Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Love in the mountains - part three

Here it is! Same reader warning applies.

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I was very upset and shaken up by the deaths of
Peter, Michelle and 8-year-old KC. They were a very loving, adventurous and happy family. They'd shared many a caving, canoeing and bushwalking adventure together and were just in the primes of their lives. The avalanche and their loss threw me (and the whole team) into a spin. We all were asked to make an individual decision as to whether to continue on or to return to Australia. I very seriously considered pulling out of the expedition, but was convinced by one of the climbers that they needed me and that I would regret it forever if I didn't continue. I decided to go to Tibet.

Eventually our decision was unanimous. We would go on and we would summit Everest in the memory of the fallen. Our expedition took on a new meaning and the climbers were all motivated to achieve their goal in memory of our friends.

After a week or so of media commitments and logistical preparations, we boarded the minibus that would take us across Nepal and into Tibet. I climbed onto the bus only to find that the only spare seat was next to Carl. Bugger, I thought. Oh well, hopefully he'll listen to his headphones the whole way there and I won't have to talk to him.

He turned out to be surprisingly chatty! We talked about this and that and discovered that we shared in common a love for the same kind of books and the same kind of music. Well, well, I thought. Maybe he's not so bad after all. Of course, I wasn't thinking romance at all. I'd had a series of failed relationships over the preceding decade and I had sworn off men - particularly army men! I just assumed (to be on the safe side) that they were all married and of no interest to me.

So I said to Carl, what does your wife think about all this gallivanting around the world? What wife, says he. Okay, your girlfriend. Nope. Boyfriend? He laughed. Oh, says me.

But I had sworn off men.

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After a couple of days making our way slowly up through Tibet, we arrived at Everest Base Camp (5100 metres; 16,700ft). Our acclimatisation was just about complete, but I certainly felt the lack of oxygen at such a high altitude. There's about half the normal oxygen level than at sea level, so you get puffed even bending over to tie up your boots!

At Base Camp we had one large main messing tent and two-man tents for sleeping in. There were three women on the expedition - me, our cook and one of the army's top female climbers. Merran and Tanya were friends from way back, so they shared a tent. I had no tent buddy and when I mentioned it, Carl immediately jumped in and said, you can share with me!

Okayyyyy.

We had some laughs in our tent, snuggled deep into our respective down-filled sleeping bags. He turned out to be a very charming, funny guy. Boy was my first impression wrong. Put that down to experience, I told myself.

After a week of preparations and final acclimatisation, it was time to head 22kms (14 miles) up to Advance Base Camp (ABC), with an altitude of 6400m (21,000ft). This was where I was to spend the next six weeks of my life.

The climbers came into their own at this point on the expedition. They began the arduous task of ferrying equipment and food up the mountain. The aim was to establish four camps up the north-west ridge of Mt Everest and, after a small break, begin the summit push in three teams of four climbers.

During this time, however, the dreaded base camp lurgy hit our team (and others) hard. Just about everyone came down with a dreadful bronchial infection. Everyone except yours truly (for some bizarre reason). The sickies headed back down to base camp to try to get better and to have a rest at lower altitudes before their summit attempt.

Carl and his climbing partner had to head down the mountain very suddenly, as Peter had suffered a mini-stroke while we were having lunch one day. He suddenly couldn't feel his cheek or right arm and began speaking in tongues. We rang our doctor (who had become sick himself and returned to Australia) who said Peter had to get off the mountain right now and back down to as low an altitude as possible immediately. His climbing days were over. Carl rushed Peter down the mountain as fast as he could, with Peter suffering yet more attacks on the way down. It was scary. (Peter made a full recovery and waited out the rest of the expedition in Kathmandu.)

Carl eventually came back up to ABC, and, after one more attempted 'load carry' to Camp I, conceded defeat. The chest infection had knocked him hard and he declared himself incapable of climbing further up the mountain. It was not to be his expedition. (He wasn't overly worried by this, having just completed in the previous six months successful climbs on Kilimanjaro and Mt Kenya in Africa, Mt Shishapangma in Tibet and various peaks in the French Alps!)

This meant that Carl spent a lot of time alone with me in ABC. We shared books, he lent me his spare walkman and homemade music tapes, and we talked and talked. We even went to a party at another team's tent one night. It was most surreal! You should see the stars up there. I've never seen anything like it - stars down to the horizon with a 360-degree view of the mountains. The moon over the summit of Mt Everest away in the distance. It was just amazing. And would have been quite romantic I suppose - if any of us had had a shower in the past six weeks!!

We worked hard supporting the climbers in their endeavours to reach the top of the world's highest mountain. In the end, only one of our climbers and two sherpas summitted. Two other climbers came tantalisingly close, but turned around when they realised they'd run out of oxygen, time and energy.

It was exhilarating when one of our climbers radioed down to us from the top of the world - we were ecstatic!

However, this ecstasy was tempered by the death a few days earlier of an Australian climber in our camp. He wasn't part of our expedition, but we'd grown close to him through social engagements in the tent city that was ABC. He was a lovely, lovely man who'd gotten himself lost on Everest after a failed summit attempt. It was dark, he was out of oxygen and at death's door when he staggered into our top camp - our climbers took him in, gave him fluids, food and some of their precious oxygen and slept with him crammed into their tent for the night. In the morning he seemed right as rain, but when he stood up to get his boots to put on he just keeled over and was dead when he hit the ground. Our boys tried to revive him, but he was dead.

The worst thing about dying on Everest is that it is actually impossible for the body to be recovered. Unless you can walk, you cannot get off that mountain. It is all anyone can do to get themselves down. It would be suicide to try to bring down another man. This is one of the sad realities of mountaineering. That's why you have to maintain rationality and realise when it's time to get off the mountain - whether you reached the summit or not.

