Two years ago, an Ashland High School senior was sitting in the school’s quad, talking about his adventurous grandfather. Grandpa, he marveled, had traveled to Nepal as a young man and still remembered his trek to the Mount Everest base camp as one of the great adventures of his life. The account must have inspired the boy, who declared to a group of friends gathered around that he was planning on following the same path after graduation.
Sitting close by, a sophomore with copper-red hair and a competitive spirit decided at that moment to one-up both the grandfather and the grandson. His name was Cedar Barnes, and he can still remember what was going through his mind that day: “I thought to myself, ‘Huh, I bet you I could do it before I graduate.’ ”
Whether Barnes had been bit by that persistent bug known as teenage bravado or simply been caught up in the moment is anyone’s guess, but what can’t be disputed is net result of Barnes’ epiphany. Within a few days he had convinced two fellow sophomores, Erik Oline and Loden Donahoo, to make his dream theirs, and now two years later, and three months ahead of graduation day, the three friends are embarking on a road trip which will put their classmates’ spontaneous rambles to San Francisco to shame. Along the way, each will be using both a GoPro and a standard camera to record the trip, and the resulting video will double as their senior projects and a travel documentary they plan to submit to film festivals.
“I’m beyond excited and slightly terrified as well,” said Barnes, who advanced to the Class 5A state wrestling meet in the 170-pound weight class two weeks ago. “I know we’re definitely prepared to go there, but there are also so many tiny, logistical things that could go wrong between point A and B. This has been in the planning for so long and we have such a small, narrow window to get through in order to execute it properly without having to, like, drop out of high school.”
Oline is similarly anxious.
“I’m probably 90 percent excited, 10 percent nervous,” he said.
“It was just kind of a joke at first. I mean, honestly, it was a joke for a while and our friends kind of teased us about it, but we looked into it and realized that it was 100 percent a possibility if we buckled down and started saving money. And that’s kind of what we did.”
The three-week trip — they’ll fly back into Medford April 16 — will, for the cost of about $2,100 each, provide plenty of opportunities to capture spectacular visuals.
They’ll hop on a plane in San Francisco today at 1:50 p.m., and 16 hours later will land in Guangzhou, China, then following a 12-hour layover, they’ll take another flight to Kathmandu, Nepal. Then, things get exciting for the boys and perhaps a little terrifying for their loved ones. Barnes, 18, Oline, 17, and Donahoo, 17, will fly from Kathmandu to Eastern Nepal’s Tenzing-Hillary Airport, otherwise known as the most dangerous airport in the world, according to a program titled “Most Extreme Airports” that aired on The History Channel in 2010.
Also known as Lukla Airport, Tenzing-Hillary is surrounded by mountains and therefore requires a steep decent in order to touch down on its miniscule 1,700-foot runway — Rogue Valley International’s runway, by comparison, is 8,000 feet. Only small, short-takeoff-and-landing aircraft can manage it, and it’s doubtful that anybody who’s watched planes swoop out of the clouds onto Tenzing-Hillary, either via YouTube or in person, would dispute The History Channel’s ranking.
“Oh, we’re going to have our cameras rolling,” Barnes said. “I’m excited for it.”
But aren’t his parents terrified?
“Oh, yeah,” he said. “They are.”
Following that harrowing landing, which, like most of their trip depends almost entirely upon the weather, the boys will step out of the airplane and into a virtual cloud city. Elevation: 9,334 feet — high, but still about 8,000 feet below their final destination, the 17,598-foot high South Base Camp.
To get there, they’ll throw their gear on their backs and hoof it, stopping along the way at teahouses and bazaars — seven in all — to let their lungs acclimate to the ever-thinning atmosphere. Each of those stops will necessarily be more than a full day, lest they run the risk of suffering from high-altitude cerebral edema. Because all the adventure in the world won’t inspire a brain swollen with fluid.
Donahoo says those stops, for him, aren’t just a means to an end. They’re part of the draw.
“I looked at all of (the stops),” he said, “and they’re all really unique. And even though they’re the same geographically, they’ve developed sort of independently, so I’m sort of excited to draw the comparisons between them and capture that on film.”
If everything goes according to plan, Barnes, Oline and Donahoo will arrive at South Base Camp following their longest hiking day of the trip, seven or eight nights after landing at Tenzing-Hillary Airport. On March 26, while most of their classmates kick back and enjoy the start of spring break, Ashland High’s world travelers plan to come face to face with Mount Everest.
It’ll be a short stay. They’ll only be at the base camp for about two hours before they’ll start the long road back. Ashland High alum Isabella Thorndike served as a mentor for the boys and advised them to shed their expectations before embarking. They’ve taken her advice to heart, says Oline.
“That’s kind of how we’re going into it,” he said. “We’ve read some trekking books, we’ve all read ‘Into Thin Air,’ because that book’s amazing. So we’ve done all the necessary research, so we kind of know what we’re getting into but at the same time we don’t know what we’re getting into. It’s going to be so much different in the real world than on paper.”
Joe Zavala is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 541-821-0829 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Zavala99.