A CRAZY IDEA:
This story began almost two years ago when I (Gary) was approached by Justin Reimer (founder of The Elisha Foundation), and Kevin Padgett (our Team Leader) with the idea of trekking to Mt. Everest Base Camp. However, the idea was bigger than just a group of friends going on an adventure. This adventure had a purpose. The purpose was to raise a significant amount of money for The Elisha Foundation (TEF) and raise awareness of those impacted by disability around the world. Eli Reimer (Justin’s 15 year old son who has Down Syndrome) and several other teammates signed up for the trip and we all began mentally and physically preparing for the long road ahead.
I had the great responsibility (and privilege) of being in charge of all-things-media related of our trek: logo, website, fundraising materials, soft goods (t-shirts, patches, flag), as well as documenting the trip through my photography and being the DP (Director of Photography) for all the videos we were creating for the trek. It was the perfect combination of my gifts and passions, I loved every minute of it!
THE PREP WORK:
(FYI, the split/square images throughout this blog post are all iPhone images that got Instagrammed)
Our team spent the year leading up to the trip training, gathering gear and planning out all the logistics of our nearly 80 mile trek through the Himalayas. I was extremely grateful for my li’l families support, involvement and encouragement during this season of training (lots of running and hiking through suburbia here in SoCal).
I was also blown away by the generosity of those around us who lent me their outdoor gear for the trek. Most of what you see below was borrowed or gifted from a few VERY generous buddies (Jeff, Taylor, Kyle, Amos, Jim, Kevin… THANK YOU!!!).
Part of the prep included fundraising for The Elisha Foundation. Each trekker committed to raising $10,000 for the organization. With our local and global community’s help (mainly from a crap-ton of awesome photographers who we love and respect), we we’re able to raise over $11,000 for TEF in less than 30 days via our blog (view the fundraising blog post here). By the time we left for Nepal in March, the entire team had collectively raised nearly $100,000 for TEF!!! Throughout the whole process of fundraising we were continually blown away by everyones generosity. Thank you, Thank You, THANK YOU!!!
With my bags packed, prayers prayed, and passports in hand, I left for Los Angeles International Airport to meet up with our team for the journey to Nepal… and ultimately Mt. Everest Base Camp (dunt dunt dunnn). The image below is when Nate Strubhar (the video dude), and I (the photo dude) first met Eli at LAX. Eli was the main focus (media wise) of our trip so Nate and I’s primary objective was to capture and retell his story. I was really excited to get to know Eli and eager to start documenting his journey to Everest. We boarded the huge jumbo jet and took a 10,000 mile plane ride together to the other side of the globe :)
THE JOURNEY BEGINS: Kathmandu
After roughly 38 hours of transit, we arrived late on the night of March 4th in Kathmandu, the [very busy] capital city of Nepal.
Early the next morning we met with our guides to go over all the details for the trek. Our next stop with them was their trekking supply store in the city where we picked up the final necessary gear and supplies for the 16 days we would spend on the trail.
From there we were taken on a quick tour of the city of Kathmandu. The global perspective on disability tends to be fairly critical and stigmatizing so as we headed out into the city we were concerned about how Eli would be received. There was a notable absence of those with cognitive disability as we visited the various religious monuments and spectacles of Kathmandu. There were a few curious stares at Eli but no perceivable comments.
The city of Kathmandu seemed to be very religious (there really isn’t much to do other than go and visit various religious sites throughout the city) but the spiritual vibe of Kathmandu is kinda heavy and dark. There are idols everywhere and people offering gifts to the gods in hopes of appeasing them or gaining good luck. The people in the city were generally polite but a little forward and constantly trying to sell you something…very different from the people we would meet in the mountains who were generally more calm, helpful and welcoming. After a couple days in the bustling city we were ready to ditch the smog and noise and hit the trail.
