The Peak Years
How do you approach life in your 70s? A Chevy Chase writer finds the beginning of an answer at Mount Everest.
Sprawled on a boulder atop a Himalayan promontory, I had the view of a lifetime.
Through the late morning haze rising from the Indian subcontinent, I could just make out the faint outline of a great rock pyramid in the far distance: Makalu, the world’s fifth highest mountain. To the north was the snowy south face of Cho Oyu, another 25,000-foot giant. Straight across, Lhotse stuck her nose haughtily into the blue sky. And to her left, imperious, graceful and unmistakable, Sagarmatha. The Goddess. Everest.
Our small group had hiked for hours up rock and dirt switchbacks to reach the tattered, windblown prayer flags marking Gokyo Peak, a legendary point high above cobalt blue lakes in the Nepalese Khumbu region, from which to see four of the world’s 10 highest mountains close up. Now at the top, my 71-year-old body was too whipped to let me fully savor the sublime panorama.
The altimeter on the wrist of Stuart, my younger trekking mate, read almost 17,500 feet—more than a mile higher than the top of any Rocky Mountain ski lift I’d ever ridden.
I dozed off.
It had been nearly a year since I e-mailed Rick Wilcox in North Conway, N.H., to ask him to hold a spot for me on his annual trek to Everest Base Camp. I knew Rick slightly from winter excursions to New Hampshire with my son, Shannon. Rick was a well-known figure in New England mountaineering, having led the first team from the area to summit Everest in 1991. I knew he would take good care of me.
I was ending a career of more than three decades as a reporter at The Washington Post, and Shannon was graduating from Landon School and heading to college. It was goodbye to deadlines, SAT Prep and 5:30 a.m. sandwich duty before swim practice. What better way to mark a major life transition than hiking 125 miles through rhododendron forests, over wobbly cable bridges hundreds of feet above roaring Himalayan torrents, across 15,000-foot passes and up glaciers strewn with boulders the size of subway cars?
That’s what I told myself anyway. Though fit and healthy, I was, by any geriatric standard, getting old. And I wondered: How do you “reinvent yourself” at 71? Do you stay immersed in the rough and tumble? Throw yourself into a worthy cause? Seek new experiences, like Ulysses in the Alfred Tennyson poem, who turned his back on domestic comforts—and responsibilities—in search of new adventures and ultimate fulfillment, as I had done exactly 50 years earlier?
Fresh out of college in 1959, I spent nearly a year working my way around the world on tramp freighters. While friends registered for law school or settled into careers, I soaked up Jack Kerouac, hung out on the docks of seedy Asian ports and, eventually, hitchhiked through the Khyber Pass to Kabul, long before the Afghan capital became a mecca for tripped-out hippies. I was young, free and writing on blank pages.
Then came two years in the Army, two marriages, three children, 5,000 deadlines, suburban mowing and raking. My trip journal was relegated to a desk drawer, and the free spirit who inspired it succumbed to the satisfying, yet quotidian, reality of career and family.
The caution ingrained over a lifetime was painfully obvious as I made preparations for the Everest excursion in the winter and spring of 2009 and considered all the reasons I should back out: an overdue paper I owed a Washington think tank; Shannon’s spring cycling season; lacrosse games of my grandson, a star at Georgetown Prep.
And there was a nagging question. I was running 15 miles a week, scampering up trails at Whiteoak Canyon and Old Rag in Virginia on weekends, and doing laps with a loaded pack on the escalator at the Bethesda Metro Station. But at 71, would I have the stamina to keep up in higher altitudes? I worried, too, that the altitude could worsen the glaucoma condition that had left me partially blind. Studies had found that climbers at high altitudes can suffer optic nerve damage from oxygen deprivation, known as hypoxemia.
I e-mailed Rick my concerns. Back came a breezy reply: All would be well.
And so, in April 2009, after weeks of self-doubt and second-guessing, I took the most difficult step of the journey. I stepped onto the plane at Dulles.
Four days later, after a 17-hour plane ride from Los Angeles to Bangkok and a two-day stop in Kathmandu for sightseeing, our Twin Otter puddle hopper landed on an upward slanting runway built into the side of a hill at Lukla, Nepal, portal for trekkers and climbers heading for Everest.
We were a motley bunch: Frank, a Boston police captain, and his 15-year-old son, John; Charlie, an engineer from Massachusetts; Jimmy, a Brooklyn-born nurse-practitioner who cranked out puns and wisecracks with the timing of Woody Allen; Stuart, a “grip” for the traveling theatrical production of Wicked; and Jay, a summer camp director and jack-of-all-trades.
Finally, there was Rick. At 61, his days of summiting the major peaks were over, but he had already done it all, scaling big rock walls in Yosemite, climbing Everest, working in the Yukon and posting the second ascent of Cho Oyu from the Nepal side. In 1974, he and two others took over the Mountain Rescue Service of New Hampshire. It has since launched more than 500 rescue missions and saved dozens of lives.
