I awoke 4am. It was still dark outside and it was well below freezing. There was no electricity in the lodge, save for a couple of hours of solar-generated power in the evening, so we had to get ready for our hike in the dark with the help of headlamps. I put on my all my layers again, ate a small cliff bar, and took all of my various supplements. We left the lodge by 4:30, bound for the summit of Kala Patthar- elevation 18,365ft. The waning full moon illuminated the barren landscape as we walked across the flat meadow towards the mountain. A long, slowly moving, diagonal line of headlamps was visible on the pathway to the summit. I felt great, despite the cold. The highly unlikely circumstances along with the surreal moonlight and the dreamlike landscape caused a surge of excitement deep within me. Actually, I felt better than great- I felt amazing. We began our ascent, slowly making our way up the steep switchbacks. I came to realize that my fingertips were freezing, even though I had on my heavy snowboarding gloves. If I continued at this slow pace, there would be no way of warming up my hands. There was only one thing to do, which was to pick up the pace. I squeezed my trekking poles as hard as I could in an attempt to bring a semblance of warmth to my fingers as I began to bang my poles down on the ground with every step.
As my pace increased, my breathing rate increased as well. Soon I was in a rhythm, inhaling as my left foot stepped up, exhaling with the right foot. I felt just like the Energizer bunny, only my poles were my drumsticks and the frozen ground was my drum. Bang, bang, bang, bang- I marched up the hill to my own beat. And I just kept going and going and going.
The path up Kala Patthar.
Soon I was passing the line of hikers I had spotted earlier, as they began lagging in the high altitude. Half way up, people were dropping out- the cold and the altitude proving to be too much to handle. I was on a roll, driven towards the summit by some unseen force. As soon as I passed one group of hikers, I set my eyes on the next one until I'd passed everyone. My hands had warmed up to the point that I could pause for a few seconds, take off one glove, and snap a picture of the pink clouds in the early dawn. I was a bit disappointed because it seemed to me that Everest was going to be shrouded in the clouds that hung between a large black mountain on the left and another snow covered peak on the right. Dave had followed close behind me all the way up, preferring a faster pace, and as we took a short rest we could see the others far below. We reached a rock upon which someone had written "Half way" which was hard to believe because the summit was now in sight. There was already quite a large group at the top- obviously they had set off earlier than we had. As we continued to power on towards the top, the slope became much steeper and the path once again became a series of switchbacks. The altitude was starting to take it's toll and we needed to take more frequent breaks to regain control of our breathing. Soon a couple came down from the top. Both were both elated by their summit experience and encouraged us to keep going. I mentioned it was too bad that Everest was hidden in clouds and they were like "What? Everest is that large black mountain right there." Oh... right... yes, that's what I thought. I pulled out my iPhone to take a picture of Everest (on purpose this time) and right then it powered down- not because it was out of batteries but because it was too cold to continue operating. I had put it in my front pocket against my leg to heat it up.
Everest. It's the tall peak on the right.
We pushed on towards the top and were glad to see everyone from the early group begin making their way down. It looked like we were going to have the summit to ourselves. Most people can only spend a couple minutes at the top due to high winds and freezing temperatures but, when Dave and I arrived breathless and enthused, the wind died down to a light breeze and we were able to spend about 20 minutes on the peak taking in the amazing views of the Himalayas. I stood up on the very top of the top with a sheer cliff on three sides, basking in the adrenaline and the feeling of accomplishment. I'd never been to 18,365 feet before and, chances are, I never will again. After hiking back down and eating breakfast, we then had to hike another four hours back down the hill to a village called Periche. On arrival I was completely shattered and I spent the rest of the day drinking fluids, reading, and talking with our guide, Gopal. It had been a day to remember. One of the most difficult and most rewarding days of my life.
Peak experience at the top of Kala Patthar. Elevation 18,365'
Nick Hughes is a massage therapist, yoga instructor and co-owner of Well Being.