You would think that after trekking for almost a month in the high Himalaya, it would be the mountains that I would remember most, but when I look back on that expedition in 2007, it's not the sea of snow-capped peaks or even the massive beauty of Everest itself that comes to mind. I think of the face of a young girl -- blonde, big-eyed, no more than 10 -- her features illuminated by the light from a teahouse fire. She walked into a ramshackled hut on the roof of the world, played a few rounds of poker and left to join her party camped nearby. I never saw her again.
It was early April and I had already been on the Nepal side of Everest for two weeks. There were at least 40 of us in our party though I never really got a firm head count. The consisted of climbers, researchers, physicians and John Caudwell. Our object was not to summit but to conduct the largest human medical study ever performed at high altitude, aiding research for intensive care units.
So far the going had been easy. Having led countless expeditions on Kilimanjaro, I was used to climbing from sea level, often hauling a heavy pack. But this expedition was different. We had taken a light plane from Kathmandu, landing at the narrow airstrip at Lukla, a town in the Khumbu area of north-eastern Nepal, one third of the way up the mountain at 9,383 feet. There we had joined our caravan of 100 Sherpa's, each one laden down with up to 100 lbs of gear. Each night they assembled our encampment before serving us tea and local fare.
Since then, we had climbed a further through "the kingdom of sky and mountains," passing through small villages perched on the side of mile-deep valleys, among peaks so steep and high we had to crane our necks to find their summits shrouded in canopies of cloud. There were temples dotted along the path, with prayer wheels spinning and prayer flags fluttering in the cool breeze, broadcasting their prayers to the thinning air. There were yak traffic-jams, forests of pink and white rhododendrons and children playing with tires around yak-dung fires. At night the sky opened, a soaring ceiling punctured by the brightest stars I had ever seen.
The only other team we encountered along the way was an IMAX film crew. They were there to do a follow-up film about the awful series of events and miscalculations that claimed the lives of eight people in 1996 and was later captured in Jon Krakauer's stirring book, Into Thin Air. A new IMAX film was being made to mark the tenth anniversary of the catastrophe.
One night, both expeditions had stopped for the night in a small village near Namche Bazaar, the main trading center for the Khumbu region. While chatting with the director of the film, we asked if we could see his original IMAX film, Everest, that had won such huge success in theaters around the world. We crowded around a monitor to watch the 45-minute film. For me, the most poignant part came when the fated expedition's leader Rob Hall was lying out in the open on the South Summit, unable to breathe his bottled oxygen because his regulator was too choked with ice. His hands and feet were too frostbitten to hold the fixed ropes and he was slowly, consciously dying of exposure.
Just before he died he radioed down to his base camp and asked to be patched through by satellite phone to his home in New Zealand and spoke to his seven-month-pregnant wife Jan Arnold. In the recorded conversation, Rob spoke heart-wrenchingly about the child he knew he never have the chance to see grow up. He told Jan he was reasonably comfortable and finished with the words "Sleep well my sweetheart. Please don't worry too much."
The moment was so acutely personal I felt guilty watching, as if I was eavesdropping on an intimate, whispered confidence.
All the next day as I continued on my trek, all I could think about was that beautiful, awful phone conversation. Somehow, among the glorious beauty of these mountains, the loss seemed magnified, universal. I couldn't even imagine what it would be like if it had happened to me.
That evening, as these thoughts filled my head, we stopped at a teahouse for the usual dinner of daal-baat (lentils and rice) dinner. In the half-light and clogging smoke from the fire, a game of poker was started. And it was then that I saw her. She stood on her own, silhouetted against the fierce light of the doorway. Seeing my stare she walked over and sat down next to me, asking if she could join in the game. Immediately taken in by her boldness, I asked her name.
She had come to Everest with her mother to see where her father had died.