06 May 2012

Made it, Ma! Top of the world!

A Daily Chronicle of the Trek to Mount Everest Base Camp

Getting to Lukla

We got up on a Sunday morning dressed in our finest mountaineering attire. Our prep work was behind us, it was time to fly to the small mountain village of Lukla to begin our conquest of Mt. Everest. To say that we were excited would be a gross understatement.  We were buzzing with anticipation--vibrating from it.

We loaded our bags and ourselves into a small shitbox of a Subaru. Nepal must have paid wholesale for these beaters because they are everywhere. The traffic was death defying. The roads (if you can call them roads) were bumpy and crumbled and filled with crater sized potholes. The taxi driver insisted on a tip above the agreed upon fair. Perhaps he thought we enjoyed sweating and cramping and almost dying in his tinker toy excuse for transport.

The airport was just as chaotic as the roads approaching it. We got jostled around but made it to the departure lounge boarding passes in hand without much delay. Forty minutes later we boarded a small hopper plane bound for Lukla. Did I mention that we were excited? I scored a window seat and had my camera and video camera on my lap ready to document our descent into Lukla's slopping mountain runway. We didn't make it.

Thirty minutes into the flight the beautiful Nepalese flight attendant leaned in close to whisper in my ear and I thought, Well, hello Lovely! What fine news do you have for me on this glorious Sunday morning? Soft and lilting she said, "Excuse me Sir, we are returning to Kathmandu. The weather in Lukla is too bad to land." I blinked and nodded but I did not understand. She may as well have put a dog turd in my hand and walked away without explanation.

We turned around, landed and waited. The Tara Air people were confident, or pretended to be confident that we would make it to Lukla later in the afternoon. I wasn't as confident, weather isn't generally accommodating that way. Around 2pm we boarded an identical hopper plane. This time we made it forty-minutes into the flight before turning back. We were so close--hovering above the radar dot close.

There were no more chances that day. We had no choice but to retreat to the guesthouse.You know when you squeeze a balloon and the air rushes out like a sad fart and all that is left is limp and lifeless? That was us; sad farts, limp and lifeless. It was tough, but we tried to keep our heads up. Monday was a brand new day after all.

The ticket agent told us that we were booked on a 9:30am flight the next morning. In actuality we were booked into the stand-by queue. We sat on a cold cement floor in front of the ticket counter with airport chaos swirling around us from 7:45am until 1:30pm. The girls spent this time alternating between reading and smiling sweetly at our ticket guy. I spent this time reading and trying not to blast our ticket guy with laser beams from my eyes.

Finally in a big rush and sweep we were handed boarding passes and hurried toward the departure lounge. I was very blase about this development, I had been through this twice already and refused to get my hopes up again.

As we walked out to the tarmac our ticket guy came running up to catch us. I gritted my teeth and squeezed my boarding pass into a white knuckled fist. Here it comes, bad news running straight for us. Out of breath the ticket guy said, "I think I put you on a helicopter instead. This is okay?"


Wait...what!? Did he just say helicopter? As in whirling machine of awesomeness? 

The clapping and high pitched squeals around me confirmed it: the little bastard I almost shot with laser beams from my eyes was putting us on a mother freakin HELICOPTER!!

A chartered helicopter is supposed to cost $2500. We got a free upgrade. Well, almost free. It cost us a $12, "You make secret tip for me."

As we approached the helipad I saw a fifteen passenger paint chipped rust bucket of a copter and thought for sure it was our ride. Then we drove past the rust bucket and stopped in front of a sleek red and black four passenger badass air transportation device and I thought, Shut your face! Shut your damn face! This beautiful machine was to be our ferry ride from Kathmandu to the slopes of the Himalayas.

Keep your hands and arms inside the vehicle at all times and ENJOY YOUR RIDE!

Riding  in that helicopter was like being on the most epic, soaring, mind-blowing, awe-inspiring gondola ride ever dreamed up. It was a slow float forward and from that vantage point we could see everything; 180 degree views that rose over peaks and dipped into the valleys below, slopes of lush green steps carved into the hillsides, the simple homes of Nepalese farmers, mountains thick with coniferous trees and blooming flowers, hawks soaring majestically below, the shadow of the helicopter skimming across the land proving that the beast we were riding in was real. Everything.

