• Heather O’Neal


Diary of a Trekker – The Helicopter

Somewhere in the Himalayas

Rich and Marci Tuzinsky, a young couple from Ann Arbor, Michigan, and I began our trek to Kalapathar near Mt. Everest a few days ago.

The tiny airport in Lukla at 9,400 feet is closed now until the end of April. The locals are paving the runway, a much needed alternative to puddles, mud and loose rocks. Thus, we arrived next to the construction site ducking the blades of a five passenger helicopter!

It was a thrill I had never before experienced. During takeoff, the propeller started, first slowly, then the hum was deep inside our bones.

The moment we left earth and started into the air, I had to smile. We were whisked as if by the wind across sideways. The mountains below fell away. A wide expanse of endless Himalayan hills, hand sculpted with terraced fields, covered the landscape.

Unlike an airplane, the view and reality of actual flight was on all sides. I looked around to see what kept us in the air: no wings like a bird. The huge propeller churned hard above us, so fast I could not see its parts. That circular blur somehow held us to the air.

I thought of the buzz of an insect. It must be just as loud to little bug ears as the helicopter’s roar was to mine.

Sent Thursday, March 29, 2001 Diary of a Trekker II On the Trail to Mt. Everest

February 16, 2001 I’m in Namche Bazaar at 11,355 feet surrounded by white peaks. Unfortunately, they hide behind a veil of cold foggy clouds at the moment. Today Marci, Rich an I spent our acclimatization day hiking up and over the ridge beyond this megalopolis of a mountain village.

The path, straight up the rocky, somewhat snowy terrain, brought us to Kumjung, an hour and a half away. It snowed last night, luckily AFTER we got here. Kumgjung is at 12,400 feet, and it was hard breathing for me. The clouds were annoyingly persistent, blocking nearly every good view. High above the fog, an occasional Himalayan symphony would salute a well defined white peak. How majestic these mountains are, much taller than the imagination will hold.

In the village of Kumjung, we walked to a nearby monastery which claims to house an authentic yeti skull — the skull of the abominable snowman. This creature is much feared by the Sherpa villagers who live here among the sacred Himalayas. The main monastery room was elaborately painted with colorful Buddhist scenes and Tibetan designs. The room was dark and cold — especially cold when we had to take off our shoes to enter.

The old monk with the keys to the monastery also had the key to the sacred metal cabinet that held the skull. I noticed a large boil on his neck. He opened the metal doors but not before pointing out the donation box. I have read in travel books that this is really the skull of a baboon. Brown and furry, it had a cone shaped head. It was rather disgusting. Pemba, my friend, business partner, porter and guide, expressed his thoughts clearly. “Just a coconut,” he said, “not a yeti.”

Next we headed further up the ridge to the Everest View Hotel at 12,700 feet. The views of Everest here bring wealthy tourists who pay upwards of $200 a night for a short stay. Our tea at the restaurant cost more than a dollar for each small cup. Compare that to about 20 cents for tea in a local Trekkers’ Lodge.

There are four guests at the Everest View Hotel tonight who paid a load of cash to see clouds. They can only stay a night or two because flying in to this altitude doesn’t allow the human body enough time to acclimatize. The tourists are flown into a small airport above Namche and then hike only 40 minutes to get to the hotel. The body will naturally acclimatize if it is given a few days to gain altitude slowly. Supposedly there are oxygen masks above the beds in the rooms at this hotel, just like in an airplane. Leave it to the Japanese to figure this one out.

Sent Friday, March 30, 2001 Diary of a Trekker III Closer to Mt. Everest

February 17, 2001

Ahh, I’m sitting now on a small red stool in front of the stove. I’m in the dinning room of the Himalayan Trekkers’ Lodge in Tengobche at 12,300 feet. Mmmmm, the luxuries of trekking. Heat! I’m feeling good now.

The locals burn yak dung to conserve wood. It is always a welcome sight to see the woman of the house bringing in a fresh load. Eagerly the trekkers watch as she empties an old cooking-oil can full of dried yak patties into the embers of the previous one. Soon the HEAT is touching the marrow of the bones. Ahh. I just wish it would last. I know my sleeping bag will be shockingly cold. Hopefully I can retain enough heat to warm up the bag before it freezes me.

February 18, 2001

I woke up this morning to what sounded like a blender. It turned out to be the sound of the monks announcing the start of their ceremony by blowing through conch shells from the second floor window of the monastery. It was 7:00 AM.

Marci and I witnessed the chanting last night with cold feet. No shoes allowed in the monastery.

I had popcorn for lunch. My stomach was giving me trouble earlier. Now it feels better.

