Mount Everest Trek

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Radiating Hope in Nepal

I am honored to have been selected to travel to Nepal and photograph an expedition of climbers as they trekked to Mount Everest base camp in April of 2017. Our trek was organized by Lakpa Gyelu, a world-famous Nepalese Sherpa guide who set the current world record for fastest ascent to the summit of Everest. He did it in 10 hours and 56 minutes—a feat that takes most climbers weeks.

The purpose of the trip was to raise money and awareness for Radiating Hope, a non-profit organization who's mission is to advance cancer care in developing countries. Radiating Hope commissioned me to document the trip with incredible still photos so that they can use them in their PR and marketing materials to let people know what they are about, hopefully enticing more people to get involved and bringing in more money so they can continue to help other developing countries save lives.

Our goal was to raise enough money on the trek to be able to donate four radiation machines to the people of Nepal. Currently there are only six radiation machines in the entire country of nearly 30 million people. That’s only one machine per 5 million people. As a comparison, here in the United States we have one machine for every 100,000 people — that's 50 times as many machines per capita!

Because of the limited availability of radiation machines in Nepal and much of the world, unfortunately a diagnosis of cancer is essentially a death sentence. So increasing the number of radiation machines in Nepal from six to ten will make a huge difference in their ability to save the lives of significantly more people over the coming decades.

We were able to raise over $100,000 in cash, and the four radiation machines were donated by Gamma West Cancer Services, a local hospital in northern Utah. Several outdoor gear companies including Black Diamond, Cotopaxi, Red Fox, ProBar, and Mountain Ops also donated equipment for the trek. These companies and many television news channels across the country have been telling the story of our philanthropic adventure.

During the two and a half weeks that we spent on the trail, we hiked well over 47,000 vertical feet in total elevation gain. Throughout the trip, all of the climbers carried prayer flags like the ones shown above, each one dedicated to an individual who has fought the battle with cancer or who is currently in treatment. I personally carried about 200 prayer flags for friends, family, and loved ones that had been affected by cancer, including my mother who died of brain cancer ten years ago.

The flags were blessed by a Buddhist Lama in a special ceremony and strung out at Everest base camp. Over the coming months as the Himalayan winds blow against the flags, they will slowly unravel. As each thread is blown away into the winds, it represents hope, strength, and well-being in honor of that individual.

On the day before our final push to base camp, it started to snow in the evening. I knew the snow would make for incredible photos, so three of us decided to get up at 4:00am the next morning and hike a steep trail to an lookout point called Kala Pathar, where we would be able to see the sun rise over Mount Everest and look down on base camp. I'm so glad we did!

Hiking up a steep mountain in the dark on a trail that was covered in several inches of snow was quite an experience. Even at over 18,000 feet, we were pushing ourselves hard and hurrying to make sure we would summit before sunrise. Fortunately all three of us were healthy and did not suffer any altitude sickness, other than the normal shortness of breath at that elevation.

We arrived just as the morning sun was gradually starting to bathe the various peaks of the Himalayan mountains with sunlight. I waisted no time climbing up past all the prayer flags to the tip of the peak, which was only about two and a half feet wide… just enough space for me to sit down. On all three sides were massive 2,000-3,000 foot drops. I had to be very careful not to slip and fall to certain death.

But rather than fear, I felt such a deep feeling of peace, gratitude to God, and oneness with nature. It was the most amazing, exhilarating, raw experience! I was on top of the world, seeing something that most people never see. Not watching it on an IMAX movie screen or scrolling through Google Earth, but actually being there in reality… breathing the pure cold air, listening to the sounds of the wind blowing over the peaks of the highest mountains on earth, feeling the snow soaking through my pants, feeling my heart beating quickly because of the thin air and a touch of adrenaline coursing through my veins.

Everywhere I looked was incredible beauty. And things were changing quickly as the light crested over Mount Everest and filled the world with light. Naturally, I was able to capture some incredible photos in those few minutes, but even if I had not had a camera to capture the stunning view, I would have been entirely content to just absorb the experience with all of my senses. It was my favorite moment of the entire trip, and a memory I hope I never forget.

Another highlight of the trip was the opportunity to meet Kancha, the last surviving member of the Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay expedition that was the first group to summit Mount Everest in 1953. We had dinner with him and he recounted his experience of what it was like to find a route to the top with all of the challenges that presented them. There are plenty of books about that first summit trip, but hearing it firsthand from someone who was actually there was an amazing experience.

An insteresting sidenote is that when Kancha first saw me, he paused and then put his hand on my shoulder and said “my son, you look just like my friend Hillary”. He walked me to the foyer of the hotel and showed me a photo of the original expedition team and pointed to Sir Edmund Hillary… who looked like he could have been my grandfather or an older version of myself and said “is that you?”.

The bulk of our group turned around at base camp to start our journey home, but four of the climbers continued on. After an additional three weeks on the mountain, they were successful in summiting Mount Everest, where they triumphantly waved the prayer flags before returning home.

—Jacom Stephens                              


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