We touched down at the Lukla airport. The whirring blades of the helicopter kicked up the cold mountain air. We danced around and laughed and group hugged and watched our red and black beast rise again from the foothills of the Himalayas, dumbfounded by our wondrous luck.


Lukla to Phakding

With stupid happy smiles plastered on our faces we stopped for a quick lunch before hitting the trail. We ordered Everest Burgers which turned out to be buffalo meat on toasted Wonderbread. Blah. The first section of the hike was easy, a two hour well worn path leading from the airport to the small mountain village of Phakding. I had seen pictures of Everest Base Camp so I had an idea of what the terrain would look like near the top, but I didn't have any expectations for the lower levels. (Lower being a relative term. The path from Lukla to Phakding starts at an elevation of 9300 feet and ends north of 10,000 feet). I was amazed by the surrounding beauty. At that elevation I thought the tree line would be growing thin, but the trees remained thick and interspersed with pink and white blooming flowers. Lukla overlooks a wide valley. Clouds settle into the valley in the late afternoon at the upper edges of the mountain peaks covering the valley like wrapping paper over a gift. Below the valley is dissected by a rushing glacial river, clean and impossibly blue. The water in the river descends from the top of the world. To swim in it would be like swimming through an ice cube, but a dip of the hand you have to do--to feel the icy blue waters of the Himalayas flowing past.

We got a late start so we didn't arrive in Phakding until just before dark. Phakding resembles a small ski village. We checked into Buddha Lodge, kicked up our feet beside the wood stove, ordered bowls of Sherpa stew and celebrated a successful beginning.







 Phakding to Namche Bazaar 

It rained all night and it was still raining when I rolled out of bed the next morning. I neglected to buy water proof pants for the trek, so went out in search of a cheap solution. I found a blue plastic garbage bag at a small shop that I decided would make an excellent waterproof kilt. No one was working at the shop. I waited around for five minutes pleasantly shouting, "Namaste!" No one heeded my call, so I tucked two hundred rupees under the register, tucked the kilt under my hoodie and tip-toed away looking shady.

Altitude sickness is a big big concern when climbing Everest. Like sea sickness, altitude sickness can fall the biggest and strongest of us if we are susceptible. The guidebooks recommend a maximum of ascent of 300 vertical meters a day to avoid the effects. The ascent to Namche was a lot more than that so we planned to take it slow and easy. We started the hiking at 9:30am and arrived in Namche at 4:30pm.

The scenery along the way was beyond spectacular. We were hiking 10,000 feet up in the Himalayas surrounded by peaks that rose thousands of feet higher, and we knew these weren't even the "big" mountains. Clouds shrouded the higher peaks making them look both beautiful and eerie. In the early afternoon the clouds parted revealing a new set of mountains beyond--soaring snow capped peaks that stretched toward the stratosphere. It was hard to believe that these monsters were there the whole time, lurking behind the clouds. I underestimated the impact their size would have on me. I stood and stared; feet turned to stone, knees locked, eyes wide. Hypnotized.

The pictures below are from my first night in Namche. Please know that they in no way do justice to what I saw.














Acclimatization Day in Namche Bazaar


Today we stayed in Namche to let our bodies adjust to the increasing altitude. If you skip the acclimatization days you are all but guaranteed an expensive helicopter ride off the mountain. So far I feel fantastic. I haven't felt the altitude in the slightest. This is good news for my health and a dangerous green light for my sizable ego. I woke up this morning raring to go, unready for a day of rest. Luckily one the best things you can do to combat altitude sickness is to make a small ascent and decent. Namche sits in a horseshoe shaped valley. I followed a set of stone steps up to a Buddhist monastery. From there I continued up the sloping green, brown hills until I reached a plateau. The heavy morning clouds obscured what surely would have been a spectacular view. However, at that altitude I was standing even with the clouds. Seeing your feet planted on solid ground and watching white wispy clouds move over and around your legs is spectacular in its own right.

I could see another village in the distance, and the top of a Himalayan giant peaking through the clouds. The skies seemed to be clearing so I decided to walk back to our hotel and try to rally the crew for an afternoon hike.

