During my customized tours in Nepal I keep a journal of the daily adventures, and this is what I usually send to you. This time, however, I am sending Steve Olsen’s journal instead of mine. Steve (57) and his wife Mary Jane (57) were my most recent trekkers.
We left for Kathmandu September 26 and returned to Michigan October 18. During our visit we trekked to Gokyo (and beyond), a small village high in the Himalayas at 15,675 feet. This town lies next to the world’s largest glacier at the base of Cho Oyu, the world’s sixth tallest mountain (26,906 feet). It is a spectacular 12-15 day trek in the Everest region. The journey is similar to the Everest Base Camp and Kalapathar trek, however, Gokyo is west of the Everest trail. On a clear day, great views of Everest can be seen from the top of Gokyo Ri, a rocky peak above Gokyo at 18,000 feet. What follows is Part one of Steve Olsen’s Journal. It describes arriving in Kathmandu and the first three days of the trek. Enjoy!
The Onespeed Expedition
Sunday, September 29
At the airport in Kathmandu, we breeze through customs with the whales (huge wheeled duffels) to find Heather and Pemba Sherpa (Heather’s Nepali/Sherpa business partner) waiting for us with marigold garlands and a video camera, which is a horrible thing to have pointed at you after almost three straight days on airplanes. A quick cab ride into town to the Thamel district and the Tibet Guest House. Our room is quite nice, considering the price and location.
Right away we spend a couple of hours strolling around the crowded, noisy, dusty city. We saw lots of temples and shrines, stupas, sadhus, and street hawkers hustling tiger balm, carved elephants, chess sets, and flutes. It is cacophonous, tumultuous, unbelievably disorganized. But the real wonder is that it all seems to work pretty well. Having been here before, it is familiar and somehow comfortable in spite of the commotion. It is noisy, but no one is angry or tense, everyone makes room for everyone else. Everything is done by hand – I see people digging holes to fix water pipes, setting rebar for foundations, sorting gravel, filling cement bags, piling bricks. There is no machinery at all. We have dinner at a secluded courtyard garden of the New Orleans Café. I had Red Beans and Rice (not). It was passable at least. We stopped at a small internet café on the way back to the hotel to e-mail back home, then to bed at 9:30.
Monday, Sept. 30
Neither of us slept more than four hours total. Our clocks are just not in sync yet. Actually the room was very quiet for being smack in the middle of the Thamel, one of the busiest sections of town. A few dogs barked in the night, and we also heard roosters crowing and what sounded like ducks flying overhead. Got to get rolling, off to the airport for the dreaded puddle-jumper flight to Lukla, the town whose tiny airstrip is literally on the side of a mountain and that everyone who has flown to has a horror story to tell about the landing. I hope Mary Jane can stand it. The Kathmandu domestic airport is truly a Kafka-esque scene. It has the flavor of a Calcutta train station that has crashed into a Yemeni customs house. Teeming humanity amid heaps of freight and luggage accompanied by riotous noise and indecipherable directions given by impatient uniformed men. We are fortunately greeted by Heather’s friend Wonchu Sherpa, who is an oasis of calm competency, and who with a wave of his hand gets the attention of the right people, and we are whisked through the confusion. We learn that among his other enterprises, Wonchu (who has summited Everest twice) is an organizer and logistics expert for large mountaineering expeditions, and commands a large amount of respect wherever he goes in Nepal.
The flight turns out to be a hoot! The plane was a DeHaviland Otter, a well-used 15 – 20 seat turboprop. I jockeyed for position and got the front row center seat, close enough to the instrument panel that I could have switched the radios for the pilots if they had asked me. Mary Jane sat in the back. We climbed steadily from takeoff to 10,190 feet, and after about thirty minutes, just as we barely cleared another ridge, there in the distance in front of us was Lukla at 9,250 feet. A speck, a postage stamp on the side of a mountain.
