My head lay comfortably on the pillow of the ambulance stretcher as I looked out the window. My brown leather boots still dark and wet from the snow with the blue toe piece matching the circular “H” sticker on the rear window of the ambulance. Just beyond that I could still see the helicopter that was used to rescue me from the top of Mount Everest. This is the beginning of the end of my story to the top of the world but first I must tell you how it all began.
The decision to travel the world and learn as much as I could from people I thought could teach me something real and valuable was well underway. My flights were booked to Nepal to teach English to Buddhist monks and in return I could learn about Buddhism, meditation and positive living. As I began to learn more about Nepal the first thing that always came up was the Himalayas and the infamous ‘Mount Everest’ the highest peak in the world at a staggering 8,848 meters or 29,029 feet. Being the brash person I am I figured, well if I’m going to Nepal may as well climb up that thing. The decision was slightly inspired by my best friend an equally wonderful, special sort of jackass who decided to bike ride across the entire United States with zero training. He made it, had an amazing time and raised some money for charity, way to go Joel Hayhoe, I never doubted you for a second. I figured if he could do something like that then I could certainly get up Mount Everest, after all I’m supposed to be the athlete of the two of us.
My time with the monks had ended and after hours of research I decided that I would not only hike Mount Everest but also I’d go to the second highest camp in the world only four meters lower than base camp in Gokyo Ri. This trek promised even more spectacular views than Everest and as I am a visual person with a knack for taking photos I figured this was the way to go.
I arrived at Kathmandu airport ready for my adventure, big travel bag packed, -40 degree north face jacket and sleeping bag and still tired from being woken at 5:30 am to make my flight. We had to fly into Lukla airport and as the time passed with varying weather conditions I grew more and more nervous as this airport is literally ranked the most dangerous airport in the world. After some plane maintenance the pilot was ready to go as he looked out the foggy window and prepared for take off. The flight through the mountains was exceptionally dramatic and quite nerve racking, as the plane would dip in altitude and sway side to side with eerie regularity. As we began to descend into the airport we had to turn left round a massive green and brown mountain to aim for the small runway paved on the edge of a cliff. With only one chance for each pilot to make the landing ours didn’t let us down and we landed safely.
I carefully exited the plane and saw a small Nepali man holding a torn out piece of paper with my name on it, sure enough I was the only Matthew around and enter story Torje my guide and Omrit (nick name) my porter. Both men had limited English and seemed to be cheerful in nature, especially Omrit. After some small talk, an overview of the itinerary and some breakfast we were ready to begin our ascent. The weather was sunny and clear but still cold as hell since it is the middle of winter. I walked slowly the entire way to Phakding our first stop with an altitude of 2620 meters. Food was always a mystery so I had to order carefully, the shower was cold so I decided against that and tried to get as much rest in the frigid weather as possible.
Rays of sun burst into my room from the small opening between the dreary brown curtains as I awoke to yet another sunny day and headed for Namche Bazaar. This was an extremely difficult part of the trek as the climb was steep and tiring, I passed many yaks, which I grew quite fond of and stopped to admire the beauty and magnitude of the Himalayas quite often. It was here I saw the elusive Mount Everest for the first time. Far in the distance a dark peak revealed itself high in the sky, although seemingly smaller than all the mountains before it. A smile came across my face and the wind cooled my body as I was sweating a great deal from the arduous climb, although it seemed still out of reach I felt a deep sense of satisfaction since I laid my eyes on the great Mount Everest. I had to acclimatize an extra day in Namche and enjoyed viewpoints and the company of other people from around the world looking to conquer Everest. There was also a museum I was able to visit and learn a great deal about the history of Everest, the Nepali people, and the Himalayas.
The next few days I continued my ascent up to my first peak at Gokyo. As I got higher the air grew thinner and the nights grew colder, however the views grew more and more spectacular and I tried to savor as much of the beauty as possible. Finally after walking six days up hill I had reached Gokyo at an altitude of 4790 meters. The weather had been brilliant the entire time and my new friend Guy from England and I had the choice to hike to Gokyo Ri, which apparently has the most spectacular view of Everest and the surrounding mountains later that afternoon or in the morning. After a nap the clouds looked to be getting worse so we decided to check the view in the morning. That night I spent a good hour starring at the clearest sky I’ve ever seen. The stars seemed much closer and much brighter than ever before and sparkled with exceptional luminosity. I could easily see constellations and literally hundreds of stars I’ve never seen before. Another trekker explained to me earlier that at this altitude we are dealing with about half of the normal atmosphere and there is zero pollution, which explains the crystal clear view. The sight of the night sky was certainly grandiose and raised so many questions about life and universe but that’s a totally different subject entirely. When I decided to go to bed it was even harder to sleep as the air had thinned even more and the cold weather was waking me constantly with sinus blocks and shortness of breath.
