The world’s 3rd highest peak, my 3rd 8000er, was going to be different. The stories my mind was telling were daunting yet deep within knew that there was potential for greatness to surface from change. It did.

The world’s 3rd highest peak, my 3rd 8000er, was going to be different. I work to release that which I cannot control yet this release continues to be like a fish on a deep hook; tough to let go. The stories my mind was telling were daunting yet deep within knew that there was potential for greatness to surface. 

Communication breakdown, dismissed needs and expectations too high shadowed a successful summit on Dhaulagiri less than a week earlier. The way the first expedition of the season ended left loose ends that I felt Kanchenjunga could only help put closure to. Endings lead to beginnings. 

The mountains of my mind challenge. I climb on holding tight to the opportunity in new terrain, new teammates and a guide new to me. Flying into Base Camp was chaotic: the anticipation, the conditions, the terrain yet the smiles that welcomed me at the team tent assured I was exactly where I was supposed to be.

Thoughts of potential headaches are triggering; right back to early days at Station 44 the neurotrauma unit; debilitating. In an effort to keep my body familiar with the decreased amount of oxygen at altitude, after only 3 days in Kathmandu following Dhaulagiri, I flew to Bhadrapur, then drove to Taplejung with the Imagine Nepal team who, between Kathmandu and Khumbu, Manaslu and Dhaulagiri, I’d spent a significant part of the previous year with. No frills, no catering, they treat me as their own from the time we meet at the Tribhuvan Airport.  

Following a flight and a day of driving and shopping, the light was less than optimal as clouds persisted lower forcing the heli to land at the furthest end of Base Camp. Not a big deal on a clear day yet with all things vision and disorientation, I was thrown off by the ascent from the lowest base to where our team would call home for the upcoming weeks at 5 600 m. Base Camp kitchen staff and one climber along with his manager from Pakistan who needed to acclimatize had arrived ahead of us. With all other international climbers not arriving for a handful more days, I was alone but not, unloading my gear in my tent, it took only minutes to feel home.

Hydration is key to dodging the kopfschmerzen*, so with my personal tent set, my own cookie cutter from any other climb, I shifted to the dining tent, thermos and 2 nalgenes in hand. What welcomed me were two smiles that, without a word, said “us” rather than any sense of aloneness. Eye contact, questions of sincerest curiosity and passionate reflections of what they were missing from Pakistan followed me to bed with a huge sense of relief. A fresh start.

After a quick, chaotic turnaround in Kathmandu following Dhaulagiri, my body struggled to settle. Rest was needed yet sleep was a struggle.  From the proportions of milk and sugar in the tea to the frigid temperatures we woke to, Saad and Sirbaz kept conversation lit with all things comparison between the countries that house the Himalayan giants in which we climbed. Talking connections and climbers before our time, routes and favorite books, lighthearted laughter and conversation filled the dining tent before the remaining team members arrived. 

Passang was new to me. One of the most experienced 8 000 m climbers in the world yet our trails only connected at KBC. He was sweet, a cheeky smile that I quickly learned I can make him laugh between cigarettes and chewing tobacco. No history. Different is good. Refreshing.

With time on my hands and mountains in my mind, navigating the boulders and scree between the pea-soup fog that hovered above base camp, I ventured in the direction of Camp 1. Knowing was more settling than the hyperbolized stories my mind made up laying in the tent. Slippery stones, wet snow and disappearing footprints made my first exploration up to crampon point slower than I anticipated yet the ease of wonder and physical movement was settling in its own sense. Alone with only my thoughts, I embarked in the same direction 3 consecutive days as I anticipated the arrival of other climbers. Each hike up a different route through everchanging gloom, sleet, snow and rain. Though each equally thought provoking, the precipitation was persistent. I trust impermanence; the clouds move, I would see a trail leading to Base Camp rather than off a cliff edge yet all the while I fear judgment. My constant battle of not being enough: the Sherpa might catch and pass me, the BC team might wonder why I am taking so long. Caught up in the mountains of my mind, I was only truly at ease when my eye set sight on prayer flags and the top of yellow tents. 

Sleep continued to challenge. While I tend to be the first to move around base camp as the sun rises long before the clock strikes 5, on the morning of April 21, I woke to the sound of a helicopter triggering instant panic and anxiety. More climbers equates to more chaos on the mountain and in my mind. I talk myself through it while I light my camp stove. Coffee and journaling help calm. When I write things down, they start to make sense; the dreams I had had in the night certainly did not. 

My Base Camp tent

Losing sleep over growing expedition costs, news of an imminent summit push, a Netflix celebrity along with a princess joining our team and a crevasse too big to cross felt like too many dots not connecting. A tool to calm, I journal. 

