By Kieran James Cunningham
“I’ve never seen any sahibs smoking at this altitude,” said Dawa, the Sherpa porter I’d first met in Kathmandu and spent close to a month tailing up and down the Khumbu Valley as he prepared for fall expeditions and helped his cousin run his lodge at Gorak Shep, the last stop before Everest Base Camp.
I’d lit up to kill a few minutes of the hour or so we’d have to wait until dinner, and as my roll-up burned down toward the filter I instinctively pulled another from my tin and lit it from the tip of the first.
We were at the foot of the Khumbu Glacier, having just ferried up a load of supplies from Namche Bazaar for the Welsh team he’d been with when we’d met in the city. When I thought about it, I hadn’t seen too many smokers since I’d left Kathmandu, and none at all in the time I’d been camped out at Gorak Shep, awaiting the end of the monsoon.
With hindsight, the moment probably did more to worsen things than it did better them. Though he had intended it otherwise, I took Dawa’s comment as something of an accolade, a tribute to add to the name of “White Sherpa” he and the various lodge-keepers we passed on our travels had given me in the month or so I’d been there on account of the efforts I’d put in helping Dawa schlep supplies up from Namche whenever I wasn’t off exploring.
“I’ll stop when I start to feel it, or when I have kids,” I replied, repeating the promise I’d made to myself and my family regularly over the 20 years I’d been in thrall to Nicotiana.
“Don’t you feel it already?” Dawa asked.
And that was, as far as I could be consciously aware, the truth. For whatever reason, until that point — my 33rd year — I had somehow been exempted from all the irrefutable health issues associated with smoking. I smoked 30 a day, sometimes 40, and was no stranger to letting that total slip upwards of 50 when I was back home, holed up in my kitchen and working on a deadline. I would often wonder, in fact, if my decision to work as a freelancer hadn’t been at least partially inspired by a desire to have the freedom to smoke whenever I wished. I would also smoke while I hiked, both uphill and down — a habit that horrified my friends, family, and fellow trail-goers, but honestly had no noticeable effect on my breathing beyond the skipped breath when I inhaled.
I remained in the Khumbu for four weeks, acclimatizing and preparing for the fall climbing season. I’d granted myself a half-year “sabbatical” and had time to kill.
Or so I thought.
One afternoon I returned from a trip to Namche with Dawa and handed over three notes out of my dwindling pile of rupees for ten minutes of Wi-Fi at his cousin’s lodge, hoping to shoot off a quick message home and check up on the fortunes of my soccer team. Up there it had been easy to distance the world and feel as though a set of sturdy parentheses had been placed around my time there, guarding it from the rather prosaic and hassle-laden narrative that lay — and lay in wait — on either side of it. In the middle of the dozens of unread emails in my inbox, however, was a message from my girlfriend, one that would instantly bring that faraway world crashing down into my isolated little outpost in the lee of Mount Everest.
She was pregnant, our daughter-to-be five months grown, four months from requiring the presence of two responsible, upright, healthy adults to take care of her. Before the thought could be vetoed by my brain’s pro-nicotine faction, I stood from the battered laptop, took my smoke tin from my pocket, and emptied every last one of the 200 smokes I’d pre-rolled for the days ahead into the trash.
The moment might have and perhaps should have been a turning point, but three things prevented it from becoming so. First, the aforementioned and continued belief that I’d somehow been excused from the ailments and illnesses that have afflicted smokers since the first primordial puff was taken some millennia ago. Second, my girlfriend’s miscarriage at the end of her second trimester. Third, the subsequent disintegration of our relationship and a hasty, wholehearted renewal of my life-long battle with depression and contemporaneous resumption of full-time chain smoking in the region of 50 a day.
For the next four years I hiked and climbed fairly prolifically in the Italian and Swiss Alps, but towards the end of that time a torn tendon in my shoulder forced me into a stint of inactivity. I sat at home, moped, smoked, cursed my luck, smoked some more, and became well acquainted with the incipient symptoms of cabin fever until the opportunity arose to take on Gran Zebru with a friend.
Just two years previously I’d sauntered up the same mountain without breaking stride, but this time around there would be no sauntering and my stride would be not so much broken as a piecemeal, tottering, and utterly deprived of the vigor and relative alacrity I’d always taken for granted.
From the moment we left our tent at the break of dawn, I felt a sharp pinch in my chest. My breathing was not merely shallow but strained, taut, like someone had tied a knot with whatever organs were supposed to be supplying oxygen to my lungs, and was disrupted by as little as a slight lunge or awkward step on the trail through the rough glacial moraine. Maybe the problem had been there for a while, I thought, but had remained under the radar while I’d been hiking regularly owing to my body’s acclimatization, so to speak, to the deprivation. With hindsight, a more likely cause of the concealment was the denial I’d maintained with such diligence over the years.
I remember coming out of a narrow gully below the summit slope, about halfway to the summit itself. Staggering onto the peak’s steep southern flank, I felt lightheaded, and sat on a rock while waiting for my partner to reach me. As we moved off again I tried to break into song to convince myself that it was all in my mind and to ease the tension that some subconscious acknowledgement of what was happening had spread through my whole body. I only got out a few lines, however, before my voice crackled and broke, and I realized I was merely throwing up a smokescreen in front of the irrefutable and somber reality that lay before me as clearly as the mountain itself.
I waited for the breathlessness to pass then called ahead to my younger partner and told him to wait.
“Smoke break?” he called back.
