Surreal Summit: “I Never Wanted to be a Mountaineer”
By Meg Atteberry
I crane my neck to see the tops of the mighty Himalayas. Even standing here at 15,000’ I still feel impossibly small. Each peak juts into the sky like a heart monitor gone haywire. The mighty mountain tops look cartoonish with their gravity-defying seracs. I’ve been walking for eight days and I’ve finally made it to the base of my final challenge: Gokyo Ri. I arrive at one of the world’s highest settlements, Gokyo. I spend the day exploring the tiny village, eyeballing the monstrous Gokyo Ri (17,775’). Standing at the base of this giant the task looks insurmountable. Tomorrow, before dawn, I’ll rise to the challenge.
To be honest, I never thought I’d make it here. Dreams are funny like that. You picture them in your head, but you never picture them accomplished. The dream all started when I was around 10 years old. I had just finished reading Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air. A harrowing account of the tragic 1996 incident on Mt Everest that left 12 people dead. After reading the book I declared that I wanted to be a doctor that helped the Sherpa people and climbers of the Himalayas. I stuck with the doctor idea until I was 20 years old. Although I chose a different career path, my passion for the Himalaya remained close to my heart.
Dreams are funny like that. You picture them in your head, but you never picture them accomplished.
It’s 4am when we start our climb. At nearly zero degrees I’m wearing practically every piece of clothing I brought with me on this journey, but a numbness still penetrates deep in my extremities. My cheap headlamp struggles to produce light in the cold. Above me lies the 2,500 vertical foot gain to the top of the mountain. Well, in reality it is just a hill among these giants, but for the next four hours it will be my mountain. My challenge. A source of both pain and joy, struggle and ease. This yin and yang draws me to climb.
I never wanted to be a mountaineer. Sure I enjoy walking among them, but a summit always seemed out of reach to me. I stumbled upon the passion several years ago when I started dating my boyfriend. He wanted to quit smoking. In a symbolic gesture, on his first tobacco-free day he wanted to summit a 14,000’ mountain back home in Colorado. Little did I know that climb would fuel a passion that knows no bounds. We didn’t make it to the top that day, but we came back two years later and took our first rest where we called it quits the first time. The feeling of accomplishment and progress stuck with me. It became an addiction. I yearn for the suffering of a summit push because at the top, you never feel more alive. As for the boyfriend? He joined me in Nepal and hasn’t touched a cigarette since.
Back at the base of Gokyo Ri I finish my tea and bounce excitedly to stay warm. It’s time to climb. I settle in quickly to a good rhythm, slowly making may way up towards to top as dawn approaches. The warm glow of the pending day gives way to brilliant spears of glowing light. Before long the fire of day ignites the scenery around me. Everywhere I look I’m surrounded by beautiful giants of ice and rock. As my eyes scan the horizon Lotse and Makalu come into view. Off to my right the border between Nepal and Tibet greet me with a warm glow. Everything suddenly stops. Time. Movement. My breathing. The sun shoots light across Mount Everest, the world’s tallest pinnacle at 29,029’. I am on my knees with joy. This moment means everything to me.
Ahead of me the monster still beckons. My chest tightens. I see two pitches of steep rock and snow ahead of me. The task looks impossible. I take a deep breath and carry on. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from climbing peaks it is to not look at the whole picture. Instead break everything up into small chunks. I focus on life ten steps at a time.
Then I enter the zone where nothing else matters. My focus shifts from analysis to meditation. All that matters is placing one foot in front of the other. Every ounce of my body screams for a break, but I know if I stop moving I won’t conquer this giant. I waited 20 years to get here. Conditions are safe. There is no turning back.
I waited 20 years to get here. Conditions are safe. There is no turning back.
Behind me, my climbing partner chirps words of encouragement, but the words drown in my own meditative focus. I count steps to myself and try my best not to look up. What seemed like hours is merely minutes. Progress is slow.
One last pitch requires scrambling with my hands and legs. Suddenly the vertical earth gave way below me. I am jolted upright by the change in grade. As I look up Cho Oyo (26,906’) beams at me in the distance. No more rock, no more scrambles, no more pain. I made it. The affects of living at high altitude quickly dissipated into the background. In front of me was a panorama view that is imprinted in my mind for eternity.
Today I fulfilled a lifelong dream. Today I stand 17,755 feet tall, closer to the top of the world than the bottom. Although I feel strong and tall, I am deeply humbled by my landscape, as if I’m an amoeba in a sea of peaks. This is what I live for.
Meg Atteberry is a freelance writer and true-born adventurer based in Denver, Colorado. As an avid outdoor enthusiast and world traveler she’s determined to explore the remote corners of the planet. She’d rather be dirty than done up. You can check her out on Instagram @adventuresoffoxintheforest or follow her adventures on her blog: www.foxintheforest.net.