We were descending straight for the runway. The runway slopes up at what must be a 20-degree angle. It seemed as if we would fly right through the mountain. At the far end of the runway is a stone wall, then nothing but rocks and trees. I was videotaping over the pilot’s shoulder. Everyone in back was pale and mumbling various prayers. The pilot hit the runway right on the first ten feet of the pavement, touching down exactly when the stall alarm sounded, a perfect landing, no wasted space. At the top of the runway we veer off onto a flat apron in front of the terminal building, spin around and come to a stop. I was thrilled, Mary Jane was fine. Once out of the plane on the tarmac we stood and watched a couple of takeoffs. The planes just turn back onto the runway, point downhill, roar the engines and disappear. Can’t wait till we have our turn when we leave.
We step out the back door of the terminal directly onto the trail (there are no roads). We make a brief stop at Pemba’s Uncle’s house for tea. Pemba will rearrange our luggage and sleeping bags, hire porters, then follow us up the trial later.
We set out through the streets (street) of Lukla to begin our adventure. This trail is a lot rougher than those we remember from our previous trip in the Annapurna region. The term trail applies only because there is a more obviously-used beaten track in one area of the boulder field than other places, and it heads in the general direction of the next landmark. Sharp rocks, mud, Yak dung, and loose gravel. But the scenery is immediately magnificent. I mean truly breathtaking. Steep valleys, rushing rivers, incredibly green vegetation, mountain vistas in the background sometimes screened by wisps of cloud, scenic little villages with lush vegetable gardens. Chamber of commerce, picture post card stuff. Mary Jane wanted me to pinch her; she couldn’t believe we were here at last.
We hike over lots of ups and downs, but we will end up lower than Lukla tonight (remember this — it is significant on the return trip.) We pass our first Yak trains (these are ‘Zup Yaks’ — cross bred cows and Yaks), walk to the left around huge Mani stones (boulders with prayers carved into them) and prayer poles. We have lunch (Ra-Ra noodle soup) at a restaurant’s stone patio with Cinzano umbrellas on the edge of a ravine with a river at the bottom, in bright sunshine with mountains framing the view. We stop for the night after about three hours’ walking at Phakding village in a lodge by the trail. The bottom floor is the family quarters, kitchen, and dinning room. Upstairs is a central dormitory and on one side are small rooms with beds (cots with foam pads) with rough planks for walls — complete with sizeable gaps for the convenient viewing of one’s neighbors. The only heat is the potbellied stove in the dining room; the only light is a single bulb in the dining room powered by a solar-charged battery. The toilet (cherpi) is outside, and there is even a hot shower (a blue tarp supported by sticks with a bucket for water)!
Heather and Pemba took us for a short hike before dinner for acclimatizing; we went up a steep trail above the village for an hour and a half, then back to the lodge. We had dinner (I had daal bhat — lentils and rice — with black tea.) Then we sat around the warm stove chatting until about 8:00, then to bed. First Mary Jane and I had another Chinese fire drill trying to find what we need for the night in the duffles with no light. To sleep about 8:30. We woke in the night to go outside to pee, and the stars and a sliver of moon were bright overhead.
Tuesday, Oct. 1
We finally got some good sleep, about nine and a half hours. We feel great. We sit in the dim kitchen to drink our morning tea and chat with the lodge’s hostess and play with her little boy who is about three years old. He has one stuffed animal (a rabbit, I think) carefully stored on a shelf. We have breakfast of eggs and toast with plum jam. We’re off again at about 8:30 am. We are eager and excited to be on the trail, (and are extremely naive about what is in store.) According to Heather, this will be the most difficult day. We find out later that she is not kidding.
