Stats: 14,100′ to 15,525′. 3 hour hike. Goal: Go high. Stay in the devine place + sleep low.
This is our second acclimation day and if you checked my previous posts, you already know that I tanked on the first one in Namche. This day arrives with clear blue skies and I’m not worried. Time will unfold as intended and I’ll take what comes one second at a time. Step lightly with joy.
view from my room. Is that crazy or what?
Nepal in peak season means conga lines of trekkers snaking uphill. Instead of being irritated by crowds everyone is in good humor today. An umbrella of peace covers this mountain. Before we know it, we’re on the ridge above Dingboche, looking far below upon green and red roofs.
I sit on a flat-topped boulder, wanting time to mentally chart the stacked rock cairns and prayer flags gently moving in the wind. This is holy ground.
Within minutes I see my celestial companion, the Steppe Eagle, with a wing span of 5.4-7.1 feet. Although there are 22 species of raptors in Nepal, the Steppes are the only ones who accompany us on our daily trek. Their spirit sign is courage, wisdom, strength, and they carry messages from earth to God. I breath deep and smile. My intentions float up.
But I don’t dally long. The number of people heading uphill is growing and I don’t want to miss the stupa or have my photos obstructed. It will prove difficult to photograph with the crowds already here.
All too soon it’s time to descend back to town. We’re all anxious to wander around the village.
Some friends are heading to a bakery with good internet. But my heart is intent on other things. Earlier in the day, I heard the clinking of metal hammers on stone. Masons take rocks and bang away until they are transformed into square building blocks. Evidently, it’s cheaper to have men pound raw material than carry bricks from Lukla.
I’m lucky to catch two tradesmen who hauled merchandise here and are selling their wares to shopkeepers. No wonder the price of bottled water has doubled.
I see my first solar heater used to boil water. This will also become a common sight at our next stops. I look for children, but don’t see any. This will prove true for every village higher up. Are they at boarding school at lower elevation or do they live at remote farms?
At dinner, we hear about a man needing emergency evacuation for altitude problems. I’d mark Dingboche as the line where the compromised will peel away from the strong. From here onwards, this amazing beautiful place will become more harsh and physically dangerous. Go with grace and God Speed.
Stats: 8.2 miles. 2,500′ elevation difference but 3,100′ overall gain.
Morning air is crisp. I zip my jacket and slip fingers into light gloves as we pick our way uphill without a clear path. The sky is such an impossible shade of deep blue and soaring Khangega (22,251′) and Thamserku (21,729′) glimmer with frozen ice. I stop; my soul fills with wonder. Observe the majesty placed before you. Be a witness to the power of life.
Moving along a ridgeline, mountains and valleys are tightly stacked like accordian pleats–an impossible arrangement of towering rock, ice and running water in the deepest folds.
Eagles ride the thermals overhead and I never tire of their majestic presence or the symbol they represent.
The sun rises higher, infusing sudden warmth resulting in a stop to strip off layers. Our porters and guides rest. We encourage them to sit close for a photo, a lasting image of our appreciation for such hard work. They are a congenial bunch of rascals–always ready with laughter and teasing each other. We are living in this single moment, feeling joy and peace in our companionship.
Passing stupas and mani stones, I wonder how different the United States would be if physical reminders to pray or meditate were allowed. Daily intentions for loving others, empathy for all, or expressions of gratitude are the foundation of humanity and in short supply.
Above Pangboche, sweeping views unfold. My steps quicken and the warm sun eases the overnight chill still lingering in my bones. At our rest spot, I slide out of my backpack, choosing a table with a clear view of the monastery next door.
photo courtesy of Michael Chiechi
Respite is short-lived. A Yak team decked out in jingling bells heads uphill and I’m struck with a feeling of deja-vu. Time blurs the lines of past centuries with present time. This monastery is the oldest in the Everest region. It’s expostulated that Lama Dorjee flew over the highest mountains and landed here on a boulder. That rock with the impression of his feet rests inside this holy place. But the intriguing icons are the Yeti skull and hand. A finger was stolen in the 1950’s and the rest of the hand disappeared in the 1990’s. Foreigners appear to be responsible for the crime. In 2011, remains of the robbed finger were tested in London with human DNA and is of Asian genome. Photography isn’t allowed in any temple but trust me, that Yeti skull is bizzare and a fake replacement hand lays palm down in the same glass reliquary.
