Visit to the Himalayas
With a considerable amount of training under his belt, Jon Letko finally got his opportunity to visit the Himalayas. After pushing his body to its absolute limits on speed-climbs of Mount Rainier and the steep slopes of Denali, Jon knew he was ready to travel overseas. However, he also recognized that none of his previous adventures compared to the challenges posed by the Himalayan range. Jon was itching to see how his fitness and strength would match up against the toughest mountains in the world.
It was late at night when Jon's plane finally landed in Kathmandu, the capital city of Nepal and the gateway to the Himalayas. After nearly 18 hours of travel, he was exhausted. Jon navigated through the sleepy airport terminal and took a taxi to his hotel near the center of the city.
Early the next morning, Jon Letko met his climbing group on the outskirts of the city. Organized entirely online, the group consisted of 12 members – all of whom were avid climbers making a first-time visit to the Himalayas. Their 7-day trek into the mountains would take them to the base camp of Mount Everest. However, climbing Everest was not the goal. Instead, the group planned to summit Nuptse, an adjacent peak that is slightly smaller (though still massive, by almost any standard) and far less crowded. Although Everest was an appealing challenge, Jon and his group also recognized its downsides. For one, in the years leading up to the expedition, the infamous peak had become overrun by climbers from all over the world.
It wasn’t always that way. Up until the 1990s, Everest attracted only a handful of experienced climbers each year. But that all changed with the development of modern climbing equipment and new technologies. Climbing the mountain suddenly became much more accessible, allowing average people to attempt the feat. Guide companies were formed, charging hefty fees to essentially shepherd clients to the top. And the clients came in droves. As it turns out, people are willing to pay a lot to say they’ve stood atop the tallest mountain in the world.
The sudden glut of climbers on the Everest was a recipe for disaster – too many people trying to climb at once causes progress to slow down. Since every climb follows the same basic route, logjams can easily occur on the mountain. In such a situation, a fast-moving storm or an inopportune icefall can spell death. In fact, during the 1996 climbing season, that’s exactly what happened. A vicious storm surged up the valley one afternoon and 15 people lost their lives after being stranded in a white-out on the upper slopes of the peak.
This inherent danger, coupled with a number of previous close calls, led Jon Letko to steer clear of Everest. Jon’s group would follow the crowds of climbers all the way to Everest Base Camp, but then veer off on their own route toward the end of the trek.
Accompanying their group were a half dozen Sherpas – a native Nepalese people renowned for their stamina and strength in the mountains. Thanks to these genetic gifts, Sherpas make exceptional porters and guides in the high alpine regions. They had been hired to carry the heaviest items so Jon Letko and his fellow climbers could conserve their energy for the climb. Among the gear the Sherpas carefully piled onto their backs was a box of dentistry equipment that Jon had brought with him. He knew about the limited access to medical care that affected Nepal’s remote regions, and was determined to offer treatment to those in need.
Their trek into the foothills of the mighty Himalayan range was like stepping into another world. Each day took the group to greater elevations, unveiling increasingly stunning scenery. The landscape was stark, but the beauty of the peaks was unmatched by any Jon Letko had seen in his life. He quickly realized that there was good reason for the Himalayas’ reputation.
After 6 days of trekking, they were nearing Everest Base Camp. As they passed through a small village, Jon told the rest of his team to continue on without him; he would catch up the following day. Jon asked a Sherpa to explain to the people in the village that he was a dentist and was here to help them.
One by one, the villagers came to Jon’s makeshift station. Almost all had rotting teeth that needed to be extracted. Although he had a variety of dentistry tools, Jon quickly realized that the best course of action would be to pull as many bad teeth out as he could. He simply didn’t have the time or resources to offer advanced care. As word spread of his services, people came from all over to seek help. In all, Jon Letko estimates that he pulled over 800 teeth that day. He woke early the next morning to continue on and meet up with his fellow climbers.
Arriving at Everest Base Camp, Jon quickly located his group. After double checking all their gear, they set out that afternoon for Nuptse. Although not quite as formidable as Everest, this mountain was not to be taken lightly. With an elevation of nearly 26,000 feet, climbing Nuptse required incredibly physical strength and the ability to operate one’s body with limited oxygen at high altitude.
Having had several near-death experiences in the past, Jon Letko was almost expecting something to go wrong on Nuptse. To his surprise, however, the climb went entirely without incident. There were several difficult sections toward the top that posed technical challenges, but with their combined experience Jon’s group was able to safely navigate them and reach the summit. They were helped by the weather, too, which remained clear and calm for nearly 5 days in a row – a rare occurrence in that region of the world.
Standing on the summit, Jon felt an immense sense of accomplishment. After years of training, he had finally accomplished his goal of climbing a Himalayan peak.