The following day I was very very excited to be heading to Kathmandu. It was an early start, but I heavily underestimated how long the cab drive was going to take. I arrived at the airport with little over an hour before my scheduled flight was due to depart, and I still had to retrieve my trekking duffle bag from left luggage. Then there was a huge line at check-in for Thai Airlines. Luckily, I made it in time, but it definitely was a very brisk walk to the gate.
During the entire flight, my skin was literally buzzing with excitement and I almost felt sick to my stomach from the eager anticipation of embarking on one of the most incredible adventures of my life. We landed in Kathmandu; I parted with $40 for my Nepalese 30 day visa and was immediately greeted by Alpine Ascents, and got a big hug from my friend, and Alpine Ascents guide, Garrett. It was good to see a familiar face as I eagerly greeted and shook hands with every other team member as they arrived.
This trip was going to be particularly exciting because the trekkers have the amazing opportunity of hiking alongside the 9 heroic individuals who are planning on summiting Everest. I can’t tell you how wonderful it has been to share tea, breakfast, trails, and dinners with these fabulous individuals, getting to listen to their stories, and discovering the genesis of their drive to climb the world’s tallest mountains, as well as learn about the inevitable driving ambitions that permeate other aspects of their lives.
On arrival at our hotel, aptly named The Yak and Yeti, we checked into our rooms and spent the afternoon doing a gear check with our trekking guide, Suzanne. Suzanne is a warm and competent climber who lives in Seattle (when she’s not guiding) and I liked her immediately. She has incredible poise and is great at giving advice as well as listening.
That evening, we all showered and headed out for our welcome dinner at a local restaurant. Despite the fact that we were all heading out for over 3 weeks in the mountains, and were all gore-texed to the hilt, none of us thought to bring along a rain jacket for the evening. We were caught out in a torrential downpour just minutes from the hotel as the heavens opened and lightning streaked across the sky followed by cracking thunder. We huddled under an awning waiting for a van that took us all sopping wet to dinner. It was a lovely evening chatting with some of my fellow trekkers and climbers. This was a group of extreme characters and I could immediately tell that I was going to have a very good time indeed getting to know some of these people.
Jack, for instance, made quite the first impression. 60 years old, from Seattle, he had come to this expedition straight from Papua where we had just climbed one of the 7 summits, the Cartenz Pyramid. He met me, took my hand, and said, “well, what’s your name…and more importantly, what’s your room number?” Why is it that men over 50 always find me irresistible?
The following day we awoke early and embarked on a city tour that encompassed 3 wonderful temples in Kathmandu. Our guide’s name was Krishna and we visited 2 incredible Buddhist Stupas, and then one Hindu Temple. Buddhism in Tibet is far more liberal than it is in Thailand; our guide likened the comparison to “Catholicism vs. Protestantism”. The temples are not encrusted in gold, instead, they are whitewashed walled complexes with the seeing eye painted on the conical structure at the top. Moving in a clockwise direction, always, people use their hands to turn the “prayer wheels”, literally sending thousands of prayers out into the universe to bring good luck to the spinner.
The Hindu temple was a little more shocking. The two religions reside side by side in Nepalese culture and it is warming to see the harmony and sometimes intermingling of the two belief systems. When we arrived at this glorious 16th century building built along the river, there was a cremation ceremony about to take place. This location is the Nepalese equivalent to the Varanasi sacred cremation site in India on the Ganges River. A woman was being prepared for cremation by her family, her body laid out on a funeral pyre of wood next to the river, which was little more than a brown trickle strewn with litter and evidence of extreme pollution. They set fire to the wood and began singing a song. It was a very strange thing to witness, and stranger still was the fact that many tourists began videoing and taking photos of what I thought to be an extremely private family affair. It was a strange experience and really made me think long and hard about mortality…after all, you don’t get to see a dead body publicly burning everyday.
That afternoon we had free and I enjoyed a refreshing swim in the hotel pool before changing and deciding on heading down into the old part of the city to explore. No-one else seemed to want to go, so out I trudged, guidebook in hand, on my quest. Luckily I had brought along my rain jacket because after about 20 minutes the heavens opened and lightning lit up the darkening sky. It ended up being one of my more eventful evenings traveling- some pretty crazy events ensued. Firstly, it was impossible to read the map since none of the streets were signposted in English, so I had no idea where I was or if I was heading in the right direction. After asking several people the way to Durbar Square, I felt confident that I was going the right way. I was questioning the wisdom of my decision as I looked around with dismay at the seemingly thousands of cars clogging the street arteries, pumping out their disgusting engine filth while they all simultaneously honked their horns at those brave enough to try and cross the street. It was a cacophony of noise, dust, exhaust fumes, rain, and people, and I was utterly exhausted and overwhelmed within a half hour. I asked some Police upon passing to ensure I was still heading in the right direction and they told me that I was actually going in the exact opposite direction to Durbar Square. They pointed for me to turn around. I was getting extremely frustrated, but I persevered and eventually came across another tourist who spoke English and pointed me in the right way. The rain was falling hard now as I found myself dodging motorcycles, my jeans completely soaked through, in Durbar Square with its 30 or so temples in just a 3 block radius.
