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The Himalayas loom in the distance. Photo courtesy of Les Connell

Hike to Mount Everest base camp 40-plus years in the making

My friend Joel Blalock and I have talked about hiking on Mount Everest for decades, but it wasn't until this past September, when I was a 71-year-old cancer survivor, that we made it happen.

Joel was from South Carolina, and we met when we were in boot camp at Fort Dix, New Jersey, in 1968. We became close friends, and after our discharge, began climbing mountains (36 all told). While we dreamed about Mount Everest, it was financially and logistically out of the question. But in more recent years, we entertained the idea of trekking to the base camp as opposed to attempting to scale the entire mountain.

Realizing that the years were advancing fast, we decided that 2016 needed to be the year. While climbs to the top of Mount Everest are always in the spring, fall is considered the best time to trek to the base camp.

As we were making plans for a fall climb, I was contacted by a mission organization to see if I wanted to go to Beijing for some mission work the first two weeks of September. The timing was perfect. I could travel to China and then fly to Nepal and connect up with Joel, who currently lives in Spokane, for the trek.

We signed on with a trekking company, Nepal ECO Adventures, and arrived in Kathmandu Sept. 16. There were four people in our party, plus two guides and two porters. Each porter carried the heavy packs of two of the members, and the hikers carried daypacks.

We flew into Lukla, Nepal, 9,318 feet above sea level, which is considered the second-most dangerous airport in the world. Our team spent three days waiting in the Kathmandu airport for the weather to clear, but it never cleared, so we hired a helicopter.

The trek began Sept. 20. Forty miles and seven days later, on Sept. 26, we arrived at the base camp, 17,600 feet above sea level. Nights were spent in “tea houses” in villages along the trail. These primitive tea houses are owned by Nepalese people who provide meals.

The tea houses usually consist of 10 to 20 small, unheated rooms with two bunks. There is a common “bathroom” with no hot water and no shower, and the water is not safe to drink. Some tea houses have regular toilets and some have “squatty potties.” In some tea houses, the dining room is heated, by a stove fueled with yak dung, for the evening meal. The food is generally not tasty and quite limited in variety. Yak meat is usually available, but is yucky.

We had monsoon rains one day and snow three days. The trails are well marked and very heavily traveled. Excellent foot bridges span the rivers. Our team arrived back at Lutka Sept. 30. The weather was fine, and we were able to take the fixed-wing airplane back to Kathmandu. I flew out Oct. 1, with stop-overs in Turkey, Poland and England before arriving home.

I was treated for prostate cancer in 2010 as a result of exposure to Agent Orange while serving overseas with the Army in 1969.

Someone once asked if I would consider trekking to the base camp again. My reply was a resounding no. It was tough, but I would not trade the experience for anything.

— Les Connell is owner of Northridge Center senior assisted-living facility near Phoenix.

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