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?

Exploring Bitterroot National Forest

For the first time in sixteen years, I’m spending this Covid summer exploring my backyard (the entire state of Montana).

We headed down the highway with our 5th wheel RV for Camping adventure #3 to the Bitterroot National Forest near Hamilton, Montana. There are three campgrounds at Lake Como: (1) Lake Como lower site has electricity! This is a rare treat in U.S. National Forests, so it fills quickly on first-come-first serve basis. We arrived on a late Sunday afternoon–thinking people would be heading back home since the kids have started either on-line or reality school. No such luck. (2.) Three Frogs campground is just above the lake and is recommended for small RV’s or tent campers. Our rig might have been able to fit, but by that time we were already established at (3) Rock Creek horse camp which has large spots and neat horse related accessories. We had two quiet week nights with only 2 other campers. Mid-week, a group of trail riders arrived with horse trailers in tow. With fire restrictions the evenings were still very quiet.

Blodgett Canyon Hike

10 miles to Canyon lake–in and back. Rated: Moderate/difficult

After driving an hour on mainly washboard roads, I grabbed a soaking wet backpack out of the truck. The water bladder lid had loosened, spilling over a liter of water.

I knew the forecast was for 93 degree F. temperatures. But we arrived early and it was still cool. “Hey Bob–how much water did you pack?” I asked my companion. Between the two of us we had 1 liter and a pint. Not enough.

I’m ashamed to tell you that I ignored one important hiker’s rule. This shouldn’t have happened, because I consider myself experienced and fully understand that ignoring the rules can lead to harm or death

I should have headed back to town to fill up or done the hike the next day, and maybe went kayaking and swimming. Instead, ego as well as impatience led to a misdeed. I stuck with an imperfect plan and talked myself into a dangerous situation. “We can ration water and push through.”

The trail is rated moderate and 10 miles (round trip) to Canyon Lake. For four hours we zigzagged around boulders and walked on glacial remains (uneven footing= toe kicking and ankle rolling). The trail in spots is sketchy and not marked well. Several times I found myself off-trail and in thick brush, requiring back-tracking. As temperatures soared, I got crabby. How difficult is it for the forest service to build cairn markers or nail up some signage?

The fun part of listening to the roaring creek, viewing soaring canyon walls and checking out all kinds of berries evaporated. Especially when we reached a steep ascent (1,500′ in a short time) to the saddle where the lake is located.

We checked a digital map. Three-fourths of our water was gone and the remaining trek would be 2 miles up and back from this point. But I could see the top of the ridge. Pausing, I finally kicked myself in the backside and suggested turning around.

The last two miles back to the trail head were miserable. Symptoms of dehydration were evident: Lethargy, thirst, dry mouth, dizziness and headache. I hadn’t urinated in over 5 hours. I fell. We ran out of water. What a shit show.

I’ve never, ever been so happy to see a parking lot. I’m telling you this as a lesson. Pay attention to my mistakes. Furthermore, I promise to not be an idiot again.

We hightailed it to Hamilton and the Bitterroot Brewery to recuperate and lick our wounds–cold water, super beers, and great food. Two outdoor patios to keep social distance.

Lake Como Waterfall Hike

7.2 miles in and out. Rated: Easy Elevation gain: 571′

Another day of temps in the nineties and I was still feeling physically out of sorts from the previous day’s errors. Instead of doing the loop trail around the lake, we started near three frogs campground on the north end of the lake. This was for two reasons: It’s a bit shorter than the loop and there’s a balance of shade/sun.

This trail starts on a flat blacktop surface that is handicap accessible. The route then continues single track, packed dirt that runs along a steep slope dotted with beautiful large Lodgepole Pine trees. Rock slides intersperse this terrain. Lake Como was once a canyon before the government built the earth dam that creates the lake.

Along the way, we saw an Eagle standing on a dead snag. He looked right at us, acknowledging our presence before scanning the lake for fish.

Our lunch spot was below the bridge, next to ripples and small cascades.To see the waterfall, cross the bridge and go up the trail. At the top, look for a narrow path on the right. This takes you to an overlook where you can see the entire falls.

Go back down to the bridge and cross it. Start back on the trail, but keep looking for another narrow but poorly defined trail on the left. It would be worth the time to carry flagging tape to mark your way up (and remove on the way down). Go uphill to another ridge that takes you to a magic place above the waterfall.

