By Jack Olson
It seems like it was ages ago. It seems like it could have been last year. About half my life has passed since I made the incredible trek to Mt. Everest.
In 1976 I went to a friend’s house to view a slide show of a trek to Mt. Everest, highest peak in the world at 29,028 feet. Her trek was organized by the REI cooperative. The photos were magnificent, like nothing I’d ever seen or experienced. Their only problem was that they encountered heavy snow on the final day and had to turn back due to danger of avalanches. So close and yet so far. They never saw Mt. Everest.
Coincidentally, I had just joined REI and received my first catalog. I opened it and saw the announcement: Go to Mt. Everest. YES! They were offering treks in spring and fall 1977. It was Christmas Eve but I immediately called the Nepal embassy in Washington, D.C. The embassy was closed but I got the ambassador’s home. A young boy answered. I blurted out, “Are the Himalayas better in spring or fall?” He told me he didn’t know, he’d only lived in Washington, D.C. “I’ll ask. Call me back in an hour.”
I don’t think I breathed that whole hour. When I called back he said, “Oh, the spring is so beautiful, with all the bushes in bloom and the flowers. Fall is also very nice and maybe a little better weather.” I thanked him profusely. Spring was sooner than fall, so I would go in spring. I really, really wanted to go to Mt. Everest.
It was March and we flew all day to get to Delhi, India. We had to spend the night there since the Kathmandu airport could not accept night landings. There was a little excitement in the Delhi airport. Officials there had no interest in the vicious ice ax I was carrying but spent several minutes buzzing, in Hindi, I guess, over my Swiss army knife. I got to keep it.
The trek began a few days later and we piled into the back of a truck which took us to a village near the Tibetan border. Expectation and excitement overflowed as we took the first steps on what would be 180 miles of up and down over six mountain ranges before we finally swung north toward Mt. Everest.
The lowlands in Nepal are mainly Hindu but as we started our final slow trek we entered the Buddhist Sherpa country. The leaders of our trek were all Sherpas. Some welcomed us into their homes for a cup of tea but all of our camps were in the outdoors. Up, up, up we trod, always being greeted by friendly Sherpas: “Namaste,” they called.
Our group of nine, plus Sherpas, porters and yaks, passed through the main Sherpa village of Namche Bazaar where I honed my non-existent bargaining skills. We camped outside the Tengboche Monastery, where monks performed some of their religious rituals. Our trail continued above timberline and we camped for two nights at 14,500 feet to acclimatize. It was strange to be standing higher than at any time I’d been on Colorado’s 14,000 foot peaks, and be on a valley floor with ramparts of Himalayan walls towering above us. When we started climbing the next day we found that about an inch of snow had fallen overnight. At the end of the day we topped the terminal moraine of the Khumbu Glacier.
We were camped at 15,500 feet and my tentmate, Sam, and I were both sick. Real sanitation was just not possible in Nepal at that time. The plan was for our group to move ahead to our base camp at Gorak Shep, at about 17,300 feet. The next day we would ascend Kala Patar, something over 18,500 feet, to get the classic view of Everest. You couldn’t see it from our base camp due to the massive walls of rock and ice. Sam and I didn’t think we could hold out two days. We needed to get up in one day and then get down to a small clinic at about 14,000 feet, run by some Americans. We got permission from our trek leader to try it.
The climb up the Khumbu Glacier was gradual, but steady. Technical climbing equipment was not necessary. We got to the base of Kala Patar in no worse shape. We began to plod, to slog upward. It was much slower than any pace I’d ever had to set on the Colorado 14ers. We got about halfway up, turned, and we could see the top of Everest. Was that good enough? Strangely enough, it wasn’t. Is this a guy thing? I left my pack there and went ahead with just my ice ax and camera.
From here on the climb became an imperceptible trudge. Five breaths and a step, five more breaths and another step. But you could always take another step. We neared the top, stepped on the top. I turned and was swept by the full view of Mt. Everest, from bottom to top. For a fraction of a second, an infinitesimal fraction, I was the happiest person in the world.
Back in Kathmandu Sam and I were having breakfast in the hotel. He looked over at two middle-aged couples and exclaimed, “That’s Dolf Reist.” “Who?” I said, clueless. “Dolf Reist. He’s the second man to climb Mt. Everest.” Only Sam would know that. He said we should go over and introduce ourselves. Sam was pushy like that. We talked awhile and then I impulsively asked if he would autograph a postcard of Mt. Everest. He did and then he wrote the date, April 9, 1977. I gasped, “It’s my birthday!” So Sam, three others and the second man to climb Mt. Everest sang “Happy Birthday” to me.
It seems like it was yesterday.