Descending a mountain, honoring a memory

Paul Blank at the chorten for Trevor Eric Stokol.

Paul Blank at the chorten for Trevor Eric Stokol.

Photo courtesy Paul Blank

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This summer I trekked in Nepal to the base camp of Mount Everest. After nine challenging days, I stood at an altitude of 18,100 feet, atop Kala Patthar, and from there I had an unobstructed view of the summit of Mount Everest. It was truly magnificent and I was quite proud of my accomplishment. However, the most meaningful experience of the trek did not occur until two days later.

During the descent from the mountain, I needed to detour from the normal trail because a bridge had been swept away by monsoon rains. At 15,500 feet, I came upon an area of chortens, rocks arranged on top of each other in memorial to those who have perished while trekking or climbing the highest peaks in the world.

There are many dangers in these activities, including disorientation, hypothermia, hunger, altitude sickness, avalanches, rockslides, falling off cliffs, and plunging into crevasses. Over the years, 185 people have lost their lives on Mount Everest. This summer, 11 hikers lost their lives on K2.

The names of world-class climbers and renowned Sherpas were inscribed on the various chortens. I noticed, for example, one for Scott Fischer, whose death on Mount Everest is described in Jon Krakauer’s best-selling book Into Thin Air.

I also noticed another chorten that included a Jewish star as well as some Hebrew lettering. The climbing victim was identified as Trevor Eric Stokol from Dallas. According to the dates that were given, he died on July 22, 2005, at the age of 25.

Knowing nothing about Stokol except for the information on the chorten, I nevertheless felt compelled to honor his memory in accordance with Jewish ritual. I reasoned that this was not a location where friends and family were likely to visit, or other Jewish people would pass by. I put on a kipa, said a short prayer, and placed a stone on the chorten, as is traditional to do on tombstones at Jewish cemeteries.

After coming off the mountain, I researched the circumstances of Stokol’s death.

On the path to Everest base camp, he wandered off from his group, probably to get a better picture of the summit. When he did not rejoin the group, fellow hikers and Sherpas began an extensive search. The U.S. Embassy announced the disappearance, and Stokol’s family flew to Nepal, overseeing a search by foot and in helicopters that lasted eight days.

Stokol’s body was never recovered. Most probably he was killed by an avalanche that had been reported in that area on the same day. The family called off the search and returned to Texas to begin the mourning period. The following year, they returned to Nepal to erect the chorten, putting objects pertaining to Trevor’s life within the rock structure.

Stokol was an exceptional young man. He was a graduate of a Jewish day school and Emory University. He was an excellent student, very well-read, and a passionate writer, as can be seen by his journal entries. He had many friends and was very devoted to his family. Before his death, he spent eight months touring India and southeast Asia. The trek to the Everest base camp was to be his concluding expedition before he was to head home to begin medical school. He wanted to become a doctor in order to serve the disadvantaged. Stokol’s obituary concluded with the following words: “He lived his 25 years with gusto; knew no stranger and died at peace with himself and the world around him.”

Reflecting upon Stokol, I was reminded of Aron Sobel, a young Potomac, Md., man who died in a bus crash in 1995. I know Aron through my association with the Association for Safe International Road Travel, an organization founded in his memory that promotes global road safety. Both Trevor and Aron died at age 25 while traveling abroad. They both had strong Jewish educations and were both planning careers in medicine. Mostly, they were both exceptional young men, living impassioned and full lives and poised to make great contributions to the world.

During my trek, I did not expect to come across this area of chortens, and I certainly did not expect to get to know so intimately the story behind the chorten of Trevor Eric Stokol. I’m saddened by his death, but I’m also thankful that I was given the opportunity to honor his memory in accordance with Jewish ritual.

In doing so, I believe that I was also honoring the memory of Aron Sobel, Scott Fischer, and so many others who have died far too young. This, for me, was the most meaningful experience of the trek.

Paul J. Blank is a former resident of West Orange now living in Potomac, Md.

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