Sitting bolt upright in the darkness, I worm my way quickly out of the breathing hole of my -30-degree sleeping bag, a trick that my jumpy, light sleeping tendencies have mastered over years of sleeping inside the synthetic cocoons. Andy is already awake next to me, fiddling with his climbing gear. “Is it 1:00am already?” I ask.
Oster, the head Sherpa, appears suddenly from the dark, lighting the ceremonial Nepalese fire of juniper and sage atop the altar built of rocks next to our tent. A grim fate awaits in the afterlife for any Nepalese who perish above the snow line, so the fire is meant to ensure a safe climb.
Not a superstitions man, I place my safety above the snow-line in my own head and hands. Yet as one with great reverence for the traditions of others, I appreciate the symbolism and ambience of the fire that casts an eerie orange across the milky, starlit night.
And then, without an ounce of ceremony at all, the climb begins. Behind us are a father and son from the UK, and with us are Oster, Pemba, and Lhakpa. However, given that the team has been reduced to simply Andy and I, it has become more of a pair of friends climbing with company than anything that feels like a team ascent.
The stiff, clunky mountaineering boots represent the starkest departure from the freedom of motion enjoyed by a barefoot trail runner, not to mention the balance and sensory reception. The thick, double layers of plastic and cushioning, designed to protect the feet from everything between frostbite to ankle twists also prevents all normal bending, pivoting, and all other circular motions.
As I mentioned before, boring though it may sound, moving with balance and efficiency in such boots is an art in itself, a dance between placement of foot, axe, hand, and the draw of breath. And while it may lack the flash and fun of my wild runs across the cliffs of High Rocks Vista, it is a no less practiced art.
The first half of the climb is across 45-degree to 60-degree rock slopes and scree, and include a few Class 4 scrambles, requiring extra precise balance on the thick rubber of the boots. Andy expresses his uncertainty with the climb as we work our way up the treacherous rock. I encourage him to push on to crampon point before he abandons the climb, hoping he will find the rhythm that I know he has.
The air is thin, but my breathing is well practiced at this point, from tramping up and down the stairs of my mother’s apartment building, to the odd looks received for hiking up and down the Water Gap in double boots holding an ice axe in the middle of July. Everything has built to this moment, and while I am expecting for the growing altitude to eventually have its effect, thus far all movement has been the epitome of flow.
Even when it forces extra work to draw breath, I am enjoying every second of the exertion, and welcome the scrambles as they bring many of the stemming and balancing moves from a season of rock climbing out to play, and with them the movement takes on much more of its wild identity.
More important is the fact that even though it is extra work to draw breath at points, my heart rate remains steadily below what I have established as the threshold for oxygen debt, and my energy levels feel as steady as they would during a casual stroll down the sidewalk. It is not that the climb is not challenging, but simply that the body feels naturally geared towards the challenge.
So far, the madness seems to be paying dividends by way of method. By the time we reach Crampon Point, the landmark beyond which we will be climbing on snow and ice, I am sweating and have my layers opened down to my base layer. Yet I am full of oxygen and energy.
Several gulps of water later, I finish strapping metal spikes onto my feet, and the climb continues. Though it is dark, the moon and stars light the night brightly, clearly displaying the various crevasses, lips, and drop offs that plummet hundreds or thousands of feet to various places in various directions around us. They share a single common trait: a closing chapter ending as a stain on the deck.
Above us, Orion’s Belt sits in perfect alignment with the west-to-east ridge of Lobuche Peak, as if signalling in the direction from which the sun will soon liberate our frozen world with light and warmth. It is here that the movement truly goes from the flash of the wildest to the subtlety of each step, yet with no less power, precision, or importance.
As we ascend, the air grows thinner, the temperature colder, and the incline steeper. Each step is a delicate placement of the foot to ensure optimal grip of all the spikes, followed by the placement of the axe, the inhale, the exhale, and the constant state of balance, when done right is as precise as a metronome.
The art of movement takes many forms.
To the east, the slightest slivers of light betray the steady rise of the coming sun. At last we reach the final section of pitches, the steepest inclines of the climb. Fixed rope anchors have been built, allowing climbers to clip in with an ascending device called a Jummar.
