fire and ice photo | Trekking in Nepal

Trekking in Nepal

January 28, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

This account is from my trek in Nepal in 1996.  I wrote it as a travel article, but never was able to get it published.  I was told at the time by newspaper editors (who had published me before) that travel articles had to be tied to advertising.  I assume it's just gotten worse...

Cheers, Mark

The Highs and Lows of Trekking Nepal


Mark Dornblaser


   We were sitting in the dining tent after dinner. We huddled in the cold, each breath visible as we exhaled. The dim light came from a lantern; hours earlier the mist had swallowed up the mountains, and darkness had enveloped us. Our soft-spoken Sherpa guide, Sona Hishe, was describing the last recorded attack by a yeti, or abominable snowman, back in 1963...

   “Startled, the woman spun around, and was terrified at what she saw. As she turned away, trying to protect herself, the yeti knocked her into the icy stream. When she awoke in the cold water, the yeti was attacking her yaks. It picked up one baby and threw it to the ground, killing it instantly. Another one it ripped in two pieces. The young woman was paralyzed with fear, and didn’t move. She didn’t know what the yeti was doing with the third yak, it’s powerful arms around the yak’s neck, until she realized the yeti was draining the large animal of its blood. The fourth yak was skinned alive as she watched, horrified. The fifth yak’s limbs were ripped off. The woman was certain she would be next, but the yeti disappeared into the forest.”

   Just as Sona finished telling us this chilling tale, the lid on the teapot slammed shut, making us all jump. Sona himself recalled hearing the wail of the yeti years ago as a teenager, and how “very scared” he had been. We all retired to our tents that night wide awake, ears tuned to every sound, listening for the wail of the yeti.

   We never heard one, but the next day in the village of Khumjung, we visited the gompa, or monastery, where we saw the scalp of a yeti in a locked glass case. I was skeptical of the scalp, as were my fiancé, Deb, and the other three westerners on our trek. At the same time, I was enchanted with this land, where mysticism and legend are such a part of daily life.

   At this point we were five days into our 19 day trek, and we seemed a world away from the hustle, noise, and smog of Kathmandu, our gateway to the Khumbu region of Nepal. While we enjoyed our brief visit to Kathmandu, strolling around the old Durbar, or Palace Square, exploring temples dating back to the 1600’s, it was the great Himalaya mountains we came to see, the “Abode of Snows.” The Himalayas were born 40 million years ago, when India slammed into Asia. The uplift of these mountains continues today, at a rate of 10 centimeters a year. For a country the size of Iowa, Nepal has the highest altitude range of any place on earth. Its lowland Terai region sits just 300 feet above sea level. A short distance away, Nepal has eight of the highest mountains in the world, capped off by the incredible Mount Everest, at 29,028 feet. While the views so far had been even more spectacular than I imagined, I knew I would be disappointed if views of the world’s tallest peak eluded us.

   To get those views requires a long trek up into the mountains, for there are no roads to take you there. We shortened the distance a great deal, by taking a Russian cargo helicopter from Kathmandu, at 4500 feet, to Lukla, at 9400 feet. Serious trekkers hike to Lukla from the village of Jiri, a ten hour bus ride from Kathmandu. While this helps the body acclimatize to the altitude and strengthen muscles, this hike adds at least another week to the trip. So we skipped ahead to Lukla, where we began our daily trekking routine.

   We adapted to the trekking life quickly, eager to rid ourselves of the trappings of civilization. The time of day and day of the week soon became irrelevant. We rose, ate, walked, and slept according to the sun’s clock. Typically, we’d hear our spry cook Jor Bahadur (JB for short) saying “tea ready,” at first light, as he passed the hot mugs into our tents. Hot wash water was left in a bowl just outside. After a light breakfast, we would hike for about three hours, and then leisurely enjoy a hot lunch while gazing at the surrounding peaks. When we stopped mid-afternoon, after another three hours on the trail, our camp was already set up, our down sleeping bags already unfurled in our North Face dome tents. Afternoon tea, then dinner, and an early bedtime usually rounded out the day.

   The steep ups and downs, and the altitude, took their toll the first few days - on our way through the villages of Phadking, Namche Bazaar, and Thame, our legs felt like stone, and we struggled to draw enough oxygen into our lungs. But by the time we arrived in Khumjung, at 12,600 feet, our bodies were adjusting. We occasionally suffered headaches (a typical symptom of mild altitude sickness), but our legs felt stronger, and we grew more excited the farther into the mountains we climbed.

