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The Uphill Climb

Posted by Workbook on 06/14/2012 — Filed under:  FeaturesHeadlineIllustrationMusing On
By Robert Hunt

About a year ago, Brian Stauffer asked me if I had ever seriously thought about going to Mount Everest. I don't know if he had seen my much earlier post about Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary, but he knew we shared lifelong fascinations with the Himalayas. The idea sounded exciting to me, and after assuring my wife there was no risk involved and finding a time that worked, I signed on. This was the beginning of a year of planning and training, which culminated earlier this month when we went to Nepal and underwent a twelve-day expedition to Everest Base Camp.

Physical training primarily consisted of climbing Mount Tamalpais and Bald Hill, whose peaks are 2,500 and 1,100 feet respectively, at least five days a week for the three months before the trek. Though this climbing made me far stronger, it did little to help my ability to cope with altitude, which turned out to be my Achilles heel. Everest Base Camp is at 17,400 feet; Lukla, where our trek began, is at 9,200 feet. Both of these elevations are higher than I had ever been in my life.

Following seventeen hours of flying, we met our guide, Kim Rana, at the Kathmandu airport. After a pre-trek dinner at a local restaurant (at which some extremely strong local beverages were served), we headed back to the airport (where we observed dozens of monkeys on the runway!) for the twenty-five minute, stomach-turning flight to Lukla in a sixteen-seat "Twin Otter." Lukla happens to be the most dangerous airport in the world statistically, but the flight was uneventful and after some comic relief with our luggage, we set off.

I spent a lot of time planning out a strategy to bring materials and tools for painting without making my equipment too heavy for our porter, who would carry most of our stuff. I built a very simple easel from a carbon fiber tripod and a small piece of wood on a ball-head. The easel has an apron that can hang below, in which one places a weight, usually a rock, to stabilize it. This easel was designed to hold 11x14 inch linen panels. I brought five--the theory was that if a painting didn't work, I could wipe it off and reuse the panel until I got something good. I modified a wet-panel carrier box to hold five paintings and a thin wood palette. I brought only four tubes of Holbein Duo water soluble oil paint, a small tube of linseed oil, fifteen sheets of Viva paper towels (three sheets per painting), and five brushes. I arranged in advance to purchase some turpentine in Kathmandu, which proved more complicated than it sounds. All my supplies fit into a very light and cheap backpack that I put into the duffel bag containing most of my gear. The idea was to haul out the painting equipment once we arrived at each day's destination. I underestimated how exhausted we would be at the end of each day's trekking.

Our first hike was from Lukla to Phakding. On this day we lost 500 feet of elevation, but even so, it felt like a very hard day's work to get there. We learned that nothing is EVER level; you are either going up or down a hill at all times, so even if there is little net gain or loss of altitude you wind up doing A LOT of climbing wherever you go. Everything on the trip was visually overwhelming, and I now realize the exotic and unaccustomed nature of everything around me prevented me from listening to my body as much as I should have. In retrospect, I probably was already getting sick from the altitude by the time we reached Lukla.

The next day was one of the hardest days of the trek: the climb from Phakding to Namche Bazaar. Before the climb we crossed five hanging bridges. As we crossed the fourth bridge at Monju I began to feel nauseous. Kim tried to convince me to eat something, but I couldn't force myself to swallow anything. Then we began the climb to Namche. The climb up to Namche took somewhere between two and three hours. I really don't remember much about it except that it took all my will power to put one foot in front of the other, and waves of nausea forced me to stop many times. The road is a very steep rocky path of switchbacks that seemed to go on forever. A thought began to take hold in my mind; I think I even said it to our guide at one point: "I have no right to be here."

After seven hours on the road, an hour longer than it should have taken, we arrived at Namche Bazaar and looking around realized we were now surrounded by gigantic mountains. Having taken note of this, I collapsed and slept  for several hours at the tea house where we were to spend the night. Eventually Kim woke me up for dinner, but I couldn't eat anything except a little soup. I felt like I would be okay if I could get a night's sleep because the next day was an acclimatization day. These days aren't rest days--you simply hike to a higher altitude and come back, the idea is this exercise helps your body acclimate.

