I feel like throwing up. My head is spinning, my stomach churning, my joints throbbing. I suck in a lungful of icy air but there isn’t enough oxygen. Yet still I ignore that pounding thought: ‘turn back, turn back’. After two weeks of physical and mental exertion, with my final destination only an hour ahead, I know I can’t give up now. So I plant a walking pole deep into the dirt track and drag my heavy body onwards. Slowly, I begin to move my legs, bend my knees, pick up my feet, and I struggle on through the white wilderness, closer and closer to the finish line. I’m going to make it.
That’s when it all goes black.
I awaken seconds later: confused, disoriented, falling. The footpath is gone and I’m sliding, hurtling, down the mountainside, twisting front to back, heading for the giant glacial lake below. I dig my heels into the ground but it’s scree: the earth is falling with me. The jagged silhouette of a rock is revealed through the thick fog, too late, as I smash my knee on it. The agony darts up my leg: I cry out; it echoes back. And it’s only then I realise. I’ve stopped.
The wind languidly whistles around the valley as I nurse my bleeding knee, my feet dangling uselessly below me. Confused, I look up the slope to find that my torn –heroic!– down jacket is caught on the boulder above. I’m suspended. I angle my feet and try to shuffle backwards, up to the rock, but the earth slips again and I’m jerked back to my hanging position. Then it dawns on me. It’s 4.30am, minus 10 degrees, and I’m out of sight far below the path to Base Camp, on the side of a mountain that won’t stay still. If I don’t act soon, I’ll freeze to death.
With a newfound clarity, afforded by the dramatic drop in elevation, I consider my options. I can’t go up and I can’t go down. So I’ll have to go along… along the scree slope in search of something, anything, I can use to climb. So I yank my jacket, testing my weight… I turn to face the slope… and, with an enormous effort, I heave myself up until I’m crouching on the fixed, solid, rock. Then I tighten my bootlaces, take a deep breath and break into a sprint.
I tear along the slope, running at angles, slipping with every step; edging nearer and nearer to the freezing lake. My lungs burn, my legs ache, my conviction starts to die. But then, out of nowhere, I see it through the fog: a wall of God-given rock, leading up the slope. A ladder.
Within an hour I’m back on the path, still nauseous. I look down at my warm hostel, then up towards Everest, and I consider just how far I’ve come. And just how close I am. And I know.
I can’t give up now.