At 18,150 feet high, Kongma La is the highest of our three passes, and the only one that can be bypassed in a pinch without adding much time to the trip (in a day you can walk around to Chukkung). We stop in the thin air of the pass and gaze at Makalu, Baruntse, and a fluted wall along the shoulder of Ama Dablam called Peak 6430 that looks like a colossal dorsal fin.
We can also see Island Peak. Almost anywhere else on the planet, the 20,275-foot mountain would be a giant. Here, it’s just a glacier-capped bump that sits at the head of the valley. But what a bump. It’s the easiest of several minor “trekking” peaks in the area, and beginners do it after an afternoon of training with a guide. I’m keen to give it a try. Fabrizio Zangrilli and Kinga Baranowska, two pro climbers on an acclimatization jaunt before an attempt on Makalu, offer to let me tag along. I rent some 1980s-era mountaineering boots and crampons, and a harness with a disturbingly threadbare belay loop.
At sunrise, we’re zigzagging up the steep, rocky trail, and soon snaking between crevasses on the glacier. Then we slowly ascend a 200-foot fixed line to the summit ridge. I’m woozy and weak, at an altitude just a few hundred feet below Mt. McKinley, and feel dangerously clumsy as I sway up the knife-edge ridge. From the summit, the 10,000-foot south wall of Lhotse soars another vertical mile above us, and a daytime moon sets over Ama Dablam.
On the way down, as tired as I’ve ever been, I’m surprised to run into Dawa, who has hiked the 4.5 miles from Chukkung and halfway up the rocky slopes, just to offer help. Stumbling with exhaustion, I couldn’t be happier to see him. My pack doesn’t weigh much, but that’s not really the point. By now we’ve spent nearly a month together, and it’s like meeting a friend on the trail. And who refuses help from a friend?
Justin Nyberg is a freelance writer based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and now has a dog named Khumbu.