The next morning I still felt sick. Kim said something that became important in making future decisions: "If you can't eat, you can't climb." Brian, Kim, and I headed out for our acclimatization hike, but I had to turn back before I even got out of Namche. The nausea and lack of energy were forcing me to walk at such a slow pace that I decided to return to the tea house and take the day off. By the time Brian and Kim returned I felt better and went on a shorter acclimatization hike with Kim to the Sagarmatha National Park entrance, 300 meters above Namche. This is where I got my first view of Mount Everest. But by the time I got back down the hill, I was sick again. Because of the nature of our schedule, I knew I had to start thinking about Plan B.

That night, Kim, Brian, and I discussed the situation. I decided that if I was still sick in the morning, I would stay in Namche by myself and wait for Brian and Kim to go to base camp, five days away. The next morning (after eating almost nothing for three days), Kim made arrangements for me at the tea house, and I hiked up the ridiculously steep 300 meters to the top of the hill above Namche with my friends and then waved them goodbye. Watching Kim and Brian head off toward base camp without me was very, very hard, but it really was not a decision. Decision implies choice, but the truth is there wasn't one. If I had tried to keep going at that point, I almost certainly would have needed to be rescued in a day or two by helicopter. I comforted myself in the knowledge that being susceptible to altitude sickness is not a sign of weakness but merely a biological condition that is unpredictable, and one can't prepare for it. I kept telling myself that, but I felt like I had failed. And I knew there was only one thing I could do to redeem myself, even if only in my own mind, which was to do what I had come to do: paint. I had been given lemons, now I had six days to make lemonade.

On the third day in Namche, the first full day without my companions, I hit rock bottom. I made hundreds of dollars of phone calls home, felt generally sorry for myself, and was physically and emotionally miserable. I made an agonizingly slow climb up the hill to the Internet cafe and collapsed upon returning to my sleeping bag. I began to seriously consider going back down the hill to Monju or returning to Lukla and flying home. Both of those options sounded like total failure to me. I held out and hoped I would feel better soon.

The next morning when I woke up I felt fine. I don't know what happened or why it took four days, but I was completely normal on the forth day in Namche. I ate a regular breakfast, walked up the hill to the Internet cafe and didn't have to stop every twenty feet on the way there. Best of all, I started to have the ability to look around--and I realized I was in the middle of the Himalayas. Suddenly the four remaining days seemed less like a jail sentence and more like an opportunity. I organized my painting stuff, headed out the door and got to work.

My first attempt was Kongde Ri, a complex mountain that looms above the west side of Namche. I often tell students that doing a landscape painting is solving a series of problems, many of which are unique to each painting. Never was this more true for me than in Nepal. The light was extremely bright, but you can't paint in sunglasses. It is hard to orient the canvas to the same light as the subject because the paths are narrow and you can't just set up in a field. The weather changes in minutes from sun to clouds. The wind gusts can be incredible. And other people and things use the paths--large farm animals, either in caravans or on the loose, roam around and you have to get out of the way. For the first painting, I thought I had a good spot, but after about an hour a cow came along. In the scramble to get out of its way I knocked over my turpentine container, and the hard-to-acquire solvent went all over all my supplies, coat, and brushes, which were on the ground. This was a mixed blessing because the "turpentine" I had bought in Kathmandu turned out to be... Well, I have no idea what it was, but it smelled like gasoline and I couldn't stand it. I threw out the remainder in the container and worked the rest of the time without any solvent except water, which I only used to clean the brushes.

A gust of wind also came up and, despite the weight of a cobblestone-sized granite block holding the easel, lifted the easel off the ground. The easel hit me; the painting flew off and blew down the trail, face down. This was amusing to the crowd of onlookers who had gathered to watch me. Unlike Americans, the Nepalese people are friendly to strangers and seemed interested in helping me paint; they would stand behind me and helpfully offer suggestions, especially on the geographic accuracy and spiritual significance of various parts of my paintings. All comments were in Nepalese of course. Still, the results were encouraging.

