Near the top of the world this spring, London physician Mitch Spahn, M.D., confirmed what he had always believed.
“People are the same everywhere. We are all equal with the same goals, fears and love of family,” he said.
The 56-year-old obstetrician affirmed that belief while tackling Mt. Everest as part of an expedition studying wilderness medicine for educational credit.
He climbed 17,600 feet to a base camp on the world’s highest mountain — then another 900 feet to the top of Kala Patthar, a sister peak.
“It was the trip of a lifetime,” Spahn said.
That might be an understatement.
A year of mental and physical conditioning preceded the journey.
Badgered for seven years by a med-school buddy to try an Everest adventure, Spahn said “yes” in the spring of 2016.
Months of cardio-exercise, weight lifting and abundant fluid intake followed as he prepared to face life in thin air.
“The better your physical condition, the better the trip,” Spahn said.
He left Ohio on April 26 and flew halfway around the world to Kathmandu, Nepal.
His climbing party of 44, including 24 doctors, nurses, nurse practitioners and medics, then flew another 100 miles to the Himalayan mountain town of Lukla. Travel from that point on was strictly by foot or yak, he said.
During the next 10 days, they walked a total of 50 miles over mountains, down valleys, and across streams — all the time gradually gaining altitude.
“It was more of a ‘trek’ than a ‘climb,’” Spahn said. “And keeping pace was important.”
Six Sherpa guides and 13 porters did the heavy lifting, hoisting food, medical necessities and everything the group might need on their backs. Spahn said a pack often weighed more than the porter himself.
Spahn and the others carried trekking poles and shouldered 20-pound backpacks stuffed with antibiotics, steroids and the drug Diamox that prevents altitude sickness.
They passed Buddhist temples, shrines and monasteries, as well as primitive mountain medical facilities.
Nights were spent in small villages along the way, discussing the best ways to prevent (and treat) altitude sickness, frostbite, hypothermia, snake bite, lightning strike, poison ivy and a myriad of maladies encountered in the wild. A physician from Alaska — a specialist in wilderness medicine — led the talks.
Accommodations were generally plywood huts. The group’s meatless diet included potatoes, spinach-like veggies and eggs, as well as cheese and milk from female yaks or “naks.”
And they drank tea — lots and lots of hot tea, Spahn said.
Bathroom facilities were sometimes holes in the floor. And bathing in 35-degree rooms was virtually impossible.
“The higher you got, the more primitive it got,” Spahn said.
They reached Everest South Base Camp on May 10 and Spahn raised his arms in victory.
“I always knew I would make it,” he said.
The next day, he trekked up nearby Kala Patthar to shoot close-up photos of Mt. Everest’s towering peak.
The group’s stay at base camp — an international tent city with hundreds of residents — was short. And within five days they were down the mountain and basking in the relative comfort of a Kathmandu hotel.
“You go down much faster than you go up,” Spahn said, laughing.
Although many who get a taste of Everest return to “summit” the mountain, Spahn will not be one of them.
“It was worth it. But once was enough,” he said.
His experiences and encounters with folks from the world’s most remote places renewed his appreciation of life in America.
“We are so blessed,” Spahn said. “We take so many things for granted.”
It also showed him that all people, regardless of background or belief, can live in “civil camaraderie” when facing the same obstacles and aiming for the same goals.
Jane Beathard is a contributing writer for The Madison Press.
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