Archive for October 31st, 2009

I Quit

October 12 – 27, 2009

Gokyo Valley, Chola Pass, Everest Base camp

rf mt everestAtop Kalipatar: Mt. Everest Sunrise

The question had been plaguing me for weeks – since first asked. The more I focused, the more I tried to force fit into something I thought I new, the more it evaded capture, evaded dominance.  Recognizing that life’s important explorations rarely present forthcoming clarity, I simply let go; like the “Purpose of life” inquiry –  Who the fuck knows.

road to goykyoTrail up Gokyo Valley

I tentatively and very carefully place each foot and hiking pole (ensuring four points of contact and hopefully safety) on the steep, snow covered, and very icy slopes of Chola pass. This is the same pass that a Nepali porter lost his life on days before in a sudden avalanche of rock and snow. While focusing on climbing,  a counter question, with complete inappropriate timing, springs forth: “Maybe you are supposed to leave something in these mountains” rather than “hopefully you will find what you are looking for” as my dear friend Alan first proposed as I departed for these Himalayas.  “What?” my brain screams- “What the hell does this mean, who the hell cares – shut the hell up – I am trying to stay attached to this mountain……what good is an answer to a dead guy?”

stone house and mountyainStone house on route

Later that night I crawl into my down bag after realizing I will  be sleeping on a platform of stacked rocks; largely flat, but hard and granite cold.  The 3 inches of ancient, filthy  compressed foam make little difference. I replay the question over and over trying to decipher: “Maybe you are supposed to leave something in these mountains….”.  I turn on my headlamp, write the new question in my journal and recognize I must indeed be suffering from a lack of oxygen, that my mind has finally,  at 46 years, gone….completely.  Find something – leave something. I begin to cough again and notice through my lamp beam that my closet (5.75 x 2.75  x 5ft ) is completely filled with Yak shit smoke from the mis-directed flue of the dining hall stove. “Great: yak smoke, rock bed, flat mattress, shitty food, and stupid questions followed by even more stupid questions”. sleep comes slowly and is fitful.

porterEverest Region Porter

Days, and kilometers later in Dingboche the questions are far from my mind.  In fact, I have not given them another thought.  Rather I have been mentally preparing for my final and greatest “Conquest” of this trek – Island Peak.  We are indeed going to follow Sir Edmunds lead – Like Mt. Everest in 1953 we were going to “knock that bastard off”. Hubris my ass. While a far cry from Everest this is my mountain, and like other goals throughout my life this +20,000 ft rock  is on my “list”. Therefore and by definition – like all others before it, it will soon be reduced to a check mark along with, unfortunately but necessarily, my own mental asterisk – it will be a temporary positive feeling of accomplishment, of self worth, of bragging rights, but it will not be enough…they never are. That is not the point  This is simply how things are, how they always have been, how they always will be.

robert angin kalipatar 2

Angin and Robert on Kalipatar

Forget that I have developed a nasty cold, that my cough is worsening due to high altitude combined with yak smoke and kerosene fumes (days later I will be diagnosed with severe bronchitis and a respiratory infection). Forget that I have concerns about the climbing conditions; more specifically the people who were creating these conditions; I see photos of nearly a hundred tents at base camp (you pay your rupees, and you can be a mountaineer – I realize, embarrassingly,  that I am not alone in my ego), while hearing stories of skilled climbing guides doing their job of “putting” clients on top even if it means with the aid of mechanical devices (effectively “pulling em up and lower em down“). I hear of potential for serious bottle necks on the steepest part of the mountain whereas you can not climb up or down due to your nose in someone’s ass and your ass in someone’s nose – I have read enough climbing accounts to know that these potential traffic situation are very dangerous and have led to some of the sports biggest human losses. Forget that I am scarred. Tomorrow morning I will face these minor obstacles and in typical fashion I plan to kick their ass. That is what I do, who I am. I am not a strong guy or a particularly smart guy, but I am a guy who does not quit.  A man my friend Michael describes as “Hitting an obstacle and thinks the only option available is adding more fuel to the tractor”.  Yes, I have been told, and yes I believe, this makes me an incredibly effective corporate warrior, impossible to live with or maybe even love, and while not reckless potentially dangerous on mountains and elsewhere.

player flags on gokyoPrayer flags on Gokyo Ri

Earlier in the day I pay a Nepalese fortune to charge my Ipod Nano using a solar panel; once atop Island Peak, I can play the theme song “Memories” from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s masterpiece Cats in remembrance of my mom who we lost to cancer just over a year ago. I have not listened to this song since her memorial as I have been saving it for such a grandiose day. A day she would be proud of.  A day my post divorce councilor would have described as “consistent with your narcissist tendencies”; like he actually knows a God damn thing.

