Above The Clouds

Robert Smith was an anxious flyer, afraid of heights, and had only seen snow once in his life. So why did Wildwood’s city manager decide to fly 18 hours to Mount Everest, the highest point on Earth, where temperatures regularly plummet below freezing? Because, as he’s learned, you only live once.

The scene is like something out of Indiana Jones. A crowd of eager Nepalese taxi drivers and would-be luggage carriers, pressed against the fence outside Kathmandu’s airport, shout above one another, trying to get Robert Smith’s attention. Fresh off an hour-and-a-half flight from New Delhi, India, a 14-hour flight from Chicago, and a two-and-a-half-hour flight from Orlando, the 34-year-old American is tired, confused, and sorely missing his luggage, which has disappeared in the short hop between India and Nepal.

It had already been a very long day for Wildwood’s city manager. The promised airline representative in New Delhi had been a no-show, and Robert had spent the better part of his 10-hour layover there trying to figure out why airport employees insisted on sending him through customs even though he didn’t have a visa, didn’t want to enter India, and only needed to transfer flights. “Okay, wait here,” everyone told him when he asked questions. Always they’d tell him to “wait here.” Finally, 20 minutes before takeoff, he’d managed to get on the plane to Kathmandu. If only he could say the same for his bag full of gear.

Peering out into the throng before him, Robert spots something familiar. A kid, who doesn’t look a day over 15, is holding an “Ace the Himalaya” sign. Skeptical but low on alternatives, Robert approaches and the young driver calls him by his name.

“Come with me,” the kid says.

Cautiously, Robert follows. Then a stranger walks up next to him, grabs his backpack, and follows the two.

“Do you know him?” Robert asks the driver, but the kid barely speaks English.

When they get to the car, the unsolicited porter throws the backpack in the trunk, and feeling obligated, Robert hands him a $5 bill. The stranger takes it and turns back toward the crowd, a half-day’s salary in-hand. Robert slides into the backseat of the old, beat-up car with the sagging ceiling, and by now, he’s more than a little concerned that this kid might be driving him off to his own mugging. Fortunately, another American is in the car. Dan Martin is from Tennessee and Robert is relieved when he asks, “Was all that a little shady?” Dan, they determine, is also trekking to Everest Base Camp with the company Ace the Himalaya.

The car pulls into a mass of traffic. Motorcycles weave between buses and cars. Buses and cars weave between motorcycles. What seems like thousands of people are driving every which way on the road. Traffic lights, Robert notices, don’t exist here. If they’re lucky, a police officer is standing at a busy intersection to direct traffic.

This certainly couldn’t get any farther away from life in Florida for Robert, and the adventure is only just beginning.

‘The Hardest One First’

Robert had never done well with heights—or flying for that matter—and the first time he saw snow was on the ground at his sister’s place in Nebraska in 2007. Still, Ace the Himalaya’s 16-day trek to Everest Base Camp, elevation 17,700 feet, seemed like the perfect adventure.

A luggage-less but happy Robert tours Nepal’s capital city of Kathmandu before leaving for Everest. Over his shoulder is the Pashupatinath Temple, one of the most important Hindu temples in the world.

“Of course I chose the hardest one first,” Robert says with a smile, sitting in his Wildwood office. “I’ve always been intrigued by Mount Everest and always [been] into adventure shows and movies. I would think, ‘Why not me?’”

Adventure doesn’t get more extreme than on the highest mountain on Earth. The range Mount Everest towers over, the Himalayan, is the result of two massive tectonic plates colliding, the Indian plate slowly smashing into the Eurasian plate. As such, Everest, at 29,029 feet, grows a little taller each year, and every year, seemingly more and more climbers are drawn to her, despite the steep mortality rate of her slopes. The recent fates of two young climbers illustrate the mountain’s fickleness. In May, 13-year-old American Jordan Romero and 28-year-old Brit Peter Kinloch reached Everest’s summit just three days apart. Romero made it home safely with a new record as the youngest person ever to scale the mountain. Kinloch, however, died on descent.

“No matter how much training I had done, I wasn’t used to the altitude or steep climb on the first day of trekking,” Robert attests. Everest Base Camp alone is higher than any peak in the Rockies, which is why Robert wisely hired a personal trainer at the gym by his Winter Park home and spent eight months preparing.