Throughout the day in Kathmandu our team began to connect on a more personal level. Many of us had just met for the first time as we went through security in LA so it was great so get to know each other as we experienced our first bit of Nepali cuisine together in the city. It became clear early on that this team was a blessed collection of personalities. We honestly enjoyed each other every day of the trip. The camaraderie and humor on this trip felt like it was at an all time high the entire trip. :) I really loved our team! Let me introduce you to them…
MEET THE TEAM:
(Above, starting left to right) Team leader: Kevin, residing in Montana. Eli and his father Justin from Bend, OR.Nate, hailing from Maui. Meghan and Carly (cousins) from the San Luis Obispo area (CA)
Tim, Dr. Lisa, and Gary, all from SoCal.
A SKETCHY FLIGHT:
We woke up early for our flight on a small prop plane to the mountain village of Lukla, where we would begin our trek. We ate a quick simple breakfast (mainly eggs, which would make up a large portion of our daily diet while living on the mountain), double checked that our trail duffle bags (to be carried by porters on the trail) were at or below the 15kg limit and then took off for the airport. After a slight delay we finally boarded our flight and took off from Kathmandu for the 30 minute flight straight up to the mountains. Lukla is rated as one of the most dangerous airports in the world. The runway is only 1,500 feet long, has a 12% gradient, and it sits on the edge of a mountain/cliff at an elevation of 9,383 ft. It’s a do-or-die kind of landing. If you come up short “BAM!” right into a cliff, if you don’t stop in time you’ll run into a huge brick wall that “protects” the village… needless to say, there is little room for error… which means that conditions need to be nearly perfect in order for these small planes to make the landing – thus the reason why there are so many delays in and out of this airport (sometimes lasting up to a week). For me personally, this flight was the one thing I was most worried about for this trip.
The flight from Kathmandu was CRAZY beautiful. As we rose above the city smog, you could see the Himalayas reaching up towards the heavens. It was jawdropping! Words or pictures cannot do it justice – these mountains are just freakishly large – the Himalayan mountain range has over 100 mountain peaks exceeding 23,000ft. We descended over a handful of ridgelines before the runway of the Lukla Airport came into view, cut into the mountainside in front of us. We approached quickly and …BANG, rattle, rattle we were there! (and in one piece…thank you Jesus!)
After landing you walk across the backside of the runway to officially start the trek to Mt. Everest. From this point forward there are only trails (footpaths) in and out.
LIFE ON THE TRAIL: The “Lowlands”
So the first part of the trail is what I’m calling the “low”-lands… even though it ranges from 8,500 to 14,000 feet (hardly “low”). The trail winds through trees, through a long and steep valley and back and forth over a glacier fed river. This first part of the journey is fairly comfortable. Temperatures are in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s and there’s a lot of local villagers going about their normal mountain routines (herding livestock, farming, gathering wood, etc.)
We stayed and ate in small Tea Houses along the trail and shared rooms with a team mate – for me that was my good buddy and media partner, Nate :) Our team gathered for each meal and for afternoon “cookie & tea time” in the common area of the tea house that is often heated by a toasty, warm yak dung fire (pictures of our accommodations are further down in this blog post). The tea houses are situated in little villages along the trail.
The Sherpa people make up most of the population here in the mountains. Originally migrants from Tibet, these people are made for mountain living. Their lungs and hearts are enlarged and they are generally shorter and stockier. Carrying large loads is a daily norm for the Sherpa people. Most of what you see on the trails (buildings, bridges, food, drinks, supplies, etc) was all carried on the back of an animal or a person. Again, there are no roads up here. Every morning our porters went on ahead of us, each carrying two 15kg duffel bags of our extra gear. I’m still in awe of the young boys who helped carry our load. They were grateful for the work and we were grateful to the pay them :) The trekking industry is one of the most lucrative in Nepal so although it’s hard work to carry gear and guide teams, the pay is pretty great compared to other jobs. We made sure our porters and guides felt our appreciation each day with high fives, cheers and hugs (and tips when the journey was complete).(above) If supplies aren’t flown in on a plane to Lukla, then it’s created in the villages or carried up the trail by human or animal. You would not believe some of the loads the Porters would carry. (below) In the lowlands, every now and then, you’d get a little peak at Everest. She is super elusive – always being hid by the mountains surrounding her.
