Despite turning round before the summit, I still found a moment of my dreams.
Mera High Camp 5,800m
I woke in a panic, gasping for air as I had done a dozen times during the night and, as each time before, reassured myself that all was actually well. One tends to work through a cycle when trying to sleep in the thin air of high altitude. As your conscious mind drifts off to sleep, your subconscious triggers an alarm that there’s not enough air and you wake with a start gasping like a newly landed fish. This time I realized there would be no more sleep tonight as the sound of the Sherpas rousing people in the other tents broke through the wind and the canvas of the tent flapping in the light breeze. It was close to midnight and the summit bid was on.
My brother Abel, more up for this than me, was quickly out of the tent having a smoke and getting ready. He took a tin cup of hot tea from the Sherpas and passed it in to me. I sat inside cradling it for comfort. I could see that the snow storm which had plagued us for most of the time since we had arrived in camp had past and the night was crisp and clear.
We were at High Camp, high on the Mera Glacier in the middle of the Himalayas. Perched on the edge of a huge cliff at an altitude of 5,800m we’d just slept as high as I’d ever been. Ahead of us was just under 700 vertical meters to the top of Mera Peak. I’d secretly hoped that the snow storm from the previous afternoon would compel the Sherpas to call off the summit bid. No such luck. I finished my tea and wearily lurched out of the tent into the night to get ready.
Abel told me to watch but it was too late and I slipped off a small ledge and landed headlong in the snow. I hadn’t put on my gloves yet and by the time I stood up and tied the lace on one of my boots my hands were frozen stiff and I couldn’t move my fingers. I was allowed a brief moment for a pee before Ang, the lead guide, and Nemar, one of his colleagues, set about the task of strapping on my harness, lacing up my other boot and attaching my Crampons. In the meantime Abel ripped the liners out of my gloves and slipped them over my frozen fingers so that I had some form of protection from the freezing cold. Seeing how the day panned out, that act literally is the only reason I still have all my fingers. I stood among them motionless like a Christmas Tree being decorated.
The lead group in our party hurried through and on their way as Abel and I roped together with Nemar and joined the growing queue of climbers on the path out of High Camp. Someone from another group collapsed unconscious in front of us and we waited for them to be hauled off the route into a nearby tent before we could move. Between getting ready and that delay it was an hour and a half before we finally got moving. Slowly we trudged through the deep snow in the darkness as a thin line of distant head torches glittered along the trail.
My mindset changed at the same agonizingly slow pace as the ascent. I went from being convinced we had no chance of summiting to harbouring a glimmer of hope as the very first hint of sunlight lit the summit ridge high above us. During the steep ascent to that ridge, at 6,140m, Ang met us while descending with one of the others from the group who had become unwell. Concerned by my obvious state of exhaustion, he persuaded me to turn round and descend with the guy he was bringing down. I turned to see the utter beauty of the Himalayas glowing in the newly risen morning sun. Everest, majestic and towering among them. I gazed on her from this unique place and time. Seeing her from where she is rarely seen. As though I was gazing at a lover.
When I was really young I used to climb the stairs and say I was climbing a mountain. Later, when the snow landed, I’d sometimes stand on the hills in Queens Park in the South Side of Glasgow and pretend I was high on the snow covered mountains. Shortly before I left for this trip, realizing I might not be fit enough to summit Mera Peak, I decided it would be enough just to stand high on the mountain in the snow to actually be the person I’d always dreamt of being. I took a picture of the mountains in the sunrise. At 6,140m it’s the highest picture I’ve ever taken and, standing in the snow high up in the Himalayas, it captured a moment of my actual dreams.
The Physical Cost
Though the moment was magical beyond words, my time at such altitude took it’s toll on my body. I ended up with frost nip on my fingers and toes. I didn’t feel the tips of 8 of my fingers for weeks and the skin began to peel away. It was the same for both my big toes. One of my eyes started to sting just before the flight home. Though it turned out merely to be a mild infection, the optician told me that some small blood vessels behind the other eye had burst. This was another side effect of the altitude we had climbed to. Despite all of this, it turned out I was one of the lucky ones.
The guy who’d descended with me had frostbitten fingers and was airlifted off the mountain next morning along with one of the guys who had summited and ended up with frost bitten toes. By the time we made our way down the Hinku Valley to Kote next day, it became apparent that two of the others in the group had frost bite. They were lifted out by helicopter the next morning.
The Impact Of A Moment
Though I never made the summit of Mera Peak, I’m proud to have reached that place above 6000m high on the Mera Glacier and able to count myself among those who have climbed to that altitude. Mera was exhausting for me from the first step out of Lukla airport to its hair raising conclusion coming down off the Zatra La in heavy snow 16 days later. Yet the years of dreaming, planning and training and the long days of exhausting climbing will always shine in the glow of that fleeting moment high on the mountain. The moment I experienced the joy that is to live a dream.
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