For some college students, spring break is a week of breezy, beachy fun. For Peter Schavee of North Oaks, it was cold nights, long days, and the ever-present majesty of the Annapurna mountains of Nepal—one of the most beautiful and challenging landscapes in the world.
Schavee is currently a sophomore at Hamilton College in upstate New York, where he had the opportunity this spring to take a Himalayan mountaineering course that sent him on a two-week adventure to Nepal. Schavee plans to go to med school, but his major at Hamilton is history. He also plans to minor in psychology and environmental science. The mountaineering course taught by Maurice Isserman fell right into the intersection of Schavee’s interests.
“(Mountaineering is) not only psychological, it’s physical; it’s technical,” Schavee said. “It’s interesting why people are doing things like this that are crazy and life threatening.”
Isserman’s course examines Himalayan mountaineering over the past 150 years. The course analyzes the region’s relationship with imperial expansion, national competition and social evolution, and the two-week field trip is supervised by Hamilton’s Outdoor Leadership program.
When westerners first began climbing the world’s tallest peaks, it was sort of an international competition, Isserman explained.
“The goal was to achieve a national glory or imperial glory,” he said. As time went on, the climbing was more about surmounting increasing difficulties, with more dangerous routes, or fewer supplies. “Their goal was individual achievement rather than planting the flag.”
Isserman has taught similar interactive history courses at Hamilton, including a WWII-focused course that allowed students to visit Normandy and a westward expansion course that followed the Lewis and Clark trail.
“Students are transformed by it because it’s different than courses where you read about a series of events, but you never see it,” Isserman said. “You can read about World War II and you can imagine Iwo Jima, but you will never see it. They’ve been reading about mountains and they get to be put in the middle of it.”
The Annapurna region is located in northern Nepal, and contains one 8,000 meter peak—many climbers know this height and above as “the death zone,” where oxygen is too low for long-term human survival. All 8,000-meter peaks are located in the Himalayan and Karakoram mountain ranges.
“It’s the ultimate goal; the symbol of mountaineering achievement,” Isserman said.
Schavee and his classmates trekked more than 150 kilometers over the course of 10 days, visiting Nepali villages and staying in tea houses along the way. A typical day on the trip started at 6 a.m., and was mostly spent hiking from village to village, higher and higher into the Himalayan heights. Days on the trail were filled with many breaks for tea, an important cultural custom in the region. Schavee and his classmates traveled with local porters and guides who assisted them along the way.
“Most people there don’t speak English, even the trail guides,” Schavee said. “We were mainly communicating through looking and motions. We were 100 percent trusting them, like we were sheep they were herding us.”
The lives of the local Sherpa guides, who assist visitors through the dangers of the mountains is one of the focuses of the course, Isserman said.
The students and their guides hiked to about 16,000 feet in the towering shadows of the mountains.
“You have to think about taking it one day at a time,” Schavee said. “Once you pass above 14,000 feet, that’s when you start feeling altitude.”
One of the guides shared a local saying with the students: “You’re an old man going up, and a young man coming down.”
The Hamilton College crew arrived at their destination village in the afternoons, giving them a chance to explore and take a break. One of Schavee’s favorite experiences was meeting some locals who brewed traditional Nepalese whisky.
The commercialization of the region due to its popularity with climbers and sightseers is very noticeable, Schavee observed.
“There’s a big debate about commercialization of the mountains,” he said. “To me, the big thing is having a respect for the mountains but also being able to conquer them. I think (the tourism) is problematic, but it’s about working toward the correct goal: finding good practices to do what’s good for the people.”
Schavee hopes to one day climb an 8,000-meter peak like the one he saw in Annapurna. He’s not sure how the Himalayan mountaineering trip will figure into his plans for the future, but he was struck by the words of a fellow pre-med classmate, who wants to become a doctor and work in that region of the world.
“Maybe if I did go back one day for a hike or something, I could be able to help people,” Schavee said.