Breaking ice from frozen barrels to wash clothes, rinsing countless times feels therapeutic, counting portions of coffee and Tsampa*2 before others started to arrive helps my need for organization. When the heli finally included those of our own team, I helped carry gear up from the heli pad and, despite the uneasy anticipation, there was a spark of relief seeing familiar faces. Chris noting how nice it was to be reconnected with my positive energy lit my inner smile.

Puja ~ asking for safe passage in the mountains

Following the Puja ceremony, asking the mountain gods for safe passage, we moved directly to Camp 2 on April 23. It was hot yet with no plan to return to Base Camp we needed to wear or carry everything necessary both up and off the mountain so as the sun rose the layers shifted. I was focused. I sensed a race right out of the dining tent. I am not in this to compete. I move inward. Quiet. I climbed strong.

Camp 2 – Camp 3 was littered with increasing emotion. A team member was sick and others worried about that impact. Sharing a 2-person tent with the gear of an 8000er and all of the emotions that go with it cramps body and mind. I try to keep everything within myself and focus only on my climb yet am concerned for a friend’s health and the potential. The climb to C3 is not long distance wise yet navigating the maze of crevasses’ and altitude gain makes for a longer day than I anticipated. The final approach to C3 tested me, I felt I should feel better and stronger than I did. Winds came in strong and, all things considered, Mingma chose to stay an extra night at C3. Ke garne?*3. Rest. Hydrate. Force feed. Hydrate. Rest.

Camp 3

C3 to C4 had more features that kept the climbing more dynamic. I like it. I arrived at C4 gitty feeling strong, excited and thankful. Seamless so far.

Climbing between Camp 3 and Camp 4
Good Energy at Camp 4 (7 550 m)

Nothing lasts forever. The climb towards the summit sure felt like it was going to. The cold was extreme, the pace was slow; and then it wasn’t. The sun was up but direction was lost. We were the only team to leave Camp 4; the first of the season. Because we were trying to summit in one push, considering the weather window and the experience among us, no one had set up any directionals before we set off from Camp 4. 

Lost among the highest peaks in the world? Previously, I would have respected that wonder. Within the maze of the “Five Treasures of the Great Snows”, Kanchenjunga I (8586m), Kanchenjunga West (8505m), Kanchenjunga South (8494m) and Kangbachen (7903m) we were finding no treasures. There had been little doubt when rope left from last season’s expedition remained yet when seemingly off the route that Mingma had summited from years’ earlier questions stirred in the bone chilling wind. Hours passed, toes froze and for many, oxygen depleted. Never did I ever anticipate being lost nearing the 3rd highest point on our planet. 

Confusion and chaos above 8 500 m. Defiance, tears, shouting and utter disbelief. My toes were cold but my connection to impermanence is strong. Never did I doubt we would summit eventually.  I have chosen this challenge. If it was easy, we would not be up here alone.

Hours later we would backtrack before veering onto a new path. Every individual living their own story; some needed to voice their feeling of importance over others bringing out far from their best. I go inward. I trust. 

Wide open spaces turned narrow and boulders turned pitches as patience decreased and climbers increased. A team that started after us caught up adding intensity to the deteriorating dynamic. Shimmying through tiny spaces, crampons dangerously close to tiring eyes and depleted minds. After 18 hours and within 50 vertical meters of the summit, the path to the peak was no longer a viable option. Downward. 

Safety first. Though my heart had sunk there was never a doubt that we would get this right. Back to Camp 4. Slowly. Lack of depth perception makes descending a different challenge than that of the up and pushing the 24 hour mark above 8000m, efficiency is only an ideal.

The equation of time on feet, the thinness of the air and intensity of focus still landed a result of negative rest. Not even a wink of sleep from the eye that does have that capabilty. Everything takes longer with exhaustion. Getting out of Camp 4 tested my equanimity. I craved the comfort of warm, dry clothes and my space at base camp. A few days to recover, refuel, a clear weather window and I would be ready to get it right yet I am not in this alone.

The group of international climbers all decided to go back to Kathmandu. This was not at all appealing to me. Going home to the city would be distracting and expensive. Considering I was the only one keen to stay at BC until we would begin again, Mingma had me packing my bag at 4am to get the first heli out.

Waiting and wondering; another long day without control as the heli shuttle dodged Himalayan storms. Starring up at the route towards Camp 1 triggered questions: How? When? Though never why?

Flights diverted and some never came at all. At one point, Sirbaz and I thought we were flying to Lukla for what was the safest option yet my eye spotted all things Kathmandu Valley between fog and rain. Arriving in the city’s Friday afternoon traffic in the pouring rain, sitting in a minibus with a clan of climbers each looking to get to a bed instantaneously. With traffic at a standstill, I decided to get out and walk home. Stoic. I would go the most direct way; no diversion through the climbing gym as normal as that would be a guaranteed meet up with friends who I love but wasn’t up for chatting. Electricity and water are a guessing game in Kapurdhara. A win win as my bed called my name at the same time Sirbaz texted keen to go out; not even tempted.

