I have been interested in Mt. Everest for a long as I can remember. Its that mystical mountain on the other side of the world that everyone dreams of, or at least I always did. I became even more interested in it after reading Into Thin Air, by Jon Krakauer back in 1997. The book recounts the tragedy of May 11, 1996 where a sudden blizzard killed 11 climbers including two veteran guides – Rob Hall and Scott Fischer. The book really peaked my interest in Mt. Everest (no pun intended even though I spelled it wrong), although at the same time made me realize that I was never going to the summit of Mt. Everest. Ever. I don’t have 3 months to take off work, $60,000-100,000 to spend on the climb, or, oh by the way, you might die. With my love for experiencing new cultures I still really wanted to visit Nepal, but figuring it wasn’t going to happen anytime soon I put it on my “someday” list. I kept reading Everest books and watching Everest movies like the 1998 iMax movie filmed on the same climb, but essentially put the thought of going out of my mind for close to 15 years.
That all changed in the spring of 2014 when I found a brochure for a trek to Everest Base Camp (EBC) in my mailbox. I had never heard of such a thing, but after all these years my interest was again piqued. After some research it seemed like the best of both worlds. I would still get to visit Nepal and see Mt. Everest, but at a fraction of the cost, time and risk of death of a summit bid so I semi-officially decided I wanted to do it. All things considered it was a relatively affordable trip for the length of time and experience you were getting for it. It was considerably cheaper than some trips I’d taken to Europe, although the Himalayan tea houses which cost $3-4/night aren’t quite the posh accommodations of some of the European hotels I’ve experienced. Two weeks later I coincidentally received another brochure for a Wilderness Medicine EBC Trek. Now it was a win-win-win. It was the EBC trek with a group of fellow medical people and I could count it as a business expense since it involves 16 hours of wilderness medicine continuing education on the way up the mountain.
So that was it. I officially decided I was going and sent off a registration fee. The only rub was that I’d not done a step of true hiking ever, let alone one that involved trekking up to 18,500ft (~5600m) and back over the course of 2 weeks. Sure, I’d done some casual park walking wearing gym shoes, but that was about it. I knew I had to lot of preparation to do and I had a year to do it.
What have I gotten myself into?
The first step was to figure out what I had just committed myself to do so I started reading and watching everything I could about the EBC trek. There are tons of other blogs with great into (I’m hoping to join that cadre) and lots of youtube videos (also hoping to add myself to those). There was a local outdoor summit that I went to. I listened to Daniel Dorr talk about his failed and successful attempts at Kilimanjaro and then read his book, Kissing Kilimanjaro. I went to a high altitude lecture by one of our own emergency medicine residents who showed a picture of a pulse oximeter on his finger at 55% during one of his high altitude expeditions. As a general rule we typically we admit you to the hospital if you have a pulse ox (blood oxygen level) below 90% and somewhere around 70-80% we sedate you (assuming you haven’t already passed out from the lack of oxygen) and have a tube rammed down your throat (gently of course) so a ventilator can breath for you. Golly, I can’t wait. Apparently its well tolerated at altitude, relatively so.
I have no hiking experience
As I mentioned, I’d never done any real hiking so I figured I’d better try and get a clue. I started searching for ways to get some experience and came across the Wildland Trekking Company. They have trips all over the country and ranging from lodge based trips where you sleep in a hotel to full on camping where you carry your sleeping bag and tent on your back to the rather fun sounding llama camping trips where you have your own personal cute and friendly llama that you lead so it can carry your heavy bags.
I started with a simple 3 day Grand Canyon South Rim lodge based trip. We had a group of 6 with 2 amazing guides. The typical day was hiking 3 miles down into the canyon and then 3 miles back out. Some of the trails were very well maintained while some were so rough that you could hardly tell where the trail was. It was a great experience overall and as they provide you with almost everything (backpack, trekking poles, etc) its a great way to see what type of equipment I might like before I randomly started buying it. They gave us Osprey Kestrel 32 backpacks and Black diamond trekking poles. I’d bought a little bit of hiking clothes and after some research on the all important footwear, got a pair of Salomon4D GTX boots and it all worked out great.
I really hadn’t experienced my altitude and wanted to give it a try so I again went with Wildland on their Rocky Mountain National Park 5 day base camp trek. We hiked about 40 miles that week and made it up to 12,000ft. There was some amazing scenery out there in Colorado. We roughed it at least a little bit with some camping, although it was at a camp ground with access to showers so roughing it is relative.
