Andy Shallal (’17) on his Journey to Mount Everest
May 7, 2021
In March of 2021, as the global pandemic continued in its 12th month, Andy Shallal (’17), founder and CEO of Busboys & Poets, caught a flight out of Dulles Airport to Nepal. He had decided the year before that he wanted to spend his 66th birthday at Mount Everest Base Camp. Even with the risks, waiting for COVID-19 to just go away wasn’t in his plans.
His journey started with a dream. He wanted to reach the foot of the highest mountain in the world while he was still strong enough to make it. Fear of the uncertain is a powerful deterrent to action. How did he overcome it? We sat down with Andy to talk with him about his adventure and the leadership lessons he learned along the way. Little did we know, he had an exciting invitation for his fellow LGW members.
You have had to overcome a lot of challenges in the past year, what made you decide to take on another and go on this adventure?
It was something I have always wanted to do. COVID-19 put things into perspective. I was thinking about mortality, my age, and doing the things I did not want to miss out on. I decided this was a good time as any to do it. I was watching people losing out on so many things; loved ones, their jobs, their businesses - I wanted to take care of myself.
What are some life lessons that this journey reinforced for you? How did your guide Dawa Tenzing play a role in this?
Dawa was a really important person. He is a Sherpa in his 50’s. He was highly recommended to me by someone who did a similar trek. Having done this trek many times with many people he is a wise man with a lot to say.
His practice is Buddhism and the idea of constantly being in a present state is really important to him. It is a very treacherous path with many ups and downs and dangers. If you are not constantly focused and present, it is very difficult to do safely. Due to COVID, the path was very empty; Dawa and I were the only ones for miles. Along the way, we had a lot of time to sit down at the tea houses and reflect.
The journey puts things in a different perspective when you come back. When you can only focus on putting one foot in front of the other, your brain goes into a reboot. You are able to think and ponder and notice things you have never noticed.
New things started to stand out to me; a crow standing, a flower blooming - things that in the past might have gone unnoticed. When you are walking and focused on every step it helps you understand how much you miss in daily life. The idea of slowing down and focusing became very true for me. I am using that as I go forward, to be more focused and present.
You plan to go back next year for another attempt? What will you do differently this time around?
I am doing a different trek along the Annapurna trail, another mountain range on the western part of Nepal. I want to get to 16,000 feet so I am working on better acclimatization and preparing for that physical challenge.
Annapurna has a lot more culture involved along the way and it is a longer trek. I believe it is 150 miles and it is a 16- or 17-day journey. I would love to take more people along. I think it would make a great LGW trip and would love to go with other members.
I will head back in early March of 2021 for three weeks. Annapurna is really exciting. Plus, it is not expensive! The most expensive thing is the flight. While you are there it is only $100 per day for the guide, the meals, and the overnight stays.
Was getting there difficult due to travel restrictions?
I had to get my Visa from the Embassy of Nepal. I went to the embassy and begged them for it, and they gave it to me. You have to be tested for COVID before you get on the plane, again when you get to the path, and yet again on the way back. During my time on the trek, after I arrived at the little village you fly into, I never wore a mask once. Most of the locals didn’t know what COVID was aside from the fact that it had damaged their businesses.
Before I went, I did have some hesitation about the dangers of contracting COVID. But I am blessed to be healthy, so that is a big plus. Once I got to Dulles Airport all of those concerns evaporated. I took pictures of the corridors and not one person could be seen. There was plenty of distancing. Everyone was in hazmat suits. There was no chance of getting anything on the planes, which was my biggest concern. There was a sense of comfort in the way people were handling themselves.
When I got to Nepal it was a bit more chaotic, people weren’t paying close attention to social distancing. Masks were worn as chin straps in a lot of cases. But I decided that I am not going to stop living because of this pandemic. I wanted to do this trek in a way that is responsible and mindful. I felt like it was now or never. I don’t know how physically fit I am going to be in a few years. I felt that the window of opportunity was shrinking.
I am grateful that I made the decision to go. The scenery is gorgeous. It goes through beautiful villages and the most exquisite mountains and typography and bridges. It looked almost like a classic Disney movie. I had never done a journey like this. With most trails I have been on, the rocks are well-packed, and the bridges are well laid out. Everest is much more challenging but doable. It just requires a fair amount of training. You don’t have to be an athlete. In 6 to 8 months, you can prepare. It is one of those things you can do in many different ways.
Right, but what about for those afraid of heights?
Actually, my own fear of heights is really pretty serious. My knees get weak, my hands sweat. For me, heights are really scary. You have to trick your mind to focus on something specific on the path like a rock or a branch. If I looked to the left, there would be a drop. There are metal bridges that are up to 1000 feet high, that are clanky, they sway with the wind. But when you are walking on 3-foot paths and there is a 1000-foot drop – you are focused.
Andy kept a journal of his trip that beautifully captures the experience and covers the challenges, victories, and moments of clarity and joy along the trek. You can read his Nepal Chronicles on the Busboys and Poets blog. If you are thinking about following a dream, there is no time better than the present.