Trekking in Nepal
Trekking in Nepal
April 16-May 17, 2006
This journal is dedicated to two sons: to Jonathan Brett Loden, the son of mylong-time friend, business partner, and blood brother, who fought withvalor but died of head and neck cancer while I was in Nepal- and to my own son,Michael Benjamin Ingber, impossibly even more precious now, who will live tofight on and climb his own mountains.
May 18, 2006
Sunday, April 16 – Tuesday, April 18, 2006 En route to Kathmandu
“And to myself be true
That’s why I’m going to Kathmandu
Up to the mountains where I’m going to
And if I ever get out of here that’s what I’m gonna do
That’s really, really where I’m going to
Oh, if I ever get out of here
I’m going to Kathmandu.” - Bob Seger, lyrics to Kathmandu
“There’s still time, but there ain’t forever.” - Rick Sylvester, climber
I owe you this one, Michael. I had promised you a Kilimanjaro journal when I climbed it in September,1998. But when I got back, the demandsof everyday life took over and I never got it done. I’ll make Kili up to you by taking you therenext summer, but you’re on your own for Nepal. I won’t be taking you there. Ifyou choose to follow in my footsteps one day, then let this journal be yourguide.
Nobody ever said it was easy getting to Shangri-La. Five and a half hours Baltimore to LosAngeles, a 2 hour layover at LAX, 17hours LA to Bangkok, a 4 hour layover at Don Muang, 3-1/2 hours to Kathmandu, Nepal. Thirty-two non-stop hours of traveling.
I cashed in some frequent flyer miles for a first-classupgrade on the first leg to LA. A doublescotch, a glass of Viognier, and a good dinner led to a lot of reflection. I’m at a crossroads in my life. Six weeks ago I resigned from the softwarecompany I founded and built for the past 27 years. Four years ago I sold thecompany, running it since then under a consulting arrangement with the companythat bought it. In retrospect, it’s ableeping miracle I lasted the four years. Hands tied, going nowhere, the thrill was gone. The last year, especially, was brutal. Bored and unchallenged, I found myselfsleepwalking through life. It was timefor a change.
So here I am, 57 years old, thinking about the undone thingsin my life, and trying to figure out where I go from here. Do the mountains hold redemption,transformation, some answers? Even ifthey don’t, Tim, my long-time friend, business partner, and blood brother, hasgiven me a motivation I can’t ignore. Hisson Jonathan is in the end game after a two and a half year battle with headand neck cancer. Tim and I have stood byeach other through some blinding shitstorms, but this time I’ve stood byhelplessly watching the battle shatter Tim and Lollie’s lives. Before I left for Kathmandu, Tim met me forlunch and gave me a Lance Armstrong wristband. All choked up, he asked me to leave it on a summit for Jon. That looms large.
Some mornings I wake up to a jolt and think, “Oh my God, I’m57.” All right, so it’s not as easy asit used to be. But I refuse to acceptthat I’m past it. They say it takes sixmonths to get ready for this. I gave itsix weeks. There wasn’t much time leftto catch the spring climbing season, and windows of opportunity have a way ofslamming shut. After two-a-day Krav Magaworkouts with some trail running, some yoga, and several long hikes thrown in,I feel physically and mentally tough enough to handle it. Emma overheard me kidding with Abby that Iwas “a lean, mean, fighting machine”, and she said, “Zadie, you’re notmean.” Mean or not, ready or not, here Icome.
The Himalayas were one of those undone things in mylife. As a kid I must have seen themovie Lost Horizon ten times, and the Himalayas and the search for Shangri-Laleft me totally in awe. It was a dream Ihad given up, but when my newfound freedom resurrected it, I had to go for it. Mom and your grandmothers are allaghast. They don’t get it, and I can’texplain it to them. How do you explainthat mountain wanderlust is incurable?
Your grandmother called me the day I was leaving forKilimanjaro in 1998 to say:
“You’re crazy to do this and you’re going to die. I know you are. How can you do this to me?”
“All right”, I said. “If I’m going to die, then why don’t you meet Iris, me, and the kids forlunch to say your last goodbyes.”
“Oh no, I can’t”, Grandma replied. “I’ve got to get my hair done.”
Nothing has changed that lack of understanding in the eightyears since. There’s no explaining thedeep pull of the mountains. You eitherfeel it or you don’t, and I feel sorry for those who don’t. At least I know you’re proud of me for going. When you told me that, it meant more to methan I let you know. And you know howproud I am of you. You proved yourselfto me last summer on Mt. Shasta. Youeven proved yourself to me as a little boy that Skyline Drive weekend when youfell off the horse, breaking your collarbone, when you had the courage tosaddle yourself back up and ride all the way back in pain. I wish I could take you with me on this one,but pulling you out of school for a month just didn’t make sense. This will bemy last solo adventure trip. From nowon, you’ll be with me. Maybe yoursisters and brother-in-laws and maybe even your mother, too. But this is one I’ve got to do without you.
The Thai have shibumi. The seventeen hour Thai Airways LA to Bangkok leg is full of that Thaieffortless perfection. No Americandomestic airline even comes close. Excellent service, three outstanding meals, three videos, and a coupleof hours of light sleep. By the way,Thai women are exquisite. Your mother’sgot me body, heart, and soul in this life, but if the Buddhists are right abouta next life, Thai women will be high on my list.
It’s mid-morning in the Bangkok airport, and I’m sitting atthe gate writing this and waiting to catch that last leg to Kathmandu. I’m flying into a freaking mess. Nepal is convulsingwith civil war. Maoist rebels areshaking down trekkers in the Annapurna region and blowing up buildings in thecities and towns when they’re flush with explosives. In Kathmandu, a bunch of belligerentpolitical parties are rivaling each other and protesting for democracy againsta 240 year old constitutional monarchy that’s no longer constitutional sincethe king has disbanded the Parliament. At the moment, a planned peaceful four day strike and protest hasmushroomed into a violent twelve days of rioting with curfews, tear gas, rubberbullets and at least four killed. The USState Department has issued a travel warning against going to Nepal and hasgiven leave to the embassy personnel. But hey, look at the bright side- I couldjust be headed to work for another day at the office.
Andrew Peacock, our trek leader, just walked up to me tointroduce himself. A 6’2”, 39 year oldAustralian doctor still trying to figure it all out, his enthusiasm for themountains is contagious and makes me wistful for lost youth and lostopportunities. He flew in from Brisbane,Australia last night, and we’re on the same flight to Kathmandu. He’s a great guy, and we like each otherimmediately.
We ask for window seats on the right-hand side of the planefor the best shot at the mountains, and we board the flight. They say your first views of the Himalayaswill give you goosebumps, but it’s cloudy and raining all the way intoKathmandu. The mountains remain shroudedin mystery.
It’s mid-afternoon Tuesday when Andrew and I finally touchdown in Kathmandu, two days ahead of the rest of our team. For me, thirty-two hours of traveling and aday lost crossing the international date line. Our passports tattooed, we grab our bags and catch a shuttle to theShangri-La Hotel. Nice name and a prettyswanky hotel for Kathmandu. Driving ison the left, but it’s chaos and any lane goes. I unpack, catch a brief nap, meet Andrew for dinner in the hotel, getback to the room, and crash.
Wednesday, April 19, 2006 Kathmandu
“Deep within us I think we know that we need challenge anddanger, and the risk and hurt that will sometimes follow… Mountain climbing isnot the only way of dealing with an over-organized, over-protectedsociety. But it’s one good way.”
Catch-up eight hour sleep, I wake up to a 5:30AM sunrise,the morning light streaming into the room through the open curtains. I drift awhile in the currents of sleepbefore jumping in the shower at 7. WhenI emerge, still toweling off, I’m startled to see a black-faced monkey sittingon my fourth floor window ledge. He’sprobably after the fruit bowl sitting on a table by the closed window. The monkey and I see each other at the samemoment and both jump, but we stare each other down for ten seconds before heruns away. Good morning, Kathmandu.
Great breakfast buffet on the patio of the hotel’s ShambhalaGarden Cafe- granola with yogurt and fruit, scrambled eggs, grilled tomatoes,pancakes, excellent coffee. I had alight dinner last night so I’m famished and eat well. Andrew joins me shortly after I start. We both read our copies of the local paper,The Himalayan, over breakfast. “Day 13of the strike,” Andrew comments. “Deathtoll now 18, no end in sight”, I add. Inanother article, Palestinian jihadis are recruiting a new army of seventysuicide bombers ready to blow themselves up for Allah. “Blimey religious fanatics”, Andrewmutters. “Blimey, psycho-killerreligious fanatics”, I add, smiling at the Aussie pejorative. But I get a sinking feeling, worrying aboutyour trip to Israel this summer. It’s afather’s job to worry about seventy blimey, psycho-killer religious fanaticsand the welfare of his son.
I head out alone for Thamel (pronounced TA-mel), the funky,frenetic tourist center of Kathmandu. It’s about a twenty minute walk from the hotel in a light rain, but therain has lifted the usual smog that envelopes the city. I pass stately embassies, closed with theprotests, and the huge walled Royal Palace grounds of King Gyanendra. The king’s not there- he’s gotten out ofDodge- but there are young RNA (Royal Nepalese Army) soldiers everywhere inblue camo with ancient rifles slung over their shoulders. On March 29th, a few weeks beforemy arrival, there had been a solar eclipse over Kathmandu which, to the ancientastrologers, portended the overthrow of a ruler or king. But these soldiers don’t look like they’rebuying into the loopy prognostications of whack jobs who fated everything on thealignment of the stars.
The rain lets up as I enter Thamel. It’s another world- narrow, shop-lined alleystreets, cycle rickshaws and every kind of 1, 2, 3, and 4 wheeled vehicleimaginable, the occasional smell of incense in the air, and abject povertyeverywhere. The sights and sounds andsmells are welcome sensory overload. It’s a kick. I wander the ancientstreets, buying a flute for you from a street hustler and spending a lot oftime buying a silk rug for Mom from a merchant who offers me tea and moansabout how poor business is because of the strikes and curfews. You offer half of their asking price andstart negotiating from there.
Back on the streets, I get hit on by a rail-thin Hindumother with a baby in her arms who approaches me saying, “Baby is hungry.” I reach for my pocket and she says: “No money. Buy milk for me in market.” That’s pretty creative, I think, and follow her into the market. She quickly loads up, buying not just milkbut packages of rice and cooking oil. The baby in her arms even points to a chocolate bar at the register. I nod my consent and smile at the con, butit’s not a bad way to blow ten dollars.
On the way back to the hotel, I’m hit on again by a boy ofabout eight or nine. He asks me whereI’m from, then tells me everything he knows about the US. He knows a lot. We walk together for blocks. He asks me to name countries in Europe andfires back immediately with their capitals. How many American kids could do that? Finally when we walk by a market, he asks if I’ll buy milk for hislittle sister. All right, so I’m awalking ATM here, but there’s no other way to get rid of this kid. I buy the kid the milk and laugh at the hugesmile on his face as he walks away.
Back at the hotel, I do a light workout in the littlefitness center, catch some sun and read by the pool, then jump in the sauna forfifteen minutes. After a quick shower, Icatch a cab to Swayambhunath, the Monkey Temple, an ancient Buddhist stupa(temple) whose eyes, painted on the four cardinal points, keep watch overcommanding views of the Kathmandu Valley. I climb 300 steep, monkey-lined steps (a tribe of rhebus monkeys, likethe one in my window this morning, is permanently encamped there) and get tothe top of a forested hilltop shrine where I watch Buddhist monks perform asunset ceremony. Chanting “Om mani padme hum” in deep, resonant voices, the “m”sounds vibrating, it’s hypnotic and pretty cool.
I’m on full alert but badasses are nowhere to be found onthe long walk back to the Shangri-La. Istop at a little Japanese restaurant and order vegetable fried rice and a fruitjuice and eat well for about $1.50.
The night is cool, the moon hidden, as I walk the gardens inthe back of the Shangri-La. I’m feelingloose and confident, enjoying the freedom of being alone in an exotic thirdworld city and looking forward to what lies ahead. I call home at 9:30PM when I get back to theroom- it’s 11:30 in the morning your time. It’s good to hear Mom’s voice- justwant her to know I made it here alive and well. All in all, it’s a good first day in Kathmandu. I’m tired when I hit the bed at 10.