Leaving Pangboche, we walk across an arid plain with boulders thrown about as if giants had a bowling tournamet, leaving smashed pins and balls all over the place. The walk is easy with strings of colorful trekkers heading in opposite directions before we drop to the river and cross a bridge again. Breathing hard uphill, we run into two young children collecting yak dung. This will be dried and used as fuel and perhaps bartered for other supplies.
courtesy of Lisa Loberg
Pemba is in front of me and I ask, “Why aren’t they in school?”
He shakes his head. “Probably don’t go to school. It costs too much and unless a child has a sponser, they’ll never receive an education.” He recounts how his father got him a job as an expedition porter when he was 13 so that he could pay for his studies. Many children in Nepal work physically demanding jobs and are lucky if they have a fourth grade education. I recently overheard Pemba tell a fourteen-year-old porter, “you need to go to school or you won’t have a good life.”
The girl who stands before me has feces smeared across her hands and face. No crystal ball required to devine that bleak future. My heart flutters. “And these kids have to work?” Pemba nods his head. It’s not unusual to see children working with their familes in Nepal. But these youngsters are without adult supervision. Emotionally, I shut down and can’t take a picture. Thankfully, Lise captured the moment when Pemba sat to chat with them. Every day I see this man treat others with kindness and compassion.
Reeling, I contemplate this experience as we climb higher and later arrive above Dingboche. I want to share these thoughts with Pemba: We all agree that school is important. But how do you keep young people–your greatest treasure– from leaving Nepal to work in foreign lands?I’ve seen this before in countries where villages are comprised of only old people. Who gets an education cannot be based on gender, but on the candidate showing the greatest ability. Women make up 2/3 of the world’s illiterate people (UN headquarters statistic). Images of brilliant women throughout time flash into my mind. Marie Curie, Florence Nightingale, Ada Lovelace; an endless list with names still purcolating through the mud of buried history . Their educations changed the world.
Below me, a monk paints a prayer onto a boulder. I watch the brush move up and down and breathe my own prayer into his mind and hand: Education for all children. Passing him, we arrive at Dingbouche’s stupa and the village beyond. Today’s glorious walk has been about new awakenings and deep reflection. World change begins with a simple touch and caring words.
Nepalise society doesn’t treat widows with compassion. Before 1970, a woman left alone was required to dress in white, drained of color and life. She becomes invisible and of the untouchable class. Of course, a man is allowed to remarry, a woman is not. Today, if a single man were to fall in love with a widow, his family would force them apart. In the moment of her greatest despair, any marital property can be taken away, unless she has a male child to inherit. With few resources for survival, many widows become prostitutes.
I am a widow and this abuse of women rips me apart. I want to scream from the mountain tops in anger. From the moment we are born until the day we die–everyone deserves to be wrapped in love. Today’s trek to the widows village of Phortse is very important to me and I’m so thankful that Himalayan Wonders arranged this stop.
Leaving Namche and walking uphill, I am rock solid and steady. My body rebounded overnight from yesterday’s altitude problems. Pacing is slow, more to take in the glorious views of Kongde Ri, Ama Dabiam, Taboche, and brilliant views of Mount Everest, Thamserku, and Nupste.
This is my church. This is pure meditation, as the route changes from rock cut steps to winding dirt paths. We arrive at a beautiful stupa, and I raise my hands, chanting om mani padme hum. Transform my impure body, speech and mind.
Unfortunetly, the place is crowded with trekkers and the holy epiphany I crave blows away on the wind. Turning my back I step down the trail, but glance over my shoulder. That’s when I see the partial sun-dog, a rare natural occurance that always makes me gasp with delight. God heard me.
The only disconcerting noise comes from endless clacking of helicopters as they zip past like pests in the narrow valley next to me. Every switchback holds joy. Eagles soar overhead and long haired Thar (Himalayan mountain goats) cling to steep hillsides. Yaks look on with blatant curiousity.
Our tea and pee break is at Kyangjuma and lunch at the packed Kulung teahouse, perched high above the snaking river with surrounding views of icecaps.
Far below, I can see Phortse and after lunch we will decend 1,300′ to cross the river….and then climb back up to the village. By now, we are resigned to the Nepalise fate of continual gain and loss. Sounds like life, right? The Buddhist lesson is vulnerability, perserverance, acceptance and grace.
The Widows village below and across the river.
Phortse is a Sherpa village of great importance. The world’s best climbing school as well as the greatest expedition climbers come from this Khumbu region of Nepal. How did this place become the village of widows? Because 3 times as many Sherpas die in mountain accidents rather than their clients. In 2014, sixteen Sherpas died at Everest. In 2015, another seventeen perished. That’s a lot of widows struggling to survive alone in a daily avalanche of hardship. Everest isn’t the most dangerous mounain in Nepal. It’s simply the one you hear blaring from international media.
