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

In the Sixties, Kathmandu was the first stop out of San Francisco on the Hippie Trail, and a lot of my friends had passed through the city back then. I'd missed it in my own youthful wanderings. So while waiting for Tom to come in from Indonesia, we hit the chaotic, congested streets of the district called Thamel and pushed through crowds of panhandling European and American dreadlocked kids with clustered tattoos and piercings searching for the long-gone ghosts of Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. We visited, and Gregorio filmed, the famous Hindu temple, Pashupatinath, where we inhaled human ashes blown from the open-air cremations smoldering on platforms above the Bagmati River and watched stoned sadhus, for small change from tourists, lift rocks tied to their penises. We stopped at the round Buddhist stupa, Boudhanath, placed like a gigantic white navel at the center of the Tibetan exile community, where during a sudden rain shower we drank beers in the Tibet Kitchen rooftop cafe and agreed that the Hindu shrine and rites were medieval and obsessed with death and rebirth, while the Buddhist shrine and rites, where pilgrims of all ages happily circumambulated the temple even in the rain, were good-natured, almost clownish, an Asian parallel to preclassical Greece, more life-affirming than the Hindu, we decided. Another good reason to climb high mountains: It gets you out of the house. We weren't just trekkers, mountain climbers. We were travelers, too.

That afternoon, Tom arrived, and later we met for a briefing with Samden Sherpa, who with his energetic mother, Yankila Sherpa, runs Snow Leopard Trek, the outfitter we'd hired for the trip. Back in the early 1970s, before the era of "adventure tourism" hit the Himalaya region, the American writer Peter Matthiessen came to Nepal to search for the elusive, endangered, near-mythical snow leopard, a quest that became, as these things often do, a search for his own soul. With the help of Yankila's late husband, Tendi, Matthiessen pulled together a group of local guides and porters and trekked all over northwestern Nepal. After Matthiessen returned to the States to write his prize-winning book, 'The Snow Leopard,' Yankila reformulated the group as one of the first outfitters in the country and named it after the book.

Samden Sherpa also brought to the meeting Dambar Magar, the man who would guide us into the Himalaya, and a second guide, Gaushal Magar, Nepalese cousins, both broad-faced, short, stocky men in their late thirties. Dambar spoke excellent colloquial English, obviously a man with a gift and affection for language. Gaushal, who seemed not to speak any English at all, smiled benignly throughout the meeting. Dambar had a brightly lit, charismatic flair and intensity that seemed consciously designed to attract and hold our attention. He talked rather steadily throughout the meeting and listened not at all. Evidently narcissism is not culturally specific, I thought, and wondered if in the upcoming weeks we'd be able to meet his need for attention.

Now, five days later, as we decamped from the high meadow settlement of Thame and headed up the Bhote Koshi Valley to a lodge at Lungden, my question was being answered. Since landing at Lukla, Dambar had been bugging us endlessly with jokes and song-and-dance routines. He was a knowledgeable guide, experienced and more than merely competent. But his need to entertain everyone in hearing range was starting to irritate us. Perhaps me especially, the Old Goat. At times it was like climbing with Robin Williams or Liza Minnelli. Or both.

The plan was to acclimatize at Lungden at 14,370 feet for a day and two nights before attempting Renjo-la, the first of the three high passes. We were many miles west of the more popular routes into the Himalaya now, so there were very few fellow trekkers and no more yak trains coming across from Tibet or down from Everest Base Camp in the east. We were in high tundra, crossing the arid, wind-scoured zone between the tree line and the snow line, scrambling uphill across scree and waist-high boulders. I could see that if I was going to get over the upcoming passes, climb the mountains ahead, and cross the dangerously melting glaciers beyond, I'd have to focus all my attention on the task at hand. I couldn't keep nodding and smiling in approval to keep my loquacious guide happy. I decided to confront Dambar and try to explain my difficulty.

After we dropped our packs on our narrow bunks, I took Dambar aside and said, "Look," I told him, "I'm an old man, and this is hard for me. To do it successfully, I need to concentrate. To concentrate, I need you to be quiet."

Dambar misread me, however. He said he was confident that I could complete the climb successfully. And not to worry about being such an old man, he said. Plenty of old men who were even older men than I had completed this same trek with total success.

I doubted that, having been reliably informed by a friend back home that, regardless of age, most of the trekkers who sign on for the Three Passes route don't complete it. She herself is a mountaineer and guide who had recently returned from the Annapurna region and knew whereof she spoke. "Just pay close attention to your body," she advised me. "No matter how fit you are, don't go all macho and push it till you collapse or fall. That's how these mountains kill people."