Lake Como Sunset Kayak

There is nothing more amazing than summer in Montana. On the equinox the sun doesn’t set until after 10:30 P.M. We took advantage of the longer days with a 3 mile after dinner paddle on Lake Como. To circle the lake, it must be about 7 miles.

Jewel Basin

I’ve lived in Montana for seventeen years and listened to friends crow about the beauty of the 27 lakes in the Jewel Basin, Flathead National Forest. I kept saying, “I’ve got to get there.” But Montana is a big state and this area is just a tick too far from my home for a day hike. Enter Covid and a loss of overseas travel to shoot The Basin to the top of my RV bucket list.

We camped at Wayfarer’s, Flathead Lake State Park, thinking that late afternoon swimming and wonderful sunsets would be an additional bonus. I suggest reservations instead of fighting for first-come-spots. It’s easy to book on-line at montanastateparks.reserveamerica.com

The Flathead National Forest Service office in Big Fork has hard maps for all the Jewel trails. It’s easier to stop and pick one up, since paths interconnect and aren’t always well marked. Alternately, there’s a map posted in the parking lot and you can take a picture of the routes with your phone. But you won’t have elevation markings.

From Big Fork, we drove past Echo lake to the Jewel Basin Road. The majority of trails in the Jewel require driving this washboard, potholed road to Camp Misery. Get there either early or later in the day but expect parking problems between 9:30-2:30. Check sunset times if you plan on going late. There is another way into the Jewel–from Hungry Horse reservoir–but prepare for a steep, hard climb in exposed terrain.

Our next decision was which trails to experience. I asked my friend, Moon National Park Travel Guide author, Becky Lomax, for recommendations for two days: Mount Aeneas and Wildcat Lake.

Mount Aeneas Summit Trail

rated: difficult (I’d call it more moderate) 6 miles out and back

Elevation gain: 1,781′

The trail starts along an old jeep trail, wide but definitely uphill at a nice grade. On the way, there are impressive views over the entire valley and Flathead Lake. Clouds seem to float just above ones head, but in reality there’s more to accomplish. (Hello? It’s named Summit Trail.) Of course it’s uphill but I found numerous switchbacks much easier to handle than mountain goat terrain.

As a matter of fact, there really are many real mountain goats on this trail and they are pretty docile–not that I’d tempt fate on that one. But many people had their dogs on leashes and the goats didn’t seem alarmed by anything.

There is one meeting of trails called “dysfunction junction” where 5 trails come together and the route doesn’t seem clear. The far right trail goes down to Birch lake. The next uphill trail is the easiest one to take to Mount Aeneas.

Coming up the last switchback, there’s a weather station and many goats laying around. Continue on the ridge to the top of Aeneas. There was snow still on the peak when we hiked it in July. Views are 360 degrees. Literally takes your breath away and I don’t mean from working too hard.

Wildcat Lake Trail # 8, #7 and #723

Rated: Moderate Distance: 5.2 miles +

Wildcat Lake Trail starts at the north end of the Camp Misery parking lot. There’s plenty of shade/sun mix as the trail steadily climbs uphill.

Above the trees, the views are spectacular into the Flathead Valley. Eventually, the path takes a hairpin turn, heading east. Start counting the surrounding peaks. Five of the mountains have names.

We reached a junction where trails split. To the right is #8 that loops back to Camp Misery. The middle trail heads down to two sapphire view lakes and the left trail leads to Wildcat Lake and Wildcat mountain.

Pass the junction and you’ll begin to see twin lakes down below. In the distance are peaks of the Bob Marshall Wilderness. To the North is Glacier National Park.

When we reached 5.2 miles, the path was blocked by knee deep snow and we didn’t have snowshoes to cross. From there, the plan was to take trail #7 back so we could walk the ridge above picnic lakes. But nature had other plans when we encountered snow again and the trail was obliterated. Back-tracking we did an in-and-out on # 8,

First Journey

                                     Camping in a time of Covid

With the threat of Covid, how can a person remain safe but still explore and have adventures?

Camping, of course. With all of the travel refunds returned to us from cancelled trips, my partner invested in a 5th wheel RV to travel here in the US. We safely distance ourselves and have our own meals. An added pleasure of driving, is discovering interesting history or wildlife along the way.