Because Phortse is internationally recognized, these widows have been protected and charitable funds were gifted to help build trekkers tea houses and accomodations. This community has been given a beneficial hand.
Reaching the stone walls of town, I see several women planting their most famous and yummy potatoes– the best in the entire world. They look at me, and I become cognizent of their freedom and space. I observe them, confused by the projected negative emotions flooding over me. Tourists are a blessing and a curse. Right now, my intuition tells me that their patience is worn thin with daily disrespect. My camera remains anchored in the holder strapped across my chest. They are too far away to ask permission and I have too much respect for them.
We’d been in Phakding less than 16 hours but an important lesson is learned by the careful observer. Family is a priority of Nepalese life. Grandma takes care of the baby so the rest of the family cares for trekkers. It’s constant work at the tea houses, cooking and washing for every meal; cleaning rooms and washing sheets every day. They do so with such grace.
Boldly, I interfere in their inner sanctum–the rough kitchen–to get water from the kitchen tap for our groups filltration needs. Steam rises from battered pots and several family members (male and female) chop vegetables plucked from the garden. Amist the clacking of knives on wood cutting boards, easy conversations bounce around the room.
I envy the benefit of extended family living and working together and imagine that my life growing up would have been enriched with daily access to my grandparents or by having my siblings children raised in an extended family. Instead of one set of parents, we could have had many. It does take a village.
Our newly formed trekking family hit the trail. There’s peace in my heart as we weave through the day, the trail a literal warp and weft moving up and down with our feet firm as a wooden shuttle. Now, we are bound tight in the fabric of this experience.
The previous day’s cloudy skies evaporated with the morning sun, illuminating blue agate skies and glowing snowcapped peaks. Before breakfast, I grabbed my camera and began climbing above the town, Namche Baazar.
Immediately I noticed breathing was easier than my arrival last night. Smiling, I assumed I’d conquered the next altitude adjustment and couldn’t predict the blindside I’d face later in the afternoon.
In the itinerary, Dingboche is listed as a “rest day”. Do not picture sitting under the sun and drinking a cappuccino. This is an acclimation day, where trekkers hike higher and sleep back low. I envisioned wandering the streets and shopping after our scheduled walk.
I was pumped with energy after a full breakfast as our group met outside for the next challenge. Chearing and Pemba encouraged us with “Let’s jam-jam,” which means “time to get moving”. We didn’t need to be asked twice.
These are the steps to get above town
Namche Bazaar sits in a bowl of sorts, with town following natural contours of the land. The trail quickly filled with a rush of porters and trekkers and the jockey for space began as we walked single-file up stairs and eventually along a dirt path to our first stop– the Sherpa museum and Hillary’s guide, Tenzing Norgay’s memorial. What a pleasant walk with beautiful views of town and surrounding mountains.
my gosh! an easy walk close by the museum and memorial
Tengay’s memorial with Everest and Lhotse in the background
Behind Tenzing’s statue, Everest teased us with peekaboo views until swirling clouds hid the view once again. We spent a good amount of time in the interesting museum. From here, we proceeded to climb steep stairs to reach an even higher ridge line.
About half way up I lost control of breathing and pulled off the trail to let others pass. Seriously winded, I tried everything to slow my breathing. Breathe in with one step. Breathe out with the next. When that failed to quiet respirations, I slowed down, taking one step and breathing for 3 seconds. It felt as if an emergency brake locked down on my jam-jam.
Gulping for air, I looked uphill to see the goal, a distant restaurant that wasn’t getting closer at all. My shaky hand swiped hair out of my face as a military helicopter continued to swoop overhead, dropping off Nepalese troops returning from a border military base. It felt as if the plug to my energy reservoir got pulled as mist rolled in.
Pemba came up behind me. “Give me your pack.”
I wanted to cry. Maybe I wanted to hug him too. But mostly I wanted to cry. What was happening to me?How did I fall apart like this when I had such a strong morning? What was happening to my body? I felt like a wimp. Worse, my confidence red-flagged.
Unbuckling, I passed him my backpack. “Just until we reach the top, ok?” I didn’t like having to do this. Disappointment flushed my hot cheeks. Digging in with determination, I slowly marched uphill. With the extra weight off my back, breathing now matched my steps.
Pemba must have known, because he walked beside me. “Sometimes I carry 6 backpacks at a time to help out trekkers.” He smiled, and then sprinted uphill like a mountain goat. I wished he’d break into a sweat– just to make me feel less of a weenie.
