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Finding Mount Everest: A Story of Travelling and Loss

Flying Over Everest

“There she is.” The pilot’s finger, held up against the window of the cockpit, nearly obliterated the very thing I had come all this way and paid all this money to see.

“That one?” I put my own finger to the cold glass, aware that the propellers on the small airplane were swallowing my voice. Each mountain seemed roughly the same, barely varying in shape or height. I looked to the pilot for confirmation. He smiled with big, white, snowcapped teeth.

“Yes,” he mouthed over the whir of the propeller’s blades. “That’s Everest.”

***

I had arrived in Kathmandu, Nepal only two days earlier on a short flight from New Delhi. My month backpacking through India had already accustomed me to the smells of the subcontinent, the permeation of masala chai and the faintly sweet wafts of cow dung. Here, too, the air was spicy. I was convinced I could stick out my tongue and taste cardamom.

In crowded expat bars in Udaipur and Amritsar I told people I was headed to Nepal.

“Base camp or the loop?” their voices rolled in cadence with the sitars and tinkling bells in the background. We were clumped together in a huddle of indistinguishable nationalities, united in our love for this part of the world.

“Neither,” I replied. I had no intention of tackling either Everest Base Camp or the Annapurna Circuit through the Himalayas. I had huffed and puffed my way through hikes before, but was not equipped physically or mentally for these week-long climbs. I was quite content to do what I always did, dump myself in a new country with very little expectation, wide-eyed and lost.

I hailed a cab outside the Kathmandu airport. A man whose face was all moustache and eyebrows took my backpack and made a great show of straining to get it in the trunk.

“Canada!” he opened his mouth and bellowed, showing what little was left of his betel-stained teeth. Before I was even in the car, he peppered me with questions. His first had been if I was married, eyeing my bare ring finger. When I mentioned Canada he swelled with recognition. “I have relatives in Canada. In To-ron-to.” He added this last phrase with pride, staccatoing every syllable. He opened the door for me with a meaty hand. His black-beaded eyes stayed on me for the remainder of the journey, locked in the rearview mirror, barely glancing at the road.

I hadn’t been online in 48 hours. When I first started backpacking five years before, I would find an internet café every few days or so and feed coins into a whirring machine next to the computer to give me 15 minutes more. Now, even establishments in scrappy towns and remote hideaways boasted fast wifi. I was rarely offline for more than a day. After dropping my bag in my room, I settled back into the lumpy couch of the hotel lounge. A few dusty plants completed the look, prayer flags of every colour criss-crossing the ceiling. A peeling calendar with a close-up of Everest was already a year late, frozen in 2010. I cracked open my laptop and connected.

“Hi Bren,” read the email from my mum. I had saved this one for the end; emails from family were gifts to be unwrapped slowly. “I hope you’re doing well.” The words were chosen carefully, ambiguously. “I just wanted to talk to you. Can you call me whenever you get this?”

A refrigerator hummed from the corner. It was the last moment of peace; I knew what was to come. By the time my mother picked up the phone I was already in tears.

My grandmother had died a few days before. She was almost 90, and she had been ill for some time. She passed away at a birthday party, surrounded by balloons and plastic cups of sparkling grape juice – a small comfort for my family.

“I want to come home,” I told my mum, her face blurred by the fuzzy Skype connection. Her eyes and mouth were black, hollow in their grief and their pixilation. We agreed it didn’t make sense for me to return; there would be no funeral, only a cremation, and plans were already being made for a memorial in the summer by my relatives. I’d be home then.

There’s a special kind of homesickness that comes with a death in the family. It’s a twisting knife. First it attacks the throat, and then the stomach, and then the heart.

That night I went out for momo dumplings and lukewarm beer. There was a group of European backpackers behind me who whooped and hollered their whole way through dinner before sloshing out into the street. It was only then that I felt comfortable putting my head on the table.

My hotel room had splintered green walls and smelled of mildew. I couldn’t tell which was worse: the howling of the stray dogs in the alleyway or the zap of the bugs as they flew into the light that buzzed angrily overhead. Both sounds seemed pointless. I went back to the lounge.

“Can I help you?” It was the same man who had checked me in, a short Nepali who wore bright, collared shirts. He had a soft face. I couldn’t look at him. I focused on the outdated calendar instead.

