approached Kathmandu, the Thai Airline pilot announced that from the right of
the aircraft the passengers could enjoy a clear view of Mt. Everest. As I
glanced out the window, memories came rushing back. Just two years earlier,
Phil and I stood on her summit together. It was a glorious clear and sunny
day, just like today.
This is my third time back to this region of the world and the memories and
emotions from each adventure are distinct. Two thousand and one brought great
excitement and fear in attempting to climb Everest for the first time. It was
a new world for me. Then, in 2002 I was more experienced in knowing what to
expect, however, still filled with much fear of what was ahead. And now, we
have an opportunity to return and visit great Sherpas, many of whom we
consider good friends. There is no fear this time since we will only hike to
Our expedition is large, 20
total. We are accompanying 10 climbers who will attempt to climb Everest this
year and leading 6 trekkers, two who will climb Island Peak with us. The
climbers will climb in a non-guided fashion; they formulate their own plan to
climb. The logistics are coordinated by Eric Simonson and International
One wonders, who of the 10
will stand on top. You certainly cannot guess by appearances since Everest
summiteers come in all shapes and sizes. I am sure people must have
questioned my abilities, a short female barely 5'2" and small overall.
Many of these climbers have
trained hard physically for years. Some want to reach the summit so badly
they can taste it. Others may be here for the experience. In the end, it
will most likely come down to the old saying, "Luck is when preparedness meets
opportunity". So up here, I suppose success will be for those who are
prepared physically, end up with some luck in the form of good weather, and
want it so badly they will not quit regardless of the pain.
Our route includes trekking
through the villages of Phakding (8,700'), Namche Bazaar (11,470), Thangboche
(12,600), Dingboche (14,400), Lobuche (16,175'), Gorak Shep (17,800) and on to
Everest base camp.
This is the third time I have
spent my Birthday at Namche Bazaar. We hiked to Khunde a nearby village and
visited a small Hospital, a product of Hillary's Himalayan Trust, and left a
donation. During dinner the Sherpas surprised us with a birthday cake they
baked and decorated; don't ask me how they pull that off on the trail. Then,
Dan one of our climbers, read a poem he wrote (he has a great talent). And, I
enjoyed a card signed by all. At the end of the evening I thought of Bertha,
my aunt who was born on the same day. I visited her just prior to leaving the
states; she turned 92 today.
Some of the down sides of the
trek as we climb higher into the thinner air include stomach and
gastrointestinal issues, colds and coughs due to the cold dry air. At times,
it can be so dusty, you feel a suffocating effect. Sometimes you can't win;
you try to hike with a scarf over your face to reduce the dust stirred up by
the yak train in front of you. However, as you approach a hill your breathing
rate increases dramatically causing you to gasp for air from under your face
Living now at over 14,000',
most of us have some sort of cough, cold, sore throat, congestion, headache or
some other related annoyance. Gastrointestinal issues can be a challenge; a
toilet can often be a hole (sometimes not so clean) in the ground. At this
point in the expedition, I long for the ability to sit on porcelain, the small
things in life.
After these expeditions, we
tend to forget about the pain and enjoy the great sense of accomplishment in
reaching our goal. It seems the more difficult the activity the more
rewarding when the task is completed.
All this and we are very well
taken care of by the Sherpas. Think of their life.
Last night at dinner, with 20
of us in a dining tent, several of us engaged in a discussion of our place in
the world as Americans. This region of the world is a tough place to live,
for us temporarily, and those who live here permanently. We have unlimited
opportunities and choices. We may choose an occupation that we are not
thrilled about, however, we have the ability to choose; it is our choice. In
fact, our world is full of opportunities and choices.
Here, their world, one of the
poorest countries in the world is not filled with such opportunities for
most. It is a tough, cold, harsh environment. Normally, there is no
electricity or running water in the homes. To heat a pot of water can take
significant time and effort. Often with very limited education, healthcare
access and financial support, how do you change your situation if you wanted a
different life? This always serves as a reminder to live life with great
appreciation for what we have and give to those who are not as fortunate.
After all, the only difference between us, we were born into our
The upsides of expedition
life normally far out weigh the down. First, it gives us time to stop.
Everything stops, no email, voicemail, crowds, traffic, TV, anything
electronic. Days are both very long and can be very short. So much happens
in a day as far as new places and hiking. Days are long because you are
reduced down to the basics.
We normally hike a day and
then rest a day. During rest days, inevitably some kind of game ensues. At
Namche, a heated game of Frisbee developed among the climbers and Sherpas. At
Thangboche, several of the younger Monks were kicking a soccer ball around
with trekkers. And at Lobuche, our climbers and Sherpas enjoyed a competitive
game of football. Can you imagine playing football at 14,400 (comparable to
the top of Mt. Rainier)? The Sherpas would run and dive for the ball just as
if they were at sea level. This is where you hope we old climbers don't get
On our last day prior to
reaching base camp we arrived at Gorak Shep. Most of us climbed to the top of
Kala Pattar, 18,400'. From here we have the best views and can take the best
photos of Everest. In the morning, Dorje Lama (Dorje climbed with us in 2001
and stood on top of Everest with us in 2002), Shelley, one of our climbers,
and I headed out for a bit of additional exercise while the rest of the team
headed for base camp. The three of us climbed Kala Pattar, again. It was a
spectacular day and provided some great photo opportunities. At the top, just
prior to summit photos, Dorje gave me a necklace. This was such a special
gesture and one I will always cherish.