After eating a giant burger at Everest Bakery and Pizza Hut (no affiliation with the actual Pizza Hut) I convinced Leanne to trek back up the hill with me. We followed the same path I took earlier in the day and ended up in the small village of Shyangboche. Shyangboche has a small airport runway...actually runway is a bit strong, it is more like a dirt and rock skid pad at the top of mountain--a 100 yard incline that drops off a cliff into the Himalayan void.  It is too high up for tourists to fly into, but it is used regularly for supply deliveries.

We continued hiking up and ran into a group of tourists who had just finished a late lunch with Sir Edmond Hillary's son and grandchildren. Sir Edmond and Tenzing Norgay Sherpa were the first men to successfully summit Everest. In the years following his historic summit, Hillary made many charitable contributions to the people of Nepal including the founding of the Hillary school which was only a short way up the hill from where we were standing. We were on our way there when raindrops started to fall. We decided to high-tail it down the hill in time to catch "Everest IMAX" at a place called Liquid Bar. An IMAX movie dimly projected against a yak blanket hanging from the back wall of a bar isn't a visual spectacle, but it will kill time.

We have a five hour hike tomorrow to a place called Tengboche. Altitude sickness may still get me. I may end up lumbering down the mountain on the back of a yak with my head hung low, but for now I'm on top of the world and feeling like it.


Namche to Tengboche

Wow! What a day. What a day.

I woke up around 7am to the clearest most perfect blue skies this great world makes. I went to Everest Bakery again and ordered a cappuccino and a cheese omelet with toast. I ate slowly and read Niel Gamian's "American Gods" waiting for the others to wake up. They joined me shortly thereafter and we talked excitably about the views the clear skies promised to bring.

The first mile of the trek must have taken us two-hours. We couldn't go more than ten-feet without gaping and gawking and fumbling for our cameras. Every corner revealed something new.

The narrow dirt path hugged the side of the mountain at the upper edges of the tree line. Coniferous forests gave way to brush plants and scraggly leafless trees. The path had very few tourist stops. The only signs of civilization were Sherpas herding yaks down the mountain and the occasional brown, squat home of a highland native.

We assumed the hike would be an easy one. Tengboche is only 250 vertical meters higher than Namche. By the time we reached the halfway mark where a bridge draped in prayer flags stretched across an icy blue river we had no reason to believe our assumptions were incorrect. They were.

The second half of the hike started by descending down a long winding hill only to turn up up up. The end of the day ascent was a zigging, zagging, steep pitched trail that led us nearly 2000 feet up the side of a mountain to Tengboche.

The clear skies clouded over soon after we began the ascent and there were several tour groups in front of us so I charged ahead to make sure we were able to get rooms. The ascent was steep but I was having the time of my life climbing it. Watching the changing scenery and the river dropping away below made me little kid happy. I wanted to stop and build a treehouse with a rope swing a secret password.

At the top of the ridge the mountain plateaued revealing the quaint mountain top village of Tengboche. Tengboche has a handful of guest houses and a big, beautiful monastery (the most important in the region). I checked us into the Gomba Lodge, changed out of my sweat soaked shirt and added fresh layers knowing that the cold would hit as soon as the adrenaline went away.

Blake, Brittany and Leanne arrived 45 minutes later happy to be done for the day. We are currently sitting in a warm cozy lodge sipping tea and comparing notes on a difficult but damn good day.










Tengboche to Dingboche

I had trouble sleeping last night. I tossed and turned and told my brain to be quiet and for a long time it  wouldn't listen. I woke up at 1:48am (to be exact) needing to pee. The toilets were outside, 50 yards away in a cold shed. I trudged outside wearing hiking boots, red fleece long underwear and a brown hoodie. Inside the shed I peed into a hole while holding a flashlight between my teeth as if aim mattered at all. I was not happy.

Then I stepped outside and looked up.

A few soft lights left an ambient glow on the dusty ground and illuminated the golden dome of a stupa at the edge of the plateau. The sky above was inky darkness pierced by a billion points of light. I wanted to stand and stare, but I was dressed like and idiot and cold as hell so I took a mental picture and crawled back into bed.

I woke up feeling groggy and trudged over to the dining hall for an apple pancake and two cups of coffee. I held my hands around the warm steaming cup of coffee and peered out at clear blue skies and the soaring peaks of the Himalayas.