Again, I had to deal with all of the department of foreign affairs and media enquiries over this fellow Australian's death. All through this ordeal Carl was by my side, making sure all the comms gear worked when it needed to.

Once our summit attempts concluded, it was time to pack up ABC and head back down to the base camp. I was pleased to be leaving - it is very hard going existing where no living thing can manage to survive (there are no plants or animals at that altitude - there are a couple of scavenger birds, but they don't live there - they fly up, raid the camps, and then return to their nests. Clever mother nature), but I was also sad, as I knew I'd never be anywhere like that again, and we were leaving a lovely man behind, alone on the mountain.

The trek back down to base camp was awful. After six weeks of not walking very far, I found the going very tough and it took 12 hours to walk the 22kms. I was stuffed!! We overnighted at base camp and then in the morning that too was packed up. The land rovers arrived and we all piled in. Well, all of us except Carl and I. I realised that I was waiting to see which vehicle he got into as I wanted to go in that car too.

Uh-oh! Trouble!!

I finally threw my pack into the back of one of the cars, as Carl didn't seem to making any moves in that direction. As soon as I picked a vehicle, he chucked his pack into the same car! Double trouble!!

We were literally thrown together in the front seat of the 4WD. It was really only 1 1/2 seats, so we were shoulder to shoulder, thigh to thigh. It was tight!

It was a much quicker trip back to the border between Tibet and Nepal, as we didn't need to stop to acclimatise. On our overnight stop I had to confess to the two other girls on the trip that I thought I liked Carl as more than a friend. They were so excited! They promised to spy on him the next day, as I was so unsure of myself and my ability to read boy signals that I needed help!!

We crossed into Nepal the next day, only to find that the Nepalese royal family had been massacred by one of the sons, who had subsequently been shot down by palace guards. The place was in uproar and official mourning, which meant no one could travel into the capital. There was also a curfew in place to prevent rioting - the Nepalese take their monarchy very seriously indeed.

We were forced to stay outside the capital for the night.

Fortunately for us, this meant staying in a gorgeous hilltop resort with the Himalaya as a backdrop. The sunset views were just gorgeous. We wound down with a couple of beers each and a lovely steak dinner. Our first 'proper' meal in months. It was delicious - made even more so by the fact that Carl sat opposite me - after I'd already sat down. That night the girls confirmed my suspicions - oh he's DEFINITELY interested, they said. Big trouble!!

The next day we finally made it back to Kathmandu. We propped at a hotel in town for a few days rest and recuperation, as well as to clean and pack our several tonnes of gear for the return journey to Australia. That night, we were treated to a slap-up dinner at the hotel. Once again, Carl sat opposite me. We talked for hours until we were kicked out of the restaurant. A group of us retired to the bar.

Several drinks and several hours later, one by one people started to go back to their rooms to get some sleep. I didn't. Carl didn't. Eventually we were the only ones left in the bar. We were sitting together on a couch and neither of us wanted to move. Although we had to move our feet to let the guy finish vacuuming around us!

We sunk lower and lower on the couch and closer and closer together until finally I thought, I am going to kiss this beautiful man. So I did. At the very same moment he decided to kiss me.

Well how many cliches do you want to hear? The earth moved, my heart skipped a beat, my eyelids fluttered. It was the kiss. The Kiss. The most amazing kiss. A kiss of love. A kiss of promise. A kiss of relief!!

All this from one kiss. Boy, was I in big trouble!

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After a couple more days in Kathmandu, it was time to leave Nepal, Tibet and Everest behind. Bittersweet memories for all of us, sweetened for Carl and I by the knowledge that we'd started something amazing.

We were married two and half years later, now are parents to a delightful 10-month-old and remain very happy with each other. I have found someone to love, and more important, someone who loves me just for me. Doesn't want me to change. Loves all my quirks. Loves me.

11 comments:

anne bebbington said...

Wonderful ending to a sometimes very sad story - no wonder your little girl is so gorgeous with two such tenacious parents as you. Lovely - sitting here reading and then commenting has almost made me late - but i was spellbound :o)

joyce said...

What an interesting story. Not many people find love on Everest. Hope you have many more happy years together.

Laura said...

Oh Lily, what a beautiful story! I am so glad I asked to hear it! Romily and all your future little ones will love to tell the story of how mom and dad met!

Judy said...

Really a beautiful story. I think when you meet the right person you just know it quickly. The trip istelf was amazing, let alone finding love up there on that mountain.

Tiffany said...

What a fantastic story! I am so happy that you found your Mr. Darcy and that the two of you are living Happily Ever After!

Jan said...

Thank you for sharing your adventure tale. The story is riveting, the photos fabulous and who doesn't love a happy ending?!

Tonya R said...

Beautiful. I'm so happy for BOTH of you. You made the stars, moon and sky sound so gorgeous and I just wanted to be there until I hit that bit about not having showered for 6 weeks. D'oh!!! Nope, just gonna have to live vicariously.

Happy Belated Birthday!!!

Tina said...

Lily, what a wonderful story, Mt Everest is a wondrful but sad place there are so many others who lost their lives but I bet few who have found love.....Lily you and Carl are very blessed. Now do you both still climb or are your Everest days over.....Hugs((()))Tina

Sandy said...

Oh my God, I'm crying! What a wonderful story. So happy for you both! Happy Anniversary and Happy Birthday! Cheers and many more happy years to come to you both! :o)

Heids said...

What a beautiful story...I am crying too. Happy Anniversary.

Cathy Olliffe said...

That is the absolute BEST, most romantic, most exciting love story EVER.
Oh Lily, it is just lovely.
Congratulations!