Each breath burned. As we trudged up the glacier, I traced our route of ascent with my eyes: milky blue ice, undulating in every direction. I swung my arms hard to force feeling into fingers stiff with cold. It was somewhere between midnight and pre-dawn.
Three hours before, I had tied into the middle of 50-meter rope. Behind me was Bryan, my partner; ahead was Mingma, the climbing Sherpa we’d hired because it is required by law in Nepal. We were on Mera Peak, a rarely traveled 21,247’ massif deep in the Hinku Valley of the western Himalaya. We were alone on the mountain, and I—a professional mountain guide and the most experienced member of our team—was scared.
Months before, I had carefully pitched our objective to my sponsors. Despite the exotic-sounding location, nothing about Mera Peak is cutting edge. The ascent requires basic glacier travel but is not technically difficult. When compared to surrounding peaks, the elevation of the summit is not impressive. If you tilt your head 90 degrees to the side, Mera Peak has the silhouette of an unexcited A-cup breast.
“This will be an incredible adventure,” I’d written in our proposal. “Bryan has never been on a big mountain. This will be his first big alpine climb. We’ll get off the beaten path, see the real Himalaya. The Khumbu Valley (which leads to Everest) is overpopulated, and we want to experience and share the stories of authentic Nepal.” We spent hundreds of hours studying maps, collecting gear, and battling our personal demons on Stairmasters at 24 Hour Fitness late at night. My Instagram followers posted meaningful emoticons. Bryan drove for hours and wallowed in thigh-deep snow to find a slope appropriate for practicing with his crampons and ice axe. Then, suddenly, the expedition began. Despite the valley’s proximity to Everest, the Hinku is rugged, remote terrain: deep jungle, herds of chocolate-colored mountain goats munching rhododendrons, untamed alpine topography. Twice a day Bryan and I ate rice and boiled lentils. Rivers pulsed with glacial silt. There are no roads, no internet, no electricity; just dirt trails snaking across hillsides for unimaginable miles. Every day we walked. We fought, we kissed, we sang. We walked for hours, then days, always moving toward our mountain. The skin peeled off my toes. We walked, always moving toward the unknown.
As I scanned the glacier with my headlamp in that middle-of-the-night morning, I thought about the hours we’d spent in preparation, Bryan’s hope and commitment, our shared dream of climbing something—anything—together, as a team. But I knew, had known for a thousand painful steps, that we weren’t going to reach the summit. We were both feeling strong, but the glacier was more heavily crevassed than I’d expected from the reports I’d gotten from previous years. With each step, I berated myself: What if I’d brought more rope, different gear, other ways to protect the route? But no. The glacier was cracked and brittle as sunbaked Styrofoam, and I simply didn’t have what we needed to summit and descend safely. I stopped walking and switched off my light. Once our eyes adjusted to the starlight, I showed Bryan the ribbons of sagging snow snaking around us, indicating the crevasse danger. I explained my assessment of the risk, my decision. Bryan closed his eyes for one long moment. I watched him, my breath steaming in clouds around us. Bryan opened his eyes, and together we looked out at the pre-dawn for one silent heartbeat. Then we walked downhill, away from our mountain.
Back in Kathmandu, I dreaded telling the world that we hadn’t completed our goal. What would I tell the sponsors who had sent gear, the guide service I work for, the members of our families who were watching our dog for six weeks? We limped around the city, feeling numb and distant from each other and ourselves. Bryan got sick. A tiny brown monkey—one of the thousands who run wild on the streets of the city—sat on my dusty duffel bag full of climbing gear and masturbated, his tiny fist moving fiendishly. I watched, exhausted and confused.
On the flight back to Seattle, I pulled my journal out of my bag, lowered my tray table, and made a list. “Ways we failed,” I wrote, underlining it twice. “No summit. Argued a lot. No summit. Puked.” In another column, I wrote: “Ways we succeeded: Saw new places. Made art. Did not get the shits. We are now black belts in communication. Quads of steel. Came home safely.”
A stewardess walked through the dark cabin, saw me awake, quietly asked if she could get me another drink. I nodded. Sipping bad whiskey, I looked at my list as we flew quietly toward home.
Seven months later, I am still thinking about that climb. Did I let people down? Should I have known, brought extra gear, planned for more contingencies? We were broke for months as we paid off our travel bills while I tried to avoid telling the story to my friends. Should I have pushed us further into the unknown? I wanted that summit. What price should I have paid? I find myself thinking about Mera Peak when I’m guiding, whenever there is the one question I’m asked more than any other. When we’re climbing, my clients don’t want to know about the route or the altitude or the weather. They want to know whether it will be hard. “Yes,” I say. “Undoubtedly. Climbing mountains is always hard.” They look at me warily, zinc oxide smeared across their noses, as though this is groundbreaking news. “You came here to do something hard,” I point out. “That’s the whole point. It wouldn’t be an adventure if it didn’t challenge you.”
I said that phrase to my clients a dozen times before I heard myself. Adventure is an overused word: it’s a conceit, a privilege, a contradiction. We’re collectively obsessed with it, because it puts us into situations where there are consequences instead of rules, where we can’t use Google to solve our problems, where we do hard things. Real adventure is painful. It’s terrible. It’s perfect.