Thursday, April 20, 2006 Kathmandu
“I always go with people who can catch me.” - Tom Brokaw, TV journalist and climber
There’s a shoot-on-sight, all day curfew today and I’m underorders to stay on the hotel grounds. Notmuch choice anyway, the hotel has its security gate up, locked, and manned withan armed guard. So it’s a day at leisurein the Shangri-La. I linger atbreakfast, read The Himalayan from cover to cover, lounge at the pool, read myweird Keith Cymry underground novel Hope In A Nutshell, workout at the fitnesscenter, and wait for the rest of our team to arrive. They do around 1:30PM.
With the curfew all roads are closed to traffic excepttourist buses to and from the airport, and I’m out front wandering in and outof the shops on the hotel grounds when our group’s shuttle pulls up with thebig “TOURIST BUS” sign in its front window. We introduce ourselves over complimentary rum and orange juice drinksfrom the hotel. I get a pretty goodfeeling about the team. They say thatmountaineers are bands of brothers, all one party on one rope. Not sure I’d go to war with any of them, butI get the feeling we’ll be all right. Jeff and Steve are a father/son team from California. Jeff is a 6’8”, 48 year old financial guy whodoes triathlons. Steve is 23, just outof college, running a Peets coffee shop. My tentmate Mark is a 53 year old cerebral, somewhat wonkish researchscientist from Washington State. Brentis a 39 year old, super-talkative, super-friendly guy from east Tennessee whodoes public relations work and a lot of hiking in the Great SmokyMountains. Carolyn and Billie Jean are58 and 59, from Boca Raton, Florida and have done a lot of this stufftogether. There is a lot of experiencein the group- 6 out of 7 of us haveclimbed Kilimanjaro, several have done the Inca Trail, Jeff and Steve haveclimbed Shasta and done the John Muir Trail, the women have done a lot of fourteenersin Colorado. Everyone is in good shapeand knows what they’re getting into. Ishow Mark up to our room and leave him alone to unpack and rest up. We’re meeting together later as a group fordinner.
I go to the business center to check emails and then to thegarden cafe and order a chocolate shake. Back to the pool, another light workout, shower and change, and I meetthe team in the garden for an orientation meeting and dinner at 6PM. We go around the table and give our reasonsfor doing the trek. “When it feels likeyou no longer have a pair”, I start, “it’s time to shake it up.” I tick off my soul-crushing work situation, mysudden walk away, and the Lost Horizon childhood dream that had come surgingback. “I’ve come to heal, to get clean, to find the light again”, I finish. Brent notices the yellow Livestrong wristbandI’m wearing and asks “Why the Lance Armstrong bracelet?” I nod and tell the team about Jonathan. “We’ll be leaving the wristband together on asummit for Jon somewhere on the trek”, I end. I can see the impact of the moment on the faces of my teammates. Dinner is an Indian buffet on the gardengrounds under a harboring night sky. Everyoneis pretty fried from traveling. We havean early morning city tour scheduled, and I think we’re all crashed by 9.
Friday, April 21, 2006 Kathmandu
“Do what thy manhood bids thee do. He noblest lives and noblest dies who makesand keeps his self-made laws.”
-Sir RichardFrancis Burton, British explorer, 1821-1890
The curfew is lifted in time for us to do a 6:30AM trip tothe Buddhist Stupa at Boudhanath, a massive, towering temple. On the road there, Andrew, Jeff, and I haveto get out of the shuttle bus several times to move concrete blocks that werelane dividers but have been knocked down by the protesters to block off thestreet. Early morning is the perfect time of day to be at the temple to see themonks and the local Nepalis begin their early kora, their ritual clockwise circumambulations around the temple. Jeff, Steve, and I climb to the top of thetemple where the Buddha’s eyes, known as “Judgment Eyes” ominously gaze outfrom a square base of spire where thousands of pigeons gather. I spin the prayer wheels at the top, figuringwe’ll need all the help we can get.
Back on the street, I buy a postcard of the Judgment Eyes tosend to you and Mom. I also buy someTibetan bread from a street vendor and am immediately surrounded by threekids. I break off hunks of bread for thekids, bringing smiles to their faces and the rest of our team.
We’re back at the hotel by 9AM in time for breakfast and thenext curfew-bound day. I take my timeover an omelet and fruit breakfast lounging around and bonding with everyone. Andrew arranges for us to watch two videosafter breakfast.
The first video is all about the symptoms and dangers of AMS(Acute Mountain Sickness) and what happens if you go too high, too soon- HACE(High Altitude Cerebral Edema) and HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema) whichcan both kill you if you don’t go down. Andrew jokes that there’s a third phenomenon to watch out for ataltitude- HAFE, High Altitude Flatulence Experience, and he’s on target withthat as several of our group later experience first-hand on the trek.
The AMS video leads to a discussion on Diamox. Andrew is pretty convincing that with ouritinerary geared to acclimatization we won’t need it. I’ve already had this discussion with himone-on-one, and he knows I’ll be taking it. After witnessing the effects of mild and severe AMS on my climbingpartners on Kilimanjaro, the Grand Teton, and Shasta, I know I don’t want to gothere. I’ve come to believe in “betterclimbing through chemistry.” Andrew hasasked me to keep it to myself, and I respect his wishes.
The second video, Himalaya, is a beautiful film about aremote village of yak herders crossing a mountain pass to get their salt tomarket. The Dolpo people do phenomenalacting jobs, the soundtrack is mesmerizing, and the Himalayan mountainscapesare staggering. I feel mountain fever comingon. One of the lines from the moviesticks with me for the rest of the trek: “Whenever life presents you with two paths, choose the harder one.”
Lunch, more pool time, another workout. Writing this, I’m drinking a chocolate shakein the garden (they’re addictive) and worrying that we’ll be shut out of ourflight to Lukla tomorrow morning to start the trek. We’re up against two problems. Domestic flights have been cancelled with thecurfews, and since the airstrip in Lukla is a nosedive sight landing, we’llalso need clear weather for take-off. Boredom is setting in, and I’m more than ready to get to themountains. When we get out of Kathmanduand into the Solo Khumbu (the Everest trekking region), we’ll be immune fromthe political situation. Getting thereis the trick.
I catch a light dinner of momos (dumplings stuffed withvegetables and chicken), settle my bill at the Shangri-La, head up to the roomto pack my expedition bag and backpack, and leave a duffel at the bell deskwith the gifts I bought and some clean clothes for our return after thetrek. Nothing left to do but call Mom tosay I love her and good-bye for the next twenty days. If we catch the Lukla flight tomorrow, I’llbe off the grid and incommunicado until we get back to Kathmandu.
Saturday, April 22, 2006 Lukla (9,350’) to Tok Tok (8,660’)
“It is wonderful to be back. Back among mountains that remind us of our vulnerability, our ultimatelack of control over the world we live in. Mountains that demand humility and yield so much power in return.”
Our luck is changing. Up at 4AM, a quick breakfast, and we’re off to Tribhuvan airport tocatch the first flight to Lukla. TheLukla flights are notoriously delayed because weather conditions need to beright for the nosedive sight landing on the little mountain airstrip. But the weather this morning is perfect. We’re on a 12-seater Yeti Airlines propplane, the front seats of the plane piled high with our duffels and backpacks. The 40 minute flight northeast to thebeginning of the Everest trekking region is jaw-dropping. We catch our first views of the Himalayas, Iget goosebumps, and I’m starting to feel like this is the real deal.
I shoulder my pack as we climb above the airstrip to meetour Sherpa crew, porters, and yaks. Oursirdar, head Sherpa and co-leader, is named Pemba, who proves to be rock-solidand reliable. He’s flanked by theinscrutable Zomba, the always helpful Lakpah, the ever smiling Sonchai, ourvery capable cook, Pemba Tzering, two beautiful Sherpani yak herders, and ahost of porters and cook boys- seventeen in all to support our team of eight. Kind of embarrassing but there’s no way we’remaking this without Sherpa support. Besides, it feels good to do our part in supporting the Sherpa economy.
The Sherpas are a mountain people, physiologically adaptedto high altitude, hardworking, affable, and intelligent- the kind of guys Iwould go to war with. Devoutly Buddhist,often chanting and rolling their prayer beads, they migrated south from Tibetto the Everest region four or five centuries ago. Climbing and trekking Sherpas enjoy greatesteem in their communities- they can earn $2,000-$2,500 for two months in eachof the two trekking seasons, attractive pay in a country mired in grindingpoverty with an annual per capita income of around $200. They serve us “hot lemon” (hot lemonade)while our gear is loaded onto yaks, big shaggy beasts with mournful faces. The yaks are technically dzopkyos, malecrossbreeds of yak and cattle, and dzom, female crossbreeds, but Westernershave a hard time discriminating and just call them all yaks. Yak bells on the trail strike a soothingchord that lingers in the air like distant wind chimes, but yak horns can be alittle disconcerting. Just remember toalways stay on the uphill side of the horns as you pass on the trail. Porters also carry a lot of our gear in strawbaskets, enormous loads on their backs supported by straps around theirforeheads, their neck muscles bearing the brunt of the weight- all for $3 aday. You’ve got to have a Buddhistoutlook on life to be a porter.
It’s mid-morning before we’re all packed up, Andrew givesout a “Johnny-Ho” (Nepali for “Let’s go”), and we’re off.
From Lukla, the trail heads north through the deep gorge ofthe Dudh Kosi, the “Milk River”, a boulder-strewn river which runs almost whitewith glacial runoff. We’re in the SoloKhumbu now (just Khumbu for short), theEverest trekking region, which is a handful of valleys draining the southernslopes of Mount Everest, a small, starkly rugged region completely devoid ofroads, cars, or wheeled vehicles of any kind. The trail is easy and mostly downhill at the start. I’m behind Sonchai, leading our group. With just a backpack holding little more thanrain gear, a fleece jacket, some water, a few candy bars, and my camera, I’m feelingunburdened and unhurried, caught up in the simple joy of walking in exoticcountry. The trail is relatively quiet-the political unrest in Nepal has cut deeply into tourism and trekking the lastseveral years- but there are occasional trekkers coming the other way, somelooking a little hammered and dazed and confused after their long trek. There are also some yak trains, red-robedmonks, and barefoot or sandal-clad porters straining beneath back-breakingloads. The trail greeting is “Namaste”(nam-as-STAY), Nepali for something like “I salute the God in you”, andeveryone on the trail is very cordial.
The spectacularly fluted ice pinnacles of Thamserku andKusum Kangra pierce the sky more than two vertical miles above us as we makeour way down the river valley, crossing the Dudh Kosi several times oversuspension bridges, skipping along from one Sherpa village to the next-Chablung, Ghat, Phakding. Beyond thebridges, the dirt path abandons the banks of the Dudh Kosi and zigzags up steepcanyon walls, cascading through aromatic strands of pine. It’s magnificent country, a geological crashsite caused by India running into Asia, but it’s not wilderness and hasn’t beenfor centuries. Every scrap of arableland has been terraced and planted with barley, buckwheat, and potatoes. Rock-walled yak corrals line the landscape. Strings of prayer flags are strung across thehillsides. Ancient Buddhist chortens (religiousmonuments made of rock containing sacred relics, also called stupas) and wallsof exquisitely carved mani stones greet you and stand sentinel as you crest thehighest passes. Mani stones are small,flat rocks that have been meticulously carved with Sanskrit symbols denotingthe Tibetan Buddhist mantra “Om mani padme hum” (literally “Behold the jewel inthe lotus”). They are piled along themiddle of the trail to form long, low mani walls. Tradition dictates that you pass mani wallson the left as you chant the mantra. Steve has gotten ahead of me and blows this several times, and I gentlychide him. In one of the villages alittle boy hands me a flower, then touches my pocket. I smile and give him twenty rupees.
