High on the Himalayas

2016 Iola High School grad Colby Works has returned after fulfilling his dream of hiking in Nepal. The experience took him up mountains and introduced him to people in remote villages.

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May 21, 2021 - 1:36 PM

Colby Works stands at 18,500 feet in the Himalayas. Mount Everest, at 29,032 feet, is the dark mountain with the clouds blowing off of it. Courtesy photo

The trouble with bucket lists is that for most of us they come too late in life.

Which is why Colby Works is wise beyond his years.

Works recently returned from a month hiking in the Himalayas, a dream best-suited for young lungs and nimble legs.

“For some, breathing got to be a challenge,” Works said of the exertion of hiking in altitudes topping 18,000 feet.

At age 23, his youth was a definite advantage, he admitted, plus having the stamina of a mountain goat.

Colby Works with guide Namgya Sherpa with Mount Everest in the background.Courtesy photo

Works also credited the group’s guide for taking things slowly and allowing the low-landers to acclimatize to the increasing heights.

“The pace was very slow and comfortable,” he said, typically hikes of four to eight hours a day with altitude gains of 1,000 to 2,000 feet. 

“I was never sore,” he said. Nor did he suffer from altitude sickness with symptoms such as nausea or headaches.

Three porters carried “all the heavy stuff,” for the party of six, Works said, while the tourists carried their own water, snacks and outerwear. Works estimated his pack weighed about 16 lbs.

He prepared for the trek by running “every hill I could find,” in Manhattan, and hiking the trails at the nearby Konza Prairie while hoisting a 65-lb. pack.

“The toughest part was breaking in my mountaineering boots necessary for ice climbing,” he said. 

He went so far as to run on a treadmill outfitted in the boots and backpack.

Once on the trail, the hikers slept in “tea houses” for the most part. The simple structures were “nicer than I expected,” Works reported in emails back home. “All of my rooms have had a light.”

Colby Works stands in front of a 23,000-ft. Peak. Courtesy photo

The hikers monitored their blood oxygen levels twice a day to make sure their bodies were acclimating.

At the outset, Works reported “I am feeling fantastic. My blood O2 level this morning was 97% with a resting heart rate of 60.”

After reaching the summit of an 18,222-foot peak, Works relayed back, “Blood oxygen, 98; heart rate, 90,” proving that even for the fittest, the thinner the air, the faster the heart races to absorb oxygen.

Works said when he reached 14,000 feet he began taking Diamox, a medicine to guard against altitude sickness. In the United States, the mountains in our lower 48 states max out at 14,494 with California’s Mount Whitney the tallest.

Works said he was “by far” the youngest of the group. Though all were U.S. citizens, four reside in Panama just north of the equator and the other from Miami.

The climbing season in the Himalayas is short, just May and April, so typically the trails are busy with tour groups that range from 12 to 15 members.

“But the pandemic, obviously, has really hurt tourism,” he said. Minus the crowds, the difference allowed for an even more otherworldly experience.

“It felt really remote,” he said. “We were literally in the middle of nowhere.”

WORKS is the son of Judy and Fred Works and a 2016 graduate of Iola High School. In May 2020, he graduated from Kansas State University with a degree in kinesiology. On June 1, he begins a three-year program to earn a doctorate in physical therapy through the University of Kansas. 

All along, Works said he had planned to take a “gap year” before beginning a post-graduate program, though he didn’t exactly know where his studies would lead him. 

His decision to pursue physical therapy was influenced by his mother’s nursing career, his father’s experience with a prolonged hiking injury, and the positive experiences of shadowing local physical therapists Ben Taylor and Drew Mueller. 

If he can combine physical therapy with athletics, all the better. 

“I love sports,” he said. 

BESIDES the obvious thrill of hiking in a remote part of the world, Works said the experience of Nepal was unrivaled. 

First off, it’s a third-world country that is still recovering from a devastating 2015 earthquake. 

“They are rebuilding, literally by hand,” he said, using hand tools to chip away at rocks to form bricks.

“It’s brick and mortar, without the mortar,” he said. The high-altitude villages lack infrastructure — municipal systems that provide water, sewer and electricity.

Despite those disadvantages, “they seemed to have no stressors in the world,” Works said.

Yaks on the shore of Gokyo Lake, elevation 16,000 feet. Courtesy photo

He also noted the contrast between the Nepalese and its tourists “are night and day.” 

“Typically, tourists set on scaling a 20,000-foot mountain are very Type A. Real go-getters,” he said.

Big goals do not require big egos — just follow-through.

Works said he holds the highest respect for the group’s guide, Namgya Sherpa, a world-class climber who Works described as “the nicest guy.”

Sherpa has summited Mount Everest, Earth’s highest mountain at 29,032 feet, 11 times as well as challenging peaks the world over and owns his own excursion business.

“Google him,” Works advised.

NOT ALL went according to plan for Works.

His goal was to climb Lobuche Peak, altitude 20,075 feet.

But a member of their party fell ill, delaying the schedule by one day. 

That difference cost the group the excursion. 

Two weeks in, the group arrived at Base Camp under sunny skies. By the next afternoon, a blizzard had arrived, trapping the hikers for the next 36 hours.

After getting a report of more bad weather headed their way, the decision was made to call off Lobuche Peak.

“It was a huge disappointment and at the time, hard for me to accept,” Works said. 

“But it didn’t take long to realize how everything else was amazing.”

The experience of Base Camp, for example, was legion. 

At 17,598 feet, the camp “is more like a city,” he said. “It took me 45 minutes to traverse it.” Works noted each touring company has its own encampment. Theirs had a kitchen tent, a dining tent with a heater, and then separate tents for crew members and clients.

Naturally, the dining tent was the gathering spot. And travelling alone, Works warmed up to the crew members. 

Ice climbing at the Khumbu Icefall above Everest Base Camp. Courtesy photo

“They called me ‘youngling,’” he recalled affectionately.

With time to kill during the snowstorm, Works said he ventured to take a shower. After all, it had been 10 days. 

The shower consisted of him standing on a rubber mat and pouring a pan of hot water over his head. 

“In the time I got back to my tent, my hair was frozen solid,” he said.

Daytime temperatures during Works’ time there hovered in the 30s and 40s; nighttime in the teens. Winds were a constant, he said. “The wind chill is a killer.”

During the blizzard, it dipped to -5. 

WITH ONE SHOT of the vaccine in his arm before his travels, Works said he felt “mildly” safe to travel. Upon his return he received a second dose of the vaccine.

“There was an element of risk of being in an undeveloped country,” Works said. “But knowing I would be outside most of the time, I figured if I took precautions, I should be fine.”

As it turns out, the window for travel was very limited. The day after his April 29 departure to come home, Nepal closed its borders because of the rising influx of COVID-19 cases from neighboring India. 

Which goes to show if you have a bucket list, don’t wait to start. 

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