Climber: Himalayas claimed a piece of his soul

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PORTLAND — Baxter Black, a one-time Portland resident, recently had an experience most people wouldn’t even consider.

He spent nearly 40 days climbing the Himalayas, as part of a course offered by the National Outdoor Leadership School to learn about glacial travel and mountaineering as a team.

He and 15 other people went to the Garwhal region, which is part of the state of Uttarakhand, and hiked up the Pindari River to establish a base camp at 12,000 feet.

The goal was to summit in Nanda Kot, but due to adverse weather conditions and extreme snowfall, the team wound up going over the Dhana Dhura pass. He said they were essentially snowed inside their tents for five days before the weather broke. 

Black, 19, said he learned a lot about mountaineering during the course, including how to use ice axes and crampons, and how to rope up with a team. He said he’d done some mountaineering in the past, but nothing as extreme or for this long before.

“I’ve always been a super adventurous person. I loved the outdoors, and to be able to go to the Himalayas and be at the roof of the world was an amazing experience,” Black said.

The team made three camps and a summit at 19,000 feet along the Dhana Dhura pass. The final phase was mostly rock, while the rest of the climb was on ice malleable and snow. This meant that the team had to free climb up 90 feet of rock while carrying 70 pounds of gear.

Descending and getting out took 10 days, Black said. He said the trip was a balancing act between the thrill of being totally alone on the mountain and working with a team.

“Being in the Himalayas and being at that certain elevation is unbelievable,” Black said. “Living at 20,000 feet is crazy, things are just so different. Everything moves slower, you have to be extremely conscious of everything you do. It’s really like a foreign world.”

He said the most difficult part of the trip was dealing with the extremes in weather.

Some nights the temperature dropped to 30 degrees below zero, so trying to stay warm in the sleeping bags was “unbelievably brutal.” During the day, the sun comes up and refracts off the snow, raising temperatures into the 90s.

“Dealing with those two extremes really wore on me,” Black said. “Having to drink water, and having to boil snow, is just so compounding. If you’re not on top of hydrating yourself and taking care of your body, then it’s miserable.”

He said if you’ve never experienced the mountain, you don’t know what it’s like. 

“At some point I just know I’ll be back there,” Black said. “I feel like I left a piece of my soul up there.”

Black signed up in February and the trip left in April. He said the attraction was that he wanted someone to guide him there and didn’t want to go alone. It could have counted for college credit, but Black said he only took it for a life experience.

It also cost him about $10,000, including airfare.

Black spent eight months in Portland before flying to the Himalayas as part of a gap year. He lived at Foundation House, an extended living place for young men. He came to Portland after working on a cattle ranch in Arizona, and is originally from Seattle, where he first became interested in mountaineering. He is now a student at American University in Washington, D.C.

He said it’s important for people to see places like the Himalayas, because they are disappearing under pressure from climate change and population growth.

“I think the only way to preserve them is to get other people to start to care about them,” Black said. “And in order to make them care, they have to experience it firsthand. Pictures just don’t do this stuff justice. I think the most important thing is for people to go there and make their own experiences and make the world matter to themselves.”

Colin Ellis can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @colinoellis.

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Baxter Black, a former Portland resident, took part in a mountaineering course in the Himalayas.

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Reporter covering the Portland Public School District as well as the town of Falmouth for The Forecaster. Can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net.