Using my newly recovered strength, the next morning I climbed up to the Sagarmatha park entrance again. What had been a terrible ordeal two days earlier was now relatively easy. I went up there and looked for a subject to paint; many of the peaks looked more dramatic and closer than Everest, but a voice in my head said: "That's Mount Everest, and you are here. You have to paint it!"

The light and weather were only good in the mornings; overcast, wind and rain constituted the weather in the afternoons. The weather determined my daily routine. The next morning I tried to paint Tamsherku from a little below Namche on the trail. An elderly gentleman sat next to me and watched me work the whole time and chatted with me in incomprehensible (to me) Nepalese. The mountain became obscured by clouds quite quickly, so I decided to try to capture it atmospherically. In the afternoon I got a message that after five days of struggle Brian and Kim had made it to base camp. I was really happy for them.

The next day, day six, I went back up to the top of the climb above Namche. I was considering painting Alma Dablam or Everest again, but a local told me that the spectacular mountain to the left, Kuhmbila, is the holy Sherpa mountain and had never been climbed, but he assured me it would be okay to paint it. I had almost three hours to work before the clouds rolled in, and this time I was really happy with the results. Sometimes you know you have made some kind of breakthrough--this was one of those for me. I don't know if it shows, but I feel as if many problems were solved with this painting. I went down the hill feeling happy and for the first time, on the trek, like I had a right to be there.

The next morning I hiked up toward Everest and Tengboche to meet my friends. Three hours from Namche and about two from Tengboche, I met Brian, Tek, and Kim as they returned from  base camp. I was never so happy to see anyone in my life. We then hiked together back to Namche and that night had a nice celebration at the tea house. The next two days were spent trekking back to Phakding and Lukla. Even this net-downhill travel was stressful, but now that my body had acclimated I felt fine. I am quite certain that had I taken a slower trek schedule (twenty days is not uncommon, though we didn't know this at the time) I would have been able to get to base camp. But if I had made it to base camp, I wouldn't have done the paintings.

When we got back to Kathmandu we learned there was a nationwide Maoist-led strike going on, which essentially shut down the city. We spent three days holed up in Kathmandu trying to get out and three more traveling to get home. In addition to a great artist and conceptual thinker, Brian is a great guy and was a great traveling companion. You couldn't ask to be with a better person in this kind of situation. I would do it again in a minute.

While I was acclimating in Namche, I spent an afternoon making lists in my sketchbook. The first list I started was "list of mistakes," which soon filled several pages and did little to improve my mood. I then started a list called "things I did right." I looked at the blank page for a long time...thinking, and finally I made an entry on this list. The thing I did right: going on this trip. I wouldn't trade the experience for anything. It didn't turn out the way I had planned, but in retrospect, few things really turn out the way we plan, and in this case the opportunity cost of getting to base camp would have been at the expense of doing the paintings. And in the end, my dream is to be an artist, not a mountain climber. I made a little more progress toward that goal on the trip, had a great time, and got home in one piece. Those things were more than enough for me.

I have plans for fourteen paintings. I'll try to have a show when they are done. I hope I can create some paintings that convey the sense of the place. I'll only paint what I saw with my own eyes.

It occurs to me that this article may seem to lack information about Brian's adventures--that is only because he will post his own article shortly. I can't wait to read it!

I want to thank Alina Stauffer for relaying messages to Lynn when I couldn't send them, as well as Keshav Wangle, and Nepal Vision Treks, a great company that really helped when the chips were down. If my article makes you think about doing a trek of this sort, you should get in touch with them--they are the best. Kim Rana was the finest guide imaginable, and I think now, a lifelong friend of both Brian's and mine. Our porter, Sherpa Tek, was great, and we couldn't have done it without him. I also want to thank my beautiful Lynn for letting me go, and especially, I must thank Brian Stauffer, who invited me along and helped me get through some tough days and with great effort accomplished his dream of reaching base camp. I think I got my dream too, although I didn't know what it was when I left home.