In losing their brothers too soon, Doug Harper and Ward Stone found something akin to brotherhood of their own. They created a mountaintop experience, sharing an unforgettable adventure near the rooftop of the world.
“We talked about them a lot,” Harper recalls. “We were crossing a glacial river— all these beautiful rocks and everything. And, remember?” He turn to the man he’s known since elementary school, “We both had a stone that we picked out. And we said a prayer and played ’em in the river. We had a moment of silence, had a prayer for our brothers. That was a meaningful time.”
A poignant pause steps into the corner office, brilliant with windows, perched on the fourth floor of Harper Corp. General Contractors building downtown. Harper, 63, is chairman of the fourth-generation company that, among the other landmark projects, renovated the Poinsett Hotel. Today, he wears navy slacks and a blue business shirt, though he’s semi-retired from the 60-year-old company. Stone, 68, sitting quietly nearby, wears a white beard, hiking shorts, and a T-shirt that bears an esoteric, ubiquitous Tibetan mantra.
Of the two men, Stone’s the quieter. You can see in his ruddy cheeks and deep blue eyes that he’s seen most of the world. Harper seems like the restless younger sibling, anxious for another go.
Their Nepal adventure started one evening a few years ago at Doug and Ren Harper’s home.
Cathy Stone, Ward’s wife of 37 years, says Harper pulled her aside. “Before he even mentioned it to Ward, he came up to me and said, ‘I would like to invite Ward to go trekking in Nepal,’” she says. “We have the kind of marriage, I think, as do Doug and Ren, where everybody encourages each other to do whatever makes them happy. Doug and Ward had talked about doing a big adventure for years, and I thought, wow, what a great opportunity.”
Harper then told his friend about a retreat he’d just attended. “We had to do a list of our—I don’t like the words ‘bucket list,’ because it sounds like you’ve got to kick the bucket to do it—but your lifetime goals, let’s just say, and one of those I’d had on my list: I’ve always been intrigued by Everest.”
“From there,” Harper goes on, “we just jumped right in.”
Harper trained with weights in a backpack, hiking his steep driveway and around the neighborhood. He’s also a cyclist; a couple of bicycle jerseys are framed on the walls of his offices. Stone, having wandered around the world a couple of times, hired a personal trainer, Cathy says.
The older of the men has always been something of a . . . rolling Stone. He’s traveled to at least 70 countries, he says: contracted dysentery in Korea and malaria in the Philippines, rode the Trans-Siberian Railway, climbed Kilimanjaro. He’d even met one of the holiest men of Tibetan Buddhism’s “Red Hat” School in Nepal on his first trip to the Himalayas in the early ’70s.
“Ward was a celebrity on our trip because at night, we’d sit around, and Ward would tell stories about being back and the day he first came. That was a really great perspective to have on the trip, that he was there before.”
So Stone was familiar with the terrain, rocky escarpments on top of the world, a place as remote as just about nowhere else on Earth.
“The park protects an area of great environmental, religious, and cultural importance, and is the gateway to the mightiest peaks of the Himalayas,” says a booklet from Wilderness Travel, the Berkeley, California, outfit that Harper and Stone used for their trip.
Day 14 brought them to the highest point in the trek. “We hike up Kala Patthar for the classic close-up view of Everest,” the booklet says, “the best view you’ll get of Everest without climbing it!”
By then, their group of 12—down to 11 after one had succumbed to altitude sickness—had reached 18,365 feet. Mount Everest sits at just higher than 29,000 feet above sea level; Greenville, by comparison, rises to nearly 1,000 feet.
Plus, the Khumbu region in northeastern Nepal is glacial, believed to be a remnant of the Ice Age, roughly half a million years ago.
While our heroes didn’t climb Everest, they did get closer than most of us to the place that Jon Krakauer calls in his book Into Thin Air, “a magnet for kooks, publicity seekers, hopeless romantics, and others with a shaky hold on reality.”
“WT’s Ultimate Everest is no walk in the park,” says Wilderness Travel’s Barbara Banks, director of marketing and new
trip development. “You spend two weeks above 17,000-feet elevation, trekking as high as 18,200 feet to summit Kala Patthar—1,000 feet higher than Everest Base Camp. It is a spectacular trip, but not something to be undertaken without much thought. To see a couple of friends in their 60s take on this challenge was just fantastic.” Though not without its dangers.
hile ascending, Harper and Stone learned that the party just behind them had lost a climber, a man in his 20s who’d died from the elevation and over- strenuous effort. The young man’s body had been taken down the mountain just before Harper and Stone’s party returned from their summit.
For Harper, the hairiest moment came when a fellow hiker had fallen into one of the topography’s notorious ice- and snow-covered abysses that swallow and kill unsuspecting trespassers. When a trekker behind Harper had stepped off the trail, he fell into a crevasse. Harper went to get him, and the white floor collapsed under his boots.
