On November 3rd, we started out just after two AM; the whole team walked in a single line across the glacier to the base of the steep slope that signifies the beginning of the route. Within 30 minutes my lungs were heaving. Not that the climbing was difficult – I was just walking up a steep snow slope – but my body isn’t used to 18,000 feet yet, so I had to take it slower than I wanted to. After about two hours, I reached the cornice, which now contained the notch that the Shepa team cut into it. I pulled myself up and looked over the other side to see only early morning darkness. It hit me then that there weren’t people around for miles. Miles and miles and miles. I liked that solitary feeling.
Next, just as I had visualized, the route rose three times, the first time snaking along the edge of the cornice that I had just climbed over. Walking on cornices makes me edgy so I moved as quickly as possible, avoiding eye contact with the ice axe holes that exposed hundreds of feet of air below me.
Above 20,000 feet, my lungs felt challenged, and I had to remind myself to find a rhythm. My brain and legs really wanted to move faster, but my lungs were the limiting factor and I focused on simple things: breathe, breathe, breathe, step, breathe, breathe, breathe, step. Eventually I stopped thinking about the mechanics of breathing and moving, and instead thought about why it was important for me to climb today. November 3rd would have been my Father’s 71st birthday. No one planned to attempt the summit on this day, it just worked out that way, and it seemed like a gift to have this personal motivation. So, with each step I would say something that he used to say: “I always did like you the best”, “no one said that everything in life is fair”, “just put one foot in front of the other”, “don’t wish that it was easier, wish that you were better”. These anecdotes kept me focused and pushed me, especially when things were difficult. Eventually, at the top of a vertical ice wall, I looked to my right and could see prayer flags hanging over the highest lip of snow, and I knew that I was less than an hour from the summit.
I arrived there, to the sound of Dandi singing Nepalese pop songs and celebrating our team’s success. Although I was worn out and hypoxic, it occurred to me that today was a celebration … of firsts, of birthdays, and of lives - human and feline - that that touched many people. I was grateful for the opportunity to be a part of it.