Quickly I packed a bag, hopped into a helicopter and rose 11,000 feet on to the Himalayan range. The sudden change of altitude gave me a painful headache, but there was time to do no more than swallow a few pills. There was a lot to be done.
First, urge all the hikers at the height and the hikers coming down from greater heights to talk to their families, by now besotted by anxiety. For the American hikers, take down their names and those of their relatives so that the families could be reassured. If I already had a message of concern from the relatives, talk to them or arrange with the Embassy to send them a reassuring word.
Next, arrange with the police and other government authorities to make sure that hikers from the US receive assistance in coming down to safe areas and, if injured, get special help. Also, contact non-government organizations, mountaineering associations and medical groups, so that ailing hikers are quickly brought to safety.
I went to the locations where helicopters were ferrying hikers from dangerous spots every hour and also all the inns and taverns where the incoming hikers were taking refuge. There were only small hotels but ordinary homes that did informal business and housed hikers. It was important to gather information on all American hikers and focus on the people reported missing by their families, trekking organizations or other hikers. Groups that had climbed together had become split in adverse weather and were anxious to know that individual members were alive and well.
I came back to my hotel, had some dinner and around midnight ventured out in the hope of meeting the returning group of five.
It was around three at night that a watchman came to tell me that the group was tottering in. Yes, there were five in the group and three Sherpas, and one mountaineer was sick and had delayed their reluctant descent. Four were relatively young, overly enthusiastic, and rued that adverse nature and cautious bureaucrats had ruined their adventure.
The fifth member of the party – it took time to realize this as the member shed heavy mountain gear – was a woman in her late thirties, with metal-frame glasses and shoulder-length hair, wearing a well-worn blue-green sports outfit, which identified herself as Brenda Wright. She practiced surgery in a well-known hospital group in Chicago and had visited Nepal six times, thrice as a tourist and then thrice more as a mountaineer.
“Brenda, you realize, don’t you, “ I asked, in the hearing of her team mates who seemed miffed at the sudden cancellation of their plan, “that you were in serious danger. It could have easily cost your life.”
“Yes, I do realize,” she said, without a moment’s hesitation, I know the danger was real and close. I am glad that we got out in time.”
“Tell me, what makes you keep coming back to Nepal? To the mountains?”
She smiled. “It is hard to explain, “ she said. “At first it was just a sense of fun and adventure. Then it became something different. It became an event – an event that tests me and, in a peculiar way, restores me. I long to come back here and go up the mountain.”
I asked, “So you think you will come again, even after this brush with death?”
Brenda looked straight at me, “Believe me, I work eleven months at the hospital, always dreaming of the month I will spend on the mountain. It is constantly on my mind. I don’t know why, for I like my work. There is something in life beyond a comfortable existence and enjoyable work.”
She gave a pause and added, “I don’t know what that something is. But when I am up there, slogging through ice and snow with a load on my back, with people I barely know and share little in common, breathe thin air and feel my heart work differently, I seem to sense a different aspect of life I haven’t quite understood. I hope I understand it some day.”