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Anniversary of Everest ascent meaningful

by Larry Giles

The 50th anniversary of Sir Edmund Hillary’s climbing of Mt. Everest this Thursday is a big reason to celebrate for at least one Cochrane doctor.
Dr. Bill Hanlon travelled to the Kathmandu region of Nepal in April, working at a clinic in the capital city most widely known as the entry point for climbers planning an Everest ascent.
As an expedition to the summit can take more than two months factoring in time to acclimatize and the 10-day trek just to reach the base camp, Hanlon was there when many of the climbers planning to summit on the 50th anniversary were starting out.
But for the Cochrane physician, the first ascent on May 29, 1953 was a significant event, not just for the climb but also for the legacy Hillary and his sherpa TenZing Norgay have left.
Hillary is known in the region for his humanitarian efforts and has built medical facilities and schools in the country. Nepal has been isolated from the world for so long and is now struggling to catch up, says Hanlon who was intrigued by the two extremes of Nepal, which is actually one of the poorest countries in the world.
“It is a country where you can get an MRI scan in Kathmandu within 30 minutes if you can afford the $200 and yet have difficulty getting an aspirin in many of the rural communities outside of Kathmandu.”
The elevation, isolation and rapid change in Nepal makes it an interesting study for Hanlon, who enjoys learning about other cultures both socially and medically.
He was there during the initial outbreak of SARS, which caused great concern for the medical community in Kathmandu.
One of the primary access points to Nepal is via Hong Kong, which is where the virus has been a major problem.
The availability of masks and other preventative measures was of concern, but so were the ramifications of an actual case or worse yet, a larger outbreak.
“There are only two or three ventilators in the entire country…the infrastructure to support a patient (including a quarantine facility) is not really there.”
Hanlon’s recent trip to Nepal was not his first. He had trekked the area in the 1980s and at that time had made it to the base camp for Everest expeditions.
He finds the medical challenges in developing countries of interest and enjoys the similarities between the mountain communities west of Calgary and others around the world.
There are many medical ties between Calgary and Kathmandu including a few international development projects between the University of Calgary and Nepal’s Tribhuvan University. In fact the present head physician at the Nepal International Clinic completed some of his training at the U of C.
Many of the ailments at the clinic Hanlon was working at related to altitude sickness. The Cochrane townsite sits at an altitude of 3,500 feet and the top of the Big Hill at about 4,000 feet with some of the highest peaks in the Rockies reaching close to 12,000 feet.
In Nepal, many of the passes reached by trekkers are more than 14,00 feet above sea level with some of them as high as 16,000 feet, all of which is still below where any of the true mountain climbing actually begins.
“There is some challenging medicine coming off the mountain. Certainly altitude sickness takes its toll every year…people die on that mountain and they die just trekking there too.”
One of the issues that has been discussed in the area is setting up a clinic for the porters, which are the locals who carry the majority of supplies to Everest base camp and beyond. It is the porters who do the grunt work in a harsh environment for relatively little pay and one did die while Hanlon was in the area.
All the money generated in the region by tourism brings both positives and negatives, Hanlon says. The country is not heavily populated but the mountainous terrain means little land is available for agricultural purposes. As the tourism money is generated only in the Kathmandu valley and the popular trekking routes, it is difficult for an average family to advance beyond the basics of everyday necessities.
And yet people have a strong interest in education and will walk long distances to make sure their children get to school so that they may have a chance at a better life.
The people of Nepal are also extremely tolerant.
“It is a country where Buddhists, Hindus and Christians live together. Nepalis have accepted and live in harmony with Tibetan and Bhutanese refugees,” he says. Tradition-ally their culture has been deeply rooted in spirituality and less on the material.”
Before returning to Cochrane, Hanlon attended the International Society of Travel Medicine meeting in New York, but it was what he saw while in New York that struck him. The contrast between limousine travel in Manhattan to people sleeping in doorways in the lower East Village was huge for him.
“What is the true meaning of success in life and how do we define it,” he asks. “Is it getting to the top of the corporate ladder or the top of a mountain?
“In our efforts to climb our respective peaks in life we sometimes lose track of the price we have to pay to reach our goal…Just as the people of Nepal look to us for direction and change, we can also learn from them in the area of compassion, tolerance and generosity towards strangers as well as friends.”