A Christmas tree might have proved an unsafe height recently, but we once climbed to an oxygen-starved 5545m.
The film Beyond the Edge http://fasmatodea.blogspot.co.nz/2013/12/yearly-projections.html has made me think that it’s time to recount our own humble Himalayan adventure. Ever since a Kiwi beekeeper climbed to the highest point on Earth in 1953, Mt Everest has felt to many almost like a distant annex of New Zealand. It isn’t, of course. It’s a sacred mountain puzzlingly named after a 19th-century British surveyor, but known more authentically and evocatively to local people as Chomolungma or Sagarmatha – the great Mother Goddess. Either way, many New Zealanders are drawn to trek the Himalayan foothills, enjoying even more goodwill from the Nepalese than usual thanks to the humanitarian legacy of Sir Edmund Hillary. At the end of 1994, we were among them.
Travelling to the roof of the world had been a long-held ambition and returning to a New Zealand summer after several years away presented the opportunity to fulfil this dream. But actually reaching Nepal turned into a nightmare when we became stranded in Moscow and were forced to take an unplanned, expensive flight to Delhi to get out of Russia.
India couldn’t have been more welcoming, but we had our hearts set firmly on Nepal and we were soon part of a surge of humanity filling a night train to the northern border. Sleeping fitfully in our berths, we rattled through one of the world’s most venerable and spiritual lands, while a constellation of well-meaning eyes and smiling teeth glowed in the darkness of the carriage around us.
Finally arriving in Nepal felt like reaching the Promised Land, and we began with a truncated trek through the Annapurna circuit as a warm-up for the higher Himalayan trails. We were introduced to the rhythms of early rising and retiring, with the hours in between punishing us with endless climbing and rewarding with breathtaking views. We reached altitudes above 3000 metres, very modest compared with what we would face later, but high enough to matter when I had to literally crawl out of a steep but admittedly beautiful valley, weakened by the first of many stomach upsets. Trekkers are always warned that altitude sickness is the greatest enemy, but unfamiliar bacteria in your digestive tract can floor you more effectively. The ensuing 11-hour night bus to Kathmandu was an exhausting experience, almost every minute of the journey spent with my body clenched against cramps.
Dawn in a new city, even one as crowded and noisy as Nepal’s capital, can have a restorative effect and, after a frenzy of permit applications and transport bookings, we were heading into the Sagarmatha National Park to begin our weeks-long ascent to the Mt Everest base camp. We soon met up with a shifting roster of new friends and together had experiences that will remain with me forever as a personal cinematic montage. Roll sequence: Gazing contentedly at distant peaks from a recently conquered ridge, crossing outrageously high and unsafe wooden bridges, watching langur monkeys playing in the trees, turning a Buddhist prayer wheel as we pass one of many monasteries and exchanging ‘‘namaste’’s with smiling Nepalese sherpas as they jog past us with twice their own body weight strapped across their shoulders.
Now intercut with gut-busting climbs of hundreds of metres straight up, suddenly gasping awake from sleep apnoea because of the thinning oxygen as we ascended towards base camp, almost falling down a mountain when I foolishly climbed a peak by myself and, yes, my recurring stomach upsets. But even this had its amusing side. The night before our final climb to 5545m and an unsurpassed view of the great Mother Goddess, I was awoken by an all-too familiar urgent need and quickly found a latrine hut. Pulling open the door, I was confronted by a huge, shaggy, heavy-breathing figure stamping its displeasure on the wooden floor, and almost lost all control in shock. It was not the fabled yeti, but a yak which had somehow found its way inside and shut the door.
The encounter might have inspired me to visit Khumjung Monastery on our way back down, where I had heard a famous yeti scalp was kept. I spent a serene afternoon sipping tea and eating bread and jam with a novice monk whose command of English was only slightly better than my Nepalese. Despite momentarily startling him with my enthusiastic mime of a yeti, I was honoured with a viewing of many other religious relics, but left with the mystery of the Abominable Snowman very much intact. Our trek eventually ended when we bumped and rattled our way off the edge of a cliff and safely into the air, at the infamous Lukla airstrip. Although our pilot appeared to be reading a newspaper throughout our flight back to Kathmandu, we arrived safely for a few days of relaxing après trek. We dined at restaurants and drank beer, neither of which was easy to do in the mountains. Perhaps it was letting my guard down and not eating as cautiously as I should have, which caused me to become seriously ill this time.
Coming out of a mild delirium in which I imagined the folds in my bed sheets were distant mountain ranges, I found our new trekking friends had come to say goodbye. ‘‘You’re not seeing me at my best,’’ I said, a little bizarrely. ‘‘We already have,’’ they replied with smiles equal parts worried and reassuring. It was to be many weeks before I was anywhere near my best again.
Rose literally carried me back to New Zealand, a lifesaving feat made easier by my plummeting body weight. Arriving back at Christmas was the worst possible time for diagnosis and treatment, but being unable to move by this point meant that I had plenty of opportunity to recover from renal failure by myself. It seems that recurring illness had dehydrated me once too often, as far as my kidneys were concerned. It wasn’t the merriest of Christmases, but I was home and safe. My mother arranged a special repeat Christmas dinner several weeks later, as I slept through December 25. It had been a summer of unsurpassed heights and life ebbing lows and, when my health returned, I had been changed in many ways. I had glimpsed the roof of the world, but also learnt to never take feeling well for granted again