It’s an easy day, only about 3 ½ hours of trekking with along lunch break at a lodge at the top of a crest. It’s about 3:30PM when we reach our campsiteat Tok Tok, a peaceful spot with 360 degree views by a cascadingwaterfall. Some of the Sherpas havegotten ahead of us, and our tents are already set up. We have popcorn and afternoon tea, I sort outmy tent, then take a walk alone, first below our camp, back to the waterfall,and then above our camp to the crest of the next hill. The high Himalaya opens up before me, and I’mawestruck. It’s so good to be back inthe mountains. I gaze out and get chokedup thinking of Jon. Here I am, runningwild and free, dharma bumming in the middle of God’s country, while Jon is facingthe end and struggling for every breath. We’re in this together, I tellJon, and we’ll make it together.
Dinner is daal bhat, the traditional Sherpa meal of ricewith lentils on top, and Sherpa tea. Weeat in a grim little stone building that is next to our campsite. Andrew gives us a briefing for tomorrow. It’ll be a tougher day, our first realchallenge as we take on the Namche Hill to get to Namche Bazaar, with analtitude gain of 2,640 feet. Andrewcautions us to take it easy. “If there’sone day when you want to go slow and acclimatize, tomorrow is it.” It’s damp by the waterfall and the air takeson a wintry sting as night falls. Markand I are in our two-man tent, bundled in our double sleeping bags by 8:30.
Sunday, April 23, 2006 Namche Bazaar (11,300’)
“To venture causes anxiety, but not to venture is to loseone’s self… And to venture in the highest is precisely to become conscious ofone’s self .”
-Soren Kierkegaard,Danish philosopher, 1813-1855
Shit happens. I hadthe runs last night. My money’s on theSherpa tea, a half tea, half yak milk combination. No pasteurization here, and our Westernbodies have no built-up immunity. So itwas back and forth from tent to toilet tent three times until there was nothingleft inside of me. The only consolation wasa night sky electric with stars. By theend of the trek, six of the eight of us get hit with it. I’m just the first.
At 6AM Pemba Tzering and his deep voice greet me with thefirst of many “Good mornings” and “bed teas” in our tent. I skip breakfast. After tossing my packed duffel out of thetent, Brent and I start out ahead of the group, continuing up the Dudh Kosigorge. It’s a rolling trail, some upsand downs, on a clear, crisp morning with a glaze of frost sparkling on therhododendron leaves, but when the sun rises above the canyon walls, thetemperature soars. I layer down to alongsleeve T-shirt rolled up to my elbows after the first half hour. The mountains are spectacular as the sunlights them up, and around every bend a knockout view opens up. The peak ofThamerserku gleams in the morning sunlight. Brent aptly calls the trail a “stairway to heaven.”
We’re again skipping along from one Sherpa village to thenext- Benkar then Chomoa. We watch thevillagers opening up their shops calling out “Namaste, namaste” all along theway. From Chomoa, the trail climbs tothe Riverside Lodge, then descends steeply into a big valley belowThamserku. The trail crosses the KyasharKhola across a long suspension bridge where we have to wait out a long yaktrain and then climbs out of the valley to Monjo. Brent dodges off the trail for a pit stop,and after waiting out another long yak train at the top of some stone steps, Icontinue alone to Monjo, where we’ve agreed to meet the rest of the group. I’m sitting on a low stone wall, the sun onmy face, when Pemba pulls up, a warm smile on his face. The rest of the team is not far behind.
Together we climb to the hilltop school in Monjo and watchthe Sherpa kids play in the dirt school yard before the bell rings at 10AM. The kids are adorable.
Just beyond Monjo, the trail enters the Sagarmatha (theNepali word for Everest, “Goddess of the Sky”) National Park. Pemba has collected our entrance permits. While we pose for the photo op under theentrance sign, Pemba hands our permits to the machine-gun-toting army rangerswho man the park entrance station, record our arrival in a logbook, and thenreturn the permits to us. Beyond thepark entrance, the trail makes a steep rocky descent to a large farm, thenturns left at a cluster of buildings at the bottom of the hill, crosses theDudh Kosi again on a high, long suspension bridge (I think there are elevenbridge crossings), and then follows the west bank of the river. A short distance up the river is Jorsale, andwe have to detour around yaks and crowds of porters hanging around the village.
After following the river for a while, we stop for lunchhigh above the river bank. I try eatingsome chupatie bread with apricot jam, but I can’t keep it in, and within fiveminutes I’m ducking behind some boulders. We continue following the river on a pretty trail and recross the DudhKosi. After a few ups and downs, we makea steep climb near the confluence of two rivers- the Bhote Kosi from the west andthe Dudh Kosi from the east. Afterclimbing a set of steep, crooked concrete steps, the trail crosses the DudhKosi one more time on a suspension bridge that’s a dizzying height above theraging river, the roar of the river billowing up in waves around us, and thenit begins a hard and steep three hour ascent up Namche Hill, switchbacking up adark, lush forested hillside to Namche Bazaar.
Halfway up the ascent we catch our first glimpse of Everestthrough the clouds. Its unmistakableblack wedge of summit pyramid stands out in stark relief, towering over theLhotse-Nuptse wall, and sends out a plume of ice crystals that trails to theeast like a long silk scarf. I should bepumped, but with a sleepless night and no food, I’m running on empty and startingto fall behind the group. The uphill isunrelenting. The switchbacks just keepcoming. I can’t find my uphill rhythm,and I’m hurting. C’mon, I am not this old. No wayit’s caught up to me yet. I can do this. I think I hear God snickering.
At a welcome rest stop at the crest of the switchbacks, Icatch up with the group. There’s aviewpoint of Everest, but the sky has clouded and there is no view. I talk to a European couple, making their waydownhill from Namche. They made it toEverest Base Camp but were unable to summit Kala Patar because of a deepsnowfall. You never know when a fiercestorm will slam into the mountains. You’rein the hands of the mountain gods, and you summit at their mercy.
We continue on for the last push to Namche, and I continueto struggle. One step at a time, pole, pole, bistaray, bistaray (Swahili andNepali for slowly, slowly). I’m going iton sheer determination now, lockstepping every step of the way to minimizefatigue in my leg muscles. Pemba andSonchai are hanging back with me. Wecrest a broad ridge and are stopped at a RNA (Royal Nepalese Army) checkpointfor several minutes while the guards grill Pemba and check his ID. He’s talking Nepali but I make out the word “American”.
Shortly after the checkpoint, I catch up with the team,sitting on a wall outside a tea house with rhododendrons in their hands. Alittle kid comes out to give me one, too. We’re on the outskirts of Namche Bazaar, the social, administrative, andcommercial center of the region. Wefinally make it into Namche, and it’s a pretty dramatic sight. Situated 11,300 feet above sea level, Namchesits in a huge, tilting bowl, like a tiered amphitheater, midway up aprecipitous mountainside. More than ahundred white-walled buildings with multi-colored roofs nestle dramatically onthe rocky slope, linked by a maze of narrow paths and catwalks. It’s an amazing place to be.
After winding our way up endless sets of stone steps, Sonchaiand I finally arrive at the Panorama Lodge, a comfortable and welcoming Sherpalodge, almost at the top of Namche. I’mwiped. I check into our room, wash up,and at 4PM make it down for tea and French fries (Andrew calls them chips andso do I by the end of the trek). Loadedwith salt and ketchup, they taste delicious because I’m so hungry. I catch up on my journal in the comfortable,glass-enclosed dining room, listening to the friendly chatter of other trekkersin the background as clouds roll in and whiteout our view. Yak steak tonight for dinner above the cloudswith a warm yak dung-fueled fire in the iron stove in the middle of the diningroom. We refill our Nalgene bottles withwater the Sherpas have boiled for us, and we make our way up to our rooms. I gutted out a tough day and am lookingforward to sleeping hard tonight.
Monday, April 24, 2006 Exploration Day, Namche Bazaar (11,300’)
“Climbing is not a battle with the elements, nor against thelaw of gravity. It’s a battle againstoneself.” -Walter Bonatti
Rough night. Woke uparound 11PM with the runs again. Threetrips later, I’m purged. Got to countthose blessings- at least I’m in a comfortable lodge with a real bathroom and aWestern toilet. My symptoms are notsevere, and Andrew’s medical opinion is just to let the gastro-intestinal bugrun its course (weak pun, Doc). I’ll fast today and give my body a chance torecover. If this is going to be aspiritual journey, I may as well go all the way.
This is a needed rest, exploration, and acclimatization dayin Namche. We meet in the dining room at5:30AM to make a sunrise vista, but it’s raining this morning so we scrap theplans and go back to bed. Breakfast at 7for everyone but me. It’s cleared and wego off on a ridge hike high above Namche. The mountain scenery is spectacular as we conga-line along theridge. At one point, we round a bend andI’m stopped cold. Two thousand feetbelow, the Dudh Kosi we crossed yesterday appears as a crooked strand of silverglinting in the shadows. Ten thousandfeet above, the huge white fang of Ama Dablam hovers over the head of thevalley like an apparition. It’s abreathtaking mountain. And seventhousand feet higher still, dwarfing Ama Dablam, is the desolate, icy thrust ofEverest, almost hidden behind Nuptse, with the usual horizontal plume of ice spewingfrom its summit. The summit looks socold, so high, so impossibly far away. My emotions swing from awe and wonder to a nervous anticipation of whatlies ahead. Andrew reminds us we’ll begetting to Ama Dablam base camp in a couple of days for what he calls a“ripper” view (you’ve got to love the Aussie expressions).
We visit the Namche gompa (monastery) and continue on a fairlylevel hike heading west through glades of juniper, dwarf birch, and blue pineto the village of Thamo and back. There are carved mani stones all along theway. The Valkyrian skyline abovebristles with the jagged snowcapped peaks I’ve been yearning for since I was achild. A light rain begins to fall whenwe get to a ridgetop with a large chorten and prayer flags flying just outsideof Thamo. We put on our rain gear andcontinue on to the village of Thamo, stopping at a lodge for a lunch I don’teat. The light rain continues to falland it’s a heads-down, just-go-for-it slog back to Namche. The clouds clear. At the huge mani stone with elaborate whiteSanskrit writings that hovers above the town, we hang a right and wind our waydown to downtown Namche Bazaar, a funky collection of several stone-coveredstreets lined with shops and restaurants. It’s pretty cool to see yaks ambling down the shop-lined mainstreet. Worried about hitting snow lateron, I buy a pair of $3 gaiters at one of the gear shops. Knock-off North Face and Mountain Hardweargear is everywhere at prices too good to be true. We stop at the Hermann Helmer’s bakery whereAndrew, Steve, and Jeff load up on chocolate donuts. I buy a cinnamon roll which I wrap and stuffin my pack for a treat later on in the trek.
When you see Namche Bazaar, you can almost understand why alot of visitors to the Khumbu are saddened by the boom in tourism and thechange it has wrought in what early Western climbers regarded as an earthlyparadise, a real-life Shangri-La. Entirevalleys have been denuded of trees to meet the increased demands forconstruction and firewood. Teens hangingout in Namche carrom and pool parlors are wearing blue jeans and North Face andMountain Hardwear jackets rather than quaint traditional robes, but the Sherpasdon’t bemoan the changes. They have nodesire to be severed from the modern world or be preserved as specimens in ananthropological museum. Like our headSherpa Pemba, they’d rather send their kids to expensive boarding schools inKathmandu, and they’ve got no problem with the “Video Night in Kathmandu”phenomenon. We need to give up on ouridyllic Shangri-La visions, and let the Sherpas get on with their lives.
It’s a tiring climb up the endless steps of the mountainsideamphitheater back to the Panorama Lodge where I catch a welcome shower for 200rupees. After a twenty-four hour fast, I get a few bites ofdinner down. Lakpah, the motherlySherpani woman who owns the lodge with her husband, shows us thanka (pronouncedTON-ka) paintings, hand-painted by her brother, who is a Buddhist monk. They’re excellent work, and I buy one of theTengboche Monastery, where we’re headed in a couple of days.
I get into bed in the room in our lodge, warm in my sleepingbag under a soft Sherpa fleece blanket, as Jon is waking to his 33rdbirthday. I know inside it will be hislast.
Tuesday, April 25, 2006 Khumjung (12,450’)/Khunde (12,600’)
“The most beautiful and profound emotion we can experience isthe sensation of the mystical. It is thesource of all true science and art. Heto whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt inawe, is as good as dead.”
