They say the last leg of the climb is the hardest when you can see the summit yet you struggle hard to reach it. Mount Horizon, where the sky met the earth, where life met death, was a 100 yards away from me. I slogged on behind my robust guide, Pem Lakpha. Each breath I took was a trickle to my parched lungs and left me wanting for more. I gasped and gave my all, to one step at a time and the next, all the while looking down, pleading my legs not to give way. My ears heard nothing, except the wheeze of my breath. I stopped and Pem instinctively turned with an effort, the whole gear weighing on him. He made his way to me, with caution. It was hard to communicate when the ears were muffled and eyes were bleached from the glaring sun. He gave me a pat on the back, looked at the summit and turned to me. I thought I saw a reassuring smile under his headgear. I went back to concentrating on my next step.
Mount Horizon was still pristine to climbers and explorers. Even my guide, the sturdy Sherpa, has attempted it only once. It was not the enormity of the task, like Mount Everest, that discouraged the climbers. Mount Horizon had a very volatile weather. The wind directly blew on its face, funnelled through the mountains flanking the peak. Though the climbers could reach the base camp with relative ease, the ascent to the summit was a huge challenge. There were very few flat outs to rest and the ridges dropped sharply. There was no place to bivouac, which meant that the climb and the decent had to be finished before sunset.
I had trained well for over a year for the task and had done my groundwork. I was no novice to mountaineering. After trekking up to the base camp twice, I had assessed the risks and equipped myself accordingly. I had hit the gym, especially building my leg muscles and strengthening my lungs.
At an altitude of 7000 feet, the lungs ought to be trained to withstand the pressure of the vacuum.
Now the only thing that lay between my goal and me were a few yards. A few excruciatingly painful yards. Icy breeze needled into my skin and froze my blood. My lungs were hollowed out and I could not feel my fingers and toes. Fear slowly seeped into my being. It started as a small nag, a feeble voice, then grew steadily stronger as my breath became erratic. My logical mind screamed that it was the handy work of oxygen deprivation, this feeling of despair and hopelessness. But to ignore my aching mind and body was no easy feat. One step at a time, one breath at a time.
Finally, I felt the summit with my fingers first, as I hung by its side.
One heavy haul and a pull from Pem and I was perched on her top.
What a view of the heaven, the sight of eternity, the nothingness of everything, the immense weight of the void. I felt, surprisingly, humbled at the inconsequence of my quest. The mountain remained unmoved by my effort. She did not carry the pride of being unconquerable and she did not resent being climbed upon.
When we were about to start at the base camp, I had cried ‘let’s go conquer her’, in a moment of proud ignorance. Shocked, Pem gave me an admonishing look. He walked towards me and whispered purposefully, “No, nobody can conquer nature. You can beseech her to help you, beg her to spare you, seek her to bear with you. But nobody can never, ever conquer her!”
On top of the world, when I was an insignificant speck, that truth spoke deeply to me. My mind shook off all the adjectives attached to me.
Now at this revelation, I was not a 37-year-old, single mom, struggling to bring up her teenage daughters. I was not a disappointing daughter or a temperamental shrew or even a mom. I was just an ‘I’, in fact, an ‘ i’. A tap on the shoulder brought me to reality. I had only completed half of my journey. There was still an arduous climb down. We had to make use of the weather’s generosity. We started our descent, the sun beating down on our neck.
An hour into our trudge, as we were roping down from a ridge, a swift howling wind blew. The fixed ropes were strong and were nailed deep. So we gained balance rather quickly. In a moment, just when we thought we were out of the woods, another squall left Pem and me swaying dangerously, dashing against the rocky walls of the ridge. Above me, I could see Pem struggling to fasten himself to the rocks. But the wind threw us around vigorously. Suddenly, I noticed Pem’s flailing arms go limp and I knew he had been knocked unconscious. The tether gave away, unable to hold his weight. He was hurtled towards me and we crash-landed twenty feet below on a bed of snow. The last thing I remembered was hearing an odd snap and blinding pain in my back.