Rich, Marci and I have met lots of nice people on the trail. We’re now in Pheriche at 14, 098 feet. We’re spending our time chatting with our new friends in the sunroom or huddling close to the yak dung as it burns so nicely in the stove in the dinning room. It dries our sweaty wet socks. We’re eating a lot too.

March 2, 2001

Now I sit in an aura of heat as the yak dung burns evenly in the stove at the Alpine Inn in Lobuche. Nine of us are wedged around it and four others are in the periphery of the dinning room eating rice dinners at the surrounding tables.

My right shoe is finally dry. A while ago it was hanging on part of the stove. This morning on the trail I gracefully slipped off an icy stone, and my right foot went into some frigid stream water. I hiked the rest of the day with a cold foot.

Actually it was a good day. I felt great the whole distance. Now I have a slight headache however. We’re at 16, 262 feet. I hope I can sleep.

Wow. Have I been sitting here for five hours?! Can that be right?! It’s 7:30, time for dinner.

Sent March 30, 2001 Diary of a Trekker IV Very Close to Mt. Everest

February 2, 2001

It was frightening! This morning five other trekkers and I left the lodge in the dark at four this morning. We walked at a quick pace in a line with our headlights and flashlights lighting the way. It was minus ten degrees. We left Lobuche, the warmest lodge on the trek, to get as close as possible to the tallest mountain in the world. We wanted to get up and back before the clouds came in. I knew it had snowed last night because my footprints were the first to make their way to the toilet, at 1:00 AM this morning.

After leaving the lodge, we immediately crossed a wide stream stepping from one rock to another. Each was covered with snow and ice. There was no way I would get to Kalapathar, our goal across the valley from Mt. Everest, with a wet shoe. I moved slowly and was soon at the end of our short line of trekkers.

We headed into the darkness with Pemba Sherpa leading the way. He offered his flashlight to Marci because hers had gone out. Were the batteries too cold? My headlight went out also. My eyes could barely adjust. The freeze was biting at my toes especially when I tripped over loose stones in the path. The snow was just thick enough to refrigerate my running shoes completely. I wore two pairs of old socks which had worn thin in the toes. My finger were numb and stiff, stuffed into my fleece jacket pockets. I wore a thin pair of fashionable gloves. My mother had loaned them to me a few months ago.

I kept moving, sometimes lagging behind, sometimes on Tokeko’s heels. She was from Japan, maybe 22, traveling alone. She joined Marci, Rich, Pemba, Dawa (one of our porters), and me that morning for help finding the trail. Pemba and Dawa were ahead navigating in total darkness. Only two of six lights were working. Colder grew our hands, toes, and noses. At one point Marci’s boots were off. We spent some minutes rubbing life back into her feet. Then again we stopped. Her toes were as cold as the snow. Finally the sun was beginning to brighten the sky which solved the visual problem. However the temperature remained the same.

By now we were among large boulders making our way over tall hills and valleys covered with rocks. This was the terminal moraine of the Kumbu glacier which falls through the valley below Everest like a frozen river. We walked along the blue, icy gray formation. The earth, rocks and gravel it pushed around were more than all nations could move. The foundation of our trail followed 300 foot waves of geological excavation. We headed up and down, deeper into the valley toward Mt. Everest.

From the rocky slopes of Kalapathar, meaning Black Rock in Nepali, the best southern views of Everest are found. Finally we were trekking up this steep trail. We watched the sun behind us creeping all too slowly among the white surrounding Himalayan peaks in the distance. We were, after all, in the shadow of the world’s tallest mountain. It seemed the sun would never reach us.

We had left early to avoid the clouds, yet still they were swirling among the peaks. We studied the thickest blackest cloud I have ever seen which sat totally covering our main point of interest. The top of Everest was completely obscured. We knew the sun had magical powers that might melt even the most stubborn clouds. If only the sun would ever get there!

It was hard to imagine the storm that whirled atop Everest. Finally it lifted, and a dark solid rock appeared. Not one flake of snow was left on its surface. The storm had cleaned Everest completely. The dark black peak stood in contrast among the other white snow covered ones making the name Everest more believable. The triangular black rock looked proud. It was tota lly exposed now.

We stood in its shadow, freezing. Our finger tips were numb as we snapped the moment into photographic memory. Rich had brought a Michigan State Flag and a shopping bag from the camping store, Bivouac. On the wall at the store in Ann Arbor, you’ll find the picture I took of Rich holding the shopping bag with Everest looming in the background.

On the way back to Lobuche, I lagged behind again, this time to absorb the scenery. Trekking along the glacier, up and down the tall rocky ridges was the best moment of this trek for me. Finally we met the sun, and my toes and fingers quickly returned to a normal temperature.

