Wedged comfortably in a metal jump seat at the back of the plane, my eyes focused on the exposed wires sprawling across the ceiling like an intricate web. The roaring sounds of the engine were constant and oddly soothing, interrupted by the occasional, uneasy crackling and popping of fuel cans with the ever-changing pressure. I was riding in the cold fuselage of the Iluyshin IL-76, an old Russian cargo plane fit for one mission only; transporting people to Antarctica’s interior. I tried to clear my mind of all of the horrific scenarios that could play out when landing on a desolate blue ice, runway in remote Antarctica. I was about to step onto the coldest, windiest and highest continent on the planet. I was about to spend my vacation climbing in the largest desert in the world and the only continent still virgin to war. As the door opened and the bitter cold pierced my left cheek, it was clear that I had ventured north of the wall, into a place that is vast and unknown.
I imagine that I am not alone in admitting that lately I have felt a bit “stuck”. Pursuing an unconventional lifestyle that includes raising tens of thousands of dollars to take a stab at completing one of the greatest adventure achievements has come with monumental peaks and forbidden pits. It feels like I am stuck on a rollercoaster that shoots me high, pulls me low, and swings me round and round, and as much as I want to get off this rollercoaster sometimes, I simply can’t…because it’s my destiny to ride this ride until the end. In an attempt to “unstick” myself, I wandered into the woods in search of knowledge and direction. Instead of feeling lost in the infinite pages of my life atlas, I am choosing to answer some heavy questions about myself in an effort to create forward movement once again beginning with the hardest. What defines Kim Hess?
Today I didn’t want to get out bed. Like two positive magnets being forced together, my body clung to the safety of my sheets but my mind impatiently pulled in the opposite direction knowing it was time. It was time to get up and against all odds, I got up, made my bed, and found myself splayed out on the couch under a blanket with my eyes closed. I had made it a measly 20 steps from my bed and although some might consider this an epic fail, I considered it a small victory. Who knows how long I actually fell back asleep but at some point the roar of my stomach cracked my eyelids open. Get. Up. Ignoring the impending text I would later send to him saying, [insert whining tone] “I’m starving!!!!” I pulled myself up off the couch, threw on some shorts, pulled out my cobweb wrapped running shoes, found a hat and my headphones and trudged out of the house. Against all odds, I was running…in the heat of the day. I haven’t been on a run since returning from Everest, roughly 12 months ago, and for whatever reason today felt like the day to give it a shot. Who am I to argue with the Universe on this one?
It didn’t take much effort to peel my eyelids open minutes before my alarm went off. My conscious mind was confident that I had never actually allowed myself to drift off into a slumber…the strong cadence of my beating heart made that impossible. I was happy and warm, snuggled up in my downsuit under Paul’s outstretched sleeping bag and although I was giddy for my day to begin, I was tense. Will I see dead people? How hard is this really going to be? I wonder what the world looks like from the top? Will everyone make it? I could have sat there forever asking myself questions I didn’t know the answers to. The only question I could answer was, “Will I make it?“…of course you will.
I woke eagerly before my alarm sounded. Today would be a day filled of places I have only dreamed of. It would be a day occupied by hard work, nervousness, and the unknown. I was excited to see the route, but admittedly, there is nothing worse than simply getting started in the morning. Dragging yourself out of your cozy sleeping bag in the premature morning and into the immobilizing chill of the air is the worst. Reluctantly and eagerly I began to move my ass. I will not be late. It’s time to pay the South Col a visit.
It was a calm morning. The air was crisp, but not too cold. The wind was sleepy. The stars were dampened by the bright light of the almost full moon as camp buzzed with noises of excitement. I laced my boots up nice and tight and made sure my harness was secure. Eating pieces of bacon and gulping down some coffee, it was hard to eat. In a few sort minutes I would be departing basecamp for the last time because it was finally time to climb to the top of the world. I wasn’t nervous. I felt eerily calm. This is the moment I’ve been waiting for. Ready or not, here I come.
Do you remember the childhood game Red Light Green Light? Most kids are introduced to this game when they are learning how to follow directions. To play, one person stands on one side of the room with their back to the others playing and commands either “red light” or “green light”. As I’m sure you’ve worked out, red means stop and green means go. If caught moving forward after they say “red light”, that player is out of the game. To find success in this game one must listen, be patient, and be ready to move at the drop of hat. After ten of the longest days of my life sitting at Everest Basecamp I finally heard “green light”. Giddy with nerves, this was the moment I had been waiting twenty-three years for. Mt. Everest was opening her window and granting me the opportunity to find my happy and dance on her summit.
