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It’s hard not to lapse into cliché after returning from one of the world’s most spectacular landscapes. I’m inclined to say “It was amazing!” or “Words can’t describe it!” Fortunately, I wasn’t the designated wordsmith on this October trek to foot of Mt. Everest.
During the two weeks I spent in the Solu Khumbu region of Nepal, my only job was to wander, sip chia, and snack on potato momos in view of Ama Dablam, Nuptse, and other famed peaks. My travel companion Jeff, however, was hard at work. On-assignment for a glitzy outdoor magazine, his charge was to follow adventure legend Leo LeBon as he returned to Everest to celebrate the 40thanniversary of his company Mountain Travel. LeBon was instrumental in opening the Everest region to trekking back in the 1960s. Jeff was to tell the story of Leo’s return and write about the changes that have taken place in the trekking industry over the past decades.
Aside from the thrill of venturing to the world’s highest mountain, I was curious to watch Jeff at work, to see the much romanticized profession of travel writing in-action. What was it like to be sent on exotic journeys and then try and shape a story? Was it as great as it all seemed?
The adventure began well enough. At a cocktail-infused get-together in the lobby of the Malla Hotel in Kathmandu, we got acquainted with our trekking group: a combination of clients along with Le Bon’s family, friends, and his upbeat assistant Anthony. Jeff was pleased to get on well with Brian Sokol, the simultaneously dashing and goofy New York Times photographer who was assigned to snap pictures for the story.
Twenty-four hours later the group was on a plane headed to the mountain village of Lukla. Our landing marked the beginning of a nonstop binge on natural spectacles: lushy “lowland” swaths of farms rife with twining pea-vines, verdant spinach, and agrarian nostalgia; the Dhud Kosi river churning below like a endless ribbon of class 5 rapids; then eventually the icy peaks of Thamserku and even Everest glimmering in the high distance, releasing a magic bound to dreams. In the book I brought–Hermit in the Himalaya– Paul Brunton says it all: “The gods that made these mountains must have been beauty-drunk.”
The group chatted easily along the trail, staggering together over swinging bridges, yielding to lines of yaks, and sharing good natured grumbles about the unrelenting swichbacks. At night Jeff and Brian forged their working relationship, holding post dinner powwows to troll for story angles. Brian needed to get shots that would satisfy the magazine’s luxury niche reader. He was to show how the rustic pursuit of mountain trekking can be done in high style. Jeff would capture the morphing emotions and reminisces of LeBon as he reexplored the old pathways of his youth and reacquainted with old Sherpa friends.
It sounded straightforward,but it wasn’t long before cracks began to shoot through the storyline. As we passed village after village, Brian struggled to work within the magazine’s suffocating parameters: he was not to photograph any rustic cookware or “crusty-faced kids.” He was to portray LeBon as rugged but fashionable; the magazine even sent along clothes for Leo to wear in the photographs. Being the self-made individual that he is, Leo promptly threw them away.
It wasn’t long before it began to dawn on Brian that he might not produce the photos the magazine needed. Afterall, “luxury” in the Himalayas is a relative term and no amount of skill could make our dark lodges or tuna fish lunches photogenic. He got increasingly desperate, bottom-feeding on staged scenarios of LeBon and his wife drinking wine, taking shots of well-made apple pies, and doing whatever he could to cut out the din and grunge that is endemic to nearly every Himalayan tea house.
Finally, at one of his post-dinner meetings with Jeff, he threw his hands up. “Luxury shots? There are none.”
Jeff was also at a loss. The magazine expected a story about Leo, but within the context of a high class trek. Could he “write around” the filthy toilets, the cold showers?
It came to a head at lunch on day four.
Sipping a spoonful of watery broth, Leo shook his head in surprise:
“Who ever said this was an ultra-luxury trek? This is a third world country.”
Jeff strained to recollect the queries and emails that proceeded the trip. “Was this just something I invented?” he asked. “Was it all based on my misinterpretation?”
Leo, Jeff, and Brian spent the next twenty minutes trying fruitlessly to unravel the series of misunderstandings and assumptions that led to the assignment. Then the group set about trying to solve the problem. Could they put Leo on a horse with a fancy blanket? Maybe a few shots of him recieving blessings from a high lama?
“You said you threw away the clothes that the magazine sent?,” Brian asked.
“They didn’t even ask him his size” defended his wife.
“How many words does the story have to be?” Brandon asked, turning to Jeff. He was a friend of LeBon’s son Alex.
“Three-thousand. About seven single spaced pages.”
“Whoa. That’s gonna be a lot of bullshit.”
