The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - Travel
I trekked to Everest Base Camp with my little brother’s ashes on my back
Ahead of the 70th anniversary of the first ascent of the mountain on Monday, Harriet Jones recounts her own emotional journey to the Himalayas
When someone intrinsic to your identity dies suddenly and tragically, it’s as if a lightning bolt cracks the timeline of your existence. A fathomless, Everest-style crevasse splinters through the life you once knew and you can’t go back, no matter how agonising the longing.
For me, this soul-shattering realisation came the moment I arrived at the base camp of the world’s tallest mountain in November 2015. My little brother William – some of his ashes – was safely in my backpack along with his childhood toy: a stuffed rabbit.
Taking those last steps into the lunar-like, empty landscape (the earthquake in April that year meant that the camp in its previous incarnation had been obliterated), I fell to my knees and let out a cry that had been building for days. Not soft, silent tears, but a lioness-like roar of pain. It was the same instinctual noise I had made the day he so shockingly died.
A man called Sam, who 10 days before then I had never met, wordlessly pressed a set of rosary beads into my palm. A woman called Joy, also previously a stranger, cradled me and told me that my parents would be so proud. I had originally wanted to scatter his ashes here, but it turned out I couldn’t let go of him, not in such a desolate place.
My brother’s story (Will, or Willow as he also liked to be known); the complex narrative of his mental health struggles is just that, another story – so long and heartbreaking it could easily fill a novel. But to put it into a reluctant nutshell: he became ill with bipolar disorder and psychosis at the age of 17 and after subsequent alcoholism, he took his own life at the age of 25 on January 17, 2014 at our family home. I was 27 at the time.
When he died, he was described by our local paper with the headline “he was the kindest, gentlest soul” – but he was also fiercely funny. He was, and always will be, my original best friend.
Later in his life Will became a Buddhist, but he was too unwell to fulfil his dreams of travelling to Buddhist countries such as India, Nepal and Bhutan. So I decided to do it for him – and crucially with him, taking his ashes with me in a scatter tube.
After telling my very understanding boyfriend that I needed to do this trip alone, I booked with Action Challenge (actionchallenge.com), which organises group treks to Everest Base
Camp with a charity-funding option (I wanted to raise money for Rethink Mental Illness (rethink.org), who had helped my brother when he was alive).
My adventure began in Lukla with an easy-ish trek to the first tea house in the village of Phakding. “Tea house” sounds quaint, but the reality of this accommodation is a basic structure of MDF with plastic sheets staple-gunned on for windows. We were only 8,562ft up, but it was already so cold.
Trekking up to Namche Bazaar, the last “fully functional” town on the route, built around a natural amphitheatre, we were delighted to find proper showers at our hotel. Post-shower, feeling the cosiest I had since arriving, I joined the others in a snug café. It had heating, syrupy hot chocolate and a hopeful vibe of quiet ambition.
My optimism proved short-lived, when we embarked on an acclimatisation trek and I knew I wasn’t feeling right emotionally. It had dawned on me that this was still the very beginning of the trip and it was already so hard. I was exhausted, physically and mentally, and cried rageful tears through my sunglasses, repeating “I miss him so much” like a sorrowful mantra.
As we ascended further up into the mountains though, I began to feel better. Something about the land up there, all shrubby and mossy, calmed me and curiously reminded me of coastal walks in Cornwall with my family.
The scenery from Namche onwards, owing to fortuitous weather conditions, was like living in a highly saturated photograph. The colours were so violently vivid: the joyful poster-paint shades of the flags against the cerulean-blue sky, the razor-sharp glint of the river, jade fir trees bursting next to bleach-white snow. The swish-swish of waterproof trousers and the chunkclunk of walking poles were our rhythmic soundtrack.
A young Buddhist monk opened the Tengboche Monastery (12,687ft) for me when I was devastated that it was closed – and touchingly blessed Will’s ashes. Just after Dingboche (14,107ft), I was swaying and slurring my words and my head felt like it was going to split into tiny shards. I had AMS (altitude mountain sickness) and had to be treated by Jeremy, our doctor. It was a low point but I recovered and was allowed to continue.
These peaks and troughs comprised so much of the journey, quickly followed by stillness. Cortisol-fuelled highs, skipping and laughing over wobbly suspension bridges, versus patient hours watching the slow tick of tourists clambering over rocks.
Coming across the memorial garden at Thukla Pass (15,748ft), an emerald-green enclave with hundreds of memorials for people who had lost their lives on the mountain, was a particularly powerful moment. It was a beautiful place, where death felt celebrated and luminous, not grey and cold.
What struck me most about the evolving landscape from here was the gradual disappearance of life. The perky grass fading to a parched silver; the dwindle of birdsong. This culminated in our last stop before Base Camp, the village of Gorak Shep at 16,929ft. Literally translated as “the doomed valley of the crows”, it seemed drained of colour, embodying the Mordor-like mood of this part of the mountain.
The final ascent to the camp began with walking through a flat piece of land – the beginnings of the Khumbu Glacier. The others were whooping with excitement, but I didn’t feel like that. As we approached I realised that I didn’t want to get there. Every movement I took was a step closer to acceptance that Will wasn’t here anymore. When I slumped down onto the coalblack ground, I sobbed over and over again: “He’s not coming back.” There was no way I could leave him there, it was far too bleak.
I decided to scatter his ashes back at the lush memorial garden. I found a spot up high; the wind dropped, it suddenly went silent and two sparrows guided me to a pool of amber sunshine with a soaring view down to the river. It felt profoundly right.
Loss such as this is life-altering; there is no way back through the event and nobody else can walk the wild, unwanted path it sets out for you. But it is possible to gently guide yourself down a healing one. I believe now that it was this trip that tethered me, albeit with great fragility, to a different, ultimately positive path.
My Himalayan adventure saw me then visit as many Buddhist countries as possible with Will (Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Bhutan, India, Sri Lanka). I married that boyfriend who fully understood I had to go on this journey on my own. What happened next? We had two children, the first a boy named William. The second, a girl with the middle name Willow.