BY ERIK R. TRINIDAD
“YOU ARE MY BROTHER!” exclaimed Tilak, my Nepali guide through the Himalayan countryside, on our trek along the trail to Mount Everest. His proclamation was a double entendre; for one, since I was a Filipino-American with brown skin and a vague ethnic look, I was able to blend in as a local Nepali, and I did, in fact, look like I could be his brother. Also, we had formed a fraternal bond ever since he stuck his finger in my ear to dislodge a piece of sound-blocking cotton used on the prop plane that took us into the mountainsif that’s not brotherly love, I don’t know what is. Many of Tilak’s fellow countrymen believed that I was indeed his siblingone accompanying him to the tallest mountain in the worldbut no one would have foreseen that we wouldn’t be trekking back down.
Everest. The mere name has always been synonymous with adventure, agony, glory, and death even before Sir Edmund Hillary and his Sherpa Tenzing Norgay became the first men to reach the summit in 1953. Several climbers have since lived to walk away from the peak, immortalizing them in Everest lore foreveralthough many more have tried and haven’t been so fortunate. I was not at the caliber of these intrepid mountaineers during my trek in October of 2004; I was only journeying on the “classic trek to Everest Base Camp” at a mere 17,503 ft. ASL, but it was still quite a feat for me, an average Joe, to strive forand all for my thirtieth birthday. Accompanying me on this milestone event was Tilak, my own personal Tenzing Norgay assigned to me by the Himalayan Glacier trekking agency in Kathmandu. He was a friendly young Nepali family man, with coffee-colored skin, soft facial features, and a welcoming and encouraging smile honed from six years of guiding experience.
“We will make it!” Tilak assured me before our trek began.
The journey on foot began after a turbulent but short flight to the mountain village of Lukla, where we followed the gradually ascending trail along the Dudh Kosi River. The path brought us over rickety suspension bridges and through small hamlets, where we’d see curious Sherpa children peering out of wooden houses, and hear the bells of yaks treading cargo along narrow mountain passes. The majestic green foliage engulfed us, draping the rising mounds of the sunny Himalayan countryside.
Every evening we arrived at a teahouse, which not only provided food, drink, and shelter, but the perfect opportunity to bond with my new Nepali brother over a multitude of topics. “I like Undertaker!” Tilak raved to me like an adolescent boy ecstatic about the American wrestler from the internationally-known World Wrestling Entertainment federation. But his outside interests weren’t completely jejune; he also had a liking for computers and was even taking web design courses in hopes of a higher-paying job to support his family.
“Oh, I know HTML,” I said, revealing my life as a web designer in New York, much to his surprise. His eyes grew and his ears absorbed my words with great enthusiasm, like a youngster being told a bedtime story. I was happy to teach him a thing or twoas much as I could without a computer anywayunder the dim lights of the teahouse lanterns high in the Himalayas.
The mountain landscape grew grander each day as we ascended to higher ground. As the days passed, names of villages were gradually crossed off our itinerary list: Lukla, Namche Bazar, Tengboche, Pheriche, Loboche. Buddhist prayer flags waved in the air while auspicious stupas towered towards the heavens. Reaching higher were the famed snowcapped peaks of the region that gradually emerged from the landscape: Khumbi, Ama Dablam, Nuptse, Lhotseand even Everest itself at some breathtaking vantage points. But with our gradual progression came my increasing sluggishness as the oxygen levels decreased in the higher altitudes. Fortunately my brother Tilak always kept my spirits up with his brotherly kinship. “This is my brother!” he’d introduced me to his fellow guides, who had no trouble believing him given our similar look. We trekked the Everest Trail for seven days until we arrived at Gorak Shep, the last village before Everest Base Camp, where we checked into a teahouse for the night. “Are you guiding a Nepali?” the confused clerk asked Tilak. I smiled and interjected. “We look like brothers, don’t we?” The two of us settled into the teahouse, unaware that it would be the last one on the trail in which we would spend a night.
* * * *
“HOW ARE YOU DOING? Are you okay?” Tilak asked me as we departed Gorak Shep to head up to the base of Everest on the afternoon of my thirtieth birthday.
“Slight headache, same as yesterday, but it’ll go away if I drink water,” I told him, hoping it was just a little dehydration. It probably wasn’t smart of me to opt out on the recommended extra day of acclimatizationalthough doing the trek in seven days instead of the usual eight wasn’t uncommon amongst the other trekkers I’d encountered on the way. With my birthday goal in mind, I willed my aches away. Tilak, who had developed a cough over the past few days and seemed like he was catching a cold, wasn’t exactly encouraging in pressing on so soon. But he respected my wishes anyway, as a client instead of a brother, factoring in that I wasn’t having any major symptoms of altitude sickness.
