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Nepal trek provides photo ops at every step

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A month after he climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, Doug Maxwell told a Charleston Gazette reporter that he wouldn't say "never" to tackling another mountain.

"When I first got off the mountain, I was saying no way. But now the farther I get away ..., it's a little more appealing," the Charleston man said in a February 2011 article.

By the time fall rolled around, he had signed up for another adventure trip with the tour company Alpine Ascent. In April, he celebrated his 42nd birthday on a mountain in Nepal.

No, it was not Mount Everest, although he could occasionally see it from there.

"I have no desire to summit Mount Everest. I don't have the $70,000 or a year of my life," he said.

Plus, there's a 1 in 4 chance of dying on the 29,028-foot-high Everest, and the odds, he pointed out, would probably be higher for him. Maxwell has an artificial right lower leg and no left arm, the result of a childhood accident.

He did, though, walk about 70 miles -- "more than I ever walked in my life" -- gradually reaching 18,300 feet.

In his tour group of 15 or 16, some were trekking and a few were getting acclimated to the altitude to climb Mount Everest. One of them, Leanna Shuttleworth, set the British record for being the youngest female to summit Everest.

Judging from her May 22 blog post, it doesn't sound like Maxwell missed much. She wrote that she cried on the way up because of the "horrific" sights she saw. The high wind froze everything -- the tops of their water bottles, zippers, oxygen mask valves and even the corneas of one climber's eyes, causing temporary blindness.

"He ..., obviously, had to turn back immediately and made his way down the whole triangular face without being able to see. Luckily his eyesight is completely back to normal and he's doing well," Shuttleworth posted.

Maxwell said a guide from his Kilimanjaro climb with the same tour company was also going on to the summit, as was a Sherpa. It was Lakpa Rita Sherpa's 16th ascent.

Maxwell explained that if you are a Sherpa, your last name is Sherpa. Sherpas are Tibetans who live in the Himalayas and are expert mountain climbers, leading others who attempt to make it to the top of the world's highest mountain.

Kilimanjaro, at 19,341 feet, is the highest freestanding mountain in the world. Of that trip, Maxwell said, "You were there to climb and get off. There was no interaction with the locals."

In Nepal, he said, the hikes took them through cedar forests, farmland and small villages with children on their way to school or playing in doorways. They would stop for lunch at rustic, family-run lodges.

"You got a feeling of what life is like there," he said.

"It's a part of the world that you can't drive to. You have to walk to it. They don't have vehicles up there."

A can of soda, he pointed out, costs twice as much as in the U.S. "It's been flown in to Nepal and carried up a mountain. Porters are the truckers of the trail."

Porters to carry the luggage for the trekkers are included in the cost of the tour. Maxwell, who is a photographer and videographer, paid for an extra porter to help with his camera equipment.

He took one camera, a Canon 5D Mark2, and several lenses. He took 1,500 photographs.

He said taking photographs along the trail helped with his pacing. The others would walk for an hour and rest for 15 minutes; he would walk for five minutes and stop for 30 seconds to take a photograph.

Most of the walks and hikes took four to six hours. There were a couple of rest days so the travelers could adjust to the altitude when they visited a Sherpa home, Buddhist monasteries and a high-altitude research center.

On Day 15, they reached the Everest Base Camp at 17,598 feet. The next day, they hiked to a small peak at 18,300 feet before starting a six-day descent.

Maxwell said the effects of altitude weren't too bad -- some headaches and shortness of breath. "But I did have some crazy, vivid dreams."

The temperatures ranged from zero at night to 70 degrees midday. On the coldest nights, he stayed comfortable sleeping in his jacket in his sleeping bag. The unheated lodges were basic, offering a twin bed with a thin foam mattress.

Occasionally the trekkers could pay $2.50 for a hot or cold shower, but most of the time they used baby wipes to keep clean.

They ate a lot of yak steak and rice. "I became a fan of egg-fried rice," Maxwell said.

The land cost of the trip for fall 2012 is $3,900 and $4,100 for the spring and fall trips of 2013. The three-week tour begins at Katmandu, which Maxwell described as "like India without the upkeep."

The flight from Katmandu to the landing strip at Lukla in a 12-seat plane is an experience that Maxwell won't forget. "The runway is on a 12-degree incline. At the end of the runway was an 800-foot drop; at the other end a straight cliff."

To prepare for the trip, Maxwell lost about 20 pounds from eating a healthier diet. He wore a 40-pound lead vest and walked Bridge Road and up and down the steps in a seven-story parking garage.

"I learned from Kilimanjaro. Step downs with an artificial leg can cause searing pain," he said.

Maxwell's next adventure may not involve a mountain. He's thinking about driving through India. He has been there before, and his photographs from India and a Cambodia trip may be seen in Lola's, on Bridge Road, and other pictures are on his website, skytrainmedia.com.

Still, as he said after Kilimanjaro, "Never say never."

Reach Rosalie Earle at earle@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5115.


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