Early in the day we come to the first suspension bridge over the river. This is a long, swaying, narrow bridge made of metal (one of the better ones we will cross) built by the Peace Corps. The deck of the bridge moves side to side with the wind, and up and down with no predictable rhythm to it. You just have to keep your knees bent and try to look like you know what you are doing, and don’t look down at the roaring river (the Dudh Koshi) of white water, which is runoff from the glaciers where we are headed. Some of the other bridges we see later are not nearly so nice — broken or missing wooden deck boards, no side netting, and creaking under-braces. We have to time our crossings so that we don’t meet any Yaks on the bridges — there isn’t room to pass them. But if you want to get to the top, you have to cross these bridges, not to mention having to do it all over again to get back down.
We see lots of people carrying large loads, like metal tables and folding chairs, 10-gallon jugs of kerosene, lumber, and tents and equipment for expeditions. We see one guy carrying another guy who has a broken leg encased in an elaborate steel cage. We also see a large group carrying someone on a stretcher, all wrapped up in sleeping bags to stay warm. I can’t imagine how they negotiate the trail with loads like that. But most amazing of all was – The Washing Machine! As we left our lodge this morning, I saw a couple of guys struggling to get a big box out the door of a building a little way down the trail from us. It looked like they were going to deliver something to someone nearby. Then as the day progressed, we kept seeing the same guys with this big box. We would pass it, and when we stopped for a few minute’s rest, it would pass us. This went on for hours. When we looked closer, we saw it was a washing machine. It was clearly marked as weighing 56 Kilos. Two guys were alternating carrying it using a head strap, and a third, better-dressed guy was walking along with them. The third guy was carrying a satchel and didn’t help carry the washing machine. We decided he must have been the plumber carrying his tools to install the washer at the hotel.
These were small guys, how could they carry this machine? Their knees quaked when they lifted the thing. Every step they took was painful to watch. There are parts of the trail that I had difficulty with because of narrow places, poor footing, overhanging trees and rocks, etc. I couldn’t imagine how they negotiated with this bulky 56 Kilo load on their back. We chatted with them a bit at a rest stop and found out they were taking the washing machine up past Namche Bazaar to the Everest View Hotel (a very fancy place at 13,000 feet), and expected to take three days to make the trip from Lukla. For the remainder of our trek we were perpetually the slowest trekkers on the trail, always the last to arrive at our next stop every evening — we just told everyone that we were going at ‘washing machine pace’.
We stop for lunch (I have fried rice with cheese) at Monjo at a new restaurant, sitting in the sun outside on a deck next to the trail under a young apple tree. We set out again at 1:00. At the entrance to the Sagarmatha National Park we pay for our permits to enter the park. (Sagarmatha = Everest to the Sherpas.) After an initial steep rocky downhill where we pass more Mani stones and a stupa being repaired by a lone monk, a couple more bridges, and some brief ups and downs, we see a tiny bridge in the distance high over the river draped in prayer flags. After a twisting, narrow, slippery climb we find ourselves crossing the same bridge, swaying very high over the river, trying not to look down. Heather says that the huge number of prayer flags is known as Sherpa engineering. This is where we begin the climb to Namche Bazaar.
This is the start of the serious UP, and I do mean UP!! Everything until now has only been a hint. The trail gets steep like I have never seen anywhere before. The trail is rough with big rocks, high steps, and lots of switchbacks. Sherpa porters with incredible loads pass us like we are going backward. Other porters come down the hill with lighter loads, practically dancing down the rocks. Amazing and beautiful to watch, like ballet. We are reduced to one small step after another for about 20 yards, then stop to let our hearts calm down, then repeat. And repeat, and repeat…for about four hours. We finally get to Namche (the outskirts at least) and then with a last push over the top we reach the town (at 11,300 feet.)