The first couple days on the trail we crossed a lot of suspension bridges. Most of them seemed fairly safe, even with the heavy loads of trekkers, porters and animals that passed over them each day.
In the “lowlands” you see a lot of cows and donkeys (yaks are at the “higher” elevations). I called the donkeys below “Donkey Bombs”. It’s not uncommon to see these very tired animals stumble down the trail or slip and fall on ice or mud… so I was just waiting for one of these tanks to fall or get hit and take off or explode or something ;) It sorta felt like a video game at times trying to dodge the “donkey bombs” coming down the trail.
You see a lot of prayer flags, prayer wheels, rocks with carvings on them and temples throughout the journey. We spent a day at a monastery in one village where most trekkers who summit Mt Everst come to get blessed by the Monks. We were able to briefly sit in on one of their daily prayer ceremonies. The artistry and attention to detail inside the monasteries was unreal.
ELI ON THE TRAIL:
Eli is a fit and strong young man but none-the-less we were concerned about some of the physical challenges that can come with Down Syndrome – low muscle tone, heart issues, etc. Due to the unknowns of Eli’s unique physiology we didn’t know how his body would respond to the rigors of the trail and effects of high altitude (even though his doctors all approved and released him to go on this trip). Because of this uncertainty, our Team knew that every overnight stop in the villages along the way was a “summit” for Eli. As we would approach our stop for the night one of us would call out, “Summit #3…” or whatever number it was. We all hoped that Eli would make it to that magically significant “Summit Day” at Mt. Everest Base Camp but knew that each and every step was a missive accomplishment.
Tea breaks and music stops with Eli were a normal part of life on the trail. Music really helped Eli stay motivated, as did stories and a hand or arm to hold while hiking. On various days of the trek we all had the chance to take Eli under our wing and make sure he was in good spirits. But he also helped us and pushed us every day as he led the team on the trail for the majority of the trip. He was a champion! Each day I was impressed with his physical stamina. He honestly outdid most of us on this whole journey. While the rest of the team was getting sick, loosing our appetite and loosing sleep each night due to the high altitude, Eli charged on, ate enough food for two people at every meal and slept like a rock every single night – he was made for this sort of adventure. :)
On our way up we stopped at a village where a statue of Sir Edmund Hillary sits. This Kiwi is a legend around here. He was the first person to summit Mt. Everest (1953) and during his time in the Himalayas he fell in love with the people and the land. He visited often and built schools, clinics, airstrips, etc. He loved the Sherpa people and they loved him. Below: a “yak attack”…K, not really, but they were running all over the place at the higher elevations. They reminded me of North American Bison: beastly, large and hairy. The Sherpa’s use them as pack animals and a source of meat at these extreme elevations.
I called this day on the trail “The Lord of the Rings” day. There was a cliff that dropped off thousands of feet to the right and steep steps climbing up into the clouds. It got colder and colder as we trekked further up into the mountains. Waking up to frozen water bottles INSIDE our Tea House was proof of that. ;)
(Above) Looking down from our trail that was carved into the side of the moutain. (Below) Looking up through the clouds you would randomly see a HUGE mountain peaking every now and then – reminding us that we still had much more to climb.
LIFE ON THE TRAIL: The “Highlands”
As we marched on, the trail was a mix of steep ascending steps, uneven rocky terrain and wandering descents. The temperatures changed from cool mornings to cold mornings to just being cold all day long. Our bodies started to feel the strain and show the effects of altitude gain as we adjusted to having 40% less oxygen then is available to us at sea level. As we climbed some steeper terrain breathing was more labored and our pace slowed greatly, but we pressed on into deeper valleys where the glaciers become part of the terrain. We lived in these “highlands” above 14,000 ft for a full week.
The landscape seemed semi-lunar with broad valleys dotted with massive boulders then shifting to fields of rocks. It was barren but it had a stunning beauty.
