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Emily Harrington’s Everest Lessons

Posted on: July 31st, 2012 by Abbey Smith

The team at Camp 2 during our summit bid.  Photo Courtesy Emily Harrington.

The team at Camp 2 during our summit bid.  Photo Courtesy Emily Harrington.

Mount Everest isn’t supposed to be a difficult mountain to climb. “Climbing” is often not even used to describe the act of reaching the summit of the world’s tallest peak. “It’s just walking. It’s not hard.” was something I’d often heard through the years. Growing up in the climbing community gave me a unique and opinionated perspective toward a place I’d never even visited or bothered to learn about. When non-climbers asked me if I ever dreamed of climbing Everest, I would snidely reply “Um, no. That’s not the kind of climbing I do.”

Well, I’m now eating my own arrogant words. I went to Everest this year on a trip with The North Face. Conrad Anker asked me to be a part of the team, handed me the opportunity of a lifetime, and I took it. I had little knowledge of the alpine climbing world and zero experience in high altitude mountaineering. I had a very skewed view of the uniqueness of Everest itself and the intense polarizing effect it had on the community I was a part of.

Angkaji carrying a massive load down from the South Col. Age 34, father of six. He was one of our strongest Sherpas. Photo Courtesy Emily Harrington.

Everest is a controversial place full of both real-life danger and ego-crushing criticism. It’s the most personal struggle I’ve ever had to undergo during a consecutive period of time. I’ve never been as sick as I was when I first arrived at basecamp with a respiratory infection. I’ve never fought so much physically to keep pushing, taking steps, and enduring the exhaustion, extreme heat and bitter cold. I walked by dead bodies, human souls who’d lived just four days prior, and left this world in pursuit of the same goal I was trying to achieve. I was afraid a lot of the time. Never before have I faced such a truer reality; that my own life could be taken away from me by circumstances out of my control, and the unsettling knowledge that it was my choice to be there, but for what? I fought intensely with my own mind on a daily basis, to justify this mission to myself, despite the danger, death, and even the harsh criticism I was receiving for even setting foot on the mountain in the first place with no previous high altitude mountain experience. 

There are some very glaring negative environmental and social impacts of climbing Everest and the commercialism of it all. These facts have already been broadcasted on the Internet and ranted about in forums. People who have never even set eyes on the Khumbu Valley know these things. But there are other aspects that are often overlooked or ignored, overshadowed by the negative ones. My own personal journey on Everest was full of negativity and struggle, but also triumph and success; and I arrived home a different person than when I left. I saw another side to the place that so many criticize and condemn, and what I remember most is the beauty and passion that exists there in so many forms.

The perfect, windless sunset from Camp 3. Photo Courtesy Emily Harrington.

The perfect, windless sunset from Camp 3. Photo Courtesy Emily Harrington.

I remember listening to avalanches all day and night from my tent at basecamp, watching their uncontrollable power and violent strength and feeling simultaneously afraid of and fascinated by the beauty of the noise and energy they emit. Then there was my first trip through the icefall at 3 a.m., and the acute fear that made my stomach plummet and brought tears to my eyes at the very real danger of it all. I remember the intense heat of the Western Cwm, watching the snow melt and evaporate into steam in a matter of seconds after I put it down my shirt in an effort to cool my boiling blood. I remember listening to the wind barrel down off of the summit of Everest from Camp 2, like a freight train with no breaks. It would reach my tent moments later and suddenly I’m in the middle of a hurricane, the nylon ripping and floor trying to lift my helpless body off the ground. I remember the first night we slept at Camp 3, the unusually calm evening that welcomed us after so many torturously windy ones, and the glorious sunset I watched that night that made me feel like the luckiest person on earth. I remember summiting early in the morning on May 25in the nuking wind and -50 degree temperatures and trying to consciously be aware and appreciative of where I was and what I had done, but realizing that reaching the summit had the smallest fraction of significance to me in the grand scheme of what I had seen and felt on this journey, and how I had changed as a person.

Emily's four stages of suffering, left to right (Basecamp, Camp 2, Camp 3, Camp 4). Photo Courtesy Emily Harrington.

Emily’s four stages of suffering, left to right (Basecamp, Camp 2, Camp 3, Camp 4). Photo Courtesy Emily Harrington.

I remember the mind-blowing strength and kindness of the Sherpa people, and how they always managed to be in good humor despite the massive amount of effort their jobs required. I remember the relentless respect and love I felt for both our Sherpa team and for my Western teammates. They all became my family, and individuals whom I will never forget and always be bonded with.

I also remember the bizarre community at basecamp, like a small town with all the same drama and gossip, but also full of real people, with jobs and families and purpose. Passionate people with positive intentions who were there simply to fulfill a dream and to experience the enormity of the mountains. Like them, I too felt the allure of being in a place so much more vast and powerful than we can comprehend. It is overwhelmingly humbling and puts us in our respective places as human beings. Maybe that’s why people go there in droves, in addition to the tangible goal of reaching the top of the world, they’re searching to experience a place that’s so much greater than themselves, to struggle and suffer and fight and discover who they are, much like I did. 

I remember all of those things, I am immensely grateful for them, and I will never forget them. 

— AAC Member Emily Harrington