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  Trip Report Everest Base Camp 2004: Phil and Sue Ershler


As we 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 20,300'.

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 Mountain Guides.

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 cover. 

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 opportunities.

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 hurt.

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 doctors. 

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 be alive…

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 you Bertha.

Sue Ershler

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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