It is a beautiful place. Lots of big buildings scattered around a bowl-shaped valley. The buildings are mostly 3 – 4 stories high, built of dry-laid stones (no mortar) with an interior structure of post-and-beam construction, and roofs of corrugated metal painted blue or red. There are open fields among the buildings, some look like they may be used for crops like potatoes, but most look like pasture for Yaks. This place is famous for a weekly bazaar on Saturday, when people come from far and wide to trade all kinds of stuff. There is a contingent of Tibetans who come over the border (probably illegally) with goods for sale from China – brightly colored cloth and pla stic ware. As we stroll through town we see shops with all kinds of souvenirs, jewelry, outdoor equipment, and trinkets you can’t imagine. I make a note that a Yak bell will look good in our house. We get to the lodge which is huge, relative to what we have become used to — four stories, indoor cherpis (with western-style toilets that even flush!), and a hot shower. Our room is on the third floor (more climbing!!) next to the common/dining room. The common room here is large enough to seat maybe forty people, with very well made tables arranged in front of benches on the outside walls. All the wood is varnished; there are lots of pictures on the walls, curtains on the windows. There is a steel potbellied stove for heat and a big cabinet full of canned beer, bottles of whiskey and wine. You can take all this for granted until you realize that all of it — furniture, stove, toilets, food, beer, even the roofing and windows had to come all the way up that hill you climbed today on someone’s back!
There is a group of 10 Germans here and they are having a rousing game of Yahtzee. I hope they eventually quiet down so we can sleep. We have spaghetti with real tomato sauce for dinner — homemade (cooked under Pemba’s supervision), and not bad. I wrote a few postcards to friends at home and put them in a letterbox. It will be interesting to see how long they take to get there (about a month, as it turns out.) To bed at 9:00.
Wednesday, Oct. 2
Today was a ‘rest day’ to acclimatize to the altitude. We went on a four-hour walk around Namche, and over a ridge to a smaller village. I was amazed at how fast I was out of breath at first. Well rested, full of breakfast, and I could barely crawl uphill. Yaks were passing me (Yaks are none too fast). We first went up a hill (about a quarter-mile that took at least 45 minutes to climb). Overlooking the valley we came up from yesterday — we could just see the last bridge with its flags fluttering. Then we turned around for our first view of Everest in the distance. It is a black rock shaped like a pyramid with a snow plume blowing off its top.
We visited a dim but interesting cultural museum in the middle of an army post manned by some very serious-looking soldiers. The whole place is surrounded by many lines of barbed wire, with foxholes and gun emplacements all over. They are nervous because this is just the type of place the Maoists like to attack (so far, not in this region.) We had a long walk high above the town on a trail that goes all around the bowl for some great views of this unique place. Then along the side of a hill with some mild ups and downs through a beautiful pine forest. I am still huffing and puffing, but find that if I pace myself I can keep going without having to stop. I go very slowly, but I begin to think I will be able do this. Mary Jane seems to be doing fine too. We are chatting a lot along the way with Pemba about his prospects, marriage, etc. He is young, intelligent, has a very good command of English, and is very personable. He doesn’t want to go back to his village and tend the family farm.
We came back to Namche at about 1:00 for lunch (Ra-Ra noodle soup with vegetables.) Then we spent a couple of hours shopping in the street markets. Mary Jane is looking for some Tibetan jewelry. She finds a shop run by a young Tibetan woman who talks about traditional designs, old turquoise vs. new (imitation) stuff. We spend an hour or more with her while she restrings a necklace that Mary Jane likes, replacing the imitation stones (coral and turquoise) with real ones of better quality, and helping Mary Jane pick out turquoise stones for a friend at home. She is very friendly and talkative. She tells us that she came over the mountain from Tibet seven years ago, and has a brother who is a Lama in the monastery here.
Back to the hotel for dinner (fried potatoes with vegetables.) There is a big crowd tonight — one group of about ten Brits, and several smaller groups who are on the way down. There is one guy who can’t stop grinning because he has just had his first bath in two weeks. Lots of celebratory smiles here — one trio even has a bottle of French wine with dinner.
