Ohio doctor on climbing Mt. Everest: ‘It was worth it’

There are outdoor enthusiasts and then there are OUTDOOR ENTHUSIASTS. Madison County physician Mitch Spahn falls into the latter category.

This spring, the 56-year-old obstetrician tackled Mt. Everest, climbing 17,600 feet to the South Base Camp on the world’s highest mountain – then another 900 feet to the top of Kala Patthar, a sister peak.

I learned a few things (some of them surprising) about mountaineering in the Himalayas while interviewing the good doctor for a story.

First, the ascent to base camp is more of a trek than a climb. It takes about 10 days and it’s not all straight up.

Dr. Spahn’s medical expedition of 24 doctors, nurses, and medics hiked 50 miles over hills, down valleys and across streams – all the while gradually gaining altitude.

They stayed nights in villages and tea houses along the way and heard lectures from their team leader about “wilderness medicine.” He said those talks covered everything from treating snake bites to lightning strikes.

I didn’t even know there was such a specialty.

Their meatless diet consisted mostly of tea, potatoes, a spinach-like veggie, nak (female yak) milk, and cheese. However, they found cans of Pringles potato chips in virtually every village.

Go figure!

Bathroom facilities were often holes in the floors of their huts. And because sleeping rooms were only about 35 degrees and all water had to be purified, baths were out of the question.

“I took four showers in three weeks in Nepal,” Spahn said with a laugh.

But the high-living Nepalese are not without some modern conveniences. Spahn found wi-fi capability and solar power nearly everywhere on his trek up the mountain.

The members of the party reached base camp on May 10. They found it a tent city of several hundred residents that included volunteer medical professionals, Sherpa guides, and climbers from all over the world awaiting turns to “summit” the mountain. So many want to climb to the top of Everest these days that it’s only allowed on a rotational basis.

Spahn’s biggest concern prior to his adventure was altitude sickness. But neither he nor anyone in his expedition suffered that potentially fatal malady that can create blood clots in the brain or lungs. He said the secret is physical conditioning and consuming large amounts of fluids.

It was still no walk in the park.

The expedition saw six sick and injured climbers helicoptered off the mountain. Two died.

Was it more difficult than Spahn anticipated?

“It was harder than I thought it would be at the higher levels,” he said.

When asked if he would do it again, Spahn shook his head in affirmation.

“It was worth it,” he said. “But I would like to try something else – maybe Mt. Kilimanjaro.”

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