   Day 6: Every step we take we are witness to a rich tapestry unfolding before us - spectacular mountain vistas, the warm smiles of the villagers, and the Buddhist shrines along the trail are all woven into the fabric of a hard, but spiritual life that we all greatly admire. Colorful prayer flags flutter along high ridges, the wind carrying the words of the prayers off to be shared by all. Stupas (Buddhist shrines) spring up frequently along the trail; out of respect we walk around them in a clockwise direction, as the locals do. Mani, or prayer stones, carved centuries ago, adorn the bases of the stupas by the hundreds. Many of these stones repeat the mantra, “Om mani padme hum,” or “Hail to the jewel of the lotus.”

   From Khumjung we hike down to the Dudh Kosi (Milk River) and the village of Phortse Tenga, then begin a long climb up towards Macherma at 14,600 feet. Both the altitude and the grand vistas take your breath away. The scenery changes more frequently than I would have imagined. Views of the peaks Cholotse and Taboche (both over 21,000 feet high) change constantly as we hike in front of their western faces. We pass through different vegetation zones at different altitudes - the birch, oak, maple, and rhododendron at lower altitudes give way to large pines on high ridges, their limbs twisted by the prevailing winds and draped in feathery green mosses, grown from the monsoons of summer. The Nepalese bird, the pheasant, with its brilliantly colored plumage, prances through the undergrowth. Higher still, scrub juniper is all that can survive the harsh environment. The Himalayan tahr (related to the goat), scampers sure-footed among the rocky crags. Finally, above 14,000 feet, the juniper disappears, leaving only rust-colored mosses and lichens clinging defiantly to the rocks.

   And always along the trail, the friendly villagers, porters, and sherpas. (Sherpa with a capital S refers to the Nepalese ethnic group that emigrated to the Khumbu region of Nepal from Tibet 500 years ago. With a lower case s, sherpa refers to a trek guide or mountaineer. Not all sherpas are Sherpas, but many are.) On most days, Nima, a 16 year old Sherpa, leads us up the trail. Nima speaks little English, but his mischievous smile, and good natured ribbing about our slow pace, speak volumes. With the villagers, too, we learn that a warm smile and a friendly “namaste,” or hello, is all that is needed to communicate. The porters we see on the trail carry incredible loads, often well over one hundred pounds, wearing only sandals or tennis shoes. A simple strap running across their foreheads bears the weight. As they pass us by, whistling, and seemingly without effort, we are duly impressed, and weakened at the same time. They shoulder everything from trekkers’ gear to stacks of long 2x8’s, used to build the hundreds of tea houses that have sprung up as a result of trekking’s popularity. Yaks carry even more gear, ours included. The bells around their thick necks warn of their approach; we hug the high side of the trail and let them pass, so as not to be bumped off the other side and sent tumbling for a thousand feet.

   In the villages, families spend unbelievable amounts of time and effort clearing rocks from the fields to grow barley, buckwheat, corn, and most importantly, potatoes, the staple of these once nomadic herders for the last 150 years. High stone walls separating the families’ plots are a testament to their labor. In schoolyards, young children, their faces dirty yet bright, sing joyously, their melodies carrying far up the valley. It is a sweet, sweet sound.

   Macherma is higher than I’ve ever been in my life. We spend two nights there to aid in the acclimatization process. We still have much higher to go. In addition to headaches that come and go, I notice a loss of appetite, another symptom of mild altitude sickness. I also have anxiety attacks at night, as my lungs struggle to take in more oxygen. These symptoms are cause for concern, but are not yet dangerous. I seem to be affected the most, although scientists have no idea why altitude affects some more than others, or why it can hit someone hard on one trip, but not on the next. One thing everyone agrees on is that you must consume a large amount of water each day to combat dehydration, which may play a large role in altitude sickness. Sona says we should drink four litres of water a day to replace the water we lose from perspiration and breathing the dry mountain air. At every meal, the staff provides us with ample supplies of boiled water that we use to fill our bottles. But while we all try diligently to comply with Sona’s recommendation, the amount seems enormous, and I know I am not reaching that target.