The atmosphere was electric. With the sky ominously dark with storm clouds, and the rumbling thunder, and the strange spires, shapes, smells, and people all hurrying through the streets covered in running muddy water. It felt like I was in a movie. It was the magic hour.
I settled under the awning of a temple to wait out the storm, which quickly appeared to be useless as it showed absolutely no signs of letting up. A couple of stray dogs congregated around me. I was so wet but found myself feeling exhilarated because I was completely surrounded by locals- there was not a single tourist in sight!
After wandering the streets in an attempt to find some dinner, I found myself lost yet again. After stepping on a dead rat, and walking in circles, I was ready to just get a cab back to the hotel – but I was unable to flag one down because of the incessant rainfall. My only hope was to try and figure out the way home on foot. It took me over an hour, and by the time I recognized my hotel’s street, I was severely overcome with noise, dirt, and wet. I stopped in a promising enough café called “Coffee and Sandwich” to order a coffee and sandwich to go. They didn’t have any coffee. What the hell? So I grabbed a chai from across the street (watching in wonderment as they poured gobs of Hershey’s chocolate syrup into the cup) and sadly had to down it very quickly as they had served it minus a lid in the kind of paper cup that saturates too quickly to be suitable to hold liquid.
What an evening. I was utterly spent and a little traumatized by the time I got back to the hotel where I did a final check on my gear, set it down in the lobby, and passed out in bed.
The following morning we were all extremely relieved to see blue skies, which really boded well for our flight to Lukla (flights in the tiny 7 seat Twin Otter planes are often cancelled due to cloud cover and passengers can be left stranded for days waiting out the weather on a first-come first served basis). I was still on an excited high and thoroughly enjoyed getting to know some of my fellow trekkers and climbers. Everyone was in high spirits. Jack and I plotted to play an April Fool’s joke on everyone by telling them that no flights were landing in Lukla, but it sort of fell apart. After several hours of waiting at the airport, we filed through security (curiously the airport has separate lines for female and male passengers) and got on board our tiny plane for our risky flight to the Himalayas.
The landing strip at Lukla is a scant 1500 feet. I was told that it was an extremely hairy descent and landing with barely any room for error. Brad, one of the trekkers, is in the Air Force and so secured one of the seats at the front of the aircraft to truly take everything in. He was absolutely in his element and whooped with joy as we came in for our final approach, which was, quite simply, astonishingly crazy. I have never clapped with more sincere appreciation for a safe landing in my life.
As I stepped off the plane and my eyes were first greeted by the sight of these majestic mountains, I shed my first of what would undoubtedly be many tears. It was so very beautiful.
It was day one of the trek. We had a relatively flat and downhill hike of about 3-4 hours to do before arriving at our first teahouse. We have been staying in teahouses every night on this trip and I have been extremely impressed at the standards of accommodation and food provided. On arrival, there are always copious amounts of tea provided, along with cookies, popcorn, or crackers. Generally, there is Sherpa tea (which is a deliciously rich milky tea), Lemon Tea, Hot Lemon, and Black tea on offer. We drink tea maybe 4 times each day, so the name “Teahouse” is entirely and literally appropriate. Mornings have generally begun with breakfast around 7, and then the onslaught of being fed constantly begins. We will have muesli and warm milk, then eggs and hash browns or pancakes for breakfast. After a few hours of hiking we generally stop for another round of tea then lunch, then a few more hours of hiking and then afternoon tea which sometimes leads directly into a full blown dinner! I have eaten so much food, it doesn’t feel like a trekking holiday at all- this is a luxurious “everything is taken care of for you” experience.
That first night we stayed at the Sunrise Lodge in Phakding. On the way, I chose to hike with a couple of our Sherpa helpers: Passang Tenji Sherpa and Lhakpa . I’ve come to adore these two wonderful individuals, as well as all of our wonderful Sherpa helpers, porters, and cooks. They are the most incredible people: they are always smiling, they never complain, they are so helpful and constantly anticipate your needs before you even realize that you have them. And they are the most ridiculously fit and strong people I have ever seen in my life. Even more than the Inca, I think. Constantly while hiking along the trail, we come across porters coming in the opposite direction, carrying the most mind boggling-heavy loads….all with a canvas strap across their FOREHEAD. I’ve seen them carry entire pieces of wooden furniture, 3 or 4 duffel bags all strapped carefully together, and baskets filled six feet high with canisters of fuel. They are so very strong and I can only wonder at the beating their necks receive.
I learned that Passang was 37 years old with a wife and child in Kathmandu, and Lhakpa was 26 and already married 2 years. Their English was excellent and they soon had me laughing with their stories. I learned that Sherpa men and women tend to be named after the day of the week that they are born, followed by a middle name that tells them apart. That’s why we have 3 Lakpas. Passang means Friday and Lhakpa is Wednesday. I casually mentioned that I was born on Saturday, and I was immediately nicknamed “Pemba” , which then was morphed into “Pembanita” and the name has stuck with my two Sherpa friends. They are wonderful guys.
