TEDxEverest: High altitude ideas

Mount Everest

If I had to pick a favorite moment during the three days I spent camping underneath the 29,000-foot peak of Mount Everest, it would probably be watching Hans Rosling’s TEDIndia talk projected onto the side of our dining tent. Most of our group asleep, I sat alone with our Nepali porters and cook, who stared with rapt attention while Rosling gestured dramatically, using his now-famous pointer to highlight the growth of developing nations. I’m not sure if they understood all of the talk, but it didn’t matter; a TED moment was being shared high up the Himalaya, proving there’s no limit to where you can spread ideas.

You may be wondering how this situation came to be, so let’s begin with some background. For two months out of the year every spring, a small settlement seemingly rises out of the glacier that sits below the jagged mountain range created when the Indian subcontinent slammed into Asia millions of years ago. Ever since Everest was discovered, it has become an obsession for thousands of climbers who have attempted to stand on top of the Earth, many falling to their death in the process. Base Camp exists solely to support annual expeditions to the summit, which occur during a three-week window in May and cost anywhere from $50,000 to $100,000.

I had the unique opportunity in late April not just to traverse the Himalaya and look up at Everest, but also to stay two nights at Base Camp, interacting with teams preparing to attempt a summit and experiencing what life is like at 18,000 feet.

Long before I had even arrived in Nepal, my mind was racing about what it would be like. What would we do there? How could I learn as much as possible in the little time we had? An idea popped into my head: What if we could hold a TEDx event at Everest Base Camp. Sure, the air only has half the oxygen content of that at sea level, and it dips to −20 degrees at night. Sure, it would be nearly impossible to have speakers prepare or know whether anyone would attend. But the challenge only made it that much more intriguing. If we could bring TEDx to Mount Everest, it could go anywhere.

The best approach, I figured, would be to combine TEDTalk videos with some in-person talks. I had no idea who would speak, other than potentially our group leader Valerie, who had been trekking in the Himalaya for 25 years and summited Everest in 2009. I hoped potential speakers would present themselves along the way. A big question I needed to address in advance, however, was how to bring recorded TEDTalks 10 days up the mountain.

After doing a bit of research, I devised a sort-of “TEDx in a box” — or backpack in this case — consisting of an iPhone with downloaded talks and slides, a micro-projector that runs on batteries, and a portable speaker small enough to carry in my pocket but loud enough to fill a tent. The projector utilizes a laser, rather than an LED, to create a big, bright image even though it weighs only 4 ounces. I contemplated creating a physical sign, but the realities of having to carry all my gear on my back made it illogical. Every pound weighed me down.

When I applied for the TEDxEverest license, I admitted there were a lot of uncertainties. I could do my best to prepare, but I couldn’t control my health at that altitude, nor have any idea whether our campsite would facilitate even a small gathering. But one of the things that makes TED, well, TED, is that it’s willing to try new things.

Thirteen days after landing in Kathmandu, I found myself leading our group across the glacier into Base Camp. Despite feeling the altitude a few days prior, my health had returned and I was energized. All 16 of us had made it, and there was a cumulative sigh of relief as we shed our packs and rested in the dining tent. As we discussed the plan for the day, I realized some key problems with my TEDx ambitions.

Everest Base Camp

First, the sun is insanely strong at that altitude during the day. You can’t go outside without proper sunglasses, and the tent is far too bright to project anything. That meant we’d have to wait until it got dark at 7pm to watch any TED videos. We had generally been going to sleep at 9pm, so I would have to spread things out over the two days. Second, I had hoped to record the in-person talks, but the cold had rendered my Flip camera dead. I had to resort to a solar charger to keep the projector alive, as one of the batteries had also given up due to the frigid nights.

To complicate things further, it began snowing on the second day, which was not common in April, but I was told the weather had become more unpredictable with each passing year. The low visibility meant nobody was leaving their tents, so it would be impossible to invite members of other expeditions to experience TEDxEverest with us.

Despite the setbacks, however, everything kind of came together in the end. On the first night, our leader Valerie gave a talk about her ascent to the top of Everest. She told us what it was like to experience −40 degrees and the problems her small group faced due to slow decision making brought on by a lack of oxygen. Valerie had lost all of the toes on her left foot due to frostbite, but she fared far better than an American biologist in her group who was found barely alive after spending 16 hours in the arctic temperatures.

A shorter talk was given by an Indian teenager named Arjun Vajpai, whom I had met on the trek up to Base Camp. In 2010, at age 16, he had summited Everest, temporarily becoming the youngest non-Nepali to accomplish the feat (the same day, a 14 year-old from America summited from the Tibet side). This year, Arjun was attempting to climb Lhotse, the peak next to Everest that is far less popular but even more challenging. Arjun spoke about his ambitions, and why he would risk his future to touch the stars.

Arjun Vagpai

We also had a visit and talk from Kaji Sherpa, a friend of Valerie’s and a guide for another expedition this year. He had summited Everest a number of times and told us what it was like to essentially live on and for the mountain, supporting those foreigners who put their lives in danger every year for a dream. The Sherpa are truly an incredible people: strong, humble and kind hearted.

After dinner, the 20 of us crammed into the dining tent watched TEDTalks from Lewis Pugh about swimming below Everest, Sir Ken Robinson, Sarah Kay, Paul Deegan and Ken Kamler, amongst others. Once it was dark, the projector and iPhone setup worked flawlessly. I even played a short video about TED and gave a talk about the TEDx program, showing some clips from TEDxOilSpill.

On the second day, before the clouds rolled in and snow began to transform Base Camp, we took a trip to the medical tent staffed by volunteers from England, America and South Africa. One of the doctors gave a talk about how they assist those struggling with altitude sickness or climbing injuries, and usually arrange a couple evacuations by helicopter every day. She also showed us how they test oxygen levels. Four people died on Mount Everest this year, but that number used to be far higher. Better education about altitude sickness has made a huge impact, for trekkers, climbers and even Nepalis.

We concluded the night with more TEDTalks and discussion that leapt from education to development in Nepal, to global warming melting the very glacier we were sleeping on. And of course, Hans Rosling fascinating our Nepali support team with the rise of Asia.

Although I wasn’t able to fully accomplish the TEDxEverest I had initially envisioned, I’d say the end result was still a success. And I have to admit, it was really cool bringing TEDx to Everest Base Camp and exposing a group of new people to TED.

Written by Nate Mook, Organizer of TEDxMidAtlantic, TEDxOilSpill and TEDxEverest

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