Day 1-Everest Base Camp Trek

Katmandu to Phakding, Nepal 

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.

 

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. airport

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.  

 

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 tourismWho will take care of them when their backs are broken?

 

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.

 

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.

By bridge #6, my feet adapt to the movement. I even stop halfway across, peering into the gorge far below. 

Prepare to Meet the Mother of the World–EBC Trek

IMG_0724I 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. IMG_4890 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.

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.IMG_0665

Next week: Lukla to Phakding, Nepal

  Seriously? Go downhill first?

Ancient Crossroads, Patan & Bhaktapur Nepal

Patan is known as the Royal City or City of Beauty and is located five miles south of Katmandu on the southern side of the Bagmati River. It is one of three settlements of the ancient Kings of Nepal with over 1,200 monuments. Another UNESCO site is eight miles from Katmandu, named Bhaktapur or place of devotees with the best preserved ancient city center. It’s also known for the best sweet yogurt, so you must try some.

 

Patan and Bhaktapur are important religious centers for Buddhist and Hindu faiths.

The first historic records show Emperor Ashoka arriving in the valley near Patan with his daughter in 250 B.C. He established the geographic outlines of Patan with four holy stupas. This makes the shape of the UNESCO world heritage site into the symbol of a Buddhist Wheel of Righteousness.

The royal palace of the Malla Kings was first built in the 3rd century B.C. by the Kirat Dynasty and is now a museum and an architectural wonder.

 

although the majority of Durbar Square is from Medieval times. Evidence of severe architectural damage remain from the 2015 earthquake. Scaffolding and bracing of buildings precariously hold walls from collapsing as reconstruction follows a snails pace.

 

It’s not hard to imagine camal trains carrying salt along the twisting streets of Bhaktapur.

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Not hard to imagine Bhaktapur in Medieval times with the intact city center.

It was also a royal city with craftsman in Medieval times and the provenance continues today. Artists work in shops carving wood, metal work, stone, clay, and jewelry.

 

I loved both cities from the history, architecture, and shopping.  I felt sorry for our very patient guides as the ladies kept creeping into doorways. I would have loved to wander with my camera for another round about both places.  This is a photographer’s dream location, because you don’t know what you’ll see from one moment to the next.

 

K-K-K-K-K Katmandu

Bob Seeger wrote the song Katmandu when he was tired of his profession and wanted to escape. Hippy days are gone, but an observant person will notice marijuana growing wild in empty lots and alleys. Let me emphasize that you don’t need drugs to be high in Katmandu, because this city overloads your senses without a single enhancement. This is a place of extreme opposites. People wash themselves and their dishes from a roadside spigot. Modern appliances are taken home on the back of a bike. I found clarity and focus in Buddhist thangka art opposed by lung defying air pollution.

Traffic jams from hell don’t prevent appreciation of unspoiled mountain landscapes. The entire valley is a UNESCO site for important pilgrimages and monuments amid massive filth counter-balanced with beauty.

The profane competes with the revered and sacred. The ancient trade routes for salt, wool and silk continue to run through Katmandu. The amount of diversity and fusion of cultures left in the wake is unsurpassed.

Katmandu is the odd, bizarre, benevolent, always in a hurry, yet most compassionate and loving place on the planet.

Is Katmandu schizophrenia or extreme reality?  It is really entertaining or downright controversial. I can’t imagine anyone not loving it here.

Fifteen minutes out of the airport I saw my first cremation at the river edge. IMG_7795While flames consumed the body,  little girls walked in the muddy water with magnets trying to find offerings in the funeral ashes. Despite this macabre observation, I had a profound experience talking with a Brahman priest who spoke about our mission in life and karma. He blessed me, touching my heart with a force that I still feel today.

Monkeys’ ran around stealing cotton candy. Strange men who call themselves Holy pose around the stupas coaxing tourists to take pictures, for a price. It seemed like a creative way to be a beggar, but who am I to cast accusations? My guide made an astute observation, “Don’t all religions want to be paid?”

Soak it all in. Stop to see. Touch. Smell. Taste using your fingers the local way. Chant mantras with the background roar of motorcycles. Listen to singing bowls and inhale incense. Still your breath. Calm your mind amongst chaos. Dance with joy on the street with someone you don’t know. Reach out. Embrace. If I ever get out of here, I’ll go back to Katmandu.