South from the Rongbuck Monastery, across a glacial valley of naturally-crushed grey rock, I hiked to nearly 18,000 feet and stood at the foot of Everest. The north face of the mountain towered nearly 10,000 feet above.
The air was thin and the wind reddened my skin. I set up the camera and took pictures, in color slides and black and white prints, but Everest had a mind of its own.
As quickly as the summit appeared through the rapidly moving clouds, it was gone from sight. I had seen just enough to know it was there; but for several hours, until nearly dark, I saw only grey clouds breaking across the summit.
It was getting dark and dangerously late to return to camp, and I scrabbled down the glacier feeling somewhat defeated, reflecting on the stories I'd read of climbers who spent years planning and training, only to fail in their bid for the summit.
The truck started, and we drove away in the darkness with the mountain at our back. As I was reaching for something behind me, I caught from the corner of my eye the sight of a sudden change of wind. In seconds, the east wind whipped away the covering clouds from the mountain, revealing the full magnificence of Everest in crystal clarity.
Qomolangma, the legendary goddess of the mountain, was miraculously lifting her veil.
"Stop!" I told Mr. Quan. "Wait!"
I gathered my gear and launched out of the truck, fumbling to get a shot before the surreal moment was gone.
I knew it was the perfect photo of the top of the world.