Saturday was a slow ease into 3 days of a different kind of fog than that of the clouds. Simply trying to digest what had happened while trying to rest among the anticipation of so much more ahead. More than one massage and much more Pakistani food, unsuccessful attempts to watch movies at the farmhouse* and rest my body that simply had no idea what was going on. Three full days in the city and, on the 3rd of May we were back at the airport. Anticipating a day to reset at Kanchenjunga Base Camp was short lived. 

Enough for a safe climb yet with less food and fewer layers, the following morning we were back enroute to Camp 2. Since we had been on the mountain only a handful of days earlier, other teams had raced to the summit. I moved ahead of Pasang between Camp 3 and 4. In the slightly technical traverse and steeper sections, I waited then went ahead. I felt strong. Stoked. 

Into the night, our 10 pm start out of C4 began steady and monotonous yet the sight of a human laying dead caught my eye within the first few hours. This was real, fresh, only the day before. Dressed not unlike any one of us, thoughts drifted to his family, his final moments and those with whom he climbed and argued yet I am able to disconnect with questionable ease. My mind was pulled towards gratitude for my body; so damn thankful to be able to do this. Though next to no chance of another misleading venture, questions of wonder stormed in the void of darkness as the trail led into terrain which we had not traveled on our first attempt. Trust. 

The sun was yet to rise as the space closed between boulders and bodies. After seemingly endless hours, the moonlight and stars had company. The glow of a few headlamps triggered a pause. Were they turning back yet again? 

My eye does not adjust efficiently and the headlamps in my face stirred agitation though once it became clear that it was Chris and Tsering on their way down my inner light sparked. We were on the correct trail and within an hour of the summit. Stoke!  

The third highest mountain on our planet, my third 8000er and the most incredible view I could ever imagine. Thankful. I feel close to my Dad and ask him what he thinks. My voice cracks. I miss him. I  want the view for those who got me here; for my Mom, Ryan and Kara. Every nurse, doctor, and member of my countless medical teams. As Sirbaz approaches the summit just steps behind me, I stand in silence full yet bursting with gratitude for all who had played a role in my story leading me to 8 586 m. Despite the ongoing battle with my body, I stand thankful for what it allows me to do and proud of the way I have chosen to challenge it.

The wind is loud but otherwise there is silence among the Himalayan giants.The initial descent is tricky with the inability to accurately detect depth. Add in multiple languages to the equation of technical descent in the death zone minus depth perception and patience grows thin. I had tried to explain that when I am rappelling through unstable terrain or where the placement of landing is particular, that any communication with respect to direction is helpful. Sirbaz is quick to want to help. He is articulate and recognizes my building frustration. Rappelling or not, communication is key in any relationship. I try to let it go, accepting Sirbaz’s help as Pasang distances himself. 

Descending just below the summit of Kanchenjunga.

We make a stop at Camp 4 to clean up and leave no trace. I just want to get down and have every intention of getting all the way to Base Camp. There is more to pick up at Camp 3 and Pasang is clearly drained. I would rather not stop while he needed frequent breaks; his load heavier with each camp. The sun set and we were still not at Camp 2. Though depleted, I wanted to plod on to Base Camp. We did not have a tent at Camp 2. Pasang wanted to stay. He then proposed that we stay for half an hour and then we’d go. Yay! 

I paused to consider my response. With respect of his needs, efficiency and safety, I suggested a handful of hours rest.  We used a tent from another team, had some tea and cookies and tried to sleep. Again unsuccessful. With the sun coming up in the day’s 4th hour, I was ready to move yet actually leaving with all of the gear was slow. Getting out from Camp 2 is somewhat of a mixed climb between rock and snow. Energy was strong and, with a rumour that there was potential to fly in the afternoon, I was keen to get back quick. 

Base Camp was all but disassembled by the time I got there. Everything from my BC tent was stuffed into my duffle and my tent was being taken down as I packed. The dining tent was packed and we ate the traditional summit cake with a hodgepodge of leftovers under the grey sky lit only with our summit glow.

No amount of excitement nor will could clear the fog for safe flying. Low on needs and high on flexibility, Sirbaz and I were the last of the team out; though not out too far. Only part way to the first heli stop when we had to make an emergency landing literally in the middle of absolutely nowhere. Fog grounded the heli. Sirbaz, Pemba, Pasang and I had bearings enough to walk in the direction of the settlement where the next helipad was. 

More time at altitude could only be helpful for Makalu. Finding the good. Ready for the next.

Post Script Notes

 To wrap it up in 90 seconds, check out this glimpse of the Kanchenjunga expedition.

*kopfschmerzen – headache

*2Tsampa or Tsamba is a Tibetan and Himalayan staple made from roasted flour, usually barley flour and sometimes also wheat flour. I make my own version mainly oats and nut butter.

*3Ke garne? (what to do?)
*4farmhouse – reference friends use to describe my apartment in Kathmandu.

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