#30. STEVE MCDONALD - “Someone who has scaled a mountain.”
Steve McDonald couldn’t breathe.
The 23 year old, his friend Mike and a new acquaintance named Scott had woken up at four in the morning to try and reach the summit of Kala Pattar in Nepal. The part of the mountain they were hoping to reach was at an extremely high altitude. Usually, to prepare their bodies, a team will take an entire rest day before attempting the peak.
But Mike had become instantly smitten with a girl they’d met at the bottom who had decided to take an easier path. In a rush to get back to her before she left the area, Mike and Steve had agreed to forgo the rest day and go straight to the top.
That is, to say the least, not advisable.
Nearing the top, Mike started feeling a throbbing in his head and then, he couldn’t walk straight; both are red flags for cerebral edema, a condition where the capillaries in your brain are bleeding. Steve knew worst case scenario meant Mike would die in 45 minutes if they didn’t get to a lower altitude. Turning back would take hours. The trio could see the summit and gauged it would take 30 minutes to get there. It seemed like a better idea to get to their destination and then rush down.
"We said, ‘Let’s go,’ and Mike ate a babies weight in Advil," Steve says.
But then, Steve started having difficulty breathing.
"People always ask if I ever felt in jeopardy while traveling and for me, it’s that one day," he says. "I just though, ‘I could die right now.’ It was fucking horrifying."
The group got to the top and took a few pictures (including the one above) and then immediately started down as fast as possible. Reaching the bottom took a very scary and steep seven hours, all the while Steve was in complete panic mode. He was topped only by Mike, who Steve says ran down the mountain faster than anyone he’s ever seen. Steve says his body was too weak to run. They made it in time with no lasting effects. When Steve and Scott got down, Mike was waiting for them at the bottom.
Steve is from a suburb outside Boston and actually graduated from Emerson with me, but we never met. He’s a good friend of Alida, who directed me his way. As was the case with Alida and I in college, we crossed paths but never met. I don’t remember Steve’s name or face from school at all and he doesn’t remember mine.
For an adventurer, Steve looks very average. He’s a good-looking guy with an open, friendly, smile-y face and dark hair. He’s not supremely built like a mountain climber, but he’s tall and slim. He’s actually pretty down right now because he’s only back in the US due to the earthquake in Japan; he’d been there during the evacuation with a plan to stay seven months that was abruptly cut short. A month ago, he was evacuated to Australia. Not wanting to scrap the whole trip, he tried to extend his stay but Australia was too expensive. (Steve says cigarettes were 16 dollars and a 30 rack of beer was 70.)
"I grew up in the vanilla suburbs and it’s not exciting so I think that gave me the push and it’s why like to travel," he says. His tone is wistful and frustrated when he adds: "I should be in Burma right now."
For now, he’s planning a “redo” on the trip that leaves in October. The trips aren’t just for fun or enlightenment; Steve is trying to launch his passion project, a website called Backpackology.org.
The site would include writing and photography by Steve, but more importantly, it would have tips for cheap and safe travel. For instance, he says in Nepal, he spent only 360 dollars in the 23 days he spent mountain climbing there. He claims to be able to live on 10 dollars a day while traveling.
Not that he hasn’t been saving up for years for these post-grad trips. Steve worked in a restaurant and barely spent money in college so he could do these, but even so, he’s says traveling is not as expensive as people convince themselves it is.
"The message of the site is if you know how to travel, you don’t have to spend so much," he says. He also uses guidebooks like Lonely Planet. (In India, he tells me he didn’t open his guidebook until he got on the plane "as part of the appeal.")
At Emerson, he studied abroad at the college’s semester-long program in the Netherlands and then from there, went and backpacked through the Middle East.
"If I get something in my head, I will do it," he says. "Most people have the tools, they just need that push so they can believe it’s not as scary as you think it is."
I ask what he believes are the benefits traveling has had on his life. He tells me it’s hard to articulate, because it’s such a big passion for him. “It’s like you’re shoved into another country and no one knows you and nothing is familiar and even a basic task like buying a bus ticket is such a huge deal when you do it,” he smiles. “You just become more resourceful.”
While in India for nine months, Steve says he just followed wherever the guidebook led him that seemed cool. One such place was a temple with 8,500 steps. People make pilgrimages there and those who can’t climb the steps pay other people to walk them up. Steve says it’s mostly old people, who pre-climb, are publicly weighed on giant bean scale so the people walking them up can judge if they’re too heavy. It sounds hilarious. “India is full of stuff like that,” Steve says. He also randomly spent a day as an extra dancing in a Bollywood movie. It was a pretty loosely-scheduled trip.
One of his big goals on that trip though, was to get to Nepal and to see the tallest mountain in the world, Mount Everest. Steve describes Everest as having a “magnetism” that draws people to it.
