Sunday, June 9, 2013

Leaving the Khumbu.

The trek back down the Khumbu Valley descended into summer.  Dirt patches we had passed next to village homes on our trek up now flourished with rich green vegetables. Yak herders struggled to keep their trains moving as an abundance of trailside temptations lured the beasts to graze. Many cottage entryways had baskets of flowers set out to dry for tea.  These were the milk and honey days for a people who endured a hard life the rest of the year. Soon their men would be returning from the expeditions they had worked on the various Himalayan peaks. Husbands, Fathers, Brothers, Sons. A fortunate few will have made enough money to support their families clear through to the next climbing season. They would tend their gardens, play with their children, and remember those who had not returned. 

Mingma is one such Sherpa. As a premier climbing Sherpa, he is paid quite well by IMG. It is also common for clients to tip their Sherpa. I did so for Mingma, and he seemed pleased with the level of my gratitude. I also gave him my Minus 40 Degree Marmot down sleeping bag and the portable DVD player we had shared during my stay at EBC. I asked Mingma about his post-Everest plans as we sat next to my tent saying "Goodbye." He said he would probably guide some other climbs after the monsoon season.  In a culture where most men make $3 a day to carry freight on their backs, Mingma can collect several thousand for a month of Guiding. It must be very difficult to say "No", having young children and knowing the number of years he can do this will be limited.  But May will be the month I worry most for Mingma as he returns each year to Everest.  I will remember our time together at the top of the world, how he shook my hand then abandoned the gesture for a full out hug. We shared something timeless as partners in the Grand Wager. 

Jangbu had assigned a young Sherpa named Lakpa to escort us as far as the airstrip at Lukla.  Ryoko, the lone female member of our Classic Climber corps, rounded out our foursome of happy trolls. We indulged ourselves in ways we could not so many weeks ago as we trekked up.  We ordered fried chicken for lunch at one tea house, then waited while the cook harvested a bird that never saw it coming. We took time to snap photos and spin every prayer wheel we passed. An old Sherpa woman approached me while I rested on her stone wall, curious about the I-pod I was fidgeting with.  I placed a speaker bud in her left ear and selected The Longer I Run by Peter Bradley Adams.  She became very animated, smiling broadly.  The Sherpa woman painted a horizontal stripe in the space above us with her open hand.  To her, the music was suddenly everywhere. A moment later she directed my attention to a small goat standing next to her home.  A trade was being offered. I smiled, nodding my declination.  Then I removed the ear bud and patted her weathered hand. She took my hand in turn and bowed to meet her forehead with the back of it, a deeply personal gesture in Sherpa culture. 

The Air Force Climbers had left EBC the day before, while I waited for Ty to exit the Ice Fall.  We had missed the opportunity to see them off and hoped to catch up in Lukla or Kathmandu. It would not be. Four of the six had summited Everest. Collectively, the team had now summited each of The Seven Summits in honor of the fallen and returning service men and women of the USAF.  They had struggled through the entire epic adventure to find the funds and support for each mountain.  At times met with indifference by commanding officers, they were now going home as heroes.  They represented all that was remarkable about the kind of person who serves in the United States Air Force and had already been invited to the Pentagon as well as various Television appearances.

We shuffled into Lukla after three days trekking, easing through the village past a counterfeit Starbucks, a counterfeit Hard Rock Cafe, and a counterfeit McDonalds called “YakDonalds.” We ran into Llama, the kitchen worker who did laundry at EBC, later that evening.  He was wearing a soccer uniform and very intoxicated.  
“I have been playing the football and now I am drunk to watch the football,” he announced gleefully, gesturing toward the television at one end of the dining room.  Llama had always worried about us each time we left EBC for the Ice Fall.  He liked to hug each climber, affixing what he saw as a protective shield.  Seeing him finally relax and cut loose that night impressed upon me just how great a stress the past weeks had been for Llama.  It had not just been the Climbers, or their families and friends. Everyone had lived this thing. Everyone. And now it was over. 

We boarded our flight out of Lukla the next day.  As it sped down the runway I prepared myself for the drop off the cliff. I had read that aircraft here typically go into free-fall until the thickening air and air-speed combine to support proper flight. One last thrill. But we lifted off in orderly fashion with a few feet of runway in reserve. In an instant we were already cruising thousands of feet above the lush green hills tumbling down from the highlands toward Kathmandu. I reached out to the seat in front of me and slapped Ty’s shoulder.  He just nodded without turning around. We both knew.