Approaching the world’s most dangerous airport in our toy-like prop plane should’ve been absolutely terrifying: Lukla’s runway is so short that the mountain’s incline is used to give aircrafts enough takeoff speed to overcome the fierce Kathabatic winds that whistle down the 9,000ft drop at the end of the strip. As we broke free of Kathmandu’s smog cloud, Mount Everest appeared in her full glory, leaving us with a sense of awe that made any anxiety evaporate like the early morning fog had.
Our multinational crew of ten had met each other for the first time a few days earlier, after months of training, to come and face the biggest challenge of our lives. Armed with musical instruments, we’d be hiking across the Himalayas for three weeks to break a Guinness record for the ‘world’s highest altitude concert on land’. The fundraising trip was organized by Music4Children a charity that offers support for kids who were affected by Nepal’s tragic civil war. The idea was to collectively raise enough money from the event to build a self-sustainable orphanage outside the capital.
On the first night of camping under the stars we huddled together for warmth in a remote log cabin, while passing a guitar round and sharing songs with our porters and Sherpas. One foot tapping gradually escalated to a few head nods, then before we knew it a mosh pit had formed in the middle of the room, with some twenty people singing their lungs out. No one had a clue what the other was singing, yet it somehow all came together as some sort of joyful chant. Perhaps it was the altitude, or it may have been the red-tinted full moon overhead that turned us into lunatics, smashing down any traces of a cultural barrier. I suspect it was the first time any of us had ever felt vibes like that.
Breaking the ice on that first night helped to forge an incredible bond among the group, which I think warded off any psychological obstacles that might have got in the way of the climb ahead. As the the first person to climb Everest once said, it’s not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves. While emotionally every day surpassed the previous one – physically we were being tested to the limit. With such little atmosphere at high altitudes, freezing nights turned into blistering days, and out of the blue we were hit by the most extreme hail storm imaginable. The hail turned into pummeling rain that soaked right through our high-tech waterproof gear.
A climber’s day always starts at the crux: getting out of bed. I was worried about whether two hours sleep was enough to get through the toughest twelve hours of our lives. Breakfast was announced at 2am and I flicked my torch on. With one eye barely open all I could see was a white haze. Freezing condensation had covered everything inside the tent with a thin layer of ice, and the water in my camel sack had frozen, which didn’t help my pounding headache. I struggled to put crampons on in the dark while remembering the sheer drop a few feet away from the tent.
For the first time the general mood turned serious with the knowledge that things were going to get tough. It was now a battle against fear on our final ascent, and with a long piece of rope connecting us all, we were really in it together. For the first few hours, my feeble head torch could only manage to light up the person in front of me, taking ten small steps at a time before resting. By this stage we were running on adrenalin. Our lungs and brains seemed to be competing for traces of oxygen left in the air, and it felt like running a marathon. As twilight set in, Everest’s faint outline offered the most exceptional views I’d ever seen.
But that didn’t even come close to the view from the top, at 6,476 meters. The physical pain, the pounding headache, the numb fingers, the nausea and severe dehydration…all of that’s left behind when you’re surrounded by five of the world’s highest peaks. Just for a brief instance, before the ego starts to feel any sense of pride or accomplishment, before the mind finds its own finite way of interpreting the moment, there’s a precious humbling experience that brings with it a peaceful and ineffable silence.
With frozen fingers, I struggled even to plug my guitar into the portable amp. I had just about enough breath left to cover a short Manu Chao song before rushing to put my thermal gloves back on and cheer for the other few performers.
I’d later ask myself why try and do such a crazy thing. Ultimately the reason wasn’t at the top. The reason lay somewhere between the bottom of the climb and the summit, on an unforgettable journey that taught us about the real destination. There’s no destination in life. Life is the destination.
* I went on to work as the event manager for Music4Children in London, where I organized a series of music festivals across the city.
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