Heading to Everest, Waking Up Over Iraq

[Ed. Note: Keith Cowing is winging his way from Washington, DC to Katmandu – and ultimately Everest Base Camp. He is carrying some powerful, yet compact tools to help astronaut Scott Parazynski tell the story of his second attempt to reach the summit of Mount Everest. Enroute, Keith sent in this posting – and I chatted with him briefly as he waited for his next flight in Doha, Qatar – Miles O’Brien]

Last night I feel asleep somewhere south of Greenland or Iceland. I awoke this morning to light peeking around my closed window. I opened it and was startled by snow capped peaks and strange terrain. A quick look and I discovered that I was over Iraq – and a moment later everything on the screen switched to Arabic. Add in the decidedly non-North American origin of my co-travelers, Chinese captions on the movies I was watching, the lack of spoken English around me, and it was clear I was off on a far-flung adventure.

As I write this, I am in Doha, Qatar. I leave for Katmandu at 1:05 am local time (three hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time), so I have some time to relax. I am wearing two watches – I set the one on my left wrist to the time zone where I happen to be at the moment. The watch on my right is the one on my left arm is synchronized to Nepal Standard Time (5 Hours 45 minutes ahead of GMT). As I travel half way around the world, I keep imagining that animated red line tracing a path to Katmandu in "Raiders of the Lost Ark".

As we entered the transfer section of Doha airport today I heard an American in the next line express exasperation that he could not carry a tape measure through the checkpoint. Seems odd - and yet it did not surprise me as Scott had lost his tape measure in the same place on March 22. As a result , I was not carrying any such contraband!

I made a concerted effort to be calm and relaxed on departure day. After several months of planning, re-planning, purchasing, packing, shipping and testing gear, things all came together as I had hoped.

I am after all not a newbie at this. In fact, for me, prepping for expeditions is now a rite of Spring. Five times in the past seven years I have spent winter and early spring preparing for a trip to wild, remote and cold places. In 2002, 2003, and 2007, I journeyed well north of the Arctic Circle to Devon Island, Nunavut, Canada – site of Haughton Mars Project Research Station – where planetary scientists from NASA and other organizations return every year like swallows to Capistrano to test their latest notions of how to explore Red Planet.

Getting all the things you need for places like Devon Island or Everest Base Camp requires planning, contingency thinking, and lots of multitasking. Then you try and make it all fit. First you pack, then unpack and then repack, winnowing your load in the process.
To borrow a rocket science term, I have a payload envelope; it is a mash up of what I need, want and would like to take. Sure, I have to consider excess baggage charges on the airlines (Qatar Air nicked me for $175), but more important, I do not want to overburden my two Sherpa porters. All of this turns packing into a Rubik’s Cube proposition. In the end, I solved the puzzle - with some strategic advice from Miles O'Brien and my wife Jenny. Our cats watched and were clearly scheming to smuggle themselves out of the house.

You are not allowed to ask your Sherpa’s to carry more than 30 kilos (66 pounds) per load from Lukla (where we start our trek in) to Everest Base Camp. In the thin air of the Himalayas, I will be leave the heavy-toting to the Sherpas but I am in pretty good shape. Over the past 4 months, I have trained pretty hard – often carrying 55 pounds (25 kilos) of small rocks in a back pack on the steep hilly trails near my house in Northern Virginia. I have easily carried the weight of my two duffels more than the 70 mile round trip that lies ahead – but a lot closer to sea level – and in two to five mile increments.

Last year I had hoped to join Scott on his Everest summit attempt, but geopolitics and the Olympics got in the way. As you may recall, the Torch went to the top of Everest on its way to Beijing – and the Chinese did not want a lot of climbers with satellite communication gear sending pictures of possible protests across the globe. This year, there are no such worries – and you can expect to join him every step of the way.

It will be a grueling experience for Scott – and for me as well. Nothing is easy when you are living in the cold at 17,000 feet.

But for now it is time to sit back here in the Oryx Lounge, scarf up good free food, use the WiFi, stick my head under a faucet and generally relax ahead onslaught on the sense - and the mind - that awaits me in Nepal. The calm before the storm.
Namaste

Keith

Editor's Note: The following video is a bit pixelated but it gets better towards the end.

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