In the summer of 2008, 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 Mount 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 perished while trekking or climbing the highest peaks in the world.
(There are, of course, many dangers in these activities, including disorientation, hypothermia, hunger, altitude sickness, avalanches, rockslides, falling off cliffs, and plunging into crevasses. Over the years, 292 people have lost their lives on Mount Everest; in 2017 alone, there were six deaths, including a Swiss man described by the Washington Post as “the greatest climber of his time” and 85-year old Nepali attempting to become the oldest man to summit Mount Everest.)
The names of world-class climbers and renowned Sherpas (a Nepalese ethnic group known for their immense climbing abilities) 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 a chorten that included a Jewish star and some Hebrew letters. The climbing victim was identified as Trevor Eric Stokol from Dallas. According to the dates 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 kippah, said a short prayer, and placed a stone on the chorten, as is traditional when visiting tombstones at Jewish cemeteries.
After coming off the mountain, I researched the circumstances of Stokol’s death.
Before arriving in Nepal, Stokol spent eight months touring India and southeast Asia. The trek to Mount Everest was to be his concluding expedition before heading home to begin medical school. He wanted to become a doctor in order to serve the disadvantaged.
On the path to the base camp of Mount Everest, he wandered away 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 helicopter that lasted eight days. They were assisted in their efforts by Chabad of Nepal.
Stokol’s body was never recovered. Most likely he was killed by the avalanche that was 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. A Frisbee was placed on top of the chorten.
Stokol was an exceptional young man. He was a graduate of a Jewish day school and Emory University. He was an excellent student, well read, and a passionate writer, as can be seen by his journal entries. He had many friends and was devoted to his family. I have since been in touch with his family to let them know that I had stood next to the chorten and said a prayer for their son and brother.
Although I never got to meet Stokol during his lifetime, I fully appreciate the words that concluded his obituary: “He lived his 25 years with gusto; knew no stranger and died at peace with himself and the world around him.”
During my trek to the base camp of Mount Everest, 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. This, for me, was the most meaningful experience of the trek.
By Paul J. Blank