Just before we left Blake and I walked up to the monastery to get a few pictures. He pointed at the mountain  range in the distance and casually said, "Did you see Everest, Dude?" Everest seemed so far way in both distance and concept that I hadn't thought to look for it, and yet there it was, Everest, Sagarmatha, Chomolungma, the biggest baddest mountain in the whole wide world. My first glimpse didn't disappoint. Despite being surrounded on all sides, Everest reached higher. Frigid winds swept snow and ice off its crest giving the giant its ever present plume.

Everest

The hike to Dingboche took a little over four hours and over those four hours nature dropped away. At the start of the day we walked through the last of the dwindling trees. Our pace was slowed by heavy yak traffic, forcing us up onto the hillside to skirt around the cargo beasts. Along the way we passed several marathon runners. Yes, marathon. The Everest marathon starts at Base Camp where contestants spend a couple of weeks acclimatizing before running headlong down the mountain.

As we ascended the only remaining vegetation was scrub brush dotting the dirt and rock covered hillside. The trail which had been five or six feet wide most of the way became nothing more than a worn footpath cutting along a barren landscape far above the Asian continent.

The highest peaks of the Himalayas surrounded us in a 360 degree panorama. Their immenseness is overwhelming. They loom alien and cold, frightening and beautiful. To truly appreciate their size you have to remind yourself how far you've already come. Dingboche sits at over 14,000 feet--higher than Mount Whitney the highest peak in America's lower 48. Imagine hiking all the way to the top of Mount Whitney and instead of finding the top of a jagged peak you find me sitting in a lodge, warming my hands by a dung fire. You sit down next to me and look out at the snowy peaks rising 10,000, 12,000, 14,000 feet into the heavens. You see Everest higher than them all, more than twice as high as you've already climbed. The jet stream winds blow a comet of snow and ice off of its broad peak. You place your hands over the stove and you marvel at the vastness beyond.



This way up section of the Himalayas is often described as having a "strange beauty." I don't agree. Not entirely. Being up here feels like standing on a precipice--like beyond these mountains the world either falls into nothing or stretches on forever in an endless field of clouds and snowy peaks. The dual sense of doom and wonder is strange, but there is nothing strange about the beauty of the place. Beauty takes your breath away. Beauty makes you want to absorb the tiniest of details. Beauty makes you want to remember and never forget. These mountains do all of that. It is beautiful up here, nothing strange about it.



Acclimatization Day in Dingboche

Today was the second of our required acclimatization days. I woke up feeling well rested and planned on doing a hike after breakfast. Somewhere between my muesli with apple and my second cup of coffee I lost motivation. I decided to relax and adjust to the dwindling oxygen. I washed my filthy trekking gear, read and chatted with fellow travelers. In short I did nothing worthy of blogging about.

It's approaching dinner time now and the yak dung stove is kicking off heat, which is good because outside snow is falling lightly. I am warm for the moment, but that warmth is fleeting. Soon the cold night air will beat back the dung and the lodge will ice over. The rooms are in a separate building and are not heated. When I go to sleep tonight the room will be near freezing. The adjacent toilets aren't heated either. For the record shivering while you poop in not pleasant.

We are staying at the Dingboche Guesthouse and Lodge. It's decent. The owners are nice and there is a cute little kid named Lhukpa Sherpa running around yelling, "I am yappy!!" (happy). He finds the word "yappy" very funny and falls into giggling hysterics every time he says it. He learned this phrase compliments of Teacher Leanne.

Dingboche itself is a desolate crap hole. Imagine a sad windblown town on the edge of a nuclear testing facility long ago abandoned by all but the diehards. It's like that, except when the clouds lift and the Himalayas appear, then you forget about the desolation and you gush unabashedly over the beauty of up.

Dingboche to Lobuche

Today was a solo mission. Blake is getting (or trying to get) over a cold. Brittany has a combination of Blake's cold and minor symptoms of altitude sickness. And Leanne has a strained Achilles tendon. At this point of the journey I am the only one feeling completely healthy. We knew that Lobuche was notorious for being short on rooms, and sleeping on a cold wooden floor next to a stove that stopped burning dung long ago did not sound appealing so I booked it ahead of the others to make sure we had a place to lay our heads. I settled on the National Park View Lodge. It is typical for this high altitude portion of the trek--by which I mean, shitty. The room is an icebox and the walls are paper thin. Literally, they are made of brown sheets of paper stapled to 2x4 wall boards. But it's better than sleeping on the floor next to the dung stove...I think.

