One Suffolk trustee decided to celebrate his 50th birthday in a big way—by climbing 16,000 feet up a mountain in the Himalayas.
Michael George, Suffolk class of 1983 and member of the Board of Trustees, was on Mt. Chomolhari, the second largest peak in Bhutan, trekking a total of 80 miles over the course of nine days.
He, five of his friends and a tour guide faced extreme temperature changes—below zero at night and up to 50 degrees during the day—snow, and the high altitude.
When George reached the summit, he proudly hoisted a Suffolk flag that he had been carrying with him the whole time.
Reaching the top was “a very satisfying experience,” said George, who did not take any high altitude medication or oxygen assistance to help alleviate the pounding headaches and sickness that come from being so high up.
“It is a very emotional experience, very physical, very spiritual, and very cultural,” said George, who has been on many trips like this before.
“You have to train about a year in advance,” said George. “I started organizing my team—guys I’ve done other high mountain climbing with,” including his brother David.
While his friends suggested other places to go, George was adamant about going to Bhutan for reasons he did not disclose to the group until they landed in the small South Asian country.
The story begins in 1992 when George and his girlfriend were traveling in India and went into Nepal. They got visas into China and were interested in going to Tibet, a “pretty newly open boarder [at the time],” where westerners weren’t especially welcome, according to George.
During his flight, George struck up a conversation with “an interesting looking man” who turned out to be an exiled Bhutanese militant who had taken up residency in Nepal. The man, Colonel Penjor Ongdi, had been part of a group that removed a mistress and illegitimate child of the Bhutan’s King IV from the country to Nepal to protect the monarchy. King IV exiled all those involved, according to George.
When the plane landed at Lhasa Airport in Tibet, he and his girlfriend were arrested. George explained that this was common at the time because Americans typically had items that were very valuable on the black market.
They were transported to a Chinese Detention Center where they were held for 32 hours until “a man negotiated for our freedom—1,000 deutsche marks for our lives and our belongings.” That man turned out to be Col. Ongdi, who feared that the two wayward Americans would be killed if he didn’t step in.
George asked Ongdi, besides monetary compensation, how he could ever repay him. Ongdi said that the best way to repay him would be to someday go to his beloved homeland.
“That’s why you’re here,” George told his fellow travelers after they arrived. “I made a promise that I would someday visit his country.”
George’s tour guide, Namgay Dorjee, recognized Ongdi’s name from Bhutanese history and also because he owns a large tour operation in Nepal. After making some phone calls, Dorjee tracked down Ongdi, who did not remember the story, but wanted to see George.
Since George had met him, Ongdi had been let back into Bhutan after King V took the throne.
“He looked at me and in an instant he hugged me. He remembered the story,” said George. Ongdi was the man who once saved George’s life, but “for him, I was just some wayward, wondering trekker.”
George told him “I came to make good on a promise I made to you 20 years ago.”
It turned out that Ongdi’s 21-year-old grandson is the 29th incarnation of the Dudjom Riponche, the Bhutanese equivalent of the Dalai Lama.
After facing the challenges of climbing a mountain, George and his team were granted an audience with Dudjom Riphonche, capping off the trip of a lifetime.