“We focused on the strength of his upper body, legs, and core,” Bruce Berryman says of their hour-long sessions at Lifestyle Family Fitness. “He’s a tall, slim guy, so we added some muscle mass to his frame as well as improved his endurance. Robert’s a hard worker.”

Robert did his homework before leaving, too. He burned through such popular Everest books as Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air about the deadly season of 1996 and Beck Weathers’ Left For Dead in which the author details how he was presumed dead during his climb. In fact, the mountain is the final resting place of some 200 climbers. By the time climbers reach Advanced Base Camp at 21,000 feet, the air is too thin for helicopters to fly in for a rescue, and it’s virtually impossible for team members to carry a sick climber down to safety from the higher camps. In other words, once you commit to summiting Everest, you’re on your own.

‘Like The Worst Hangover’

After crashing through traffic for a good 20 minutes on Kathmandu’s busy streets, Robert and Dan arrive at their hotel and catch a few hours of much-needed sleep. The next day, Robert reports his missing luggage to the owner of Ace the Himalaya and departs on a tour of Kathmandu, visiting the capital’s monasteries and marveling at the scores of cows and monkeys in the streets. Fortunately, Robert’s luggage appears the following day, just in time for the infamous and harrowing flight to Lukla and the start of his trek.

The infamously harrowing flight to Lukla complete, climbers disembark from the plane and gather their gear for the long climb.

“The landing strip is on the side of a mountain,” Robert explains. “It’s short and it’s at an uphill angle. The plane didn’t have a cockpit door, so I could actually watch where the plane was going as it landed.”

Once safely on the ground, trekking begins as soon as he disembarks. The small group Robert will be climbing with consists of Dan, their guide Rajendra, and a sherpa, and the four immediately hit it off. Dan who is slightly taller than Robert quickly earns the nickname “Everest” while Robert is referred to as “K2,” in honor of the world’s second-tallest mountain. As the three-hour hike to Phakding unfolds, Robert begins to see just how indispensable the sherpas are.

“They have to be the strongest people in the world because not only was he carrying all of our stuff and his stuff and the guide’s stuff, but he was moving faster than us,” Robert says. “All I had was a 25-pound backpack on and I was sucking wind.”

Robert grew close to his guide, Raj, and his sherpa, pictured here, during the trek. He would often joke with the two men, and before long, they were returning the favor.

The group stays overnight in Phakding, and Robert begins to get a clearer idea of what eating will be like on the trip. Typically, breakfast is garlic soup, lunch is spaghetti, and dinner is a plate of boiled potatoes. Surprisingly, he isn’t very hungry during the trip, although he does buy a Snickers bar from a store in town.

“I thought I could eat it on the way up to give me energy, but Raj didn’t want us eating sweets,” Robert recalls. “So we made a deal. I told him I would only eat it when I made it to Base Camp. He said, ‘Fine, if you make it to Base Camp, you can eat that Snickers.’”

After Phakding, the group climbs on to Namche Bazaar.

“The pathways are four feet wide. You take one wrong step and you’re off the side of the mountain,” says Robert. “You also have people carrying goods up and down and big yak trains coming through. You had to hug the side of the mountain when the yaks passed.”

The weather is usually below freezing in the morning and 40 to 50 degrees by afternoon, so Robert begins the day in a heavy jacket and gloves and ends it in only a light jacket. Periodically, the schedule calls for acclimatization days. This is when trekkers climb up to the altitude they will be at the next day and then return to the lower camp, allowing their bodies to adjust slowly to the changing oxygen levels. Altitude sickness is a common ailment for Everest climbers, and several days into the trip, Robert begins to experience tell-tale symptoms.

“It felt like the worst hangover you’ve ever had,” he recalls. “You have no energy, you’re sore, you have a huge headache, your stomach’s upset, and you can’t sleep at night because you’re trying to breathe so much that your body wakes you up.”

Robert begins taking medication to counteract the symptoms and presses on. As they climb higher, the terrain slowly transforms. The trees thin out and the landscape grows rockier.

“You’re over the clouds,” Robert describes, “so you really get a feeling of how high you are.”

Mighty Mount Everest, in the center background, towers over every other peak in the Himalayas.

