Barely breathing on the roof of the world

About 14 years ago, I was barely breathing on the roof of the world. I’d been on an indie traveler tour, overlanding through Tibet in Land Rovers, watching yaks, talking with people in their villages, and seeing a part of the world that, even today, is still a hard place to get to and get around.

The culmination of the trip was a night spent at Everest Base Camp, on the Tibetan side of the world’s tallest mountain—Everest, or, in the Tibetan, “Chomolungma,” which means “Goddess Mother of the World.”

As you might have noticed, mountains feature a fair bit in my fiction. I’ve lived pretty much my entire life in valleys, surrounded by mountains and hills. Oregon’s Cascades, Asia’s Himalayas, and Scotland’s Highlands are all part of my soul.

Though our ragtag group had been traveling the Himalayan Plateau for the past ten days or so and were decently adjusted to the altitude, there’s still a big shift going up into the Everest area. Base Camp on the north side is at 5200m (17,056ft). The air is thin, and ridiculously cold. It’s hard to feel warm. Every breath is a struggle—and we were just at regular ole’ starting point Base Camp. I can’t imagine being high up on the mountain.

Despite the thin air, the cold, and the, shall we say, overloaded latrines, that night at Everest Base Camp is one of the fondest memories of my life.

I saw Chomolungma with my own eyes. I watched the wind blow snow off the summit. I looked out across the plain below camp, where bright tents held climbers who were preparing for their time on the mountain.

The moment that stays with me above all, though, is at night. I’d come out of the tent to gasp my way up a small hill, where I could look out over the plain toward the mountain.

There, I watched the full moon rise over the slope of Chomolungma. The moon seemed impossibly large, though maybe that was the lack of oxygen. The mountain shone, its bulk standing before the world in both silvery brilliance and dark shadow.

I have no desire to climb Everest. I respect people who do. For me, it was enough to stand before the goddess mother of the world, to see the moment when moon met mountain, and to know that I was grateful to be one of the few people who would stand here and see this.

Fourteen years later, I am thinking more and more of the adventures and journeys that my family and I will be going on over the next few years. As I write this, my son Connor is looking at Everest pictures with me, and talking about how if he were there, he would put on snow clothes, make ice blocks, build a snowman, and then climb Everest. He just might.

That time near Everest stays with me and always will. I was barely breathing, but I was fully alive.

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