Nearing the perched restaurant, I mentally dug in. I will do this even if it takes me longer than anyone else. Immediately I blocked the sobbering thought that no matter how hard I’d trained, at some point the choice to continue (or not) wasn’t in my control.
Dust fills the shuttle as opposing traffic careens inches away. With Katmandu airport closed for runway resurfacing, we must drive four hours to tiny Ramechhap for a flight to Lukla and the start of the trek to Mount Everest base camp. I glare at the back of the drivers head. “Turn on the air conditioning, I can’t breathe!” Every Nepalese driver says the air is broken. Is it? Or is this a canny way to conserve fuel?
Tepid air pumps out of the vents as the vehicle zigs and zags around sharp curves. I look back at team members squished into the back. Four hours of torture for a 12 minute flight. We move like metronomes in constant motion. No one has upchucked yet.
section of paved road showing sharp turns
mad rush to get trekkers to a smaller airport
Peeling my sweaty body out of the van, I step into bedlam. Vans are parked willy-nilly, disgorging hundreds of East Indian, American and European trekkers. My team moves like loose pin balls around vendors hawking fresh fruit and drinks, following a porter hauling our bags to the tarmac. Planes roar nonstop, engines running hot. I’m told that seventy flights a day carry travelers to Lukla and the start of the Everest trek. 70 flights x max 15 per plane=1,050 people per day in peak season? Please tell me they aren’t all heading to the same trail.
When our gear is dragged towards a plane, our group marches to the aircraft. There aren’t any announcements. Pay attention!
We aren’t turned away and soon the twin engine plane soars over mountain terrain latticed with fields that seem to hang free, ready to tumble down the slope. I don’t see a single car. Villages and homes pepper the highest terrain with snaking rivers far below. Everest stands majestic with Lhotse to the right and I peer at soaring icefields, trying to identify the peaks of Sagamantha National Park before clouds shroud them once again.
Steep mountains hem the plane in a ribbon of airspace as we approach the most dangerous airport in the world (Lukla). Looking through the cockpit windshield, we approach a cliff topped by a short runway with an 11 degree uphill slope. It ends at a wall of rocks. A twisted heap of metal from last week’s collision of a helicopter and a plane glows in the sunlight. Exiting the aircraft, I watch planes essentially do “wheelies” on takeoff. The pilots keep their feet on the brake, throttling up RPM’s, before speeding downhill. ( below: video plays correctly)
Afternoon clouds are building, and I’m impatient to get my boots dirty, but first there’s an orientation and then a meal. Today will be our shortest and (we’re told) the easiest day. Our guide replies “First, the trail is downhill and then slowly uphill.” This is the first, but not last time that our flatland births won’t jive with super-hero Sherpa lung capacity and oxygen rich blood.
We knew that we’d walk village-to-village, on uneven and often steep rock steps or over sloped dirt paths to reach the first night (2000′ higher) at the See You Inn of Phakding. Somehow we miss the fine detail of descending 1,000′ and then hiking up and down for a total elevation gain of 4000′. At least that’s what a runners app map reports.
hand shaped stone steps.
Mani stones with prayers etched and painted on them
We quickly encounter our first Yak team bearing heavy shipments, but humans also carry elephantine cargo loads. One man struggles with a freezer strapped to his back, and I feel guilt burn in my chest. Men remain beasts of burden in many places around the globe, but I question is this the price of tourism? Who will take care of them when their backs are broken?
Yak teams are used to move supplies for merchants in villages higher up on the trail. They’re also used for climbing expeditions that need to carry fuel, oxygen tanks, climbing gear, tents, food…etc
Everything is lugged on this trail. I imagine someone struggling to carry the weight of a toilet for my soft backside. Maybe a pit bathroom isn’t so bad. My privileged life begins to accept a larger world view.
It’s spring. Rhododendron trees bloom white, pink and deep red. Fields sprout tender shoots of garlic, spinach and cabbage. Bird’s sing in the trees. We enter and exit colorful villages, passing Buddhist stupas, prayer wheels and Mani stones as I whisper mantra’s that race to God’s ears.
Religious Stupas in every village
Super hero guides, Chering and Pemba with Himalayn Wonders
Gorgeous children play, collecting flowers, saying “hello” in English, or blowing up balloons with mischief glinting in their eyes.
During this first day, I halt, facing a phobia. Swinging bridges. Hear me out, please? It’s wrong for bridges to sway in the wind and worse when yak teams carry tons of supplies over the same precarious crossing. I whimper like a baby on the first one. Sherpa Chering tells me, “Only five more to go.” He’s trying to be kind and not laugh.
At the end of the day, I shiver in the unheated bedroom and hurry to zip my sleeping bag. On reflection, the sacred Himalayan mountains have taught me many things today.