“It was never a question of IF we were going to the summit, the question was simply WHEN.”
As a child, I remember going to the zoo on field trips and with the family to learn about all the different animals in the world. As a child, a trip to the zoo is exciting, educational, scary, and mesmorizing at times. As a child, it never occurs to you that perhaps the animals don’t enjoy sitting in a cage with hundreds of weird looking animals staring back at them through bars and glass. Everest basecamp is in a lot of ways like the zoo, except I’m the animal in the cage and the world is watching my every move.
The hissing and buzzing above is as annoying as a mosquito in your tent. Drones. I hate them. Now don’t get me wrong, for a few months I highly considered bringing one along to film the icefall but the bank account wouldn’t have it. Drones flying above our camp that belong to some stranger are enraging. If I were a monkey I would fling my poo at them except I would fear missing and potentially hitting a teammate. I suppose it would be a success if I were to hit the person flying the drone. Regardless…what do they want to film our tents for? It’s not like we’re over in our little camp having a firework show that no one else is allowed to see! We are just going about our daily activities. If they really want footage of who goes to the tall yellow tent and when, I’m happy to give them a log of that.
Climbing Mt. Everest consists of going up and coming down and going up again and down several times. It is required that your mind and body stay focused as you complete all three acclimating rotations, and of course, on your summit rotation. Rotation #3 would be new to me and I would be expected to hit my new personal altitude high of Camp 3, ~24,600ft, for a night of sleep. Mentally I was beyond ready to go but physically I felt bronchitis coming on the day before we left. Ready or not, I was heading up the mountain into the unknown territory of the Lhotse face.
When you look back at the events in your life over just the last year, it’s not surprising that a lot has happened. I spent the last year digesting and healing from one of the greatest adventures of my life. 360 days later I found myself stumbling into the very same camp I left in such a somber manner- Camp 2 on Mt. Everest. It feels different this time and for that I’m grateful.
Have you ever noticed how the things that terrify us can also be the most thrilling experiences all tied into one? Climbing Mt. Everest is much like that, it intimidates and scares me every minute I think about it, yet I can’t seem to get enough. It only seems natural that as I make my way to the Holy Grail herself, Everest, another fear of mine would literally walk into my sleeping bag giving the biggest adrenaline push of all time a little bit sooner than expected.
“Fear speaks first and fear speaks loudest. Learning to listen to the small, still Voice within is the only way to render it silent.” -Marianne Williamson
As I find myself already off to a less than ideal start to my return to Everest courtesy of the Denver Blizzard of 2016 – I felt the urge to remind myself of a few things.
As John Denver so eloquently put it, “…[your] bags are packed, [you’re] ready to go…”, all the preparation and work is done – your adventure is beginning. This is exciting! I know you don’t feel that just yet, and that’s okay, you will soon enough. Returning to Nepal will hold a lot of emotions for you, so here are a few reminders to consider over the next twelve weeks.
Be patient! This is one of your weakest character traits that is already being tested. Don’t get angry or frustrated, but find the willingness to endure. You cannot control everything. Please try to embrace the hiccups and go with it.
Breathe. It is a given to breathe with every step you climb up and every step back down. What I mean is, don’t forget to breathe through the experience. It will be over in the blink of eye, so enjoy each inhale and exhale.
Smile, even if it’s just an optical illusion! This is effortless for you, but remember to smile when shit get’s tough, as you know it will. Smile because it lights up a room and those around you.
Forgive. Forgive yourself for last year. That sounds silly, I realize, but forgive yourself for everything that went wrong last year. Forgive yourself for having the emotions you have or the thoughts that continue to rattle through your brain. Forgiveness is the key to moving forward. It doesn’t mean you forget, it just means you have found a place in your mind to take a step forward.
It’s not a race! Put your competitive nature to bed for a bit okay? You don’t always have to be the fastest, the first, or the best. Just be you. Whatever you feel to be your maximum potential for the day is enough. Accept each day as it comes to you and stop feeling the need to prove that you are #1. The goal isn’t to be better than anyone else but to be better than you used to be.