 Our first trip takes us to the Montana/Idaho border where we explored the Hiawatha Bike Trail at Lookout Pass on the repurposed historic Milwaukee rail line that once took elite travelers to Seattle. We wandered the streets of historic Wallace and hiked the Pulaski Trail before the sky-high Lone Lake Trail #138. Driving back towards Montana, we laced on our boots again for the Blossom Lakes Trail located at the top of Thompson Pass. 

                                              The Hiawatha Bike Trail

skyhigh trestles span the valley from Lookout pass

RideTheHiawatha.com I-90 Exit O on the Id-Mt state line

What’s not to love about 15 miles of bike riding through 7 high trestles and 10 tunnels in the middle of the USFS? It is both amazing and terrifying at the same time.

We heard from experienced friends that riding downhill and taking the shuttle back to the top provides terrifying moments in the Saint Paul Pass tunnel, which is the longest at 8,771’. On our day, everyone riding came out of the darkness covered in mud and wet. Conditions were slick. If you ride from the top, you’ll travel 15 miles on a 2% grade.

We chose to ride from the bottom at Pearson and pedal up to Moss Creek, avoiding any bike riding on the roadway or encountering that top tunnel. This route changes the overall mileage to around 22 roundtrip miles. Really, the uphill isn’t bad at all. What I had a little trouble with was inexperienced riders coming downhill taking up the entire width, not realizing that it’s 2-way and most are going way too fast. Trail etiquette needs to be reviewed.

I walked over some of the trestles, mainly so I could appreciate the view and not have an accident. It is quite beautiful. There were two longer tunnels at Kelly Creek and Tunnel 25 that I walked through—because I couldn’t see where I was riding. To be fair, our lights (both on the bike and on our heads) weren’t bright enough. (300 Lumen is recommended).Next time I’ll have a bright torch!

Bikes, helmets and lights are available for rental up at the ski lodge located at the pass. Current price to ride is $13 for adults and the shuttle (if you ride top/down) is $12 for standard bikes.

                                                           The Pulaski Trail

4 miles out and back. 741’ elevation gain. Rated easy. Located just outside Wallace city limits.

The Big Burn (book of the same name. Author Timothy Egan) is what the great fire of 1910 was called. 4,700 miles of Idaho, Montana, and Washington were destroyed on August 20-21 after strong winds created an inferno. Entire towns burned to the ground and many people lost their lives. Today, this area is lush, but try to imagine the water filled with burnt ash and too warm to drink.

Edward Pulaski, a ranger leading a crew of firefighters, kissed his wife good-bye that day, telling her that he might not return and urging her to save herself.

Out in the woods, he realized firefighters couldn’t outrun the approaching tornado of fire. He gave his horse to an older gentleman and told him to ride like the wind. Yelling above the noise of the approaching disaster , he gathered his crew to hightail it to the Nicholson mine tunnel.

This wasn’t without rebellion, as the terrified men panicked. Edward did the sensible thing. He pulled out his gun and threatened to shoot anyone who didn’t lie face down in the mine. Two men did die from the gassy fumes and heat but the rest survived.

The trail ends across the creek and above the mine. This route is dedicated to all firefighters and their heroism.

                                                             Lone Lake Trail # 138

Lookout Pass accessed from Wallace through the Moon Pass. Rated moderate. 5 miles out and back. All Trails App states 1,666’ elevation gain. Our recording showed 2,000’. Rated: Strenuous.

This trail starts out on an old mining road before a rock cairn marks where the trail narrows. It’s all uphill (no two ways around it) but it’s also a good challenge with a fine mix of shade and sun. 

There are so many wildflowers, huckleberries (still green mid-july) and more flowering elderberry than I’ve ever seen on a single trail. As you progress uphill, the mountains close in on both sides and you’ll enter a narrow valley with dense shrubbery. There’s a waterfall you can’t miss right off-trail. Pass that and switchbacks take you up quickly with fantastic views to the Northwest before entering an evergreen forest. You’ll arrive above the lake with minimal downhill to reach the shore. We were all alone up there, enjoying our lunch and watching the trout jumping. Darn! our Montana fishing license doesn’t work in Idaho!

                                         Blossom Lakes Trail  (LoLo National Forest)

Start at the top of Thompson Pass. 5.5 miles out and back. Rated: Moderate. 1,141’ elevation gain. Can extend to do Pear Lake as well for 8 miles.

