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Awards / NATHANIEL J. MENNINGER – 2019 ROAM AWARDS FINALIST – Essay in Purpose Category

Nathaniel J. Menninger

An Excerpt from The Porter: High Camp

by Nathaniel J. Menninger

I could still feel the frozen sweat stuck to my back. The edges of my hair, hard like knives, clinging to the unwashed skin below it. It’d been 16 days now. Most without a bed and all without a shower. But none without the other Sherpa and Tamang by my side.

They were porters and so was I. The first ever foreigner to aid a Mt. Everest expedition.

I was the last of us into camp that day. The clouds were a bit overcast and the rocky valley lay gray with the emptiness above it. 8 days up and 3 days down, we had finally arrived at Gorak Shep, the last village before Everest.

Sukra showed me where to drop my badi. One bag in 204 and the other in 206 those were their rooms. Or maybe it was 306, did I hear him right? And don’t forget that box, he nodded. The fresh fruit that we carried from Kathmandu. The edges had frozen over from the cold and the cardboard was all but torn from where the rope had cinched it to my namlo. But the five apples inside were untouched. All hand portered to Everest for our clients’ satisfaction.

I stood alone in the room, staring down at the bed, waiting for Sukra to call me back. The sheets were always clean. Nicely folded beneath a blanket and packed into a padded mattress. And the air usually smelled of lavender too, or flowers or some other rich, cleanly smell that definitely made me wish I hadn’t become a porter. It was the life I used to live in those beds: A clean room. A nice pillow. A great, big window to look out of at night. But now, it all seemed so pretentious. So fake. Like a veil over the darker side of Everest. The side I now belonged to.

A short walk took us to the porter house, a darkened shed around the corner. The door cracked open and the roof hung low over a musk that shivered out. And in the dining room, waited three other porters around a black furnace that ran cold with un-use. I’d spent a couple of nights sleeping next to the first, down in Dingboche. He was funny and nice too, with a real comical smile. But now, he was coughing violently with a hand to his neck and a stream of saliva pouring out from his nose that he kept wiping away with the brunt of his jacket because he didn’t have enough money for napkins. He was sick, really sick, but apart from some garlic — a Himalayan remedy for altitude sickness — and hot tea, there was nothing we could do. He couldn’t afford an evac — most porters don’t get insurance — and he certainly couldn’t call in sick either. He’d get fired and still have to hike another 65 kilometers back to Lukla. So he just sat there. Coughing and huddling around himself like you do when you’re sick and cold and praying for an end that might never come.

I sat a few feet away from him with my eyes to the door. Waiting and watching as the other porters poured in from the day. And as three young women in the kitchen nearby ran busy with work. With giant woks and mounds of rice and vegetables that piled onto them; while steam pots burst by their sides and their hands slammed down at the little bobbly tops to re-pressurize our food. I never saw the cooks get annoyed. Not by the hissing pots or the flapping door, or the cold, snowy air that blew through it and the yell of Dhoka Bandnus that followed behind. They just worked. And fed the lot of us without a complaint as we ate in the same room, around the same tables and with the same water jug that we all took turns water-falling from because there weren’t enough cups for water after tea.

But tonight was particularly busy, however. The unexpected arrival of twenty Everest porters meant that  there were now forty of us in this shed for the night. Twenty-plus sleeping in the back. And the rest jammed out across the dining room floor after dinner. I got thrown into the back room. Through a curtain and into an alleyway with three bunk beds and no light a power cut, they said, invoked by the government to save money. So to search for a bed instead, we used our phones for light. And if you cared to, you could even see in the spotlights above, a cold trail of dust that fainted down from the ceiling.

But by the time the cook, who doubled as the waiter and the storekeeper and the bed-maker and really everything else you can imagine, came back to hand out blankets, I still hadn’t found a place to sleep. I was three times the size of the next biggest porter, so I couldn’t fit on top with the others because the bed would break. So I laughed and they laughed and the cook smiled up to me as I waited there, worrying about how I still didn’t have a place to sleep because by now, everyone was in bed and I really didn’t want to sleep on the floor, not again, when suddenly, a spot opened up underneath.

So I piled into it, or onto it or got thrown there I don’t remember and squeezed right up beside two porters that I never met before but that somehow knew everything about me. And together, like family, we prepared for the coldest night yet. But I couldn’t sleep. No one could. And at 2am, when I opened my eyes, still shivering, my blanket was gone.

The others had taken it in their sleep and were now using as it their own. Perhaps if they were my real brothers, I would’ve pulled it back with a comical kick and push. But they weren’t. And although it felt like it, this wasn’t my life. It was theirs. And in the end, instead of portering for another expedition, I would get to go home.

I just had to carry 100 kilos first.

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