Everything I’d been doing the past five days was surreal, so why should this moment be any different?
Cresting a steep hill, I passed under a banner of Buddhist prayer flags and entered a wide plateau. Our guide set down his pack and called for a break as I struggled to moderate my breath rate.
Though our goal of Everest Base Camp, in the Himalayas of Nepal, lay miles ahead, we now stood at just over 16,000 feet. The hill I’d climbed leveled off to this space that funneled into a wide valley ahead. Between the hill and the valley are a collection of memorials to climbers who have died on Himalayan peaks, mostly Everest. Stacks of rocks arranged in large cairns were scattered around the ridge, prayer flags strung between them.
I didn’t know at the time that I was standing at the end of the path of the Khumbu glacier, the river of ice that begins on the western slope of Mount Everest and creeps, groaning and creaking, down the valley. It is the highest glacier on earth, embedded in a mountain range whose name means “the abode of the snow.” The hill we’d just climbed was the “terminus” of the glacier, a sloping deposit of rock and sediment pushed forward by the glacier, then left behind as it melted.
The first and most prominent marker I saw belonged to mountain guide Scott Fischer. Recently portrayed by Jake Gyllenhall in the movie Everest, Fischer was one of two highly-qualified professional mountain guides who died in 1996; his memorial is a stark reminder that nature is a great equalizer. His name is carved in black, the surrounding stone painted white. I wondered who returns to paint his stone after years of wind and snow weather it away. Apparently, it’s done by people from the company he founded, Mountain Madness.
There was also a memorial for Eve Girawong. Killed in her late-20s, Eve worked as a medical professional at Base Camp during the 2015 season, when an earthquake triggered an avalanche that killed sixteen people.
Another memorial from 2012 was written in an Asian language with English subscript. “Go to sleep forever in the Everest.”
A nearby ridge was topped by an orderly row of simple markers, which I instinctively knew honored Sherpas, an ethnic group that lives in the high Himalaya and is hired as guides and porters for many expeditions. These memorials were as simple as the people they honored, with uniform stone plaques, and carved names nearly obscured by time and weather. Standing next to them, I looked over the plateau and was struck by the presence of ghosts; at the foot of these massive mountains, they dance in this windy alcove.
Though I thought it was beautiful that the memorials were here, in a hard place where the only people who will see them will also see the stark beauty these people died to pursue, they also filled me with confusion. Memorials, from the Vietnam Wall to roadside crosses are established to evoke emotion and response: respect, warning, anger, solidarity, awe. Should I feel envy or respect for the feats these people accomplished? Sadness that they died too young? Anger that they spent money on mountains that could have been donated or put to other uses? Mostly, the stones made me think about passion; I wondered how many of them tired of trying to explain their passion to other people.
Are passions meant to be understood? Do they need to be?
As our group gathered, packed and prepared to leave, I tried to stuff the significance of this place into my heart as a private homage to their accomplishments. My mind’s eye saw a time-lapse of moonlit nights and windy days when the valley is devoid of trekkers and the memorials stand alone. The shadow of Everest stretches down it’s ancient glacier, reaching to cover them with a blanket of protection. And the spirits of these people, who perhaps understood one another best, are free to gather forever to talk and laugh and share stories.
May we all be so lucky to pursue our passions until we find the people and places who guard our souls.