Typical items found on the Himalayan Lodge & Restaurant menu:
“Black tea Rs 20; Private room, two beds Rs 110; Can Coke Rs 150; Hot shawer, 20 liters water Rs 150; Carlsberg beer Rs 150; Makaroni noodle, veg. Rs 170; Daal Bhat with Takari Rs 120; Ra Ra noodle soup with veg. Rs 80; Vegetable Momo Rs 110; Yak sizzler, roast potato Rs 270; Two egg omelete Rs 70; Tibetan bread with jam Rs 80; Apple pie, piece Rs 85.” $1.00 U.S. = 76 Nepali Rupees
Adventure Journal Onespeed Part II– Sent Dec. 20
Below you will find Part II of Steve Olsen’s Journal written while trekking with Of Global Interest LLC Adventure Travel in the Himalayas in Nepal this past October 2002. We hope you enjoy it and find yourself there with us on the trail! (Part I is on my website, www.ofglobalinterest.com, in the E-mail Adventure Journal Archives section under: Fall 2002 Gokyo Trek.) First a few events:
The Himalayan Bazaar in my Garage will be open from 10:00 to 4:00 PM this Saturday, December 21. Buy your Christmas presents and help the Nepalese economy. It’s high altitude shopping. Burr. 120 Eighth Street, Ann Arbor, MI. (734) 369-3107.
The Of Global Interest Holiday Celebration Party is also Saturday, December 21 from 7:00 PM onward at the Trekkers’ Lodge B&B and Everything’s Art Gallery, 120 Eighth Street, Ann Arbor, MI. Bring a book Of Global Interest to exchange. Snacks, drinks, and/or ethnic dress welcome. Bring the family. The Himalayan Bazaar in my Garage will be open.
Altitude: the story of the first cancer survivor to climb Mt. Everest, a documentary movie (45 min) about Sean Swarner of Colorado who hired Of Global Interest LLC of Ann Arbor to make the arrangements for this expedition last May 2002. The movie will be showing Wednesday, January 8 at 5:30 at Leopold Brother’s Brew Pub, 529 S. Main St. Also Friday, January 10 and Thursday, January 23 at 8:00 PM at The Eighth Street Trekkers’ Lodge Bed and Breakfast, 120 Eighth St, Ann Arbor. (734) 369-3107.
And lastly, The Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival is holding a benefit concert the weekend of January 24 and 25, featuring the Patricia Barber Quartet. Two shows of 75 minutes each night at 9pm & 11pm at the Firefly Club, 207 S. Ashley St. Ann Arbor, MI. Tickets: $20 advance, $25 day of show. Venue phone: 734-665-9090. This is a fundraiser for the Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival. It’s sure to be ‘a real good time!’
Thank you for your support.
Steve Olsen Journal while trekking Part II
Thursday, Oct. 3, 2002 – Namche to Dole (9 hours)
Today we went from 11,300 feet to 13,850 feet. Doesn’t sound so bad, except that at one point we went downhill 1,300 feet only to cross a valley and head back up to the next village another 1,300 feet. It took a little less than an hour to go down, but about three and a half hours up the other side. Today’s hike was probably the most difficult physical exertion I have ever done in my life. Even with an extra day in Namche to acclimatize to the altitude, on any ascent I can only manage 10 baby steps, then a one-minute rest, then repeat. To a certain extent it reminds me a lot of those endless hours on the treadmill in the gym, except that when you stop to catch your breath you have the most amazing mountain vistas in the world to enjoy. There were very few flat spots. Most of the trail today was very steep, up or down. I was moving at less than Yak (or washing machine) speed. I was not feeling fatigue, but it was very frustrating to not be able to go any faster. We set out at 8:30 in the morning, stopped an hour for lunch, and were the last off the trail, arriving at Dole just before dark at 5:30 pm. The scenery was of course incredible, the river rushing far below, the snow capped peaks above. We were walking along an eighteen-inch wide trail that is mostly rocky rubble with the outside edge a precipice that drops a couple of thousand feet straight down, plus dodging the Yaks coming from the other direction. We were both worn out after eight hours (of seemingly all uphill) and beginning to ask those hard questions like, “Are we really in over our heads?” and “Did we make a huge mistake with this trip?” A definite low point. The scenery is amazing and overall we are having a good time, but I’m feeling very guilty for putting Mary Jane through this – it is way more than either of us had thought we were getting into. I can only hope that by this time next year we can look back and think it was worth it.