Two thick Nepali blankets were still covering me as I reached for my watch that was ice cold from the night. The clock read 7:00 am and it was time to begin my final climb to the view point at Gokyo Ri. A total of six days walking up hill thousands of meters, clear skies every morning until today, my anger was almost unbearable. The sky was dark, cloudy and ominous as if the weather gods were pissing themselves laughing at my outrageously unfortunate luck. We decided to make the trek to the top of Gokyo Ri despite knowing the inevitable, we made it to the top and couldn’t see a thing. My disappointment was obvious and difficult to contain, I cursed god, the universe, my guides, myself, the Easter bunny, anyone who had a hand in this twisted fate. I attempted to see some positives the entire walk down to a town called Phortse. We began the trek down behind a pack of Ox’s and a Sherpa. I slowly began to make myself feel better knowing I had made it to a place that few people would ever see, I witnessed a magnificent sunset the night before only slightly lower than Gokyo Ri, I saw many views most people only dream of and above all I wasn’t dead since one misstep would easily test my mortality, so it wasn’t all that bad.
The next morning I awoke 1000 meters lower than the night before and feeling much better. My breathing had gotten bad, as I had experienced some hyperventilation and small panic attacks when air couldn’t seem to fill my lungs. I opened my door that morning to see what is usually a welcome friend but at this time an archenemy, 20 centimeters of fresh, white snow. Normally people going from Gokyo to Everest or vice versa take what’s called the Cho La pass between the two and since it was the middle of winter it was too dangerous and not a possibility, which means I walked all the way down and was preparing to walk all the way up again. Since it was slow season we had to break trail and all of a sudden the game had changed.
As soon as I arrived at Dingboche at an altitude of 4385 meters I had to rest, my energy was depleted from trekking through deep snow. The entire walk I had to concentrate fully as any misstep would certainly spell my demise as the drops at many points could send you sliding off the edge of cliffs. Since I was born without wings I trekked carefully with the mentality of a mountain goat. The walk was beautiful and eerie as snow continued to fall for most of the day. The fire was slowly drying my clothes as I enjoyed conversation with other adventure seekers from the United States and Brazil. Dave #1 was a train conductor from New York. Dave #2 was a computer programmer and Axel was a helicopter pilot for the Brazilian air force. The night grew late and the sky darker. After some great conversation we had to wade through a fresh 15 centimeters of snow to our rooms, little did I know things were about to get worse, much worse.
Another freezing cold night of sleep as I awoke and rushed to put a warm sweater on. I had my boots wrapped in thick blankets as I hoped they’d continue to dry or at least not freeze through out the night, unfortunately I had no such luck my boots were still very wet. I put them on and opened the door and when I did the acronym FML couldn’t do what I saw justice. The clouds were starting to part to make way for a partially clear sky but the damage was done, we received what I now know to be in between 40-60 centimeters of snow overnight apparently setting a new record. I was caught dead in the middle of a Himalayan snowstorm.
A rest day was something I didn’t have the luxury of having and since I missed seeing Everest the first time due to bad weather I had no choice but to continue my trek up but this time I had what I thought to be a plan. I told the guides to wait a few hours so others could break trail up or down so we could conserve energy and hopefully keep dry. When we finally decided to get on the trail my new friends wished me luck with faces of concern, confusion, and hope as they probably knew better than me how foolish I was being.
The sky was clearing as we made our first steps through the knee to waist deep snow. Tracks were set but only for a short while as we made it to the next clearing. The view was gorgeous with fresh snow filling the valley, the sun reflecting and random clouds adding beautiful diversity to the unforgiving mountain landscape. My guides and I stood and assessed the situation for quite some time as there was zero trace or resemblance of any trail to take through the mountain pass. Once again we were the only dummies trying to trek through the snow rather than wait it out. I began the outrageous walk with laughter and cheer at first but after 40 minutes of walking and breaking trail, feeling the sweat on my back and my body fatigue quickly it was no longer a laughing matter. Many times I asked the guides if we should turn back or what we should do, they insisted to go forward. This decision ended up causing us to trek for over two hours to get to a place that otherwise would only take about 35 minutes. Our next obstacle was to navigate down a steep hill into this rescue town we decided to use to eat lunch, dry off and reconsider our next move. The snow was still knee to waist deep and it took tremendous energy and skill to navigate down the hill safely without injury. Upon arrival into the lodge I felt like throwing my shoes through the window and screaming in frustration about the weather. I was soaked, my snow guards did nothing, and I was exhausted and cold. After we ate lunch the guides assured me the next section wouldn’t have the deep snow. They were right but it didn’t matter I was about to have a new and very unpleasant experience.
