Monday, 29 June 2015

Altitude problem

"Love is like oxygen,
you get too much, you get too high
not enough and you're gonna die..."
(Sweet, 1977)

As I sat alone atop the second highest point on the planet which I'll probably ever reach, finally accustomed to the very thin air and breathing easily, I felt elated and invincible.  Chewing on a carefully rationed slice of yak cheese, I contemplated the valley floor far below and thought: "That doesn't look so far, I'll get back much more quickly if I go straight down..."

The effects of high altitude oxygen deprivation on your decision-making skills are well-documented. One symptom is euphoria, which combined with your reduced powers of reasoning can lead a climber to suffer delusions about their own abilities.
Which is a very good reason why no-one should climb alone.

I was clambering about by myself because we had already crested the highest point we'd ever reach a few days earlier, gasping in the oxygen depleted air as we gazed across at the world's highest mountain from 5545m in the sky. A side trip to a peak in a neighbouring valley offered an alternative view of 'the Great Mother Goddess' from a peak at its end, but having already seen the best; my wife wisely chose a rest morning instead.

While she read and sipped tea in the sun, I was happily lowering myself down from the safe path onto the steep, shingled upper flank of a mountain, my oxygen-starved brain still unable to comprehend that the reason I could see the valley floor so clearly was because it was at the distant foot of an almost sheer drop.

Something about being so high in those mountains makes surrounding geography seem utterly accessible. From your unaccustomed viewpoint looking across and down at peaks you feel a strange kinship - they don't seem so towering, or dangerous anymore. The sky was cloudless, the winter sun warmed my face and the whole world seemed to be easily within my reach. I'd soon be back at the camp, enthusing about how worthwhile, and easy, my little solo excursion was. I'd laugh and add that I didn't even need to stay on the path coming back.

A lone trekker, about to make a very silly mistake.
Then the ground shifted underneath me. The shingle hissed and I fell back against it, throwing my arms out for something stable to catch hold of. I wasn't laughing now. As I sent the first of many boulders cart-wheeling and crashing down towards the valley floor, my delusional inner-peace felt suddenly doused by a bucket load of icy mountain water.  What the bloody hell was I doing?
Lying back on far-too steep angle, my stomach churned as I tried not to move and work out what to do next. If I started rolling like the rocks I'd dislodged I'd never stop. My jump-started brain went straight into sharp self-recrimination mode: how could I let myself get into this situation, what had I been thinking - what an utterly stupid way to die.  The vast blue sky suddenly seemed impassive, immense and uncaring, and I was unimaginably tiny, pinned underneath it. I wanted to cry.

I remembered Cat Stevens recounting how he was swept far from shore by treacherous currents, and made the frantic vow which led to his famous Islamic conversion, if only higher powers would intervene and save him.  I wouldn't have declined some celestial intervention either. I was playing silly buggers in mountains deemed holy since the beginning of recorded history and was now receiving a sharp lesson in respect.

Just as it's difficult to understand how I got into this predicament, it's equally hard to say how I got out again. I remember sending more rocks tumbling every time I shifted but I knew I couldn't stay there.

If I tried to fight gravity and pull myself straight back up with nothing secure to hang onto, I knew I'd be joining those distant bouncing rocks which I could still glimpse on a rapid one-way journey in the opposite direction. With no other option available apart from becoming a permanent monument to stupidity, I tried inching sideways instead, like some weird alpine starfish. The scree underneath me miraculously held and I started to breathe again, dislodging less and less debris as I crept across the slope with horrible slowness. Crawling back towards a lower stretch of the path I'd abandoned seemingly hours ago, I gradually felt the angle beneath me begin to level out and the clawing downward pull recede.

I finally clambered back onto the path and dared to straighten up again, blood pumping in my ears and my breath shuddering. We had passed the tree-line many, many days ago, and the slight breeze had nothing to rustle through - the utter silence seemed to shout all around me.
The descent I then made was not quite as quick as my original, temporarily-insane plan would have been, but still extremely rapid.  I wanted to be away from there as fast as possible, where my over-familiarity with the mountains had bred their contempt, and my own negligible grasp of reason had let me down so badly.

Despite the resulting near-calamity, that solitary exultant and transcendent feeling of looking down on creation, and being at nodding terms with the gargantuan, unimaginably-ancient peaks all about me is hard to forget. It may have been oxygen starvation doing the thinking, but I really was on top of the world.
Part of the panoramic view from five and a half thousand metres - the highest peak at the extreme left is Chomolungma to the Tibetans, Sagarmatha to the Nepalese, and (a little underwhelmingly) Everest to us.

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