‘I’m not getting out of bed for less than $10,000.’
My alarm melodies. It’s 1am on 13th October, 2018. I hear people shuffling around outside the tent of our summit camp, 5800 metres high in the Himalaya. I lie for another 20 minutes until Durjee calls “tea?”. It’s time to move. I put on my pants, another jacket and eat porridge with my legs comforted by my sleeping bag.
Vamini, my tent buddy had restless sleep. In my red headlight she looks like hell. I can see the effects that altitude and a sleepless night have had on her. I feel good however, and hopeful as this is the best I’ve felt at this altitude. We crawl out of the tent, making our way off the rock scree to the start of the snow field to rope up. It’s already 3am and we are the last team to organise ourselves. Vamini is going with Zac, as they are both faster than me. I am going with Sabin and Dorjee. ‘Good’, I think. ‘Nice and slow’.
We start the winding pencil-line walk across the invisible map of crevasses, up and down, gentle and falsely alluring. Gusts of wind start up. They started at midnight last night on the tent – furious blasts flapping our orange tent doors. Now, with no tent door to shield me, it’s my face that gets the icy snow; it fires a prickly sting.
Then comes the uphill. I’ve already listened to the whole Hamilton soundtrack and now Matt Corby and Solange chant sleepy tunes. It’s not the music I need for this moment, but it’s too much hassle to consider changing the playlist. I’m too cold. My finger is numb. Will I get frostnip? I can’t remember if I put my other pair of liners in my bag. My ears and some of my forehead is exposed. “Dorjee can you get my hat?” He puts it on me like a child. My fatigue elevates, I begin to think in jolted sentences.
“I need to stop again.”
“I have no energy.”
Ten more steps.
One more song.
Just another half an hour.
It’s so black. It feels like an endless night.
Where is the sun?
“Sabin can I have my puffy from your bag?”
I try to share some gummy bears. Spill some on the snow.
I sit down again.
“Dorjee. I don’t think I have any energy left.” He nods. No enabling. “How long left?” One and a half hours. Fuuuuuuuck. I can’t do it. I seriously can’t. I have nothing left.
One more song. Half hour more.
Then a voice echos over the black dome sky.
“You will forget the pain of this, and remember the glory. You are in the pain cave. How deep have you got?”
It reminds me of when I was thrown 100 times for my black belt. Each swinging pound into the mat, me rolling over, standing up and asking for it again. That lasted 11 minutes. This is four hours of that.
At last the sun is coming. A yellow highlighter drawn across the mountain lines behind me. It is so beautiful but I don’t care. I’m too tired, but now I know: I can make it till daybreak. The snow changes. Sabin puts my ski goggles on and the world becomes yellow tinted. The snow looks yellow, lemon with lilac miniature mountain peaks below my crampson. I see other crampon marks. They look beautiful and comforting. The light changes. Now bright neon yellow with dark violet shadows.
My steps are a shuffle. One foot does not even go in front of the other. It’s a half step.
The darkest hour is behind me. Soft morning light surrounds us as we reach a gentle slope, at its end, a group of climbers. Ten minutes to get there. Above them is a 20 metre, 70 degree angle slope. The final step.
I see Zac. He has the biggest grin I have seen and he has already summited. “15 more minutes till the top!” he smiles. A group which overtook us calmly sip tea out of a steel thermos lid. I say “Let’s go” to Dorjee, I’m so slow, I can’t afford to stop. We start up the final step.
OMG. How did I think the darkest hour was over? This hill is ridiculous. From just a single step I am bent over panting as if I have done hundred metre sprint. ‘Fuck this summit’ I think. ‘I need to go down. I want to just get this over and done with’.
We reach the summit. A small sloped platform around 20 metres wide. Sabin clips me into an ice pick anchored in the snow so I don’t fall off. I can’t really move. There are about 20 people up here. I try to get a sponsor video and take a selfie which looks like I could be anywhere. We get a picture with the MERA PEAK banner, which cuts off any other surrounding views, again, we could be anywhere. It could be planet Zoilon.
I’ve never felt so apathetic on a summit.
I don’t care about this stupid peak.
Get me down. I feel really weird.
We descend the steep section, silently thankful that down, for me, is easy peasy lemon squeezy. I see that people are stopped, smiling, more photos with more banners. Get me down I think. We go, after a handful of gummy bears and a sip of water. We’re roped up again and have an easy first half hour. Fast pace, no stopping, jogging down the snow that took five times as long to climb up, then Sabin slows. He is walking cross legged and falls a few times his crampons getting linked together. He looks buggered. We slow down the pace, and now every fifteen steps have a pause. Then another fifteen steps. I suppose this is what I was like going up. Now it is my turn for patience.
We pass Vamini on the way down. She split off from Zac early this morning when Zac strode past us ten minutes into the summit push. Vamini is now short roped by a prusik cord, Numka behind her. Talk about patience! She looks grey. I can’t believe she’s still going. She has another half an hour up. Bloody sheer determination.
I asked her before, do you have self doubt? “What do you mean?” she said. Her husband has it, apparently. She does not. How? Teach me, I think.
We make it down to high camp. I plunge into my tent and am told to pack. We’re going down. I pack slowly, shoving puffy sleeping bags and jackets into sacks. Taking a breather between each shove. Noodles, tea, hot water all delivered and then I sleep. A soft whimpering wakes me up. It was me. Slightly moaning, digesting the pain I just went through. I sleep an hour or so, intermittently woken by my own whimpers. Vamani enters the tent. She looks totally done. We are now waiting to all go down together. Vamini sleeps face down in the tent, and I notice she has the same fitful whimpers as I had.
It’s 8am and we wait. I need the bathroom. Three layers of pants, mountain boots with no flex and a harness pose my next challenge. The ply wooden toilet block has been seen before, by people more desperate than me and I find it hard not to step on poo while I wide leg hover pee.
And then, we wait and wait and wait.
“Vamini! We are all waiting for you! Hurry Up!!”
“Is it?” she says popping her head out of the tent. “I’ll be 5 minutes” Numkha helps her pack. We are ready. It is midday and we have another four hours down. Exhaustion and the incredible scenery make the descent a hallucinogenic experience. It’s as if I have stepped into a poem.
By Stephanie Quirk
Want to know what happens next? Mera Peak – Part One: the Rescue