‘Walking On A Glacier’

The farther up the group climbs, the more memorial mounds they encounter for fallen climbers. When they finally reach Gorakshep, the last stop before Everest Base Camp, Dan decides to climb Mount Kala Patthar first, which offers spectacular views of Everest. Everest’s peak is not always visible to climbers, so Kala Patthar is a popular stop for photography. Since the weather is good, Robert decides not to risk missing Base Camp and continues on with their guide.

“It took us about three hours to get to Base Camp, but it was probably the roughest terrain,” Roberts says. “You’re walking on a glacier so you hear the cracking and creaking, and the trail basically becomes a bunch of rocks. There was no one there but me and Raj.”

Earlier Robert had been told there were two base camps—one for the tourists and the real one a little farther up. He makes sure they get to the latter, and when they reach the monument there, the enormity of the moment finally hits Robert. Here, he can see the route so many climbers have taken to reach the summit, which towers ominously over the two men. The long flights, the missing luggage, his aching body have all been worth it. Robert wants a photo by the Base Camp monument, so he takes out the American flag he purchased at Namche Bazaar.

“Little did I know that the lady had put two extra stripes on the flag,” Robert laughs. “But I kept it, and I plan on taking it with me on future trips.”

It’s getting dark, and Raj reminds Robert that they have a two-and-a-half hour trek back to Gorakshep. But Robert has one last thing to do at Base Camp. He rummages through his backpack for a few minutes and finally pulls out the best Snickers bar he’s ever seen. He tears open the wrapper and Raj snaps a picture of him taking the first bite.

“I’d finally made it and my celebration was having that little candy bar,” Robert says. “That’s probably the best picture I have.”

Having reached Base Camp, Robert keeps his promise and takes a moment to enjoy his Snickers.

The two quickly pack up and move out, returning to Gorakshep just as Dan and the Sherpa return from Kala Patthar. The following morning at 4, Robert and Raj set out for the 18,000-foot mountain themselves. It’s pitch dark out and they wear headlamps to light the way. The water in their bottles is frozen solid, and until day breaks and light pours onto the mountain, Robert is on edge.

Everest Base Camp, the end of Robert’s climb, is designated by a pile of rocks, colorful prayer flags, and a small, modest sign.

“When I reached the top of Kala Patthar, I could finally relax,” he recalls. “I didn’t have to worry anymore about altitude sickness. I could enjoy the rest of my trip.”

Descending Everest only takes three days. Robert buys gifts for family and friends at Namache Bazaar and flies out of Lukla, Kathmandu, and New Delhi without incident. Today he says he’s not only cured of his fear of heights but also his fear of flying. Compared to his experiences with both in Nepal, he says everything else is easy.

‘Quite A Few Prayers’

Doris King was thrilled when Robert made it safely back into work, despite his 15-pound weight loss and occasional nose bleeds. Since he had started as city manager earlier that year, King worked closely with him as his assistant, and as a mother herself, she had been worried about Robert’s safety.

“We had no contact with him during his trip—no phone, no e-mail, no text messages,” she says. “I had his itinerary here at the office and every day or so I would look at it to see where he was. I said quite a few prayers.”

Robert shared stories and photos from the trip with co-workers when he first returned, but he doesn’t bring up Everest now unless someone asks. He did it for himself, he explains, and he’s already looking forward to his next adventure. That trip starts on November 19, exactly one year after his Everest climb, when he flies to Marrakech, Morrocco, for a five-day, 100-mile trek into the Sahara Desert. This time, instead of a Sherpa for a porter, he’ll have a camel, and altitude sickness won’t be a consideration.

“I want to do Antarctica, too,” Robert adds. “There’s a Four Deserts thing that I was thinking of doing, but it’s too expensive, so I’ll do it on my own.”

The Four Deserts footraces take athletes to Chile’s Atacama Desert, China’s Gobi, the Sahara in Egypt, and Antarctica’s Last Desert. He also wants to climb either Mount Rainier in Washington or California’s Mount Shasta.

In the meantime, Robert continues working out during the week with Berryman, who recently began training him inside a sauna to prepare for the Saharan heat. Overcoming the elements is a big hurdle for endurance athletes, Berryman stresses, but the biggest still is the mind. New Zealander Edmund Hillary alluded to this after he climbed down from Everest in 1953, the first person to successfully summit the massive peak.

“You don’t have to be a fantastic hero to do certain things, to compete,” he remarked. “You can be just an ordinary chap, sufficiently motivated.”

Robert would certainly agree.

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