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David Morton Gets No Rest or Comfort at Altitude on Makalu
Posted on April 25, 2011

Story by David Morton, photos by David Morton and Melissa Arnot

It’s 2 a.m. My thoughts are racing. I’ve been awake for the past three hours, or have I? It’s so difficult to tell. That murkiness is the defining characteristic of this weird state of sleep and wakefulness at altitude.

I’ve turned from my left side to my stomach to my right side and then onto my back at least 100 times in the past hour. My mind’s drifted from middle school crushes to late payments on credit cards to my young son’s smile. Or do I even have a son? Is Melissa sleeping? She couldn’t possibly be. She’s not moving though. If she were, I would feel every move. Lightweight tents necessarily mean “small,” and we have no room to move. They also mean major condensation on the inside of the tent. So when I make my 102nd turn of the night, I get a face full of frozen ice shavings from the tent wall 6 inches above my face. Why do I keep doing this? I feel like I’m in some sort of psychological prison. I thought I did well at altitude?

Everyone who has spent any time “sleeping” at extreme altitudes knows some of what I was feeling during our last rotation up high. It also registers quickly that we as humans probably aren’t meant to be there, or at least not meant to spend much time there. There’s just not enough oxygen, at least at first.

Slowly and painfully the morning light comes. Melissa and I get the stove fired up and warm fluids in us. Life starts to come back, bit by bit. After an hour or so, we’re actually up and moving. As I climb, each step — despite the thin air — starts to feel good. My heart is beating faster than it does at sea level and the air is cold and crisp and almost painful, but I feel totally alive again. The skies are clear and the wind is extremely strong, almost too strong for moving. We break trail through soft sections of collected spin drift alternating with hard wind crusts and thin unconsolidated snow bridges. Eventually, we make our way up to about 6,350 meters. We quickly make a cache of our gear and start descending. The Himalaya stretches out in a 360 degree view that’s familiar but never tame, and I’m no longer questioning why I’m here.

After a second, more adjusted night up high, we head back to base camp. The intense highs and lows that are so much a part of these experiences are always tempered once we’re back sitting at a make shift table with real chairs. After dropping 1,000 meters, I can’t wait to go to bed, knowing that I’ll sleep like a rock with a calmer mind in the now relatively thick air of base camp.

Author: - Monday, April 25th, 2011

  1. Harriett morton

    The cold, the sleeplessness, the cramped conditions remind me a little of being housebound in this rainy Seattle, but your thrill of the cold, crisp air and the incredible views make my imagination soar and I am free! Thanks for taking me along with your descriptions and pictures when they arrive!

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