were all around us. Ama Dablam hung over our heads, and Everest and Lhotse
reminded us how small we were. It was November, and each night a new dusting of
snow dropped on the peaks. The wind came up in the evenings, and cold fog from
the valleys curled over the monastery. With evening the yaks came to the
meadows, their clanking bells echoing off the bare rock ridges around our
The monks began
prayers. Their chants and the music of long brass horns (like alpenhorns) were
a weird symphony. The shrines around the monastery were silhouetted in the fog
and setting sun. A dark-robed monk made his evening rounds, and a cold, cold
wind drove us into our down sleeping bags for the night, making us wonder which
planet we were on.
changed as we began to seriously consider an assault on one of the peaks. The
holiday in the lowlands was over. There was less joking, each of us anxious to
size himself up against the mountains. Early one morning we left Thyangboche
with light packs and headed toward a low ridge near Everest to test ourselves,
a sort of training climb. We took a tent, light rations and high-altitude
clothing. Our path took us past the last trees and to a spot on the map called
Pheriche, a few miles from the old base camp of the AMEE (the American Mount
Everest Expedition). We put up our tent in the lee of an old stone hut the
Sherpas used in the summer when they pastured their yaks in the higher
offered a brilliant sight. The valley of the Imja Khola, where we had camped,
was like a big bowl. Several inches of new snow had fallen. The tops of the
peaks were flashing with light from the early sun, while the valley itself was
still frigid and dark. We stood for a few minutes, shivering, and watched the
sun move across the valley, bringing with it a little warmth.
Gary and I eyed
the ridge to the north, a small extension of Nuptse (25,850 feet), and decided
to climb it. David planned to spend the day near the camp, looking for a
species of beetle wanted by one of the museums.
Gary and I took
off up the steep ridge at a pace that could only be called foolhardy. For about
3,000 feet we made great progress, when suddenly we had had it. We scrambled up
another 500 feet or so. Then, exhausted, we took a few pictures and began to
stumble down the mountain. David saw us coming and made tea for us at camp. He
knew we were tired, he said, because he could see we weren't running down,
which we usually did.
Gary and I
collapsed at camp, drank sweet tea and discussed with Dave the results of our
experiment. We had pushed hard on purpose, to see how long we could keep it up.
We were pleased, but we realized something that previous experience in Europe
and Alaska had suggested to us. The fatigue of high altitude is a deceptive
thing. It creeps up on you until you suddenly catch yourself doing something
clumsy, or stupid, or dangerous.
The sun went
down, and the cold closed in on us with an abruptness we were to come to dread
in a few days. As long as the sun was up we felt a kind of superficial warmth.
We could feel our faces frying in the thin air, but our feet would grow numb if
we held still. In a matter of minutes after the sun set, life became a
struggle. If there was a wind, we had to make camp. It was nearly December, and
the cold, forbidding peaks, as well as the extreme loneliness of an empty
Himalayan valley in winter, were almost frightening to the three of us.
The march back to
Thyangboche was beautiful. In the bright sun our eyes roamed over the peaks
picking imaginary routes, and we hoped that someday we could come back with a
bigger, richer expedition that could support an assault on one of the large
ones. So much of Himalayan climbing is decided by money and logistical support,
not by nerve or skill. It should be this way. The mountains are big, and a few
men, no matter how brave or technically skilled, are helpless against them. The
great expeditions are like armies, with dozens of Sherpas, hundreds of porters,
hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of supplies and a large team of
first-rate climbers, the generals.
Ours was small,
and the total cost was about $5,000, most of which was raised from friends. We
had no hope of climbing a really big peak. So we left Thyangboche, after
several more trips into the surrounding valleys, and began the trek back out to
Katmandu. Rather than travel by the route we took in, we swung to the north and
took the main trade route to Tibet, along the Bhote Kosi.