“How can I see Everest?” I cleared the lump in my throat, a result of barely uttering a word all evening. Or was it that knife again, slicing away? “I mean, without actually climbing it?”

***

Flying Over Everest 2

The airplane seated no more than 20 passengers and two pilots. It was designed so that everyone got a window seat, a thin tin cylinder that carried tourists up and over the Himalayas just after sunrise, before the clouds settled in. For $150 we’d get as close to Everest as we could without setting foot on it, or near it, or anywhere on the ground at all. My breath fogged up the window as I watched the young uniformed men do a final check on the plane. One had a cigarette pack rolled up in his sleeve. I couldn’t hear them but I could see them joking around – jovial even in the early morning mist.

The plane was not built for agility. Everything about it seemed old and rundown. It rumbled and shook down the tarmac, groaned as it lifted off. Kathmandu grew smaller and smaller, a faint brown smudge on a blue and green canvas. Mountains appeared almost instantly, black and creased and topped with snow. They were endless, magnificent. We flew for the better part of an hour.

“For those of you on the left, you will see Everest soon,” came the pilot’s announcement overhead. “Please refer to your guide so that you can identify the tallest mountain in the world.” I looked down at the paper in my hands. I had been gripping it for the entire flight, crumpling the mountains on the page. Smoothing it out, I held it up to the window, compared the peaks and valleys until I spotted it.

I had expected it to be so obvious, Everest. I had thought it would loom large and mighty, the big laughing bully over all the other crests. Instead I could barely pick it out of the lineup. It was both overwhelming and anticlimactic. It made me sad to look at it.

“We’d like to invite you one by one to come to the cockpit,” the pilot’s voice crackled over the loudspeaker again. While waiting our turn, the rest of us stared out the dingy windows, spiderwebs of frost creeping up from the bottom and threatening to destroy our view. Still we all snapped photos, hoping for the perfect shot.

Flying Over Everest 3

“There she is,” the pilot pointed when it was my turn, and I took a few pictures. The view was so much clearer from these windows, Everest somehow broader and more regal than when viewed through my individual porthole.

“You’re lucky,” the pilot shouted at me.

“Oh yeah?” I steadied myself against the back of his seat, my whole body shaking from the plane’s vibrations. “Why is that?”

“We haven’t been able to fly for the past week,” I had to watch his lips move to fully understand what he was saying. “Cloud cover was too bad.”

I pressed my finger to the glass again, blotting out Everest just because I could.

***

My grandma used to say, “Don’t make mountains out of molehills.” She was a firecracker, even in her old age. She’d let my siblings and me sit in the garden and rip out all her rhubarb, even give us a bowl of sugar to dip it in. She believed in ghosts, and taught me how to play gin rummy, and let me wear her jewellery all at once, my fingers and neck dripping with fake gems.

I returned to my seat. Mount Everest was there, tangible and real, its summit skimming the heavens. She would have liked to have seen it. The plane turned round, headed toward solid ground. I scattered my goodbyes over the Himalayas as we disappeared into the clouds, leaving that great beast behind.

Flying Over Everest 4

 

Have you ever lost someone while you were travelling? If so, do you feel a special connection to the place you were in at the time?

Note: this story continues here, even though I wrote that story a year ago.

 

53 Responses to Finding Mount Everest: A Story of Travelling and Loss

  1. Maria March 5, 2014 at 9:02 pm #

    This is beautiful. Thank you for sharing it, and I’m sorry about your grandma (if a few years late). I just lost my gram a few months ago after many years of illness, and I still get choked up about it (my family is doing the same thing — no funeral, memorial in the summer). Luckily we weren’t traveling at the time but it would have been much harder to deal with if we were, so my heart feels for you to go through that.

    I am glad to know, though, that there are planes to see Everest. I don’t have any intention of climbing it but it would be nice to see.

    • Brenna Holeman March 5, 2014 at 9:44 pm #

      Thanks for sharing your story, Maria. Losing someone is so difficult, no matter where we are in the world when it happens.

      It was indeed amazing to see Everest, and very overwhelming, too. I do recommend it if you’re in Nepal, though!

