The peak of fitness

  • Published
  • By Airman Taylor Phifer
  • 509 Bomb Wing Public Affairs
Their backs ached from the heavy gear and the bottoms of their feet blistered in their boots. After seven days of hiking, they finally reached their destination: Mount Everest South Base Camp in Nepal.

For three Airmen assigned to Whiteman AFB, Missouri, hiking to Mount Everest South Base Camp allowed them to maintain their physical, mental and social fitness for their Air Force careers.

“When I was there making the hike nothing else could bother me,” said U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Sukh Bhandari, an aerospace ground equipment journeyman assigned to the 509th Maintenance Squadron. “I was in my happy place and nothing could take that away from me.”

Alongside Bhandari, U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Anish Chauhan and U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Shane Hoag, both water and fuel systems management journeymen assigned to the 509th Civil Engineer Squadron, made the week long hike up to approximately 17,500 feet on Mount Everest in Nepal.

Bhandari and Chauhan were born and raised in Nepal. Bhandari moved to the United States when he was 14 years old and Chauhan when he was 19 years old.

“When I was younger and in Nepal, the thought of hiking to Mount Everest was never there, but later in life, when I was in the United States, I realized that it was something I wanted to accomplish,” said Chauhan. “I’m glad I went back to hike it, and I also got to see my family for the first time in years.”

Bhandari and Hoag have known each other since they went through Air Force basic military training. About three years ago, they first started talking about the mountain. Later, when the two were stationed at Whiteman AFB, they were able to make their dream a reality.

“When I was young it was one of those things where I would spin a globe, point to a place on it and tell myself that I would go there one day,” said Hoag. “That’s how I came upon the thought of hiking Mount Everest.”

Their journey started on May 12, 2017, as they started their hike up the mountain. It took the group seven days to reach Mount Everest South Base Camp. Every day they woke up, ate, and were out the door by 8 a.m. They walked for about eight hours each day and made stops to eat and rest at small towns and discrete villages along the mountain trail.

For these Airmen, the hike was physically challenging. Each carried roughly 30 pounds of gear on their backs. Bhandari said he had so much gear he had to leave some of it at a hotel on the way up the mountain and pick it up on the way back down.

Along with the physical challenge of carrying several changes of clothes, hygiene products, food, and equipment on their backs, they also endured painful headaches and difficulty breathing with less and less oxygen the higher they hiked.

“It wasn’t as noticeable when we were hiking, but at night when we would go to bed it was so hard to sleep because we could feel the blood pounding in our heads,” said Hoag. “The air was so thin, it was like trying to breathe through a straw.”

The Airmen said with the gear on their backs and a hard trail to hike, they felt tiny compared to the massive mountains around them. Hiking to an altitude of approximately 17,500 feet they were surrounded by clouds at times, which made the visibility more difficult.

“We would be walking up the mountain through clouds and could feel the mist come around us,” said Hoag. “At one point we couldn’t see anything in front of us because of the clouds. It was a little eerie, but at the same time, it was exhilarating.”

Although the hike brought challenges, once they reached the base camp they realized why they started the journey.

“Getting to the base camp was a big deal for us,” said Chauhan. “Once we got up there on one side we could see four or five of the tallest mountains in the world, and that was amazing.”

The Airmen said the view was worth everything they went through during the seven-day trek up the mountain.

“I’d be smiling the entire time because of the view,” said Bhandari. “It felt like you could almost touch the mountain. You’d look around and see nothing but mountains covered in white snow so bright that you needed sunglasses to see.”

The snow-covered and rock filled trail was long and steep, but nothing less than beautiful. The Airmen said they will never forget the trip or the feeling once they reached the base camp.

“It was the feeling of success once we got there,” said Hoag. “I would look out over the mountain and think to myself, ‘wow I really did it.’”

Although this adventure was challenging, it was beneficial for their Air Force careers by keeping them physically, mentally and socially fit.

The Airmen agreed it was a surreal feeling and almost like a different world on Mount Everest. This hike gave them all a sense of pride and accomplishment.

“Now that we’ve completed that mountain, it’s on to the next,” said Bhandari.