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Surviving the Long Way Up to Everest

The summit isn’t always the goal.

In 2017, I found myself at the foot of Everest. It was one of the biggest items on my bucket list: to stare at the world’s tallest peak, get as close to it as I possibly could.

And maybe, just maybe, make it to the top someday.

That day in 2017, though, I had a more realistic goal: make it to basecamp. As a mountaineer for over a decade, I knew my limits. At a place like Everest—where you can fall off the side, die from altitude sickness, or simply go missing, never to be found again—knowing your limits is literally a matter of life or death.

Getting to basecamp from the foot of Everest takes nine days on uphill paths, eight hours at a time: not a small feat for anyone, even me. The point where you begin the hike is at an altitude that’s close to the summit of the Philippines’ highest peak—Mount Apo—and by the time you reach the endpoint, you’re already about 5,300 meters above sea level.

SETTING DOWN AND SETTING OFF

Lukla Airport, ominously dubbed the most dangerous airport in the world, was where my adventure began. I got there via a domestic flight from Kathmandu, and it was one of the most exhilarating flights I had ever been on. The plane was no bigger than a minibus, so I felt every vibration as we descended into the valleys, skimmed treacherous slopes, and landed on a 400-meter strip atop a small plateau.

From there, my days felt like having a day job where my sole task was to trudge uphill. And uphill on Everest meant winding through rocky paths, across suspension bridges, and into small towns.

I took much-needed lunch breaks in towns that seemed to be strategically placed halfway through the days’ treks. I would have some food and hot tea, catch my breath, and then get back on the trail for the next half of the trek. Right before dawn, I would reach another town, much like the first, and then stay for the night.

Lukla Airport, ominously dubbed the most dangerous airport in the world, was where my adventure began. I got there via a domestic flight from Kathmandu, and it was one of the most exhilarating flights I had ever been on.

But even with that pattern, it was never straightforward. Early on, breathing became increasingly more difficult to the point that I had to catch my breath every few steps. Headaches became the norm and sleeping turned into a struggle.

My body had been spoiled by the tropics. I wasn’t used to the freezing temperatures. I had to eat while nauseated and, just like sleeping, it was a struggle just to keep my food down. Still, I knew I needed the nourishment for the next leg, and the next leg was always there the moment I would wake up.

Every three days, I had to take a “rest” day, meaning I would sleep at the same place at the end of the day. No actual resting would happen, though: I had to spend those days doing a steep, grueling hike before coming back down to the town.

I had to do those seemingly counterproductive hikes to acclimatize to the altitude. While an islander body like mine wasn’t used to having such thin air to breathe at first, I convinced it to adapt thanks to those “rest” days.

THE JOURNEY WITHIN

Something to keep in mind about how grueling the treks up Everest are: the trek is a ride for your emotions, too. When your body goes through extreme cold, fatigue, and isolation, your mental stability begins to go. Anyone who climbs difficult mountains is familiar with the feeling. It can manifest as anger, sadness, fear, even too much happiness.

It first hit me on day five. I had just had lunch at a tea house sitting beside a riverbank after an arduous morning trek. The afternoon hike was even more daunting: I was to climb a very steep ridge through endless switchbacks on the dirt trail, towards an ancient Tibetan temple high up in the clouds.

“Mom, look!” a teenaged trekker walking in front of me blurted out. I looked to where she was pointing. The steep ridge had allowed a perfect, undisturbed view of the Himalayan range.

I began ugly-crying instantly.

The two words reminded me of my own mother—she had passed away a few years back—and how it would have been great to share that view with her.

That sudden surge of emotion would hit me again later in the journey (it hit me several times, in fact), but you never forget your first.

As I went on, the towns grew sparser, the surroundings more desolate. Gone were the trees and little children playing, and it became a duel between me and the rocks. The uncertainty of finishing the climb was becoming more and more apparent.

I was suffering from the altitude, the cold, and sheer exhaustion. I began taking Diamox, a drug used to encourage your body to throw out carbon dioxide faster and ease the effect of the thin air. I originally wanted to keep that option as a last resort, but the ordeal becoming what it was, I needed that last resort.

Adaptation to altitude is ultimately a game of genetic lottery. You can have the best boots, jackets, and clothes to go with the best bags, gear, and medication, and perhaps some travel insurance on top of all that. But even then, sometimes it’s not enough.

Two of my fellow climbers had to be airlifted back to Kathmandu as the altitude took a toll on their health. I was lucky. I took one day of real rest to collect myself together with my remaining companions, because the next morning, we would all take the final trek.

That last leg was going to be the worst one.

ONE LAST PUSH

It was on the tenth day that I finally pushed towards the basecamp: one more day than I had initially planned, one last trek that seemed to take forever. By then, I was slogging across the mountain on barely walkable loose rocks.

Being a fan of the mountain, I knew how it looked from afar. I even had a JPEG on my laptop, so I could look at it from time to time.

After a few hours, reality put the beauty of that photo to shame. 

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The Khumbu icefall flowed down the valley between the Everest and the Nuptse, curving to the right. At the part where it curved, brightly colored dots were scattered on a stark white canvas of ice. It was majestic, regal, serene: an overwhelming sense of age, depth, and importance that the photo on my computer could never hope to convey.

My final goal, the basecamp, was in sight, but still two hours away. I hitched up my pack and left the breathtaking sight to my memory.

The Khumbu icefall flowed down the valley between the Everest and the Nuptse, curving to the right. At the part where it curved, brightly colored dots were scattered on a stark white canvas of ice.

The last stretch to the basecamp was a slippery hike on a mix of ice and rocks. I was literally walking on a moving glacier. But once I reached the entrance marked with prayer flags, everything became worth all that suffering, all that trouble.

What I saw when I got to basecamp was no less breathtaking than the mountain itself. At the foot of Everest was a bustling tent city nestled on the edge of the iconic Khumbu Icefall glacier.

The outfitter my team and I worked with was also hosting an expedition team while we were there. They already had a sprawling camp set up, complete with a kitchen tent, a dedicated mess hall tent, and a bathroom. Not all trekkers could be accommodated at the basecamp for the night, I learned.

But there, in that cramped, snowed out tent, was where I had the best sleep during the entire trip. I was served the best meals, at least to my mind, and I was finally able to brew my celebratory pour-over coffee, the one I’d been keeping in my pack for the occasion.

THE END IS THE BEGINNING

I was never a badass mountaineer. I’d never even done Halcon, Guiting, or all those other mountains my much stronger friends considered “hardcore.” Even the only time I climbed Mount Pulag was done via the “tourist” route of Ambangeg. When joining climbs, I tended to be the slowest and the last to make it to camp. Technically speaking, with my experience, I had no business trekking in the Himalayas.

But that climb changed everything for me. It taught me to chase an experience: a worthy goal that’s just barely out of reach, but doable if I go straight for it.

As I stared up the glacier towards the highest point on Earth, it started snowing. I rushed back into my tent and I thought about all the things I had learned just by being there, just by making the climb.

I had realized that my body wasn’t made for that kind of altitude, but I had also realized that my body could get used to it. I had admitted that the last resort was something that might be needed sooner than expected. I had discovered that photos could never do justice to the actual experience of seeing something in person.

I understood, then and there, that being on Everest was as much about introspection as it was about exploration.

I rolled up my pack, fixed up my gear, and thought: “What’s going to be my next Everest?”

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