  2. Emma @ GottaKeepMovin March 5, 2014 at 10:21 pm #

    Gorgeous story, Brenna. As ever! I haven’t lost anyone too close to me whilst abroad (yet… sadly I think it’s inevitable at some point), but my brother was in a terrible car accident while I was in Chile last year, so I at least know what it’s like to feel that gut-wrenching tug from home. He’s of course fine now, incredibly lucky and perhaps still a little traumatised, but fine. I’m sorry that you weren’t there to see your grandmother again, but just imagine how proud she was of you! Thanks for sharing your story.

    • Brenna Holeman March 5, 2014 at 11:07 pm #

      Thank you so much, Emma – I can only imagine how terrifying that news would have been. You’re right, it is exactly that: a gut-wrenching tug. I’ve never missed my family more, but it also brought us closer together.

      Thanks again for your kind words!

  3. Mica March 5, 2014 at 10:45 pm #

    Hi Brenna. I’m so sorry for your loss. I also lost my grandma last year while I was living and working in Tasmania. She was born and raised, lived and died in Puerto Rico so there was no chance of me going there at that moment. My mom didn’t even go to the funeral (she’s in Miami). I’m sure when your grandma passed she came by to see you and give you a kiss and a hug before she went on her way into the universe. She’ll remain in your heart forever as is mine.

    We’ve never met but I’m honored to read such a personal story and share mine with you as well. Lots of love and happy travels always, even through the worst of times.

    Mica

    • Brenna Holeman March 5, 2014 at 11:12 pm #

      Hi Mica, thank you for sharing your story – that’s what I love about blogging, that we can instantly find a connection with people around the world. I’m so sorry for your loss, too; it’s so difficult to be away from home and family in those times.

      Lots of love and happy travels to you as well, I hope I’ll see more of you on the blog.

      -Brenna xo

  4. Dyanne@TravelnLass March 5, 2014 at 10:48 pm #

    Sorry for your loss Brenna, but what a lovely way to bid adieu to your dear grandma – waving to her heavenly spirit from the Top of the World.

    That and… sad to have stumbled in here on such a sobering post, but…

    I must say – I’m immensely impressed with your wordsmithing – you.are.an.EXCELLENT.writer, my dear!

    P.S. I’m also happy to see that picking out Everest from among all those other giants wasn’t easy. Apparently I didn’t miss all that much when I passed on dropping 1.5 c-notes for the flight last October when I was in Kathmandu.

    • Brenna Holeman March 5, 2014 at 11:06 pm #

      Thank you so much for your comment, Dyanne! I’m really glad that you enjoyed the story and I appreciate your kind words.

      Wow – it was that much to fly? When I was there in 2011 I only paid about $150 (and I thought that was steep at the time). Even though Everest itself didn’t stand out as I thought it would, seeing the Himalayas like that was unbelievable, such a gorgeous view.

      • Dyanne@TravelnLass March 7, 2014 at 8:25 pm #

        Uh, a “c-note” IS $100 Brenna – so 1.5 c-notes would be $150 – the same price as you paid back in 2011.

        And it wasn’t spending the money so much as… given the weather in early October, there was a good chance we’d see little/if any of the legendary E-peak (or even the lesser peaks in the Himalayan range).

        Clearly we each have to often make hard decisions on where/when we spend our precious travel dollars. I once spent a chill $1,000 for but 2 nts. flying in to see Uluru (Ayers Rock) in Oz – and felt that it was worth every penny. But I don’t regret not flying over Everest – the rupees I saved bought me another week of wandering around the amazing country of Nepal.

        • Brenna Holeman March 8, 2014 at 4:22 am #

          Whoops – my bad – for some reason the dark recesses of my brain did not translate “c-note”… I don’t know what I was thinking when I responded to that! That’s a very American term that I am not that familiar with, but now I know. 🙂

          I totally understand that sometimes the money is worth it, and sometimes it’s not. To each their own. I’m glad I spent the “c-note” (heh) on Everest, but I agree it’s important that we all make our own individual choices in life. As you said, that extra budget allowed for you to travel in Nepal further! That’s fantastic…

          Thanks again for your comment Dyanne.

  5. Cat of Sunshine and Siestas March 5, 2014 at 11:07 pm #

    Beautiful and heartbreaking. Great read.

    • Brenna Holeman March 5, 2014 at 11:41 pm #

      Thank you very much, Cat.

