On a recent brisk morning, a 65-year-old pre-diabetic man put on a 36-pound backpack and, nursing recently rejuvenated knees, set off on a rugged six-mile hike in the Red River Gorge.
Accompanied by two friends, he was soon sliding down slippery paths along the flanks of million-year-old rock cliffs and scrambling up steep hillsides, pushing hard to build strength and endurance.
The going was tough in the gorge. But Martin Douthitt was preparing for a place where the going is tougher than anywhere else on earth.
Douthitt, a businessman from Breathitt County, leaves later this month for Nepal and the Himalayas, where he and a friend will trek to the mountaineering base camp on Mount Everest, at an altitude of more than 17,000 feet, then test their strength by climbing 20,000-foot Mount Lobuche nearby.
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Douthitt, who has climbed mountains for more than a decade, hopes the trip will be a warm-up for an all-out attempt to climb Everest, the world's tallest peak, in 2012.
"We're hiking eight to 10 miles twice a week now, and lifting weights two days a week," he says. "My knees feel fine, and I'm getting to where I don't get tired anymore. It's enough to give me hope that maybe I really can do Everest."
Douthitt has climbed six of the so-called "Seven Summits," the tallest peaks on each of the seven continents. Adding mighty Everest would make him one of only about 280 people in the world who have scaled all seven, which for climbers is roughly akin to finding the Holy Grail.
"I feel like I have to try Everest," Douthitt said. "I think I'd be really disappointed, almost haunted, if I didn't at least get a shot at it."
He had hoped to climb Everest last year, but knee problems canceled the plan. Medical treatments, including a stem-cell procedure in Germany, fixed his knees.
There were other complications, too. Douthitt recently learned after a check-up that he is pre-diabetic. He changed his diet and lost 20 pounds.
Although his recent physical training has gone well, Douthitt is unsure whether he's fit enough for Everest at his new, lighter weight. Thus his compromise plan to test himself by visiting Everest base camp and then climbing the less-challenging Mount Lobuche.
"I think this trip will tell me whether I'm ready for Everest," he says. "At least, I'll have a good feel for it. You know, the mental part is a big key."
Indeed, confidence is essential for anyone facing Everest's cruelties: bitter cold, storms, avalanches, air so thin it sucks life away. Also essential is a completed form stating what you want done with your body if you die on the mountain. You can choose to be left up there, placed in a crevasse if you die at high altitude, cremated if you expire at lower elevations. Or you can have your body sent home, which costs thousands of dollars.
Douthitt selected cremation.
"It is a little creepy," he admits.
Douthitt is an outwardly steady, practical businessman. He and his brother developed a shopping center in Jackson, and they run a busy hardware, landscaping and electronics business there. But Douthitt, a former Eagle Scout, was born with a bit of wanderlust. About 1980, he took off for nearly a year, hitchhiking around New Zealand on less than $10 a day.
A book that Douthitt read in 1999 or so reignited a boyhood interest in mountaineering, and challenging the Seven Summits became his obsession. He began knocking off the summits year by year: Africa's Mount Kilimanjaro, Mount Elbrus in Russia, the Vinson Massif in Antarctica, South America's Aconcagua, and Carstensz Pyramid in Oceania. After two tries, he completed Alaska's Mount McKinley, or Denali, in 2009.
Only Everest, at 29,029 feet, remains.
Early in his quest, Douthitt often said he'd probably never attempt Everest — he was too old, it was too high, too dangerous, too expensive. But with each passing year, he became more positive that sooner or later he'd try for the "roof of the world."
He'll visit the Himalayas this month with Stuart Harelik of Las Vegas, one of many friends Douthitt has made climbing mountains. But he also has felt loss. Christine Boskoff, a friend and expert climber, was killed in China in 2006.
Douthitt says he has no illusions about the dangers, but he also says climbing is safer than it's ever been.
At least two other Kentuckians have reached Everest's summit: Mills Davis, a woman from the Bowling Green area; and John All, a geography professor at Western Kentucky University.
"I think that if I can get up, I would be the oldest American by three years to have climbed Everest," Douthitt says. "But I don't care where I fit in as far as age. Just getting up would be the important thing."