Originally published at https://www.mensjournal.com on November 4, 2021.
By Jack Haworth and Mike Sarraille
When retired Navy SEAL Mike Sarraille set out to honor the legacy of the 31 American service members who lost their lives ten years ago on Extortion 17, he knew he had to go big. So when an opportunity presented itself to go skydiving near Mt. Everest with former US Navy SEAL Fred Williams and the elite team at Complete Parachute Solutions (CPS), Sarraille knew it was a perfect fit.
On October 14, Sarraille and the CPS team set out on the two-week skydiving expedition into the Himalayas. Their goal is simple: to jump into the most extreme skydiving environment on Earth. Their challenges are plenty––lack of oxygen, unpredictable weather, confined landing zones, towering Himalayan peaks, and rugged terrain––and that doesn’t even take into account their trek to Ama Dablam base camp.
Sarraille has been documenting the expedition in Nepal and gave Men’s Journal an exclusive early look at his journal. The excerpts from his travel journal provide a detailed look into his journey through Nepal so far, as well as insight into how the team is preparing for their initial jumps. Stay tuned for more updates about both Mike and the CPS crew, including their efforts to raise money for the Special Operations Warrior Foundation.
Mike Sarraille: “From the outset, my ‘why’ for this trip was to honor my fallen brothers on Extortion 17 and hopefully raise money to support their children’s current and future educational endeavors. While that is still very much the purpose, this trip has become so much more than I could have expected and I’m only eight days into a 19-day expedition. Not to mention, I haven’t even jumped yet.
From watching an open-air cremation of Nepalese man, engaging with local Hindu and Buddhist holy men, listening to the story of my fellow expedition mates and their ‘why’, sharing a beer with other expedition members in the World’s highest city, Namche Bazaar; this has already been a whirlwind of events, emotions, and reflection far beyond my initial expectations. “
Day 1: Depart Austin, TX
A day I have been waiting for – to depart on my adventure to honor my brothers while engaging in a life-changing expedition. While excited and anxious, it was hard to leave my wife. There may or may not have been tears, but I didn’t think it was going to be this hard to leave my wife for three weeks, the longest stretch we’ve ever been apart. Additionally, I was unable to see my two kids in Virginia to wish them a proper goodbye and remind them just how much I love them, making my departure that much tougher.
Day 2: Arrive in Kathmandu
As the morning sun rises on October 13, our flight is two hours from Kathmandu, Nepal. Sitting in the middle aisle, as I wake up I peek to my left and catch a glimpse of something that makes me do a double-take – the snowcapped Himalayas as if their peaks are level with our altitude. Multiple passengers move to the left side of the plane to take pictures of the awe-inspiring peaks through the window. As we approach Kathmandu, the plane lowers its altitude, flying through a valley with peaks on both sides before safely touching down.
After spending three excruciating hours going through customs, I’m quickly greeted by Asian Trekking team guides who drive me through the city to the Aloft hotel, in Thamel district. After checking in, I am met by expedition leader Fred Williams, a former Navy SEAL and President of Complete Parachute Systems, as well as Dawa Steven Sherpa, a renowned Sherpa, and CEO of Asian Trekking. I am also joined by Elia Saikaly, an award-winning filmmaker and extreme adventurer who agreed to join me and document this journey. We talk about the days to come over several Berrainghers––a local craft beer. I retire to my room, I can oversee the span of Kathmandu, home to 1.5 million Nepalis, and quickly crash from the jet lag.
Day 3: Puja Ceremony and Hindu Temple Visit
On Thursday morning, the entire expedition team traveled back to the Kathmandu Airport to take part in a Puja ceremony, an offering to the Hindu gods in exchange for their blessing. This Puja is led by a few Hindu holy men, who bless our helicopters and the pilots supporting our skydiving expedition. The ceremony lasts 30 minutes, with our entire expedition team engaged and eager to learn from the culture and pay our respect.
Elia and I then headed to an old Hindu temple located in the center of the city with a key holy river running directly through the temple. The age of the city can be felt through the temple. Here we observed the cremation of a recently deceased elderly man. A local university student who speaks English explained the Hindu belief of cremation and how Hindus ascend to heaven. At the end of the cremation, the ashes of the elderly man were swept into the holy river. Observing the cremation is surreal and a wake-up call that I am immersed in a very different culture. After the cremation, we had an opportunity to sit down with three Hindu holy men and my new Nepali friend, who translated for me.
The holy men answered my questions about the meaning of life from the Hindu perspective and then offered their blessings to me, my family, and our expedition team. At one point, one of the holy men placed his six-foot-long dreadlocks on top of my head as an act of kindness, as if he was gifting me his hair. They get a laugh out of it, as do Elia and I.
