Karen Sundin Gruber Treks to Mt. Everest Base Camp
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For years PC member Karen Gruber had a dream. She wanted to climb Mt. Everest. Then, in 1996, 15 people died trying to summit the 29,029 foot peak. “That’s when I gave up the dream,” says Karen. Writer Jon Krakauer chronicled the disaster in his best-selling book Into Thin Air.
Karen’s aspirations turned to trekking. There were expeditions to Mt. Everest base camp which, at 17,600 feet, is still a pretty good adventure. She decided to go.
As part of her preparation she climbed 19,600-foot Mt. Kilimanjaro several years ago. She also did serious altitude training on Mt. Lassen and Mt. Shasta. “It’s the altitude which makes these climbs difficult for some people,” says Karen who has never had trouble with high elevationf. On the way up Kilimanjaro another climber had significant problems. “He couldn’t believe it. He said, ‘I used to be a marine; I used to run marathons.’ “People get an elevated opinion of what they can do,” says Karen. “It doesn’t matter how fit you are. It’s whether you can handle the altitude.”
A skier from a young age, Karen is used to being at 12,000 feet or more. “My body is accustomed to elevation fluctuations,” she says. “But altitude can be a killer.” Lack of oxygen can be fatal if it causes cerebral edema. When her group was returning from base camp, they stopped at a high altitude clinic where doctors volunteer for two months at a time. “Eleven people had died from altitude-related sickness in the six weeks one doctor had been there,” she says. “And these people were just trekking to base camp.”
Karen’s problems actually took place stateside before she ever got to Nepal. Three years ago she was scheduled to do the trek to base camp, when she broke her hip. “I was nine days away from leaving,” says Karen. “And this is a trip that only takes place once every three years. I have trouble with my knees, which is a progressive condition, so I wondered if I would ever get to do it.” But things worked out, although not before another little glitch: three weeks before her departure this past year, she stepped in a hole and rolled her foot. “Hal Williams told me to wrap my foot, but not to roll it again or I wouldn’t be able to go,” she says.
Karen made it to Nepal and trekked with nine others to base camp. “The first half of the trek was beautifully forested, which I didn’t expect,” says Karen, “We were so fortunate. We had the most pristine, beautiful weather with totally unobstructed views of Mt. Everest every day. Some people have cloud cover and never get to see Everest.” During the day Karen wore trekking pants, a t-shirt and a turtle neck.
Once at base camp, Karen and three others in her group trekked on to Kala Patthar, a peak at 18,500 feet known for its spectacular view of Everest. The group left early so they could see the sunrise. “This climb and the day we reached base camp were the only times we needed gloves,” says Karen. “It was really cold the morning we trekked to Kala Patthar.” So cold that it took three weeks for two of her fingers to warm back to normal.
Nights were always cold. “We stayed in “tea houses” or little lodges along the way,” says Karen. “There was no insulation and only a wood stove in the common room. Our bottles of water would be frozen in the mornings.”
The group took eight days to travel from 4,000 feet to 17,600 feet at base camp. “This gave our bodies a long time to get used to the oxygen content in the air,” says Karen. “It is a long hike and some of it is steep, but it is up and down, not straight up. There’s nothing technical about it. It’s just a walk.” Some of Karen’s fellow trekkers took the medication Diamox to help with altitude sickness. Because Karen had summited Kilimanjaro in only four days with no problems, she opted not to take Diamox. A fellow trekker measured blood oxygenation levels for the group with an oximeter. Karen’s levels were consistently higher than those on the medication.
All along the trek they passed locals carrying supplies. “Everything that goes up and down the mountain is either on the back of people or animals,” says Karen. She saw men carrying 10-foot beams on their backs. “People carried much heavier loads than the cows or yaks,” she says. Fully-loaded baskets are hooked on a person’s back and held with a strap around their foreheads.
“It was such an amazing experience,” says Karen. I kept having to pinch myself to believe I was actually there.”
When looking for the opportunity to trek to Everest base camp, Karen chose a travel organization called Trekking for Kids. This group combines adventure trips with service to orphans. Karen’s group spent several days at an orphanage in Katmandu where they painted the interior of the orphanage, did some concrete work, and helped expand the garden. Each trekker raised or contributed $1,000 to the orphanage. The money was used to purchase six milk cows and have a shed built for them. “It’s nice to be able to see what your money is doing,” says Karen.
“Trekking for Kids started with the idea of combining adventure with something that would have some lasting impact,” says Karen. “So it’s not just taking a trip, it’s doing good at the same time.”