I’m euphoric as I scramble over the loose boulders to the summit of Kala Patthar.
I’ve reached the highest point of the Nepal trek. This is about 5,600 meters (18,373 feet). The sky above is crystal clear. The summit of Everest is ahead, and it looks like the Photoshopped backdrop on a film set.
I’m feeling smug, because I’m still not feeling any effects from the altitude. We arrived last night at Gorek Shep, the last village on the route to Everest Base Camp, from where this peak appeared to be nothing more than a hill of loose brown pebbles.
I wake early this morning eager to climb, and power up the hill. It’s steeper and longer than it had looked yesterday. Feeling strong, I pursue the top without stopping.
And then it hits.
As I take in the inconceivable panorama and take photographs, I suddenly have the intense desire to sleep.
Even more bizarrely, that impulse doesn’t seem strange, and so I curl into a ball, put my head on a rock, and sleep deeply.
The adventure started months before, when I received an e-mail asking for volunteers on a 10-woman charity trek.
“Can you imagine,” I said to my husband, “that someone actually thinks I am capable of doing this?”
His response: “Why not?”
The U.S.- and U.K.- based charity Women for Women International helps women in war-torn countries rebuild their lives. It provides a new twist on the concept of philanthropic travel. Rather than building homes, we were to drag ourselves to the base of the world’s highest mountain over 18 days.
The trek is marketed as a fitting metaphor for the lives of many of the women the charity targets. It asks each participant to pay their way and to commit to raising funds, in my case 10,000 pounds ($15,400).
We ran through my concerns about the fitness level and fundraising required. I have school-age children who need micromanaging, a house to run in the U.K., a part-time job and a husband who is often on the road. How could I go to Asia for almost three weeks during the school term?
Once again my husband’s response: “Why not?”
So I signed up. And not totally fearless, I roped in a friend.
I walk a lot -- regularly and briskly throughout the year on London’s Hampstead Heath. Summers are spent hiking in Acadia National Park in Maine. I knew I was fit.
There was little training I could do to prepare for the altitude. At 5,364 meters, oxygen levels at the Nepal Base Camp are about half those at sea level -- and we were going even higher. (Getting to the 8,848-meter summit involves dangerous climbing best left to professionals.)
Women for Women made all the arrangements outside of our flights to and from Kathmandu, where we met and sized each other up for the first time at the Yak and Yeti Hotel.
It was a well-heeled group whose travel expectations most likely include a nightly chocolate on the pillow. We ranged in age from 28 to 52. We were French, Belgian, Norwegian, American and English. We worked, we were stay-at-home moms, we were married, we were single.
The trek was led by Susan Harper Todd, who in 2004 became the fifth British woman to reach the summit and the first to lead an expedition there.
After a day sightseeing, we had an early start for our flight to Lukla, where the trail begins. Regularly listed as one of the world’s most dangerous airports, it’s not the kind of thing you want to research before you go. The landing strip is built into a steep incline and ends with an abrupt drop-off into a seemingly bottomless Himalayan valley.
Harper Todd has a team of four Sherpas and four porters. We were able to rely upon these men, who came to know our food and beverage preferences, weaknesses and strengths. They carried our duffel bags, leaving us only with a day pack. Just when you thought you’d lost the trail, they would appear. We joked that in that way, they were kind of like wives, or mothers.
We walked toward Monjo through the Khumbu Valley, which has national park status and is dotted with villages. To acclimatize, we spent nine nights making our way to Base Camp and three nights descending.
In addition to the stream of walkers, bull and yak trains clogged the way, making it difficult to negotiate the single lane suspension bridges. Porters carried both food and building supplies, such as doors or furniture. Despite their load, they quickly passed us daypack-carrying tourists.
We spent nights in basic lodges, where we chose from a menu of Tibetan dumplings called momos, daal bhat, a regional staple of lentils and rice, and various egg and potato dishes. As a group of women we were a novelty and attracted attention from the predominantly male groups of commercial trekkers.
The surrounding peaks were stunning, the trail punctuated by brightly colored prayer wheels and stupas adorned with the eyes of Buddha.
We quickly got into a rhythm, walking at our own pace. While the group spread out over the trail during the day, we always met up for lunch and the evenings. For a group of what had been strangers, we got on exceedingly well.
We were blessed with perfect weather which allowed most of us to trek in short sleeves. But once the sun past below the horizon, the temperature dropped close to freezing. The accommodation was mainly unheated and we gathered in the main room, warmed by yak-dung fires, until it was time to crawl into sleeping bags.
Kala Patthar is a steep and seemingly endless summit that provides climbers with their best view.
My sleepiness there was the first symptom of acute mountain sickness. Afterwards, nausea and disorientation kicked in. I was helped by powerful steroid drugs.
By morning, I felt reborn, ready to walk to Base Camp. We all made it, taking pictures, unfurling a string of ‘prayer flags’ made by our supporters and hugging each other.
George Mallory’s quote for wanting to climb Everest was “because it’s there.” The critic, poet and mountaineer Al Alvarez said that was “only half the story. The other half was ‘because you’re here’ -- where ‘you’ included the town, the job, the hierarchies, the wife, the kids, the dog…”
The assumption that such a challenge is specific to men is ridiculous. For me and the women who join me, the philanthropic aspect gives us all a socially acceptable excuse to remove ourselves from ‘here.’
(Erika Lederman writes for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)