When asked in the early 1920s why he kept attempting to summit Mount Everest – the world’s highest mountain at 29,029 feet high – George Leigh Mallory said, “Because it’s there.”
So why organize a Scouting expedition to the Everest Base Camp in Nepal? Well, because it’s “almost there.”
After all, Mallory was lost on Everest in 1924, just a matter of months after uttering his now-famous quote. The peak wasn’t successfully scaled until the team of Sir Edmund Hillary and his Sherpa Tenzing Norgay reached the “top of the world” in 1953.
Over 200 avid climbers have perished on Everest. Let’s face it: “Almost there” is a lot safer.
“This one you could take scouts on, it was safe, and all the Scouts said Nepal sounded really cool,” said Carrboro Boy Scout Troop 845 leader Brian Burnham, who led the locals’ five-week adventure in Nepal this summer.
Then again, the journey from Jiri, Nepal to the Everest Base Camp at 18,500 feet in altitude was rated as one of the best on the planet, it had never been done by another Scout troop, and most called it impossible – a term that informs almost every great success story.
Plans called for the 13 hikers and eight crew to spend roughly five weeks away, four of which would be on trails in Nepal. Arriving in Katmandu, culture shock was immediate.
“Katmandu was a crazy city,” Burnham said. “There are cars, rickshaws, bikes, and then on the side of the street, you’d see a cow.”
After leaving Katmandu for a 10-hour bus ride to Jiri, roads ended and the real journey began, as the troop hiked to Namche at an elevation of 11,400 feet, up to Namche Bazar through the glacial moraines of the Khumbu Valley and up to the quaint village of Gorak Shep at 16,900 feet. From there, Scouts left in smaller groups to make ascents of Kala Patthar at 18,500 feet and journeys up-valley to Everest Base Camp.
“During our time there we were blessed with incredible views of Everest and the sweeping glaciers down into the valley,” Burnham wrote, “which made it one of the most magnificent places any of us have ever been.”
During the nearly 26-day march skyward, the hikers stayed in small tea houses in the Nepalese villages along the way, where, during the off-season, lodge owners were eager for business.
“They’d literally run us down as we’d enter towns,” Burnham wrote. “We’d even stay for free if we agree to eat dinner and breakfast in their tea house.”
“They were really friendly, and they spoke English pretty well,” hiker and Scout Ryan Lonegan, 14, said.
“Along the trail you just greeted locals you passed with a ‘Namaste’ and went on your way,” said UNC sophomore Zach Jansen, one of the trip leaders who has been on numerous journeys with Burnham’s Troop.
While the Nepalese were accommodating, local lifestyle was not.
“We were in places where there was no running water at all,” Burnham said. “Every once in a while, you’d see electricity.”
All the while, hikers were confronted with the physical demands of an unimaginable incline into thinner and thinner air under the off-season’s daily monsoons. If meager rations virtually devoid of meat and fruit along with constant exertion didn’t suck the energy from the hikers early on, leeches did.
“It was more physically demanding – physically and mentally – than other trips I’d been on,” Jansen said. “Over the first eight days or so, it rained almost every day as we hiked uphill, plus we were getting eaten by leeches. They dropped down out of the trees and lived in the grass.”
At higher elevations, physical exertion and altitude sickness played havoc on appetites.
“Eleven of the 13 scouts were throwing up,” Burnham said. “Just walking up a flight of stairs when you’re at 18,500 feet feels like you’re sprinting a 400 meter dash as fast as you can.”
Along the way, several diversions broke up the tedium, including a stop at a monastery where the Everest-bound climbers traditionally have stopped to receive blessings.
“The local monks said that they would wipe the soccer field with our scrubby lowlander skills,” Burnham wrote. “Obviously we said ‘bring it.’”
With up-valley views of Everest and a 0-0 stalemate looming over the locals, Chapel Hill High’s Jeff Richardson drove in a game-winning goal.”
“We represented America well at 12,000 feet,” Jansen said. The monks were really cool – they didn’t play in their robes – they left them on the sideline, and the Lama was watching on.”
Burnham said the arrival at the Khumbu Valley was the real high point of the trip, altitude notwithstanding.
Heading into the valley was epic “because it took so long to get there,” said Burnham, who had to keep reminding himself of just where the Troop was. “You start to take it for granted. Now I go back and look at pictures and think, ‘Wow, that’s incredible.’”
A series of landslides and floods that washed out roads and submerged villages in Nepal changed the Scouts’ planned route home, diverting them to the precipitous runways of Lukla Airport, where weather delayed flights for four days.
Once out of Nepal, however, the last real challenge of the trip began: readjustment to relatively fast-paced life back home.
“Water fountains,” Jansen said. “For some reason, coming back to the airport in New York, it just stuck with me: there are water fountains with clean fresh water everywhere. There were just no water fountains there. It’s just strange to have the internet, a hot shower, and the ability to drink the water again.”
“You do compare lifestyles,” Lonegan said, “and you see how easy we have it here.”
“So much in Nepal is still done by hand from scratch, if you want a shower you often have to carry an urn of water up from the river,” Burnham wrote. “If you wanted a brick, you’d need to chisel it by hand from a river rock.
“Coming back to the States…you’re always excited share your stories and eat at all of the restaurants you talked about on the trail for weeks,” Burnham said. “But it also re-opens your eyes to many of the parts of day-to-day life that we often take for granted.”
Next summer, the troop will likely set off on a cross-country bike trip to raise money for cancer research, and 2016 may bring about a trip to South America.
“We talked about doing a Habitat for Humanity build in Peru,” Lonegan said.
In the meantime, Troop 845 Scouts and trip crew bask in the memories of a vision from, almost, the top of the world, a peak that most them had no aspirations to summit.
“I have no desire to go up Everest,” Burnham said. “At 18,500 feet, it was miserably tough, and to think about going up over another 10,000 feet would be absurd.”
Still, what might have seemed impossible just a few weeks ago is now just another success story for Troop 845.
“That view of Everest is the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen and probably ever will see,” Jansen said.