I have battled (largely unsuccessfully) a tendency in my life to over reach, to over do. I’m the guy who torques the nut one last half turn rendering it impossible to remove, the one who makes sure the cap on the bottle won’t come off, maybe ever. This has carried over into other areas of life as well (in the realm of do it yourself plumbing I can assure you that such proclivities don’t have happy endings). I was a commuter student in my college days but for graduate school I was determined to go away for school – I ended up picking a school 4,000 miles away. I think you can see a pattern. Some might wonder what this has to do with a blog about hiking the Appalachian Trail or reflections on how one entered into the world of mountain climbing. Hang in there.
For several years leading up to my 50th birthday, my wife had been squirreling away money without my knowledge. When that day finally came, we went out to dinner and after dessert my wife and 2 daughters eagerly presented me with my present – a handmade booklet outlining a series of trips that I could take – essentially a free pass anywhere in the world. My wife would take care of the girls for the time that I was gone – up to a month. A friend of mine later described this as a “marital sabbatical”. The girls of course had included a few suggestions – e.g., a trip to Scotland, including a round of golf at St. Andrews. A picture of Everest was also in the booklet. The three of them were secretly pulling for me to choose St. Andrews because in that case, they would come along with me.
In the months that followed I researched my options carefully. Having recently read Alfred Lansing’s Endurance – the story of Ernest Shackleton’s misbegotten 1914 Antarctica expedition, I actually found a guide company that offered to recreate the essential elements of that saga – taking you on a sea voyage from Elephant Island off the coast of Antarctica to South Georgia Island across the great Southern Ocean, ending with a trek across the mountainous interior of South Georgia Island to a whaling station on the opposite coast. I actually seriously considered this before coming to my senses – I get violently sea sick and the ocean that Shackleton traversed in 1914 retains the reputation for having the worst maritime weather and the heaviest seas, in the world. Miraculously, I put that option aside.
In the end I chose something almost equally ludicrous. I was someone who had traveled outside North America once in my life – some 32 years ago to Ireland, with my aunt and cousin to visit relatives in the old country. I was also an avid consumer of mountaineering books, particularly about Mt. Everest and, of course, I now possessed extensive mountaineering experience myself – having hiked up the Muir snowfield on Mt. Rainier and failed miserably in my one and only summit attempt on a recognizable mountain peak – Lyell, in Yosemite. So, what did I choose to do? I chose to go to Mt. Everest.
I found a guide company offering a trip that would begin in Kathmandu, follow with a flight to the forbidden city of Lhasa, and then proposed to transport their clients by car through Shigatse, Shegar and other Tibetan towns before arriving in the literally medieval town of Lungjang to begin an overland trek. The trek’s final destination was not Everest Base Camp but the clients and guides would pause there before traveling up the East Rongbuk Glacier, arriving at 21,000 ft at the base of Everest’s North Col at Advanced Base Camp for expeditions attempting the summit from the North (Tibetan) side. Then, the team was to cross the East Rongbuk Glacier and summit Lhakpa Ri, a 23,000 ft peak, first climbed by George Mallory as part of the fabled 1921 British Everest Reconnaissance Expedition. The trip ended with a trek out past the infamous Kangshung Face of Everest, into the Kama and Kharta Valleys, over the Shao La or Langma La to the town of Yulba and then to the town of Kharta. It essentially recreated the key elements of Mallory’s 1921 reconnaissance of Everest that led him to discover the route that would lead to his death in 1924 somewhere on Everest’s Northeast ridge. The expedition ended with overland car travel to the Nepal border via the Friendship Highway, down the Bhote Koshi gorge, before returning to Kathmandu. The trip was to last a total of 33 days
I had never been backpacking for longer than 4 days (and that exactly one time). I had never been higher than 11,500 in altitude. I had no real mountaineering skills. Perhaps most importantly, I had never seen a turkish toilet, let alone knew how to use one. I corresponded with some folks who had participated in roughly similar trips. One gently advised that traveling to extreme altitude (and this trip fit that exactly) required significant experience and I might be better off trying a few other challenges before taking this one on. Oh, and at the time, the Maoist insurgency was running rampant in Nepal and the US State Department had issued a travel advisory against US citizens traveling to Nepal, including Kathmandu.
I considered all of this carefully, drew on my extensive experience from my Mt. Lyell trip and decided to crank the nut an extra 3 full turns and signed up for the bloody thing.
I think this is ample evidence that I had (have) a serious problem. What happened will require multiple posts to fully explore.