Lobuche's elevation is 16,275 feet. I am starting to feel the altitude. The toughest stretch of the hike today required climbing an 800 foot hill covered in snow dusted boulders. There wasn't a clearly marked trail. The best I could do was try to follow the most trodden paths. Physically it wasn't that difficult, but due to the altitude I had to pause every 50 yards or so to catch my breath. A 10 or 15 second pause was all it took to return my pulse rate to normal, but it was a confusing feeling. My brain was telling me that I could handle the hill with ease and heart was telling me, begging me to slow down. Beyond the hill the trail flattened out making the last 30 minutes into Lobuche relatively easy.

I am currently sitting in the cold lodge drinking warm tea. One of the Sherpa ladies brought out a big bucket of dried yak poop, but has yet to light that shit on fire. We met some American travelers on the trail, Andrew from Seattle, Joel from somewhere in Utah and Kyle from Ohio. We are all drinking cup after cup of warm tea and playing word games. Boredom does things to a man.

Tomorrow's hike will take us to the world's highest restaurants and lodges, right to the cusp of  Mount Everest Base Camp.

Lobuche to Gorak Shep to Kala Patthar

I barely slept last night. The room was freezing. I am not exaggerating, it was 22 degrees outside and 28 degrees inside. The bed was uncomfortable and I was restless. The standard bedtime on this trek has been around 8:30pm. By that time the lodges have doused the fire and shooed the guests to their rooms. I am getting tired of reading by flashlight. (Note to self: by a headlamp for your next trek). My MP3 player is dead and it costs something like $5 an hour to charge it, so sleep is the only entertainment option left.

We were planning to leave early this morning, no later than 6:30am. Gorak Shep is the last place you stay before Base Camp. It is smaller than Lobuche so again we were concerned about the room situation. (The guided tours send Sherpas ahead to reserve blocks of rooms so its important to beat the rush). Everyone else in the lodge must have had the same concern because the packing and leaving noise started at 4am. With paper walls the sound seemed to be coming from every direction. In my half awake, half asleep stupor it felt like being kicked in the head. My mouth was sandpaper dry. I sat up in bed and reached for my water bottle. The water inside was frozen. I sucked out just enough liquid to wash the sandpaper away and hastily dressed.

We got on the trail close to our desired exit time and Blake and I went ahead to get rooms. The hike was surprisingly easy and we arrived in Gorak Shep around 8:30am. Outside of your new lodge we ran into Andrew, Joel and Kyle. They were holding off on Base Camp until the following day and instead hiking up to Kala Patthar (Black Rock in Nepali) a famed view point that looks down on Base Camp. We decided to join them. There wasn't a cloud in the sky and given how unpredictable the weather can be we didn't want to miss a chance at the catching Everest views under perfect conditions.

Gorak Shep is well over 17,000 feet. Base Camp is 17,600 feet. Kala Patthar is 18,300 feet--way the hell up there. From Gorak Shep the acsent to Kala Patthar looks like a steep slope up to a very manageable peak. What you can't see from that low vantage point is that beyond that steep slope is a steeper slope and beyond that is an even steeper pathless rise of craggy black granite boulders leading to a narrow prayer flag festooned pinnacle.

We started the hike together, but quickly broke off into three groups; Andrew, Joel and Kyle out front, Blake and I in the middle, and Brittany and Leanne fading back. The first peak wasn't bad. The second peak was a challenge. The final peak was damn near impossible. I couldn't hike more than 20 feet without needing to stop to catch my breath. My hands felt swollen and tingly. My brain felt two steps slow. And my legs felt dead and detached. I was surprised every time they heeded my slow-brained commands. Fifty yards from the top I seriously considered stopping. I questioned whether those last few steps were really worth it. I pushed on. When I reached the top I flopped down on a boulder drained of everything I have.

Twenty seconds later I felt fine. High altitude is a strange beast.