But if the story seemed compromised then, these problems seemed minor in light of LeBon’s declining health. On the 5thnight LeBon sat quietly through dinner and later complained of breathlessness. Even many young and fit trekkers struggle with altitude on the Everest trek. LeBon–strong and determined though he was–was 74 years old. When in the morning his condition remained grim, he was forced to leave the village of Dingboche on horseback, and descend to the nearby clinic in Pheriche. He was flanked by his wife and son and trailed by Jeff, who would lend moral support and record Leo’s reflections as he left his beloved Himalaya for probably his last time. The rest of group trekked onward without their leader, counting now on LeBon’s assistant Anthony.
While Jeff descended, I continued to the next village Dukla to await his return. The rest of the group would stay the night at a slightly higher village.
At Dukla, our remaining leader Anthony stopped with me for lunch and feeling fatigued checked into a room, disappearing for the entire afternoon. I found him later in spandex and tennis shoes, staring at the hallway wall.
“Headed out for a jog?” I quipped.
He looked up at me blankly, his eyes unfocused, body slightly swaying.
“I’m coughing up something that looks like red popcorn,” he wheezed.
My heart skipped a beat. I tore through my guidebook, looking up what this meant: advanced stage pulmonary edema. Though the sun was disappearing behind the ridge and a chill was setting in, immediate descent was critical. Jeff had just arrived an hour before. Still emotionally spent from seeing Leo off, he now had to gather Anthony’s things together and arrange two Sherpas to walk him down to the hospital. Twenty minutes later, we stood on the deck of the teahouse and watched Anthony and the Sherpas disappear into the dimming light and said silent prayers.
Both Anthony and Leo would be okay, but that day the story–and the group– crumbled apart like an icefall. Jeff and Brian conferred. Both had a lot at stake: they were counting on their income from this high paying magazine, and had passed up other assignments. Both were growing increasingly despondent: if the story wasn’t published, they would recieve–despite all their work and time–only a fraction of their contracted fee.
But this was no time for depression. With both leaders gone now, the unraveling group needed guidence. Brian and Jeff had the most experience in the Himalayas and so had to abandon their roles as observers and recorders and jump into action as the new trek leaders. Brian rushed ahead to the next village to check on the rest of the group. I sat with Jeff as he caught his breath. Together we looked at the fluted ridges, seracs, colouirs and glaciers.
“Serious mountains,” I observed. “
Jeff sighed. “The most serious.”
The rest of the group straggled on in its scattered state,more or less making it to Kala Patthar, the vantage point at the foot of Everest and ending point of our trek. A day behind the rest of our group, we encountered them one by one on the trail on their return. Cem, a good-natured Turk, ambled toward us breathless. He had never in his life been camping or hiking and how he ended up on the world’s hardest trek would remain a mystery. Though he had made it, the altitude was taking its toll.
“That was worst place on earth,” he said with half a laugh. “You can’t eat, breath, or shit.”He would leave the mountains by helicopter the next day, suffering an ulcer but also just generally worn out in body and mind.
As for Jeff and I, we climbed to the top of Kala Patthar together on a bright sunny afternoon with fast beating hearts. The view of Everest was clear as we could ever hope. Jeff busily strung prayer flags for his father and I clung fast to a rock, in awe but also dizzied by the off-kilter angles and overwelhming scale of things.
We had reached our goal and I was gazing at The Highest Mountain in the World. But I felt strangely subdued. After days of slogging, we had reached the top, the pinnacle, and instead of feeling victorious, I felt annoyed by the other tourists thursting their cameras at me and asking me to snap their photo. Funny how the moments of transcendence don’t come how they should. It was half way down the slope of Kala Patthar that my Everest moment came: Squatting for a rest in front of Nuptse, Lhotse, and Everst, I placed my hands in reverent prayer as my favorite bird, the clever raven, soared in front of me.
Such moments of awe cannot be predicted; they fickly chose themselves. So often I was moved by small, more relatable things: the day we encountered the painter of the Tengboche monestary, standing before his half-finished renderings of dakinis. Or just the regular pleasure of tea steaming my face on clear mornings. Or the afternoon Jeff and I meditated on the cracks and moans of the Khumbu glacier. The surprises thrilled me, too: when we came across an abandoned shack above Jorsalle, treaded lightly over its rotting floor boards, and discovered a wealth of old Tibetan art.
Such moments are rich but they don’t necessarily make for a good magazine stories so, though Jeff would return with plenty to tell, nothing fit the heroic storyline that the magazine could market. I tried to help him shape what happened into something salable: Leo was a worthy character to write about, he reunited with Sherpa friends, spent quality time with his family, and had to confront his own limits. Wasn’t that enough of a story?
But Jeff, wise to the commercial realities of freelancing writing, was busy resigning himself to the fact that his October work may well be nixed; that he may just not have a whole story here: just a collection of shimmering–but broken–pieces.