The Jews of Everest

Phil Lehman pauses on his climb up Gokyo-ri. Photos courtesy of Phil Lehman

It was there, and there was the opportunity.

Those were the reasons Phil Lehman gave for why he decided to climb Mount Everest.

“As soon as I knew about it, I jumped on the opportunity to do it, because I thought I was in good enough health to do it and it was something I thought I could do, so I did it,” the 74-year-old Silver Spring resident said.

Last October, Lehman was the oldest of 15 Orthodox men and women who made the trek up Gokyo-Ri, a peak of the Everest mountain range. At a height of 18,045 feet, the peak of Gokyo-Ri is 11,000 feet below Everest’s peak, so the group didn’t need ropes or oxygen masks.

That doesn’t mean the climb was easy.

“It was beyond difficult,” Lehman said, sitting in his breakfast nook, photos from his adventure at hand. “There are really two factors that would prevent somebody from reaching the goal. One of those is altitude sickness and the other is just physical exhaustion.”

Phil Lehman stands near a village the group stopped at during the trek. Photo provided

The two week-long climb required the group to hike for more than 10 hours a day. Because of the cold and lack of supplies, they didn’t shower or brush their teeth.

Every day was difficult and treacherous, he said, and it only became more difficult the higher they got. They got up when the sun rose around 5 a.m. so they could make the most of the sunlight. The group hiked until they reached the village or tea house where they were to spend the night.

And the climb wasn’t just straight up — there were hills, valleys, trenches and inclines, as well as rivers and rocks in the path.

With the changes in altitude, “you always feel like you’re catching your breath,” Lehman said.

Lehman said he goes to the gym for three hours every day, except Shabbat, and that prepared him for the climb. This was his second. In 2016, he climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, in Tanzania. Unlike that earlier climb, Lehman and the others climbing Gokyo-Ri had yaks to carry their food and duffel bags.

The trip was organized by Koshertreks, which runs hiking expeditions for religiously observant Jews. Because everyone in Lehman’s group kept kosher, they ate vegetarian meals. Shabbat occurred twice during the climb, allowing them to cease their climb and adjust to the changing climate.

“Everybody really took advantage and really rested,” he said.

The group also used Shabbat to take in the view.

The descent was no easier. Reaching the base, he and the others made a run for the restaurant and bathrooms of a luxury hotel.

But it’s that view that sticks with Lehman.

“I was able to look down at the green valleys and amazing glacial lakes,” he said. “I also know that my human achievement was possible only because God wanted me to see one of his most beautiful sights on Earth.”

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