Live in the moment. Not six hours down the trail.
Enjoy my surroundings—sights, colors, people, animals.
Take a deep breath and overcome fears.
Compassion surrounds me as team members offer encouragement or a steady hand. We are becoming a family. A tribe.
I haven’t always been an avid mountain trekker. Death forced my eyes open. Three months after my husband passed away from cancer, I left home (alone) to walk the Camino De Santiago.
Those first steps forced me to dig deep for inner strength at the very moment my comfortable life crashed and burned. Somewhere in the mountains of the Pyrenees during a cold rain storm and deep fog, I discovered meditative pacing. I This is a practice where steps and breath unite in a continuous cycle. When I mentally drop inside of myself, I reach a state of well-being and mindfulness. Problems mysteriously resolve. Endorphins release, flooding my heart with joy and thanksgiving. New ideas or goals appear out of thin air. Physical hardships are overcome. That trip started my evolution into a serious hiker.
When a friend asked me to hike to base camp, the decision wasn’t based on fulfilling a bucket list. What tempted me was being able to experience wild and sometimes brutal forces of nature in spectacular mountains that have become my church. Buddhist’s have a similar belief that the roof of the world is closer to God. Sherpas call Everest Chomolungma, and is where their goddess resides. She must be appeased with gifts and prayer, because she can grant success or destroy with death.
when prayer flags move in the wind, the intentions are released. In the mountains, those prayers reach heaven quickly
mani stones are prayer stones you’ll see entering and often leaving a village.
Boulders are another form of Mani stone, painted by monks. Like a prayer wheel, walk clockwise to release the prayer
Wheels contain prayers inside. When they are spun clockwise, the intention is released.
Fear is a very distinct component of this trek and it kept popping into my monkey brain with vivid scenarios. This trek is a young person’s game, with the majority of people in their thirties or forties. I’m sixty-five-years-old. What if I fail?What if I get hurt? What if altitude sickness requires evacuation? There’s only two ways to return from this trek—either walk out or pay for an expensive helicopter ride. No one considers returning in a body bag.
I fought every burning ember of doubt with careful preparations. Three of our fifteen member team spent a month at higher altitude in Colorado. We worked out six days a week trying to assimilate elevation gains we’d experience in Nepal. This worked to a degree. We skied, snowshoed, or used yak-traks to hike above 12,000’ elevation. Our blood oxygen saturation increased week-by-week as we trained harder, higher, and for longer periods of time.
But base camp is at 17,700’ with approximately 50% less of the oxygen available at sea level. Himalayan Wonders, our excellent guide company were great—they added a second acclimation day into our program. These aren’t “rest” days but hikes to higher elevation and then returning lower to sleep—retracing the same steps higher the following day.
The physical and mental demands of increasing elevation burns off mega calories. I packed high protein shakes, bars, and even jerky to bolster a carbohydrate diet of French toast, pasta and rice dishes. I ate everything and still lost eight pounds in twelve days of trekking.
Our group of seniors, between the ages of 51-74, are all active hikers. But Acute Mountain Sickness can hit anyone at any age. Most of us used Diamoxx—a diuretic medication which helps the kidney’s get rid of excess carbon dioxide that the lungs can’t dispel. Everyone experienced mild symptoms of AMS, from nagging headaches (drink more water), fatigue (in bed by 8:30 every night), loss of appetite (eat anyhow), increased heart rate and respirations (listen to your body and slow down). Luckily, no one escalated into greater danger from pulmonary or cerebral edema, which would require evacuation.
After every day’s hike, a group of us filtered a lot of water for the following day using the Guardian MSP or the Grayl press. These are the only two systems that remove viruses along with some chemicals, bacteria, protozoa and disease causing parasites. Please– don’t use commercial water on this trail, thereby increasing garbage and pollution!
There’s other necessary things to pack: hand sanitizers, biodegradable wet wipes (not many places for gas heated showers), a protective cap for the end of a water camel to keep yak poop out of your mouth and lots of toilet paper. A buff or facemask is needed to keep fine glacial dust from seriously mucking up your lungs. This doesn’t begin to consider the various layers required for temperature or weather changes or freezing nights at high elevation.
All of this gear must fit in a fifteen pound pack. Good luck on that one. I failed miserably.
I knew the preparations and understood the potential for danger on the trail. I’d spent the last six years replacing many worn out hiking boots. Heck, I live in Montana. Feeling well prepared, I thought, I can do this.
I didn’t foresee that the sacred mountains of Nepal were waiting and the laughing goddess had some serious lessons for me to learn.