I also had the pleasure of chatting for a couple of hours with Lhakpa Rita, our head Sherpa, or Expedition Sirdar as it is called here. Lhakpa is a legend and this will be his fourteenth ascent of Mount Everest at 43 years of age. I was a little starstruck as I listened to his stories of becoming a porter, then Sherpa, then Climbing Sherpa and eventually joining Alpine Ascents and moving to the United States 10 years ago. Lhakpa has just gotten his US Citizenship but it has been a long hard battle, including five years spent apart from his 3 children whom he left in the care of his family members in the small Himalayan town of Thame (which we had the pleasure of visiting on Day 3). I asked Lhakpa whether he was on the mountain during the disaster of 1996 and I listened intently as he described what it had been like, waiting out the storm and listening to the communications from the stranded guides such as Rob Hall, whom he had known personally. Alpine Ascents had absolutely decided not to attempt their summit bid on that fateful day of May 10- bad weather had been predicted and unfortunately for the 12 victims, had been ignored by other expedition teams. It was quite incredible to be walking with this man and get the opportunity to hear his first-hand account.
On arrival we settled to tea and then enjoyed looking at and purchasing some handmade jewelry from a local woman who had hiked in over thirty miles to set up a stall specifically for us at the lodge. I bought a beautiful necklace made of Yak bone. After dinner, I went for a little stroll back over the suspension bridge across the river with John, who is a journalist writing an account of the Everest Base Camp trek for the Notre Dame University journal. The smell of burning Yak Dung hung heavily in the air along with the stench of burning trash. I was feeling very overwhelmed at the realization that I was actually here….actually in the Himalayas, and about to see Mount Everest with my own eyes. I slept pretty well that night (each “room” had 2 twin beds in them) even though I had to use my -20 degree bag as a blanket instead of cooking inside it.
Since that first night we have steadily been making our way up the valley and acclimatizing as we go. Our second day brought us to the trade capital of the Khumbu Valley region: Namche Bazaar. It’s a large community built on a precipitously steep hillside. The day was extremely warm and I was quite happy hiking in shorts and a short sleeve shirt. The sun is perilously strong here so I slathered in sunscreen and wore a baseball cap. This is by no means an empty trail – there are lots of trekkers and many many Yaks and “Zobkyos” which are a cross between Yaks and cows. Yaks have much longer fur and long horns that curl straight up in the air. The “Zo’s” are a little concerning as they most certainly feel that they have right of way and will happily crush little trekkers who unknowingly step out in their way or perhaps don’t give them enough clearance for their bodies and their loads. Every so often, there is an angry Zo, which we are advised to give a wide berth, because those horns would easily gall anyone who was standing in the wrong place at the wrong time.
There are also picturesque little villages, sunburned children running around barefoot, lots of metal suspension bridges over precipitous heights and churning rivers underfoot, and thousands upon thousands of Tibetan prayer flags decorating every building and structure that we pass. It all really adds to the atmosphere of this hike, which is as much a cultural experience as it is a mountainous one.
We stayed for two nights in Namche Bazaar to acclimatize. We stayed at the sumptuously beautiful “Panorama Lodge” which had a killer view and a cozy Red main room covered in wooden tables, benches draped in red carpet, and lots of photos of famous climbers adorning the walls. Our main host, “Mama”, was a stupendous example of hospitality and immediately produced a cake proclaiming “Wel Come back Alpine Ascents”. The lodge also had a wonderfully stocked bar, and I welcomed a lovely glass of pre-dinner sherry after taking a delicious shower and changing into my warm fleece pants and down jacket.
Every meal with our group is a huge social gathering…with over 30 of us it can get quite boisterous. In the first few days, we naturally segregated into “trekkers” and “climbers” and each group sat at their own table. However, we have since most definitely intermingled a little bit more, but with clicks between certain individuals noticeably forming. In many ways, this feels like summer camp and gossip is already rife among expedition and trekking team members, although for the most part, it has been pretty harmless.
By that third day, many members of the team had succumbed to some form of illness- be it altitude related, respiratory-related (due to the large amounts of dust and burning dung in the air) or the most common, gastro-intestinal. Now its day six, and most of us are still just suffering with respiratory ailments, and the dreaded “Khumbu cough” which is hard to kick once it sets in. Our guides are very good about ensuring that we all cover our mouths and noses as we trek to protect our lungs as well as possible, but the coughing, at least for me, has been rather inevitable.
The first night at the beautiful Panorama Lodge gave me my first (of many) opportunities to sing my little heart out. Vern, one of the guides (and one of my favorite peeps on the trip) had a harmonica, John played the guitar and I sang along to a bunch of my favorite songs: Me & Bobby McGee, Summertime, even some “Hound Dog”.
I’ve got a really bad internet connection, so I’m going to send this out now and continue another time.