Being Home

It was our last night in Kathmandu. Todd had jumped on a flight the day before and Daniel and I were out with Brett Jones, Director of Disaster Risk Reduction in Kathmandu for the US embassy. We had met her, her mother, and other embassy trekkers at Lobouche on our way back up to base camp after resting down low before our final summit push.  Living in Kathmandu she knew places to go and had taken us to a little 2nd story patio bar in Thamel near the Kathmandu Guest House where we were staying.  The space was tight and lively but the roof retracted giving an open feeling to the confined space.   The bar was full of western trekkers, climbers, and expats – the usual scene we had been immersed in since flying back from Lukla.  At one point in the evening we struck up a conversation with climbers seated next to us, one of which (Kevin from Australia) had slept a lonely night beside us on a ledge at Camp III.  I had spoken with him at 24,000 ft on April 30th, but now weeks later without his balaclava and down suit on I did not recognize him. During our conversation it dawned on us that we had met before up high, what seemed like so long ago.

We settled into our second round of drinks; Daniel sipped his usual Jack Daniels, I had decided to repeat an experiment with an “Everest Ice Fall”, and Brett drank Vodka.  She had been asking us questions about our climb all night, as she was fascinated with climbing and Everest in particular.  Then she leaned in with a smile and asked “So what’s it like? When you get back….how do you feel?” Her eyes darted back and forth between the two of us across the table, waiting for one of us to lead and start to form an answer. I glanced at Daniel and noticed his facial expression begin to change.  Up to this point he had been relaxed and care-free and now I could see trouble brewing. I felt my own brow begin to furrow and then Daniel began.  “It is hard to explain….”

Daniel and I have had hard climbs together before at high altitude, so we both felt we knew what was coming when we got home. But we had never been away for so long or up so high, and that alarmed me, as I am sure it alarmed him.  There have been few studies conducted on climbers returning from altitude; Scientific American has posted a disturbing article subtitled “Mountain Climbing Kills Brain Cells”, but Daniel and I were already aware of these effects.  What we were concerned about was something deeper, something we both felt and knew was coming but were not quite able to articulate.

When you climb many mountains you stay with your team 24/7. When you leave camp you are literally tied together, you sleep in the same tent beside each other, you make each other food and help each other put on packs, and ultimately you rely on each other for your safety and well being for days to months.  Funny things happen when you come off a mountain.  Walking around you tend to fall into in the same order as your rope team was on the mountain. If a team member wanders out of sight you get frantic and wonder where they are.  There is an unconscious bond that does not go away. Then suddenly, everyone jumps on a commercial flight and goes their separate ways;  the team you had struggled, swore and froze in terror with as an avalanche roared several hundred yards away from your tent, is now gone and you are alone.

On the last leg of my flight from Kathmandu to Saskatoon it began to really sink in that I was coming home.  Looking around the plane at the clean, neatly trimmed morning business crowd, in contrast to myself unkempt and wearing the same clothes from four days prior, questions began to surface in my mind.  How do you return to the world after being gone so long?  How will I feel?  Will the world seem dull and gray? Will I be depressed?  Just how long will it take to regain my strength and center?  How will I adjust, from being in such a focused environment in which every step matters, to a world full of trivial pursuits and drama that in the big scheme of things do not matter? How will I be with my wife?

It has been almost 30 days since I walked off the plane at Saskatoon’s airport into the arms of my wife.  I had lost 30 lbs, I was weak, I had frostbite scabs on my face, my fingers were numb, I was sick from a Nepali GI bacteria (nice goodbye gift), and sporting an untrimmed beard that had flourished for 70 days.   I looked like I did not belong back in civilization.

During the last decade I had always returned from expeditions to an empty house.  I believe in the past returning to an unlived in, silent home had deepened the loneliness you experience when you leave your team.  This time I returned to a lived in home with a wife excited to see me.  Having my wife around kept me from falling into gloomy introspection, and unrelenting loneliness.  I know this  for certain because the few times I have been home alone I have found myself drifting off back to the mountain feeling like some part of me was missing.

I did not rest long, the second full day I was back, I went into the office. The first time driving a car was interesting.  I had to slowly go around the block a few times until I felt it was safe to venture off towards work. The staff was amazing and welcoming, the teams I work with had taken care of everything in my absence.  The landing back into work life has been very soft. My only point of concern has been my diminished short term memory. At the beginning I had a hard time with names and recalling words, and if I made a commitment the day prior, almost with 100% certainty if I did not create an alarm in my phone I would forget the next day.  Depressingly, I forgot my Father’s birthday having not created an alarm.  On the flip side there were several meetings that I did not want to attend that honestly slipped my mind.

I expected to be weakened after the climb but this expedition took a bigger toll than I had imagined.  Three days after returning I went for a 5 Km run with my wife.  My muscles were not used to running, I had been wearing stiff boots for months and the transition into minimalist runners was painful.  My lungs could go forever but the unused calf muscles failed quickly.  I tried to train.  I could not even do 20 push ups.  But I pushed myself.  I could only handle 10 minute work outs at first, collapsing between exercises and experiencing intense physical pain and spasms from muscles that did not want to work anymore.  I started with one workout in the morning and then moved up to two a day, and then three little 10 minute sessions, plus I kept running.  Painfully, the strength is starting to return.  I have done three climbing workouts and spent some time at the wall doing routes with my wife.  I was apprehensive to climb again, but once I got up a few routes I started to feel the joy of pulling down on holds and figuring out the way to the top.

Last night I was driving to Edmonton and called Daniel, he is going through everything I am, and like me it is harder than he expected.  It seemed so strange to be gliding down a highway with green fields stretching away into the horizon while talking to Daniel.  Our conversation does not belong in these surroundings. I have these moments still, what once was ordinary is now strange to me; my normal has shifted, perhaps forever.

The attention and sharing of tall tales has been a bit overwhelming at times. I am happy to share, however it seems at the end of every conversation one question looms.  “What’s next?”

So what is next for me? Spending time with my wife and starting a family.  My wife said to me one night while sitting on the couch “this is the first time since I have known you that you do not have another mountain lined up”.  I don’t, but I will.   On the 17th my climbing team Prairie Vertical gathered at my house, Sam had returned from Asia, Wren was in from Calgary, and Jeff had been leading Alpine Club trips.  We swapped stories, and then I asked them all “are you willing to go back?”

This team had come together to attempt the unclimbed Mount Saskatchewan in the Yukon.  The mountain had tricked us and let us gets within several hundred feet from the summit and then forced us to turn around and fight our way down the mountain for seven days.  All of us as members of the Alpine Club of Saskatchewan feel the pull. We all said yes. We will be going back to the Yukon but not yet….we have more training to do plus I have list of other projects: The Kain face of Mt. Robson, Vinson Massif, and Carstensz Pyramid plus a long list of others yet to be determined.  But nothing is set…not yet; and my climbing is not over, not yet…

For now I am so, so very happy to be home.   Everest had been a decade long goal and it is done.  It is time to recuperate and rest. The frost bite scabs are gone but discoloring remains.  My hands are no longer numb and tingling but not all the feeling has returned; and as for my short term memory I do not seem to forget much anymore, but I do not know what I do not know.  I guess the healing is not over. This has been a great adventure and I am honored that I have been able to share it with so many.  Thank you for reading along.

Until the next climb,

SW

 

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1 Comment

  1. Glenna Killen
    Jun 27, 2013

    Thank you for sharing your journey with us… during and afterwards. When we are looking at our view from the cabin at Paint Lake … we call it God’s Country. Your amazing experiences have given you so many glimpses of Gods Country … Take care and keep enjoying and living life!

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