The cut-stone lodge at Lungden was rough and cold. The common toilet was an overflowing latrine, and the entire building stank of it. There was only one other climber at the lodge with us, an enormous, middle-aged Australian who called himself Rocket. He liked to drive fast, he explained. "Like a fookin' rocket!" Traveling alone without guide or porter, he'd been at the lodge in Thame the night before and limped into Lungden a few hours behind us, a delightfully eccentric man who told us he was a ladies' hairdresser in Perth. He had a substantial belly, spindly legs, claimed to smoke six cigarettes a day, and carried several, maybe many, pints of whiskey in his huge backpack, from which he now and then pulled out one to sip from as he climbed. This was the fourth time he'd gone trekking in the Himalaya, he said. "Me wife says I'm a loner, and I s'pose I am."

Something about him reminded us of Elton John, his affable, unflappable weirdness, maybe, so we called him Rocket Man, which he liked, and he soon began referring to himself as Rocket Man. His knees were in pain, and he wasn't sure he could make it over the passes and on to Everest Base Camp, but unlike the climbers we'd met so far, all of whom were intent on summiting, as if cutting notches in their belts, Rocket Man, with an equanimity I envied but couldn't match, didn't seem to care. "Nah, if it gets too fookin' tough, I'll just head back to Namche Bazaar."

He was going straight up Renjo-la the next morning without taking the extra day and night of acclimatization, which seemed at the time like a good idea. None of us liked the lodge at Lungden – it was filthy, dark, and cold – so we proposed to Dambar that we skip the extra day like Rocket Man and go up Renjo-la and on to Gokyo Camp tomorrow instead.

Dambar said he was concerned that without more acclimatization and rest it would be too tough for me. I assured him that I was feeling strong and so far the altitude hadn't bothered me at all. It seemed clear that, despite what he'd said earlier, Dambar was indeed concerned about my age. But in the end, we prevailed, and Dambar agreed to depart the next morning at 5:30. It would be a long day, he said, and then broke into a Bollywood song cycle and danced away.

Later, after a supper of dal bhat and momos, Tom, Gregorio, and I in hats, parkas, and gloves huddled in the common room as close to the fire as possible. With each stop, the meals had gotten more and more fundamental, with fewer and fewer fresh components. Between the tree line and the snow line is the protein line, above which no meat other than nearly inedible reconstituted dried yak steak is available. Otherwise it was mostly combinations of rice, noodles, cabbage, turnips, and carrots, and the steamed dumplings called momos. The lodges are called teahouses (probably because when you arrive they serve hot tea from a Thermos), but now that we were at the very end of the inhabited world, they weren't much more than minimalist barracks. No electricity, no running water, no heat, except in the common room from a metal stove for burning yak chips. Beds were a thin slice of foam rubber on a piece of plywood. Toilets were a shared hole in the ground, or floor, at the end of the hall. Forget washing.

Tom, who at 50 could imagine being 60, but not 70, asked me what was the difference between how I felt about my body 10 years ago, when I was in my early sixties, and now. Tough question. Especially since I was in better shape now than I was back then. I said the main difference was fear – fear of being in denial as to my inescapably diminished powers. Which could result in overconfidence and absurd and embarrassing moments of public exposure of weakness and vanity: an old fool.

Back in November, when I had the self-confidence, the chutzpah, to sell Tom and Gregorio on the idea of making this trek, it was on the assumption that I myself could successfully climb these passes and mountains. But if I couldn't actually do it, I'd be exposed as an old fool. And there's nothing worse than being an old fool. Climbing Renjo-la tomorrow would be a crucial, self-defining test for me. And unless I passed it, my pride and our friendship, among other things, would be impaired. We three might travel together again, but we'd probably not go climbing together again.

We headed out the next morning in darkness and cold, guided by headlamps, locked inside our individual thoughts. It wasn't long before the sun cracked the horizon and revealed Renjo-la above, a V-shaped notch in a jagged line of three snow-covered, 20,000-foot peaks, Kyajo Ri, Pharilapche, and Henjo-la. I chugged steadily onward and upward at my chosen slow pace, while Gregorio lugged his camera and tripod ahead and set up to film us as we ascended toward him; then, when we passed by, moved ahead again and set up at a further, higher point. Tom seemed to withdraw inside himself and climbed in front of me a ways, more or less alone. Our porters, Yam and Prem, carrying two duffels each, had left the lodge at Lungden even earlier than we had and were now well out of sight. Gaushal stuck close to Gregorio and helped carry his film equipment. Dambar stayed by me. I couldn't tell if it was because he thought of me as the old goat, the alpha male and leader of our group, or the pathetic old man who could screw up the entire climb if he fell and broke his leg or back and had to be helicoptered out. He might well not make it over the pass at all – too weak, too old – and have to go down to Lungden by nightfall and return to Namche Bazaar the next day and wait alone for 15 or 16 days while the others completed the trek without him.