Hey! We’re back in Montana by a spit. The trail is not signed, but thankfully other people pointed out the trailhead. If you’re facing the forest, it is a narrow trail on the left—same side of street as the parking lot right next to a board posted with history information. 

The flora is much different here than our lush Lone Lake Trail. This one is mostly evergreen forest with a soft needled surface that’s gentle on your feet. Plenty of green huckleberries in Mid-July.

The trail starts flat along a ridge, but don’t expect it to stay that way. It’s roly-poly. Up and down–but mostly up. Several trails intersect, (notice the return is always to the right) Unfortunately, it’s a multi-use area, so expect to hop-scotch around horse dung and maybe a few riders. Of course, there’s plenty of mosquitoes, gnats and horseflies. Along with bug spray, bring bear spray too.

Near the top, there’s one log crossing where I watched baby trout swimming. The first campsite was full of horse poop, so we moved on across the back side of the lake to sit on flat rocks at the lake edge.

Below the Sacred Mountain

The entire world has been slam-dunked by a global pandemic. While I’m sitting here, alone, I’m sending out prayers to all of you. Please be safe. Be healthy. Laugh and learn something new in these days of “shelter at home.” One question : would you like to see Iceland or Egypt next? Send me a note!

Today we trek to Mount Everest Base Camp. I’m tired of squatting to pee over an open hole with a wet floor. Why can’t people hit the yawning pit? Is that too much to ask at 2:00 A.M. in the dark?  I roll back into my sleeping bag and grimace in the freezing cold room. I fall asleep and dream of taking a 30 minute hot shower with a super-sized bottle of body wash.

We’ve been inhaling tiny particles of dust kicked up on the trail which hardens to concrete in our lungs. I’ve worn masks or buffs across my nose and mouth until heat builds up in the thin air and feelings of suffocation overwhelm me. Now I’ve come down with the Khumbu cough along with our guides and other team members.

After breakfast, my mood lightens. Wonders of a meal and a warm room. Brilliant blue sky arches overhead and I’m filled with elation. We’re gonna make it! God willing. 

Of course it’s uphill, but the terrain has changed to glacial skree. Boulders. Ice fields covered in dirt. Amazing sculptures erupting from a jumble of frozen water Every step requires concentration.

I stop often. Not because I need to, but because I must take in the majesty surrounding me. Slow down. Capture this beauty into your soul. I am so insignificant in this process of creation but I’m honored to witness the soaring peaks that surround me in every direction. ( Lobuche-20,075′, Nuptse–25,830′, Lhotse–27,939′, Kalapathar–18,192′ and Everest–29,029′)

We keep stepping off trail to allowing transport animals the right of way. And the biggest disappointment? The traffic jam of people here. Nothing zen about a conga line ordering “Step to the right!” Gritting my teeth, I follow a snaking line of hikers heading for Gorkashep where we’ll drop our bags at the tea house and eat before heading to Base Camp in the afternoon.

It’s been a surprise to some of my companions about the limited time at Mount Everest. And there’s restrictions. Of course, you can’t wander through the expedition tents. Think about it. Makes sense. They won’t be waiting for us. They need to focus on their own hardship and goals.

After lunch we head across the first valley which is merciful in its flatness. But it doesn’t last long. Up.Down.Up.Down. Climb over uneven rocks. Hug a cliff wall. I won’t stop in fear now.

We tread along a high ridge where an avalanche roars like a jet engine to our right and a rock slide tumbles into a chasm on the left. I’m so dry I cannot spit. Fighting fatigue, we step off trail to drink and eat quick snacks. Jerky. Nuts with sweets. Protein bars. Can’t get enough and will learn later that my weight dropped twelve pounds. I share with the Sherpas and their smiles make me joyful. New friends. You can’t ever have too many.

I’ve been so intent upon putting one foot before the other, it takes me a few moments to realize we’ve arrived at the stupa for the dead above base camp. Then my world begins to crash into an unexpected tsunami of feelings.

I walk farther, taking quick pictures of base camp before afternoon clouds roll in. Yes. There’s the Khombu Ice. Quick look at the tents. But my heart is drawn back to the stupa for the dead. I’ve written messages on prayer flags for my deceased husband. This close to heaven, he’ll certainly hear. “Please help our kids. Give them dreams of how to proceed safely in this world” or simply, “I’m sorry that you suffered so much”. Twenty-two squares of fabric. Twenty-two appeals to eternity beyond.