Climb for you and you alone. Remember why you sacrificed so much for this dream. Remember why you put so much sweat and tears into this expedition. Remember that you are out there climbing for you. You have nothing to prove to the world, only what you want to prove to yourself.
Enjoy the ride! This is the year you summit Mt. Everest which means you may not be back to that sacred place for quite sometime. Relish in this unique experience that most will never have the opportunity to live.
NO pull-up contests this year! Don’t be a child, it’s not worth it.
Sing. I know you honestly believe you are Whitney Houston’s former backup singer, and quite frankly I agree. Your body and soul comes alive when a good Britney song creeps into your ear…share the embarrassing energy.
Try to not count ALL of your steps. I empathize with you that this is soothing, but please, for your own sanity, DON’T COUNT ALL OF YOUR STEPS!
Be a sponge. Keep your eyes and ears open at all times and be observant. Learn about the culture, the people, the smells, the food, your teammates, the mountain, and the sport. Learn from those around you because they each are an expert of something.
Don’t judge. Reject the bad habit of judging others, experiences, and yourself.
Don’t kill your brother. Mom and Nicole would be pissed.
Expect doubt and pain. There will come a time that you will, without a doubt, want to quit. You will lose your faith. Don’t listen to the skepticism and discomfort. Listen to your heart, smile, laugh, and keep moving.
You’re not alone. You have never been alone on this journey, even though sometimes it feels that way. If you start to feel that way, pause, take a deep breath, and look up at the stars. You’re not alone.
Lean on the mountain and let her lean on you. There has been so much pain and devastation from last year that you are still processing. Remember that the mountain has even more tragedy and misery. Don’t be afraid to lean on her when you need her the most because when you do, she will be pushing you back up.
Change is a brilliant thing, embrace it. You’ve battled with the reality that this journey will not be the same as last year. THAT’S A GOOD THING! Last year didn’t work out because it wasn’t meant to. This is a new year and a new journey. There will be different characters in your story that will bring a different energy and dynamic to the group. Don’t be afraid to open up to this new story you are living, for it might just be the greatest story of your life.
Write. Don’t be afraid to go inside yourself and share the quest you’re on. In saying that, don’t write for the blog. Don’t write for those following you. Write for yourself. This is your story and I promise you won’t want to forget one minute of it.
Stay away from the yak cheese.
Accept and embrace being uncomfortable on some level.
Call home. You know the family is a wreck, no matter how brave of a face they put on.
Wash your hands. In the wise words of Dr. Paul Pottinger, “The world is covered in feces, the question is, how deep?”. Yuck.
Second chances are a gift. I know you’re frustrated you have to return this year to finish what you started last year. That’s okay. What’s important is that you acknowledge you have a second chance to do it better. Not everyone get’s that opportunity.
Believe that God and the Universe have a plan and it will all workout the way it was always meant to.
Be here now.
A friend once told me – Dreams are not always fulfilled on their first attempt. It’s the passion, obsession and continued pursuit that makes the accomplishment more fruitful in the end.
Touch the sky my dear friend.
It was a long journey out, but we finally made it to the town of Lukla, where we would be flying back to Kathmandu and then home. As we walked to the plane on the tarmac in a single-file line, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of nostalgia wash over me. We were leaving. Staring down the 1,729ft runway of the Tenzing-Hillary Airport, I saw a small fixed-wing plane, sitting eager for our departure. Climbing up into the plane, you could smell the years and miles of history it had traveled and hear the age of the engines. The sound was so robust they offered cotton balls for your ears. With no seating assignments, I found myself wandering toward the front row. Normally, I’m a back of the bus kind of gal, but today was different. I took a photo of our team all smiling in the back, and returned my camera to my bag for the rest of my journey home. With headphones in my ears and eyes staring out the window, the engines thundered and the vibrations of the plane felt oddly soothing. As the short runway disappears, the plane threatens to kiss the side of a mountain. But somehow, by the grace of God, the pilot maneuvers the plane for yet another flawless takeoff. Did I mention this airport is the most dangerous in the world? My eyes were now locked out the window watching the Himalayas fading in the distance. With every breath I focused on the music in my ears to keep from falling apart. I felt as though I was mourning the loss of a life or a soul…maybe my life and soul? I focused my mind on how great dinner in Kathmandu will be, along with a shower and clean clothes. I wonder what the city looks like? Is it as devastating as we keep hearing? Should I stay and help? Just focus on the mountains.