Kala Patthar is astonishing. From that vantage point the Himalayas form a perfect circle of snowy, rocky peaks--a crown on top of the world. The sky seems smaller up there. There is no horizon, no sense of a greater distance, there is only sky and crown. It feels like the world and all that it holds must be down because down is all there is.

Blake and I spent twenty-minutes or so taking pictures and absorbing it all before beginning our descent. We hadn't seen the girls and assumed they turned back. A couple of hundred yards down, near the bottom of the steepest incline they caught up with us and wanted to keep going up. I shuttered. I choked back a wail of, "NO!!" and slowly climbed back to the top.

We spent another twenty-minutes at the top and then began our descent...again. As impossible as it seems down felt longer than up. By the time we reached the flat dusty plane at the base of the hill I was dragging my weary legs and trying to convince myself that the lodge was getting closer despite my tired eyes telling me different. After a quick lunch I fell into bed and took a three-hour nap, not for the pleasure but because my body needed to shut down.

As time goes by and nostalgia sets in the difficulty of the Kala Patthar hike will fade. There are many reasons the hike was more difficult that it needed to be; lack of sleep, the two hour hike that proceeded it, extreme altitude, summitting twice. Excuses be damned. I want this on historical record. That was one of the most challenging physical activities I have ever undertaken.


Gorak Shep to Base Camp

When I was sixteen and had traveled no further than the beaches of Hawaii my Top 5 travel list looked something like this:

Bora Bora--stay in an over-water bungalow
Hike to Mount Everest Base Camp
Rome
The Amazon by boat
?

I can't remember #5. It may have been something about Greece. It may have been to stalk Joe Montana until he invited me to dinner and asked me to marry his daughter. I don't know. What I do know is that today I knocked #2 off the list!

Base Camp is at the bottom left

In comparison to Kala Patthar the hike to Base Camp was easy, or as a British person would say, "a piece of piss." (Where do they come up with this stuff?) It takes two to three hours to get to Base Camp. The trail is fairly gentle with only a few breath stealing inclines. For most of the hike Everest is visible to the right, assuming the skies are clear. Below the trail the Khumbu Glacier cuts through the mountains covered in a layer of dirt and rock. As you approach camp the trail curls right and you get your first glimpse at the tent city that is Base Camp. This is peak season for summit expeditions and flags from a variety of countries were blowing in the breeze above the colorful tents. We reached the entrance to the camp and posed for photos next to famous Base Camp rock. Leanne stripped down to her bikini for a photo op, which we quickly learned from the pissed off Sherpas is an affront to the goddess. Sagarmatha does not like nudity. Leanne has now vowed to pick up trash all the way down the mountain to repair her cracked up karma.

I was shocked at how many people took their pictures next to the rock and turned back without setting foot in Base Camp. Quitters. Boo on you!

We walked down to the far side of camp to see a photo exhibit showcasing the rapid melting of Himalayan glaciers. The exhibit features pictures taken at the turn of the century juxtaposed with pictures taken over the last couple of years. The exhibit was funded by Glacier Works a company headed by David Breashears, whose decades long career as a climber, filmmaker, photographer and preservationist has made him universally respected and admired in mountaineering circles.

The exhibit was being managed by a nice girl from Berkeley who jumped at the opportunity to add "Ran the world's highest museum" to her resume. Her name was Lindsey I believe. We asked Lindsey if it was tough to adjust to life in a tent at the top of the world. She said, "No one told me the ice beneath my tent would move or that I would hear avalanches falling every night." Lindsey speaks the truth. Base Camp tents are erected on a shifting moving glacier and even during the day if you stop and listen you can hear the walls of ice moaning and groaning the threatening to come tumbling down.

Leaving the exhibit we stopped and talked to a group of climbers who were ascending to Camp One the following morning. Camp One is another 4000 feet up the glacier in a section known as the Khumbu Icefall. One of the climbers admitted to being nervous. I said, "Well, yeah, anytime you put the words 'ice' and 'fall' together it's bound to make a person nervous." I don't think he appreciated my mountain humor.

