Could a return to Nepal compare with our technical climbing and mountaineering success there in 2000? Knowing that a real mountaineering route would be harder fourteen years later, could we instead enjoy the pros and cons of a trekking route in the Everest region? We would find out in 2014. We call it, “Laurel and Hardy do the Himalaya.”
Trekking means carrying 30 lbs in our packs, not 110 lbs like on Aconcagua in 1998 when we made double carries to get all that gear up the mountain. In 2014, we would be among the 5% who trek independently, meaning no guide and no porters. Only occasionally would our route be scary or icy, but not requiring ice axes, full-size crampons, ropes, and living in tents. At heights up to 18,500 ft where half the atmosphere is gone, the main risk is high-altitude sickness.
Trekking on mostly established trails from teahouse to teahouse is a matter of overcoming Mountaineer’s Foot – putting one in front of the other no matter the steep terrain, or hours. The biggest problem is acclimatization –the body’s slow adjustment to the demands of thin air. Teahouse rooms are unheated, but they offer better shelter than tents. Many have warm dining rooms with a pot bellied stove burning yak dung, and simple hot meals. Compared to 2000, most teahouses now have a solar-powered LED light for each room, battery recharging capability, and Wifi connection by satellite. We could communicate back home about such favorite subjects as historical mountaineering literature and high altitude medicine. This was a tremendous change, even if the primitive sanitation and frequency of GI illnesses were not. The camaraderie of meeting other hikers from around the world was still there, of course.
Our trip was punctuated by numerous medical incidents, not just for us, but for others. There were daily helicopter evacuations – for things like orthopedic injuries and high-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE). We achieved three of our five goals. A glaciated 17,800 ft pass named Cho La connects deep valleys leading to two minor peaks, 18,500 ft Kalapattar and 17,600 ft Gokyo Ri. Both summits were purposely reached about 4 p.m., then bundled up with five layers of clothing we waited. For 60 minutes the changing colors of the setting sun painted the western side of Everest with alpenglow. The descent in darkness was “interesting” but we could only think of tough early explorers like George Mallory or Eric Shipton who had walked 300 miles just to get started on some of these same places. At that time, they were just blank on the map.
So why did we go? British physiologist Griffith Pugh showed during the six months-long Silver Hut Himalayan medical study in 1961 that the limit of long-term existence even with warmth, shelter, and food was 17,000 ft. Some people can go higher for a while, but not stay there permanently — oxygen is good stuff. Why did we once again put up with the work, cold, dirt, misery, hypoxia, and thirty-pound weight loss between us during those three weeks? All we needed to do was look up at the white giants towering to 29,000 feet in a 360 degree panorama all around us to have our answer. We felt privileged to witness the incredible powers of Creation and Destruction in these Greater Himalaya.
In 1921, George Mallory described Mountt Everest physically as, “a prodigious white fang excrescent from the jaw of the world.” The introspective view is even more important, as he explained, “concerned no less with the spiritual side of us than with the physical.” He was right. We came back richly rewarded.