Each of my adventures, each of my trek has had its own soundtrack, its words or melody to help push myself a little further, a little higher. The one that marked my Khumbu experience, even though it would have been justified to bring it in any of the first three texts, could not be more appropriate here:
Once upon a younger year
When all our shadows disappeared
The animals inside came out to play
When face to face with all our fears
Learned our lessons through the tears
Made memories we knew would never fade
– Avicii (The Nights)
But I’m going too fast. Let’s return to where we were, in Chhukung.
Days 17 to 26
So I’m in Chhukung, saying goodbye to my new French friends who are leaving for Island Peak base camp. Lucky them…
But a door might be open: I move to a new guesthouse, a small place run by a young couple who had invited me the previous day after I expressed my interest in climbing Island Peak. They offer me tea – for free, something rare in Nepal’s tourist areas – and ask me to wait for two of the owner’s friends as they should return at any moment.
And they are mountain guides.
An hour later, I finally have the opportunity to ask them:
“Is there a way for me to climb Island Peak? I don’t have the permit…”
The two friends hesitate, they look at each other. They start talking in Nepali and even the owner joins in the discussion. The guide most confident in English periodically turns to me, asks me a question and instantly resumes their conversation (in Nepali), leaving me in the dark.
So I question them from time to time and suggest all the possible solutions that I can think of:
“Do you know someone who can quickly make me a (not too expensive) permit, who would be in Kathmandu and could bring it in a few days?”
“The three people I met that attempted to climb Island Peak yesterday all said there was no one to check the permit in base camp. We can try, and if there is a “checkman”, we just come back?”
“We can bypass the base camp if you want: we leave Chhukung around 10:00 or 11:00 p.m., we walk through the base camp during the night, but without stopping. We attack the summit straight away and come back. One shot. Boom.”
They laugh a nervous laugh as they look at each other.
“I’m a good trekker, I am acclimatized, I will not be a burden,” I beg them.
At the end of the day, they contact some friend agencies in Kathmandu, but nothing. The time passing by (or their enigmatic discussions) eventually convince them that it might be possible to try one last option: if there is no actual controller to the base camp, no “checkman”, we climb. Otherwise, we turn around.
At that very moment, one of them sees something outside and whispers a few words in Nepali. The other looks, and they both burst in laughter.
“What is it?”, I ask.
“This is the “checkman”, he is going to the base camp…”
Well then. I don’t know if it’s me who is going after life or life that’s going after me, but this was a cheap shot.
During dinner however, one of the guides receives news that could change everything: for my share of the cost, I could maybe have my name on a permit made in Kathmandu the next morning (for some random group). I would not have the permit with me, but the guide would have a proof that it exists.
It’s just a maybe, and I hold my breath.
The next day, before lunch, the good news is confirmed, I can climb! The joy is endless for the young Quebecker. From that moment, everything starts unfolding pretty fast: we go to base camp (4970m) in the afternoon, on that same day, looking forward to wake up at 1:00 am and make an attempt for the summit.
But I can’t sleep more than 45 minutes. It’s cold like hell in my tent and anyway I’m way too busy listening to The Nights, again and again.
One day my father, he told me:
“Son, don’t let it slip away.”
He took me in his arms, I heard him say:
“When you’ll get older your wild heart will live for younger days,
Think of me if ever you’re afraid.”
– Avicii (The Nights)
Day 19, 1:00 am. Waking up is easy: it feels like I waited for this my whole life. We eat two toasts, drink a cup of tea and just after two o’clock, the adventure begins.
My guide preferred to wait for two Latvians friends (and their guide, a friend of his), but soon realizes that we are too quick. We climb in the dark, we go beyond a group that started before us and seeing all those who are forced to turn around and go back down, I realize how well my trek prepared me for this.
I am a gazelle.
A euphoric gazelle.
We eventually stop to put on our plastic boots (similar to ski boots, on which we can fix crampons) and we’re off again. We can’t stop for too long, the cold settles in fast.
We then reach the snow, the ice and… this weird mixture of both. While we fix our crampons, put on our harnesses, attach ourselves one to the other and prepare the rest of our equipment, the sun comes out.
It’s funny how at that moment, I feel like it’s my face that’s the sun. I guess it’s because I’m happy.
To hike with plastic boots is one thing. To do it with huge spikes on the strangely icy snow at over 5500m is definitely something else. But we continue. I inwardly thank my guide to take a break every 30 seconds, I take the opportunity to turn around and…
I don’t know how many times I said this in this trek but… damn! This is beautiful. With the ice under my feet, my heart pounding and the cold air in my lungs, this is magical.
The climb gets more difficult (see the posture of all climbers following…). And with the boots and crampons, it my little heart is racing. But it’s alright, I’ve seen worse (I think)!
