Trekking to the Mount Everest base camp is giving a retired Port Alberni teacher a chance to go back to his outdoor roots, get in touch with his spirituality and see a new part of the world.
Former VAST principal Tom McEvay, 57, and local physician Robert O’Dwyer, 58, are leaving for Mount Everest on Nov. 2 and will be joined by McEvay’s son Cody, who is forgoing a semester of university studies to participate in the expedition.
Others can’t comprehend what McEvay is doing, but he knows exactly what he’s doing, he said.
“People think I’m crazy when they ask me why am I doing this – well I say ‘Why not?’,” McEvay said.
“I’m crazy but I’m not stupid. This is a controlled, organized climb with an experienced reputable firm.”
The trio of Port Alberni trekkers will be part of a group of 10 heading to the Everest base camp and beyond.
McEvay and O’Dwyer have been friends for several years and are nearly the same age. “I tell people that Rob is there to re-start my heart and my son is there to pack me out,” McEvay kidded.
McEvay is taking the trip with longtime friend Ioin White, who has led more than 20 Everest expeditions through his company Sherpa Encounters. McEvay met White through wrestling, where White coached teams in Burnaby over the years.
The trip represents coming full circle in McEvay’s life.
He grew up in Victoria where he quickly took to the outdoors, hiking, camping and fishing. In university, the outdoors was in McEvay’s DNA, and he continued to hike in the mountains around Vancouver’s North Shore, Whistler and Blackcomb.
He worked outdoors and taught the outdoors program at AW Neill when he was hired fresh out of UBC in 1979. “I was meant to be on Everest at this time in my life,” he said.
McEvay retired from the district as the principal of VAST in June and has been busy working with the Alberni Valley Bulldogs as an education advisor, and as a private consultant to several agencies.
“People know me from my role as a teacher and principal. But they don’t know about this part of my life — the outdoors,” he said.
The trek has intrinsic meaning that goes beyond a trip to an exotic destination. In the heights of Everest McEvay has a chance to experience an existential lucidity and refocus his gaze inward.
“There’s a mystique there. It’s a very spiritual place that few people get to see and experience,” McEvay said. “I want to un-clutter my mind of the modern world and reflect about myself and who I really am.”
O’Dwyer is originally from Dublin, Ireland and has worked in the Alberni Valley as an internal medicine specialist for the last 15 years.
He’s travelled to Thailand, Malaysia and other points in Asia and almost made it to Nepal once. “I wanted to go there 10 years ago to provide medical services but there was an insurrection and I never went,” he said. “I like to say Tom is dragging me there. But going gives me a chance to see and experience a culture that is centuries old.”
The group will acclimatize in Kathmandu, Nepal, which is 1,829 metres (6,000 feet) above sea level. From there they’ll travel to Lukla where they will set off to Everest with Sherpas, porters and yaks.
Once at Everest, they’ll summit 213 m (700 feet) above base camp at Kala Patthar, where most of the famous photographs of the mountain are taken from, McEvay said.
The base camp sits at 5,300 m (17,500) feet above sea level and the climb is expected to be taxing. The spectre of altitude sickness and dysentery on the trip is a concern but a healthy dose of caution accompanies McEvay’s tensile steel spine.
He’s been training 90 minutes to six-hours per day for the last two months. He hikes Alberni Valley’s mountains and trails and has been exercising in preparation for the rigors of the climb. “I mean, I live and train at sea level and I’m going to the opposite extreme over 11 days,” he said. “I’m comfortable that I can handle it.”
And McEvay has advised that they’ll be avoiding meat and eating a largely vegetarian diet in Nepal before departing for base camp. “You don’t want dysentery, but you really don’t want it when you’re sitting at 18,000 feet,” McEvay said.
The group will hike back down over four days and split up: McEvay and O’Dwyer to a resort for three days, and Cody to trek further into India for another month.
McEvay’s life is as busy as it was before he retired, but it’s busy in ways different from when he worked. At age 57 he can’t put off doing this until later. This is later.
“There was a sign at my retirement party that said ‘Tom’s not retiring. He’s rewiring,’ and that about says it,” McEvay said.