Visions of Everest
by Dario Sorgato
It is bitterly cold at 5am in Dingboche. I did not sleep for even one minute all night. My heart was beating fast. I tried to listen to music but the same cold drained all the juice from the battery. I think there will be no chance. I can listen to the beat of my heart.
What is happening to me? Is it the thin air at 4530 meters or the anxiety about what is happening to my eyes? During breakfast I talked to Dil, my iTrekNepal guide and we decided to go to the Himalayan Rescue Association clinic in Periche. It is on the other side of the hill, which for me, half blind, is a tough one hour walk, probably more.
I walk slowly, copying each and every single step of Dil, One by one, rock by rock. I see only a tiny circle in the center of my visual field, as if you were looking through a narrow tube. At the end of my tunnel vision there are always just Dil’s shoes. I can’t walk and look anywhere else. When I want to see Ama Dablam’s majestic peak, I need to stop, lest I stumble again.
It is almost 9 am when we arrive. The doctor will open the clinic soon. It is very cold in the clinic as well, a small room in a wooden house, and I shiver as I take off my shirt to let the doctor measure my blood pressure.
She also checks my heart and oxygen level, then asks me a lot of questions.
I tell her about my eye sight problems, about retinitis pigmentosa and Usher Syndrome, about my blindness and deafness. I tell her that an optometrist from my country told me that there is a risk that the low oxygen at high altitude will damage my eyes even more.
I had decided to take the risk, to come to Nepal, to trek to base camp.
“You are very brave to be up here with the limits you have in sight and hearing”, she says. I burst into tears. She did not know me but she already realized how much energy, effort and willpower I had to use to get this far.
She offered me a tissue and on that piece of paper I left proof that I was able to go beyond my limits and wanted to reach Everest Base Camp.
“Is it worth it?” she asked me. “Do you want to risk permanent damage to the poor sight you have just to see Mt. Everest?”
I did not have the answer, but the question was pulsing in my head as rapidly as my heart beat.
It was already warmer outside. The sun was shining when I left the clinic with the awareness that I had no AMS symptoms and I could go on. But I could not know what might happen to my eyes. Once again, I took the risk. I cannot always make decisions based on doctors’ opinions.
On the same day we were in Lobuche, 4940 meters. The day after at Goraksherp, 5164. The next day, March 25th, I stepped into Everest Base Camp.
At first I was able to see the flags, then a stone with the sign, then the tents, where sherpas were getting ready for the climbing season. Only then do my eyes see it all, and I sit down on snow and stones, alone, far from everyone and everything.
I look at the mountains all around, at the brilliant sky. My feet are still burning after the final leg of the trek on stones and ice, an almost impossible hike with no peripheral vision. But I still did not have the answer.
It was not waiting there, hidden among the rocks, waiting for the ice to melt and reveal itself to me. Any risk I take it is not for a future reward. It is for now.
In that cold clinic room and now here inside of me I knew that I was trying to reach this place to prove that I can go beyond my limits to find a reason for my limited sight and hearing.
As I listened to the sound of water rippling through the valley that stretched down from base camp I knew there was one more thing I needed to do, to see Mt. Everest from Kala Pattar. I also need to reach that peak.
It would be worth it, for every single step, for the heavy shoes in the mud, for the melting snow, for the rocks I did not know how to climb.
I walked blindly in the pre-dawn shadow, following Dil’s steps within the narrow beam from my headlamp. The trekking poles were extensions of my hands to feel the stones and the steps I could not see, before I could decide where to move my foot.
Still I stumbled. I stumbled a lot and my ankles were hot, every wrong step was like a thunder in my head aching from the altitude.
I never felt I was suffering from the pain – it was fuel for me. I needed to go and feel more dust and pain to find the answer. I wanted the dust to fill my mouth and cover my sunburned skin. Mixed with drops of water I could not drink.
A friend tells me that Everest is usually just a visual experience for trekkers, but for me it is as much the smell of burning dung, the laughs of people chatting around the hot stove, the warm sleeping bag, the smell of piss, the bells ringing under yaks’ necks, the heavy loads on sherpas’ backs, my stinking clothes, my new friends. It is in all of this, in life beyond sight, that I might find the answer.
More than an answer, perhaps I need the next question. I need to go, I need to stumble again, and hang on the trekking poles not to fall. I need to find a way to descend those dreadful cobblestone steps.
I need to make sure that even if I am going completely blind I will always find a way to challenge myself and move on. The more my sight disappears the more my vision expands and I am already wondering… where do I go next?
I went to the highest altitude I can imagine. I went to feel I could. If for someone this story becomes a reason to look at his own limits and move on, maybe, it is there, in the will of the next dreamers, that all my questions will be answered.