Friendswood doctor combines adventure travel in Nepal with medical expeditions
Harold Pine has never been to the top of Mount Everest.
But Pine has helped plenty of people get there.
Pine, a pediatric ear, nose and throat doctor at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, is an adventurer, teacher and doctor, often all at the same time.
Since 2015, Pine, a Friendswood resident, has helped lead medical expeditions to Nepal to help provide medical care at Everest’s base camp, about 12,000 feet below the mountain’s summit.
“I like to take people that are in pretty good shape and take them out of their comfort zone and prove to them that they can do this,” Pine said.
On the way to base camp, Pine’s team of doctors visit remote villages, providing free medical care, including cancer screenings and skin evaluations, to local villagers. The group also built a computer lab for a village.
And the team has helped treat some of the hundreds of climbers making their way to the summit each year who struggle to adjust to changes in altitude.
“Once people know that you’re a doctor and that you’re open to helping, people find you,” Pine said of culture on the mountain.
The trek from civilization to the Everest base camp can take up to a week, and must be made in stages to allow climbers’ bodies to adjust, Pine said. Failure to pace can lead to dangerous situations on the mountain, including difficulty breathing and dizziness. If people fall sick on the mountain, there’s only limited resources available to help them.
“People talk about going to Machu Picchu, where you can walk the really inspiring Inca Trail, or you can just take the train there,” he said “You can’t do that at Everest.”
Technically, you could take a helicopter from Kathmandu to base camp, he added. But on landing at the camp, the improperly prepared would likely “fall violently ill and die,” he said.
“For a lot of people, it’s quite the crucible,” he said. “Walking up a set of stairs at sea level is not that hard. Walking up a set of stairs at 14,000 feet becomes really difficult. At 17,000 feet, 18,000 feet, tying your shoes becomes a bit of a burden.”
Many times during his trips over the years he has been awakened by distressed climbers asking him to check on people who were suffering altitude sickness. Often, the sickest people are climbers trying to face the mountain on their own, he said.
The normal perils of the mountain aren’t the only dangers Pine has faced, he said. He had just landed in Nepal in April 2015 when the country was struck by a massive earthquake that killed more than 9,000 people and might actually have changed the height of Everest. Instead of going on their planned trek, Pine’s team members were thrust into first-responder roles in the devastated country.
Pine, who is in his early 50s, is an avid adventure traveler and has been on bike trips through Tuscany, river-rafting expeditions, and, yes, a trail hike to Machu Picchu. He’s trying to visit 100 countries before he dies, he said.
“I believe that travel, especially adventure travel, and these extreme events are extremely transformative,” Pine said. “I’ve spent a lot of my own time, money and energy trying to not just live that life, but to share that life with others.”
Pine is hoping to return to Everest next year, if COVID-19 restrictions don’t stop him from traveling. The Everest climbing season normally begins in April and continues into the fall. As of November, only 150 people had traveled to Nepal to climb the mountain this year, according to the New York Times. In 2019, thousands of people made the attempt. It’s unclear whether travel will reopen in 2021, but Pine can’t wait for the day he returns to rarefied air, he said.
“I’m a surgeon and I really need my fingers,” he said. “I don’t really need to be at the top. It’s never been about the summit for me.”