Prayer flags are hung by trekkers and locals with the belief that the wind carries their prayers as the flags flap in the wind.It snowed a ton one night, so… snowball fight at 15,000ft… “when in Rome” ;)Lets talk about accommodations, shall we? As expected, the trip was not all about being “comfortable”. There are three basic options for trekkers: Tents, Tea Houses or Lodges… all are cold, all are fairly primitive, but all offer at least some form of protection from the elements. We stayed in Tea Houses each night along the trail.
A Tea House has a large common area for resting and eating meals together and a small kitchen that is always bustling. The tiny bedrooms are generally down a narrow hallway built off of the main common area. Electricity was mainly solar at this point in our trip. If you needed to charge something, you paid for it by the hour. I slept with my batteries and cameras so they wouldn’t freeze to death. ;) The rooms we stayed in had little to no insulation from the cold, but hey, they blocked the wind and we had a place to spread out and unpack/repack our gear, a place to lay our heads and even a pad to sleep on so it was “mountain style luxury” ;)
In the Tea House common area there was a single stove fed primarily by Yak dung…yes, you read that right. We were above tree line so instead of burning wood the people burn dried out patties of yak dung. The owner of the Tea House would only run the stove from about 5pm until bedtime and unfortunately this heat never made it down to our rooms. We would rest together in the common area after a long day of hiking. We would have a lot of tea, journal and play various games together…in most cases “Bananagrams” which I brought in my pack. It’s a good thing our team was filled with awesome and funny people, because we spent A LOT of time in close quarters. I can happily report that we sincerely enjoyed each other’s company each day on the trail and in the Tea Houses.
We were mostly vegetarian on the trail because the meat up there – mostly Yak meat or chicken – was not sanitary. We ate a lot of noodles, rice, toast and eggs… don’t even get me started on eggs. We had SO MANY stinkin’ eggs each day because they were the only real source of protein besides energy bars. Towards the end of the trip we were all eating very mechanically – purely for the fuel/energy. (Below) At most tea houses they had a big solar disc out front that would quickly boil water from the reflecting rays of the sun – that’s how intense the sun was at this high of altitude. We all had hats, sunglasses and loads of sunscreen to protect us.At some of the tea houses there were children running around. Life up here is simple and slow. If you want something abnormal or specific to eat or drink, you have to wait 5-7 days for it to come up the mountain so it’s “what you see is what you get” when trying to buy things up there. For some reason you could always find Snickers, Everest Beer and Pringles in every village all the way up to Base Camp.
Food-born illness quickly became a theme on our trek. 6 out of the 9 team members got wretchedly sick but somehow the sickness became a rallying point for everyone and team bonding was elevated as we encouraged and pushed each other to keep going. Eli and I were two of the fortunate three to be spared from the sickness.
Mt EVERST BASE CAMP:
(below) At various points along the trail Mt. Everest gave us little glimpses of her massive and very elusive glory. At this point, we had been on the trail for 10 days and were ready to reach our final destination. We honestly never imagined that the entire team would make it but somehow the goal of Everest Base Camp was finally within our oxygen starved reach.
A long day of trekking through the wreckage of glacial rock debris brought us up to a ridge line alongside the Khumbu glacier and from there we could see the top of Everest barely peaking out from behind the massive mountain range. Everest is the tiny, windblown peak second from the right in the image below. *Click the link below this next image to get a closer view of the area – what you see in the bottom left is a village with big buildings. Follow the glacier on the right and it leads you to Base Camp.
CLICK HERE to view the above panoramic image LARGER!!!
(once you see the image full screen, click again to zoom in/out)
The terrain approaching Base Camp is all small boulders and a landslide area of gravel, shale, and rock that is being continually carved out by the glacier. As we approached Base Camp we tried to really wrap our minds around what was happening and what we were accomplishing.
And then finally, at 17,598 feet above sea level, WE MADE IT to Mt. Everest Base Camp!!! There we were – at the foot of the highest mountain on Earth. It was all very surreal.
Celebrating with lots of high fives, hugs and Snickers.