Scrambled egg breakfast which goes right through me (I’mstill not better), then we climb to the top of Namche to the vista we gotrained out of yesterday morning. It’s abreathtaking overlook with phenomenal 360 degree views. Everest shimmers far in the distance flankedby Nuptse and Lhotse and many of the other great peaks of the Khumbu.
We sign in at a police checkpoint and visit the Sagarmatha NationalPark Visitors Center and Museum. Thereare displays about the Sherpa people and their customs, the wildlife,mountaineering, and the impact of tourism. It’s worth a visit. The Sherpasbelieve the Khumbu region is a sacred place given to them by Guru Rinpoche, thefounder of Buddhism, and is a place of refuge to go in times of trouble. I’m in complete agreement. The Sherpas also believe that you are rebornforty-two days after you die. I smile atthat. Forty-two days is six weeks, theexact amount of time between walking away from my business and coming to Nepal.
Leaving the visitors center, we start the trek northeast upto Khumjung, the Khumbu’s largest village, about 1,500 feet above Namche. We hit some fierce uphills, I still can’tfind my uphill rhythm, and in my weakened condition, it’s hard going. We follow some kids on the way to the Hillary“School in the Clouds” and finally level off at the Shyangboche airstrip whichwas built by the Japanese to service the nearby Hotel Everest View. The trail crosses the west end of the runwaytowards a telephone relay tower and the intersection of three trails. We follow the direct route to Khumjung,climbing past a chorten atop a ridge at 12,500 feet.
As we approach Khumjung, we reach a large side valley to thesouth. Beyond a mani wall and somepicturesque chortens are the extensive grounds of the Khumjung school, theoriginal Hillary school established in 1960. After summiting Everest in 1953, Sir Edmund Hillary felt greatlyindebted to the Sherpa people. When heasked them what they wanted in return, they replied “schools and hospitals”,and that’s what he gave them.
About fifteen kids of varying ages are playing cricket inthe large dirt schoolyard. They’re notdoing well. Andrew and I make eyecontact and go out on the field to show them how it’s done. They’re all laughter as Andrew takes themound and I take the plate, holding the cricket bat, in bad form, like abaseball bat. When the first pitch comesin on a waist-high bounce, I step into it and crush a screamer about 300 feetto right field, or whatever it’s called on a cricket field. Andrew calls out, “Well done, mate”, and Ijokingly reply: “And that’s without steroids. The autograph line forms here.” The kids probably don’t understand a word I’msaying, but they’re all laughing with me. I flip the bat to the closest kid, figuring I better get out while I’mahead.
Alongside the trail, just beyond the school and besides a streamwhich runs right through the middle of the village, is the Ama Dablam Lodgewhere we set up camp for the night. Thesacred peak of Khumbila rises above us. The Sherpas believe it is the home of the patron god of the Khumbu. The sky is threatening, and I feel my moodchanging with the weather.
I can’t keep lunch down, and when the rest of the team goesto visit the Hillary Hospital in nearby Khunde, I crash in the tent for awhile. I rest but can’t sleep. I get out of the tent and follow a circuitousroute up several terraces along the stone walls of the village, past a cedargrove, to the Khumjung gompa which I’ve read has an alleged yeti scalp on display. Hillary took this scalp to the United Statesfor examination by scientists in 1960, and it was concluded that the scalp wasmade from the skin of a serow, a member of the antelope family. But the yeti legend lives on. There is a haunting legend of a mystical Himalayankingdom called Shambhala (In Lost Horizon, James Hilton transfixed the worldand called it Shangri-La), a sacred kingdom where enlightenment and harmonyreign and people enjoy extraordinary longevity. Surrounded by rings of mountains, the beyul, the fabled hidden land, can only be found by theworthy. Tibetan lamas believe it isguarded by giant snowmen who have acquired superhuman powers on the path toenlightenment. It is said they can boundat great speed and materialize and disappear at will. Many Sherpas claim to have seen yeti and manyworld-class climbers like Reinhold Messner confirm their sightings. Then again, Reinhold is a quasi-mystic whohas spent a lot of time in the death zone, above 25,000 feet without oxygen, andhas lost a lot of brain cells. The scalpin the Khumjung monastery looks like thin parchment with some hair growing outof it, and after leaving a donation, I conclude that I’ll have to see a yetifor myself before I become a believer.
I meet the rest of the group as I’m walking back to camp,and we all walk together to Pemba Tzering’s (our cook’s) house for 4PM tea. It’s cloudy and overcast and the house is gloomyin the late afternoon light. Pemba andhis daughter Andiki’s (one of our yak herders) hospitality is incredibly warm,but I’m feeling like shit. He serves Sherpatea but when he sees that I’m not drinking it, he brings me black tea. He also serves little baked potatoes, and notwanting to insult him, I try one. Bigmistake. When we get back to camp, Ilose that, too, and collapse in my sleeping bag, all layered up, but shiveringwith chills. I stay in the bag throughdinner. Andrew is concerned. He relents with the anti-medicine attitudeand brings me an antibiotic called Microflux which he instructs me to take morningand night for three days. Aftersuffering for almost four days, I’m in no position to argue, and I pop one ofthe pills and try to sleep. But sleep isagain elusive and it’s a long, long night.
Around 2AM I’m still sleepless in Khumjung. Some nagging self-doubts are creeping in, andI’m starting to question whether I can make it all the way through this. I shake off the doubts, remember Jonathan, tellmyself to cowboy the fuck up, and climb out of the tent. The clouds have moved on. It’s still and clear and incrediblyquiet. Our yaks are sleeping nearby andI can hear their breathing. The starsare hard and bright as chips of silver. They say there are three thousand visible stars, but I swear there are threemillion tonight. The silhouette ofKhumbila looms above me and sends chills down my spine. The peak is sacred to the Sherpas, theirpatron God on top, and no one may climb it. As always, the mountain night sky moves me. The Khumbu is about the same latitude as backhome, and it’s a familiar sky- Orion, the Big and Little Dippers, the W-shapedCassiopeia at the edge of the Milky Way- but the skies back home don’t do thisto me. The Sherpas are right. God is here tonight. I need to get to these kinds of places tofeel Him, and it doesn’t always happen, but He’s here tonight. He’s in the western wind, He’s in thesnow-capped peak above me, He’s in the temple of the stars. Those stars are trembling, or am I? Get to these kinds of places, Michael, andlisten to His voice. It’s often awhisper, something inside that affirms you or calms you or warns you or gentlyprods you in a direction you may or may not want to go. The voice is real, Michael. It’s as real and as honest as any you willever hear. It is Truth, and you ignoreit at your peril.
I’ve reined it in and dive back into the tent. There are still almost four hours before bedtea, and I fall into my first deep sleep in days.
Wednesday, April 26, 2006 Tengboche (12,650’)
“If only he could get to know the mountains better and letthem become a part of him, he would lose much of his aggression. The struggle of man against man producesjealousy, deceit, frustration, bitterness, hate. The struggle of man against the mountains isdifferent… Man then bows before something that is bigger than he. When he does that, he finds serenity andhumility and dignity too.” -WilliamO’Douglas
I pop a second antibiotic pill in the morning, and I’msurprisingly much better. I’m the firstof our group out of the tent, and I’m washing up and brushing my teeth whenLakpah calls out, “Ga-ree, come here.” (The Sherpas call me Ga-REE.) Lakpah waves me over to where he’s standing by the stone wall that surroundsour campsite. On the other side of thewall, across the stream, about fifty yaks of all sizes, colors, and shapes,including some newborn calves, are ambling down the meadow. It’s like a Serengeti wildebeest migrationand is a cool sight to start out the day.
It’s a clear, crisp morning. We’re hitting a weather-lucky pattern of clear, glorious morningsfollowed by cloudy, overcast afternoons. The Sherpas set up a table outside and serve us breakfast under thedramatic backdrop of Khumbila.
“How’re you doing?” Andrew asks me.
“I’m a new man,” I reply.
“You’re amazing,” Billie Jean says.
“And cute,” I say. “Don’t forget cute.”
I pass on breakfast,though, not as confident as I sound, and wanting to give the antibiotic achance to work.
Soon after, we start the hike to Tengboche (pronouncedTENG-bo-shay) Monastery, the spiritual center of the Khumbu. The Rinpoche of Tengboche lives there and thearea is considered holy and sacred where nothing can be hunted or killed. Expeditions to the 8000m peaks traditionallystop here to receive the blessings of the high lama. We start the trek with a long descent to theDudh Kosi river, down the river valley to 10,700 feet. It’s a beautiful, welcome downhill headingeast into the morning sun, and finally firing on all cylinders, I’m feeling lightand strong.
On the banks of the Dudh Kosi is a small settlement withseveral water-driven prayer wheels. Wecross the wooden suspension bridge over the raging white water and then beginthe two hour 2,000 foot ascent up through conifer and rhododendron forest tothe tranquil ridgetop site of the Tengboche Monastery. I finally get my uphill rhythm and the steeptrail is not bothering me, but I hang back with Carolyn. She’s struggling mightily against an upperrespiratory infection and is gasping for breath. After all I’ve been through, she’s got mysympathies. When Carolyn stops, unableto go on, I ask Sonchai, who’s playing sweeper today, to go ahead and getAndrew back here to check her out. I sitCarolyn on a rock and break out a Snickers bar for us. We’re face-to-face with the huge sprawlingbulk of Kantega. Together Carolyn and Isearch for a summit route up the fierce looking mountain face, don’t find one,and only half pull off the attempt to distract her. She’s in bad shape. Andrew returns and I ask if he wants privacywith Carolyn. He nods his assent. I kneel before Carolyn and lock into herimploring eyes. “Don’t give up,” I tellher. “Don’t back down.”
I go off alone on the trail, enclosed by the forest. My stride lengthens. I push myself, reveling in the burn in mylegs, the pounding of my heart, the quickness of my breath. My senses are heightened, my mind takesflight. At least for now- for one sharp,glinting moment- I’ve left everything behind. I’m just a man, one beating heart, alone in an unspoiled realm of peaks,forests, and fast-running rivers. Forthat brief moment, the gears of the universe click into sync.
I break for a pit stop and wait for Andrew and Carolyn tocatch up for the final push to the ridgetop monastery. Sonchai comes back to us with some boxes ofmango juice, a thoughtful, touching gesture, and the four of us crest the ridgetogether. Carolyn touches my arm at thetop and croaks out a “Thank you.” Tengbocheis all the thank you I need. It’s adreamscape, a surreal monastery atop a huge grassy meadow surrounded by dwarffirs and rhododendrons and one of the world’s most sweeping views- Kwangde,Tawache, Everest, Nupste, Lhotse, Ama Dablam, Kantega, and Thamserku in a killer lineup of the Himalayangiants. Kantega means “horse saddle”,and from Tengboche it looks so close and inviting that you’re ready to saddleup.
The rest of the team is down meadow, sitting at a lunchtable waiting for us. Steve is having aSnickers pie he bought at a little stall. I’m tempted to buy a cheeseburger in paradise from the same place, butstill playing it safe, opt for just one of Pemba Tzering’s pancakes for lunch. I haven’t been eating, but I’ve stayedwell-hydrated the last four days, drinking liters of water mixed with Gatorade. Andrew takes Billie Jean with him into alodge to examine Carolyn. I can see theconcern on his face, and I overhear him telling Pemba they may have to makeplans to send Carolyn and Billie Jean back.
Pemba has appeared out of nowhere. He left us yesterday to return home when hegot word that one of his brother-in-laws had died on Everest. I’m not sure how he covered so much ground soquickly, but I touch his shoulder and give him my sympathies.
After a leisurely lunch, we all walk up meadow to visit themonastery, the largest in Nepal. Theoriginal monastery was destroyed in an earthquake in 1934 and in a fire in 1989,but it is holy to the Sherpas and has been rebuilt again and again on the samesite. You can see why. The site is a throne room to the mountaingods.
