When perched on a peak high in the Himalayas, with even larger mountains above and a sunlit glacial valley below, “You get a sense of your own smallness,” Jed Winder says.
The strenuous trek to the base camp of Mount Everest — 78 miles in 11 days and a 9,000 foot climb in elevation — was challenging. But Winder, who is the optometrist at Tooele Vision Center, is no stranger to a challenge. He has run ultramarathons, hiked to the highest point in 22 states, and swam across the channel from Alcatraz to San Francisco.
Winder, 43, a Tooele resident who grew up in West Valley City, comes from a family with an appetite for travel. As a child, he visited Europe and the Great Wall of China. As an adult, he took his son to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. He has dreamed about hiking to Everest for the last 20 years, so a few years ago, he and some extended family members got serious and made plans.
Last month, Winder’s dream became a reality with a 31-hour plane ride to Kathmandu, Nepal. From there, he and his group — nine people in all, including a brother, an uncle, and some cousins and friends — boarded a 16-seat plane and flew to Lukla, a tiny, sloping runway of an airport perched on the side of a giant mountain at 9,334 feet above sea level.
One end of the runway runs up against a steep, rocky incline; the other drops off in a heart-stopping cliff, Winder said. The airport is rated as one of the most dangerous on earth.
Such a risky flight would be more than enough adventure for some, but Winder and his group were just getting started. He said for the next 11 days, they pushed up a trail toward Everest, covering up to 12 miles in a day, stopping at tea houses in scattered villages to refuel and rest, only to rise early and repeat.
Wary of illness, they ate only what had been thoroughly cooked — mainly noodles, rice, and curry; no fruits or vegetables — and drank only hot teas and water that had been boiled or purified. They slept in cold lodges, used bathrooms that were no more than a hole in the ground, and sometimes hiked through rain, snow and fog.
What attracted Winder to this icy spot at the top of the world that brings around 40,000 visitors every year? For one thing, the people, he said. Winder wanted to learn about and experience a completely new culture. With every step, the group encountered Buddhist and Hindu traditions that were new to them, but date back thousands of years.
In Kathmandu, Winder said they stood near the Hindu Temple Pashupatinath and watched several men ceremoniously prepare a loved one’s body for cremation, dipping its toes into the Bagmati River and scooping water on its head. Another body was cremated on the steps of the temple.
More religious rituals awaited on the trail to Everest, where brightly colored wheels carved with sacred words were placed intermittently. Winder said the guides encouraged hikers to give the wheels a spin to send a prayer to heaven.
Winder’s group passed by great walls of sacred carvings along the way, and the lines of multi-colored flags flying high above the trail were not for decoration. Each one held a prayer, meant to be sent to heaven with every gust of wind, he said.
Throughout his trip, Winder was as fascinated with the native people’s everyday lives as he was with the religious rites he witnessed.
“There are no roads connecting the dozens of villages,” he said, “so everything is either carried on the backs of men or yak.”
The higher they went up the trail, the fewer comforts they encountered. Above tree line, where there is no wood available, the only fuel to burn for warmth is yak dung. The children gather and pile it up against houses.
“When you see what they do to live on $700 a year, and they don’t complain and they’re happy,” Winder said, “I mean, the little things that bother you at home … you actually realize are really petty.”
Another change of perspective came from Winder’s second reason for hiking to Everest: to experience the feeling of standing among the towering Himalayan mountains.
“It’s like nothing I can explain,” Winder said. “It was unbelievable.”
When he watched the sun rise from Kala Patthar — at 18,300 feet above sea level, the highest elevation the group attained — he was already more than 7,000 feet higher than Deseret Peak, and he still had to look “way up” to see the top of Everest. Such a view, he said, “really puts you in your place.”
As he sat there that breathless morning, high on an icy peak thousands of miles away from home and routine, Winder thought about what he had learned.
“You go up and try and conquer the mountain, and what really ends up happening is you’re humbled,” he said.
After all you can do, he said, the mountains are bigger, and nature is stronger, and you are at the mercy of a force much larger than yourself. Hiking at the foot of Mount Everest was different than any other hiking experience he’s had.
“The mountains have more of a presence there than anywhere I’ve been,” he said. “We got as high as we could, but we still weren’t at the top.”
Along with feeling dwarfed, however, Winder felt something else: satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment.
“Hiking high mountains is a metaphor for life,” he said. “You’re stretching yourself and facing obstacles, learning that challenges are not meant to be avoided but to be used for improvement. … When you climb a mountain, all your other ‘mountains’ in life become less daunting.”
What would Winder say to people who might be afraid to leave their comfort zone? Or even to those facing their own “mountains” here at home?
“You can do more than you think you can do. Just try it,” he said.