Essays

How Climbing Everest Prepared Me for a Pandemic

It’s the adventure of a lifetime, but what can it teach you about staying at home? Guide Charlotte Austin shares her hard-won lessons.

Two years and one month ago, I was navigating the summit ridge of Mount Everest under a spectacular purple dawn. My Sherpa companion and I had climbed through the night, slowly making our way from Camp 4 into the so-called death zone, and the darkness was beginning to soften. From that elevation, I could see the horizon gently curving against the corners of the sky. 

The summit ridge is narrow — knife-edge narrow, in places — and the consequence of placing my foot a few inches to either side of precision was death. I’d already calculated: if I fell off that summit ridge, I would freefall for more than a minute before impact. Don’t think about that, I told myself. Keep walking. Breathe in, breathe out. I was keyed into every sensation: I felt the crisp snow under each footfall, the frozen saliva down my chin, the icicles in my hair. It was absolutely, without a doubt, the single hour of my life when I felt both the most acute elation and the most acute fear. Today, when I close my eyes and reach for my center, it’s still that ridge I see.

The 2019 Everest expedition wasn’t my first trip to Nepal, nor was it my first big mountain. I’d spent much of the previous decade climbing and guiding internationally, first on Mount Rainier (14,410’) and the other volcanoes of the Pacific Northwest, later leading expeditions on peaks like Mount Elbrus (18,510’), Denali (20,308’), and Kilimanjaro (19,431’). When a magnitude 7.8 earthquake shattered Nepal in 2015, killing almost 10,000 people, I was guiding on Mera Peak (21,247’) in the Hinku Valley, roughly four miles east of Mount Everest. By the time I stepped onto the moraine of the world’s tallest mountain with my sights set on the summit, I’d spent many, many months of my life in the Himalaya. I reached the top on May 22, 2019, and we descended safely. 

My fellow climbers and I, bonded for life, share a long-running text thread. Now safely at sea level, we log into WhatsApp from the Netherlands, Palo Alto, France, Norway, New York, and Seattle. Some parts of the experience are fading: our goggle tans are gone, and we’ve mostly regained the 20-ish pounds we each lost during those ten weeks in Nepal, but other remnants of the experience will be with us forever. We often reminisce about our shared memories: the funny moments, base camp music videos, and incessant jokes. The terrible food. Juniper smoke, rising softly into curling tendrils in the cold morning air. Most recently, we’ve all been struck by how our expedition prepared us for the quarantine — and other curveballs — of the last twelve months. 

There are obvious similarities between high-consequence expeditions and a global pandemic, of course. There’s the obsessive hand washing, the careful hoarding of good snacks (cheese!), and the distance and isolation from the ones we love. In both scenarios, toilet paper shortages are very, very real. There’s a gritty proximity to death, and the associated awareness of our own mortality. But there are subtler parallels, too: the challenge of trying to stay positive when faced with acute fear, the confusion of pacing ourselves for an experience with an unknown timeframe. Perhaps most of all, there’s the unique way that both experiences require a delicate mental balance of simultaneously acknowledging all the many, many ways that we’re lucky while also allowing ourselves permission to feel the heaviness of the very real challenges.

It’s complicated to compare the joys of climbing a mountain to a worldwide pandemic, and I’d never suggest that a voluntarily chosen expedition carries the same implications as Covid-19. The pandemic isn’t self-inflicted, and the risks cannot be navigated by flexing our own strength, or that of a small team, the way they are on Himalayan peaks. But at times both situations can feel impossibly monumental. In many ways, the best way to navigate each challenge is step by step. As Rene Daumal writes in Mount Analogue, “Keep your eye fixed on the way to the top, but don’t forget to look right in front of you. The last step depends on the first. Don’t think you’re there just because you see the summit. Watch your footing, be sure of the next step, but don’t let that distract you from the highest goal. The first step depends on the last.” 

So today, just as we did on that mountain, we get up. We acknowledge the uncertainties, the challenges, the confusion and fear and excitement and joy. We lace up our boots, we slug some coffee, and we start walking, one foot in front of the other, along today’s knife-edge ridge. It’s hard and it’s beautiful, and it’s the best way I know to greet this new dawn.

Charlotte Austin is a writer, editor, and mountain guide based in Seattle.