Fifty years ago, I was an American teenager training for a 21-day trek in the Himalayan Mountains. School was out, and our heads were swimming with Beatles music and the transcendental influences of the times. I was 7,000 miles away from home — and centuries away in culture and lifestyle.
It was June 28, 1969. We left New Delhi, India, bound for Lukla, Nepal. Meanwhile, on the other side of the planet, excitement was mounting over NASA’s upcoming Apollo 11 mission — the first manned mission to land on the Moon. I knew when we began the ascent that we would not know if the mission — which would launch at 8:32 a.m. EST July 16, 1969 — was successful until we returned from our own mission.
Our instructors were Sherpa mountaineers, originally from Tibet. They were patient but persistent with their American students. One of them said simply, “You need to know this, or you may die on this trip.” They had my attention.
The astronauts aboard the Apollo spacecraft were in the same situation.
It seemed at each 500 feet we ascended the Asian mountain range we were further detached from the world. There was no longer any phone service, no markets with week-old newspapers to read. Messages were passed along only when you met climbers going the opposite direction and then only if they spoke English.
Our group was invited into the home of a local Tibetan family. We crowded shoulder-to-shoulder into their tiny hut. Three generations made us feel welcome with food and gifts. The elders in the family watched and taught the children each day, while the parents worked long hours of manual labor. They were content and happy in their life and pleased to share with strangers.
We made it to the base camp of Mount Everest, as far as you can go without supplemental oxygen. It was a physical and mental accomplishment for me, one that I will never forget. On our last night on the trail, the crescent moon was clear, and I wondered if our American astronauts had made it. Then I thought of the Tibetan family we had met. Those folks will live and die and never know that on July 20, 1969, men had not only rocketed into space but also left footprints on the surface of the moon.