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Ed Viesturs Returns to Nepal with his Son for a Philanthropic Trek in the Himalaya
Posted on June 17, 2016

Ed and Gil Viesturs trekking above Gokyo Lake and the village of Gokyo

As the first American to summit all 14 of the 8,000-meter peaks without supplemental oxygen, Ed Viesturs is recognized as one of the greatest American mountaineers of all time. His connection to Everest and the Khumbu Valley also runs deep, with seven summits of the world’s tallest peak and 31 Himalayan expeditions to his credit. So when his son Gil expressed an interest in experiencing the Himalaya through a senior project installing portable solar panels in remote Sherpa villages, it was both a chance to visit old friends and a chance to see the place through fresh eyes. It is a powerful father-son story of marking time through the mountains, but Ed’s words tell the story best. —LYA Editor

Getting panels ready for donation in Machermo.

Words by Ed Viesturs, Photos by Jon Mancuso

In early May of 2016, I made my 20th trip back to Nepal. It was my first time going there without a large Himalayan climb on my agenda, and it was also the first time traveling there with my 18-year-old son Gil. Not having the pressure of an 8,000-meter peak looming over me—and the chance to spend three weeks with my son—made for a unique and extremely enjoyable expedition.

The initial impetus for the journey was Gil’s senior project—to deliver portable solar panels and batteries to villagers in need of a reliable power source, which had been severely disrupted by last year’s earthquake. Immediately after the quake in May of 2015, I worked with a team out of Aspen called 8KPeak.com to raise funds to buy a number of similar solar units and ship them over to Nepal as part of the relief efforts. With the remaining funds, we were able to buy more of these devices, which Gil and I then took with us this year.

Coincidentally, I had also recently become involved with Katie Rose and Andy Fischer-Price, the children of the late Scott Fischer, as they worked to raise funds to rebuild a Himalayan English Boarding School in Lukla that had been damaged in the earthquake, and which was to be named in Scott’s honor. In March, I spoke at a fundraiser in Seattle for them, and was also planning for another such event in Santa Monica in June. Gil and I planned to visit this school at the end of our trek to see the reconstruction progress and also deliver a solar unit to the headmaster, Dawa Geljen Sherpa. (http://sherpacares.org/donate)

After almost twenty hours of travel, we arrived in Nepal. We spent one day touring the city of Kathmandu and finalizing our packing. Parts of the city had changed dramatically since my first visit in 1987, the development driven to cater to the influx of tourists with new hotels, restaurants and shops, whereas other parts remained the same as they have for generations. Many of the older temples and buildings that had been damaged by the earthquake were still in disrepair. We also saw several tent cities, where the people who had been displaced from their destroyed homes were now living. Tourism provides a generous and stable income to those residents somehow involved in it, but for many other Nepalis and Sherpa, it can be a day-to-day existence on the fringes of poverty.

“Parts of the city had changed dramatically since my first visit in 1987, the development driven to cater to the influx of tourists with new hotels, restaurants and shops, whereas other parts remained the same as they have for generations.”

 

After our day in Kathmandu, we took the short 45-minute flight to the airstrip in Lukla at 7,000 feet, which is basically a ribbon of tarmac placed on the side of a cliff. For landing, you fly into the cliff, and to take off, you fly off the edge of it. It was quite exciting, especially for Gil.

From Lukla we began our trek, which would take us along the main trail towards Everest Base Camp for the first two days, and then we were diverted off it towards the Gokyo region. I wanted to visit Everest Base Camp, but our plan was to do so near the end of our trip, when we reconnected with the main trail as we circled clockwise after 12 days of walking.

I’d not been to the Gokyo region and was excited to visit new villages and to see peaks that I was familiar with, but would now see them from a completely different angle. Our pace of walking was much faster than most other trekkers and we passed many groups along the way. A typical trekking day might be 5 to 8 hours from village to village, and we usually did these stages in half that amount of time. Even though some days seemed quite short for us, we had to temper our desire to go farther simply based on the altitude we had gained. Altitude is invisible, and if you go too high, too fast, you can suffer the consequences of altitude-related illnesses.

Arriving at these villages early in the day would give us time to check into our lodge and assess what we called the “charm” of the accommodations. The more rustic and less comfortable we would label “very charming,” with a facetious tone. We’d have a satisfying lunch (typically rice or noodles mixed with a medley of vegetables and the ever-present milk tea) and then go for a hike in the afternoon, to climb a neighboring peak or ridge, to acclimatize a bit more and to find out what we could see from higher up.

“Arriving at these villages early in the day would give us time to check into our lodge and assess what we called the “charm” of the accommodations. The more rustic and less comfortable we would label “very charming,” with a facetious tone.”

 

From Gokyo, we spent one afternoon climbing Gokyo Ri. From its 17,500-foot summit—and Gil’s first Himalayan high point—we could see the top of Everest, although it was shrouded somewhat by a filter of clouds. He had been training for cross-country running prior to our trip, so he was in great shape. In a “competitive spirit,” we tended to push each other to climb rather quickly, far outpacing the typical trekker.

Gil is also a bit of a water hound, and if there was an unfrozen body or stream of water nearby, he would be in it. The village of Gokyo is at 15,500 feet, and it sits on the shores of the ice-cold Gokyo Lake. The villagers thought that this American tourist had lost his marbles when they saw Gil dive in and swim around, albeit rather quickly.