A moan woke me up. I tried to focus in the direction of the voice. I thought I saw a small movement few feet away from where I was lying. It was Pem. I crawled towards him but I could not feel the lower part of my body. Each breath stabbed my lungs and a warm liquid rose to my throat. When I reached Pem, I weakly hit his thighs to get his attention. Only after a few attempts did I realize he was still unconscious. I knew I had to act fast before Pem’s brain starts filling with fluid. I searched for my sat phone all over me. It was not in the pouch that was latched to my gear. It must have fallen off. A sudden panic overtook me. A shiver gave away to a torrent of despondency. In my mind, I cried out for help and screamed in agony but it just came out as a whimper.
Suddenly, I saw my mother. She approached me with a look of disapproval.
‘Didn’t I warn you that it was beyond you. You should stick to what you are capable of. Behave like a girl!’ she chastened me.
‘Well, Well, now who do we have here? My wife, of course. My wife whom I had to rape to show her what she deserves!’ my ex-husband hovered around my mangled body.
‘No wonder you are single!’ my boss sneered.
‘Give up, you are just a woman!’ they mocked at me in unison. I wept dry tears in humiliation, life ebbing away from me.
Then, it flashed before my eyes. Those smiles, the smiles of my daughters. The smiles so heartening, that I wanted to live again.
I woke up with a jolt. Still paralyzed below my hip, I shook Pem with all my might. He did not flinch.
“Beseech her,” Pem’s voice echoed from the past. I closed my eyes and tried to think. Pem’s phone. Where was it?
It dawned on me that I could still have a shot. After a few minutes, I pulled up my torso with my hands as high as possible.
And the sun lit the phone red, under the soft white of the flakes. It was a few feet away from where Pem was lying. I crawled on my belly towards it, dragging my impotent legs along.
With each heave, I retorted to my oppressing hallucinations.
‘I am worth a thousand sons you will ever have, Mom.’
‘I deserve all the happiness in the world, you bastard.’
‘I am single by choice, you idiot.’
‘I don’t quit. I am a woman.’
To my daughters, I promised ‘Amma is coming home, my dears’
I reached for Pem’s phone and flipped it on.
The most lyrical words crackled from it, ‘Hello, Basecamp here…..
At the hospital, I woke up to the whining of the machine. I saw my daughter, lying huddled in the sofa-cum-bed. My rasping cough woke her up. She jumped to her feet and came running to me.
“Amma, how are you feeling now? No.. Don’t try to exert much.”
Through my oxygen mask, I mouthed, “Where’s Priya?”
“She stepped out to get something to drink,” Preeti, my elder one, replied. As she tucked in my comforter, I could barely see her face in the dim lit room. “Light…” I mumbled. When the switch was on, I was blinded for a moment. I noticed what a few days of immense stress did to my daughter.
She appeared older than what she was. “Pem?” I enquired with some trepidation.
“The doctors relieved the pressure build up in his head. He is still in the intensive care unit. But he is stable.”
My eyes moistened and as if reading my mind, Preeti added, “All’s taken care of. You rest now.” She was the strong one, a chip of the old block.
Priya entered the room just then. I could see her tear-stained cheeks.
She placed her face on my palms, the only part without a bruise, and sobbed.
The next day, the doctors confirmed my worst fear. My spine had twisted beyond repair and I was paraplegic.
“When they found you, you were coughing blood. You ribs snapped
on impact and punctured your lungs. Immobile and air depraved, it’s a miracle you survived. But you did more. You saved Pem from certain death.”“You had strategically placed his head your lap that slowed down the fluid build up in the cranium,” the doctor finished, his face never attempting to hide his admiration at the endurance of a human body.
Six months later
As the claps died down after several minutes, the principal held the
mike and spoke to the packed hall of students.
“Madam has obliged to answer a few of your questions if you have any.” A bespectacled girl in the front row got up to ask.
“Ma’am, do you, at any point in time regret the climb?”
“Of course, I do. When I see huge malls, which are not wheelchair friendly, I want to regain my legs, just for a minute, to kick the backside of the brilliant engineers. Otherwise mostly, no.” I said.“A lanky boy got hold of the mike, ‘You have gone where a few have gone. You have survived injuries what no man could survive. How did you do it?”
“Like a woman,” I finished off to a thunderous applause.