… or, The story of Sam’s failed summit of Gokyo Ri
The alarm went off at 4:30am, piercing the darkness with an incessantly irritating beeping. Dave got up and started donning warm clothing in the dark, and I pulled down the wool hat over my ears. I had slept in long underwear, pants, a sweatshirt, socks and a hat, but the cold always has a way of finding its way in. I sat up and surveyed our deconstructed packs, illuminated occasionally by Dave’s wandering head lamp. In the room next door, I could hear either my Dad or my brother Ed moving, opening and closing bags.
We had been hiking for seven days through Sagarmatha National Park in Nepal, up from the hillside landing strip at Lukla. Our guide, Ram, had led us up to Namche Bazaar, a regional hub where we spent several sickness and Scrabble filled acclimatization days. The general rule of thumb in hiking at high altitude is that you have to take a whole day to ascend 1000 vertical feet, and we were pushing our luck with our rigorous schedule. We had skipped an acclimatization day in order to attempt the summit of Gokyo Ri, which, at 17,575ft above sea level, was higher than any mountain in the continental United States, and at least 3,000ft higher than any of us had ever been.
Altitude affects you in subtle ways. The air becomes thinner, and you have to breath harder to bring in the same amount of oxygen. Your body doesn’t quite figure it out all the time, and will breath in too little air, causing some of us to wake up in the middle of the night gasping for breath. Hiking at high altitudes becomes a question of steps-per-breath gearing. Most days I would take 2 footfalls per complete inhale and exhale. If the grade evened out and I was walking on level ground, I’d up it to 4 step per complete inhale and exhale. If it became steeper, 1 step per breath. Anything to keep from overexerting myself and getting dizzy. The altitude gave me a consistently rapid pulse, a persistent headache, killed my voracious appetite, and gave me a cough I have to this day.
We were staying at a guest house in Gokyo, a tiny town next to the mammoth Ngozumpa Glacier. It was the final day of our ascent, and we had planned on leaving town at 5am to hike the remaining 1,500 vertical feet to the summit of Gokyo Ri (aka Gokyo Peak). It wasn’t a big hike by any standard (especially standards set by the surrounding mountains), and if it had been at sea level it would have almost been trivial. I was worried. The day before I had had a lot of trouble making it into town, and had to take more breaks than anyone else. My two other memories of hiking at high altitude were Mt Timpanogos in Utah, and Mt Massive in Colorado. In both cases I just stuck to a low gearing and powered up to the peak. I had never failed to make a summit.
I finished lacing up my shoes and quickly put back on my gloves. The air outside was approximately 10F, and the walls were plywood with no insulation. At these towns everything had to be carried in on the backs of Yaks or humans, often loaded to capacities that defied comprehension. We had carried our own gear up the mountain, with packs weighing from 9kg (mine) to 16kg (Dave’s) to 4kg (our guide, Ram). We had no porters or Sherpas to carry our loads, but our primary enemy was the altitude, which presented problems porters can’t quite solve.
The morning was starry, and we walked along the trail slowly and mostly in silence. The landscape was barren, alien, with no trees or shrubs. The lake near us was mostly ice covered, and when the wind picked it up it created slight reverberations along the ice cracks that would build until they created punctuated moaning noises. They sounded a bit like whale songs. And they were loud, filling the valley, echoing up the mountainside and the nearby glacier.
The altitude was getting to me, and I slowed my breathing until it was 2 complete breathes per step. I had barely ascended 100 vertical feet. My Dad and Ed were up ahead, and Dave was walking with me. The sun was beginning to warm the eastern edge of the sky. From the top of Gokyo Ri, you can see the sun rise over the highest mountain in the world, Mt Everest.
I took a bad step and stumbled, nearly falling into the side of the trail. I stopped to catch my breath, and Dave flashed me a quick look of concern before passing me on the trail to keep moving, primarily to keep warm. I kept going, but couldn’t make it more than forty feet before I had to take another break to catch my breath. I slowed my breathing until it was 3 complete breathes per step.
Time was moving very slowly. Each step involved momentous effort. Each breath hurt my diaphragm, sore and exhausted from the forced breathing I had been doing the previous 7 days. I was wearing every single item of warm clothing I possessed. Slung over my shoulder was a small day bag containing my camera and a bottle of iodine treated water. I’d stop occasionally to drink, more as an excuse to breathe than because of actual thirst.
I was fighting several competing forces. One on hand, I couldn’t get air fast enough to my lungs to keep walking without taking breaks. On the other hand, it was too cold to stop moving. The dizziness was starting to affect my stomach, and several times I had to fight back the urge to vomit. I was very awake and alert, but there was nothing I could do to override my body’s reactions to what was happening around me. I slowed my breathing until it was 4 complete breathes per step.
The thought, which had been weaseling its way into my brain for the last 100 vertical feet, finally came legitimately to the front of my mind. I couldn’t move fast enough to stay warm without getting sick. There wasn’t any way around it. I was too cold, and I was too dizzy, and I had no option other than turning around.
Sitting on a rock for several minutes, growing colder, I looked down at the whale-song lake, the massive glacier across the valley, the snow capped peaks and the alien countryside. Above me, I could see four bodies standing together in the morning twilight. I tried motioning that I was going to go down, and blinked my head lamp several times, but I saw Dave start hiking downhill towards me. I cleared my throat, and with as much energy as I could spare or muster, yelled, “I’m going down! I’m fine! Take a picture from the top for me!”
I had made it about 250 vertical feet up from town, about 1/6th of the way to the summit, which put my maximum elevation at almost exactly 16,000 feet above sea level. I’d never before turned around on a peak attempt, but my pride couldn’t argue with the cold and altitude. The rest of my party made it to the top of Gokyo Ri successfully, though both my Dad and Ed said they thought about turning around even as close as 20 minutes away from reaching the summit. Dave appears to be the offspring of a mountain goat and a sea otter; he only complained of the cold.
When you climb a large mountain, you put yourself in harms way. Why you do so is a very personal matter, but to me the climb is never strictly about making the summit. It’s about stress, strength, perseverance, nature, humanity, endurance, failure, success, loneliness, companionship, life and ultimately death. I find God in nature, in the jagged granite peaks, the gushing streams and rivers, the whipping winds of the desert, and the forever back and forth of the waves in the sea. But mother nature doesn’t care about how much insight and peace you find; occasionally she’ll just kill you for not paying attention.
It hurt my pride to turn around on Gokyo Ri, but it could have hurt a lot more to continue.