After that tragedy, I devoured every contradictory book associated with the event and then moved on to all the other 14ers. These are all the peaks that are above 8000 meters (26,247 ft). I became a little obsessed about these mountains. I never once entertained the thought of going to the summit of any of these Himalayan giants, but getting to stand in the shadow of the tallest, Mt. Everest, did have great appeal.
I contacted the trekking company, http://www.ametreks.com/, several years ago when I thought I could go. However, for one reason or another, the trip always fell through. About a month ago, Chase was visiting us in Thailand during his winter break from school in China and we began tossing the idea around once again. He reminded me that we wouldn't be any geographically closer to Nepal than we are right now. That, coupled with the phrase, "And dad, you aren't getting any younger, you know," bolted me into action. I again contacted Tika at AME Treks and three weeks later we found ourselves in Kathmandu, Nepal, shivering in our lightweight summer clothing.
Since we didn't have any winter gear, we had to buy everything there and then we were set. Hiking in the Himalayas in winter has some striking positives and negatives. The weather is usually perfectly clear and dry and there are not many other trekkers, so the trails are much less crowded. The downside is that it is so bitterly cold. The trek to Everest Base Camp (EBC) is a very strenuous hike of 40 miles from Lukla to EBC. We made the trip up there in eight days in order to acclimatize to the thinning air and then returned to Lukla in only three days.
The most perilous part of the journey was the flight in and out of Lukla. This 1500 foot runway perched on the side of a mountain is considered the "world's most dangerous airport." The reason? There is absolutely no option to abort. If the plane cannot land on approach, it will crash into a cement wall at the end of the runway or smash into a mountain if it tries to go around. On take off, the plane either gets liftoff or it plummets 3000 feet off the cliff to the valley below. (Take off from Lukla)
The first day is an easy walk that actually takes you downhill for about two hours. We got to our first stop relatively early and were disappointed that we couldn't go on because we still had so much stamina. The scenery never ceased being amazing the entire trek so stopping and just soaking in the view was essential. The first shocker of day was noticing that as the sun was going down, the temperature quickly plummeted. We would not truly be warm again for almost two weeks.
One of the most remarkable things I have ever witnessed actually happened on Namche Hill, but we saw similar things throughout our trek. The Sherpa people carry supplies from village to village along the mountains. They also use yaks and mules to carry supplies but they themselves haul building equipment and other bulky items. I was feeling sorry for myself on the way up carrying my paltry two liters of water and some snacks but I stopped in awe and swore to myself I would never complain about a workout again as long as I live. There, before my eyes, was a Sherpa, no taller than 5'3" and maybe weighing 125 lbs., with a full sized refrigerator strapped on his back! This superman was a sight to behold. Our guide says this happens all the time. It's the only way to get things up the mountain. To shame me further, right behind him was a teenager not much bigger than the previous Sherpa I mentioned, carrying a load of 109 kgs (240 lbs). These people will forever have my deepest respect and admiration.
As we kept going higher up the valley, the quote from the world renowned American mountaineer, Ed Viesturs, came to mind. His philosophy when climbing peaks was, "Getting to the top is optional; getting back down is mandatory." This never rang more true than on this day.
We started up KP and got tired very quickly. We made it to Gorak Shep from Lobouche in about two hours which is very fast and I think that, combined with the extreme altitude, was finally taking its toll on us. We got about halfway up KP and realized that we could not make it to the top and then to EBC in the same day. It was decision time. Our guide told us that from our current vantage point on KP that the view of Everest would not change that much. He asked us what we wanted to do. Chase was feeling the same way, so we took our "money shots" of Everest on camera and headed down for some lunch.
We pressed on and finally made it to our ultimate destination of Everest Base Camp. The "holy grail" was finally in my hands. I had decided sometime during the trip to make a short video for my former students back at Edgren High School about pursuing your dreams. I didn't realize that I would become so emotional when trying to talk about what we had just accomplished. Even Chase said he got a little choked up while filming my message to the students. We celebrated and congratulated each other and took lots of photos. The dream was fulfilled but now we had to get back safely.
We reached our guest house back at Gorak Shep just as the snow began to fall. We wondered why trekkers were still heading to EBC in this kind of weather. I guess they had the same dream as I did and nothing was going to stop them either.
That night back at the lodge we sat around the fire (they use Yak manure as fuel because there is no wood at that altitude) and talked with other trekkers about the bone chilling cold, the base camp experience, and compared notes about who hadn't changed their clothes or showered in the longest amount of days. I think nine days was the winner at that point, which Chase and I tied by the time we got back to Namche.
The next morning we woke up to realize we had made the right decision not to climb KP that morning. High on the mountains, clouds obscured the summit of Everest. We would have climbed in the frigid cold and not seen a thing. The mountain gods were shining on us.
We made it to our goal destination in eight days. Now we would have to descend the 40 miles back to Lukla in only three. This would require nearly six hours of hiking each day, up and down the same mountains we had previously traversed.
As we descended we felt stronger with each step as every breath drew in more rich, life-giving oxygen. It was a two day hike before we got back to Namche, where we relished a long-awaited hot shower, chocolate carrot cake, and apple strudel.
The journey from start to finish will be one that I will never, ever forget. The hardship of the trek made it all worth it that much more for some strange reason. I guess you feel like you really earned it instead of it just being given to you. The scenery was always breathtaking and can never be replicated in a simple picture. You have to go there and experience the massive, majestic panoramic vistas for yourself. The one thing that I cherished more than anything was having the chance to experience this journey with Chase. We built a lifetime of memories and a stronger bond in a few short weeks. I will always love him for being the best son a father could ever ask for.
I also want to thank my loving wife, Lori. She never doubted for a second that I could do it. She always supported my aspirations to go to Everest Base Camp and without her in my thoughts I don't know if I would have made it. I love you.
The number one on my "bucket list" is now checked off. I have accomplished two world famous treks in my life but I don't know if I could handle any more. So I think my trekking days are over for now, but you know...... I heard the four day Inca trail hike up to Machu Picchu is pretty cool too!