We left the wooden cavern on what was supposed to be a three-hour journey to a town called Labuche. I had changed into dry pants but my shoes were still wet and I was very uncomfortable from the beginning. The weather was changing frequently from clear blue skies to clouds to eventually just darkness. We had already been walking for about 45 minutes and I was completely drained physically. The walk wasn’t particularly difficult but my body was beginning to fail me from the exhaustion of breaking trail in the morning and the cold and wet from my feet and legs. We were now beginning to climb up hill and I continually had to take breaks, the oxygen was thin and I was fading. I began using all the mental training techniques I know, I was telling myself I was full of energy, I was visualizing energy, I was cheering myself on as my body continued to fail me more and more. “One step at a time” I kept telling myself, “pain is temporary”, “you can do this”, I kept repeating to myself to help encourage me to the next stop. We passed some hikers who strongly advised we quit at the next town since we were the only ones going up and the few people who had decided to trek down had to seek refuge in passing towns due to fatigue and extreme weather conditions. I began losing my footing, feeling wobbly, light headed and drained, it was only 500 meters to the town the hikers had suggested we quit so I was pushing to make it, surely we could rest there and make up for lost time in the morning.
My body weight fell with little resistance from my muscles to put me down gently as I sat in exhaustion. My feet soaking wet, my chest feeling as if it were going to collapse and my lungs unable to seem to get sufficient oxygen, I was ready to give up. One hour more my guide Torje advised then we could rest and see Everest in the morning. I knew right away continuing was a poor decision but the drive to view Mount Everest and not be denied a second time motivated me. “I came all this way and if it kills me I’ll get to see that damn thing,” I thought to myself.
I picked myself up already physically defeated but not quite mentally. A couple of sips of water, a mental pep talk, a few photos as the sun broke through the dark grey clouds and I began the last leg of the day. From the very start it was a hard steep climb up hill, snow, ice and uneven rock made the journey even more demanding. I stopped frequently for breaks and began to seriously struggle. “One step at a time” I repeated over and over but my mental tricks were starting to lose their power. Little by little I made my way up but more and more exhaustion and the elements were taking over. Halfway up the climb my body started to shut down and I began getting thoughts I’ve never had before. I began to think about death and simply lying down and giving up. Growing up an athlete and martial artist I have enjoyed the feeling of pushing my body to the limit many times, this was hands down the farthest and hardest I have ever been pushed. In trying to express this next part accurately I must say that I do not think I was close to death, however my mind began to take me places I didn’t know existed and were unimaginable to me previous to this experience. Furthermore I am not attempting to exaggerate for story sake but to relay an accurate picture of my mind at this time. Later a physician who shed some light on my situation would justify my thoughts. My back was full of sweat, legs and feet numb, chest burning and body failing as I began to think about all the people who had died before me trying to climb this mountain, I began to think how much more comfortable I’d be if I just lied down and accepted I couldn’t go any further. A Bruce Lee story about pushing limits I have posted below was constant in my thoughts as well. I continued to ponder death and it wasn’t as I thought it would be at all. The feeling of just lying down and letting the cold take over wasn’t frightening in the least it was comforting, that may be upon reflection now the scariest part. I fully embraced the thought of death in every sense imaginable, it was liberating but also frightening. That being said lying down and resting is what I wanted more than anything but I’m far to stubborn to just lay there and die. If I did decide to give up I would have lied down, fell asleep, woke up cold as hell, and walked to the nearest hut and survived. I was searching for anyway out possible and that was certainly one of them. With every passing second my mind and body continued to contrive any scheme to remove me from this situation. The cold was severe, my gear was inadequate, and my body could not get the necessary oxygen it needed to support the energy being exerted. With each passing step my body was testing it’s threshold. After a series of slow steps and long breaks I had finally made it to the top of the ridge. The guides were also struggling to make the climb but were dealing with the conditions much better as they were acclimatized and make the trip to Everest many times every year, plus they were dry. I considered asking them for a piggyback and my mind continued to search for ways out of this excruciating experience. We began to walk through a field filled with miniature statues everywhere; it was the Mount Everest graveyard honoring all that had died before, how fitting I thought remembering over 200 people have died trying to conquer Everest already. With no end in sight I started to recall all the missing person photos, the graves, the feeling of my body completely failing and again was overwhelmed with thoughts of giving up and fully embracing the thought of what it would be like to just give up, lie down and accept whatever would come. Once again to be crystal clear I would never give up and let myself die, nor do I think I was very close to death, however I was embracing death like never before and even now it has fully changed my perspective on many things. At this point I’m not even sure what kept me going, I was not thinking clearly, my head was fuzzy, my feet were clumsily tripping through the snow and I was constantly on the verge of fainting. The last part of the walk through the snow was a blur, I recall passing some trekkers, stepping into deep slush and not even feeling my feet, and the burning sensation in my chest. “Just around the Corner” my guide informed me. Another hour or so had passed my mind mentally checked out and body on autopilot, finally I had made it to the lodge. I was too exhausted to crack a smile or speak any words. Only a few hundred yards away and I could have happily collapsed right then and there but my body forced me onward like a drone toward my destination.
