The first time I trekked to Everest, in early May of 1998 as part of an MIT expedition, I didn't know quite what to make of it all, but like all such journeys it etched a permanent memory. Caravans 90 yaks long charging up to Base Camp, kicked up clouds of dust, and left behind a path of "steaming land mines." The sherpas chased after the yaks, chucking rocks at the beasts to keep them in line. The thin air was laced with the fragrance of beautiful Himalayan rhododendron forests in glorious bloom. Japanese tourists and dreadlocked hippies and cocky climbing expeditions, partying on up the trail in their own way. The horrors of dal bhat that tasted like dishwater (and sent us sprinting through the darkness to outhouses, fumbling with headlamps and trying to avoid lifting off like the NASA space shuttle). Cable suspension bridges dangling over roaring brooks hundreds of feet below — which hikers share with yaks, as if acting out an old SAT algebra problem. Around a bend, Ama Dablam, "the Mother's necklace," bursts into view, towering over 22,000' — rock, and snow and glacier against a brilliant blue sky. It was thrilling.
I had brought a camera, and snapped a few pictures along the trail. As I did, I thought about Galen Rowell and his incredible images of the Khumbu valley near Everest. Galen was sort of a full-color "Velvia" version of Ansel Adams when he wasn't being one of the world's great mountaineers. I figured I'd be lucky to come away with a few decent shots.
And then — ... I was alone on the trail (or so I thought), well up past Namche Bazaar, and I heard a high-pitched, wheezy puffing sound. A tiny little Sherpa girl (a sherpani) trekked up behind me.
She was so small, and she was carrying the tiniest pack I'd ever seen — not much bigger than a Texas grapefruit — clutching onto the tumpline with chapped, leathery little fingers. Her dress was rags on top of tatters and patches. As she chugged along behind me, I heard her panting in a determined rhythm. I smiled and offered to help her carry her pack, and she refused. She wouldn't even accept a piece of candy. If you're a Sherpa, carrying your own weight is a point of pride. She was all alone, miles from any home or dwelling that I could see. She paused for just a moment to adjust her load. I took a picture. I realized I hadn't seen anyone on the trail, and didn't, for hours.
Every time I look at this picture, with her runny nose and red, windburned cheeks, I can still hear her quiet grunts, and her little feet, crunching along the path, forging ahead in life. She still takes my breath away.