I’m shaking with emotion, my body turned away from the mountain as a friend helps me connect my flags onto a chain of hundreds of prayers already there. This turned out to be the most important moment of my six year journey through death and grief. Later, I realize the gift the goddess of the mountain bestowed upon me that day. The veil of mourning sloughed away, transforming me with concious effort into a healed version. The next steps are with intentions for survival, hope, and renewel.

Day 9– To Lobuche, EBC Trek

Stats: Dingboche (14,460′) to Lobuche (16,347′) . 5.9 miles. Lunch at Thukla. Overall elevation gain= 2320′.  Net= 1,887′.

Once again, we are graced with bluebird skies as we trek uphill to a flat ridge. Mountains rise above us with snow-capped peaks in every compass direction. IMG_0702I turn in circles, filled with awe. We pass deserted stone crofts where trekkers stop to rest. The walking is easy in this section. For a bit.

Ahead there’s a hard slog up to the stupas that honor lost Everest expedition members. Mountainers such as world renown guide, Scott Fisher who died descending Everest in 1996 during a blizzard. Fisher refused to leave his weakened client and when his lead Sherpa radioed that a rescue was being mounted, Fisher threatened to throw himself off the precipice rather than endanger more lives. Eight people trapped in  whiteout conditions were hammered by snow flying at 75 miles-an-hour. Temperatures plummeted and they died.

Too many climbers were on the mountain that day, slowing ascent. This is a frequent story and the main reason so many are dying at Everest. Too many permits. Too many people rushing to ascend. Delay’s eat up oxygen. This leads to many questions: What kind of drive makes such risks worthwhile? What do surviving parents, wives or husbands, and children feel about this? Climbing is an addiction of sorts.

In many relgions, the visual reminder of a stupa means inmortality.   Prayer flags flap in the wind, gentle pleas for peace, rememberance and perhaps forgiveness. Here we are, standing on the rooftop of earth, not only experiencing the raw power of creation under our feet but feeling the spiritual creator in the surrounding air.

Leaving, we wind our way down to the river, where yaks stop to drink milky aquamarine water.

White boulders fill the lower plain, remmants of last monsoon’s flood. Now we climb back up and where the ridge levels,  we stop for lunch at Thukla/Dughla. I sit drinking lemon-ginger tea and smile. The most difficult part of the day is behind us. 

After lunch, we pass Lobuche base camp where orange tents dot the flood plain and a line of colorful trekkers dressed in rainbow colors cross to the start of the upward trail.  IMG_0738It’s amazing to me that Everest is not the queen in the crown of technical mountaineering. There are many other peaks to conquor in this region that are more difficult. Our walk continues along the ridge line, with gentle elevation changes before we drop down to the small settlement of Lobuche. Tonight we’ll stay at Oxygen Altitude tea house. Appropriate name, since tonight we’ll sleep more than 3 miles above sea level. IMG_0739

Acclimation Day in Dingboche (EBC Trek)

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.

IMG_0656

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.IMG_0665

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. 

 

 

Icons Above The Tree Line –Everest Trek

Phortse (11,960′) to Dingboche (14,460′)

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.

DSC_4979

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. IMG_0640This 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.

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. IMG_4444I 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.

To The Widow’s Village, EBC day 5

Namche Baazar (11,286′) to Phortse (12,598′)

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. IMG_0516My 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. IMG_0558

The only disconcerting noise comes from endless clacking of helicopters as they zip past like pests in the narrow valley next to me.IMG_4392 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.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

EBC–Day 2–We Are Family (Phakding to Namche Baazar)

(This post is out of sequence. Look below for day #3)

Stats: 8 miles. 2,700’ elevation difference with 4,600’ gross overall elevation change.

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.

Lost Jam-Jam (Day 3, Everest Trek)

Day 3—Mt. Everest base camp trek

No mo’ Jam-Jam

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.

 

 

Namche Bazaar sits in a bowl of sorts, with town following natural contours of the land. IMG_4383~photo-fullThe 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.

 

 

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. IMG_0494

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. IMG_0508

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. IMG_0506

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.