  6. Syd March 5, 2014 at 11:24 pm #

    Beautiful. I’m happy to have stumbled upon it today, just as I was feeling somewhat melancholy and aimless. The world’s tallest mountain is a beautiful metaphor for your story. Your love, both for your grandmother and for life in general, shines through this piece. I love it!

    • Brenna Holeman March 5, 2014 at 11:43 pm #

      Thank you very much for your comment, Syd, I’m so glad that you could connect to the story.

  7. Jackie D March 6, 2014 at 8:06 am #

    Thankfully I haven’t lost anyone while I’ve been traveling — I haven’t lost many people yet at all, and I am very grateful for this. My best friend was in Brazil when her father passed away suddenly, and she called me from skype and we cried together for a few hours and she just kept saying she felt so alone, and all I wanted to do was take the next plane out to her. I can’t imagine being that far away when something like that happens. Beautiful piece of writing and interpretation of your experience seeing the mountain — and props to you for taking a plane that sounds like it was kind of in questionable shape.

    • Brenna Holeman March 6, 2014 at 1:56 pm #

      Thanks for your comment, Jackie. The loss of my grandmother was my first really personal loss to deal with, and it was compounded by the fact that I was away from family. I can only imagine what your friend would have felt being alone in Brazil, how horrible.

      That plane was indeed in poor shape… looking back perhaps I shouldn’t have gotten on it at all!

  8. Laura March 6, 2014 at 2:18 pm #

    Being a long time reader I have read all versions of this story and your experience. All have been beautiful. I was with my partner traveling New Zealand when his grandfather passed away and it was a very hard time for him. She definitely cleared those clouds for you!

    • Brenna Holeman March 6, 2014 at 2:31 pm #

      Thank you so much Laura, your support has been so encouraging. I’m sorry to hear of your partner’s loss, it’s always very trying, no matter if it happens on the road or not…

  9. Marie Gregorashuk March 6, 2014 at 2:52 pm #

    Beautifully written, as always! Had a tear, or three, reading it.

    • Brenna Holeman March 6, 2014 at 4:35 pm #

      Thank you so much, Marie – although I’m sorry it made you cry!

  10. Cheryl Howard March 6, 2014 at 5:11 pm #

    This is such a beautiful story. It’s good that you are able to share it.

    My dad and then his mother both died within a year of one another and their deaths is actually part of what prompted me to begin my travels. I recall standing on a lonely beach in the Galapagos and reaching Machu Picchu after the hike with tears falling down my face as I thought of them.

    • Brenna Holeman March 6, 2014 at 9:31 pm #

      Thank you, Cheryl. I think that travelling can be an amazing source of healing… thank you for sharing your story here, too.

  11. Paul (@luxury__travel) March 7, 2014 at 2:15 am #

    Lovely writing, Brenna, and sorry for your loss.

    I was in Nepal a few months ago myself and did the Buddha Air Everest flight. A truly magical moment although sadly I didn’t document it as well as you have done here!

    • Brenna Holeman March 7, 2014 at 5:59 pm #

      Thank you very much, Paul. I’m glad that your flight was so magical!

  12. Helen March 8, 2014 at 12:31 am #

    This is beautiful Brenna.

    I was close with my nana too. In fact, the main reason I travel, is because of her. She was so adventurous, every so often it hits me that she not here, like it just did right now… but I’ll tell you about that some other time.

    I bet, she’ll be looking down on you right now and smiling, so proud of the adventures. My nan will be too. x

    • Brenna Holeman March 8, 2014 at 4:24 am #

      Thank you so much, Helen. I’d love to share our stories sometime… it sounds like we both had some influential women in our lives. x

  13. Zalie March 9, 2014 at 9:56 am #

    I remember that sad time and talking to you a few days later after we found out. I know grandma was with you that day in the plane, as she always is watching over us xoxo

    • Brenna Holeman March 10, 2014 at 1:24 am #

      Thank you, Zalie xoxo

  14. Yana March 9, 2014 at 3:48 pm #

    Hi Brenna.
    This is a beautiful post.
    I currently live in Equatorial Guinea.
    My grandma passed away February 9th 2013. I received an unusual call at 7am on a Saturday..i answered it and I could hear in my mom’s voice that’s something was wrong. I needed to come home for my mom as I am her only child and family so I caught a flight and was home that day to support my mom during the funeral.
    My grandma was 100 and 6 months, healthy until that point – she died in her sleep.
    Thank you for this post, it’s a lovely way to honor your grandma.

