WALLA WALLA, Wash. -- New Yorker Robert Anderson and his "Millennium" expedition hope to add to the lore of Mt. Everest later this month by reaching the 29,028-foot summit in time to celebrate the dawning of a new year.
Meanwhile, a small group of adventuresome Whitman College students are setting their sights only slightly lower than Anderson and his rare winter attempt to scale Everest's north face.
Rather than spend the holidays at home with family and friends, the nine Whitman students leave Seattle, Wash., for Nepal this Saturday, Dec. 18, for a month-long trekking exploration they hope will take them as high as the desolate Everest Base Camp at 17,500 feet, just below the imposing Khumbu Icefall.
Geoff Kunz, a senior geology major and outdoor enthusiast from Seattle, looks forward to the challenge of reaching the base camp. Even with the help of Sherpa guides and their yaks, however, reaching that goal will depend on the severity of the weather and how well each of the students acclimates to the higher altitudes and possible onset of altitude sickness. "For me, reaching the base camp would be huge," Kunz admits. "I've heard so many stories and read so many books about climbing Everest. It would great to make it as far as the base camp."
David Prins, a freshman from Snohomish, Wash., also stirs with excitement at the prospect of reaching the Everest base camp, which isn't surprising for someone who earned his Eagle Scout rank at age 14 and has already trekked his way to the top of California's Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48 states at 14,495 feet, and the five highest peaks in the state of Washington.
"Making the base camp would be incredible, but none of us wants to push beyond what the conditions might allow at the time," Prins says. A member of Washington's Mountaineers Club, Prins learned long ago that caution is essential for those who wander very far into the great outdoors.
Kunz, shop manager of the Outing Program at Whitman for the last 18 months, agrees that safety comes first. "We're going to have a great time, regardless of how far we go."
Tom Penzel, who manages the Whitman Outing Program, organized the trip earlier this fall after bringing Jamling Norgay to campus as a guest speaker. Norgay, who operates a trekking guide agency in Nepal, is the son of legendary Tenzing Norgay, the Sherpa guide who first scaled the Everest summit in 1953 with New Zealander Edmund Hillary.
The Whitman students will leave Seattle at the 7:30 p.m. Saturday, flying by way of San Francisco, Taipei and Bangkok, before arriving in Kathmandu on Dec. 20. They will fly to Luklu on Dec. 22, begin their trek and spend their first night at Phakding, elevation 8,700 feet. They will enter Sagarmatha National Park the next day and trek to Thame, a Sherpa village, at the 12,500-level. They will spend Christmas day there and help with an environmental clean-up project at a monastery.
By Dec. 28-29, the group hopes to visit the Tengpoche Monastery (12,680), the region's spiritual center, and then ascend to Dingboche (14,500) in time to celebrate New Year's Eve. Their Sherpa guides are supposedly planning a party.
If the group stays on schedule, it will reach Lobuje at 16,200 feet on Jan. 1 and Gorak Shep at 17,000 feet on Jan. 2. The target date for the Everest base camp is Jan. 3, where the group hopes to spend a few days cleaning up refuse and packing it onto yaks. Their return trip should reach Lukla by Jan. 9 and Kathmandu by Jan. 13. The flight back to the U.S. is slated for Jan. 15.
For Kunz, Prins and the other Whitman students, the trip will be more than pilgrimage to a region viewed worldwide as the mecca of mountaineering. Jennifer Chong, a Whitman sophomore from Woodinville, Wash., who plans to major in sociology and environmental studies, looks forward to visiting a small country that is home to numerous ethnic groups and religions.
"We're going to visit schools in addition to the monasteries, and we'll be staying with different families at times," Chong says. She also likes the idea of helping clean up refuse left behind by other trekkers and visitors to the area.
On the eve of their trip, the students expressed few reservations about the trip's cost (about $3,000 per student), being away from family and friends during the holidays, possible encounters with altitude sickness symptoms (headache, nausea, loss of energy), or even the thought of being stranded in a Third World country should the Y2K phenomenon throw transportation systems, or civilization itself, into chaos.
"I'd love to get stuck in Nepal," Chong says with a chuckle. "I can't think of a better place, in fact."
Doug Royer, a Whitman freshman from Bloomington, Minn., adds a bit of dark humor, noting that in the case of Y2K's worst-case scenario, a nuclear holocaust, "I'd rather be in the middle of nowhere than the streets of a large city like Seattle or New York. I doubt that very many strategic nuclear weapons are pointed at Nepal right now."
All kidding aside, Royer says his parents are "sad" about his holiday absence but still supportive of his trip to Nepal. "My dad says he wishes he could go."
Unlike Royer, Liz Briggs, a junior politics major from Boise, Idaho, isn't quite so sure about Nepal's relative geographic safety, given the ongoing hostilities between two of its nuclear-armed neighbors, India and Pakistan.
"I have to admit that makes me a little nervous," Briggs says.
A list of the Whitman students making the trip to Nepal follows:
- Liz Briggs, junior, 1996 graduate of Boise High School, daughter of Edwin and Sally Briggs, Boise, Idaho.
- Jennifer Chong, sophomore, 1998 graduate of Woodinville, Wash., daughter of Warren and Nancy Chong, Woodinville, Wash.
- Michael Kalk, freshman, 1998 graduate of Corvallis High School, son of Peter and Carole Kalk, Corvallis, Oregon.
- Geoff Kunz, senior, 1996 graduate of Seattle Preparatory School, son of James and Jean Kunz.
- David Prins, freshman, 1999 graduate of Snohomish High School, son of Philip and Lori Prins, Snohomish, Wash.
- Doug Royer, freshman, 1998 graduate of Kennedy High School (Bloomington, Minn.), son of Daniel and Denise Royer, Bloomington, Minn.
- Mary Jo Southwick, freshman, 1999 graduate of Wasatch High School, daughter of James and Angela Southwick, Heber City, Utah.
- Adam Templeton, sophomore, 1998 graduate of Mounds View High School (St. Paul, Minn.), son of James and Denise Templeton, Shoreview, Minn.
- Megan Whalen, freshman, 1999 graduate of Riverdale Country School (Bronx, N.Y.), daughter of Brian and Deborah Whalen, New York, N.Y.