“Yeah,” I said, pulling a smoke from my pocket in an effort to conceal my embarrassment, “kinda.”
And so it had come. Now I felt it, unequivocally, and that promise I’d always made to myself and any other concerned party hung over me like an anvil. I returned home from the trip, however, and didn’t stop. If anything, I redoubled my indulgence, perhaps trying to prove to myself that it was just a blip.
It wasn’t just a blip. A further duo of outings confirmed what I’d always feared would transpire but had subconsciously come to believe never would: my lungs were hurting, my respiratory system finally — perhaps belatedly — suffering and enfeebled on account of the years of ill-treatment I’d put it through.
I lay awake many of the subsequent nights, my bed partner a slue of grim contemplations on mortality, the condition of my ailing earthly “ride”, and tracing my career as a smoker back to its carefree beginnings as a teenager. The thought responsible for the greatest angst and apprehension, however, was the one that questioned whether or not my trail-going days were over. If my last few outings were anything to go by, any future visits were sure to be all but joyless, made unbearable by the grounds for comparison laid by all those years in which I’d hiked in good fettle, hassle-free on the health front.
Since I was a teenager, the mountains had been my sanctum sanctorum, my sacred space — the one place where I felt truly myself and where I did the flourishing that made the mere surviving that was as much as I was capable of in the city worthwhile and tolerable. The prospect of living without them was unthinkable.
How, I wondered, had I let it come to this?
How, I wondered, could I get out of this given the countless failures I’d racked up with willpower, patches, gums, and even hypnosis over the years?
I lit another smoke to think it over.
A month later, on a visit to my parents’ home in Scotland, I took my mother shopping in the city. While she was off debating the merits of steel versus aluminum bake trays with a store attendant I ambled into a “vape” shop between smokes, prompted more by idle curiosity than any genuine interest in whatever offerings they might have in stall. That I would walk out again half an hour later contentedly spouting plumes of Bubble Gum-flavored vapor was an eventuality I could not have foreseen at the day’s outset, but one I can now look back on as something of a watershed moment. I might have looked and felt more than a fraction absurd, but the hunger for the demon nicotine that had been the prevailing feature of my wakened experience in the world for a full two decades appeared to be, incredibly, entirely sated.
After two weeks without a cigarette and contenting myself with a variegated menu of flavored vapors, I could already feel my body discharging the burden I’d plied it with those past two decades. I began coughing up phlegm every morning and sweating small puddles of foul-smelling liquid that necessitated three to six showers per day to excoriate. On my morning jogs I already noticed a new vitality and fortitude absent since my teens. The exorcism was well underway. Soon I was growing impatient to return to the Alps to discover how my lungs’ apparent recovery would play out when I hit the trails.
There will be no surprise in revealing the gist of the more immediate beneficial effects I enjoyed: easier breathing, a steady increase in energy levels, the lesser stench to my clothing and skin at the end of the day. These I had expected and were, of course, the very reason I’d been keen on quitting in the first place. Soon I was puffing on my cumulus-spewing “mod” far less than at the outset, and after three months had abandoned it entirely. Six months down the line, however, the thing that has kept me off the more traditional, combustible format of nicotine delivery is something you’re unlikely to find on the putative benefits listed by any health service advisory or even in the bold marketing promises of the vape people: presence.
Before quitting, any hike I undertook could be neatly divided up into a series of smoke stops, and the highlight of the outing would undoubtedly be the time I’d spend on the summit, where I could sit and enjoy my reward of three or four back-to-back smokes guilt free, or on the descent, where the reduction in effort allowed me to light up every 15 minutes, say, instead of every hour.
Throughout the 20 years in which I’d been hiking as a smoker, there was no doubt that I had enjoyed each adventure. However, the perspective I gained post-parting with cigarettes revealed to me that for the vast majority of that time — and particularly in the latter decade — my hiking experiences had been tainted, marred even, by my dependence on tobacco. Each time I’d been as much absorbed by the need to humor my cravings as I was by the scenery and experience of my whereabouts. It was, I saw, the very antithesis of mindfulness — deeming whatever the contents of my consciousness happened to be at any given moment somehow lacking and unworthy of my attention unless I happened to be experiencing them with a smoke in hand.
In the middle of all these fairly depressing and shameful self-discoveries, a friend had accosted me one evening at our local climbing crag.
“Your eyes,” she said, looking at said eyes as if they’d only recently materialized, as if until that point I might have gotten by on echolocation alone. “They are clear again. The clouds are gone.”
While I can be sure there were physiological reason for this transformation, I was beginning to believe a psychological explanation was no less compelling. I was here. Back. Returned from a 20-year absence to a degree of health and general unfetteredness of thought and vision that I hadn’t known I’d been missing. Jamais vu, the French call it — the unvaunted, lesser-know sibling of the famous deja that describes the feeling of being in a familiar environment but seeing it all as though it were entirely new.
Few victors, however, easily forget the foe over whom they have been victorious, and far less any that happened to be of their own creation. In the months that followed, therefore, my triumph over tobacco engendered a kind of cognitive and emotional dissonance. While relief was undoubtedly prevalent among my feelings, just one backwards glance at all the life I’d forsaken during that 20-year, personal Dark Age was enough to incite a day-long bout of shuddering remorse. In the midst of it all, however, I found a silver lining. All those hills and mountains, I realized, were still here, and, more importantly — from my point of view, at least — so was I. In the smoke-free years to come I’d get to do them all again and see them, I was sure, as if for the first time.