The doors opened and I could smell the fresh wood of the lodge, no fire yet, but no wind. My legs and feet numb, my chest burning as I struggled to take off my boots and socks and lie down. I immediately requested a blanket and lay in agony for the next hour. I was experiencing what I now know to be severe exhaustion, altitude sickness and possibly slight hypothermia. No matter how good of shape I could have been in since I was not acclimatized my body could not get enough oxygen to produce the energy needed to get me through the heavy snow. My head felt like a vice was crushing my skull to the tune of my heartbeat, I could feel my head contract and expand to what felt like inches in and out with every pulse. I wrapped myself in a meditative blanket of green healing light and demanded my body improve itself. After a long while and a warm fire I was able to stand. I slowly made my way to the fire still unsure of my footwork and mind not all there. I sat inches from the fire with all of my layers including a big down jacket for hours never once successfully feeling warm. The worst was over but I wasn’t out of the woods yet. I managed to eat some soup, drink lots of hot water and get myself to bed. I wrapped myself with all the blankets I could find, reflected on the insanity of the day and forced myself to sleep.
The room was dark as I awoke in a panic several times throughout the night unable to breath. Shortness of breath was becoming a real issue and by morning my head had cleared but my feeling of breathlessness had not. I managed to eat some breakfast and was feeling much better than the night before. My boots were almost dry and I had a renewed sense of excitement as the sun was out and today I was going to finally see the elusive Everest. We began walking and almost instantly I knew something was off, the trail began flat but still I was struggling for energy and breath. My body had clearly been through trauma the day before and hadn’t fully recovered, I would find out later just how much. To make matters worse we were still climbing in altitude, which makes the air even thinner and harder to breathe. I was right back to where I was the day before with positive and motivating self-talk. I would take breaks every 2-5 minutes attempting to catch my breath and gain some energy. The Typical walk from Labuche to Everest took me an extra hour to make it and upon arrival to Gorak Shep I was right back where I was the day before. I collapsed in the lodge in exhaustion except this time my breathing was getting worse. I recalled the walk and witnessing the massive glaciers and incredible views while being uncertain of the stability of my feet, again nearly fainting, and constantly wanting to give up.
With my body shutting down there was one massive positive, I was there, and I had made it. One more small hike and I would be viewing Mount Everest. My guide wanted to leave for Kala Patthar a couple hundred meters above base camp, which provides the best view of Everest. I told him he had to wait for me to rest and then I would try and eat some food. I sat in meditation once again trying to relax my body and will it to repair itself in preparation for the final ascent. After about an hour I ordered some soup and ate it slowly. I was determined to make it the final leg. As we began to walk my feeling of fatigue was very present with shortness of breath but I didn’t care, I slowly made my way up the mountainside stopping to stare at the magnificent mountain views frequently. The mountain peaks surrounding me pierced the blue skies with each one having a distinct shape, feel, and aura. The more I climbed the worse my altitude sickness became. More and more I thought I might faint as I had a sore throat as well and hyperventilation’s would become frequent. Although my body was deteriorating on me I was in a very pleasant mood and felt copious amounts of gratitude and happiness for where I was. My guides were growing more and more concerned for my safety as we pressed up the mountain finally making it to the viewpoint upon Kala Patthar. I stared at some of the highest peaks in the world and sat in awe of the sheer magnitude and brilliance of nature, it was nothing short of spectacular. The skies were clear blue with a couple of clouds, mountain peaks with fresh snow all around and diminishing glaciers below. I viewed Mount Everest, which seemed to have a glow coming from its dark and ominous shape, although stunning at the same time slightly anti-climactic. I sat in wonder, catching my breath and forgetting for a short while how in pain I was.