The climb has flowed as smoothly as one could hope thus far, and yet now, so close to the top I begin to wrestle with sudden reservations. I am accustomed to climbing tied to one or two other well-known and trusted climbers, on anchors that either they or I built ourselves. I realize it is my own mistrusting nature speaking from inside, yet all the same every ounce of me wishes to forsake the ropes and climb solely on the comfort of my own axe and feet.
I mute the inner discussion with the quiet vow to check each anchor as I pass it, and clip into the rope, not wishing to create discord. Even if I am fine without the rope, by not using it I would be setting an example for other climbers who might not be, and inadvertently risking a life. Besides, Jake, though not here, is a climber that I wholly trust, and he knows this operation.
The breathing and movement has now fallen into such a rhythm that it feels as steady as a drum beat. The route grows steadily more steep, as the sun ever so slowly climbs alongside us, seemingly at an identical pace. I continue to wait for the oxygen wall, the moment where my present acclimatization level is no longer a match for the height to which I have ascended. Yet though the air is thin, the moment never comes, and
instead I suddenly pull my body up and over the steep lip of the last ridge, and realize that I am standing on the summit.
Other than water, I have consumed nothing since my breakfast of a boiled egg. Not eating was by no means intentional, it simply happened. We made the summit in less than half the suggested time, and at no point did I find myself hungry or slightly lacking in energy. This bit did not surprise me, after three months of toying with this fat-for-fuel concept, I have grown quite adjusted to the results.
Yet I am pleasantly surprised by the fact that even at nearly 21,000ft, the training and acclimatization has sufficed to keep my breathing below oxygen debt levels for the entire climb. I am certainly no scientist, nor do I have any instruments to measure for sure, but from everything I can tell by what my body is telling me now, and what I have learned from it over the last three months, I have climbed a mountain completely without using sugar for fuel.
Well, not completely. . . any climber will tell you that the summit is only the halfway mark, and getting down is frequently where things go wrong. Yet I feel immensely strong, with far more in the tank than I had been counting on.
Before I address the descent, I pause to breathe in the fact that after a lifetime of dreaming about this moment, I am standing on top of a mountain in the middle of the Himalayas. Across from me are many of the famed 8,000 meter peaks, the 14 tallest in the world. Nuptse. Makalu. Pumori. Lhotse. And of course, Everest herself, the thick cloud clinging to her summit glowing such an intense orange from the sunrise that it appears as a literal ball of fire.
I pull a flag from my pack, commemorating my best friend and his team of special operatives that went down in a chopper crash nearly two years ago. Where the line between the emotions about him and the fact that I’m actually standing here lies I don’t know. Instead I keep it all to myself, and uncertain whether to choose between the shadowy orange fire on Everest or the bluish-purple line across the western horizon behind the row of nameless, jagged Himalayan peaks, I commission countless pictures from both.
We are back at high camp shortly after, settling into a meal around the time we were told we would just be rounding the summit. The mission is complete, and the experiment worked. Time now for the long trudge back to Lukla, and the tiny, cliff-diving flight back to Kathmandu.
Timing will find me back in the U.S. the day before Thanksgiving, the entire weekend of which I intend to eat and drink every single thing in sight. I have lost so much weight that I am not terribly far from my high school wrestling weight at this point. No amount of assuring my mother that I feel fine is going to assuage her assumptions that I am on the verge of expiration, so again, I won’t bother trying.
The plan is to just keep eating. Once I’ve sufficiently gorged myself, perhaps then I’ll actually talk to a professional nutritionist about this little experiment of mine, and see where things go from there.
By the time I find myself instructing again for Wildfitness this coming year, I’ll have plenty concrete to share. Hopefully I’ll be lucky enough to see some of you there, be it at our U.S. debut in the Hudson Valley of New York, Scotland, or perhaps another one of our overseas locations.
In the meantime, don’t go rushing out to try this just because I did, talk to someone who knows better first. Just because it worked for me doesn’t mean it will for you, and just because I did it CERTAINLY doesn’t make it a great idea!!!! Remember, it’s far from the worst idea I’ve ever gone along with.
Just ask my ankle.