Next the clouds came in mysteriously lower than the trail. The sun reflected light rays off every blowing snowflake. The frozen mist from the clouds shimmered and glistened as it went into my lungs. The scene was like a fairy tale. Majestic Himalayan peaks faded in and out of the background behind thick and thin variations of fog, then clouds, then intense sun. As my b reath caught the sparkles, I waited for a yeti to appear. I imagined him lumbering toward me, offering me a furry hand. I felt welcome in his world.

Then as I rounded one of a million turns in the trail, eight of the largest birds stood watching me near the trail. Each must have been bigger than a wild turkey, wearing elegantly smooth brown and white feathers (cheer pheasants maybe). They pecked around in the dirt and gravel, rocks and snow. What could they possibly find there to eat at 17-18,000 feet? My presence didn’t seem to bother them so I sat on a rock and watched for a long while. The Kumbu glacier moved at its own geological pace below me in silence.

Sent Friday, March 30, 2001 Diary of a Trekker V: The Second Trek

Back in Kathmandu

March 15, 2001

After Rich and Marci, my first two trekkers, left Nepal, I met Megan and Russ, father and daughter, at the Kathmandu airport to begin my second trek. These are customized vacations. It was hard to coordinate schedules so I completed two twelve-day treks to Kalapathar at 18,000 feet during the six weeks I was in Nepal.

The second trek was much the same as the first. One interesting point on the trail the second time was visiting the Himalayan Rescue Association’s Health Post in Pheriche at 14,068 feet. The doctor there (from Colorado) mentioned that a dismembered yak was found at the top of a nearby ridge. He had hiked up to see it because it was a mystery how this yak had been killed. The locals were certain it was the evil work of a yeti.

It seems the standard kill of a snow leopard is attacking the throat and the back of the neck of its prey. A snow leopard wouldn’t — couldn’t — dismember a yak. I looked out the window before I went to sleep that night and closed my eyes wondering what I would do if a yeti walked by in the moonlight.

Two days later we woke up at four AM to trek to Kalapathar. We had a full moon. It was so bright outside, we didn’t need our headlamps. It was every bit as cold as the first trek but this time I brought my new down booties and wore them on my hands with hand warmers inside!

We had a beautiful sunny day while climbing Kalapathar this time. The views were amazing. Walking back along the Kumbu glacier was again a thrill. This is now my new favorite place, perhaps the most magical spot in the world.

Sent Wednesday, April 4, 2001 Diary of a Trekker VI: The Fire

The Last Adventure

March 17, 2001

I can’t sleep. The whole building smells of smoke. I sit here on my hotel bed. My shoes are on. I am dressed. I can’t think to go to sleep. It’s 12:45 AM. My heart is racing to absorb the reality that has just passed. My headlamp around my neck lights this paper. If the electricity were on, I think I’d see smoke in the room. Just moments ago I saw a beam of smoke cast in the light of another guest’s flashlight out in the hall.

Without this headlamp the world is black. Perhaps I shouldn’t write and instead conserve batteries. No, I refuse to sit in the dark. The evening began with a pleasant dinner at the Third Eye Restaurant with Russ and Megan, my second two trekkers. We were walking back to the hotel at about 10:00 PM, a little sad to find the ice cream shop was closed.

My headlight is dimming!

Just in time! I ran downstairs to the front desk and they gave me a candle which is now lit, stuck to the bottom of a blue glass ashtray. Its single flame innocently lights the room and this pen. The fire now stands still. Odd to have a piece of such potential torment right here next to me.

I think about what the Buddhists believe. The flame of the butter-lamp is the light of wisdom which dispels stupidity, ignorance and suffering. I witnessed something else tonight. A flame gone mad, in rage and destruction, a frantic signal of distress from earth to the gods.

When Russ, Megan and I approached the hotel this evening we found the red blinking lights of police cars and fire trucks blocking the street next to the hotel. A large crowd was gathered at the scene. We saw the smoke that filled the sky and fire-truck water ran through the gutter. A serious situation was blazing only two doors down. We asked at our hotel. A young man working the night shift began to explain, “The fire started in the shop. No one was there. Maybe incense. Now it’s big.”

I suggested climbing to the sixth floor roof for a bird’s eye view. Megan, Russ and I headed up the tiled staircase. Immediately at the rooftop terrace door I could see the problem. “Oh my God,” were my words.

Flames as big as elephants roared into the night sky. We were at least fifty feet from intense heat and more than fifty feet off the ground. The usually vivid stars were now totally blurred by billowing smoke. Our building was far too close. Sparks drifted up, floated, and disappeared in the air. Others just as easily could land somewhere. We looked over the wall.