Before arriving at Base Camp I thought it would be fun to put up a tent and spend a night in Everest's shadow. Now I realize how out of place I would have been. Base Camp is essentially an icy locker room. The occupants are athletes on the verge ascending a mountain that has claimed the lives of hundreds of climbers. They are there to acclimatize and prepare and focus. They are not there to schmooze with tourists. I would have no more business camping there than I would have strolling into the 49ers locker room on game day and saying, "Hey fellas. Anyone want to toss the pigskin around?"

Plus, the toilets are gross. Really gross. I ducked into one on my way to the photo exhibit. Inside there was a blue ten-gallon bucket filled to the brim, nestled just below a rectangle of piled rocks. Apparently once or twice a season Sherpas strap the buckets to their backs and carry them down the mountain splashing all the way. Somebody call that "Dirty Jobs" guy I've got a job for him.




Going Down--Gorak Shep to Dingboche

My last night at the top of the world was surprise, surprise, really cold.

Dear Central Heating,

I'm sorry I never gave you the credit you deserve. My bad.

I ordered an egg and cheese spring roll for breakfast. Two nights earlier I made an amazing discovery. In Nepal "spring roll" means "big ass Hot Pocket." Stoked.

With a full stomach the trek down to Dingboche was a breeze. That section of the trail is relatively flat. We got a bit lost. Minor complication. Somehow we ended up high on a windy ridge with no path in sight. A thousand feet down we saw Periche village. We didn't want to go to Periche. We wanted to go to Dingboche. We knew the two were close, but which direction close? Just as we were about to hike down to the wrong town to ask for directions we saw the top of a temple we recognized from the ridge above Dingboche. We took a cross-country path through encroaching clouds and down a long rocky path to our intended destination.

I didn't like Dingboche the first go around, but I left this time with a decidedly higher opinion thanks to the purveyors of the Moonlight Hotel. After a series of frigid, stanky toilet, substandard lodges the Moonlight Hotel was a breath of fresh air. We found out about it by speaking with a guide in Gorak Shep. His sister owned the place and he had done a significant amount of work renovating. He was a jovial man and a proud poppa. His son summitted Everest seven times by the time he was twenty-seven including twice in one week. The hotel was decorated with dozens of plaques commemorating his mountainering acheivements. On one of his expeditions he saved the lives of an American man's wife and daughter. The American man had made a fortune selling high-end watches. He wanted to give his thanks by teaching the young mountaineer his trade so that he wouldn't have to continue risking his life on the mountain. He flew the young mountaineer and his friend to America and put them up for a year while they learned the art of watch making. They returned to Nepal and began plying thier new trade out of Kathmandu. Their company Kobold Himalaya is flourishing. The young mountaineer's father could not be any more proud.

For dinner we ordered Dal Bhat, a traditional Nepali meal. They topped off an already good sized portion by giving us all free seconds. After dinner I finished reading Jon Krakauer's "Into Thin Air" next to a red hot yak dung stove. I went to bed at the standard 8:30 shut-down time with the intention of reading for awhile longer via flashlight. Imagine my surprise when the light in my room actually worked! None of the rooms I had going up the mountain had working lights. None. Luxury baby.


Dingboche to Tengboche

We were supposed to have a big day today, Dingboche all the way down to Namche. Followed by a second big day, Namche to the airport village of Lukla. We didn't make it to Namche. The health of the group wouldn't allow it. We stopped at Tengboche our intended lunch stop and went no farther.

And the day had started off so promising.

Having come down from Gorak Shep even the thin air of Dingboche felt easy to breathe. As we started walking I said, "Today we see trees again! By the time we get to Namche we'll be choking on all that oxygen." To which Blake replied, "I will deep-throat some oxygen."

I really wanted to make Namche because it breaks the decsent into three managable hikes. We will have to add an extra day now, but we had a day to burn so C'est la vie. And Tengboche isn't a bad place to camp out. It is situated on a pretty mountain top plateau and has the best bakery on the mountain. I had a piece of apple crumble pie with lunch and Blake and I cracked open our first mountain beers. I'm already trying to decide which delicious pastery to eat for breakfast. Chocolate croissant? Cinnamon roll? Both?

I'm onto another book, Paolo Ceolho's "The Alchemist." Millions of people love this book. I'm not one of them, too preachy for my tastes.