Dambar continued to natter incessantly on, until again I asked him, somewhat grumpily, to be silent so I could concentrate. He got it this time. He said, "Sorry, sorry, sorry!" and put on a silent sulk, as if to punish me for having hurt his feelings – suggesting that passive aggression is also no more culturally specific than narcissism.

By mid-morning Rocket Man was far behind and way below us, a slow-moving ant in the distance. I avoided looking ahead of me and up – it discouraged and depressed me to see how far and high the pass was and how far ahead of me Tom and Gregorio were. After six hours of climbing, my lungs were burning, and my thigh muscles were threatening to go into spasm. Also, I was woozy – my brain was oxygen-deprived from the altitude – and the switchbacking trail crossed treacherous, icy slabs of shale and slag. The temperature was dropping fast now, and a sharp wind shaved the rubbled face of the mountain. Patches of ice and snow crumbled underfoot. The slabs of shale and slag had given way to large, slippery, bronze-colored boulders. To keep from falling, I fastened my gaze to my feet and ignored whatever might be above and ahead of me and how far up the mountain I had yet to climb. Head lowered, wrapped in profound solitude, as alone as a human being can be, I kept climbing. My world was my body, and my body was suffering. Hour after hour, short step by short step, then a hitch up and over one suitcase-size boulder onto another, where I grabbed a diluted catch of breath, lungs rasping, blood pounding in my ears like a locomotive piston at full bore, and then there's another boulder to negotiate, my steps slowing and getting shorter, and between each step a deep inhalation, a gasp for air nearly emptied of oxygen, until it seemed I was closer to suffocating than to breathing and was barely moving at all.

So that I was almost startled by my sudden arrival at the pass. Strings of brightly colored prayer flags snapped, crackled, and popped in the freezing wind. Gregorio was filming, Tom was resting off to one side, and Gaushal, Yam, and Prem were grinning and waving, happy to see the old man reach the pass, while Dambar, his sulk now dissolved, celebrated with dance and uninhibited song, and this time I didn't mind it at all.

In fact, I barely heard or saw him there. I stood with my back to the way I had come and looked out from the high, wind-pummeled pass. Before me, the cloudless blue sky opened above a vast snowfield and the Machhermo Glacier. Three thousand feet below, a north-running chain of turquoise lakes led to a broad, fawn-colored valley, and beyond the valley the Ngozumpa Glacier sprawled from north to south for 50 miles. At the far horizon, carving out great chunks of sky, four of the 10 highest mountains on the planet loomed, Lhotse, Makalu, Cho Oyu, and the highest of them all, dark and glowering, the only peak covered in clouds, Sagarmatha: Mount Everest.

It was as if I had emerged from a fallen world far behind and below me and entered another, purer world from above, from the sky. One climbs a mountain, not to conquer it, but to be lifted like this away from the earth up into the sky. This is what the ancient Buddhists and Incas knew, perhaps what all ancient peoples knew. Climbing a mountain is how one clutches the sky and enters it with one's body still intact, still connected to the earth, flying through the air with one's feet on the ground and one's head and hands in the sky. It's a way of practicing, not for dying, but for death itself – a way to greet the gods on their own terms.

I had climbed to 17,677 feet and had crossed over Renjo-la, the first of the three high passes and the first real test of our trek. Feeling no ill effects of altitude, I was confident now that – barring an accidental slip and fall, which of course could happen anywhere along the way, and if it did, would not make me an old fool – I would complete the rest of the trek. My spirits were high, I was even a little giddy, and for the first time found Dambar's comic routines entertaining, as we traversed the snowfield and rounded the gray, till-filled skirt of Ngozumpa Glacier and stopped for a moment before beginning our descent to Gokyo, a clutch of low, cut-stone trekker huts and lodges beside the distant lake.

It might get harder and higher over the next 16 days, but I knew now that as we ascended and descended those upcoming passes and peaks, I was going to be made stronger by it, not weaker. I knew that I would make it successfully to the end. Standing here at the eastern edge of Renjo-la Pass with the wind off the high Himalaya in my face and a broad glacial valley sprawling thousands of feet below, I was no longer the anxious, perplexed man who wasn't sure if he was an old goat or an old fool, and it made me capable of finding poor needy Dambar's quirky narcissism amusing and culturally interesting. I was able to accept him simply for who he was.