One of the most beautiful accounts I have read of climbing Everest comes from a man who has certainly never climbed it.  In his book “The Satanic Verses,” Salman Rushdie describes the experience from the perspective of Alleluia Cone, a flat-footed woman who dreams of making a solo ascent after a successful climb with a group of sherpas.  In this first excerpt, she’s telling a classroom full of girls about her first ascent.

Do you know how it feels, she wanted to ask them, to have the whole of your life concentrated into one moment, a few hours long?  Do you know what it’s like when the only direction is down?

‘I was in the second pair with Sherpa Pemba,’ she said.   ‘The weather was perfect, perfect.  So clear you felt you could look right through the sky into whatever lay beyond.  The first pair must have reached the summit by now, I said to Pemba.  Conditions are holding and we can go. Pemba grew very serious, quite a change, because he was one of the expedition clowns.  He had never been to the summit before, either.  At that stage I had no plans to go without oxygen, but when I saw that Pemba intended it, I thought, okay, me too.  It was a stupid whim, unprofessional, really, but I suddenly wanted to be a woman sitting on top of that bastard mountain, a human being, not a breathing machine.  Pemba said, Allie Bibi, don’t do, but I just started up.

In a while we passed the others coming down and I could see the wonderful thing in their eyes.  They were so high, possessed of such an exaltation, that they didn’t even notice I wasn’t wearing the oxygen equipment.  Be careful, they shouted over to us, Look out for the angels.  Pemba had fallen into a good breathing pattern and I fell into step with it, breathing in with his in, out with his out.  I could feel something lifting off the top of my head and I was grinning, just grinning from ear to ear, and when Pemba looked my way I could see he was doing the same.  It looked like a grimace, like pain, but it was just foolish joy.

‘At that moment,’ she told the girls, who were climbing beside her every step of the way, ‘I believed it all: that the universe has a sound, that you can lift a veil and see the face of God, everything.  I saw the Himalayas stretching below me and that was God’s face, too.  Pemba must have seen something in my expression that bothered him because he called across, Look out, Allie Bibi, the height.  I recall sort of floating over the last overhang and up to the top, and then we were there, with the ground falling away on every side.  Such light; the universe purified into light.  I wanted to tear off my clothes and let it soak into my skin.’ (204)

Back home in London, Allie shows her boyfriend Gibreel a wooden sculpture of Mount Everest that Sherpa Pemba gave her.

‘Look,’ she said, stretching out a hand without leaving the bed and picking up, from her bedside table, her newest acquisition, a simple Everest in weathered pine.   ‘A gift from the sherpas of Namche Bazar.’ Gibreel took it, turned it in his hands.  Pemba had offered it to her shyly when they said goodbye, insisting it was from all the sherpas as a group, although it was evident that he’d whittled it himself.  It was a detailed model, complete with the ice fall and the Hillary Step that is the last great obstacle on the way to the top, and the route they had taken to the summit was scored deeply into the wood.  When Gibreel turned it upside down he found a message, scratched into the base in painstaking English.   “To Ali Bibi.  We were luck.  Not to try again.”

What Allie did not tell Gibreel was that the sherpa’s prohibition had scared her, convincing her that if she ever set her foot again upon the goddess-mountain, she would surely die, because it is not permitted to mortals to look more than once upon the face of the divine… ‘The Himalayas,’ she told Gibreel so as not to say what was really on her mind, ‘are emotional peaks as well as physical ones: like opera.  That’s what makes them so awesome.  Nothing but the giddiest heights.’ (313)

Allie describes the difficulty of living post-Everest, knowing that nothing in daily life will compete with the grandeur of such an experience.

‘Everest silences you,’ she confessed to Gibreel Farishta in a bed above which parachute silk formed a canopy of hollow Himalayas.   ‘When you come down, nothing seems worth saying, nothing at all.  You find the nothingness wrapping you up, like a sound.  Non-being.  You can’t keep it up, of course.  The world rushes in soon enough.  What shuts you up is, I think, the sight you’ve had of perfection: why speak if you can’t manage perfect thoughts, perfect sentences?  it feels like a betrayal of what you’ve been through.  But it fades; you accept that certain compromises, closures, are required if you’re to continue.’  (306)

There are a few times in my life when I’ve had a similar feeling: something I’ve experienced is so magnificent, so beautiful, it’s difficult afterward to reconcile such an experience with the mundaneness of “normal” life.  No doubt Everest would have such an effect.