spot lightEvening spot lights

Just before midnight I wake up frantically grabbing my mouth, my nose….my chest.  Trying to clear an opening, trying to make a passage- open damit, open – I am fucking suffocating, I am going to die….hyperventilating, sit up, gasping. STOP! Breathe, concentrate, relax, you are fine.  Breathe, breathe……breathe. No problem see, just a cold, just high altitude, just some fluid on your lungs, just one of those ever more frequent panic attacks – I now understand why climbers and divers often tear off their oxygen supply as they struggle to get life supporting air. When I die, please don’t let it be from suffocation.

morain contrastMoraine

What was that?  Dreaming? Dreaming before I nearly suffocated? Who was that? While not part of my plan, I instinctively search for my Nano….feeling in the dark.  I squint to see, hit the repeat function, and play “Memories” for hours while I stare at the ceiling to black to actually see; I try to breathe.  I wake with the first rays of morning, my mouth sticky dry, – I sip tainted Iodine water to lubricate my swollen tongue preventing it if from affixing to my palate or teeth permanently. I blow my nose – thick mucus, dirt,  and dried blood.  One ear bud is wrapped around my neck, the other plays:

anataplumAma Dablam (maybe the prettiest mountain in Nepal)

Daylight, I must wait for the sunrise.
I must think of a new life,
And I mustn’t give in.
When the dawn comes tonight will be a memory too,
And a new day will begin.

bc sign
Everest Base camp (this is the old camp sign)

I dress quickly and go to the small dining area where Angin  pours morning tea.  With no forethought I say “Angin, we change plans; we not climb Island Peak”. A look of great concern and then horror comes to the young mans face.  “Oh no sir, you feel better in a few days, you strong man, you not quit, you never quit, you-me…we all ready walk Langtang trek, we climb Gokyo Ri, we climb Chola pass, we climb Kalipatar, we go Everest base camp….we now go Island Peak; you climb slow-slow all way top; you be rock star – like Mica Jackson.  You satisfy, I satisfy” I had not considered this being Angin’s climb as much as mine but then I think back to all of the times he had bragging rights in front of the other Sherpa porters and guides as our time in the mountains far exceeded most of the other trekking tourist. From somewhere outside of me I say simply and with complete resolve: “Angin, I am sorry.  I can climb that mountain if I want, and I can climb that mountain if I need, but I nor want or need to climb. I have no desire and nothing to prove…..especially to my self”. His response is simple and final: “Yes sir, you decide”.

lobeche tea houseLoboche tea house

I eat my breakfast alone as my highly competent guide and porter manages the logistics of a sudden and surprising change of plans.  Upon his return, we quickly and unceremoniously grab our packs and go outside.  We stand for a long minute looking up valley towards Island Peak just as the sun began to touch her flanks. While there I hear: “I will always be here and you are welcome to try and climb me.  If you come of “want” you will either reach my top or not…..who cares, it is unimportant. But if  you come again of “need“, remember I am insidious, with an insatiable apatite. You may reach my highest point, but it will never be high enough – I will give you a higher mountain, a more precarious sea, a faster motorcycle,….you will never catch me, I can not be caught”.   I smile a huge grin, laugh out loud, and give a nod as I turn smartly down hill.  “How far down can we get today Angin?” I direct.  “You sick sir, but I carry your day pack also, we make dinner – Namche Bazar”.  I Okie/Nepalese  blow-out – more mucus, more dirt , more blood. We leave.

more stone mantraStone Mantras line the way

I do not speak, think, or turn around for over hour and while physically racked, I move very quickly down the valley. When we do stop and look back, Island Peak is gone – what an odd feeling – “Christ, Jesus Christ, did I quit?  Yes, Robert you most certainly did quit – you are a quitter”.  That is strange, quitting did not kill me, in fact I feel good, really good. My head goes foggy again and I shake myself back to consciousness when suddenly: “Maybe you were supposed to leave something in these mountains”. Shit, I just left a whole God damn mountain unclimbed, a life goal unattained. You are fucking kidding me!

chola ice fieldSnow field on backside of Chola pass

Really, truly my brain scratches? did you? Or – “Find what you are looking for in those mountains?” What? What the hell are you talking about I shout silently, give me a break – I finally get an answer to the question you bring forth, then you change back to the original question. Frustrated.

stupa eyesStupa eyes

Walk, calm now –  “You are in the land of Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, and Genesh….the land of the Buddha and the Dharma…..the land at the top of the world……hold both questions – they are not exclusive, they never were….life is not linear nor singular; neither black or white,  embrace the duality – a river of birth, a river of death – You left a mountain, you found Freedom”.

monisstary paintingMonastery Painting


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