Sitting in silent reflection it was time to go, my journey was done, my breath began to get shorter and shorter and as I stood up and began the descent I had no more motivation for walking any further. My feet didn’t want to listen to my mind and I clumsily made my way back down the hill stumbling dangerously a few times but refusing to quit. My head feeling like a drum kit and my stomach threatening vomit at any moment. The walk down the mountain with the intense ice and snow was not ideal for me as any wrong step could send me to the hospital or to the morgue. I decided to try and fight the altitude and fatigue a little longer but it was getting worse. I feared fainting on the dangerous trek down I decided an insurance call had to be made, after all I had no intention of falling off that mountain no matter how bad ass a way to go it would be.
I sat in meditation once again as I awaited my first helicopter ride. When it finally came and rounded the mountain I had actually gotten worse, my breathing was short, my head was pounding and the vomit was still threatening, I couldn’t wait to get the hell out of there. I hopped in the red and blue helicopter and went for an epic ride through the Himalayas. I wish I could have enjoyed it more but at least I was well enough to keep my eyes open and stare at one gigantic peak after another. I was witnessing awe-inspiring views as we continued to navigate through the mountain peaks, towns, rivers, and forests. It was easy to realize I really was on top of the world. The helicopter pilot flew with poise and guided us down to the infamous Lukla airport before we refueled and headed for Kathmandu. The chopping sounds of the helicopter began again as the engine started once more, I took the spare headset to dampen the noise and give some relief to my punishing head. Only another 45 minutes the pilot explained and you should be feeling better. We flew through the Himalayan skies at sunset as I watched the sun descend behind the mountains with beauty and significance as it illuminated peaks and valleys throughout the landscape. I had finally arrived at Kathmandu and to the beginning of the story.
I lay in the stretcher of the ambulance, my feet still cold, my head still pounding and my breathing short but enjoying the increased oxygen at 5000 meters or so lower than my previous altitude. I did my best to rest on route to the Kathmandu clinic and awaited treatment. After a full physical by a nurse from France and a kind Dr. from Nepal I received my assessment. As the doctor had been watching the weather he explained that attempting to climb up the mountain in the amount of snow it received simply put was “highly not recommended.” He explained the amount of energy it takes to climb vs the amount of oxygen getting to the bloodstream and muscles just isn’t enough for anyone not acclimatized to handle. He explained the day I felt like I was dieing I actually was. My body was beginning to shut down due to lack of oxygen and energy, this makes cold and wet all the more dangerous and the fact I was able to make the climb was nothing short of miraculous as most people’s bodies would have shut down after exerting the energy it took to trudge through the first section of snow. Due to the conditions fainting was extremely likely and the risks for more serious reactions were heightened. He went on to say that the recovery the following day was peculiar as I most likely suffered from exhaustion, altitude sickness, frostbite and possible mild hypothermia Since the air is so thin and weather so cold recovery was highly unlikely. The smartest thing he suggested would have been to get down to altitude that night or following the morning rather than push my body to the very limits, to which my reply was if you had been climbing to see Everest uphill everyday for the last 11 days would you give up? A little smirk came across his face as he replied, “I guess not.” He continued with the physical and found that I was very dehydrated with fluid in my lungs and had a sinus infection. He informed that that getting off the mountain was the smartest choice as it was likely I may have fainted or suffered other issues on the way down the mountain. He set me up right away with an IV so that I would begin rehydration. He told me that although my altitude sickness was more severe than most and I had suffered some other physical ailments after rehydrating the body and some proper rest at a lower altitude I should be back to normal after 24 to 48 hours. I stayed the night in the hospital and woke up with slight chest pain a couple times and by the afternoon I was mostly back to normal though I still felt slightly light headed.
Tibetans believe that walking long distances cleanses the soul of its sins and the longer and more difficult the walk the more you will earn forgiveness. Even though I’ve committed many sins in my time if this is true I’m sure I’ve earned a clean slate. The day went on and I slowly began to feel better, I began to reflect more and more on my adventure. From the breathtaking scenery, the amazing Nepali people, travelers from around the world and nature proving to be an unstoppable force this is nothing short of a spectacular learning experience that I’m truly grateful to have had and I’m certain I’ll never forget.
– Matt Belair
* more photos from the trip