Sam: This is it.
Frodo: This is what?
Sam: If take one more step, it'll be the farthest away from home I've ever been.
Frodo: Come on Sam. Remember what Bilbo used to say, "It's a dangerous business Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to."

Monday, April 28, 2014

Day 16 the most dangerous airport in the world (but not for the reason you think)

Day 16: Lukla to Kathmandu

The Lukla airport has the reputation for being "the most dangerous airport in the world" because of its short runway ending on one side in a cliff and the other the mountain.  It is probably "the least on-time airport in the world" and traveled should be much more worried about delays to their travel plans than the technical ability of the pilots or the length of the runway.  I think people should be much more concerned with the scheduling of flights delaying their trek plans. This causes trekkers to shorten acclimatization days in order to finish the trek in time for their return flight. Acclimatization days are what make or break your experience. 

Since it was the second time we waited nervously for our flight out of Lukla and having our own experience of leaving six hours late and hearing so many more horror stories along the trail, trekmate and I had planned to sit in the waiting area anxiously the whole day. I brought extra snacks. But this time, we were airborne an astonishing 30 minutes after our scheduled departure time! 

I'm almost certain that the Sunny Garden lodge where we stayed at in Lukla had a hand in our miraculously timely departure. First, when we arrived in Lukla the first time our porter-guide ordered us to give our flight e-ticket  print out to the proprietor of Sunny Garden. He said the owner would help us if we needed to reschedule our flight for any unforseen reason, confirm the flight the day before, and generally be helpful. I would have felt very uncomfortable parting with my ticket except for the fact that I had an extra copy. Second, trekmate had read on a blog vaguely about Sunny Garden having "pull" with flights. 

When we got to Lukla the day before, we went in person to the Tara Airlines office to confirm the flight again ourselves. The agents at the office spoken Nepali among themselves as trekmate and I waited on the other side of the counter. Weirdly we heard them say "sunny garden" in their conversation. The rest of the conversation was in Nepali. We didn't tell them that that was where we were staying. In any case, why should it matter??

The next morning who do we see at the check in area peering over the shoulder of the ticket agent? The owner of the Sunny Garden. When I elbowed my way up to the desk and stuck my e-ticket print out to the agent, the owner looked me in the eye, and directed the ticket agent. The ticket agent gave me my boarding pass and ignored the another passenger who had elbowed his way up too. 

Trekmate and I were so grateful to get a boarding pass issued and be able to proceed to the waiting area for passengers with boarding passes. As we hurriedly grabbed our bags, trekmate tapped the Sunny Garden owner on the shoulder and said, "thank you."

Flights take off and land in Lukla in batches so the printed departure  time doesn't mean anything other than to indicate which batch you are in. We knew that anything around 9 or 10am was the second batch. We were airborne in the second Tara Airlines flight of the next batch. It was a mere 30 minutes after the printed departure  time. 

The rooms at the Sunny Garden were actually pretty bad considering we were at such low elevation and resources are plentiful. But if I were going to fly out of Lukla again, I'd make sure to stay at the Sunny Garden again too. Just in case it would make any difference. 

Friday, April 25, 2014

Day 15: Familiar faces at end of the trek

Day 15 
Namche - Lukla

We had a monster 8 hour day today descending from Namche to Lukla. It was literally 7 hours of walking with about an hour for lunch and bathroom breaks. But trekmate and I were both ready to end our trek so we planned for the long day to Lukla where we fly out the next morning. 

Trekmate and I took photos at the gate that marks the boundary of Lukla to mark our triumphant completion of the trek. 

I love that on this trip I met some cool people who I kept bumping into along the trek. Here are a few memorable ones:
- "dreadlocks guy with Wutang hat". He was in a Russian-speaking trek group and one of the few smokers we saw. I saw him light a cigarette at Tengboche. His group went down to Lukla the same day I did. We waited at a suspension bridge for a yak train to pass. 
- It was complete coincidence that I an American girl on my flight over to KTM was at the same hotel in Lukla! Her group had a longer trek than I did. We traded stories.  Her group was at Everest Base Camp the day before the avalanche and they saw the ceremony send off for the Sherpas who were caught in the avalanche. 

- At Lobuche and Namche trekmate and I talked to an English girl who we knew to expect to see at the same hotel in Lukla. We had chatted with her a few times. 

- Walking down the street in Lukla I saw a man wearing a green baseball cap with a block "S" but I didn't get a chance to ask about his MSU affiliation.  

Tomorrow I'm booked on a 9am flight but the flight is a crapshoot. Perhaps I will leave on time, delayed the same day, or not at all. 

Day 14: Never did boiled vegetables taste so good.

Day 14 Tengboche - Namche

What a joyous return to Namche! I feel like a different person. I have seen Mt. Everest and EBC. I have challenged myself to climb to 5545m (18,200ft). 

What a difference two weeks makes for Namche too. The town looks transformed from winter to spring. The first time we were there it snowed. We shivered in our sleeping bags at night. This morning it was sunny and hot as we approached Namche. I wore the thinnest long sleeve shirt I had. Tiny purple irises and pink rhododendrons bloomed in the lower elevations near Namche while we were up high. 

