by Emily Winters
After three weeks on Mt. Everest, my hands are more sensitive to cold temperatures.
I thought it would go the other way, that I’d build an immunity to the cold the same way I have to Western medicine, white wine, and compliments. Instead, my hands turn a bright red with the slightest cool breeze. To relieve the sting of the wind chill on my walk to work, I pass my thermos of hot coffee back and forth between my hands every 15 seconds. I count the seconds with each step. I take 463.
Counting is another side effect of 384 hours on a frozen trail. It was something I started doing to relieve and distract from the physical pain, but it proved an equally effective distraction from the mental strain, too. You see, when the altitude is too great to accommodate breathing and speaking to comrades, you’re sentenced to solitude, and when I’m left alone with my thoughts I'm often way too much for myself. Back home, I’d developed a real talent for burying my mistakes and my secrets — my self-preservation spoke louder than any other voice in my head — but you just can’t run from anything at 18,000 feet, not even in your mind. So I counted things:
Four climbing parties, two cups of black tea, 13 yaks across the bridge, six porters, one bleeding forehead, two turtle doves, one worried glance from Rick, 15,000 steps, one veggie momo, four split knuckles, another 16,000 steps. And 39 climbers with gear on the trail, 39 climbers with gear. She takes three down and knocks them around, 36 climbers with gear on the trail…
That’s a side effect, too: I think differently now. Faster, smarter, crazier, sing-songier, I’m late for tea with the Hatter. I’ve noticed that small problems easily become life or death scenarios. I’m very good at making something out of nothing these days, and there’s an urgency in my voice that leaves my family and friends with raised eyebrows and sympathetic looks. Conversely, I continue to operate calmly and coolly under pressure. That’s one thing that didn’t change. Perhaps that’s because on Everest it’s the little things that are the most threatening — little things like one deep breath, a single water treatment tablet, or the slightest change in temperature.
I make a conscious effort to remind myself that the little things in academia don’t mean my life as I count the steps up to the fourth floor of my office. Despite the blasting heat, I know it will still take hours to warm up my hands. Keyboard cardio doesn’t do much for damaged digits.
I pour my coffee into a white and yellow mug on my desk that reads “Actually I can."
Actually I can send that email. Actually I can go to that meeting. Actually I can reconcile the trauma of my experience with my longing for another like it. Actually I can hold it together.
I just don't have much of a grip with cold hands.
Emily Winters is a graduate of The Mountainview Low-Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction. She currently works as a member of the faculty training team for Southern New Hampshire University Online.