At a certain altitude, around 5000m above sea level, the world shifts. The sky widens and deepens to an inky ozone blue, as though you could stand on tip toes and peer into the edges of space. The air is thin, searingly clean and burning as it hits your lungs. The world slows in obedience to the mountains, which are vast and immovable and ancient and tolerate no concept of the frenetic pace of human life, of which so much has blinked momentarily in their shadow. Even the yak trains move slowly here, and we plod exhaustedly after them; all of us creatures crawling over the vastness of this beautifully improbable earth in slow motion, as though wading through water.
After days of trekking winding paths through the shelter of the Himalayan valleys on the trek to Everest base camp, through the forests and the wide golden plains; the glacier was blinding under an endless sky and we walked in awe over a crystalline floor of ice. The graphite peaks were everything now, towering in every direction beneath the blazing white eye of the sun. The breeze bit at our cheeks, carrying a particular rushing silence on its wings. These were the mountains I had come looking for without knowing what it was I sought, a landscape alien to anything I had experienced before. It was breathtaking.
We walked in a ragged train, trekkers and yaks and sherpas carrying impossible loads. The lack of oxygen was tangible; I could feel it as a warm heaviness in my head, something like trying to solve equations after having drunk three tequilas. At 5364m, the air at base camp has only 50% of the oxygen at sea level. A steel band had settled around the base of my skull around two days earlier, and it tightened gradually the higher we walked. But I knew I was one of the lucky ones as people around us were forced to turn back, unable to climb any further into that thin frozen air.
The path to base camp wound still higher, rocky and barren where boots and hooves had worn away the ice. The snow hung from the mountain tops like icing on a wedding cake, reflecting the sky with an ethereal pale blue tinge. I tried in vain to capture the colours, unable to hold my camera steady. Abba, a Gandalf-bearded American who owned both a record label and the mind of a philosopher, nodded stoically in the direction of the peaks .
‘You can’t get it properly in a picture, ‘cuz that’s not a colour meant to be captured on film. The way I see it, you gotta earn that sight. You gotta make this climb, and stand right here where we are, and see it for yourself. It’s a part of your journey, and no-one else’s. Sometimes you just have to be there with your own eyes, and that’s all there is to it.’
I could feel every muscle I had straining as we pushed on, jabbing our poles into the frozen ground, our breath panting in thick clouds that crystallised in the azure air, mouths dry and eyes streaming. And then suddenly we were there, gazing down at the haphazard camp of yellow tents with the sky full of colours as hundreds of prayer flags fluttered all around us. Sophie and I stood, breathless with wonder and exhaustion, our faces upturned to the mountains and our fists raised in celebration. I couldn’t quite believe that we were there, that we had actually reached this place that I didn’t know if we were capable of reaching when the idea became a tentatively whispered reality over beers on the roof of a hostel in Kathmandu. I pocketed two small, glittering stones of rough zebra striped rock, so that I would always have a tangible reminder of the places that simple belief in yourself can take you.
And then – well, and then what? After all that had come before, there was nothing to do but turn and begin walking once again, back the way we had come. And I wondered about the people in those yellow tents, those who were preparing to try for Everest’s black and hostile peak – and would they reach the roof of the earth and realise there was nowhere left to go but down?
At Gorak Shep that night I sat amongst new friends, all of us bonded by the things we had seen and the aching in our limbs, the tired happy flush of the outdoors spreading over my skin. As stars began to blink out of the blackness and the temperature dropped, I buried myself in my down sleeping bag and curled around my drinking bottle filled with hot water for warmth, shivering wearily.
At that altitude I slept for just minutes at a time, a dream filled half-sleep that hung trembling on the edge of waking, snatched amidst the drifting shadows and strange noises of the nocturnal mountain. In my dreams I was still walking, my legs burning and a dull pain thudding through my skull, the path stretching infinitely ahead of me under an inky black bowl of sky in which storms swirled and clouds shifted.
I finally gave up and crept outside at 6am as the sky was just beginning to lighten, pale stars still glittering against a canvas of lavender and blue. I watched as a soft glow began to bleed from behind the mountains, slowly washing away the night, and then the sun was cresting the peak directly in front of me, its rays reaching up to paint dawn across the faint outline of the moon and gleam bright white from the snowy mountain tops. By the time I had washed, splashing water onto my face from a rusting tank with a thick layer of ice crackling on the surface, there were good frying smells and quiet laughter coming from the teahouse kitchen. I laced on my boots, rolled up my sleeping bag and headed down for breakfast.
After coming so far already, it seemed inconceivable that we had so much further to go. We had dismissed the descent as insignificant, a quick run back down a now familiar trail. We were wrong; the journey down was painful and frustrating in parts; our limbs, now so used to climbing upwards, struggling to readjust to a world turned upside down.
We had to learn to listen to our bodies, the tell-tale sighs and rumblings, the firing of stretched nerves and twitching of newly awakened muscles. One afternoon, having stopped for some food after a morning of walking over undulating plains, boggy and treacherous where the snows had melted into the ground; we found ourselves so completely exhausted that we simply couldn’t get up from the table. Forced to stop for the night, we curled up by the fire and slept properly for the first time in days, right through the afternoon until the following morning.
A couple of days later we were back below the snow line, shaking off the effects of altitude and stripping down to t-shirts as we walked. Spring had arrived whilst we were up there in the sky, and the valley now lay golden and pine-fragrant in the warm sunlight. Rhododendron flowers bloomed in the middle hills, shaking blushing heads outside doorways and along stone walls, and in the slanting shadows of the sunlit forests. Our pace relaxed, and I felt a surging rush of adrenaline as I realised how close we were, that actually making it to the end of this incredible journey was within our reach.
On the final afternoon, my feet failed me. I stumbled on a loose rock, twisting my foot sharply, and the blistered skin on my toes tore away. I limped into Lukla that evening like a wounded animal, having finally had to break out Sophie’s emergency stash of plasters to staunch the blood that was soaking into my boot.
Laying in a hard narrow bed on that last night before we flew back to Kathmandu, I flexed my bruised toes and listened to the night settling like a blanket onto the Himalayas for the last time. I thought about those yellow tents, nestled at the foot of the highest mountain on earth far above me; and as with all journeys of significance I experienced a momentary sideways tilt of reality, an astonishment in the realisation that a short time ago I inhabited a different world. And I smiled to myself, because after all isn’t that why we travel in the first place – to see what it’s like to briefly inhabit someone else’s world? And then my eyelids fluttered closed, and I sank quickly into the deep, dreamless sleep of a person who, for now at least, has achieved what she set out to do.