Guarded by stone lions at the base of its steps, Tengbocheis a sacred place of humility and serenity “devoted to the worship of theDivine Dharma, the Perfect One”. A signthere reads: “May you journey in peaceand walk in delight, and may the blessings of the Perfect One be always withyou.” The chapel is brilliantly coloredand dominated by a 13 foot tall statue of Buddha flanked by images ofManjushri, the god of wisdom, and Maitreya, the future Buddha. I watch Pemba prostrate himself before thealtar as we enter.
Although it’s clouded over, muting the panoramic view fromthe top of the monastery steps, we linger there anyway, taking photos andtalking in hushed tones. We then makeour way to a nearby gift shop where Sherpani women are hand-painting beautifulcards. Then we’re back on the trailagain for a short twenty minute downhill jaunt to our campsite outside a lodgein Dewoche, a quiet little settlement nestled in the velvet afternoon gloomwith yak corrals behind it and the spike of Ama Dablam overhead.
We have afternoon tea with yak bells playing a sweet, randomsymphony around us, then some tent time to rest up and catch up on my journalnotes. That evening in the dining tent,I cautiously eat a pasta dinner. It staysdown. I’m better at last. We crawl into our tents and settle in for thenight about 8PM after a long, satisfying day.
I’m out of our tent in the middle of the night. Diamox and an aging bladder don’t mixwell. There is frost on our tents, andit’s crackling cold standing out in just my thermals. Jackals are howling in the surroundingforest, but the night sky is clear and close, the moon frosted too, the MilkyWay a sandstorm of stars. High over thepeak of Ama Dablam, a little below the North Star, I make out Cassiopeia, twoof the stars in its W-shape among the brightest in the galaxy. Here’s a tip, Michael. Remember the story of Cassiopeia when you’reout under the stars one night with a special girl. Like all good stories, it begins long ago andfar away.
In ancient Greece there lived a vain queen named Cassiopeia,who boasted that she was more beautiful than the daughters of the god of thesea. This angered the god Poseidon. To punish Cassiopeia, he demanded that herdaughter, Andromeda, be chained naked to a rock on the sea coast and sacrificedto a sea monster. But the Fatesintervened. Perseus, the son of Zeus, returningfrom his quest to slay Medusa, the snake-haired maiden who turned all wholooked into her face to stone, sees Andromeda chained to the rock. He falls in love with her at first sight,saying to her: “The only chains thatshould bind you, my lady, are the chains of true love.” Perseus strikes a bargain with Cassiopeia andher husband, King Cepheus, that if he slays the sea monster he will winAndromeda’s hand in marriage. The seamonster rises from the sea. Perseusbattles and slays it, but the vain Cassiopeia reneges on the deal. She, her husband, and their army attackPerseus. His life on the line, Perseuswhips out the head of Medusa he carries in a satchel around his waist, and turnsCassiopeia and Cepheus to stone. Aspunishment, the king and queen are banished to the stars, with Cassiopeiaforced to hang upside down to teach her humility. Perseus and Andromeda ride off into thesunset together and live happily ever after. When their lives are ended, they join Cassiopeia and Cepheus up in thenight sky, their love immortalized forever in the stars.
End of story. Betender and gentle with that girl. Sweetdreams, my son.
Thursday, April 27, 2006 Pangboche/Chulungche (13,266’)
“No one knows who and what God is until he has [done] somereal mountaineering.”
Wake up to another clear, crisp, cloudless morning. There is frost on the tents and the yaks, butthe view is epic. Spindrifts of snow areblowing off the tops of Everest, Nuptse, Lhotse, and Ama Dablam. I’m getting into a morning ritual: wake-up bed tea at 6AM, pop half a Diamox,the antibiotic, and a multi-vitamin pill, wash up outside the tent in the basinof washing water the Sherpas bring me, brush my teeth, back in the tent to packmy duffel and backpack, toss them out so the Sherpa crew can break camp, andemerge to a glorious morning, feeling intensely alive, every nerve endingtingling, ready to take on the day.
This morning I eat my first full breakfast since I can’tremember when. We’re going off theitinerary today, taking it easier so Carolyn, who is really congested andsuffered mightily yesterday, has a day to recover. I like Andrew’s all-for-one, one-for-alldecision.
The trail heads northeast today to the village of Pangboche,the highest year-round permanent settlement in the valley, and there is notmuch elevation gain. The level trailpasses mani walls in a deep rhododendron forest. I watch the leaves, curled up in the cold,uncurl when the morning sun strikes them. Garlands of moss sway sensuously from ancient oaks. I see a musk deer grazing in the fern-coveredforest. He is still in the morning mistwith a kangaroo-face that stares me down for several moments before he loses interestand bounces away with awkward movements.
Up a slight hill to the left of the trail is a nunnery whereI hear the melodic sound of nuns chanting their morning pujaa. As a sign outside explains, the nuns arechanting “prayers for the well-being of all sentient beings.” Several of our group have already been insideand are leaving as I arrive. Removing myboots, I enter the nunnery and am instantly enthralled. Ten women in saffron robes are sitting in twolines facing each other, chanting rhythmically, their heads shaved, their mealof morning soup before them. Many of thewomen have runny noses or worse, but their chanting is hypnotic and I stay,sitting cross-legged, entranced for thirty minutes. Finally snapping out of it, I slowly stand up,not wanting to leave. I bow in reverencewith my palms together at my chest, flash the nuns a smile and get a few backin return. I stuff 200 rupees in thedonation box, and when I emerge from the darkened nunnery into the brightsunlight, Sonchai is waiting patiently for me, with the big, radiant smile thatperpetually graces his face. We’re agood half-hour behind the rest of the team, and I say to Sonchai, “Let’s kickit into high gear and catch up.” Henods, continues to smile, and we haul ass down the trail. In about twenty minutes, we catch up with thegroup.
We continue on to Upper Pangboche. Ama Dablam is right in front of us, and I’mfeeling refreshed and energized and am in front of the group. As usual, chortens mark the arrival into thevillage, in this case two of them.
We take a long lunch break in a small plaza outside arestaurant while Andrew, Pemba, and Mark go off to inject a village woman’s badlyswollen, arthritic knee. The woman isthe mother of a well-known Sherpa who has summited Everest ten times and ismarried to an American woman who works with Mark back in Washington State. Mark’s co-worker, when learning that our trekleader is a doctor, has asked if Andrew can administer the shot to her ailingmother-in-law. Mark goes along to bringthe woman pictures of her grandchildren. It’s a nice gesture. Pemba goesalong to translate and finds out he’s a cousin to the climbing Sherpa and anephew to the woman. Your Bubbie issmiling. There are six degrees ofseparation in this world.
When they return, we’re off to visit the gompa in Pangboche,the oldest in the Khumbu region at over three hundred years old. The gompa once contained relics that weresaid to be the skull and hand of a yeti, but the relics were stolen in 1991- anotherunsolved chapter of the yeti legend.
Beyond Upper Pangboche, we move through coppery splashes ofwaning sunlight as the trail winds downhill, crosses the Dudh Kosi again over aswaying suspension bridge, and then rises steeply to our campsite on a windy,exposed plateau at Chulungche. Again I’mleading the group, taking my energy from the mountains, feeling strong andconfident. But hey, it’s been an easyday.
As always, tea is at 4. The clouds hover above us, low and gray, a thin film of cold mistturning the air pearl. The temperatureis falling fast on the exposed plateau, and I whip out my down jacket andfleece pants for the first time. Thegastro-intestinal thing is behind me, but it’s bled right into a slight cold. At dinner, we huddle for warmth in the diningtent. Night falls all at once, and by8PM we’re all huddled into our sleeping bags.
Friday, April 28, 2006 Ama Dablam Base Camp (15,400’)
“It was an almost perfect cone of snow… so radiant, soserenely poised that he wondered for a moment if it were real at all.” -James Hilton, Lost Horizon
Ama Dablam Base Camp is the objective today, and I’ve beenlooking forward to it. It’s one of themost beautiful, haunting mountains in the world.
It’s another cold, crisp morning and the open sky is asclear as can be. Carolyn stays in campas the rest of us start out with a fierce uphill that climbs from our campsiteon the plateau up to a high ridge. Iquickly shed my fleece top as the sun rises above the ridge. The going is tough- it’s too early foranything this steep- and the uphill takes a lot out of me. I’m thinking the ridgetop will never come,but finally it does, and we level off for a while, heading west throughstunning terrain to the Mingbo Glacier. We hit our first snow around 14,500 feet and push on.
Climbing higher, making our way around several bends, we crunchin snow until the trail opens up to a grassy meadow and a mind-blowing sight. We’re face-to-face with Ama Dablam, and thesight of it will stay with me forever. Twinwhite crystal peaks soaring out of the sunlit meadow and glittering against acobalt sky, not a cloud in that sky, just the sun and the blue, the lightphosphorescent and the peaks pulsing with power. I imprint it all and store it deep so I’ll beable to bring it back again and again.
It’s the peak pre-monsoon climbing season, and there areseveral small expeditions nestled in the sun-filled meadow. We wander around and meet two young,20-something climbers from Colorado and one of their girlfriends who is theirbase camp manager. The two guys arefearless and full of that all attitude, no brains mountaineering bravado you’vegot to love. They remind me of the twoBritish brothers in the movie Vertical Limit who, when asked to join a rescue partyto go after the hero’s sister who is stuck in a crevasse near the top of K2, replywith something like, “You want us to speed summit up there? Don’t even know her exact location? Frostbite our dicks off? Chances of succeeding are zero? We’re in.”
We sit and leisurely eat the lunch we’ve packed in and juststare at the mountain. The SouthwestRidge from Camp Three to the summit is clearly visible from base camp, and myeyes trace the summit route- up that long ridge to the left of a huge hangingice serac, then the final push to the top. The mountain’s name comes from that high-hanging ice serac located justbelow the summit, which resembles the dablam, a jewel box that unmarried Sherpawomen wear around their necks- and Ama Dablam is a jewel of a mountain. Andrew, Steve, and Mark decide to make theirway up a ridge towards Camp One, but I’m content to just sit quietly and starein awe at the mountain. There is no wind,and I drink in the grace and the power and the intoxicating stillness.
We blast our way back down the trail, leaving the shiningmountain behind, downhilling to our camp on the plateau on Chulungche. We’re flying on the steep downhills and makegreat time on the way back. The Sherpasare waiting with hot lemon. A showertent is set up, and I jump in for a quick one. It feels good to shower off the grunge and be clean again. Afterwards Ijust bask in the afternoon sunlight, feeling very alive, until 4PM tea. Jeff and Steve bought playing cards inNamche, and I teach the group Texas Hold ‘Em in the dining tent duringtea. There’s a lot of cutting up, thecompetitive spirits kick in, and everyone gets into it. I remember the cinnamon roll I bought at theNamche bakery and dig it out of my pack. It’s still delicious, especially dipped in the tea, and I share it aroundthe table. We have a good dinner and areearly to bed as the temperature again drops quickly with the sunfall on theexposed plateau. As night settles aroundus, I hunker down into my bag thinking, Whata day! When I’m an old man in thatrocking chair, this epic climb high, sleep low mountain day is one I’ll cherish.
Saturday, April 29, 2006 Bibre (14,500’)
“Ever since a small boy, I have loved just to look at themountains, to see them in different lights and from different angles, to feeltheir rough rock under my fingers and the breath of their winds against myfeet… I am in love with the mountains.”
I wake up still feeling the Ama Dablam high fromyesterday. Today will be an easier day,again giving Carolyn time to heal. It’sjust a four hour hike northeast to our next camp outside the tiny settlement ofBibre. But it’s a great four hours withlots of different terrain and landscapes. Early in the day we hit Dolomite-like terrain, rolling hills of greenmeadow beneath jagged peaks, which has my mind wandering back to thosefairy-tale mountains in Italy, and later on a lot of rock hopping amongexpanses of boulder gardens. We spendsome time bushwhacking through thorny barbary bushes along the banks of a burblingstream, then we ascend a steep ridge and contour along it with the Imja Kholarunning fast and clear below us. We descendto its banks, cross it just below a pretty waterfall, and make our way up toour campsite in a stone-walled yak corral alongside the trail between Dingbocheand Bibre.
