Our Nepali sirdar (expedition team leader and guide) moved quietly from tent to tent, waking us in turn. In the cold pre-dawn darkness we dressed quickly and followed him up to a small plateau above the town of Namche Bazaar, 3,500 metres (11.500 feet) above sea level in Nepal’s Khumbu Valley. There we stood as the sky lightened slowly until, finally, a golden glow illuminated the summit of Mount Everest (Chomolungma in Nepalese), topped with a halo of cloud, jutting coyly above the massive Lhotse-Nuptse mountain wall, 28 kilometres away. After some time utterly absorbed in the moment I turned to thank our Nepali friend but no words came. Choking back unexpected tears, all I could manage was a soundlessly mouthed “thank you”.
After nine days of trekking across Nepal we’d been grateful to pitch out tents on a ridge overlooking the town for a day’s rest and altitude acclimatization. We were celebrating the 60th anniversary of the 1953 British expedition that had been the first to succeed in getting two climbers (neither of whom, ironically, were British) to the highest point on earth, the summit of Everest at 8,848 metres (29,029 feet). That expedition had been a massive, almost military, campaign with some four hundred porters supporting a team of fifteen mountaineers. In contrast, our tiny three-man effort with a handful of porters was much more modest, both in size and ambition. Childhood memories of dramatic photos of the triumphant Tenzing and Hillary had engraved “seeing Everest” on our respective “bucket lists” of things to do before we die. Our plan was to retrace the expedition’s footsteps, from the trail-head beyond Kathmandu to Kala Pattar, a small summit at 5,644 metres (18,519 feet) overlooking Everest Base Camp. Then we’d walk back past Namche to the tiny mountain airport at Lukla for a flight to Kathmandu. At least that was the plan.
We never did make it to Everest. The summer monsoon had extended unusually late into October, so the first few days of what we expected to be a dry walk from Kathmandu had turned out to be a muddy, humid, leech-infested rain-forest walk, punctuated by stiff climbs over cold, windy mountain passes. Still, after a week we had at last been enjoying fine weather and spectacular mountain panoramas. But that didn’t last either. Three days after we left Namche, rain returned with a vengeance, so we traded wet tents for dry bunks in a teahouse at a little place called Phortse to give the weather a day to clear. Obviously, heavy rain at this altitude would mean heavy snow higher up, and seventeen years earlier three trekkers had died in similar circumstances, so caution was in order. When we resumed the upward trek the next day our caution was justified as we picked our way across an unstable avalanche path where the trail had been swept away, along with a couple of unfortunate yaks that lay dead far below. That night at Pangboche we learned that snow at Everest Base Camp was now chest-deep and four teams of trekkers were reported missing. Clearly this meant aborting the plan for Everest.
Despite the disappointing anti-climax, we found ourselves surprisingly philosophical. That, after all, is life in mountains. Happily, however, we had stopped near the base of Ama Dablam, a beautiful peak that as a kid I’d admired in pictures, and was now admiring for real, looming above, shrouded in fresh snow. In compensation for missing out on Everest, we decided to make the climb to Ama Dablam Base Camp at 4,600 metres (15,000 feet). That night I wrote this.
“A strenuous seven hours but oh, what a trip! The snow over the past few days made for challenging footing (especially when returning downward) but to be surrounded by some of the world’s highest mountains over pristine snowfields under brilliant sunshine surpassed words. The higher we went the more peaks were revealed beyond the Nuptse-Everest-Lhotse wall. Pumori especially, and even the tip of Kala Pattaar. Words fail. The pictures will have to do, but this has more than compensated for the loss of EBC and is a day to remember.”
Some years earlier a wise yoga teacher had introduced me to the difference between goals and intentions. Goals are important, but failing to achieve a goal is failure; setting an intention is different. An intention still offers a target to aim for, but you can accept that, if circumstances change, you are free to adapt without agitation. My goal had been to see Everest, and the trip would have been a failure if I hadn’t. But see it I did, and that first sight in the dawn above Namche Bazaar remains a treasured, vivid memory. My intention was to reach Everest Base Camp and climb Kala Pattar, but circumstances changed, we adapted, and yet still came home with a glorious lifetime memory. Ever since that memorable trek five years ago I still find myself very selective in defining hard goals, but often find great strength in embracing the concept of intentions.