(Above) Eli claiming the victory! This kids a true champion of life :) I love the moment captured in the image below of Eli and his father Justin embracing at Base Camp, and I love these words from Justin as he reflected on his son’s accomplishment:
“We were standing in the midst of a collection of the world’s highest mountains all around us and there stands Eli, my son. My son, who because of his disability would be pushed to the fringe of many societies and not even be thought able to walk down the street, spent 10 days hiking up into the foreboding yet beautiful mountains of the Himalayas…is now standing at the base of the highest mountain in the world. God created Eli so uniquely that he has now touched thousands of lives through simply walking a hard trail up some mountains much the same as he has had to navigate the mountain of his own disability. Tamara and I are humbled but we are grateful that God has given purpose in this Everest adventure and that He has a glorious purpose for the disabled.”
Everest Base Camp actually sits on a huge glacier, known as Khumbu (in all the big pano images on this blog, you can see that the glacier comes down straight from Everest and wraps into the valley floor – this glacier is GIANT in size). So as you can see below, Base Camp is just sitting on a big pile of ice topped with dirt and rocks. Our journey to Base Camp was before the big expeditions (to summit Mt Everest) typically begin. So there were only a few tents set up here and there at the foot of Everest. There was, however, a lot of expedition gear coming up the trail as were heading back down because April is when people start attempting to summit Everest.
Kevin and I took a moment to explore the glacier ice falls a little bit. It felt like being on another planet. The ice was incredibly beautiful. The image below doesn’t do the size of this area justice – that was honestly the hardest part about this trip as a photographers… the scale of these surroundings are just CRAZY huge. Sometimes it helps throwing people in the frame to give it perspective, but most times it doesn’t help… like the photo below… those ice walls are actually very large, yet a very small part of this massive glacier that flows down from Mt Everest.
CLICK HERE to view the above panoramic image LARGER!!!
(once you see the image full screen, click again to zoom in/out)
In the midst of of the celebration at Base Camp, I took a moment to remember my family and memorialize this moment in time. For me personally, it was hard to step back and experience/absorb this trip. I felt like I was working for most of it since the reason I was there was to help document the trip. This moment spent by myself at Base Camp was when things started to feel real. I just sat there thinking of my family and everyone back home who supported me through all of this. I don’t think I’ve ever felt as grateful as I did in that moment. A once in a lifetime experience.
KALA PATTAR: Sunrise view of Mt Everest
Having successfully reached Base Camp we endured a restless night of sleep in the village of Gorak Shep at 16,962 feet. The night was frigidly cold as the temperature in our rooms dropped to around 5 to 10 degrees (colder outside). Early in the morning Tim and I woke up early to hike up to the top of Kala Patthar (18,192 feet) for the best view of Everest that you can experience on this trek. By the light of our headlamps we slowly began our ascent towards the summit. This was probably the most physically challenging thing I’ve ever done and it was mentally straining as well. The day before had been extremely long (getting up to Base Camp and back down to the village of Gorak Shep) and then we got little to no sleep because of the high elevation. The climb up Kala Pattar was a “quick” climb up 1,230 vertical feet, at dark, in freezing conditions (and with no water since my Nalgene lid was frozen solid) in hopes of reaching the top in time to view the sun rising over Mt Everest (Everest is the peak on the left – below).
Tim at the summit (above). The photo below gives you a good idea of the area. On the left side of the frame is the Khumbu glacier moving down from Mt Everest and sweeping down the massive valley that it created. Base Camp sits close to that “elbow” where the glacier turns. The big dark peak on the left is Mt Everest. Even at this vantage point (the best view on the entire trip) Mt Everest is still elusive and hidden behind other seemingly larger peaks.
CLICK HERE to view the above panoramic image LARGER!!!
(once you see the image full screen, click again to zoom in/out)
We summitted just in time to experience the warmth of the sun’s rays and the jawdropping beauty of the sun rising over earths highest geographical point. Standing on the tip-top of Kala Pattar marked the highest either of us have ever been: 18,192 feetTim and I quickly got down to the village with just enough time to eat a quick breakfast and then join the team for a long hard day of descending. We had accomplished what we set out to do, but the work was far from over. We had to climb all the way down to where we started. Celebratory popcorn was in order later that day after a successful journey to Everest Base Camp and a beautiful sunrise on the summit of Kala Pattar.
