This is a photo challenge, I know, but I have to tell the story of these photos and why they represent ‘On Top’ to me.
This week, 12 Sherpas died in an avalanche on Everest. They died helping climbers attain their dream, to be on top of the world.
I wasn’t climbing Everest when I met the Sherpa people; rather, I was on a whirlwind tour of Nepal and enjoyed a 4-day trek around Begnal Tal in the Annapurnas. It’s been 23 years now, but the people I met there are still clear in my memory. Our porters, carrying such heavy loads from one camp to the next, always preceding us, always ready when we got there with tea and biscuits. We would sit at the camp table enjoying the rest while they set up our tents and got water boiling for us to drink.
One man in particular, one Sherpa, touched my life indelibly. We were only at about 11,000 feet at our top altitude, but it was there that altitude sickness hit me. I awoke in the morning at our highest altitude camp still able to think straight, but feeling a little nauseous. By noon, I was extremely weak and diarrhea had begun. I couldn’t even keep down the very simple lunch of tea with lime, plain rice and mango that was given me as I lay in agony in the shade at our rest stop. It was uncertain at that point whether I had altitude sickness or had picked up a bug, so I continued.
Within half an hour, I couldn’t carry my pack. Our group leader, Om, set our steward, Nirkumar, the task of looking after me until we reached our next, and lower, camp. I’m fairly sure I hallucinated for much of the rest of the day. The distinct desire to float off the ledge to reach the mountain peak in front of me ended with his light touch on my arm, urging me to continue walking.
“Stop and relax your shoulders, breathe deeply to bring oxygen to your muscles,” Om whispered as Nirkumar handed me my water bottle.
I remember searing white … cliffs rising to my right, plateau stretching out to my left and in front, sky above me … all blindingly, scorchingly white hot. And Nir’s hand on my elbow, urging me to take water and keep walking.
The feel of cool water on my head in the blessed shade of the next village as Nir and Om cooled me. And the small and compassionate smile on Nir’s face, in his eyes, when I thanked him.
The Sherpas of Nepal live on top of the world and help the rest of us share it with them. They are always on top of the needs of their clients and as seen this week, they often do so at risk of their own lives. For me, although I haven’t yet trekked to Everest base camp, they will always embody ‘On Top’.