That first night was rough. After the tears-and-hugs chat with Alex over dinner, I finished my beer staring at the black-cliffed behemoth looming above us, and climbed into bed. I didn’t sleep well; I kept having nightmares that I was sliding off the mountain and down into the eternal valley below. At 2am I woke up, fresh out of a bad dream, and lay awake staring around me at the wooden ceiling and white plaster walls, thinking about how odd it felt to be halfway up the Himalayas without anybody guiding me. Totally alone, nobody in charge telling what to do. I barely had to tell anybody I was going – you buy a permit and you’re off. Things here are not like at home.As I lay thinking in the dark, lightning flashed outside the window, brilliant and blinding. A moment passed, and the little mountain lodge was shaken by a monstrous roaring thunder, louder than any thunder I’ve heard in my life. I could hear rain pattering the windows. Alex was breathing slowly, sound asleep. I stared at the ceiling as Lovecraftian bursts of horrifying energy pounded the mountain range, and I felt awful. I clenched my fists to dispel the rising anxiety that told me the storm may cause a landslide and dislodge our cabin. I wished I was home.
I cradled myself back to sleep by thinking about the fact that anybody who has ever achieved anything truly wondrous must have had these moments of doubt, fear, loneliness, of questioning their own sanity. I came out into the world seeking adventure. Now I was laid in the shadow of the world’s most dangerous mountain with a heart-stopping lightning storm hammering the slopes. Yes, it seemed I had found my adventure.
Alex slept soundly through the whole storm, and had no recollection of it the next morning. We skipped breakfast and headed out through that damned mountain town Chhomrong, then down 1,700 steps to the valley floor. We crossed a long rope bridge and began our ascent once again, back up the next hill matching every step we only just bust our knees descending. We passed happy schoolchildren with adorable ironed shirts and baggy school trousers, backpacks strapped high up on their shoulders.
We stopped for breakfast in a small guest house – the prices for food jump up 30 rupees or so every town as you progress up the mountain. It’s fair enough – the Sherpas have to carry everything up there manually, as there are no roads. Everything you consume on the mountain has been lugged up there by some poor soul with a 50 kilogram wicker basket on their head.
We mooched along for most of the day, the scenery now changed from villages and farmland to jungle. We passed through our intended stop off point in Dovan and continued on for another two hours to a three-building hamlet named Himalaya, 2900 metres above sea level. Alex really struggled with the climb, walking at a snail’s pace and stopping every few minutes for a rest. Her lungs were giving her grief and I had sympathy for her, but I was frustrated too because her bad mood was affecting my own enjoyment of the hike. I tried endlessly to make lighthearted conversation, telling her all about my strange adventures in Berlin and my disastrous love life, but nothing cheered her up except the thought of finishing the trek in a few days.
I felt queasy as we drew into Himalaya; a strange sense of unease came over me. I suppose you could call it vertigo. You know those nightmares where you are on the edge of a cliff and the floor begins to slant? That, but in real life. We skirted over mudslides and broken trees, and at nearly three thousand metres in the air, the river sloshing over the valley floor was so far down I couldn’t see it. In the opposite direction, the mountains that hemmed us in on both sides rose into the clouds. I’ve never been in a landscape that has no horizon. I found myself fantasising about the gentle green fields back home, at sensible altitudes with well-made paths. I longed to see a flat horizon somewhere, anywhere, but all around me there were three-kilometre high walls of rock, watching this little pink human struggling up the valley hour after hour, higher and higher.
The room we paid for at Himalaya was even more sparse than the last one – rattling thin windows and whistling icy draughts through cracks in the door and walls and ceiling. I ate a plate of noodles and we sat with other trekkers – all English, by chance – Ryan, Claire and James. I went to sleep at 7pm because the temperature was dropping rapidly now we were at altitude, and your boy didn’t have the foresight to bring a fucking pair of trousers.
It was a rough end to that second day. I fell scared of the altitude sickness I’d heard so many horror stories of, scared of falling into the big big valley forever, scared of making a twat of myself and being the only one unable to make it to the top. I went to bed, lying awake once more with the knowledge that at 6am the next morning, a heavy-drinking wasteman and a flu-wracked Aussie girl were going to attempt to ascend 1200 metres to Annapurna Base Camp.