In preparing for our three-week walk into the Khumbu—the region of Nepal that includes Sagarmatha (Mt. Everest)—it was decided that Bill, my trekking companion, would buy the map. Why didn’t I get one, too? That’s easy: weight. Like an obsessed cyclist who shaves his legs to cut wind drag, I thus managed to trim half an ounce off my load.
Though I hardly noticed the 15 grams, I was compelled to watch—with great envy—the budding romance between Bill and his colorful, beautifully scaled map of the Sagarmatha Valley. They were like young lovers. By the end of two weeks Bill was intimate with every swell and contour of that map. He’d admired it in sunshine and by candlelight, embraced it in every position, and even learned to fold it up properly, along the original creases.
In spite of the many hardships we encountered on the trail, the only times I saw Bill wince were when some misfortune befell his map. A Sherpa cook spilled a bit of soup onto it; I, in the numbing cold, lost control of my mouth and dribbled coffee onto it; an ember leaped from a fire pit like the finger of God and touched it, burning a tiny hole. At each incident Bill dropped everything and sprang into action, a model of damage control.
His vigilance paid off when we reached our destination: the crest of a hill called Kala Pattar. Over 18,000’ high, surrounded by an army of glaciers and sublime peaks, Kala Pattar hung above the clouds like an island in the sky. The panorama was staggering, and we were immediately seized by a desperate longing to identify every landmark in sight.
As we did so—orienting ourselves, guessing heights and distances, and learning the name of each mountain—the landscape changed. Before, it had seemed aloof and anonymous; now it was infused with personality. It had a plot. There was even a hint of celebrity in it all, as our eyes wandered up the flanks of Everest, finding the paths used by the great mountaineers.
It was a giddy afternoon. Gaping at the wind-swept peak of Everest, still 10,000’ above us, the three of us (Bill, the map and me) had literally reached the highest point of our lives.
Two weeks later I returned to Kathmandu, obsessed with the desire to buy my own Schneider map of the Everest region. I found one and raced back to my room, eager to re-experience our fabulous voyage.
It was no use. The map seemed the same; but something was terribly wrong. Where was the smudge of dried soup on the western face of Nuptse? Where was the coffee stain, meandering recklessly along the banks of the Dudh Kosi? Or the jagged grin, burnt at the edges, in the contours of the mighty Chhukhung Glacier?
Where was the soul? I tossed my map aside, painfully aware that nothing I could do—short of repeating the entire trek—could imbue that scrap of paper with the power and magic of the map that Bill had hung, like a lover’s portrait, above his desk.
- Abridged from Scratching the Surface
- Music from Winds of Mars & the Music of JS Bach / Kettlewell