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

To pull it off successfully, I'd have to lift my level of fitness higher than it had been since my thirties. I'm not healthy because I exercise regularly; I exercise regularly because, thanks to my gene pool, I happen to be healthy. For years I've worked out mainly to counter the effects of sarcopenia, the one percent per annum of muscle mass that our bodies begin to devour as we age, even while we sleep. Back in November, six months before the Himalaya spring-climbing season, I swapped that old, easygoing, three-days-a-week, maintenance-level routine for a more strenuous daily training regimen, alternating aerobic and weightlifting workouts in the gym with long, thigh-punishing bike rides. I took my body, like an old Volvo, its warranty long since expired, to the shop for a thorough drive-train check and tune – blood work, EKG, echocardiogram, even a colonoscopy – and got prescriptions filled for Cipro (against dysentery) and Diamox (against altitude sickness). Also Viagra – the doctor explained that originally Viagra was developed to deal with angina and other cardiovascular issues and can relieve altitude sickness. In an emergency, he said, if the Diamox is too slow to act, pop a couple of Viagra and quickly descend. (So Viagra's a multipurpose drug, I thought. Good to know.)

By April, my weight was down from 215 to 190, and I was feeling stronger than any time in the past 20 or 25 years. Yet one never knows, as I'd learned in the Andes and on Kilimanjaro, until one is actually on the mountain. My two climbing pals, Gregorio and Tom, had signed up early in the year. Gregorio, who planned to make a film of the trek, said he had cut back on his smoking and was doing some jogging and yoga. Tom, in his role as chair of the Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board, had spent the year traveling and worried that he'd laid on a few extra pounds at embassy dinners. I wasn't concerned about their fitness level, however. Only my own. Two years earlier, climbing Kilimanjaro for the third time, I'd discovered that in the five years since my previous ascent my sense of balance had gone into serious decline, and though I was still plenty strong enough for the climb, I was working much harder at it than Tom and Gregorio, taking great care not to fall – like that old guy with his poles – while my pals hopped from rock to rock like teenagers. I'd worked since then on recovering my sense of balance by means of a specified set of exercises, but worried about what new physical, neurological, or psychological diminishment I'd discover trying to climb in the Himalaya.

Tom, who was in Indonesia on a Fulbright mission, planned to meet us in Kathmandu. Gregorio and I convened in New York to complete our packing and fly out of Newark together. Gregorio was already filming. Making a visual record. It would be hard to lie about this one, I thought, even in print. On my way to a meeting with my publisher, I popped into a Barnes & Noble to pick up a long novel to carry to the mountains in my backpack and chose, for its combined portability and length, a pocketbook edition of 'Great Expectations'. I'd somehow managed to reach the edge of old age without having read what was, to judge by the cover, John Irving's favorite novel. Another, if minor, item on the bucket list to check off.

A little later, I was in my editor's corner office with him and his boss, both men of a certain age – which is to say, baby boomers, men not quite my age yet, but close – and we ended up talking about how all our male near-contemporaries, ourselves excepted, of course, were suddenly getting old. We mentioned mutual friends' hip and knee replacements, prostate cancers, stents, retirement parties. I observed that nowadays when we wake up in the morning the only thing that's stiff is our back and heard nervous laughter of recognition.

Gregorio, struggling with tripod, camera, mic, lights, batteries, cables, and laptop, in addition to backpack and duffel stuffed with clothing and climbing gear, filmed our taxi ride to Newark Airport. It was amusing and endearing to watch him, a young man obsessed with his self-selected, open-ended task, working alone without financing or a contract – the sort of task, as an aging professional writer, I no longer seemed capable of taking on. He filmed our departure on United's 15-hour flight to Delhi, filmed our overnight wait in Indira Gandhi International Airport for the connecting flight to Kathmandu, and filmed our bleary-eyed arrival early the next morning, when we checked into the Dwarika's Hotel.