The last leg to Everest went up and down another rocky ridge and I could definitely feel the lack of oxygen. Every time I failed to take a deep breath, I immediately felt a headache or dizzy spell. However, as slow as I became, it was Tilak who had really fallen behind. The more I went ahead, the farther back he fell. “My lungs… my heart…” he said, coughing and gasping for breath. “My cough… It is hard to breathe when I cough.” He spit out a wad of yellow phlegm. “I’m sorry,” he apologized with a face begging for forgiveness. “In my six years experience, I never get sick. You go ahead, I’ll meet you back here.”
“Okay,” I told him, determined to stay the course for my one and only thirtieth birthday. Call it a case of summit fever possessing me to abandon my brother, but I became obsessed with making it to Everestwith or without him. Alone, I continued concentrating on my breathing, struggling to keep a steady pace. It was disheartening when I ran into trekkers on the way back to Gorak Shep from base campno matter how much I progressed, it was always, “One hour, maybe a bit more” away. Dizziness set in. Looking in front of me I couldn’t focus and everything around me swirled in a blur. Behind me, Tilak was nowhere to be found. Deep breaths, I thought to myself. Inhale. Exhale. Breathing had become a chore as my heart raced to keep my lungs functioning. I started to teeter on the brink of unconsciousness, ethereally as if my life-force was slipping away. I searched through my mind for memories of my life to cling to and focus on, but it was near impossible. Is this what they mean by “life flashing before your eyes?” I wondered.
I pressed on with blurry visions of my goal and miraculously, I somehow arrived at the base of the tallest mountain in the world. It was a momentous but anti-climactic moment; not only was Everest’s peak hidden from that vantage point, but I had no one to bask in my glory with. Alone, I sat on a rock and tried to catch my breath.
A few moments later, a figure appeared from around the trail bend. It was Tilak, coughing harder than before. Despite his debilitated lungs, he had managed to meet me on Everest for a special message: “Happy Birthday,” he greeted me.
It was a happy albeit exhausting birthday, and we celebrated not with cake or champagne, but by simply breathing. That evening we hiked the ridge back down to Gorak Shep together, unaware that it was the first leg of a long, arduous descent for both of us.
* * * *
“YOUR GUIDE IS VERY SICK,” one of Tilak’s fellow guides informed me as I woke up at the Gorak Shep teahouse the next morning. Tilak’s cough had gotten the best of him during the cold Himalayan night and had incapacitated him from guiding me to the finale of the classic Everest trek: the nearby peak of Kalapattar, where Everest’s summit is actually visible. Tilak’s friend and fellow guide invited me to tag along with him to Kalapattar with his client, but in my weakened condition, I was only holding them back. “Go ahead,” I told them when we were only about a third of the way up. “I’ll catch up.” But I couldn’t. Every one of my lethargic baby steps advanced me only about two inches, draining my entire body’s energy with each stride. Gravity took hold of me, and soon I was stumbling backwards with each effort to advance. My mental endurance was also crippled whenever I’d come to the top of a ridge, only to discover a higher ridge to climb right behind it. My headache was pounding like a jackhammer and my legs were on the brink of giving out. I decided it was time to call it offa decision that helped save my life.
Even with some oxygen-promoting Diamox running through my system, the only guaranteed remedy to my altitude sickness was to descend down one village to Lobouche. Rumor around Gorak Shep was that Tilak had already been taken down there to recuperate, and I was to go meet him. However, things are often easier said than done; descending down to Lobouche involved trekking up and down another undulating mountain ridge, and at the first incline, my legs already began to atrophy with the lack of oxygen in my bloodstream. A small group amassed around me, concerned about my rapidly weakening condition.
“You need a porter,” suggested a local woman who ran a nearby teahouse. Two Sherpas came to my aid, but with their shorter heights, I was just dragged along like a big marionette. Clouds started to roll in, inhibiting any thought of an airlift rescue. Thankfully, a couple of Australian and British hikers commandeered a yak and a horse for me from local farmers. The animals brought me down the rocky path until we arrived in Lobouche by dusk for my reunion with my guide, but Tilak was nowhere to be found. The villagers told me that his condition had worsened and that he had been carried down to the Himalayan Rescue Clinic in Pheriche about five miles away.
Escorted by a kind Australian hiker, I rode the horse as it trekked down another ridge under the guidance of two Sherpas. The Australian kept my spirits upas well as my consciousnessby telling jokes and stories as we trudged on. As time passed, the orange hues of the sky were replaced by the blackness of night. Slumped over the top of the horse’s back, I fought to stay awake; I knew falling asleep could be permanent at that point. Soon, a light coming from the Himalayan Rescue Clinic shone like a lighthouse beacon. The closer we got, the more in focus it became. Behind the window was my Nepali brother Tilak, passed out on a bed with an oxygen mask strapped to his face.
