It’s the 6th January 2017, and it’s freezing. The three of us have prayer flags under our arms. Kenny pulls out his packet. He offers one to Megan. Megan says she feels sick. Kenny says that he doesn’t feel too good either, then lights up a cigarette. I ask him if he’s gonna do it.
“Are you?” he asks
“For sure!” I answer.
“To be honest Bec, I don’t feel like it, but there’s no way I’m gonna sit on a bus while someone double my age does it”. Kenny’s proclamation comes with a greenish grin. He was vomiting all last night and I wonder how he can stomach the cigarette.
“Here, put these in your water bottle.” I hand him some Hydrolyte then ask, “Are you sure you don’t want some meds?”
He lowers his eyes still grinning and resigns, “Yeah okay”.
As we hop back on the bus I find it hard to wipe the smile from my face. Kenny is 19, only three years older than my son, and from Melbourne too. We’ve become good friends over the last few days, close enough for him to stir me when I told him about my preparation under the altitude tent back home. When I offered him altitude sickness medication yesterday he answered, “tablets are for pussies”. I couldn’t help but to retort “Excuse me young man. Pussies are powerful!”
When we stop at the rocky valley, Tenzin (our senior guide) directs those who want to do the 2km walk to get off. I tap Kenny on the shoulder, “You ready to be a pussy”. Both Kenny and Megan laugh, then six of us single-file off. Two stay on, to bus it to base camp.
Megan and I both need to pee. We pace towards a boulder. Megan hides as I take first watch. The ground is covered with orange-brown moss-like plants over blue and white granite, it reminds me of undersea coral. I look up, I’m on solid earth, yet my head is light and I feel like I am as close to the moon as I’ll ever be.
Megan stands. My turn to squat. The air bites my butt. It’s minus 23 degrees Celsius. My behind is frosting. I hear her call out to the group, “wait, don’t come yet”. I stand up, it’s too cold to pee anyway. I yell “All good” giving the others the thumbs up.
Our group is all alone out here. No climbers dare to come in winter, and with oxygen levels 50% thinner and temperatures way below zero, tourists are turned off by this season; a season when local villagers pilgrimage to warmer places.
All eyes turn down to negotiate the loose and large stones. Kenny catches up to Megan and I. We pose for a quick selfie. My breath is heavy and my face aching. It’s about 6.30pm and Tenzin takes lead at a cracking pace. He wants us to make the most of the light. Kenny keeps up but Megan and I fall behind.
Megan isn’t smiling. After a short while says that she wished she’d stayed on the bus. Half an hour later, Tashi (our junior guide) arranges for the bus to come back. Tashi waits with Megan. I go ahead alone.
With no one around, I take my gloves off for another selfie. The air pricks the ends of my fingers. I try to swipe, but my iPhone freezes up. I turn it off, it doesn’t turn back on, so I place it into the back of my underpants hoping it will thaw.
Over the next rocky crop, I’m met by a frozen river. A red glow over the iced water melts into my mind. A gap in thinking is soon followed by “fuck I need to take a picture”. I fumble into my undies. Desperately try to press it on, 5, 10, 15 seconds later. No. Not gonna happen. I stick the phone back down my pants, then take in the moment.
I hear my rapid breath. I feel the contents of my rib cage zipping up and down. I see a sunset halo surrounding the highest peak of the world.
Tibetans call her Qomolangma. Tenzin said it translates as Beautiful Girl. She is also known as Mother of the Universe. I’m struck by the duality. I walk slowly, contemplating her as both Daughter and Mother, Girl and Woman.
Savoring the pace, I arrive long after the others, Tenzin greets me, “Get your prayer flags, hang them”. My mind grabs, I want to keep them, take them home.
The others are already back on the bus. Megan is resting with her flags beside her. I don’t bother her, but I do ask Kenny if he hung his. He says he wants to take them home, maybe give them to his mum. I tell him I think that’s a great idea, then step off the bus.
I begin a stride towards the mound of dirt that forms the North Face Base Camp viewing platform. In those strides I think of Tibet, I think of my three children, I think of my 19-year-old self: a girl who made a promise to make it here. I reach the platform and realize, I’m as close to her as I’ll ever be. With desperation, I tie the prayer flags to the railing at one end. Fifteen metres of white red green yellow blue extend across the ground. I climb the old ladder, take off my gloves and try to tie the other end to the top of the pole. It’s difficult, the ladder is weak and my fingers are stinging. I’m scared I will fall but finally I get the knot. I pull it tight. I step down. They fly.
I turn around to face her, take my phone out from my undies. The phone is warm and turns on easily. It’s then I yell, “WE MADE IT! WE MADE IT!”
[i] ཇོ་མོ་གླང་མ, also known as Mount Everest