In High Places 4

If I’m perfectly honest, reaching Everest Base Camp on 21 November 2007 was a bit of an anticlimax.

It’s not that I didn’t appreciate the spectacular scenery around me – even at 5300m where we were, the snow covered mountains around soared more than 3km higher and the sky was a cloudless deep blue. It’s certainly not that it was an easy stroll – I read in my journal that at the time I found the trek across the rough, pathless Khumbu glacier harder than all but the last 10 minutes of climbing Kala Patthar. (That was a consequence of exhaustion and cold when I got back to Gorak Shep influencing my writing). I think it was a combination of having reached my motivational goal yesterday, at the top of Kala Patthar, not being able to see Everest from base camp and the realisation that from this point on, we were heading home.

Whatever it was, thinking about it later made me realise that while it’s good to set goals, and even better to set challenging ones, it’s no good just picking a thing like ‘getting to the top’. While it’s a clear, obvious target it can also be limiting. My initial interest in the trek was trigger by the magical phrase ‘Everest Base Camp’. It has an exciting, almost romantic sound to it. Thoughts of Mallory and Irving setting out on the final push (they actually went from the Northern side of Everest, as Nepal was closed to outsiders at the time). Images of the Commonwealth expedition of 1952, with Hilary and Tensing (their base camp was actually at Gorak Shep, where we stayed). When our trek leader said ‘here we are, Everest Base camp’ we were at a small pile of rocks on which some prayer flags had been tied. My journal says that I realised that if we were actually at base camp, we were at the southern extremity of it. That hid the understanding that actually, as our group were so slow, we had only just got to the vicinity of base camp when the leader called time, so that we would be able to get back to the lodge before the sun went down and it got cold. Having returned in 2011 when base camp was packed with expeditions waiting to climb the surrounding mountains, it was clear we had been short of the usual camp site.

Had my goal been base camp, I would have returned home ultimately disappointed. Given the country, the people and the stunning landscape through which we trekked, that would have been a crime. As it was, my driver for the trip was the scenery above base camp and the opportunity to photograph the mountains. I felt this was a more worthy goal but it was still narrow. Had we not reached Kala Patthar (which was a danger, see my previous post) I would still have returned home disappointed. When I went back in 2011, my motivation was to come back with a record in words and pictures of a trek in a new country, still adjusting to the 20th Century (let alone the 21st). I didn’t actually get to the top of Kala Patthar that time, due to an altitude induced headache and while I would very much have liked to, it didn’t ruin the trek.

Having a ‘get to the top’ goal can lead to all sorts of problems, as experienced mountaineers will tell you. Good climbers know when to turn back and they will value the journey as much as the triumph of the summit.

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Post work post

It’s after work time. I’m in a chain coffee outlet. It’s been an interesting day, one of changes, frustrations on behalf of other people, a lot of humour and one remarkable and unintentional revelation from a very senior person. Of course, I can’t talk about any of this in detail because to do so would leave me open to criticism from those who pay my wages. In fact, I probably can’t even tell you that I can’t tell you. Even telling you that leaves me vulnerable.

So instead I’ll talk about the fact that for the first time in many years, I’ve entered a photography competition. For most of those years, I’ve strongly believed that photography is too important a means of escape from the pressures of life for me to risk losing that escape by adding the stress of having to make money or meeting other’s expectations. (That last sentence was brought to you by The Complex Sentence Company of Bakhtapur).

For years I’ve taken the photos I wanted to take, when I wanted to take them and for no reason other than I wanted to do it. In amongst them there have been occasions when I’ve done weddings and commissions but strictly on my own terms.

But yesterday I decided to take the plunge and enter the Amateur Photographer of the Year competition run by, surprisingly, Amateur Photographer magazine. I won’t win and that’s not me being modest. I entered a photo that came from my catalogue, not taken for the competition. I need to get into the mindset of competitions again, too. But it’s a start and another motivator for me.

I have already found that the 1-a-day project I started on January 1st has proved valuable on the days when I am tempted to sit on the sofa and do nothing. I find I am thinking of suitable subjects more often and a welcome by product is that I take more notice of my surroundings and circumstances. I carry a camera everywhere I go so I can always take a snapshot, even if it’s the visual equivalent of a post-it note for later evaluation and action.

It’s time for me to re-evaluate my approach to photography. Less reading, more doing. Looking back over the image files I have I find lots of waterfalls, which seem to be my default subject matter. Probably because they’re easy. So I have to find something else. It adds a bit of pressure, but that may not be a bad thing after all.

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I would rather be with Rufus on a mountain right now!