Day 4: Movement to The Terraces for the first night of acclimatization
We meet at the Asian Trekking Compound where Dawa introduces us to the entire team of Sherpas who will be guiding us on the trip. We transfer our gear into waterproof duffle bags, with each team member getting one day-bag for the trail, and one base camp bag for extreme gear. We load into SUVs for a one-hour drive into the mountains at the edge of Kathmandu, where we pull into a 5-star boutique resort, The Terraces, owned by Dawa and his family. I don’t have the courage to tell my wife that we are staying at a 5-star resort for the night as she was under the impression we would be roughing it the entire trip. Having opened only eight days earlier, we are among the first guests at the resort. The infinity pool and pool deck overlook the entire Kathmandu city and valley––is among the most breathtaking views to date.
The team bonds over beers in the pool and hot tub. Sharing stories of the Teams (a colloquial term referring to the Navy SEALs), skydiving, family, and the occasional embarrassing story. The diversity amongst the expedition team starts to hit me, such amazing human beings with unique stories and unique reasons for why they joined this expedition.
As night falls, Fred Williams gathers the group to review each of the intended drop zones––Syangboche, Ama Dablam, and Gorak Shep––and we review limited video footage from their previous skydiving attempts into these drop zones. Fred Williams was joined by another senior expedition team member, Dr. Ryan Jackson, who is a British ER doctor, TopOut Aero Limited Co-Founder, and adventurer with more high-altitude jumps than anyone on the team. The duo talks through mindset, planning considerations, and techniques to execute a successful jump in these confined, high-altitude drop zones. While appreciated, the anxiety from the gravity and risk of these jumps starts to set in.
Day 5: Helicopter flight to the World’s most dangerous airport, Lukla
We convene at 5:30 a.m. to catch our helicopter ride aboard an AS 350 B3 to Lukla, the World’s most dangerous airport. I draw the lucky straw and get to sit in the co-pilot seat for the 45-minute flight––one of the most scenic helicopter flights I’ve ever taken. Flying past the foothills of the Himalayas, the morning sun reflected off the peaks of the mountains. As we finally approach Lukla, it is beyond what I could have expected, a tiny runway tucked into the side of a mountain, along with the rest of the city. We then move to a tea house owned by Dawa’s Aunt, who gifts us with Kata’s, white silk scarves, blessed by holy men. She wishes us a blessing for a safe journey.
We start a 3.5 hour downhill trek, which is hell on my knees. Walking the trail along the river valley, there is no shortage of gripping views. The trail span bridges gave us a deep respect for the river and its awesome power.
We eventually arrived at Phakding (8600 ft), a lower elevation than Lukla. To aid the acclimation process, it’s a common practice to sleep at a lower elevation at the end of the day. The tea house is a quaint stone building located along the river. After dinner, everyone preps for the following day’s six-hour trek to Namche, the toughest hike and highest elevation gain of the entire expedition.
Day 6: The expedition’s toughest trek to the World’s highest city – Namche Bazaar
The group departs for Namche Bazaar and after about an hour and a half, we reach the entrance to Sagarmatha National Park––the home of Mt Everest. Sagarmatha (‘Goddess of the Sky’) is the Nepali name for Mt. Everest.
After entering the park, the trail quickly became very challenging. We were told this was where the elevation gain would give everyone a workout to remember. The next few hours were 30-to-45 minutes of upward movement, followed by 15-minute breaks to let the group reform.
Elia and I paired up for the hike as I attempted to pull every mountaineering and expedition story from his time in the death zone that I could. Elia is highly respected for his expedition history and has observed more death on these risk-filled expeditions than most. On his 24th trip to Nepal, he educates me on Nepal, its culture, and each site we visit.
After hours of hiking, our exhausted yet excited group enters Namche Bazaar together. A bowl-shaped terraced city, this place is known as the highest city in the World. The city is a modern marvel of construction blend of tea houses, bars, mountain gear outfitters, shops, and local homes. I was shocked by how modern the city is given the remote location.
After checking into a tea house, the group breaks off in different directions to take in the town and hit the local watering holes. The town is filled with different expedition teams, each wearing a specific expedition patch, wandering the streets, and packing the bars. There is no shortage of exciting people seeking thrills and challenges, spiritual awakening, and reflection. Elia and Dawa make many introductions to amazing humans, each with a unique story. Everyone in Namche has a story worth listening to, either filled with life lessons, roads less traveled, or daring feats accomplished one step at a time.
Stay tuned for more coverage of Sarraille’s skydiving expedition in Nepal. If you’d like to help Mike support the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, you can donate here.