It was day one of the record attempt, and our four-wheel-drive car approached the final hill between us and the start of the Chachani hike. When we were within sight of our drop zone, on a steep section of the dusty track, our vehicle had had enough. After three hours of being tossed like a salad in the backseat, we had also had enough. It was clear our car wasn’t going to muster the climb so one of us asked without any apprehension, “Vamos a caminar?” It was a modest hill, and we didn’t mind the chance to get some fresh air and stretch our legs. Ten seconds into the stroll up this modest hill, I was breathing like an eighty year old asthmatic. So, everything was looking good for our mountain climb the next morning.
This was my first reality check with altitude. I recalled my mum driving me to the airport and relaying me with stories of Green Boots, the anonymous man who perished on Everest, and that guy who went blind on Everest and probably some other harrowing tales of things that happened on Everest. Chachani is not Everest, but after huffing and puffing up that little hill, it might as well have been.
As we waited for everyone to gather at the drop-off point, we did the usual things you do when you hike. We ate snacks, we blew our noses (the snot never ends), we tied our hula hoops to our packs. Julie tied a go-pro to a stick she found on the ground to create perhaps the most rugged, outdoorsy selfie stick ever. And from there, we began our hike up to base camp.
At our send-off party two days before, Mark shared some interesting and definitely very scientific theories about the force of gravity at high altitude that probably neither of us understood. Unfortunately, I can authoritatively say these theories are rubbish because my backpack did not feel lighter in the slightest. As we climbed over rocks, I could feel myself on the verge of toppling over backwards from the weight of my pack. During some of the more challenging parts, I imagined it would be nice to just let the toppling happen. My pack would cushion my fall nicely, and I could lay there like an overturned beetle with my limbs dangling in the air.
We were twenty metres from base camp when I asked with a touch of despair and maybe an expletive, “How much longer til base camp?” As it happened, it was just beyond another of those modest hills, although at 5000m above sea level a hill is never so modest.
Base camp was decked out with hot showers and wifi, plus nice boulders that were perfect for peeing behind (at least one of these things is true). We happened to set up our tent behind one of these boulders and noticed bits of toilet paper tucked underneath, to which none of us batted an eyelash. Travelling is great for putting things into perspective and learning to ignore trivial matters. I always return from travels with a broader worldview and lazier hygiene standards.
I would say base camp and the summit were great, and all that climbing stuff that happened in between was hell. At base camp we ate rice and guacamole, and drank coca tea. We also played Cards Against Humanity and learned whose sense of humour consists primarily of poop jokes. On the summit we felt badass and hula hooped and broke a world record. However, somewhere in between these two locations, I died.
The morning of our climb began at 1am after maybe six hours sleep, which in actuality was not sleep but lying in a sleeping bag while conscious and breathing heavily. Except for the people who were snoring, one of whom was next to me in our pee location tent, nobody got much sleep. I’ve heard that because oxygen levels are lower at high altitudes, your body keeps you awake to ensure you take in enough oxygen. Regardless of whether this is true, it is not a calming thought to have when you’re trying to sleep.
While I had to deal with snoring, others faced more severe problems. In the morning, Johanna expressed her woes succinctly with, “I’m dead. I didn’t even put my shoes on. And Rhona farted in my tent!” I can’t compete with that. Johanna and Mark were unfortunately hit badly with altitude sickness, and had to stay behind at base camp.
At 1.30am, the rest of us were on our way. And it was maybe ten minutes into the hike that I started imagining myself telling the guide, “dude, you can take me back to base camp now.” Inexplicably, twenty different ways of phrasing this sentiment in both English and bad Spanish were running continuously through my head during the first stretch. But most importantly, the words stayed in my head.
Before the sun started to peek its way through, the hike was a never-ending stretch of darkness and gravelly ground, and I had a never-ending runny nose. There also seemed to be a never-ending lingering smell of farts in the air because maybe the altitude does something to your digestion (you can conveniently blame anything on altitude). Unrelated to the farts, many of us began to feel nausea, dizziness and headaches. I imagined myself heading back to base camp so many times during this time, but I never considered it as an actual acceptable option.
Dawn began to break and we were able to turn our headlamps off. Our surroundings were barren and vast, and the neighbouring peak was copper and pink. I was able to appreciate these things for a pinprick of a second because I was too busy suffering. The higher we climbed, the dizzier and more fatigued we became. We were a motley crew of vomiters and people with back pain, and two of us also sustained broken nails. I didn’t vomit or have back pain, but my broken nail really hurt.
Then, we were over the first big peak and the summit was in sight. It was just another modest hill away. Of course, it was in practice absolutely immodest. Those who’d already made it to the summit encouraged us on and we told them to shut up. And when we made it to the summit, we hugged them.
After all that, to hula hoop and break a world record was the easiest thing ever. During the climb, a lot of us said something along the lines of “I’m never doing anything like this again.” The problem is, you forget. Time will probably romanticise my memories of this expedition and I’ll forget the part where I died in between base camp and the summit. What will undoubtedly stay in our memories, however, is the unbelievable thrill of hiking to 6000m, and hula hooping to a world record with some of the most wonderful people ever.
Words by Maggie Shui
Photos by Elise Fjordbakk and Tom Hornbrook