   Day 9: Our destination is the tiny summer village of Gokyo, at 15,700 feet. A steady climb, we push onwards and upwards following the Dudh Kosi, drawn by views of the glistening white Cho Oyu ahead of us, at 26,700 feet. We climb up and around the terminal moraine of the Lungsampa Glacier, a ten mile long river of ice, which flows down from the flanks of the towering Cho Oyu. Suddenly we come upon a series of breathtaking blue-green lakes, nestled between the lateral moraine of the glacier and Dragkya, a knife-edged ridge topping off at 20,000 feet. The deep blue color of the lakes is a shock to our senses, in this monochromatic alpine world of dark rock and white ice.

   The following morning we are scheduled to attempt the summit of Gokyo Peak, at 18,000 feet. Sitting just across the lake, it looks like a small hill, until we realize that the small specks we see are other trekkers, inching their way down the mountain following their own summit attempt. We go to bed anxious and excited. This is what we all had been dreaming about for a year. This is why we had been training hard for six months.

   I sleep fitfully, due to altitude and adrenaline. And it is cold. The down bags provided for us keep us warm, but each night requires at least one trip out of the tent due to the large volumes of water consumed. I stand outside in my long johns and hiking boots in the 20 degree cold. The night is calm. The combined light of a billion billion stars gently illuminates the landscape. I return to bed listening to the soothing sounds of water flowing by, and of chiming yak bells.

   In the morning we awaken to ice crystals on the inside of the tent. We get an early start, unsure of how long it will take to reach the summit, or whether it will happen at all. It is a tough slog, one foot in front of the other, switchback after switchback, breathing heavily the entire way. We stop frequently for water and rest, and I am afraid to look at my watch. But little by little we make progress. Eventually, the slope begins to level off, and we are able to see that the top is within reach. Deb and I reach it together, and embrace, tears streaming down our face. It is one of the most emotional moments of our lives. We turn and gaze in awe at our 360 degree view of the top of the world. Below us, the Gokyo lakes shine their brilliant blue. The Lungsampa Glacier stretches from one horizon to the other. Rising above us are half of the eight highest peaks in the world, standing starkly against a crystal blue sky: Cho Oyu, Makalu, Lhotse, and the one we all came to see, Everest. Known as Sagarmatha to the Nepalese, and Chomolongma to Tibetans, it is so high that it intersects the jet stream, which explains the bare rock appearance of the mountain and the plume of snow whipping off its summit. Given the struggle to get where we were at 18,000 feet, I could better understand the struggle it must be to summit Everest. While 200 climbers have reached the top since Sir Edmund Hillary and Norgay Tensing first did it in 1953, 100 climbers have died.

   Glued to the vision before me, I held even more respect for our Sherpa leader, Sona. A 44 year old veteran of four Everest expeditions, he had cheated death on at least one occasion, when he and three fellow Sherpas were trapped in an avalanche. Short and thin, but incredibly strong, he was able to dig himself out, and his friends, and lead them through chest-deep snow to safety. I turn to watch him string up a line of prayer flags between two rocky outcrops on the summit. This quiet reverence to his religion was ever more inspiring given the prominence of death in these mountains. Life expectancy here is only 52. Sherpas and porters can make good money assisting in expeditions, but often they pay the ultimate price. Monasteries in the region swell with young children, orphaned at an early age. Earlier we had seen a rescue helicopter flying up to Ama Dablam, trying to recover five dead climbers. Of the five dead, only one was a foreigner.

   After several glorious hours on the summit of Gokyo Peak, we regretfully descend. Back in camp, the clouds move in quickly and it begins to snow. We feel all the more fortunate for what we have just seen. Riding an emotional high, we set off the next day in high gear, crossing the rocky lower reach of the Lungsampa Glacier, a moonscape set off by a blinding sun. Later, rising up through Chugiema, I am struggling again. As good and varied as the food is on the trek, my lack of appetite has been causing me to lose weight, and along with that, strength. We were approaching what I knew would be a difficult part of the trek, a climb over the Cho La Pass. At 17,800 feet, I knew it would be a climb about as high as Gokyo Peak. What I didn’t realize until the day before was that our trusty yaks were leaving us and taking the long way around - the pass was too steep for them to climb.

   I am dizzy the next morning, staring up at the glacier-covered pass. We make our way slowly up the rock wall, sometimes hand over hand. At some point Ang Chuldim, our Sirdar (head of the trekking staff) notices my ragged condition and graciously takes my day pack. At this point I am not too proud to refuse help. This frees me up enough to finally reach the top of the pass. As I stare at the sea of ice surrounding me, I feel in the clear, realizing that most of the remainder of the trek is downhill from here. But on the way down the other side of the pass, I am still not feeling right. I try to eat something at camp in Dzongla, but I can’t keep it down. This puts me into a new category as far as altitude sickness is concerned. It is time for a very watchful eye, from Deb, Sona, and myself.

