Washington native takes on the word’s tallest mountain

Published 4:48 pm Friday, February 20, 2015

ARCHIE GRIFFIN | CONTRIBUTED NO BOUNDARIES: Washington native Archie Griffin, 25, climbed to the first base camp of Mount Everest this winter. Griffin, a graduate student at East Carolina, traveled to Nepal by himself.

NO BOUNDARIES: Washington native Archie Griffin, 25, climbed to the first base camp of Mount Everest this winter. Griffin, a graduate student at East Carolina, traveled to Nepal by himself.

LUKLA, NEPAL — There were no sticks, no vegetation of any kind. At 18,000-feet above sea level, rocks littered the frozen tundra and the pure, unblemished, cotton-white color of a fresh snowfall was about the only thing reminiscent of home.

Archie Griffin, a 25-year old Washington native and East Carolina graduate student, lie flat on his back 7,950 miles from home on the world’s tallest mountain, having just slipped on the icy, burnished mountain terrain. Realizing he hadn’t been harmed by the slight misstep, he unstrapped the 60-pound weight that was his backpack and sifted through his provisions.

Water bottle? Intact. Ski pole? Unbent. But then he pulled out the remanence of what was a wooden cross, given to him during his time at the Chapel Hill Burn Center nine-years ago, where he spent weeks recovering from a gasoline explosion. He had promised the elders at United Methodist Church a picture of the cross, intact, on the ground at his final destination. He put the pieces back into his bag and continued his ascent.

“The first couple days of the trek going up were the hardest because you’re acclimating to the altitude and walking six to eight hours a day, living off of something vegetables and rice. There was no meat,” Griffin said.

Often overlooked, the crumbling barns and decaying farmhouses of Beaufort County would have been a welcomed addition to the trails of Mount Everest. Without a tent, small structures along the footpath, the homes of those living in the world’s harshest environment, offered the only shelter from the sub-freezing temperatures.

“We carried sleeping bags and provisions,” Griffin said. “A lot of times we would find people with houses with little rooms, but when I say houses, it was something just to keep the wind off of you.”

As the group climbed, so did the mercury. The sunny, 60-70-degree weather at the base of the mountain in Lukla was now a distant memory, simply an incentive for finishing what was now a blisteringly cold uphill climb. The destination was Gokyo Ri, a peak in the Kumbu region west of the Ngozumpa glacier, home to a modest town made up of a just few stone houses.

Finally, after days of hiking and sidestepping the all-too common altitude sickness, Griffin’s metal-spiked climbing shoes dug into the terrain of Everest’s South Basecamp, located at 17,598 feet.

“Sometimes the GPS would work, sometimes it wouldn’t,” said Pam Griffin, Archie’s mother, who uneasily recalled sitting keeping tabs on the group’s progress from her home in Washington. “I stayed pretty much on pins an needles the whole time he was gone until he was down off that mountain. When he reached the top, I didn’t get a call until he sent a text when he came back down. There was no service. He wore a solar panel so he could charge up.”

For Griffin, however, his coldest days were still ahead, Gokyo Ri being a 3-4 day hike from the basecamp. The team tried to climb even hirer toward the stone town, but the weather — a wind chill of minus 35 and a couple feet of snow — prevented it from going any further. At about 18,500 feet, it was time for a promise to be fulfilled.

Once he realized that constructing a wooden cross out of sticks was impossible, considering there were none to be found, Griffin collected the only artistic resource available to him, stones. He took 27 glacial rocks, found a patch of exposed dirt, kneeled down and arranged them in the shape of a cross — a tribute to his religion in the closest place to heaven.

Other than some minor knee discomfort and vomiting, brought on by the consumption of a spoiled egg, the descent was uneventful, Griffin said, easier than the journey up the mountain.

Griffin never reached his destination of Goyko Ri, but he achieved his ultimate goal, returning to Greenville unscathed with a worldly experience like none other.

“It was more to experience the culture,” he said. “When you get high up into the mountains, you’re away from all civilization. It’s a way of life that isn’t based on what you can to do progress and make more money; rather, it’s what I need to do to survive tomorrow.”

The trek spanned roughly 150 miles and took just under 19 days to complete. A graduate of North Carolina State, Griffin, who traveled to Nepal on his own, returned to eastern N.C. in mid-January to continue studying business at ECU. Today, he sees himself as a liaison, connecting small-town Washington to the destitute, sheltered and unfamiliar culture he came into contact with in the Himalayas.

“To me, travel gives me a sense of understanding and makes me well-rounded,” Griffin said. “The world is a very large place and what happens here in Washington is not necessarily the big picture … (The trip) was meant to expand my knowledge of where other people come from in the world — their troubles and their triumphs.”

Later in an email to the Daily News, Griffin said, “Remember your roots but don’t become stagnant in tradition. Have an idea but never stop finding out who you really are. Treasure those that love you the most. Plan ahead for failure. When you fall, get back up. Be ever mindful of your surroundings. Live the story.”

On top of his academic responsibilities, Griffin will spend the next couple months speaking at various clubs and organizations around the area about his trip to the top of the world.