Tengboche to Monjo

My dreams last night were passing strange. In one bizarro flash Tim Tebow said some disparaging things to my sister Sarah. And because nobody talks to my kid sister like that, me and Tebow had words, which then somehow led to a car chase that ended in a packed football stadium. I kid you not. Because of that trash talking sonof----- and other general restlessness I woke up in foul mood. I thought a giant cinnamon roll and two cups of coffee would fix me up, but I was still squinty-eyed and terse when we started hiking.

Our plan was to hike from Tengboche to Monjo. We knew the first section of the hike was going to be a deep V; 2000 feet down and 1300 feet right back up. Not feeling exactly social I booked it down ahead of the others. I assumed they would be 10 minutes or so behind, but it ended up being 45 minutes. My bad mood had all but evaported, but I didn't feel like dragging my feet all the way to Namche (our intended lunch stop) so I asked the crew if they minded if I went ahead on my own. They graciously gave me the thumbs up and I pushed hard to Namche. I arrived a couple of hours ahead of the others giving me time to check email, buy toothpaste and eat a big delicious veggie burger at Everest Bakery and Pizza Hut. By the time they arrived I was full and happy.

The second half hike from Namche to Monjo required another 2000 foot decent, this one even steeper than the morning decsent. This section of the hike is one of the most beautiful stretches on the trail. I thought coming down from Base Camp would be a retracing of sights already seen. But, I have been consistently surprized by new and unseen glimpses of beauty the downward angle provides.

This will be the second to last Everest entry. Tomorrow we hike to Lukla and catch a flight back to Kathmandu. I am writing this entry from the Mount Kailash Lodge and Restaurant. We shelled out the big bucks (350 rupees or $4) for a room with a hot shower. I haven't showered in nearly two weeks so that is an exciting development. (Don't judge. Showers cost like ten dollars on the mountain and they're in outdoor dirt floor sheds. I used baby wipes...sometimes.)



Glad I didn't have this to carry
Monjo to Lukla
I woke up happy. Happy about all that we had accomplished and with a tinge of sadness happy that the trek would be over in a few short hours. I am looking forward to clean clothes, hot showers and relaxation.

I ordered Tibetian bread with an omelette for breakfast, and the proprietess brought out a special spicy red sauce to top it off with. Seriously delicious. I slung the socks I washed the night before over the outside of my backpack to dry, lathered on sunscreen and hit the trail.

The first couple of hours were great. The lower altitude made breathing easy. It was sunny, warm enough to wear a t-shirt and the scenery was spectular. We stopped off in Phakding to get a quick bite to eat. It wasn't quick. It took an hour and a half to get vegetable and cheese momo's. Every restaurant in Nepal has momo's (steamed or fried dumplings) it's one of their national foods. Why so long? Why?

By the time we finished dark clouds were forming overhead. We had more than two hours to go. It started to rain ten-minutes into the last leg. Up to this point we had been obscenely lucky with the weather. We had clear blue skies nearly every day. I hadn't had reason or opportunity to use my "rain gear" so I pulled out all the stops. I pulled on the blue poncho I brought from Thailand. It smelled like moldy cat pee. Then I slipped on the blue plastic bag I bought on day one to use as a rain kilt. I looked like a torn off piece of tarp.

My rain gear sucked. It did a brilliant job of repelling the rain, however all that plastic made me sweat like a fat kid. It would have been perfect gear to wear if I were trying to cut weight for a wrestling match, but I didn't want to wrestle, I wanted to walk comfortably in the Himalayas.
Rain Rain go away

The rain started to let up a bit so I stripped off my b.s. gear. I was drenched underneath, but at least I wasn't light-headed anymore. We had thirty-minutes left to hike. The rain was down to a heavy mist and the clouds sat heavy on the hill. We spent the final stretch of the trek literally walking through rain clouds.

As we passed beneath the archway into Lukla I wanted only two things in the whole wide world. I wanted to drop my backpack. And I wanted to take off my damn boots.

That night we didn't need to use words to describe the pride we felt in all we had accomplished--the looks on our faces said it all.

3 Americans and a Brit.
4 English teachers from Thailand.
1 Group of friends trekking 70 miles up and down the biggest mountain in the world without a guide and without porters.

And now they rest. They've earned it.




Buddha and Bud


The short road to Kathmandu