I release a dry hacking cough followed by a gasp for air and then I make one more step forward and up. The process is my ritual now. My lungs make it clear that I’ve never been at this altitude. I look up from a downward stare and relief cuts through the pain. I can see the summit ahead. I will make it. My ritual is getting me up Kala Patthar, a small hill at the bottom of Mt. Everest and it will be the high point on my trek to Everest Base Camp—the closest I’ll get to the top of Everest.
Everest Base Camp can only be reached on foot or by helicopter. The nearest airport is Lukla—one of the highest airports in the world. This is where I began my trek a week and a half earlier, in the late winter of 2013. After two weeks carrying a thirty pound pack up 10,000 vertical feet and across forty-some miles of trails, I arrived in Gorak Shep, a few miles outside of Everest Base Camp. Here I found a teahouse to stay in for the night. Exhausted, I retired early to the warmth of my sleeping bag to read Sensing Jesus by Zach Eswine before I went to sleep. I didn’t know much about the book but being on a spiritual journey of sorts it seemed wise to read something to speak to my soul.
I left the teahouse early to reach the top of Kala Patthar. If you’ve seen a picture looking up at Everest there is a good chance it was taken from Kala Patthar. Rising to 18,514 feet, it provides a classic view of Everest. It is around 4,000 feet higher than any other mountain in the contiguous United States. Standing on it and looking up at Everest, I hope to accomplish a symbolic putting to death. I’ve dreamed of climbing Everest. In the Himalayas, the throne room of the mountain gods as it has been called, I want to stare at the mountain and say, “you are not my mountain to climb.” I want to put to death the dream.
With my strenuous walk up Kala Patthar complete, I find a place and sit down amidst the flapping, colorful prayer flags and begin to consider the longer story arch that has brought me here.
In the years leading up to my trek I became fascinated with the draw of the highest mountains and the adventures of legendary mountaineers. One Christmas vacation in Colorado, huddled in a cabin on the edge of Rocky Mountain National Park, I looked up at Long’s Peak to the jagged exposed side of its summit known as the diamond. Piercing the sky with its point, it reached down and pierced my heart with a thirst for stories of mountains and courageous climbers. Leaving Colorado and heading back to my home in Kansas City, I made up for the lack of mountains in Kansas City by finding them in books. Reading about mountaineers and thinking about becoming one became an addiction.
At this time in life I felt primed to acquire such an addiction. I was battling a chronic low-grade depression. At my worst, my experience with this depression dulled my ability to find meaning. Things in life seemed gray and complex. My depression felt like a shrinking of the possible until little is left. In contrast, the idea of climbing mountains offered an extraordinary experience, a clear and concrete reality to measure and orient myself.
I stare across the Khumbu glacier to the giant mass of Everest and its surrounding peaks. From Kala Patthar you can see Everest Base Camp at the foot of the Khumbu icefall. Ascending the icefall, a waterfall of ice higher than the Sears Tower, is likely the most deadly part of climbing Everest. You might say that the mountain gods wisely installed imposing entry gates to ward off those who have no business climbing.
One climber that passed through these gates tells of his attempt to reach the top of Everest in his memoir Left for Dead. Following a family vacation with his wife and kids in Rocky Mountain National Park, he too was taken by the mountains. His memoir chronicles how his struggle with depression became a fuel that pushed him further into a dangerous, increasing addiction to reach the highest summits on earth. It would nearly cost him his family, and on the summit of Everest, nearly his life. Beck Wethers’s story paints a picture for where I could easily be headed if I were to recklessly numb my depression with mountaineering.
I’m fortunate that the weather remains ideal as I linger on top of Kala Patthar. It is an incomprehensible view. I look up to a small wisp of cloud seemingly caught on Everest’s summit. I figure on a map that the summit was around six miles away and 11,000 feet higher than my current location. I like to think about the distances, a ruler to compare one space to another.
Growing up in the farmlands of Kansas, the largest open space in which I could place myself was a half-mile square field that was almost always fenced at its perimeter by a hedgerow of trees, blocking any view beyond. In the wider open spaces of Kansas, like the Flint Hills, you might be able to see several miles in the distance. Sitting on my Himalayan perch, I picked out one of the farthest mountains that I could easily make out and calculated that it was seventeen miles away.
Sitting above and below this wide open space is doing something to my soul. The expanse, the openness, truly pushing my comprehension of what God has made. I know I came here to put to death dreams of climbing Everest, but sitting on Kala Patthar, it is hard for me to deny the power of such a dream.
Reluctantly leaving my perch, I return to my teahouse in Gorak Shep to retire for the night. Back in my sleeping bag I continue reading Sensing Jesus. Eswine is a pastor from my home state of Missouri. Lost in my experience of Everest, I read on somewhat distractedly.
My attention snaps back as I come to a section titled, “Climbing Mountains.” It tells a story I’m very familiar with, the story of the legendary climber George Mallory. I read it now not in my mountaineering books but in a place I did not expect to find it, and at the base of Everest. Mallory was perhaps the first to stand on the summit of Everest. We will never know because on his final attempt to climb it he lost his life near the summit. Reflecting on Mallory’s life, Eswine asks the following questions about Mallory who left behind a wife and three kids, “Why did George Mallory choose the mountain when he understood that it might take his life? Why was Mallory’s pursuit of joy, the meaning of life, the worthiness of family, and the loyalty to complete a task connected more with climbing a mountain than with the daily routines of love and life, work and play at home?”
Reading this in the shadow of Everest is profound, and hits me as a mountainous providence that I do not deserve. A writer calls to me from my home state, “consider the mountains that you are called to, the daily routine of love, life, work, and play at home.”
Days later after visiting Everest base camp, I leave Gorak Shep and head down the trails to catch my flight out of Lukla. As my plane flies off the cliff at the end of the airstrip and out into the thin Himalayan air, I’m thankful and proud to see that I’m on a plane navigated with Garmin avionics. As an engineer at Garmin in Kansas City, I contribute to the design of these GPS products. I’m on my way to return to the work this plane relies on.
Arriving at the airport in Kansas City, I’m excited to see my girlfriend, Emily, who greets me waving a sign she has made, celebrating me as an “Everest climber.”
Later in the week I leave my house on a bike ride and stop for a moment at the nearby Liberty Memorial. Overlooking downtown Kansas City, it provides the iconic view of Kansas City, the view that first made me love the city.
Standing at the edge of Liberty Memorial, I look out to the Kansas City skyline, the tallest buildings around a mile and a half away and towering hundreds of feet into the air, my experience of distance, space, intensely alive. My mind returns to Everest, its vast space breathing life back into my place, expanding my view of the possible.
Cover image by v2osk