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Everest's siren calls through cold, fatigue, fear, discomfort

The Khumbu Icefall with Mount Everest outlined behind it and Lhotse peak on the right. The Khumbu Icefall with Mount Everest outlined behind it and Lhotse peak on the right. (GURINDER OSAN/ASSOCIATED PRESS)
By Victoria McEvoy
Globe Correspondent / November 9, 2008
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MOUNT EVEREST BASE CAMP, Nepal - At 29,072 feet, Mount Everest is the highest mountain in the world, invoking awe, respect, even fear. For some it is an obsession exorcised only by reaching the summit. Others satisfy themselves by making Everest Base Camp at 17,600 feet.

Trekking to base camp is not for the faint of heart - or body. One must prepare for altitude, grueling climbs, little plumbing, bad water, and variable weather.

I decided to pursue this dream at 58 before infirm joints and organs prevented the adventure. With family preoccupied with life and unable to persuade friends to join me, I went with Mountain Travel Sobek, an outdoor adventure group based in San Francisco. Our group of seven women and five men ranged in age from 24 to 69, all experienced outdoor folks.

More than 5,000 people make the trek each year, but access is limited. Unless torrential rains, leeches, or bitter cold appeal to you, the time to hike is spring or fall. Sobek calls the trip an extreme adventure.

I arrived in Katmandu to find myself in a noisy, dirty city marked by unimaginable traffic chaos. Winding roads, honking horns, cars, trucks, motorbikes, bicycles, carts, cows, pedestrians, and a lack of any sort of order marked the journey to my hotel.

Recovering from jet lag, our group spent a couple of days touring the Buddhist and Hindu shrines in Nepal's capital city and shopping for last-minute equipment. Finally we left in a tiny, dilapidated-looking plane for Lukla, a village a half hour away where all Everest expeditions begin. Soon enough we were on the ground meeting the Sherpa porters who were to care for us and our equipment for the next two weeks. After a small repast that included fried eggs and chocolate cookies we began our trek at 9,200 feet.

We set out on a boulder-strewn path, descending 1,500 feet to the Dudh Kosi, or Milk River. It quickly became apparent after carrying my little daypack filled with water, candy, and assorted clothing (downhill!) that I was in no shape for this trip. My shoulders and back ached, but seeing loads much heavier than mine on the backs of Sherpa men and women smaller than I sobered me up.

The first days were spent getting to know our comrades, securing our footing on the challenging paths and suspension bridges, and adapting to the increasing altitude. "Climb high and sleep low," the usual approach to acclimatizing, meant climbing, climbing, climbing - only to descend again, forsaking hard-fought gains. Weather ranged from scorching sun to frost and snow. For those not used to sleeping in tents, forgoing showers, eating strange food, and dealing with sketchy plumbing, the trip offered additional challenges.

But the real test was the difficult hiking at altitude. One member of our group succumbed to altitude sickness and had to leave. Besides nagging headaches and fatigue, the rest of us suffered from various orthopedic complaints brought on by hiking on rocks and sleeping on thin mats. Despite our ailments our spirits and determination were high.

The Sherpas were endlessly resourceful: stitching torn tents, finding lost glasses, and cooking three nutritious meals a day. Our days began at 5 a.m. with Sherpas bringing hot tea, chocolate, or coffee to our tents and later a bowl of "washing water." They then had to cook breakfast, clean up, pack up the tents, and race ahead to the lunch stop.

The food was quite remarkable. Omelets, doughnuts, french fries, vegetables, canned fruit, rice, yak stews, potatoes, and soups kept our spirits and energy up despite increasing emotional fragility as the air grew thinner, and our sleep deprivation intensified.

Days were filled with snowcapped mountains, mist-enshrouded temples, Buddhist stupas, and Mani prayer stones. We spun the omnipresent Buddhist prayer wheels along the way, ensuring safe passage on our journey. Colorful prayer flags lined the swinging suspension bridges arched high over the river. We crisscrossed the Dudh many times as we made our way along the "Everest Highway."

Most pilgrims stop at the Tengboche Monastery to receive the blessing of the Rinpoche, the high lama of the Khumbu region who receives trekkers by appointment in his small mountain chamber. We filed into a small room with a dung-fueled heater in the center. The Rinpoche was swaying in a lotus position. We came from a chilly downpour, and while eager to receive his blessing, we were also glad to be in a warm room.

The next milestone was a stop at the Ama Dablam Base Camp, at 14,500 feet. Ama Dablam, a hauntingly beautiful snowy peak, had beckoned us along the way. Unfortunately, the camp was a fog-enshrouded wasteland, and we were soon off again to find the elusive Everest.

Everest is described as an ugly peak relative to its shapely mates, Nuptse, Pumori, and Lhotse. It sits as a hunk of rock with an ever present wispy jet stream blowing off the top. Our first chance to study it came as we left Gorak Shep, an isolated, bitterly cold village at 17,000 feet, to climb to the top of Kala Patar, an Everest lookout at 18,192 feet.

After hours of arduous climbing as we stood hunched over our climbing poles gasping for air, we were greeted, at long last, by an unimpeded, clear view of Everest and its base camp. We summited Kala Patar around 8:30 a.m. The morning was crystal clear, and we were rewarded by two rainbows over Everest.

We still had work to do. Looking down on Everest Base Camp was not the same as reaching it. We headed down to rest for the final assault. The next day we scrambled over huge boulders and rocky scree in the Khumbu Icefall. After hours of hard climbing we finally reached the camp.

As we looked out on the Khumbu wasteland dotted with myriad tents, one could feel a palpable energy from the collective would-be summiters. The tent occupants still had their challenge ahead, but we had reached our goal. We gathered for pictures and then retreated to our private musings about what we had accomplished.

Scratching our Everest itch was but one reward. Spending time in a back-to-basics environment with 12 adventure-loving people was another. We got to know and admire Sherpas. We saw animals, flowers, and vistas we had never seen before. And we reassured ourselves that we could survive without our BlackBerrys, laptops, down comforters, and Diet Cokes - at least for a short time.

Victoria McEvoy, assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and medical director and chief of pediatrics at Mass. General West Medical Group, can be reached at mcevoyvicky@gmail.com.

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