    • Brenna Holeman March 10, 2014 at 1:28 am #

      Hi Yana, I’m so sorry for your loss – it sounds like your grandma lived a long and happy life. Thank you for your comment.

  15. Emy March 10, 2014 at 10:27 am #

    I remember your previous post about your grandma.
    Well my thoughts haven’t changed at all, and though it’s always a bit tricky to talk about that because you never know what people’s beliefs are I am sure she’s with you and happy for you every trip and adventure that you live 🙂
    And the Everest looks amazing! I’ve never been a big fan of mountains but .. that is breathtaking.

    • Brenna Holeman March 10, 2014 at 11:50 am #

      Thank you, Emy, your words mean a lot to me. Everest really was breathtaking, I hope you get to see it someday!

  16. Linda March 10, 2014 at 10:31 am #

    I can’t read this story enough times, Brenna, and it moves me every time. Your grandmother would be so proud of not only your very meaningful good-bye, but of you in general. You have accomplished so much – and you are heading towards more greatness.

    • Brenna Holeman March 10, 2014 at 11:48 am #

      Thank you so much, that really means a lot to me.

  17. Amy March 21, 2014 at 11:43 am #

    Beautiful story Brenna. Back in November my boyfriend’s gran died, somewhat unexpectedly, while we were travelling in Laos. We agonised over whether to fly home but after conversations with family decided against it; we wrote a message to be read out at her funeral instead. It was a strange, disorientating time and we had to remind ourselves just how proud she was of us for travelling; she even had a massive map up on the wall to plot our journey on with pins and string.

    • Brenna Holeman March 21, 2014 at 6:36 pm #

      Yes, it’s always so difficult to deal with these situations, especially when abroad. I’m sorry for your boyfriend’s loss – his gran sounds like a fantastic woman.

  18. Katie March 24, 2015 at 1:08 am #

    I lost my Grandad, who helped raise me and was like my second father, when I was studying in London. I didn’t have the money to come back home to NZ and it already felt like I had lost him when I was home 5 months previous and dementia had all but taken him away from me. My Mum said that I shouldn’t come home for the funeral and she waited till I returned 10 months after he died to sprinkle his ashes at the fishing spot he used to love. I still wish I went back anyway.

  19. Laura November 30, 2015 at 8:55 am #

    I have been in Korea for the past two years and will be beginning a backpacking trip in the spring before I head to New Zealand for a working holiday. My biggest fear is losing my grandfather during my backpacking trip. Your writing is always beautiful and honest which is why I love this blog! I’m sorry to read about your loss, but glad you’ve been able to heal.

    • Brenna Holeman November 30, 2015 at 1:14 pm #

      Aw, thank you very much, Laura. 🙂

  20. Binary March 12, 2016 at 7:22 pm #

    beautiful, peaceful and beyond perfect Himalayas n those sad moments

  21. Louise Terranova March 14, 2016 at 12:48 am #

    Lovely post Brenna. My grandmother died when I was away in Egypt. Virtually the same day I met my husband which was bit ironic. I didn’t know until later… in the days pre internet.

    • Brenna Holeman March 15, 2016 at 11:22 am #

      Thanks for your comment, Louise! It’s definitely very difficult to lose someone when you’re travelling.

  22. Sarena Wilson October 2, 2016 at 7:00 am #

    What a Fantastic Blog !! that’s exactly what i was looking for.
    to know about Everest, please visit [website deleted] for fine and genuine information.

    • Brenna Holeman October 2, 2016 at 1:33 pm #

      Wow. You’re trying to promote your company on a post about my grandmother’s death? I’ll make sure to never, ever use your company or recommend it to anyone going to Nepal.

  23. Emma December 30, 2016 at 1:09 pm #

    Hey- lovely piece. I lost my grandma when I was in Rio de Janerio and I took the long walk up to Christ the Redemmer later that day. There’s something about going up higher to get closer to those who have left.

    I’m spending three months in Nepal from March-June and your blog is providing me with some great inspiriation 🙂

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