Spending time at base camp
(17,500') was an incredible experience this year. The Puja, a ceremony
requesting permission and protection while climbing Mt. Everest, was conducted
on the 6th of April because it was an auspicious day. The same Monk from
Pangboche who conducted our previous Pujas performed the ceremony.
Every time I accompany Phil
on one of these climbs, we run into more people we know than in the states.
Phil must have stopped at least once on every segment of the route to talk
with an old friend, colleague, or acquaintance. While at base camp we visited
our good friends Ed Viesturs and David Breashears. They are in the midst of
filming a major movie production of Everest. Spending time with them in their
base camp tent with beautiful Tibetan rugs was a hoot.
It was emotional for me
leaving base camp. It is such a spiritual place and the bond with the
climbers and Sherpas runs deep. I was okay saying our goodbyes to the team
until Dorje Lama and Ang Passang (our Sherpa climbing leader from both 2001
and 2002) presented Phil and me with katas.
Saying goodbye was further
challenging when it came time to hugging the guides, Tuck and Jason, two of
our own. I worry about their safety. It can be a dangerous climb, however, I
know that both are so skilled and experienced and therefore the risk is
certainly reduced. After a few tears, I am on my way. It is a long walk,
about seven hours, from base camp to Dingboche. Sleeping at almost 3,000 feet
lower felt wonderful.
Here we bid farewell to four
of the trekkers and planned to hike to Chukkung and then to Island Peak base
camp at 16,900' with two of our climbers. Our plan was for Lopsong, trekking
Sirdar, to head down with the trekkers while Phil would lead the four of us
back up hill to climb Island Peak. Suddenly, Lopsong announced that one of
the porters was very ill and asked Phil if he could assist. The ill Sherpa
was tucked into a Dojo (a basket with a strap) and was being carried by
another Sherpa, strap across his head.
Phil conducted basic first
aid and administered oxygen. It was our only emergency bottle for the climb,
but of course this was much more important. The ill Sherpa looked awful,
moaning from severe pains in his chest, shaking, and very weak. It was
determined that the best course of action was to transport the Sherpa to the
nearby village of Pheriche to the Trekker's Aid Post manned by volunteer
The Sherpa with the Dojo
basket containing the ill Sherpa strapped to his head took off at lightening
speed. Phil, Lopsong, and Kami (our Island Peak Sherpa guide) followed close
behind. A hike that should normally take 30-45 minutes was completed in less
than 15. When they reached the clinic, Phil provided the doctor an overview
of the vitals that he had collected and action taken. The doctor took over.
Meanwhile, our four trekkers
descended with some of our Sherpas. Shelley, Mark and I ascended with Lakpa
Sherpa toward Chukkung not knowing when we would see Phil again. Just two
hours after we arrived in Chukkung, Phil popped into our eating tent just in
time for grilled ham and cheese sandwiches. He made incredible time
considering his side trip to Pheriche and back. At 53, he climbs like he is
30 years old, I guess 30 years of climbing pays off. Good news on the ill
Sherpa, the doctor believed he strained his chest area while working and
experienced a bit of a panic attack in response to his pain. They expected a
swift and full recovery.
When we arrived at Island
Peak base camp, there were two eagles soaring over our camp cruising the
surrounding mountains one being Ama Dablam . With a tremendous wing span,
they were magnificent as they soared around and passed each other in the sky
while gliding. Eventually, they landed close to our camp after sufficient
play and performance. They certainly represent freedom and beauty to us
mortal climbers. Hopefully, we will briefly experience their world as we
climb to the top of Island Peak.
Our climb of Island Peak
(20,300') was successful and very enjoyable with Mark and Shelley. We headed
down and flew back to Kathmandu.
This expedition worked well
for my personal goal of reaching 50 high points (all must be over 14,400') by
the time I am 50. I now have 12 to go in the next two years.
The eagles soaring made me
think of the poem, "I climb to be Free" by Robert Cramer. Following is an
excerpt from the poem: "Have you ever watched an eagle held captive in a zoo,
fat and plump and full of food and safe from danger too?
Then have you seen another
wheeling high up in the sky, thin, and hard and battle-scarred, but free to
soar and fly?
Well, which have you pitied,
the caged one or his brother? Though safe and warm from foe or storm… the
captive, not the other!
There's something of the
eagle in climbers, don't you see; a secret thing, perhaps the soul, that
clamors to be free.
It's a different sort of
freedom from the kind we often mean, not free to work and eat and sleep and
live in peace serene…
But freedom like a wild
thing, to leap and soar and strive. To struggle with the icy blast, to really
That's why we climb the
mountain's peak from which the cloud-veils flow… to stand and watch the eagle
fly, and soar and wheel… below.
While I was away, my dearly
loved Aunt Bertha died at 92. During World War II she went to work in a
sawmill when it was certainly a man's job. She was quite a character. I wish
she was still here, however, I know now that she is free. Island Peak was for
In May of 2002, Phil and Sue
Ershler climbed to the summit of Mt. Everest becoming the first couple to
climb the world's Seven Summits (highest mountain on each continent)
together. Additionally, Phil became the first person to climb the Seven
Summits twice. In 1984, Phil became the first American to climb the North
wall of Mt. Everest.
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