We are staying in the same teahouse we did when we were in Namche heading up. This made me particularly excited because this teahouse has "boiled vegetable" on the menu. And potato isn't included in this dish. The last time I stayed there I got a big plate of bok Choy, carrots, cauliflower, and cabbage!! These (and garlic and onion) are the only vegetables in Khumbu but that's good enough for me because of how few of any vegetables I have eaten the last two weeks. This time I got boiled vegetable again and it was even more delicious than two weeks ago. 

I have been craving vegetables this entire trek. Vegetables get more and more scarce up high so I have been eating a heavy starch diet like noodles, rice, and bread. Even the dishes that have vegetable in the name, like vegetable fried rice have the tiniest diced carrot and bits of bok choy. 

Everything about Namche this time  was pleasant. I'm ready to continue descending to Lukla tomorrow, the city from which I fly back to Kathmandu.  

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Day 13: Monastery and porter-guide miss (again)

Day 13 Periche - Tengboche
Elevation loss 420m, 4280-3860m

This morning I was ecstatic to wake up without a freezing cold nose! Usually I sleep with my fleece hat pulled over my eyes and the sleeping bag pulled up as high as I can. The biggest difference I have noticed coming down was the increased temperature. This afternoon in Tengboche I actually wore sandals without socks briefly. Throughout the morning hike I peeled off my windproof fleece and fleece hat and wore a thin windbreaker and bandana. 

The other biggest difference is the increased vegetation. I was so happy to see large juniper trees that provided shade as we walked to Tengboche. The forest around Tengboche Monastery is protected from cutting so the forest was large and mature. The tree line is somewhere around 4000m, I think and there's pretty bad deforestation anyway in areas with trees. 

The reason we and other trekkers stopped at Tengboche was for to visit the Tibetan Buddhist monastery. It is the largest in the Khumbu and boys all over the Khumbu come here to study. It's a beautiful large building framed by the mountains and clouds. Tourists like us often go for the prayer ceremony at 3pm. I had been to a similar ceremony at Tashi Palkiel outside Pokhara that was actually a better experience but it was interesting to see it again in the setting of the Himalayas. 

Today was another porter-guide miss. He got us a dirty dingy drafty teahouse in Tengboche after saying that this was the only place available. We knew that there were only 5 or 6 teahouses so accommodations were tight. We believed him but the room, outdoor toilet, and dark common room were so bad. I killed a fly with my sandal in the room. We decided to walk to a large impressive-looking teahouse nearby just to check. A smiling elderly proprietor said that they did have a room! Trekmate stayed in the dining room where we had lunch, which was large and clean, and I went to look at the room. I saw the clean room, pristine indoor bathroom with sink just down the hall. I gave trekmate a thumbs up. Trekmate and I scrambled to repack our things in literally 60 seconds to move to the new place. 

Now we have totally lost trust in our porter-guide. We were angry because he lied to us about the lack of accommodations. I understand that he may prefer for us to stay at certain teahouses of friends but it was appalling that he lied to us about why we were staying at an inferior place. He was angry when we told him we were moving, predictably. 

Aside from the snafu about our first teahouse, my time in Tengboche was pleasant because of the warmer weather and the fact that we are descending. I don't mean to sound like I didn't enjoy the trek. I did tremendously. I will always remember seeing Everest and this journey. But I have achieved my goal and now it's just finishing up. I am looking forward to the creature comforts: warm weather, running water, clean clothes and a shower. 

There is a sign on the way out of Tengboche reading "WAY TO NAMCHE". That is where we are headed on a 5-6 hour hike tomorrow. I can't wait! 

The Everest tragedy and Everest Sherpas

On the day I walked to Everest Base camp I saw two avalanches on the peaks surrounding Everest though not on Everest itself. Still the Everest tragedy was never far from our minds. I didn't have much internet access during this time so I wasn't following so closely except talking with other trekkers and guides while sitting around the yak dung heating stove in the evenings. There was talk that the whole expedition season might be cancelled. Some said due to ice conditions that made it difficult to lay rope and ladders, others said due to increased fees demanded by the Nepalese government for the Sherpas. I'm not sure exactly what the situation is. 

Later at the teahouse in Tengboche I met an Everest Sherpa with multiple Everest summits. The topic of conversation naturally turned to the recent tragedy. He named the villages where the Sherpas who died had come from: Khumjung, Phortse, and others. These were all familiar places to us. We had stayed in teahouses there. I know that the people in those communities are very much affected. The Everest Sherpa described a few of the Sherpas who had died: one was 27 or 28 years old and had a wife and one month old infant. Most others also had families. 