Growing up close to New Hampshire’s mountains, Rick had dreamed of climbing Everest. It was an offbeat idea for the son of a Congregational minister, and he confided to us that he had “made my deals with God” in tight spots on mountains. And the good Lord had been with him. Hanging onto a huge rock wall in Yosemite one time, he’d slipped and fallen 30 feet—but a spring-loaded device that expands when stuck in a crack had prevented him from falling farther.
It was Rick’s faith in himself, though, rather than in the Almighty, that intrigued me. He hadn’t wavered from pursuing the life he wanted even when the odds were against him. To an old guy beginning to deal with existential questions about what made a good life, that was as inspiring as Rick’s climbing feats.
Aided by Khansha, our head Sherpa, and a team of three women Sherpas, a cook, four porters and several zhos (horned pack animals that are a cross between a yak and a cow), we set out from Lukla on a fine spring morning.
Our route would take us from Lukla to Namche Bazaar, the terraced market town at the convergence of three valleys, then along the roaring Dudh Kosi (“Milk River”) to Gokyo, back out along the Ngozumpa Glacier running down from Cho Oyu, across Cho La Pass to the main Everest route, up Dead Yak Hill and, finally, to Gorak Shep, an outpost with a teahouse that boasted the highest Internet service in the world. From our camp there, we would climb Kala Patthar (the “Black Rock”), with a spectacular view of Everest and of the base camp below. Then, after a night’s sleep back at Gorak Shep, we would hike to the base camp itself.
Reaching Gorak Shep would take 12 days and bring us from an elevation of 9,380 feet in Lukla to 18,333 feet at Kala Patthar. But as we soon learned, that was a bit misleading. Himalayan trails follow the contours of a roller coaster, and every day has its share of climbing, even on the way down.
On the second day out from Lukla, we caught our first glimpse of Everest through a break in the pine and cedar forest. Its sister, Lhotse, shimmered alongside. They were distant reminders of the miles still ahead, but our excitement rose.
The trail was never boring. As we climbed toward Namche Bazaar, we walked unsteadily over swaying chain bridges that we shared with porters and zhos staggering under enormous loads of everything from rebars to rice sacks. (Beyond Lukla, rescue helicopters are the only motorized transport, ferrying sick and injured trekkers to lower altitudes.)
At the entrance to a small village, we walked under a tattered banner that read, “Welcome to New Nepal,” relic of the now-dormant Maoist insurgency. We passed teahouses heated by yak dung stoves and electrified by solar panels that powered modern sat phones and computers.
Along the way, we encountered contingents of thrill-seekers and adventurers lured by the Himalayas. There was the 19-year-old Scotsman who claimed to have summited three of the lesser peaks; backpackers on round-the-world excursions; even a couple and their 12-year-old son planning an ascent of Nuptse, a dangerous, 25,000-foot mountain, without the aid of Sherpas.
Under Rick’s tutelage, we learned the protocols and etiquette of this religious land. We kept to the left of mani stones—religious markers painted with white writing denoting Buddhist mantras—and greeted travelers with “Namaste,” Nepali for “I salute the gods within you!” or “Tashi Delay,” meaning, “I honor the greatness of you!” in the Tibetan of the Sherpas.
At lower altitudes I skipped to the front of the group as my yearlong conditioning paid off. But as we rose above 14,000 feet, the altitude began to tell, and I drifted back to the “B Team.” It was not a bad place to be. Frank and I were the “odd couple” there—the old guy and the overweight guy, the “elite” Harvard grad and the cop from a big Catholic family in Dorchester, Mass.—determined not to let Rick down.
Rick’s approach to altitude was that of the seasoned mountaineer: Climb high during the day but, when possible, sleep lower, to ease the process of acclimatization. Even Sherpas who have made hundreds of treks to high altitudes can experience sudden problems, and porters sometimes drop dead with loads on their backs.
Rick carried a Gamow bag, used to simulate a lower altitude and treat the onset of altitude sickness. It had come in handy on the previous year’s trek when he had used it to save the life of a German tourist near death at Namche Bazaar.
At the suggestion of Geoffrey Tabin, a Utah ophthalmologist and Everest summiter who is an expert on altitude and the eye, I carried a pulse oximeter. Clamped onto a finger, it gives an almost instant reading of the percentage of oxygen being absorbed into the blood. My readings sometimes dropped into the 70s at night. Tabin had suggested descending if the reading dipped below 90, but Rick told me to “put that thing away.” Daytime activity would get my oxygen absorption up, he assured me. And it did.
As we moved up into colder, thinner air, we gathered in our mess tent at dinner time, dressed in down parkas, ready to be buoyed by Jimmy’s jokes and Rick’s war stories: tales of climbing the treacherous Hillary Step on Everest without ropes, and sharing his sleeping bag with a toeless Polish climber who had lost his tent at 26,000 feet.