Summit day started at 4:15 am. Jolted awake with excitement, there was no way I could go back to sleep despite feeling the lack of sleep. Today was summit day. Still black sky and neon stars told me it would be a good one too. Rapping on the thin wall next to me, I woke our Swiss peak-bagging companions, Nico and Remo, with a quiet “good morning,” and a louder “let’s do this!” We were headed up Suriya Peak, 5,145m/16,880 feet. Following a jean and sweatshirt clad local, Sonam Sherpa, we all had summit fever before dawn.
Breakfast, supposedly at five o’clock was on “Nepali Time,” a schedule that is impossible to plan around. Elizabeth, my friend from Colorado and I sat outside Hotel Peaceful’s dining area in the biting 14,085 ft. Himalayan mountain air around the village of Gosaikund waiting for breakfast to start. Phil, my old roommate from college wasn’t far behind but was clearly spacing from the pre-dawn wake up. I was also tired as I silently stirred oatmeal packets into hot milk with honey. I needed the energy and gladly ate, though I was still too out of it to be truly excited.
We started walking as the sun rose over Gosaikund Lake in pastels, shining morning light on spring peaks that held heavy snow from recent storms. What was supposed to be an easy walk with “not a lot of snow” started with kicking steps above the lake in the morning and continued with mixed rock, ice and snow for the rest of the ascent. As we crested a ridge, the wind picked up and I made an overdue stop to put on gloves and a windbreaker.
As the sun began to rise higher over the mountains, I could feel its strength on my face, despite the chilly wind. Kicking steps in the firm snow across a frozen lake, we made our way up and up. Coming on to the eastern side of Surya, we finally began to see, very closely, the route we would take to the summit. Nico and Remo continued around a corner of steep rock and hard ice and the rest of us lost sight of them. Trying to figure out the way they went, I stepped down to some ice that was the sketchy kind; firm and slick. “This would be a good spot for crampons and an ice axe,” I thought. These crucial supplies were thousands of miles away in the States. Finding myself on a rock face, I hand jammed into a crack and felt for footholds with my boots and shouted behind me to Phil and Elizabeth, “Don’t go this way!” I worked my way up slowly, and poking my head above, saw Nico and Remo waiting in the wind.
The last thousand feet to the summit was by far the hardest. The wind whipped and the ice was so bad that it felt like walking up an inverted hockey rink. But as we climbed higher I couldn’t help but think about the mountaineers of old who climbed much harder, higher peaks in worse conditions, with worse boots. Despite Difficulty On Ice, when the summit came into view and no one was complaining of significant altitude sickness I knew we were all making it to the top. We crested the icy ridge and had a short 200 feet of scrambling to the top.
Standing at 5145m, this was the highest all of us had been except for Nico, who had climbed a 6,000+m peak (20,000+ft.) in Bolivia. Sitting on the summit, as far as the eye could see was the vastness of the Himalaya. To the east, we could see an 8,000m peak that Sonam thought could be Everest. We slapped together some Tibetan bread and nak cheese (nak is a female yak. If someone says they are having “yak cheese,” kindly inform the that yaks don’t make milk).
I thought about the film 180º Degrees South about Yvon Chouinard’s (founder of Patagonia) epic journey to Patagonia by Volkswagen bus from Ventura, California. On mountaineering, he referred to its practitioners as “conquerers of the useless.” Standing on top of the world’s peaks, “there isn’t any prize,” just a few brief moments and then you walk down. We live our lives by purposeful value, and forget that discovering intrinsic values-of things like mountains that simply are-have no real meaning. Peter Mathiessen says in his book The Snow Leopard:
The secret of the mountains is that the mountains simply exist, as I do myself: the mountains exist simply, which I do not. The mountains have no “meaning,” they are meaning; thee mountains are. The sun is round. I ring with life, and the mountains ring, and when I can hear it, there is a ringing that we share. I understand all this, not in my mind but in my heart, knowing how meaningless it is to try to capture what cannot be expressed, knowing that mere words will remain when I read it all again, another day.
This is why we climb mountains, this is its value and purpose. Some people don’t understand-they don’t have to.
The way down took nearly as much time as the way up. We took a longer route that wouldn’t involve so much downclimbing, and the morning sun had sufficiently cooked the snow to the point where one heavy step would land us up to our waists. At one point, the ridge opened into a nice big bowl and we had a mini-Olymipics; Swiss, Austrians (Phil’s mother is from Austria), Americans and a Nepali competing in glissading (sliding on your butt down snow slopes), skiless-skiing and penguin sliding. We were down sipping milk tea in the sunshine by 11:30 which made our summit seem all the more surreal. Although we still had to descend to the town of Sin Gompa (3,300m/11,000ft ) from Gosaikund, it seemed like a piece of cake after a good morning and a relaxed lunch of soup and tea. We all reached the goal of breaking 5,000m or 16,500 ft, an inherently useless goal, but one that makes for a good story and a great memory.