The last part I thought I needed was to test out myself and the gear I’d amassed in some cold weather so I went snowshoeing with Wildland in Yellowstone National Park. This trip was another bunch of firsts. I’d never been to Yellowstone, never been snowshoeing, and most importantly I’d never stripped down to a bathing suit in 15 degree air to go in the hot spring. I wasn’t looking forward to getting out wet back into that 15 degree air, but it was surprisingly not too bad and I figure if I can do that I ought to be able to stand a shower in the cold tea houses in Nepal. Several of the days started around -5 F. I learned a lot about layering, how to use my 8oz Patagonia hard shell to stay warm and dry and how hot and sweaty I could get in 5 degree weather. I learned a lot of valuable lessons came from this trip. It was colder there than it will be in Nepal so I figure I should be ready to brave the weather up high in Nepal.
I have no stuff.
This overlaps a little bit with the previous section. Commensurate with the fact that I’d never been hiking, I also had no real hiking equipment. I didn’t want to be the one to show up to Everest with the shiny new gear so over the course of the year did a ton of research, made way too many shopping trips to REI and was brought too many boxes from Amazon via my friendly UPS man. I enjoy the research and shopping process with anything I buy so I had a good time with this endeavor.
I’ll do a full packing list after I get back, but here are a few of the main items I ended up with. For my feet as I mentioned I bought Salomon 4D GTX hiking boots. They required very little break in and have been great through all of my trips. A quadriped is always more stable than a biped (ever see a centipede fall over?) so I bought a pair of Leki Thermolite XL trekking poles. I had only a few pairs of what I’d consider “real” socks, but they were mixes and I wanted 100% wool so I bought a smattering of Smartwool socks. As you can only bring 15kg/32lbs on this trip you only have room for a few changes of clothes I also bought several Smartwool and Icebreaker merino wool base layer pants and tops. Aside from being warm, merino has the added benefit of not getting as smelly as some of the synthetic fabrics. I bought several pairs of Kuhl Liberator Convertible pants which can zip off into shorts for the warm temperatures at the beginning of the trek. I really wanted a bunch of Arc’teryx gear, but just couldn’t bring myself to overcome their exorbitant prices. I decided on several outerwear pieces from Patagonia. Their new Nano Air jacket is great for comfort and breathability and when paired with the 8oz Patagonia M10 hard shell and REI down vest kept be plenty warm in the 0oF snowstorm in Yellowstone. I also bought a pair of REI shell pants. To carry all of this stuff I picked out a Osprey Stratos 34 daypack and a Patagonia 120L Black Hole Duffel for the porters and yaks to carry.
I’d better be in great shape.
Lastly, as much as this trek can be done by both the young and old, fat and thin, I figured I could minimize some of the physical stress (misery?) by being in the best shape possible. Over the past years I’ve done many of the Beach Body workout programs including P90X, Insanity, Body Beast and P90X3. One of the selling features for me is that I can do them all at home, save for Body Beast which required more weights than I owned, and there was really almost no excuse not to exercise. I can’t complain that the gym is closing or the weather is bad if the commute to the gym involves walking to my kitchen which never closes.
I decided to try two new programs in the months leading up to the EBC trek. The first was Shaun T’s T25. There is no reason not to exercise for 25 minutes/day. Its a great program that got me into great cardio shape and required almost no equipment. There is a need for a few weights, but nothing more than 10-15 lb dumbbells. After completing T25 I moved on to his brand new Insanity Max:30. Its all the misery of the original Insanity crammed down into 30 minutes. In Max:30 your body is your equipment. Its a super intense workout full of cardio, plyometrics and push ups and just furthered the muscle definition and cardiovascular ability I’d attained with T25.
I’ve also learned over the past year that hiking muscles are a different set than typical workout muscles. Just go on a long fast hilly hike and you’ll realize this. There are a lot of great local parks with hiking trails ranging from 3-6 miles in length, although sadly I can only get maybe a 50ft elevation change from ~700 to 750ft and the air is still ripe with oxygen down there. I’d load a my backpack up with a bunch of weight and speed hike the trails keeping around 15 minute miles with the sometimes rough muddy terrain.
The other thing I did to get my climbing muscles into shape was hiking the 10 flights of stairs at the hospital I work. I’d take my backpack, go in early before a shift and hike them up and down over and over. It was quite the workout leaving me sweaty and breathless at times with a heart rate of 130.
The only thing left to do was to pare down my gear to my final items, make a video of this process and head over to Nepal!