The Sherpa and I had some time to kill before he was to meet new clients so we got to  chatting. He confirmed what I had read was typical of elite Sherpas: His father was a Sherpa. He started working on expeditions since he was a child. Eventually he trained at the Khumbu climbing school, a well-known training ground for mountaineering Sherpas in this region. He had summited Everest multiple times starting when he was 18 years old. I actually can't remember the exact number. I think it was 8 or 9 including from Nepal and Tibet.  Now he has a home in the Khumbu for the climbing season and one in Kathmandu for the winter. In the summers he works in Switzerland. He was nonchalant when describing all this. There are many, many people working as trekking guides, mountaineering guides, porters here in the Khumbu but he is at the top of his field, having multiple Everest summits. He has been employed with the same Everest expedition company the whole of  his career so I am sure he is very senior in that company b

Looking at the teahouse menu, he said his favorite was sherpa pancake. I think it's a potato pancake. He said he could twenty of them and I believed him. 

Day 12 part 2: My Everest Marathon

The Everest Marathon is an annual event at the end of May, the end of the expedition season. It starts at EBC and goes to Namche with a loop to Thamo to make it marathon length. 

Day 11 all the way till the end of day 12 was my Everest marathon. Most days 4 hours of walking was as much as we did in a whole day. But trekmate and I had to descend down to Periche during the afternoon too. Day 11 had about 6 hours of walking and Day 12 8, not including meal and snack breaks. It was dizzying to think that Day 12 maximum altitude was 5545m and we finished 4210m, a descend of more than 1300m! 

After I had come down from EBC, I met trekkers ascending in the teahouses and they kept asking me if the view of Everest from Kala Pattar was amazing. It was. It was the best view of Everest I had had one my whole trek. See, despite the name of this trek, there are only a few points in the route when Everest is visible. Most of the time it is hidden behind Nuptse and Lhotse, two other Himalayan peaks. But I am not disappointed at all because everyday I saw so many snowy peaks and everyday I challenged my body to literal new heights. Everest almost became an afterthought. As trite as the expression is, EBC trek was really the completion of a process and not only seeing Everest. It was seeing Everest knowing that I had taken myself the whole way there and back again.  

I did this trek because I wanted a physical challenge. It proved to be one in both ways I anticipated (hiking at altitude) and ways I hadn't (cold!). I am tremendously proud of myself. Even if it had been totally cloudy on Kala Pattar that morning and I hadn't seen Everest at all, I still would feel the same sense of accomplishment.  

Day 12 part 1: The hardest 100 steps at Kala Pattar

Gorak Shep - Kala Pattar - Gorak Shep
Elevation max: 5545m

As I had predicted, I slept very poorly at Gorak Shep. I woke up literally every hour.  Sometimes I woke up feeling short of breath. Periods of apnea are expected at high altitude and that is probably what I had. I didn't take any Diamox though in hindsight I could have taken one before bed. It didn't help that I was anxious about the coming day. Well I had to get up at 3:30am anyways because today was Kala Pattar day. 

The goal was to see the sun rise behind and up over Everest. Because Lohtse and Nuptse often block the view of Everest, getting a bit higher on Kala Pattar affords a much better vie. 

At 4am trekmate, our porter-guide, and I were among a line of headlamps slowly moving up Kala Pattar in the darkness. The sky was clear. I couldn't recognize any constellations because I saw so many stars. 

We planned to take 2 hours to reach the top of Kala Pattar. It was a slow, slow 2 hours. My legs never felt so heavy. My calves burned like I had been climbing for hours even though I was going up mere feet. It was quiet except for the movement of trekkers: the shuffle of boots and tap-tap of trekking poles. I heard my own heart and my own breath every step up. 

It was also a frigid 2 hours. What little of my face was exposed was freezing. On top I wore my trusty North Face winter coat, a fleece, thermal top, and two hats. On the bottom I had two pairs of hiking socks, two pairs of thermal long underwear, a pair of fleece sweatpants, and soft shell pants. I had insulated gloves and liners. 

My trekmate didn't make it to the top. About 40 minutes into our ascent I saw she was farther and farther behind. I was ahead of trekmate on the climb as I usually am. (For some reason she is always faster on the flats and I am faster ascending.) The porter-guide left my side and slowed down to meet her. They stood and talked for a few minutes as I watched from up high. Trekmate sat down. Eventually I saw that she turned back. The other lesson of EBC is knowing one's limit. She had met    her limit. She went back to the teahouse for a lovely warm breakfast. I am happy for her that she went as far as she could. 

Darkness turned to gray and I was still pretty far from the top. I began to count my steps. I got to 100 and then started over. Those were the hardest 100 steps I had ever taken. Each step I think I moved my foot mere inches. I can't accurately describe what those steps were like. My feet felt like bricks and though my heart was thumping so loud, I still couldn't muster any energy to go any faster.   

The sky grew pink and the stars faded away. I was standing with a lot of other trekkers on a small rocky summit cluttered with backpacks and other gear. We all stood facing the East and Everest. I made it just in time to the top of Kala Pattar in about 2 hours and 15 minutes. I saw the rays of the sun come behind Everest. I felt it illuminate my face. I wasn't so much excited but rather fulfilled. I wanted to feel the sun and reach 5545 meters. I did both.