Two doctors rushed me into the clinic, a simple wooden cabin with plain shelves holding little more than the contents of a first aid kit. I was immediately put on an oxygen tank while the doctors ran a few tests. The result: I had come into the clinic with a blood oxygen level of 52a new record low for the clinic’s history books by two pointsand had I not been conscious I would have been pronounced dead from high cerebral and pulmonary edema.
I was given a dose of heart-stimulating steroids and was left to spend the night under the embrace of an oxygen mask. Exhausted from the perilous descent, I lay on the bed, motionless except for the labored rise and fall of my chest. On the other side of the room, Tilak was in his bed unconscious. Both of our oxygen masks were connected to the clinic’s only remaining tank of oxygen, and that night, my Nepali brother and I were brought back to life by a common lung.
* * * *
“I’M SO SAD,” Tilak said, feeling pathetic and ashamed, finally awake in his bed the next morning. “I never got sick in my six years experience.” While my condition was showing improvement, his hadn’t; with every one of his hacking coughs, his oxygen level shot down. However, he seemed less concerned about his health and more about his job security; embarrassed of what had happened, he was worried that no one would want to hire him anymoreguiding along the trails of Nepal was the only source of income to support him and his family until he got up to par with his HTML classes. Even with my improving condition, it wasn’t enough to get me passed another rocky ridge on the way back down. The doctors recommended that a rescue helicopter might be in order, and thankfully the stormy clouds in the sky had lifted.
“The heli is one thousand US dollars per hour,” Tilak informed me. “It will be over three thousands dollars.”
“Hopefully my insurance will cover it.”
He looked at me timidly, embarrassed to ask the next question: “Erik, can I come with you on the helicopter?”
“Yes, of course!”
“I have to ask you anyway. Three thousand dollars is too much for a Nepali,” he said with the forlorn face of an abused puppy. “I would just die here.”
I spared the dramatics and borrowed the clinic’s satellite phone. I called my insurance company and the trekking agency office back in Kathmandu, and ultimately a rescue helicopter from Kathmandu arrived at the clinic a few hours later. Soon Tilak and I were flying above the breathtaking Himalayan mountainside, which might have been an impressive sightseeing tour if not for the circumstances. Neither of us said anything on the way; there was just a lot of staring out the window, looking at the mountains, valleys, and villages we had encountered on the way up. High above in a pressurized cabin, we could no longer feel the ups and downs of the trail that had ultimately put us in our grim situation.
It only took about an hour and a half to fly back the walking distance of the past nine days. Soon we landed in Kathmandu where the trekking agency rushed us over to the Nepal International Clinic, a hospital in town with Western doctors catering only to foreigners like meeven if the staff did confuse me for Tilak’s Nepali relative. My condition had definitely improved at the lower elevationno fever, no wheezing, and a blood oxygen level at a much healthier 96 but Tilak’s rehabilitation would have to wait.
“Excuse me,” Tilak finally said quietly in the waiting room as I filled out some paperwork. “I need some air.”
He was gone before I could say anything.
I was whisked off to a hotel on the other side of town, where I checked into a room to recuperate for the next five days. It wasn’t hard for me to embrace the idea of electricity and a comfortable bed again. With the ordeal finally over, I sat there in the silence of the dimly lit room and took the deep breath I had wanted so badly the day before.
A few hours later, I was startled by a sudden knock on the door. Standing in the doorway was Tilak, looking exhausted and sad, but with a hint of optimism in his eyes. “Hello,” he greeted me, wheezing with every breath. He handed me a report with the results of some medical tests he had been given when he snuck off to a local Nepali clinic.
“I don’t know what this means,” I told him. “But you got medicine, right?” I figured he had bronchitis or something.
“Yes,” he answered.
There was an awkward pause. “So,” he asked. “How was my behavior?” I realized that he was worried I might give him a bad review in a guide evaluation form that would sure keep him unemployed. “It was fine,” I told him with a reassuring smile. “Don’t worry.” The two of us just stood there in the spacious room with not much else to say; we had already been through enough. There was another long, uncomfortable silence. “With your permission,” he said wheezing, finally breaking the silence. “May I go home?” “Of course! Go home! Feel better! Take your medicine.” “Okay.” He closed the door behind him and I was alone again, safe and sound away from the beautiful, but potentially fatal Himalayan mountains. Everest may have lured me in the way it had many others before me, but I was content just to have walked away from it alive. Tilak and I had lived through an experience I’d never share with my real brother, but as long as people mistook us for brothers, I guess it’s almost the same thing.