Himalayan summitry: A lesser peak, not a lesser lesson

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

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.

"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.

* * *

The history of mountaineering in the Himalayas, the 1,500-mile range stretching from Bhutan in the east to Pakistan in the west, reaches back over a century. Trekkers like myself, who come for a look at the big peaks without any expectation of reaching their summits, are a much more recent innovation. In 1965 Jimmy Roberts, a retired British Army officer, led the first commercial trek up the Khumbu valley, guiding three middle-aged American women through the Sherpa homeland for a glimpse of Everest. He was a pioneer in the development of the "adventure travel" industry. Thanks to improved access by air, and notwithstanding political unrest in Nepal, tens of thousands of trekkers now annually visit the region. Most follow the same route as Houston and Tilman in 1950, north up the Khumbu valley to the base of Everest, with an optional ascent of Kala Patar.

Our trek this May and June, organized and led by veteran Himalayan mountaineer Arlene Blum, followed a slightly different path. Like most trekkers, we flew from Kathmandu to the mountaintop airstrip at Lukla, a dozen miles south of Namche Bazaar. We hiked the trail to Namche in two days, gaining several thousand feet along the way. Then, after a day's rest to acclimatize, we branched westward up the less traveled but spectacular Dudh Khosi valley. Four days later, after gaining about a thousand feet of altitude a day, we reached Gokyo, a village on a high alpine lake directly below the 17,600-foot Gokyo Ri peak. And from the top of Gokyo Ri, which I reached the next day slowly but without difficulty, we gazed out on four of the world's eight highest mountains – Everest, Lhotse (27,939 feet), Makalu (27,765 feet), and Cho Oyu (26,905 feet).

Our trekking party of 16 clients and two leaders, was a varied group, mostly drawn from America's southwest and West Coast; I was the lone New Yorker. The group ranged in age from 17 to 67. We were accompanied by a half dozen Sherpas, who cooked our meals and looked after us, as well as 20 porters who carried our gear (all we carried during the day was a small pack). All of us had some outdoor experience with hiking and backpacking; a few had some technical mountain experience – the kind that involves ropes, carabiners, crampons, and ice-axes.

But none of that was necessary on the route we followed. Allowing for the vagaries of acclimatization to altitude, anyone who has climbed Marcy (the highest peak in the Adirondacks, 5,344 feet) could probably do just fine on this kind of trek.

From Gokyo our trek swung east, crossing the Nzogumpa Glacier and then to the 17,780-foot Cho La pass, which brought us back into the Khumbu valley. The western side of the Cho La, which we ascended, was a steep rocky climb, with a little ice at the top to make it interesting; the descent eastward was on a broad, smooth glacier. We felt like mountaineers as we came down it, but still needed no equipment more sophisticated than our climbing poles and Vibram-soled boots.

Now we were in the Khumbu, and as we closed in on Everest the terrain became ever more barren and forbidding. The lower Khumbu has cultivated fields of barley and potatoes, wildflowers, towering rhododendrons, and juniper. The upper Khumbu has sand and scree and little else. But what's visible along the trail is beside the point – it's the mountains that draw the eye. Everest is the tallest, of course, but the last you see as you trek up the Khumbu, hidden as it is behind lower peaks. To get a good view of Everest, you have to climb higher. Which brings me back to Kala Patar.

I'd come too far not to make it to the top. I took a step, then a breath. Resting on the downhill leg, I took another step up, and another. With each rest-step, I silently pronounced one word of the Tibetan Buddhist mantra "Om Mani Padme Hum," a form of prayer in praise of the "jewel in the lotus," or the compassion of the Buddha. It seemed appropriate, somehow, even for a nonbeliever, and took my mind off the less-inspiring thought of the number of steps remaining to the summit. "Om," rest-step, "Mani," rest-step, "Padme," rest-step, "Hum," rest-step. And then, suddenly, amazingly, there I was just below the top, and congratulatory hands reached down to pull me up the last few steps.

"Thanks guys," I thought, "and thank you Charlie and Buddha." I was not, I decided, a chicken-hearted fellow. All was well with the world. And the view from the summit, as promised, was incomparable.

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