Because of the short hike, we’ve beaten our porters and yaksto camp today. I unshoulder my pack,rest it against a stone wall, and just lean back on it looking up at the cloudsand the mountains above us. We’vecrossed to the other side of Ama Dablam now. Its north face, Island Peak, and Tawoche all tower above us. As I lay there, I can’t remember the lasttime I just stared up at the clouds and watched them morph from one shape intoanother. The porters and yaks are notfar behind. I watch them unload, justshaking my head at the immense loads that the porters carry. Feeling guilty just sitting there, I help theSherpa crew set up our tents.
Lunch is served on an open tarp, and afterwards Andrew asksfor a volunteer to demonstrate the gamow bag (pronounced GAM-off) used fortreating AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness). No one is stepping forward, so I do. I crawl into the airtight bag with Steve foot-pumping me oxygen. Everyone is gathered around watching as Ihold Andrew’s altimeter up to the plastic window in the bag as it drops me from14,500 feet back down to 8,800 feet. Iuse the scuba equalizing technique of pinching my nose and forcing a sneeze asthe pressure inside the bag gets to me. AsI get out of the bag, Pemba jokes that I just went back down to Tok Tok. I feel like I’ve just been diving.
I spend the rest of the afternoon reading and catching up onmy journal. We play a long game ofhearts at tea. It’s a variation of thegame we play with the Jack of diamonds taking you down ten points. The group is mostly novice players, passingall their high cards, so I keep trying to shoot the moon. I do twice in a row at the end of the game towin it. They all think I’m a card shark. Pemba Tzering serves us a good stir-frydinner, and as always, as twilight deepens, we’re in our tents early around8. My cold has morphed into a dry,persistent cough that Andrew calls a “Khumbu cough”. It stays with me for the rest of the trek andfor weeks after I get home.
Sunday, April 30, 2006 Chukhung (15,584’)
“I will lift mine eyes unto the hills,
from whence cometh my help.” -Psalm 121, a song of ascents
We’re staying in our camp outside Bibre another night, andtoday is a welcome exploration day. Weall need a rest day to shake our various ailments. I’ve got the kind of cough that can crackribs, and my nose is running like a faucet. I’m popping cough drops and going through tissues like there’s notomorrow.
We sleep in an extra hour, eat a leisurely breakfast, andstart off, eastward into the morning sun, on the classic Khumbu day hike to thesmall summer settlement of Chukhung. When we left Pangboche a couple of days ago, we left the last permanentvillage. We’ve been in true wildernesssince. These little settlements arenothing more than one or two trekker lodges. Blue sky reigns and it’s a beautiful hike with a thousand feet ofgradual elevation gain through moraine fields surrounded by massiveglaciers. We pass through the tinysettlement of Bibre and about two hours later, after passing some yak trainsand crossing several streams, we cruise into Chukhung.
Three of the guys decide to continue onto Chukhung Ri, asteep ascent of over 2,000 feet to a rock outcrop with a view of Makalu, AmaDablam, and Baruntse. But the view fromthe outdoor café where we’ve stopped in Chukhung is so stunning- the morainefields of Island Peak, the great south face of Lhotse, the picturesque easternface of Ama Dablam,
and straight ahead the immense fluted ice walls of AmphuLapcha, an 18,785 foot mountain pass- that I’m content to just sit back in thewarm sun and take it all in. I order adelicious piece of apple pie (spelled pai on the menu), a cup of hot chocolate,and three packs of tissues. It’s notlike me to pass on climbing a peak, but the day is meant for relaxing, my ribshurt from coughing, and all the hard stuff- Kala Patar, the Cho La, and GokyoRi- is still in front of us.
We re-trace our steps back to camp with the views evenprettier heading west. A shower tent isset up again after lunch for the rest of the group that didn’t catch one atChulungche. Andrew is lounging aroundcamp in shorts after his shower, and the cook boys spot a huge tick on his leg,probably from the bushwhacking we did yesterday. They spend about fifteen minutes diligentlyrubbing it out with a home-made solution that removes it intact.
We play another spirited game of hearts but I’m not into it,too distracted by the sun sinking on the horizon. It touches the serrated edge of one of thehigher peaks, breaks like yolk, andstreaks the sky blood orange. We take in a fantastic pizza dinner and the lastlight. Maybe I’ll open a chain ofPemba’s Nepalese Pizza Parlors when I get back. The pizza is that good. I spend arestless night tossing in our tent, my sleep wracked with bizarre altitudedreams, the cold and cough working on me.
Monday, May 1, 2006 Duglha (15,100’)
“I want a kiss from your lips,
I want an eye for aneye,
I woke up thismorning
To an empty sky”
- Bruce Springsteen,“Empty Sky”, a song of 9/11
We’ve been looking down into Dingboche and up at the dauntinghill leading from it for the last two days. This morning we head there. It’sa gorgeous morning, and it’s a beautiful trek down into Dingboche, a prettyvillage with some wake-up Vivaldi playing from one of its lodges. I’m feeling strong, and the hill leading outof Dingboche that looked so intimidating turns out to be pretty easy once we’reon it. A picturesque chorten and prayerflags greet us at the top, and I stand on a small dirt pad where I saw ahelicopter land earlier in the morning and take in a fantastic view. Island Peak is aptly named, and in thedistance to its right, over a pass, is the greenish-gray peak of Makalu. The Imja valley is below us, and before uslies a long, wide open plain of high yak pastures surrounded by silvermountains with icefalls at their bases. As we cross the plain, my body goes into auto-pilot, and my mind driftsaway into a dreamy, meditative state where I lose all track of time. I snap backto attention when the trail climbs onto the terminal moraine of the KhumbuGlacier, starts crossing small streams on boulders, and we enter what ispurported to be snow leopard and yeti country with Tawoche and Cholatse hulkingoverhead.
We contour down to a stream, cross it on a bridge with awaterfall above us, then head up to the Pumori Lodge in Duglha where we’recamping for the night. Lammergeierscircle in the updrafts above us as we eat lunch on the outdoor patio of thelodge, and I think I catch a glimpse of an eagle soaring on a wind current. There’s a ridge above our campsite withsuperb views of Cholatse, Tawoche, and Lobuche Peak.
Snow starts falling lightly in the afternoon. We go into the lodge for tea, play a longgame of hearts, and stay through dinner while the snow continues to fall. The lodge is packed with trekkers fromBelgium, France, Italy, and New Zealand, and the conversations flow around theiron stove, warming the gloom of the lodge. English is the universal language here, and it’s cool to hear it spokenin all the different accents. We hearthat six Sherpas have been killed on Everest this week and that snowfall has detouredsome trekkers’ plans. One of the posterstacked to a wall of the lodge is of the skyline of Manhattan, pre-9/11, before theempty sky, the twin towers of the World Trade Center still standing tall. It casts a haunting quality to the alreadyeerie scene. Snow is still falling whenour headlamps guide us to our frosted tents for the night.
Tuesday, May 2, 2006 Lobuche (16,200’)
“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshineflows into trees. The winds will blowtheir own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares willdrop off like autumn leaves.” -JohnMuir
I’m out of the tent at a pre-dawn 5:15AM to catch thesunrise. The snow has stopped and thesky has cleared. It’s another cold,crisp morning, a few stars still hanging onto the sky. In my down jacket and fleece pants, I climbto the top of the ridge behind the lodge and watch the dawn light up themountains one by one. Andrew is alreadythere with his camera and tripod. Carolynis feeling better and is on the edge of the ridge doing yoga sun salutationswhile Andrew snaps away. The mountainsare aglow in the soft palette of morning light.
I go into the lodge and hang with a bunch of Sherpas,warming up and drinking tea around the iron stove, then eat a pancake and honeybreakfast.
The trail from Duglha starts with a steep one hour ascent upthe lower end of the Khumbu Glacier to the top of a ridge, under prayer flags,and into a large field of lateral moraine known as Chukpilhara. Stone monuments stand along the crest of theglacial moraine overlooking a mist-filled valley, memorials to climbers, manyof them Sherpa, killed in the area, most of them on Everest. Two large chortens memorialize Scott Fischer,one of the nine climbers killed on Everest in the disastrous 1996 Into Thin Airclimbing season, and Jangbu Sherpa who was killed one year later. I stand before another monument with
a Star of David and Hebrew writing on it, dedicated toTerence Stokol, a Jewish climber who also lost his life in the Khumbu. An eerie stillness rests over the area. At its far end, I climb a small, snow-coveredoverlook and watch the team wander among the stone monuments. No one is bulletproof here.
The trail drops a little and enters a long, easy, flatmoraine that continues all the way to the yak grazing pastures of Lobuche. We’re on a broad valley floor, hugging thewestern side of the canyon wall. To theeast is the glacial moraine, a twelve mile tongue of ice that flows down fromthe south face of Everest, and flanking the moraine in the distance is anothercanyon wall of mountains. At 16,000 feetwe’ve left behind the last vestiges of green. We’re in Everest country now, and although the mountain is not visible,I can feel its presence. I intentionallydrop behind the group, lost in my thoughts and the serenity of the valley. Pemba is the sweeper today. I ask him the name of the lodge we’re stayingat in Lobuche and tell him to go ahead of me. “No problem”, I say. “I’ll followthe yak dung all the way to Lobuche.” Pemba nods his assent and leaves me alone on the trail. I soak in the stillness and the solitude ofthe canyon and fall into another trance that I don’t snap out of until I hitthe outskirts of Lobuche.
Andrew had described Lobuche as “a good place to get sick”,and Jon Krakauer’s description of it as a “spectacularly filthy” cesspool withhuman waste running down its dirt streets is still memorable, but fortunatelywe’ve hit the settlement at a quiet time, and our lodge, the Eco Lodge, isrelatively new and clean. I arrive therestill feeling the high of the meditative trance and join the rest of the teamfor some hot lemon on the porch. Afterlunch, I catch a long hot shower. I do adouble-take at my suntanned, newly-bearded face in the mirror, do some repairwork on that all-too-gray growth, change into my last clean clothes, and settlein with my book and journal on a comfortable bench in the glass-enclosed diningroom of the lodge. I shake my head as twoIsraelis enter the lodge, argue with the Sherpa owner about the rate ($18 anight), and storm out in protest when he won’t come down.
We play some hearts, and just before sunset when the skystarts thundering and lightning, I grab my headlamp and down jacket and headoutside into the bracing air. The lightshow over Lobuche raises goosebumps. Mythoughts are all of tomorrow when we go for the summit of Kala Patar, at 18,400feet, the highest point we will reach and the place I intend to bury the LanceArmstrong wristband for Jon. I know I’llbe thinking of Jon all the way to the top. I’m riveted as the lightning flashes around Nuptse, leaving a silverfrieze around its summit, and I figure at a time like this, a prayer to themountains gods can’t hurt. In the fadinglight of the cold dusk, as snow pellets bounce off my parka, I pray for clearskies in the morning and for the strength and the will to get Jon and me to thetop. I get back to the lodge and dry offfor dinner in front of the iron stove. Later, even though I’m in my first bedafter six straight nights of camping, I’m filled with the nervous anticipationand sense of dread I always feel before a summit, that shiver of fear in theface of overpowering nature, and I know I won’t get much sleep.
Wednesday, May 3, 2006 Kala Patar (18,400’)
“I believe that no man can be completely able to summon allhis strength, all his will, all his energy, for the last desperate move, til heis convinced… that there is nowhere to go but on.” -Heinrich Harrer
Game time. I wolfdown some oatmeal and a cup of joe, and we hit the trail at 6:30AM headingnortheast into the morning sun. Firstprayer answered, it’s a crystal clear morning. The day radiates excitement. Wefollow Lakpah up the western side of the broad Khumbu valley and ascend gentlythrough meadows alongside the glacial moraine. The ascent becomes steeper and rougher as we cross the rubble of theChangri Glacier, still active under the moraine. After two hours, we round a bend, and in thedistance we can make out the Lho La, the mountain pass in Tibet where GeorgeLeigh Mallory looked into Nepal in 1921. He named it the Western Cwm. To the west of the Lho La stands theconical peak of Pumori. On its lowerslopes, a ridge extends to the south and terminates in a small peak. This is Kala Patar, Hindi for “black rock”, butfrom this vantage point it appears more brown than black and deceptively easy. From here we descend down into Gorak Shep, asandy, flat dry lake landscape straight out of a Mad Max movie. Gorak Shep was the base camp for theunsuccessful Swiss Everest expedition of 1952. The successful British expedition of 1953 called it “lake camp”. We stop outside of the lodge in Gorak Shepwhere we’ll be camping after going for the summit of Kala Patar. The sun is strong overhead. I peel down to my lucky Mountain Hardwarezip-T and put on suntan lotion and lip balm. If I had face paint, I’d put it on, too. I take several long hits of water, pop a cough drop, refill my waterbottles, and lighten my pack as much as I can. Locked and loaded, it’s time to go for thetop.
