May 2018: I run a comb through my tangled mess of wet hair. After a few days of trekking in the Himalayas, I’ve treated myself to a cold shower and set of fresh clothes. I unpack and lay my belongings on a twin bed. Four years ago, I was near this very spot in Nepal as a graduate student studying community conservation models in the Annapurna Sanctuary. Now I’m an instructor and leading a cross-cultural exchange with 14 Paul Smith’s and 13 Kathmandu National College students. I lay down on the end of the bed, with my legs overhanging the side and close my eyes. It’s nice to have a moment to myself.
A basketball sounds in the courtyard. I sit up and look out the window. A group of Nepali men have gathered on the basketball court and a few of my American students join them. Hum, I want to play, but I’ve just showered. Someone shoots the ball and I hear it clunk against the backboard. Screw it. I slip on a pair of flip flops and run outside. We have enough to play three on three. The town of Ghorepani sits at 9,400 feet and my heart thumps wildly as I sprint back and forth—trying to make steals and guard the most skilled player. It’s a close game and we play until called for tea. As we make our way to the tea house, I notice the pre-monsoon sky has lightened and shafts of sunlight are breaking through. The clouds that cloak the giants to our north begin to rise. I call to the students to come outside. They stumble out of their rooms on wobbly legs and blistered feet and together we stand in anticipation.
“Is that a cloud or a mountain?” One of my students asks.
“That’s a mountain,” I say and my heart swells.
A month later, I’m back in the states and visiting my parents in Cherry Valley, NY. My father and I chat in the backyard while my terrier mix, Tahawus runs laps around my mother after being pent up for a three hour car ride. I needed a trip. I’m having trouble readjusting. When I’m half a world away, I feel extremely close to my loved and cherished ones. I write postcards and letters to my husband and grandparents. I see my mother and father in the starry night sky. I hear my sisters’ laughter in the petals of a radiant flower. I reflect upon every experience with deliberate purpose and intention. So, I fully understand why I feel disconnected upon return. Plus, it’s more of a culture shock for me to return to the United States after being in Nepal than the other way around. I love the people, culture, and geography of Nepal. There seems to be a deeper gratitude, acceptance and patience towards all forms of life. When talking to one of my Nepali friends about the earthquake of 2015, he said, “Yes, it was tragic. Though I cannot be mad at the earthquake. For it’s the earthquakes that make the Himalaya.”
I hear Americans complain about Starbuck’s discontinuing a latte flavor and I want to smack them. Hard.
“So, when’s your next trip to Nepal?” My father asks.
“Uh, hopefully 2020.” It seems too far away.
“Oh! That reminds me, Tim told me to ask you if you want to climb a mountain in South America… A-Ka-something. I forget the name.”
“Yeah, I guess it’s the highest one. He said to give him a call if you’re interested.”
My jaw drops, words don’t formulate and I laugh. Bliss zaps me—the same bliss I experienced watching the clouds lift in Ghorepani. That night, I set up my lap top with tabs open to pages about Aconcagua and flip my notebook to a blank page. Aconcagua measures in at 22,837 feet and is the highest mountain in both the southern and western hemispheres. It’s also one of the Seven Summits, being the highest mountain on the South American continent. My father works for Tim at Redpoint Builders and I get his cell number. The phone rings and my leg shakes as I wait for him to answer. His climbing resume, which includes summits of Everest, Denali, Kanchenjunga, and an attempt on Lhotse and K2 inspires and intimidates me.
“Hey Tim, it’s Bethany. I’m calling about, A,” I pause, unsure how to pronounce Aconcagua. “Ah, the climb.”
We talk for the next hour. Tim gives me an overview about the trip and climb. He goes over the dates, gear, prices, and logistics. As each minute passes, priorities are shifting in my mind with Aconcagua knocking everything down a peg. I thank him for extending this opportunity to me and look at the notebook which now has two pages of wild scribble.
Can I get the time off? Can I afford it?
I already know that I’ll find a way to make it work. PhD and job be damned, I’ll live on rice and lentils and rent our house if I have to.
This isn’t just one climb.
This is the beginning.
I can’t sleep that night.
I can’t sleep for the next month.