Difficult doesn’t even begin to describe the trek out from Everest basecamp, not because it was physically demanding, but because my spirit was broken. My mind screamed, GET ME OUT OF HERE! Every cell in my body wanted to escape the devastation all around me, but another part of me, my essence, wanted to stay. I had come to Nepal with a goal to conquer a mountain and achieve a lifelong dream. With the mountain unattainable I turned my eyes to a nation in ruins. The Nepalese people shared their country, culture, and their beloved mountains with me and more importantly they supported my dream. It was time to reciprocate the love and support they had shown me. It was time to get to work.
“Family: A group experience of love and support.” – Marianne Williamson
Knowing there was no electricity or clean water in Kathmandu, we were in no rush to hurry up and wait. Staying out of the way was the best thing we could have done. Our two-week trek out of the Khumbu Valley and back to Kathmandu began, and we did our best to keep morale high. Laughter and smiles eventually seized everyone like a pandemic, but the reality would return swiftly and painfully, hit like a line drive to the face, as we passed through village after village and saw the destruction from the earthquake. Buildings were collapsing. Stones that were as old as the earth had crumbled and lay array, roofs had caved in and walls had gaping holes.
I didn’t need an alarm clock that morning-Everest basecamp was humming early. Everyone was anxious to hit the road. Unlike my usual self, I hadn’t packed yet because I wasn’t ready. Packing for my return home was meant to be four weeks away. Knowing that if I waited until the morning and was forced to rush through the process I wouldn’t have time to feel the full weight of what was happening. Where do I even begin?
The inside of my tent looked as though a bomb had detonated inside of it. While I was stuck up at Camp 2, the area in which my teams’ tents lay at basecamp became a new helicopter pad for the rescues that would ensue. Due to the high winds from the helicopters, my tent was intentionally flattened and my once neat and organized home was a disaster. I didn’t care. They could have given every single item I had in that tent away to help someone else and I wouldn’t have thought twice about it. It might have been easier that way, then I wouldn’t have to put each piece of my life away into two bags and relive the effects of the last few days.
April 28, 2015: It’s over. I knew this was coming but the words pained me like a searing burn. It’s bittersweet. I’m happy to be alive, happy to be heading home to my family and friends, but devastated. It’s really over. I’m going home.
“Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened!” – Dr. Seuss
After our entire expedition team heard the news and everyone broke from our meeting, I decided I needed a walk. I grabbed my camera, two of my teammates, and took off. I needed to see what a 7.8 earthquake had done to my home away from home. We walked quietly up the valley, taking it all in. Over the first hill and I laid my eyes on the prepared remains of those lost, to be sent home to their families. My throat dry and adrenaline pumping, my spirit was breaking. They were supposed to be safe at basecamp. My core ached for their families. The eerie sensation of walking through a cemetery over-came my body and soul.
I have been overwhelmed with the feeling of being cheated out of a dream. I was cheated of the dream I worked so hard to achieve and the dream I chased down when everyone said I couldn’t do it. I was climbing Mt. Everest. I could taste the summit but then the world started shaking (literally) and in the course of a few minutes my dream slipped through my hands.
“Through humor, you can soften some of the worst blows that life delivers. And once you find laughter, no matter how painful your situation might be, you can survive it.” -Unknown
April 25, 2015 at 12pm the glacier beneath my tent rumbled, violently shaking. I could hear avalanches kicking off all around us. I should have been scared standing in the snow barefoot in my long johns, but with no visual and being unaware of my surroundings from the falling snow and low clouds, I started laughing. Which avalanche would hit us first? The ground stopped shaking but the thunder of avalanches grew loader.
There are certain events in our lives that change us. Events that you can never erase from your memory. Events that make you a different person. I’ll never forget the first time I road a bike without training wheels (I smashed my face in…ouch!), or when I lost my grandparents, or when I walked across the stage to receive my undergraduate degree, or when I moved to another country. These events changed me. They molded me into a different sister, daughter, friend, co-worker, and woman. It was clear to me, that there was something to be learned from these life-altering events.
There is one event in my life, that until now, I struggled to see what the Universe’s purpose was in throwing it my way. I broke my arm. That sounds silly yes, but I really really broke my arm.