Pole Steeple in Pine Grove Furnace State Park doesn’t quite resemble the snow-capped peak of Mount Everest, but the four Shippensburg University students climbing to the rocky hilltop Tuesday were preparing for a Himalayan adventure.
The students won’t actually be climbing Everest, but they hope to climb Mount Manaslu, the Earth’s eighth-highest mountain, during their mid-October to mid-November trip. Even though the trip involves some of the world’s most intimidating climbing — including steep, uphill climbs in thin air and bitter cold — they just couldn’t pass up such a unique experience.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” senior Sara Mullen said. “It’s definitely going to be challenging, but it’s going to be exciting as well.”
This story of a Midstate excursion to Nepal actually began on the highest mountain in South America. It was on the formidable Aconcagua that Shippensburg University graduate Rick Rovegno met Tendi Sherpa, a Nepalese mountain summit guide who has traveled 10 times to the summit of Mount Everest.
As someone who has climbed mountains around the world, Rovegno wanted to give students from his alma mater a similar opportunity. He was concerned about keeping the students safe, however, until he met Tendi, whom he described as one of the best guides in the world.
“I trust him emphatically to watch over us, and monitor us, and make wise decisions about how far to push ourselves,” he said.
Tendi met with the students on the hike to Pole Steeple during a visit to the United States. Although the Appalachian Mountains are not as tall as the Himalayas, he believes local hiking will prepare the students for the trip. In fact, there is a saying in Nepal that puts the challenge of climbing a large mountain in perspective, he said: “the mountain is just a hill.”
The students also expressed trust in Tendi, and even though some said their parents are worried, they said they are looking forward to the challenge.
“I think the perseverance it will take to finish it will give me confidence as I move on to my career,” senior Shelby Coghill said.
Tom Allison, a graduate student, is also motivated by a desire to see something different and impactful.
“Mainly, I’m just looking for something that will blow my hair back,” Allison said.
The students also have reasons for undertaking the trek that are related to their college majors. Coghill, an international studies major, has already experienced Dominican and Spanish culture, and is hoping to gain a new perspective on life. Allison and senior Julia Saintz are geography majors, so they are looking forward to the opportunity to see different rock formations.
There are risks to climbing the Himilayas, a lesson learned when 16 Nepalese guides died in an avalanche on Mount Everest in April. Tendi has come across dead bodies on the trail that serve as a warning of what happens when people get caught in bad weather and get lost, particularly when they travel alone, he said.
Also, the highest peaks of the Himilayas can get very cold, he said — so cold that he recommend climbers going to Mount Everest bring gear capable of handling minus 40 degree Celsius temperatures.
While some climbers bring compasses — and now GPS devices — to keep them from getting lost, the best way to stay safe is still to have someone with you with Himalayan climbing experience, he said. If that’s the case, there are probably few people who better qualify than Tendi.
Tendi is part of the Sherpa people, an ethnic group that lives among the Nepali mountains and took on the role of Himalayan tour guides when expeditions to the mountain range first became popular in the 1920s. There are two ways to get to his home village from the Nepali capital of Kathmandu: an 11-day bus ride, or a 45-minute plane ride followed by a 7-day climb through mountainous terrain.
“It’s up and down, up and down, and sometimes your knees get confused,” he said.
He completed his first mountain climbing expedition when he was hired as a porter at 13 years old, carrying 100 pounds of cargo for 12 hours per day on a 24-day trip. His teenage experience includes climbing over the summit of a 17,000-foot mountain barefoot in below-freezing temperatures because he did not have the proper shoes along for the experience.
While that experience was painful, he was inspired by the scenery when he reached the summit of a 21,000-foot high mountain at age 14, and it convinced him that he wanted to be a summit guide.
He first climbed Mount Everest as part of a cleaning expedition in 2003 at the age of 19, and climbed to the summit twice in one day in 2007. He’s learned eight languages without any formal education, and is currently in the process of learning Spanish.
While Rovegno and the Shippensburg students — the four attending the hike to Pole Steeple and a fifth student, Will Parisi — won’t be going to Mount Everest, Tendi will take them to the 26,700-foot Mount Manaslu. The students aren’t planning to go to the summit, but they are planning to climb to 17,000 feet, and even higher if the students are feeling well, Rovegno said. At the 17,000-foot level, there is only about 50 percent of the oxygen at sea level, he said.
In addition to the climb to Mount Manaslu, Tendi called the trip “cultural trekking,” an opportunity to meet the native people and try local cuisine, much of which consists of rice, lentils, curry and hot chili peppers.
“The most important part is to explore the culture there, because we have a diversity of ethnic groups and different people,” he said.
The students will leave Oct. 20 and return Nov. 10, and Rovegno thanked Shippensburg University administration and faculty for having the flexibility to allow the students to take the trip during the semester. He also thanked M&T Bank for being a corporate sponsor to help the students finance the trip.