   Day 13: Our destination is the village of Lobuche. At 16,000 feet, Lobuche is no higher than our camp at Dzongla, or Gokyo. While feeling run down, I reason that I am not in too much danger as long as I don’t gain altitude again right away. We planned to spend two nights in Lobuche, and make an attempt on Kala Pattar, another 18,000 foot peak. I hoped that a night’s rest in Lobuche would do me a world of good. But this is our seventh day above 14,000 feet. And on what should be a very easy jaunt to Lobuche, my pace slows even more. In Lobuche we decide that I have had enough, and I should descend immediately. At least I am sensible enough not to put up too much of a fight. I am extremely disappointed at missing the attempt on Kala Pattar, a peak whose views are said to rival those of Gokyo. But as Deb and I descend with Sona and two porters, there is nothing I can do.

   Sona puts us up in a lodge in Pheriche, at 14,000 feet. Almost instantaneously, I feel 100% better. This is the one great thing about altitude sickness that I already knew - curing it is as simple as descend, descend, descend. We go to the Himalayan Rescue Station and listen to a doctor talk to trekkers about altitude sickness. He confirms for us the serious nature of my symptoms, proving that we had made the right decision. At night, I actually get a full night’s sleep, and my appetite returns. The following day, Sona takes us to his own lodge in Dingboche, also at 14,000 feet. We recoup here until the rest of our crew catches up with us. As it turns out, only one member of our crew, Carla, made the assault on Kala Pattar. She is beaming, recounting the stunning views, and I am honestly happy that she made it.

   Day 16: We all arrive in Tengboche, the cultural and religious center of the Khumbu region of Nepal. Now at 12,500 feet, every step we have descended has made the breathing easier. Perched on a ridgetop, we should see Everest from here, but the clouds finally catch up with us, and we miss our last final look at the great mountain.

   Instead we focus on the Tengboche monastery, not always by choice. At 5:00 am, we awaken to the cacophonous sounds of cymbals, drums, and horns that shatter the darkness. Monks of all ages, in their burgundy robes, chant and pray for four hours every morning, and four hours every evening. We quietly enter the monastery, and listen to the chanting for a long while. The monastery is lit by only a few bare bulbs, but the wall hangings and frescoes are brightly colored. Images of the Dalai Lama, made illegal in neighboring Tibet by the Chinese, are tacked up on wooden beams. The fragrant scent of juniper incense fills the monastery. A fifteen foot golden Buddha sits silently in the back of the chamber, katas (prayer shawls) draped across his lap, his clairvoyant eyes upon us all. We leave silently, agreeing that we prefer the peaceful chanting of the monks in prayer to the loud banging at 5:00 am.

   Day 18: We arrive in Syangboche on a sunny afternoon. It’s noticeably warmer at 12,000 feet than it was above 14,000. We are camped above the STOL (short take-off and landing) airstrip, where, with any luck, a helicopter will come to pick us up in the morning and take us back to Kathmandu, and flights home. We admit that we are all ready to return to civilization, ready to return to warm showers, flush toilets, and bedrooms where ice doesn’t grow on the ceiling. 

   On our last evening in the Himalayas, we wish to thank Sona, Ang Chuldim, JB, Nima, and the rest of the crew for taking such good care of us. So we take them to a little tea house near our camp for an end-of-trek celebration. In a little dark room, with a dirt floor and with walls black with soot, we exchange toasts, to a successful expedition and to friendship. While we drink San Miguel beer, our guides drink chang, a local rice beer that they themselves warn us away from. There is much singing and dancing. JB moves us deeply with a traditional Sherpa folk song. We do our best to respond in kind. It is a wonderful way to end the trek.

   The next morning, clouds threaten our departure. Sona, a gleam in his eye, tells us horror stories of people stranded here for two weeks, waiting for the weather to clear, so we are a little uneasy. When our helicopter finally makes it through a tiny break in the clouds, it is chaos as we race to leave. As we say our goodbyes to our friends, Sona drapes katas around our necks. His smiling face is the last thing Deb and I see before we lift into the clouds.




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