We had been hiking for about three hours when the altitude sickness hit me. It was nothing severe — I was just a little lightheaded, so I stopped to sit on a rock near the cliffside, the terraced fields and yellow flowers of mustard plants in full view below. It was our first day in Nagarkot, at the rim of the Kathmandu Valley in Nepal.
The others in our group, apparently unfazed by the thin air, kept on pressing, their excited voices scattering across the hills. Their chatter grew faint as they veered off to ascend a winding trail. Then it was just me and the goats, one of whom was very pregnant. She lay near me, resting heavily, ignoring a fluttering butterfly above her head. The other goats were grazing on a pile of parched brush, ignoring my clacks to grab their attention. As I took a swig of water three local women emerged from a tin-roofed village house. They took seats outside the door, still shaded from the afternoon sun, and began weaving coin pouches, called “thaili”, on their laps.
I stood up and hiked on, picking up my stride. I couldn’t let the group get too far ahead. If they lost me, I knew I’d be admonished to not deviate from the schedule, to not hold anyone up. We paid good money for this trip, they would remind me, and stragglers weren’t to be tolerated. When I passed the three women I broke into a light jog. A dog suddenly bolted after me, barking wildly. “Oye yeta aija! Oye yeta aija!” one of the women called. The dog stopped and obediently returned to her, at which point I turned back to the mountainside and kept on, cussing under my breath, relieved, feeling a little dizzy again.
The party soon came into sight. Here the path was a narrow switchback, stretching us into single file. Leading this charge were two of my friends from the city, Claire and Blake, who both worked in the corporate office downtown. They plowed forward, immersed in banter, clearly unaffected by the binge drinking in the hotel last night.
Two monks dressed in red monastic robes and carrying baskets of stones labored down toward us. They quickly stepped off the trail to make room for my approaching friends. But Claire and Blake, instead of passing by, took out their phones and photographed the monks, taking ample time. They’re really showing their true colors, I thought. These two had been really getting to me: hours earlier I witnessed Blake haggle with a local to save a dollar on a handwoven pashmina shawl; last night I caught Claire grimacing at a dish of mutton, gratuitously explaining to the server that she is vegetarian; before that Blake skimped on a tip for our day guide in Thamel because “his English wasn’t good enough.”
I came upon the monks. They were still off the trail, waiting for our entire party to pass. Seconds later my phone buzzed, notifying me that the new pictures showed up in our group chat.
After about an hour of trekking we reached the peak of the foothill. There we made our way to the Nagarkot View tower. I climbed the narrow ladder to the platform, 2100 meters above sea level. That’s when I saw them for the first time: the snow-clad peaks of the Himalayas. Annapurna and Manaslu were to the Northwest, their jagged crags ruthless and majestic. Everest was far to the East, piercing the pale blue sky.
Alone atop that tower, my mind went to the car accident a month before the trip to Kathmandu. There had been an early snow, the roads were slick, and someone slammed into my Land Rover at a stoplight. I swung open my car door, rushed to inspect the damage (cracked rear bumper and a broken tail light), and approached the other driver. “Get out of your car,” I demanded of the old Asian man. I laid into him as he fumbled through his wallet: “If you live in this country you better learn how to fucking drive.” He apologized in a heavy accent. I wasn’t satisfied. “You sure you’re not too old to be driving in this city? I suggest using public transportation. Where are you from, anyway? Ah, Vietnam. Well I don’t know how people drive in Vietnam, but here in this country there’s consequences for driving like a demented maniac.”
The exchange was clear in my mind atop that viewing tower, and I realized that I wasn’t any different from Claire and Blake. Now, 7600 miles away from home, nestled in the Himalayas, I regretted that callousness for the first time. A foreign empathy swelled within me. I could have shown some grace, like those monks. I wondered, was there any part of me like them?
My eyes returned to Everest in the far distance. I imagined the frozen bodies strewn across the Death Zone, that open graveyard. Once daring mountaineers, now merely icy warnings for other climbers. I envisioned myself scaling the mountain, passing the bodies, and reaching the summit. And there I imagined myself yelling “I’m sorry.” I yelled it so loud that all below — all who I have ever wronged, including that Vietnamese man — could hear.
My thoughts were interrupted by shouting. Blake was calling for me to descend and rejoin the group. As I grasped the cold metallic rungs of that ladder, I hoped that when I returned home, I wouldn’t leave this feeling behind.
David works as a clinical psychologist in Chicago, IL. When not at his day job, David can be found indulging in his love for creative writing. David has published short fiction and poetry in various literary magazines. He has also written articles for an award-winning mental health blog.