He throws his hands up to his armpits. “And I couldn’t feel anything underneath me.
But it was the daily exertion and thin air that took the biggest tolls.
“The time I felt most stressed was the final couple hundred yards going up Kala Patthar,” Harper says, “because it was truly: take a step, breathe three or four times, and then at times you felt like you’d never catch your breath. And even though we’d acclimated for going on close to two weeks by that point, it was still physically struggling. That was tough. I feel like I was a pretty tough guy, but I wasn’t sure I was gonna make it.”
“There were days when I didn’t know if I had any steps left in me,” Stone says. “I remember standing there trying to get my breath, and our Sherpa guide comes up to me and says, ‘Ward, you need to pull your pants up,’ and he pulls my pants up. And I thank him for that.”
The scenery took their breaths away, too. They tell of the small huts, dark and smoky, where the party would crash for the night, after hiking from 7 in the morning until dark. “All the places we stayed in were typically a room with a pot-bellied wood stove, where they’d burn yak dung,” Ward says.
And they tell of the colors splashing all over the awe-inspiring landscape, from the locals’ wardrobe to their ancient customs. And they tell of their good fortune with crackling-good weather.
“Oh, it’s spectacular,” Harper says. “We had 21 straight days of crystal-clear blue skies in the morning. And that’s one of the reasons we went that time of the year, because there are parts of the year where monsoons are coming through and dumping all that snow, you don’t even know you’re up there.”
Stone says. “Like Doug was saying, we had 21 days of perfect weather in the mornings, and you could go out, and you could look up and down in every direction, and it was just humbling.”
“You were never out of sight of the high peaks with snow on ’em,” Harper says. “It was just, to me, a magical time. This is like the magic kingdom. It’s almost a spiritual journey because of the devotion: The Sherpas are very devout Buddhists. You were always in sight of a prayer flag, a mani stone, a gompa, or temple.”
he Sherpa consider the dwelling place of the Holy Mother sacred. Of Sagarmatha, the United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural
Organization (UNESCO) lists the region as a World Heritage Site. “The park is also of major religious and cultural significance in Nepal as it abounds in holy places,” UNESCO says.
You see that everywhere.
“So many relics,” Stone says, in homes, bazaars, everywhere. “Colors and beautiful paintings and various Tibetan gods.”
“You were in a holy place,” Harper says. “That’s why it was so magical. It exceeded my expectations: in beauty, in the cultural side of it, going into old temples, going into family homes.”
They were, in fact, welcomed into homes, including the ancestral abode of their Sherpa guide, Pasang Temba Sherpa. (These are a pastoral and trading people who share the “Sherpa” surname.) “A beautiful rock home,” Harper, the longtime builder, says. “It’s like a museum,” Stone, the longtime real estate man, adds.
But the home, like much of the Khumbu Valley, suffered extensive damage in the earthquake that struck Nepal two years after their trip. The temblor, with a violent magnitude of up to 8.1, killed more than 9,000 people, including 19 at Everest Base Camp, making April 25 of this year the deadliest day in mountain history. “We were right there where the avalanche was,” Stone says.
“Do I remember Doug Harper and Ward Stone?
Absolutely!” says Lisa Filippini, the Asia expert at Wilderness Travel. “They were so appreciative of having this opportunity to take on a major challenge and to weave in their personal story into the trip. To see these two friends head up into such an extreme environment at their age—they had prepared well— was awesome, and a very appropriate setting for the time they wanted to give to remembering their brothers. It is a tremendous accomplishment to do this trek, and these two did it in such a meaningful way.”
Harper lost his younger sibling when John Harper III died of pulmonary fibrosis at 53. Stone’s younger brother, David, was 57 when he lost his life to “something heart-related,” a culprit no one knows still, Stone says.
“We have lot of things in common, we like to do the same things, we like to explore and see new stuff, be open to new cultures and ideas. And we like to have a nice drink or two whenever we get the chance. Good food, good fellowship.”
“We sort of took care of each other,” Stone says. “It was nice to be there with somebody you had an old connection with. There are all kinds of things that could go wrong, and we all had our days where somebody didn’t feel good, so we looked out for each other.”
So, what’s their next big adventure? Harper’s heading to Patagonia, the southern tip of South America. Stone’s likely going to another glacier: Glacier National Park in Montana.
“I plan to do a lot more traveling in the next 10 years just because we’re at that stage. You’ve got a window here in your life where you’re still young enough to do what you want to do, but you’re beyond career mostly,” says Harper.
He’s also eyeing a trip to southern Utah. “Come to Escalante,” he urges.
To which Stone says, “I’ll do that.”