Three fire trucks flashed in the street below where now a huge crowd gathered. The people clogged the passage of cars, and the police were busy trying to control the mess. The fire was completely out of control. The situation seemed hopeless. Only the water from an Olympic sized swimming pool, dumped by helicopter might possibly make a dent in the horror. Would the neighboring hotels and houses be next? Such a fire needs tons and tons of water — fast.

Then the building popped. The explosion was enough warning. We headed for the door — the stairs. Instinct spoke, “We better get out!” Panic mode set into my skeleton, not a feeling I have often felt. At this point the electricity in the building was out. The stairwell was black, the slick, cold staircase blacker. Each of us felt for the railing. Totally blind with eyes wide open, we wound our way down and down as slowly as children afraid in the dark.

The movement of flashlights on the ground floor signaled that our rooms were one floor up. We went into the dark hallway feeling the walls, feeling for the doorways, the door knobs and the big metal keys. Mine was hidden in darkness in my backpack.

Once inside my room, I went right to my headlight and took two of my bags leaving most of my things behind. Megan and Russ, in the room around the corner, also grabbed what they could.

Hotel employees were on each floor banging on doors, walking up guests, yelling for everyone to evacuate. “Leave your things in the lobby,” one man instructed.

With the guidance of our headlamps we went down and left our big bags in the lobby. On the street the crowd now filled the pavement and the entire narrow intersection nearby. Police officers pushed the gawkers back. We moved with the flow along the shop facades. Each store was covered with metal garage-type gates, all closed for the night. What a helpless feeling it was, sitting, standing, sitting, standing on the shop steps that line the street.

My candle is half gone.

Many tourists were in the crowd carrying their trekking backpacks and other luggage. Why hadn’t we brought our bags out with us? Instead they were at a distance in the lobby. I thought about the video camera I left on the bed in my room.

Megan, Russ and I discussed the possibilities of the next twelve hours. Should we go to another hotel? Would the firemen ever have it out? The fire trucks looked like they were built in the 1950s. We pondered the fact that the last fire hydrant any of us had seen was somewhere in America.

Russ went to check on the situation and reported. Many hotel guests were waiting in the lobby with their luggage. We decided to join them, in a better position to salvage our belongings if things got worse.

Inside, a hotel employee passed out candles which he stuck with wax directly to the wooden coffee tables and window sills. About 15-20 tourists from all over the world sat in the lobby chairs conversing in every language. In the dim glimmer of firelight, I studied the shape and intimate space of the room. The painted detail at the edges of the ceiling wrapped around the thick rafters and columns: a Tibetan design.

A hotel employee said the burning building was a trekking shop and I quickly remembered which one. It was big compared to most other shops in Kathmandu. This one was full of down jackets, fleece pullovers, tents and flammable items like camping stoves, propane cylinders and oxygen tanks. The third and fourth floors were storage which explained the explosion we saw from the roof.

Thinking back, I am so amazed to be sitting right here right now. The scene is calm. I have never been so close to such a monster. All night sirens were screaming back and forth across town. Now they’ve gone to sleep. How did the men put it out? I want to shake their hands. I went to the roof just now to check. The smoke is fading, nearly gone. A while ago it was in every small corner, in every space, all around!

How ironic to be able to sit here so peacefully — with this candle! I’ll sleep in my clothes — if I can sleep at all. It’s 2:30 AM.

The candle has less than an inch to go.

How fragile life is. I feel like hugging someone. I feel an overwhelming sense of love. I hope no one was hurt.

Thank God, no one was hurt.

The next day I studied the remains. The narrow concrete building of four or five stories was now totally gutted, black and burned through all the windows. Charcoal remains of sleeping bags and backpacks pushed through the broken glass on the third floor. Broken bits of the windows were spread evenly, covering the street.

That sunny morning a crowd of about 50 stood gazing at the aftermath with me. The sound of draining fire-hose water trickled down to the street from two pipes on the second and third floors. I remembered the firemen the night before, with every muscle flexed, dragging large and heavy hoses.

After reading the paper, I learned there were FOUR big fires in Kathmandu at the same time. One downtown in a shopping center was much bigger than this one. Also eight homes were burned the night before in a village in the far west. Two children and many animals had died there. The Kathmandu fires were all in modern buildings, all businesses, and occurred at roughly the same time, 9:00 PM. Luckily, no one was hurt.

A mystery. Some theories suggest the cause was the dry season. “There are always fires at this time of year.” Others say it was probably an electrical short or they could have been accidents. A few people whispered it was a political group in need of attention.

Who knows. I’ll keep reading the paper.


Heather O’Neal

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