We head north, crossing the sandy floor of the drylake. On its far side are two trailsigns, one pointing west towards Kala Patar, the other east towards EverestBase Camp. We follow the western trail,heading up the grassy slopes at the base of the peak, and start for the summit. The trail is steep, “a good grunt” as Andrewcalls it. The verticality soon separatesour conga line, leaving each of us alone with our thoughts. I’m breathing evenly, in time with a mantraand my locksteps. Pemba, Andrew,Sonchai, Jeff, and Steve are ahead of me. The others are behind. After anhour of straight up climb under a blazing sun, my walk has lost its bounce. Come on,I tell myself, Kili’s summit was an eighteen hour ultramarathon, a lotharder than this. The little voiceinside my head answers, Yeah, but youwere eight years younger and stronger.
An hour later, the grassy slopes are gone. It’s just rock now, and the strength of mychant gives out. It’s replaced with anew mantra: Stick it out. Stick, as inhang, as in no retreat, no surrender. I’m wasted. It feels like everyounce of energy has been sucked from my muscles. Up ahead of me, incredulously, is a woman ona horse in front of a large group of Indonesians. The horse cannot handle the steep trail. It keeps stopping and starting, and the grouphas the narrow trail totally jammed. Idetour off it to pass them, and whatever I have left is gone. I’m drained and running on nothing but sheerwill power now. That little voice insideis imploring me to dig deeper and pull this one out for Jon. Onegoal at a time. Just make it to the nextswitchback, the cairn up ahead, the pinnacle in the distance. Onelock-step at a time, one foot in front of the other. Fightthrough the fatigue. Never, never, neverquit. It’s beyond the physical now;it’s become a mental game, an ultimate character test, the mountain and me, assimple as that. No way I’m giving in. I have not come all this way to bail now, andJon won’t let me.
Mercifully I see a snow-covered shelf ahead strung withprayer flags, and my heart soars. Butwhen I make it there, the flags are just a tease. It’s a false summit, but the shelf is level,and I thank the mountains gods for that. For a moment, I’m not sure which way to go. I’ve lost sight of the team ahead of me, andwhen I look back, the rest of the team is far behind. Then I see Sonchai appear in the distance tomy right. He’s waving at me, and evenfrom this distance, I can see his ever-present smile. Goodold Sonchai, I smile back. What would I do without you?
I crunch in the snow along the ridge to where he’s waitingfor me, and we round a cornice together, and there, above us, is the finalpitch to the summit. It’s a steep,snow-covered, rocky outcrop, and Sonchai wants to lead me up it. I wave him off, telling him I can handleit. The temperature has fallendramatically, and I pull a pair of thin climbing gloves from my pocket, putthem on, and start the scramble to the top. Sonchai is following. There’s exposurehere on the open rock face, and I start to get that queasy feeling in the pitof my stomach. Don’t get gripped, I tell myself. To avoid it, I do what I always do. I block out everything except solid handholds and footholds, and go upas fast as I can. I’m on pure adrenalinnow and before I know it, I’m on top, where Andrew, Pemba, Jeff, and Steve arehuddled together on a windy ledge with prayer flags flying around them. We madeit, Jon.
“How long have youguys been here?” I ask.
“Only five minutes,”Andrew answers. “You were very fast onthat last pitch, mate.”
“That was pure fear,” I say with a smile, still sucking air.
Sonchai pops up on the ledge fifteen seconds behind me, asbreathless as I am. We high-five eachother, and he motions to the true summit, about thirty feet up a stiletto ridgeabove. I stare at the summit and swallowhard, but we both go for it immediately. Pemba yells out a “Be careful.” Thepucker factor is high with the exposure here. We should be roped up for this, not free-climbing it, and it’s anall-fours scramble to the summit. Sonchai is soon jumping up and down on the narrow point at the very topwith his 23-year-old exuberance. I lookdown and see Andrew and Pemba shaking their heads. I reach up a hand to steady Sonchai. He misunderstands and starts pulling me tothe top where he’s standing. There’s noroom for two of us. “No, Sonchai”, Iyell into the wind. “Let’s live to climbanother day.” I point downwards. He sees the menacing stare he’s getting fromPemba, and we scramble back down. “Allright, we won’t be doing that again”, I say. Pemba and Andrew just continue shaking their heads.
Sonchai hands me a cup of hot lemon from a thermos hebrought for us to the summit, and as I bring my pulse and breathing back undercontrol, I realize for the first time how cold I am. I pull on a fleece jacket, trade my baseballcap for a fleece hat I pull down over my ears, and take in the view while Iwait for the others to make it to the top. They do, about ten minutes later, each with a Sherpa in front extendingtheir hand every step of the way. There arehigh-fives all around and a rush of emotions- some tears, some hugs, somelaughs. Then, after gathering for the obligatorygroup summit shot, I know it’s time. Asthe others watch, I walk off alone across the ledge to a rocky outcrop, kneelon
its edge, and pull off the Lance Armstrong wristband. I bury it beneath a pile of rocks and build acairn for Jon. I’ll remember you, Jon. I willremember.
There are tears in my eyes as I look out at the vista. It is an unreal vista. The peak of Pumori, the Lho La Pass leadinginto Tibet, the enormous faces of Lhotse and Nuptse, and behind them a swirlingcauldron of clouds, and above them, towering over all, the South Face and WestRidge of Everest, Chomolungma, the Mother Goddess in full glory, her summitpyramid an ink-black shark fin soaring into the sky, a glowing crown of icecrystals streaming from her top like a scarf of frozen smoke.
There it is- the summit of Everest, the site of so muchstriving and tragedy, that’s haunted my dreams since I was a kid. From the top of Kala Patar, the summit isstill more than two mind-bending vertical miles above us, and India is stillpushing under Asia moving it up a quarter-inch a year. Reluctantly, we leave the vista and start thelong downhill back to Gorak Shep. Ismile watching Sonchai take off, running at breakneck speed, his arms spread,flying fearlessly like an eagle down the steep slope. I’m brought back to rapt attention when Mark,who is directly in front of me, snaps one of his trekking poles, starts aslow-motion pirouette that takes him off the trail to the edge of the cliff, andjust catches himself before taking a bad spill. “Hey, no off-roading”, I kid Mark. “Stick to the trail.” Mark is OKbut badly shaken. He’s over-cautious theentire rest of the trek.
For me it’s a sweet downhill after the torture of theascent, the pain forgotten, feeling a strange mixture of summit exhilarationand a melancholy for Jon. I’m pretty wipedwhen I get to the Mad Max landscape at the bottom of the peak, cross it slowly,and head up to the lodge where we’re camped. The Sherpas greet me with a basin of washing water. I pour it over my head, go into the lodge,and drink a liter of water while waiting for the team to make its way back forlunch. My adrenaline gone, our tent iscalling out to me, and I crash there after lunch, hammered after a sleeplessnight and seven tough hours on the trail.
We continue the hearts tradition at tea (we’re all dialedinto a rhythm to our days that no one wants to break) and hang in the lodgeuntil dinner. The night is cold. Good and cold. The water freezes in our Nalgenebottles. When I get out of the tent inthe middle of the night, the mountains are shrouded in the clouds, lying inwait for the morning. After a day liketoday, so am I.
Thursday, May 4, 2006 Everest Base Camp (17,600’)
“The highest mountain in the world, the ultimatemountaineering trophy, has become accessible to sort of ordinary Walter Mittytypes with a spare 65,000 bucks.”
We’re off to a 7:15AM start, re-tracing our steps fromyesterday to the trailheads across the dry lake bed of Gorak Shep. This time we follow the trail sign easttowards Everest Base Camp. It’s about asix-hour round trip from our camp. Earlyon, at the crest of a ridge, we come upon stone monuments remembering the climberskilled in the 1996 climbing season and signaling a grim warning of what can lieahead. I spend some time before RobHall’s memorial. He led the ill-fated’96 team and died at the top of Everest, no strength left after getting caughtin a storm and riding out a sub-zero night. The satellite phone call he makes to his wife, who is seven monthspregnant with their first child, is incredibly moving. They choose a name for their child before hedies. It’s the ten year anniversary of the tragedythis week. I’ve got to re-read JonKrakauer’s Into Thin Air when I get back.
The mountain is not visible from base camp. The camp is in an eastern valley far below,and the mountain is lost from view, but just to walk in the footsteps ofHillary, Mallory, and Irvine is reward enough. There’s not a lot of altitude gain on the trail but it’s tough goingalong the rubble-encrusted Khumbu Glacier. The glacier is active underfoot so the trail is ever-changing. Lakpah uses my hiking stick several times todraw arrows in the dirt to help the stragglers in our group find their way. It’s a barren, monochromatic moonscape ofrock and wind-blown ice, the vista still, vast, apocalyptic. The walk seems endless. It rolls along, sometimes on the moraine,sometimes on the glacier itself. Ahelicopter thunders overhead for what we later learn is an evacuation of anItalian climber either injured or sick from his summit attempt. A new trail veers above and to the left ofthe old one where the famous 40-foot-high ice seracs stand guard over theglacial valley. As we enter base camp,there’s an off-kilter helicopter greeting us, downed in a crash last year, anotherstark reminder of the dangers ahead. Uphere the air is so thin the blades sometimes have nothing to bite into. Miraculously no one was hurt in the crash.
Base Camp is a domed city, a sea of brightly-colored tentsand prayer flags. Training ladders aremounted above imitation crevasses to allow climbers to practice walking acrossthem in crampons. Snow crystals swirland sparkle in the wind. Several times aday the roar of an avalanche is heard overhead.
There are thirty-five expedition teams in camp. We wander in and talk to several of them. Everest Base Camp hospitality is legendary,and the teams we talk to don’t disappoint. We’re invited into the tent of TeamNo Limits from Colorado. The Everest community is a small world. When I was standing in front of the mirrortwo days ago in the lodge at Lobuche, trimming my beard, I was talking to adoctor from Tennesee named Larry Rigsby who was on that team. He had come down with HAPE (high altitudepulmonary edema), had hung up his climb, and was making his way back to Lukla. Roger Coffey, the team’s cowboy-hatted basecamp leader, is lamenting how tough that was for Larry since the summit meanteverything to him. Andrew rails at theCEO climbers who just view Everest as another trophy, and later comments to methat if you want the summit badly enough, you don’t hang it up thateasily. You go down, recover, and thentry again.
The commercialization of Everest, as Krakauer hammers home,has changed the mountain forever. Thereal adventure is gone. Before everyseason, teams of Sherpas run ladders and ropes to ease the climbers over thetough parts, and any CEO in good shape with $65,000 to burn has a reasonableshot at summiting if the mountain gods deliver good weather. As I’m writing this journal, the Everestcontroversy continues. Reports aretrickling out that days after my return, forty climbers walked right past DavidSharp, a British climber collapsed on the trail and desperate for oxygen, andlet him die, unwilling to risk their own summit attempts. Hillary called it “horrifying”. Faced with attempting to save a life orattempting to bag a trophy, there is no choice. Yet forty climbers didn’t see it that way. So much for the morality, ethics, and stylethat mountaineering has long championed. So much for compassion and altruism. The new breed of trophy-bagging climbers, the outfitters who need highsuccess rates to warrant their high fees, and “real” mountaineers who have tosummit to retain their sponsors have all combined to create a perfect stormthat has all but devastated real mountaineering on Everest. The past is gone.
Still, as we’re leaving base camp, I look longingly up atthe Khumbu Icefall, the frozen river that flanks the camp and starts the climbup Everest, and as we’re trudging back to the lodge at Gorak Shep, I stealseveral longing glances backward.