What I’ve never see though, is something like this:
An almost vertical wall of titanic dimensions.
Climbing it was one of the most exhausting and fun things I’ve done in my life. A bit like ice climbing – I guess, because I’ve never tried – I climb using crampons, rope and ice ax. My calves, thighs, glutes, back and arms brutally force to gradually push my body and my equipment a little higher.
Imagine yourself climbing 75 meters high, straight up, “chin-ups” style. With your three coats and your ice climbing equipment.
At 6000m above sea level.
And then, magic happens, once more. A thin 50 meters ridge, sexy like in the movies, leads us to the top like a red carpet.
And finally, the summit…
Idyllic, sharp, perfect.
When thunder clouds start pouring down
Light a fire they can’t put out
Carve your name into those shining stars
– Avicii (The Nights)
The descent was pleasant too, particularly rappelling on the huge wall. We go back to base camp and eat a bite, I doze off and when the Latvians are back, I realize how fast we were: my guide and I took 5:30 to climb up and 3:30 to come down, almost four hours less than our friends.
We return to Chhukung, early evening, and at the guesthouse I meet two trekkers planning to do the Kongma La pass the next morning.
Hmmm… I wanted to take a day off before deciding what would come afterwards, but…
I’m on fire.
The next morning I get up as they leave and decide to go to Lobuche by the Kongma La: my third pass, I want it and I will get it!
I join them a few hours later and we reach the summit together. The views are stunning, as always. The mountains, endless. As always.
Around us, the Himalayas are simply majestic.
We stay together for the rest of the day and share a giant thermos of masala tea that evening.
21st day. I realize that I have achieved everything I hoped I could accomplish, and it’s a bit exhilarating. I am overjoyed, really. And I am in a profoundly peaceful mindset.
I stick my headphones in my ears and get out of Lobuche like a racehorse. I arrive to Namche in late afternoon, having traveled two days walk – three for some groups – in seven hours.
The Alex is back.
The next day is similar: a quick descent to Lukla. Too quick. My knees start to dislike my new motivation and they find a way to let me know.
But I decide that I still have some more to discover, and to offer. The part of the trail further south, between Jiri and Lukla (6 days) or Salleri (3 days), renowned ultra-steep, you remember?
Well I do.
So I happily keep on hiking and enter a new gorgeous setting: an autumn jungle.
In the morning, I meet Benjamin, a Quebecker.
He is with Krishna, a Nepali father with whom he is living for 10 weeks while teaching English in his village. A tiny village, as rural and deep in the mountains as you can imagine. And on my way! They tell me to come eat and sleep at Krishna’s and his family’s place when I pass there (they go there the same evening, but I stress that I walk down pretty slowly. And from Lukla until Krishna’s village, it’s only going down). I agree, whether for today or for tomorrow.
But hey, I am Alex, and Alex does like to push himself. Although his left knee hurts. So when I meet them again in the afternoon and they invite me to do the rest of the way with them, I join them.
On the way, a small problem happens: a sprained right ankle. Flashbacks from the Lycian way (and why it ended) worry me immediately, but the injury is not as severe as it was back then. Krishna invites me to stay one more day to rest my injuries before resuming my journey, and I modify my itinerary by aiming at Salleri (2 more days) instead of Jiri (5 days).
At Jubhing, Krishna’s village, we are in another world. Benjamin shows me around this dozen houses scattered among mountainside cultures, and allows me to meet local families. For nearly two days I witness – and participate a little bit in – the most authentic Nepalese lifestyle
Customs fascinate me, generosities impress me, living conditions challenge me and it’s a whole new dimension that is quickly being added to this huge adventure.
I would love to write more on the subject, pages and pages, but Benjamin agreed to write about it himself on his return (here).
Before I leave, we eat and drink at a friend’s place. We don’t drink much, just enough to be tipsy. And then we go back to Krishna’s house, “for one last drink,” and then we get invited by other friends of his, “just for a drink”, and so on. In Nepal, you can’t refuse invitations.
People put some nice and fine white scarves around my neck, a gesture reserved for “honorable” guests (Brad Pitt receives one from the Dalai Lama in Seven Years in Tibet! My life is like in the movies! Muahaha). And then I’m finally back on the road, a bit drunk, to reach Salleri two days later.
I don’t know yet what to do of all of this.
It certainly is the biggest thing I’ve ever accomplished in my life, as a combination of mental, physical and emotional efforts. And I still do not know exactly what to make of it.
It will come I guess.
But the reflections will be for another time. Because here, right now, other adventures await me!
He said, “One day you’ll leave this world behind
So live a life you will remember”
My father told me when I was just a child
“These are the nights that never die”
– Avicii (The Nights)