Behind the Scenes: Khumbu Spring Training

Mountain Hardwear Proudly Presents:
Ueli Steck’s Project: Himalaya
Part I: Khumbu Spring Training
Chronicled by Freddie Wilkinson

It’s a funny thing how much the human animal is a creature of habit. People tend to say the same things, watch the same movies, hangout with the same people, go to the same bars, set the same goals and make the same mistakes over and over, day after day and year after year, throughout the trajectory of experience that we call life. Climbers are no different, although I suspect the arch of the pendulum swings a degree wider for us than it does for most other folk, ranging from the extreme masochism to unchecked indulgence in equal time.

What I’m getting at here is Kathmandu: it feels like only yesterday I left the place. In reality, as my passport informs me, it was the 17th of November, 2010, and yet this Saturday night, March 5th, I found myself checking in at the international counter in Boston’s Logan Airport, escorting two 52 pound bags that I barely managed to squeak by a stern looking attendant. Her gaze softened when she looked at my itinerary. “You poor thing,” she said. Indeed. Why was I doing this to myself – again?

Freddie Wilkinson

In LA I rendezvoused with the Boulder contingent of our team, Rob Frost and Jim Aikman. I’ve known Rob for years. He’s a talented filmmaker, gifted climber, built like a gummy bear, and possesses a disarming and often startlingly immature sense of humour that belies a much deeper… immature sense of humor. I’d only met Jim in passing before, but he struck me as the sincere, earnest type, raised from solid Michigan stock, no doubt a hard worker, just the man to keep the somewhat combustible combination of Rob’s and my personalities in check. Looking straight down the barrel of forty hours of no-holds-barred international travel, I couldn’t think of two better men to have with me in the trenches.

Fifteen hours later, the situation in Hong Kong seemed well under control, as we settled into a twelve hour layover fueled by coffee, sausage croissants, and free wi-fi. Then we lost Jim. Or rather, he was taken from us. Meandering through the airport concourse in search of lunch alternatives, the poor lad had just passed a line of innocuous-looking screening posts when two very serious officers appeared from nowhere and spirited him off to a private screening room. What was his crime? Was Jim, the mild-mannered Midwesterner really a militant jihadi, drug smuggler or political agitator? I was beginning to wonder, as five minutes stretched to ten, and ten to thirty: the only thing I knew for sure was that Chinese security means business. The only thing for Rob and I to do was order up another sausage croissant and ponder Jim’s grim fate.

Then Jim returned. We expect airports to scan for explosives and narcotics – but the Chinese, in the twenty-first century, scan for more nefarious threats to public safety as well. Jim’s illicit cargo was nothing more than a mild case of the common cold. Feeling at once relieved and unsettled, we picked up our bags and headed towards our departure gate, and the final leg of our journey to the Himalayas.

We touched down in Kathmandu at 10.15 this Monday. It was well past midnight before I finally drifted off, and beyond the barking dogs and car horns outside my window, beyond the exhaustion and jetlag, I returned to the same question that had followed me all the way from New Hampshire: Why? What was I doing back here again, so soon? And in those last fleeting moments, as the din of life in the “developing world” receded and I finally found rest, a vision came to me….

I saw a lone man, soloing untethered up a gnarly mixed mountain face. He moved with the confidence of a condor, gobbling up meters of vertical as if it were chicken scratch. I could scarcely dream such agility is in my own potential as an alpinist. And then I remembered… Ueli Steck… The chance to climb with one of the sport’s true virtuosos, to learn new tricks and, perhaps, to break-through old habits and discover a new way of looking at the same mountains I had lulled myself into thinking I already knew.

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