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Himalayan summitry: A lesser peak, not a lesser lesson

This trekking historian is no 'chicken-hearted fellow.'

By Maurice IssermanContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / July 3, 2007

Gorak Shep, Nepal

On the morning of June 7, I was just about a hundred vertical feet short of reaching the summit of Kala Patar in Nepal. Colorful Buddhist prayer flags strung along the mountaintop fluttered in a gentle wind against a brilliant, blue sky, perfect climbing weather. Many of my trekking companions had already reached the top. I could see them seated comfortably beneath the flags, as they waved and shouted down encouraging words.

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"Come on up, the view's great, only a little more to go." Five minutes effort was all I needed to join them. And after 14 days of strenuous trekking on Nepal's steep mountain trails, leg muscles hardened and middle-age spare tire diminished, I should have been ready to tackle those last hundred feet. But lungs heaving and heart pounding, I had serious doubts about my ability to take even one more step upward.

Not that the 18,192-foot summit of Kala Patar is a particularly lofty goal. Behind me, across the Khumbu glacier and a mere seven miles to the east as the gorak (a Himalayan crow) flies, loomed Mt. Everest, the world's highest mountain at 29,035 feet. Looking over at Everest, I could clearly see the route that in 1953 New Zealand climber Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay followed up the southeast ridge to the summit, as well as the route up the west ridge that Americans Tom Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld took in 1963. That was real mountaineering; all I had to do this day was scramble up a big pile of rocks.

But making it up the last hundred feet of Kala Patar proved one of the hardest physical challenges I've ever faced. I felt as though I was chained to a large invisible boulder, condemned to drag it up the slope behind me. I knew I was fighting altitude, the ultimate adversary in Himalayan mountaineering. On previous climbs in the US, I'd climbed more technically challenging mountains over 14,000 feet. But at 18,000 feet, the air contains half the oxygen found at sea level. If I spent a week camped near the summit of Kala Patar, my body would acclimatize, and I'd be able to breathe easily, like the Sherpas who accompanied us. But it wasn't going to happen in the next five minutes. For a moment, contemplating the pile of rocky debris that lay between me and the summit of Kala Patar, I thought I'd hit my limit.

Then I remembered Charlie Houston, who'd been there before me.

Charles S. Houston – now in his 90s, and living in Burlington – led some of the earliest American expeditions to the Himalayas, including two to K2, the world's second highest mountain, in 1938 and 1953. An internationally recognized medical expert on high altitude acclimatization, he taught at the University of Vermont medical school until his retirement. I traveled from Hamilton College (where I'm a history professor) in upstate New York to meet Charlie at his home in Burlington, a few years ago and interviewed him for "Fallen Giants," a history of Himalayan mountaineering I am writing with Stewart Weaver of the University of Rochester, N.Y.

Among the stories he told that day was an account of an Everest reconnaissance he undertook in 1950. Charlie and his party, including British mountaineer Bill Tilman, were the first non-Nepalese to approach Mt. Everest from the south. (Tibet, which offered the northern approach to Everest taken by British expeditions of the '20s and '30s, was closed to Westerners following the Chinese invasion of 1950). They were the first Westerners to visit the Sherpa "capital" of Namche Bazaar, then a village of 30 homes, today a sprawling community filled with trekking lodges and cyber cafes. And Houston and Tilman were the first to climb Kala Patar, with its stunning views of Everest's southern face. Along the way there, their party stopped in a small Nepalese town called Dankhuta. There they found written in English on a school wall the injunction "Gather courage – don't be a chicken-hearted fellow," sentiments that they adopted on the spot as the whimsical motto for their expedition.

Nearly 57 years later, as I hesitated below the top of Kala Patar, I took those words to heart. "Remember Charlie," I told myself, "and don't be a chicken-hearted fellow." Then, gathering courage, I turned back to the task of dragging that invisible boulder to the summit.

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