On the First Anniversary of the Everest Earthquake

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Mount Everest Nepal

Mount Everest. Photo: Chris Brown/Flickr; CC BY-SA 2.0

During the afternoon of April 25, 2015, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck Nepal and surrounding areas, triggering an avalanche that crashed into Mount Everest Base Camp. At least twenty-two climbers were killed and sixty-one stranded. That event surpassed an avalanche the previous year as the deadliest disaster on the mountain.

My partner Edmond left California for Nepal four days ago. Soon, he’ll arrive at Chinese Base Camp in Tibet to begin ascending glaciers and camping in minus-30-degree snow and ice on an expedition to climb the North Col of Sagarmatha (its Sanskrit/Nepali name), also known as Chomolunga (its Tibetan name), or—as we like to call it in the West—Mount Everest.

This has been his dream for decades, an aspiration he postponed some years back when his daughter was diagnosed with breast cancer. He is a seasoned mountaineer and former guide on Rainier. He knows what he’s doing. But he’s no longer in his climbing prime and, if he wants to do this, is running out of time.

Before he left on this month-long journey, his climbing partner’s business associate let me know he’d arranged extra insurance on the guys. One policy will helicopter them out if a disaster, like last year’s earthquake, occurs. The second policy, he told me, will repatriate their remains if they die.

More than 250 people have perished trying to summit Everest, many whose bodies were left where they fell. Repatriation is great, but who’s going to retrieve those remains? And more importantly, who’s going to insure my heart?

I have to go forward on faith. And believe that the dream of his lifetime won’t become the nightmare of mine.

When we first started dating, Edmond admired my adventurous spirit, my cross-country motorcycling, and that I’d recently taken off to live in French Polynesia for three months. The guy I’d been dating at that time had broken things off with me before I left. He didn’t want to be the one left behind. Edmond had a similar story of a woman he’d been seeing years earlier who’d left him when he embarked on one of his epic climbs. She hated that he was choosing the mountain over her.

Now, thinking of Edmond on Everest, I’m reminded of a cheesy quote from the 70s: If you love something, let it go. If it comes back to you, it’s yours forever. If it doesn’t, then it was never meant to be.

Today, I completely disagree. Nothing is ours forever, certainly not another person. Still, I loved that quote when I was younger for the solace it offered, everything so cut and dried. You either get to possess a person eternally (and be possessed by them), or all bets are off. Black and white. When my first boyfriend broke up with me, I knew the truth. “We” weren’t supposed to be. Simple.

A few decades have passed and I now know it’s not that easy.

As a younger woman, I married and raised three children with a man I deeply loved. The years passed; he grew in one direction, I in another. As the crevasse between us yawed, I felt betrayed, as if he was more invested in me being the person who made him feel secure, than in me being the person I genuinely was. When I said I was leaving, his anger was volcanic. Had I become the possession he believed he was owed? Had he paid the premiums on a policy that promised him a wife? If so, I was canceling that policy.

Perhaps it’s a uniquely American concept to think we can make life safe. We insure against car accidents, health problems, home robberies, disability, natural disasters, travel mishaps, pet illness -- even policies for the repatriation of remains.

There’s no question that life is a gamble. And yes, Edmond may be pushing the odds more than most. But not taking risks is no guarantee, either.

I just read When Breath Becomes Air, a stunning memoir by Paul Kalanithi, a 37-year-old acclaimed Stanford neurosurgeon, about his life and battle with stage-IV metastatic lung cancer. The book was published posthumously, edited and shepherded by his wife, Lucy, who was left to raise the child they conceived knowing Paul would die.

When he was dying, Paul wanted to write the book. Lucy knew his desire was central to who he was, and though writing it came at a great price in terms of his limited time and energy, she did all in her power to help his desire come to fruition.

That’s what a real relationship looks like, I believe. Loving a person in such a deep way that we allow them to be exactly who they are, to help them achieve their goals, even when those goals pull them away from us. To do anything less is antithetical to love. It’s not fair to ask the other to abandon the qualities we fell in love in the first place in order to swathe ourselves in false security.

Being on Everest is central to who Edmond is. He needs to feel his muscles strain against the challenge, to experience the frigid air and his beloved glaciers, to push his body in the realm of high altitude and thin air. I hope and trust he won’t die doing this, but I have no guarantees. Still, I can’t ask him to make himself small, more tame, in order to give me the assurance he’s mine forever.

Last week, I helped him organize and pack his gear—crampons, glacier ice axe, mounds and mounds of down clothing. When he packed tiny bottles of Tabasco sauce, I was surprised. I’d never seen him use it on food. Turns out the capsaicin in Tabasco (that ingredient in chili peppers that makes one flush and turn pink when eaten) will be used to rush blood to capillaries in his extremities when it's super cold on the mountain. He'll just drink one of those little puppies to get the blood flowing.

And I’m not supposed to worry.

Tonight, the final email arrived: he’ll be out of touch as of tomorrow when he crosses the border into Tibet and makes his way toward his goal. I may not hear from him for three weeks.

In the meantime, he hikes on. And I hold his well-being and sweet nature in my heart, counting the days until he returns. Because I know that, like all relationships in this fragile, fallible world, the day is coming when he won’t.    

Bernadette Murphy is the author of, Harley and Me: Embracing Risk on the Road to a More Authentic Life, to be published in May. She has published three previous books of narrative nonfiction including the bestselling Zen and the Art of Knitting, is an Associate Professor in the Creative Writing Department of Antioch University Los Angeles, and a former weekly book critic for the Los Angeles Times. Her website is Bernadette-Murphy.com. Edmond’s climb can be followed at this blog: JohnEdmondsEverestAdventure.com