Russell Banks climbs the Himalayas.
Credit: Photograph by Andrew Cutraro

The stomach-churning flight from Kathmandu deep into the eastern Himalaya dropped suddenly between terraced green ridges outside Lukla. Minutes later, the DHC-6 Twin Otter skidded to a stop at the Tenzing-Hillary Airport, a landing strip the size of a football field with a steep, rock-cluttered hill at one end zone and a 1,000-foot drop-off at the other. We quickly gathered our packs and gear and hit the trail north, headed toward the distant, snow-covered peaks.

Though not exactly a walk in the park, the first two days from Lukla were easy – a gradual, 2,000-foot ascent followed by two nights and a day at 11,300 feet in a bare-bones hostel in the crossroads trading town of Namche Bazaar, where we studied our maps and acclimatized slowly to altitude. In our free time we climbed nearby summits, growing new oxygen-heavy red blood cells by climbing higher in the daytime than where we slept at night. It was cold, the nights especially, but clear, and in both moonlight and sunlight, the sky-high jagged mountains were sharply detailed, as if my bespectacled eyes had magically regained their perfect youthful sight. The ridges and peaks were igneous wedges out there, not sedimented ledges, and I could almost see the tectonic plates moving, the Indo-Australian Plate plunging under the Eurasian, driving the mountains up into the sky.

It's said that if the mountains are high enough, you're likely to meet your feared true self up there, the self that evades you down below. It's probably one of the several reasons why we climb mountains. And indeed, I came face to face with my doppelgänger, my nemesis, in the Himalaya. But not in the thin air of a snow-covered summit. I met him early, on one of the lower slopes, a day out of Namche Bazaar, barely halfway to Renjo-la, the first of the three high passes of the Sagarmatha National Park. I must have been looking for him even before I arrived in Nepal. Maybe as far back as a year ago, when I signed on for this three-week trek and then talked two friends into joining me.

Besides our Sherpa guide, Dambar, and his assistant guide, Gaushal, and two porters, Yam and Prem, who seemed to have been named by Samuel Beckett, there were three of us: Gregorio Franchetti, a 24-year-old film student; Tom Healy, a 50-year-old poet; and me, the 72-year-old scribbler who'd instigated this trek. Like son, father, and grandfather, Gregorio, Tom, and I are men of three different generations, and we're close friends. We have climbed in the Adirondacks together, and two years ago we climbed Kilimanjaro more or less to commemorate my 70th birthday. This, however, was a climb at a whole different level of physical and mental difficulty and risk. And I was two years older. For men the age of Gregorio and Tom, if you're well-made to begin with, and they are, a couple years' aging usually improves you. At my age, however, in two years your body can unexpectedly maderize, like an old-vine chardonnay uncorked beyond its time. All of a sudden, gone. Undrinkable.

On the fourth day of the trek, we were ascending a narrow winding trail, making our way up a long valley gouged into the moraine by an ivory-colored river of ice melt off the Bhote Koshi Glacier. We passed packs of resigned yaks descending from Tibet top-heavy with goods, mostly Chinese knockoffs of high-end climbing gear and clothing to sell in the stalls of Namche Bazaar and Lukla to inexperienced trekkers surprised by the cold and the effects of altitude. We were headed for a high-meadow farm settlement called Thame. From there for the next three weeks we would steadily make our way deep into the Himalaya to within ten kilometers of Tibet. We would climb half a dozen mountains, all of them about 18,000 feet, including the famed Three Passes, Renjo-la, Cho-la, and Kongma-la, visit Everest Base Camp, then trek back down to Lukla, and in triumph, catch our Air Tara return flight to Kathmandu. That was the plan, anyhow. The hope.

Crossing the Dudh Kosi River on a narrow suspension bridge strung between two cliffs, I meant not to look down at the milky river crashing against rocks 500 feet below, but then suddenly remembered Thornton Wilder's scary novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, and looked down anyhow. If the swaying bridge, as in the novel, were to inexplicably give way, I wanted to see where I'd be hurled. What I saw down there was a small herd of mountain goats, the brown Himalayan tahrs, grazing on the far bank like suburban deer, six or seven females and kids and a large male with a shaggy mane watching over them. It's rare to see them in a herd, especially with the male.

An old goat, I thought. Like me.

The trail, where we left the bridge, cut sharply uphill, away from the river. Coming toward us was an elderly man, European or North American, picking his labored, careful way over rocks and roots with climbing poles. Poor guy, I thought. Definitely too old for this. Balance clearly shot, legs trembling, shrunken lungs sucking air even on the descent. Too much vascular hardening, too much lost muscle and bone mass to handle this tough a climb. There comes a point when an old man ought to stay home by the fire, I thought.

But then behind the man appeared a slim, very attractive blond woman in her early thirties. The old guy drew near and looked me squarely in the face. I looked him back and realized that I was probably the same age as he – a fellow septuagenarian. Neither of us smiled or acknowledged the other. Though we stood and stared at each other for several long seconds, neither of us wanted to see or be seen by the other. We were the same, he and I, and neither of us appreciated the fact. I knew he was hoping that I'd think the young woman was his mistress, not his granddaughter or niece, and that I'd think him an old goat, like the bearded, brown, alpha-male tahr, and not an old fool. And indeed, I did hope that the young woman was his mistress, not his granddaughter or niece. But I still wasn't sure he wasn't an old fool trying and failing to do what's done best by much younger men. Even – perhaps especially – as regarded the young woman coming along behind him.

For the first time, I saw the problem. Barely four days into the trek and at a relatively low altitude, I'd met my feared, true self: a man who could as easily be an old fool as an old goat. But wasn't that one of the reasons, maybe the main reason, why I'd decided to make this trek in the first place, to figure out which of the two I really am? I hadn't considered it back then. I was just working my way down my bucket list, which was growing shorter by the year. Not because I was checking things off the list, so much as I was running out of time – the lion-in-winter syndrome. Climbing in the Himalaya had been on my list for a decade. But at 72, I could remember 62 like it was yesterday. Which made 82 look a lot like tomorrow. And, friend, no matter how you cut it, 82 is elderly. It's not the new 62. It's not the new anything. I'd reached the age where it was pretty certain that if I didn't go to the Himalaya now, I'd never get there.