if we were rich, I would hire a cook.
Late afternoon, a knock at the door. “Washing water?”
“No thanks,” Tess answers, and turns to me. “What’s the point,” and I agree. Our shirt sleeves are more brown than turquoise, my orange vest slowly turning gray. Sock liners, well, they’ll never be white again. Our headband and visor are as gross as our sticky, windblown hair. We wear the remains of the trail like an outfit we’ve purchased in a stall at the market.
I think about writing a book when I get home. My responsibility, I write in my journal, is to make the time and stay in the room. My inner self will hand up the language, the images, even the voice.
Back home, the confidence I felt in that thin Himalayan air threatens to evaporate. Starting a new draft is still the scariest thing I do—scarier than traversing the ice and snow on Lumding La—but there’s been a shift. Walk in those mountains for a few weeks and one thing gets real clear: only a fool believes she has forever.