After a long day of trekking and exploring, we’d congregate in the dining room of our lodge with other trekkers. Dinners would be some variation of what we had for lunch, doused with a good amount of whatever local homemade chili sauce was available. Each lodge owner had their own variation and heat intensity of this hot sauce, and we were becoming quite the aficionados of this condiment. The hotter, the better. Tears and gasping for breath meant that we had some good stuff! Then we’d turn in and be up at daybreak. A breakfast of cheese toast or Tibetan bread, some milk coffee and then on to the next village, wandering through valleys and over passes.

 

The Cho La at 17,500 feet was the highest pass we crossed after leaving Gokyo. I loved the simplicity of what we were doing. Each day was similar as far as our agenda, yet in a different place. No phones, no bills, no traffic jams, just walking along a beautiful trail. Along the way, we met many people who had been affected by last year’s earthquake. I left it up to Gil to find those that he wanted to give our solar products to.

Among those who received these units: two older twin sisters who were lodge owners, both of whom had their power sources disrupted by the earthquake; a young schoolboy who walked many miles to school and back each day, and needed lighting at night to do his homework; and a yak herder who stayed high in summer pastures in rustic huts without any source of lighting. Cell service is also quite pervasive throughout the Khumbu region, and being able to charge a cell phone for basic communication is also quite essential. Each gift of a solar unit brought huge smiles and many thanks. Our only regret was not having more of these to give away.

 

We eventually reconnected with the main trail leading to Everest Base Camp, and then we were among many others making that pilgrimage. I wanted to visit base camp for old times’ sake and to have Gil see what this international village of climbing teams looked like. My first stay at base camp was in 1991, and my last was in 2009 when I was there with the Eddie Bauer First Ascent team. I’d spent seven seasons at this place and had many lasting memories.

Along the way we climbed Kala Patthar, an 18,500-foot “hill” that one typically climbs to get a view of Everest. Again, another high point for Gil. The next day we arrived at Everest Base Camp, and here we were hosted by my friends from New Zealand-based Adventure Consultants.

“The Sherpa are, in my opinion, the true unsung heroes of any successful Everest ascent. The paths they pave, the rope they fix, and the loads that they carry on behalf of all Everest aspirants are truly amazing. Without their help, many climbers would never be able to climb Everest.”

 

In the mid ’90s worked for Rob Hall as an assistant guide, as well as for his organization on two Everest trips and two ascents of Cho Oyu. After Rob’s death on Everest in 1996, the company continued under the leadership of Guy Cotter. It has grown into one of the premier global guide services.

At the Adventure Consultants base camp, we were treated like royalty. Each of us was given a luxurious tent, a shower, warm meals, and wonderful hospitality by the staff and team members. Gil was blown away by the five-star treatment.

Base camp accommodations have come a long way since my first trips there in the late ’80s. Today there is cell service, carpeted dining tents, amazing food, and solar-powered lighting, just to name a few of the upgrades. On my first trips to Everest, you’d often get home before the letters that you wrote from base camp got to their intended recipients. But it is very different in the Internet age.

I took Gil to the base of the Khumbu Icefall, and there we spent several hours watching Sherpa coming down on one of their carries from one of the higher camps. The Icefall had just opened, and even though the Sherpa had already begun carrying loads and fixing rope, no Westerners were yet ready to begin their acclimatization forays onto the upper mountain. The Sherpa are, in my opinion, the true unsung heroes of any successful Everest ascent. The paths they pave, the rope they fix, and the loads that they carry on behalf of all Everest aspirants are truly amazing. Without their help, many climbers would never be able to climb Everest. They are paid well, and do love their work, but the risks they take and the effort they exude are like only a few other jobs on Earth.

“There were several lodges along the way that had noticeable damage and were therefore empty and condemned, the previous owners not being able to afford any reconstruction, or perhaps still waiting for government relief funds.”

 

After a night at base camp, we said farewell to our hosts and began the journey back to Lukla. On our way back, on the more developed parts of the Everest Base Camp trail, we saw some signs of the previous year’s earthquake, although much of what had been destroyed was already rebuilt or in some stage of construction. But there were several lodges along the way that had noticeable damage and were therefore empty and condemned, the previous owners not being able to afford any reconstruction, or perhaps still waiting for government relief funds. Many locals told me stories of how quickly relief funds had come to the upper Khumbu, where all the Everest trekkers frequented, versus the villages in the lower Khumbu, where the funds had yet to arrive, simply because it was in an area that was less noticeable.

At the end of our trek, back in Lukla, we visited with Dawa Geljen Sherpa and saw the progress of the newly built Himalayan English Boarding School. The school itself was only 10 days from completion and had been funded by the event we held in Seattle just two months earlier. Yet to be built was a dormitory to house the students from villages more than a day’s walk away, and also a permanent solar array that would supply reliable, consistent energy for lighting and computer stations. These parts of the school would be funded, we hoped, by our fundraiser in Santa Monica in June.

Dawa Geljen’s vision is to teach the Sherpa children English and computer skills, while also maintaining their heritage. (Sherpa children who need to go to school in Kathmandu quickly get absorbed into the Nepali lifestyle and lose their cultural heritage.) With these tools, these kids could go farther and dream bigger.

Seeing this newly completed school in Lukla and having had a hand in the rebuilding efforts—it was to be named in honor of my friend Scott Fischer—and seeing the impact of Gil’s gifts of solar panels and batteries to people in need gave me a feeling of satisfaction, knowing that we did something worthy while visiting the beautiful country of Nepal. It was, for me, a small gift of thanks for all of the great memories and experiences I had when visiting this amazing land. The people of this country will always be my friends, and my hope is that Gil created some lasting memories and friendships as well.

Ed and Gil on the move at 14,000 ft in the Khumbu.

Learn more about Ed and his impressive mountaineering achievements at team.eddiebauer.com.

Author: - Friday, June 17th, 2016
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