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Goddard Employee Treks Everest
May 18, 2010

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The sunrise reflects off peaks at Tengboche monastery. Credit: Patrick Thompson

Playing flute for the local children> View larger image
Patrick Thompson and his wife Anita at Dingboche Village about halfway to Everest base camp. Thompson is playing a bamboo flute for the children while taking a break. Credit: Provided by Patrick Thompson

Base camp at Everest> View larger image
Everest south base camp, Nepal. Credit: Patrick Thompson

Base camp at Everest> View larger image
The Thompsons at Everest Base Camp at 17,500 feet. Discovery Channel tents and Khumbu Ice Fall in background. Credit: Provided by Patrick Thompson

Base camp at Mt. Everest> View larger image
Thompson and NASA Everest Trek Team at a Buddhist "stupa" and memorials for deceased Sherpas and climbers. Credit: Anita Thompson

Sitting on a yak in Nepal> View larger image
Thompson sits atop a yak in the Himalayan Mountains. Credit: Anita Thompson
To celebrate their tenth wedding anniversary, Goddard optical engineer Dr. Patrick Thompson surprised his wife Anita with a Mt. Everest South Base Camp Trek scheduled for April 18–May 5, 2009. She was thrilled. Then again, she was born and raised in Kashmir, India.

The trip was organized by Sabrina Singh Gilmore, an astronaut trainer and spacewalk flight controller at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Thirteen of the 25 participants were NASA employees or contractors. The oldest member of the group was French Brigadier General Jean-Loup Chretién, who is both a former astronaut and a former cosmonaut. The base camp's purpose was to support the summit attempt by Scott Parazynski, a recently retired astronaut. "It was, by far, the most challenging physical experience I've ever attempted," Thompson declared.

They were each only allowed to pack approximately 45 pounds total to take up the trail. As his special item, Thompson took his MP3 player loaded with his favorite music. His wife's special item was the book "Three Cups of Tea," which is about a trek in Kashmir and proved to be the hit of the trip among her fellow trekkers.

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Kathmandu is an odd mixture of modern and ancient life. "These people don't have clean water to drink, but you can always find an Internet café," said Thompson. Their supplies were moved up the mountain by yak, which are prone to sudden fits of nastiness and do not like sharing the two-foot wide, steel and rope bridges high across overpasses.

Before beginning the trek, the Thompsons and others visited the PA Nepal Orphanage in Kathmandu. Thompson gave the science teachers optics kits for making telescopes and rainbow spectrometers hoping to inspire some of the children. "Looking at the stars made me aspire to become an optical engineer and astronaut," said Thompson.

They hiked and climbed 6 to 10 hours every day. "Each morning started before sunrise with a call to pack our yak packs." Coming down the mountain was harder than climbing up. His most spiritual moment occurred during an overnight stay at a Buddhist monastery about halfway up the trail where he was awakened by the sound of the monks blowing conch shells and banging metal gongs at sunrise.

Meals consisted of potatoes and cabbage. "On special days, we got an omelet for breakfast," said Thompson. He did not bring his usual beef jerky in deference to Hindu and Buddhist religious beliefs. "I couldn't wait to get a deluxe cheeseburger and apple pie," he said. He also brought dried fruit, nuts, and chocolate. The culinary highlight of the trip was the fried Snickers party.

They generally slept in rustic, covered structures called tea houses. "Every tea house had a central room with a locked glass cabinet stocked with high-end liquor and Pringles chips." Thompson thinks everyone craved Pringles chips because "they are crunchy and reminded everyone of home." They drank chai or fruit tea in the evenings. "It is very quiet. You only hear yak bells, the wind, and your own breath," said Thompson. "One hour after sunset, it becomes extremely cold and blustery." He continued, "The weather changes on an hourly basis. Temperatures can drop from 80 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit in one hour."

The base camp is at 17,500 feet and is almost two-thirds of the way to the summit from sea level. The actual summit is approximately 29,000 feet above sea level, which is the cruising altitude of many aircraft. "You can hardly throw a rock without hitting the highest mountain in the world," Thompson joked. The base camp is on the Khumbu Glacier next to the Khumba Icefall, a frozen waterfall with house-size boulders of ice prone to breaking and falling without warning.

"It's like a tent city at base camp. There is a bakery, hospital, helicopter pad, and enclaves of international contingencies. Even the Discovery Channel is there." Upon arriving at base camp, Thompson presented Parazynski with bag of his favorite macadamia nuts. While at base camp, several of the group, together with Parazynski, later contacted two astronauts aboard the International Space Station.

Sunrise at the base camp is spectacular. "Because the mountains are so tall, you only see tiny spots of sunlight reflected off surrounding peaks and glaciers, which keep moving," explained Thompson. "You never see the full sunrise, just fiery gold iridescence from the tallest pinnacles."

Thompson's only regret is that he "didn't have enough time to see the sights and smell the flowers." His biggest unpleasant surprise was the ubiquitous dust as fine as talcum powder created by the yaks and people grinding down the granite. In fact, Thompson suffered an allergic reaction to this fine dust, which infiltrated his lungs. He compared the Mt. Everest dust to the Moon dust that proved problematic to the Apollo Moon walkers. Neither Thompson nor his wife suffered altitude sickness.

Thompson learned two life lessons from his trek. "I learned we must be very careful concerning what adventures we commit ourselves to." He also learned that, "matters of life and death balance on a razor's edge." Although the rewards were enormous, he was reminded about the risk of losing his life, or someone else losing theirs, on a daily basis. They passed by many memorials for Sherpas who had died en route to the summit. Thompson explained that, as opposed to mere porters, Sherpas are a particular ethnic class who believe it is a very holy experience to trek Mt. Everest because they revere the mountain. They also saw "stupas," or alters with colorful prayer flags and boulders inscribed with mantras or prayers to the mountains. The local people believe that the mountains and the Earth are alive.

Parazynski reached the summit of Mt. Everest on May 19th, after Thompson returned home, but while he was still on Kathmandu time. As for his next trip, he plans to go to Tahiti, "for cocktails and massages!"

Further information about Thompson's Mt. Everest adventure can be found at > http://2009everesttrek.blogspot.com


Elizabeth M. Jarrell
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

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