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

By the time we got down to the hut in Gokyo, Tom was suffering the beginnings of altitude sickness: lethargy, headache, chills. Not seriously enough yet to go to a lower altitude, but cause for concern. Gregorio seemed OK, but said he felt drugged and was thinking and moving slowly, as if underwater. I felt fine, a little leg-heavy, but otherwise ready to climb another mountain.

Rocket Man would pull in by dark, four hours after us, his bad knees about to give out, and the next morning, after his first cigarette, announced that he was through and was heading back down to Namche Bazaar. After he departed, Dambar led us on a scheduled six-hour hike from Gokyo up along the Ngozumpa Glacier to view a string of glacial lakes, and that afternoon we climbed Gokyo Ri, an 18,000-foot mountain with a 2,500-foot vertical approach from the hut. But Dambar may have been right after all, and we shouldn't have left Lungden for the first pass without the extra day and night of acclimatization. After the long walk to the lakes and climbing Gokyo Ri, Tom would become truly altitude sick, dangerously so, and would have to descend immediately to lower altitudes with Gaushal for two days and nights to reacclimatize.

He would rejoin us east of Cho-la, the second of the three passes, for the rest of the trek. We would traverse melting glaciers with 500-foot-deep sinkholes where a year ago there were hard-packed trails. We would cross Kongma-la, the highest of the three passes at 18,159 feet, and summit 18,196-foot Chhukhung Ri, the tallest of the mountains on our itinerary. We would make it to the Everest Base Camp, which was crowded and cluttered with refuse and old, used-up climbing gear, as helicopters shuttled back and forth, carrying out injured and altitude-sick climbers and as many of the bodies of the 10 climbers who died on the mountain that week as they could carry down to base camp. There were 150 climbers strung along the dark, bony shoulder of Everest the afternoon we came to visit. It would turn out to be the only depressing day of our climb.

Gregorio would make his movie, or at least shoot it so that it could be edited later in New York. Inspired by the extremity of the climb and the world that surrounded us there, Tom would draft most of a book of new poems. And I would finish reading 'Great Expectations,' but only because I had nothing else to read up there. The image of that sturdy septuagenarian with the climbing poles whom I'd come face to face with on our first day out of Namche Bazaar – the original old goat, as I now thought of him – stayed with me till the end of our climb and beyond. In the beginning, he had been my nemesis, my doppelgänger, my feared self, a man too old to be climbing in the Himalaya in the company of a much younger person, a beautiful young woman, for God's sake. Now, however, I admired that old guy and hoped I was a little bit like him. All he was doing was taking the measure of his absolute physical limitations, marking the nearness of the end of everything, getting as close to that final leap into the void as he could while still standing on the planet. He was no old fool. And if he wasn't, then I was no old fool, either.