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(September 7, 2000, Gazette)

Everest...
and beyond!

By Susen Johnson
For the record, if you ever find yourself having trouble by the time you hit base camp at Mt. Everest, helicopters won’t fly in to get you – the air’s too thin for them to operate at that altitude. But, for a fee, you can be carted down by yak.

That’s the kind of experiential knowledge that comes easily to Memorial engineering graduate students Mike Wrinch and Lloyd Smith, both of whom have journeyed to the world’s tallest mountain – and beyond.

However, Mr. Wrinch, a native of Saltspring Island, British Columbia, and Mr. Smith, who hails from Manuels, made what is to many the apex of a lifelong dream just the start of their international adventures. For an investment of about $5,000 and four months time, each took a route unheard of to many, and unappealing to most. Mr. Wrinch left in December of 1997 for Thailand, Nepal, India, Kashmir and Sri Lanka; Mr. Smith departed just over a year later, in January of 1999, for Nepal, India, and Egypt.

But why climb Everest? Were their usual adventures of long-distance hiking,white-water kayaking, and rock climbing not enough?

“If you live a very busy, noisy life, then extreme activities can be relaxing,” Mr. Wrinch explained. “It’s like, you know you’re there when your mouth has gone dry because that’s what says you’re over your head, and now you have to think.”

As Mr. Wrinch tells it, he chose to get over his head with Everest partly in response to frustration with his routine, and partly as an attempt at clarity.

“I was having a hard time with the world – it all just didn’t make sense anymore, and I needed a kick start. So I was walking down the street and I saw this map of the world. The next thing I know I’m on a flight to Bangkok and then on to Kathmandu, Nepal. One week later I was on the roof of an overfilled bus heading into the Himalayas. I felt like Indiana Jones. And then 17 days later, I was standing at the base camp of Mt. Everest, begging for air.”

For Mr. Smith, motivation came partly from being “tired of his roommate’s stories and pictures,” but also eager for a change from the routine of school and work. One year after Mr. Wrinch returned, he decided to check things out for himself.

Located in northeastern Nepal, Mt. Everest stands 29,028 feet above sea level. Unscaled until 1953 when New Zealander Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay made the summit, Everest has tempted over 4,000 people to its heights, with less than a quarter of that number succeeding, and has taken approximately 163 souls to date. Base camp is located more than halfway up the mountainside, at an altitude of approximately 17,000 feet – twice the height of Canada’s own Whistler Mountain. A two-week long walk over footpaths from the town of Jiri, Everest’s base camp serves as both the end point for talented amateurs and the starting point for those with the requisite US$50,000 fee, and, of course, a death wish.

But the MUN students didn’t take their risks in stride.

“It’s not a hospitable place,” Mr. Smith said. “I started out feeling like I was conquering something, but when I came back I felt totally different – like the mountains let me go up there. I was imposing on a land where I didn’t belong at all, and it was a privilege.”

Likewise, despite his research interest in ice resonance theory, Mr. Wrinch’s mind was on other matters as he crossed the legendary Kumbu Glacier, a living icepatch known for periodically churning out the bodies of missing climbers, and whose ever-present groans function to remind trekkers of its lethal power to open up at any moment and swallow them whole.

“I was definitely not thinking about my thesis. I was thinking ‘step ... step ... that looks safe ... step."

On a budget of $10 a day, surviving on rice and lentils, and referring often to their Lonely Planet guide books to get them through the inevitable altitude sickness, Mr. Wrinch and Mr. Smith were nevertheless thrilled to reach their destination.

“This elation comes over you,” Mr. Smith said. “Everybody’s silent – nobody’s hooting and hollering because you’re at about nine percent oxygen and half of the people with you are sick.”

“You just pant and hand the camera to someone to get a picture,” Mr. Wrinch said. “It’s really more about the journey, and the people you meet along the way.”

Mr. Smith agreed, telling of how every kid in town came out to see him as he got off the bus in Jiri, and of the little girl who washed her red sock all day long – apparently just so she could observe how the lanky white guy did his laundry. Challenged to alter his perspectives of time, distance, safety, and personal space, Mr. Smith, a former atheist, was particularly inspired by the Buddhist principles of spiritual regeneration, and saw his friendships with other international travellers blossom into opportunities to scuba dive in the Red Sea, hang out on a houseboat in Kashmir, and tour the pyramids in the Valley of the Kings. He even met up with a friend with whom he had made a tentative date over two months earlier!

Mr. Wrinch, meanwhile, remembers the man whose gangrenous toes had to be cut off without painkiller.

Applying his credo “go hard or go home” to his adventure travel, Mr. Wrinch descended from Everest to try his luck in Calcutta, working for a month with Mother Teresa (about six months before her death) in the infamous City of Joy.

“I have no pictures of India because India is a feeling, it’s an experience,” he said. “You just can’t get it through pictures.”

Volunteering in the Home of the Sick, which he describes as “more like the Home of the Really, Really, Extremely Sick – let’s just say I don’t know what could be happening at the Home of the Dying,” Mr. Wrinch pitched in as a floor cleaner, laundry washer, and bandaging assistant.

But the dangerous work came next. Leaving Calcutta, Mr. Wrinch travelled to Bangkok and ended up on a German-owned sailboat going to Sri Lanka, “and I didn’t even know where Sri Lanka was at that point”. Finding the boat to be the target of several would-be pirates bearing down on them in the middle of the Indian Ocean, Mr. Wrinch remembers the captain calling out, “Oh my God, they’ll kill us all! Quick, grenades are under the seat, shotgun is over there, I’ll get the pistol!” Although the potential killers circled the vessel for what seemed like an eternity, Mr. Wrinch’s captain played coy until they decided not to board.

“That was pretty scary,” Mr. Wrinch admits. “That was dry mouth.”

Currently plotting a joint trip to Chile for sometime next year, and keeping busy as graduate engineering students and VP’s in a new high-tech startup called IntrigniaSolutions (www.intrignia.com), Mr. Wrinch and Mr. Smith consider the question of whether there is a correlation between studying engineering and pursuing extreme activities.

“A lot of people who do engineering and high-tech are used to things changing quickly,” Mr. Smith admits. “Technology, work-terms and school-terms every four months, different people, different environments.”

Mr. Wrinch adds, “You have to keep pushing, to know that you’re going ahead, to know that you’re not going back.”