"The sherpas hold it as holy. It’s not just a mountain, it’s a god to them," he says. "Everest is not a pretty mountain. It’s a very ugly mountain surrounded by way prettiest mountains. Someone once said, ‘Everest is a fat man in a room of beautiful women,’" Steve laughs.
Unfortunately to summit Everest, one needs an oxygen mask and a 50,000 dollar permit. Steve and his friend Mike decided to go for one of the less dangerous but still treacherous climbs, at Kala Pattar.
Knowing he wanted to scale a mountain while in Asia, Steve says he spent three months prior running and doing what he felt was “training.” He says it helped him not at all.
He and Mike also didn’t originally want a sherpa (or guide) because they’d routed out the area themselves and because they knew it was a myth that the Himalayas were just barren wilderness. It’s actually densely-populated with different crude villages every few hours. In fact, the two never used tents because they’d always encounter mountainside tea houses. If they agreed to eat all their meals at the tea house, the owners would let him spent the night.
But Steve’s parents desperately didn’t want him and Mike to make this trek alone. After a screaming fight, Steve says he agreed to a sherpa if the adults paid the 300 dollar fee. Meanwhile, Mike and Steve took their route to several sherpas who all laughed in their faces. They wanted to do a 13 day beeline trek in 23 days and really see the area. They also had no experience climbing at such high altitudes.
I ask how they convinced a sherpa to go with them and Steve laughs. “We bought them whiskey and they agreed to go,” he says. “There’s no better convincer than alcohol.” The boys ended up with a Nepali sherpa named Chabbi, who did not live up the image they had of the proud, stoic mountain man.
Chabbi was a cantankerous, spitting, alcoholic, loud 65-year-old man. “He spoke no English but he did speak at twice the decibels necessary,” Steve says. He was also quite fond of “rakshi” or rice liquor. On their first day, some bad tea house chow mein left Mike and Steve puking and ill. Not a good start.
The next few days they walked from 7 a.m. until 5 p.m. straight.
"The sun goes down, you get to a tea house and you collapse on your bed like a bag of concrete, where you lay motionless for two hours weeping until someone calls you to dinner," Steve says. "Then you crawl there and force food down your throat. That’s the first week."
By Day 8, Steve says his body began to condition itself. “We felt stronger and faster and Chabbi was always behind us yelling ‘Slow down, sir!’” he says. “The paths were so obvious, you really don’t need a sherpa. I’d ask Chabbi what certain temples on the path were and he’d say, ‘I don’t know. You look in book.’” Steve pauses, smirking, “The only thing he was good for was finding the strongest rice liquor.”
The path he was on was covered in snow, in late September. When they reached Lukla, where the airport is, they found countless tourists (or “flash packers”) who paid money to tourist at Everest’s base camp. Steve describes it as “blind, fat, middle-aged people being literally carried by sherpas.” I feel momentarily embarrassed to be American.
Steve says they chose Kala Pattar because the summit overlooks the entirety of Mount Everest. Before everything went haywire on their climb, the beauty of the mountain was what fully occupied Steve’s mind. The group had left at 4 in the morning, in cold so freezing Steve couldn’t feel his fingers or toes and in darkness so pitch black that the stars looked like daylight. As they climbed higher, Steve began to notice them surpassing the clouds, like in an airplane when they look like a cloud-floor below you.
"It was absolutely wild to break through them. It felt like you could skip a stone across it," he says. "Your head literally comes out of the clouds and the summit peaks are above the clouds. It exceeded every expectation. It looked so theatrical."
When he leaves in October, Steve plans to be away for two years. He tells me though they let him crash at their house, his parents don’t condone his choice to travel over getting a real job. In college, he had an internship at Comedy Central and was urged by Emerson, and his parents and fellow interns to go on to become an executive assistant in Los Angeles. The idea left a bad taste in Steve’s mouth.
I ask him about this, entirely for selfish reasons. I am also 23 and I have a well-paying day job with health benefits at a name corporation in a big city. But, I’m nailed to a desk all day every day. My eyeballs spend most of their time locked on a computer screen. What have I really seen? What do I really know?
I tell Steve I’d feel immensely guilty leaving a “comfortable” life to cavort around in Indian temples, meeting strangers on summits, drinking Nepali rice liquor. I am burning with jealousy.
But what Steve does isn’t magic. I could totally save up, purchase a plane ticket and take off. Why am I (an able, healthy 23-year-old woman) spending every day monotonously working in an office? After college, I was consumed with getting a good day job like it was the only barometer of my personal self-worth. Why couldn’t I, like Steve, take off for India? Why am I writing ‘100 Interviews’ and not some better, less self-righteous version of ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ called, I don’t know, ‘Drink, Write, Dance?’
Steve says I could do what he’s doing whenever I choose to. “I just wanted to have some adventures first and see the world,” he says, shrugging like it’s no big deal. I spend the next day looking up prices for plane tickets to Spain.
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