I once embarked on a seven-week game of Rummy. It began on the blue carpeted floor of the San Francisco International Airport, my travel companion Andy and I crouched over our fresh deck of colorful, cartoon flower adorned San Francisco playing cards that slapped together stiffly as we tried to shuffle them. The playful flowers reminded me of Dolores Park, a memory of a sunset spent sitting in the grass there that would return to me nearly every time we shuffled the deck during our seven week journey through Nepal. In those hours before our flight left for Kathmandu, an epic card game was born that would not only test our minds and skills but also provide distraction, resolve and sometimes even comfort, particularly as we ascended in altitude.

I can’t remember now which of us had the initial idea for the game; I don’t think we’d ever played together before that afternoon in the airport. Like most great ideas, though, once it was born it grew legs, took on a whole life of its own. Before long we were playing while sipping Everest beers in Thamel, dueling on the sun-drenched patio of Kathmandu’s Hotel Malla, killing time in the mess tent on the Annapurna trek while the cook crew prepared dinner. Andy got in the habit of constantly keeping the deck at hand so at any moment we were ready to duke it out again, to add to the running score he kept track of in his pocket-sized green journal. We invited our trek companions Mark, Peggy and Carolyn to join. At first they resisted but when Mark and Peggy decided to give it a try, the stakes grew with our increased numbers and soon we were all irresistibly hooked. The challenge became who could get the highest score at the highest altitude–we had our sights set on the 17,868 foot summit of the Thorong La, but would settle for 16,000 foot base camp if we were too loopy at the top. It turns out we were too cold–who knew the wind could whip so cold and so fierce above 17,000 feet?!

The game provided a distraction on those chilly, thin-aired evenings when at 7 p.m. it was too early to go to sleep after we finished dinner, but conversation was as thin as the air outside and we needed something to keep us awake a little longer so as to avoid waking at 3 a.m., ready to start walking. In the dim candlelight of the shadowy mess tent we’d pass around the chia (tea) and tato dudh (hot milk), and, if we were lucky and it was on the table, the Borne Vita, India’s version of Ovaltine. Round after round we played, passing the shuffle and deal to the left, tallying scores that extended far beyond 500. I learned the strategies of my companions, knew to watch Peggy’s pick ups and discards (she was a shark that always seemed to go out when we all least expected), kept track of the cards around the table, could almost determine who had what and which of my cards was consequently safe to discard. Rummy became more than a game during those later days on the Annapurna, it was an art, a dance to be gracefully, tactfully practiced. We had our final performance in the village of Dhampus, the striking angled summit of the Fish Tailed peak, Macchapucchare, fading into dusky evening as our last cards hit the table and scores were tallied. The funny thing is, I don’t even remember the score. Maybe Peggy won, she among us was the most likely to have done so, but the scores were simply a fun addition to the game, hardly a reason for playing.

Andy and I continued our game–now four weeks strong–as we headed into the Khumbu region, setting our sights to the great and almighty Everest–Base Camp, that is, no serious mountaineering expeditions for us aside from our Imje Tse (Island Peak, 20,300 feet) aspirations (which failed). From the start we insisted our new trek companion, Casey, was welcome to play, but Andy and I were too deep in the groove of our month-old endeavor for a newcomer to jump in, and so the game truly became a game of two. And it was harder. With fewer cards out at any given time, I couldn’t really be sure of Andy’s hand. My playing grew sloppy and I blamed the altitude which increased steadily as we ascended the valley toward Everest. I remember one particular afternoon in Pheriche, a lunar landscaped village set well above tree line at 13,900 feet. Andy and I split a can of Everest beer, a can mind you, and got a buzz on while we worked our card skills. Two days later on arrival at Gorak Shep, the last stop before Everest Base Camp, we played a couple of rounds and I was pleasantly surprised at my general level of brain function at that altitude. The pleasant feeling was short-lived, was hastily replaced by the very unpleasant effects of altitude that set in deeply that evening and stayed for several days beyond. Few rummy games were played during those rough days of stomach aches, head aches and general malaise, those nights of patchy, shallow breathed sleep that sometimes left me gasping for air.

Eventually, our time in the Khumbu ended, stomach aches ceased, sleep returned, heads cleared and Andy and I found ourselves back in the bustling, friendly chaos of Kathmandu. We were then nearing Week 7 of play, our highest altitude being nearly 17,000 feet at Gorak Shep. Though Kathmandu sits at a mere 4,500 feet, our highest altitude game awaited us still, this time on the legendary summit of Rum Doodle, 40,000 1/2 feet above the sea.

There was no high altitude approach to this peak, no break in tree line, no drop in temperature or increase in wind speed. We stumbled upon the base of Rum Doodle after winding our way down a crooked Thamel alleyway. An easy climb up worn wooden stairs brought us to what could be the most domesticated summit on earth: wooden tables, soft music, a roaring fireplace and a full bar. Well then, forget Everest beer! How about a rum and coke? One of our final games ensued that evening as Andy pulled out the deck and I shuffled the cards, now soft and giving from so much play. I smiled at the flowers and San Francisco emblem printed on the back of each card. San Francisco–I’d soon be there, and for a moment, I was. But then my shuffle and bridge lent themselves to a stack which I dealt and the game was on again, just as it had been for weeks. From the beginning of one journey to the end, the cards kept playing.

To this day, I still don’t remember the score.

Advertisements