I’ve been back in the good old US of A for two weeks now. On reflection, I’d like to share a few thoughts in a final post to this blog:
- There is nothing like traveling abroad, especially in a third-world country, that makes one appreciate one’s home country. Some things I have come to appreciate more:
– American food and grocery stores!
– clean air (wildfires notwithstanding)
– freedom to travel unrestricted across our country (with no regular police or military checkpoints, as in China)
– universality of the English language
– modern roads, a reasonable traffic control system, and citizens who (mostly) abide by the traffic rules
– a stable source of electrical power, and air conditioning
– the accessibility of a host of great climbs right here in CO
– did I mention the food?
- Mental cleansing and general decompression: can you imagine having six weeks abstinence from email, internet, television, nightly news, cell phone, Facebook, etc.?!? We didn’t see an airplane or a car for over a month. Taking a retreat from tech reminds one how non-essential it truly is, leaving time simply to hang out with some climbing friends and good books, with a panorama of ice-covered peaks, a starful of skies, and a few yaks. As with climbing, it’s good for the soul to experience such liberation! To be sure, I eventually had to wade through a ton of email upon my return (half of it from Facebook, begging me to return) but that is a small price to pay for the total shift of focus as we left civilization behind and immersed ourselves in the beauty and raw power of the Himalayas.
- Despite teaching our High Altitude Mountaineering students that one must “eat one’s way up the mountain”, that is easier said than done at altitude, where climbers burns a lot of calories just keeping warm, where one’s appetite is greatly diminished, and where the food is not always appetizing. As it turned out, I lost about 10% of my body weight during the expedition. In fact, I was a bit concerned going through airport security on the way home, after I removed my belt and lifted my arms for the security scan, that my pants would fall to the floor in the scanner! I also lost about 10-20% of my strength (easy to estimate when I finally got back to the weights in the gym). However, I’m happy to report that I am slowly regaining my ass.
- Lance definitely cheated, and it undoubtedly helped him win! How do I know? because I found out first-hand that blood doping really makes a difference! More than a week after I returned, despite having spent the better part of the previous week recovering from a stomach virus and still feeling weak, I climbed a snow couloir and then summited a 14er, Mt. Evans. Driving up to 11k or 12k feet and then climbing two or three thousand feet to 14k’ often induces mild AMS (e.g. headache) and invariably has me breathing hard. This time, however, I was hardly breathing! It was truly remarkable. My climbing partners Debbie and Wayne had the same experience (Wayne enjoyed running partway up the couloir). I’m sure our red blood cell counts are still way higher than normal, thanks to living at 19k’ for four weeks and climbing to almost 27k’, even after having descended for a couple of weeks. Perhaps I should sign up for a marathon!
- Finally, as I mentioned in my personal blog post “Why I climb”, one of the benefits of climbing is that it teaches important life lessons. I learned an important one during our Cho Oyu expedition: “Just take the next step!”. Those words were the advice of an elite climber, Don Bowie, whom we happened to meet at the airport in Kathmandu. Don was en route to making a solo attempt of Makalu, a difficult, technical 8000m peak (http://www.donbowie.com/makalu-another-day/) . I had previously heard the story of Don’s incredible ordeal on K2, where, after summiting that iconic, most difficult and dangerous peak, his crampons were stolen by a desperate climber. Don had to survive the long, steep, icy descent by downclimbing while relying primarily on his ice tools and upper body strength — and he had to prevail even after suffering a broken leg from a fall during the descent!
Don was kind enough to share with us some information and tips about climbing Cho Oyu, and he left us with some wonderful advice: Don told us that even elite climbers feel wasted when trying to summit 8000m peaks, and the key to their success is simply “to take the next step.” I kept that advice in mind — even making it a mantra — after I began to struggle on summit day and entertained serious doubts about whether or not I could summit. I was feeling weak even at the start of the climb, and then I got hit by a rock prior to the Yellow Band and the steep, technical section. Although, fortunately, the rock hit me squarely in the headlamp, the impact still left me with some cuts on my forehead and bridge of the nose. I was able to stem the bleeding, and a Sherpa happened to have some duct tape that he used to tape up my face so I could continue on. I then had to climb the steep chute in the dark (all that remained of my headlamp was the strap and the baseplate). And then came the seemingly never-ending series of rock bands, which required about three breaths for each step. I kept telling myself, “Just take the next step!”
Fortunately, the weather held, and as I was seriously beginning to consider turning back, I was able to get additional water from Wayne and Tengi Sherpa as they were descending, and they encouraged me by saying I wasn’t too far from the summit snow cap, which was easier going. I finally made the summit after nine hours of continually just taking that next step. I’m sure you see the application of this advice to life in general: whenever you find yourself in a difficult situation, as often happens, just take the next step, and then the next one, and eventually you will get through it.
Thanks again to all of you following the blog, to all who have expressed their support, prayers, and well wishes. We’ll be posting photo albums soon. God bless!
John on summit of Cho Oyu, May 22, 11am (Nepal time)