Lunch is waiting at Gorak Shep. So is Mark. He makes me laugh with his story. Early on the way to base camp, Mark just doesn’t feel up for it andreturns to our camp with Sonchai. Asthey’re walking back, Sonchai asks him, “How old are you, Mark?” “Fifty-three,” Mark replies. Sonchai nods knowingly and says “No wonder.”
Everest Base Camp was our northernmost point, and we’restarting our way back home. Snow pelletsstart falling from the slate sky, and I haul ass back to the Eco Lodge inLobuche where we’re spending the night again, cutting a two hour walk to ninetyminutes. Later in the lodge that night,I leave Mark alone in our room to recover from an altitude headache and joinAndrew and Pemba in the dining room around the iron stove. In the still and quiet of the night, Andrewfights back tears and unloads the story of the death of his friend and climbingpartner on Makalu two years earlier. Theanchored bolt that holds for Andrew moments before pulls out of the wall when hisfriend attempts the same move, and William falls two thousand feet to his deathon a ledge below. The relived agony ofclimbing down to the shattered body and meeting with William’s family to tellthem of the death is too much for Andrew. As shadows leap on the wall of the lodge behind him, Andrew finally losesit. Tears spill down his face. I watch them sparkle in the dim light andlisten to Pemba’s chant which starts as a hum, becomes a hymn, and ends as adirge.
Friday, May 5, 2006 Dzonglha (15,900’)
“It’s a round trip. Getting to the summit is optional, getting down is mandatory.”
A dense morning fog envelopes Lobuche. We wait an hour in the lodge for it to lift,hitting the trail at 8:30AM. A silverymist still hangs in the air as we descend south along the lateral moraine ofthe Khumbu Glacier with Zomba leading the way. Veering right off the main trail, we leave the glacier and traversealong the side wall of the canyon. We hita couple of short, fierce uphills that bother me but take us above themist. Mostly we’re ridge running withthe Imja Khola river valley below us and stunning pastoral views all around. Turning a corner onto a small plateau, wecome face-to-face with Cholatse and Tawoche, an awesome panorama with AmaDablam further off on the eastern horizon. We take a rest stop and soak in the view before continuing our ridge runon the muddy trail.
We’re getting into wild country and soon the Cho La becomesvisible through a notch in the distance. The Cho La is an imposing mountain pass covered in permanent snowfield. It can be dicey, and it’s the part of ourtrek that has concerned Andrew the most. From the eastern side which we’ll be ascending, there’s a glaciercrossing that, in bad weather conditions, requires an ice axe, crampons, and roping up to get over the icefall atthe foot of the glacier. If that’s thecase, our team won’t be attempting it. But in ideal weather conditions, there are no technical problems andthere is a trail of sorts in the rocks beside the icefall. The pass is too steep for our yaks to cross,and we’ve sent them on a longer, lower altitude trail via Pangboche and Phortseto Dragnak where we’ll meet them tomorrow afternoon on the other side of thepass. We’ve also pared our gear down toone duffel for two people so our porters can handle the load over the high passcrossing.
We hit one last uphill that takes us to Dzonglha, a flatshelf of land near a yersa, a summer yak herders’ settlement, beneath the northwall of Cholatse. We stop there for along lunch with impressive views of Ama Dablam to the east and the majesticBaruntse up the Imja Khola valley. Thenwe wrap the day with an hour trek to our camp which lies beneath the notchleading up to the Cho La. In typicalfashion, the sky clouds up in the late afternoon, and we wait out a hardrainfall in our tents, resting up for the Cho La tomorrow and hoping for clearskies in the morning.
Saturday, May 6, 2006 Cho La (17,783’)/Dragnak (15,500’)
“When I’m finally there, up high, breathing in the sky…exhausted and scared and hopeful and pushing upward with an electric joycoursing through me, it is as if the mountains and I were made for each other.”
The mountain gods must know it’s Rachel’s birthday. They’re with us again. We wake to a bluebird day. It’s a sparkling clear, warm morning, a nakedsun in a cloudless sky. We couldn’t haveordered more perfect weather for the Cho La. I eat light. Adrenaline is thebreakfast of champions today, and mine is off the charts. At 7:45 we’re crossing the flat shelf of landthat leads to the notch up to the pass. A tremor of excitement rolls through me.
The notch is steep, it’s slow going, and when I take myfirst water break, I look back to see our campsite far below in the distance. We’ve gained a lot of altitude quickly, and theverticality has again separated our team. More heads-down, just go for it uphillbefore I’m emerging out of the rocky notch onto the permanent snowfield. My breath is taken away in every sense of theword. The pass is wide open andbeautiful, a vast field of snow rimmed with glaciers and snow-capped mountains,glittering in the sunlight like uncut diamonds. It feels like real mountaineering as I ascend the snowfield. This is thrilling country. Off the trail, there are crevasses allaround. When we were kids, we would saythat if you fell into one, you’d fall all the way to China. The Sherpas say that if you fall into acrevasse, you’ll fall all the way to America.
The sun glares strongly overhead in a China blue sky and itreflects also off the snow underfoot, and soon, despite the high altitude, myfirst layer is an even sweat. I get in azone as I crunch my way up the pass, losing myself in the stillness and thebeauty.
Amped up, a rock star today, I’m the first of our team to getto the base of the glacier. Sonchai isthere waiting for me, ice axe in hand. This is the glacier crossing that can get hairy in tougher conditions. Sonchai leads the way up the icefall,chiseling steps out for us with his ice axe. He reaches his hand back for me several times, but when he sees that I won’ttake it, we just scramble up the vertical pitch together. It’s the real deal up the long, steep pitchand we’re both breathing hard when we get to the top. We haven’t topped the pass yet, just theglacier. As we wait there for the restof the team to catch up, we watch three climbers slowly making their way up tothe summit of nearby Lobuche Peak, silhouetted against the azure sky. When we’re all together at the top of theglacier, we forge on. The snowfieldlevels off for a while and then ascends a final time to the top of theprayer-flag strung Cho La pass. It’sspectacular at the top with cascading icefalls around us and a new westernvista into China with the peak of Cho Oyu and the Ngozumpa Glacier unveiled. There is no wind, it’s warm, and we lingerover Snickers bars and photo shoots, basking in the satisfaction of knowingwe’ve just knocked off the hardest part of our trek.
The Cho La is a saddle between the Khumbu and Gokyovalleys. The descent down the other sideof the pass into the Gokyo valley is steep and treacherous. The snow is slick now in the late morningsun. I’m right behind Sonchai who is leadingus down and futilely trying to chip out steps with his ice axe. I angle my way slowly down the slipperyslope, almost ass-planting once, and finally the snow changes to loose screeand the going is a little easier as we reach the bottom of the high passcrossing.
We’ve descended into a Garden of Eden. The valley floor is lush from the snowrun-off of the pass, and we’re boulder hopping through a primal lost worldlandscape. The boulder hopping catchesup to Billie Jean, who goes down behind me, badly turning an ankle. Pemba is with her, and she limps her way toour lunch stop. We wait there a whilefor the porters to catch up with our supplies. They’re only about fifteen minutes behind us. I marvel at the half-men, half-mountain goatswho negotiated the Cho La Pass with those enormous loads on their backs. Our team gives them a standing ovation and,for once, we serve them some hot lemon.
After lunch, we ascend up to a steep ridge with a hugeboulder at the top, and then it’s a beautiful downhill coast, following theriver to our camp outside the Cholaview Lodge in Dragnak. A large mountain goat, a tahr, standsmotionless on a ledge above, like the mystical White Buffalo in the Rin Tin Tinepisode of my childhood, staring down at us as we set up camp. Beyond the Ngozumpa Glacier, Machhermo Peakand Gokyo Ri fill the western sky. Asthat sky turns steel gray, we go into the small lodge with a blanket for a doorfor afternoon tea and later huddle around the stove for a well-earned dinner.
I read in our unzipped tent until the gray dusk melts intopurple night and the land blends with the sky. Rach, I hope you celebrated your 31st birthday in style. I sure did.
Sunday, May 7, 2006 Gokyo (15,600’) / Gokyo Ri (17,600’)
“Whenever life presents you with two paths, choose theharder one.”
-From the movieHimalaya
It’s a two hour trek crossing to the western side of themassive Ngozumpa Glacier, the largest glacier in the Khumbu, which sweeps downfrom Cho Oyu and leads to Gokyo. Thetrail first rolls along a dry lake bed, sandy and white in the sun, then leadsinto a stunning glacial wilderness that is dotted with glacial lakes, somefrozen, others calling out for rocks to ripple their surface. I answer the call.
On the other side of the glacier, we enter the Gokyo region,a quiet, pastoral valley with five turquoise glacial lakes. It’s an easy, level walk as we follow thevalley past the second lake known as Taoche Tso, and then a boulder-strewn pathup to Gokyo, a serene little settlement, almost like a summer resort, withstone houses and walled pastures along the shores of the third, large lakeknown as Dudh Pokhari. This is a holylake to the Sherpas and no one is allowed in it. We make camp outside of a lodge above itsshores. Cho Oyu towers to the north andthe peak of Gokyo Ri is directly above us.
We’ve got a choice to make. The easier option is to continue along the trail to the fifth lake,Ngozumpa, with its ridge view of Everest, called the “scoundrel’s view” becauseit involves no hard work. The harder optionis the two hour straight up climb to the summit of Gokyo Ri. The view from the top is said to be one ofthe most incredible mountain panoramas in the world. Andrew, Jeff, Steve, and I cross the valleyfloor just to the north of the lake and head for the summit. It’s a tough climb as we switchback our wayup the barren trail. About halfway up,I’m moving in slow motion and lagging behind. Even worse, I can see thick, dark thunderheads starting to roll in fromthe north and I can feel the air turning juicy. No choice, I tell myself. Kick it into high gear or get soaked and shut out. Like a jockey spurring on his horse, I whackmy hiking stick against my thigh and will myself to give it everything I’ve got. Racing the clouds now, I leave it all on themountain. My lungs are on fire when I jointhe rest of the team on the snowless summit under the prayer flags flying atthe top at 17,600, but all is right with the universe.
Ducking between the criss-crossed strings of prayer flags, Iclimb atop a boulder and overlook the world. The Ngozumpa Glacier spills down a broad valley like a frozenriver. The sapphire waters of the DudhPokhari glitter below. And four of thesix highest peaks on the planet sweep across the sky. The dome of Cho Oyu crowns a long whitewall. Makalu knifes skyward. Lhotse rears but is dwarfed beside the hugeblack rock pyramid of Everest. It’s an other-worldlymoment, but it doesn’t last long. Thewind roars off the ridge, the clouds roll in, and it starts grappling- Andrew’sAussie word for the snow, ice, and rain combination that’s pelting us. We all get our rain gear on and scramble downthe mountain as fast as we can. I’mstrong on the downhill, and Andrew and I get to the lodge ahead of the others,peel off our rain gear, and dive into the waiting lunch.
I spend the rest of the afternoon recovering in the lodgedining room, looking out at the sacred lake and up the trail to the peak of GokyoRi, now lost in storm clouds. I listento the quiet, peaceful sound of the rain on the lake and the low din of thedining room full of trekkers from Europe, Canada, and New Zealand as I finishreading A Soldier of the Great War and work on my journal. Our two yak herders, both very pretty Sherpanis,come in out of the rain and stand by the warm stove. They are too reticent to take chairs, so Ibring them both one. They give me shysmiles in return.
Brent, as usual, is talking to everyone in the lodge. Andrew waits his turn to take on a Slovenianwoman in chess and wins the match to the amazement of her companions. Pemba sits next to me and sees the frayedbookmark with your picture on it that you made me for Father’s Day long ago. Proud fathers that we both are, we talk aboutour kids. He’s got three daughters in aprivate boarding school in Kathmandu who he dearly misses, and a young son,still at home in his village in Phortse, where we’re headed tomorrow. Then, still sitting next to me, he startschanting under his breath while rolling prayer beads in his hands, and fallsinto a trance.
Later outside our tent in full night, I’m spellbound, too. The moon lays down a wide silver path acrossthe sacred lake, and high above, the clouds speed