THE JOURNEY HOME:
Our team made a rapid descent down the trail. It took just a few days to go down what took us over a week to go up. Each day down the trail our bodies are grateful to take in more and more oxygen rich air. We raced back to Lukla and hopped on what was literally the last flight out from the mountain before winds and clouds shut the airport down for days. Before we knew it we were airborne headed for home. According to this guy (Nate, below), the flight out of the worlds most dangerous airport on an old sketchy prop-plane through the Himalayas was a complete “snore-fest” ;)
(above) Once we arrived safely back in Kathmandu we signed flags and celebrated with our guides. They were so great to work with! (Hamnath and Tulsi, our faithful guides, below) They even bought Eli a few gifts: a t-shirt and a “chicken hat” (an inside joke from the trip). We honestly didn’t know how the people in Nepal might treat Eli because of the stigma that disability has in this country, but everyone we came in contact with was gracious and helpful towards Eli and our team.
Oh, there’s one more story to tell… Eli and his famous BBQ chips…
The very first time I met Eli (at LAX for this trip) he told me many tales about his beloved Lays BBQ chips :) They were his favorite thing to snack on, and the single thing he talked most about. We had intentionally left one can of chips back at our hotel in Kathmandu. It served as a source of inspiration for Eli’s trek to Base Camp. We literally made up songs about these chips on the trail, talked about them dozens of times a day, and would dream each night about these tasty little snacks. As soon as we returned from our successful trek at Everest Base Camp we opened the BBQ chips and celebrated Eli’s victory! Go ahead Eli, slam that can, you deserve it buddy. :)
As we started our journey home we told stories, relived moments, talk about BBQ chips some more and tried to process all the things that made up this epic, historic and purposeful adventure. Our hearts were full of joy, accomplishment and so many emotions as we finally came around the corner out of U.S. customs and were greeted by family, friends and film crews welcoming us home.
Before we knew it, Eli’s story had spread rapidly across the nation and around the world within the following week. His story was seen and heard by literally millions of people around the globe, reaching at least 40 other countries through radio, internet and television.
We knew that Eli’s story would be different and we hoped that it would get some attention and build awareness on many levels. But we never imagined the type of publicity Eli’s story received after we returned from Nepal. We never set out to break records or anything like that. We honestly didn’t know if Eli (or any of us for that matter) would even make it past day one!
The whole point of this trip wasn’t that Eli would do something no one had ever done before (although the media loved that and spread the news far and wide).
The point in all of this was to spread a message of hope and love. To be able to talk about disability in a different light, and maybe help the world understand that it’s nothing to hide or run away from. We wanted to show and talk about how each of us are created uniquely and for a purpose and how each of us have value. Most of all, that we have hope in something greater.
THE STORY ISN’T OVER:
The journey to Everest Base Camp is a massive accomplishment but it pales in comparison to the journey of those impacted by disability. Struggle, pain, and difficulty mark their trail. Unfortunately, a majority of the world’s disabled do not have the support of a team or community pulling for their success. These priceless friends have so few resources, whether physical, emotional, or spiritual.
Jesus modeled a life spent mostly with the marginalized and/or physically broken. Those experiencing disability continue to be pushed aside. Through the funds raised and the awareness created by this trip the Elisha Foundation continues to expand its reach into the lives of the disabled. They cannot do it alone. Your skills, talents, abilities, prayer, and funds are critical to accomplishing the mission, inspired by the life of Jesus, to impact the lives of those experiencing disability by providing needed spiritual and physical resources. With your help we can change one sweet life at a time. You can be a part of this great adventure with a purpose.
Below is the documentary we put together that retells the story of this historic trek.
And this video below is the fun lighthearted side of the project:
To find out more about the Elisha Foundation and how you can get involved, please visit their website: TheElishaFoundation.org We would encourage you to support them however you can – the work that they do is life changing for those impacted by disability.