Now the good news – we did see some interesting people and things along the way. There was a group of Tibetan women (Buddhist nuns) in bright red and yellow dresses happily chattering and giggling as they walked along the trail. A group of Spaniards were having a grand time hooting and hollering at each other, sounding like they were competing – extreme trekking(?). We saw a family with four kids – the youngest, about three years old, was riding in a basket on a porter’s back. They appeared western – little blonde girls with backpacks, skipping along. Pemba said he thought the man might be a doctor in one of the towns further up the trail. We met a young (30-ish) woman at lunch who was traveling with a French guy named Fred(!?!). They told us they were on a scouting trip looking for a mountain to climb, and then ski down. They were going to find the right mountain, then back to Lukla to get their skis and back up. We started to see real Yaks today, not the Zup-Yaks (the cross breeds) we had been seeing. These Yaks are very hairy, like walking car-wash brushes. They all have bells on their necks that have a distinctive, deep tone. They are all different colors from black to brown to gray, even some pintos. The lead Yak in each group is always decorated more than the others. We saw one today that had a bright red forelock. The Yak drivers walk along among the animals whistling and shouting commands at the Yaks, sometimes urging them to move with a tossed rock. Yaks move cautiously, but are forced to move forward when prodded by the horns of the Yak behind. We had lunch at the top of a hill next to a big stupa with lots of small Mani tablet-stones piled against it, with long strings of prayer flags fluttering in all directions. It felt like the top of the world, sitting in the sun with clouds floating by below us. We walked through a rhododendron forest that reminded me of Mount Tamalpaias in California – gnarly trees, moss, rushing streams. We saw a Nepali deer – very small, about the size of a medium sized dog with long ears that made me think he was some kind of mutant rabbit. Near the end of the day as the clouds were closing in and we were struggling along, Heather told us to stop and look behind us. A huge snow-covered peak was shinning brightly, lit by the sun above the clouds and framed perfectly in a gap in the cloud cover.
We stopped at a more typical (more rustic) lodge in Dole tonight – no heat in the bedrooms, rougher construction (1/4 inch plywood walls), and a toilet that will probably give us nightmares for months. There are four other trekkers – two Brits, two Swiss women – and us. Trekkers, porters, and guides gather/huddle around a small wood stove trying to stay warm, drying our wet clothes on our laps. We have dinner of Daal Bat with spicy curried vegetables, then sit and read, or chat. Soon Pemba starts a conversation with one of the other party’s porters, which develops into him regaling everybody with a long involved story. Nobody but the Sherpa porters can understand what is being said, but because he is so animated and enthusiastic in his telling, I am fascinated nonetheless, and listen for over an hour, carried along by his gestures and intonations. To bed at 9:00. Some of the porters pull bedrolls out of the benches and wrap up in the dining room to sleep. Two of them pull out a deck of cards and begin a very energetic game of … something or other that I don’t recognize, but that involves a lot of slapping down of cards and mock arguments, loud shouts of triumph, and laughter.
This is a very democratic place – trekkers and porters side-by-side around the unifying fire, playing games, reading, chatting, with no sign of class distinctions. Yet, as close as we get, I still realize the economic gulf between us and think of how hard a porter’s life must be – carrying heavy loads over difficult terrain, followed by hours of boredom waiting for the trekkers. Pemba tells us that they start young – one of our porters, Chukpa, is 14 years old. They can make better money for their families this way than by anything else they could be doing in their home village. Chukpa is still a boy – I see him get a distracted look when he sees the rare toy, he has shy smiles, and plays games and jokes whenever he has a moment free. Yet he is away from his family for months at a time finding work where he can; and he carries Mary Jane’s luggage, my luggage, and his own – about 45 pounds.
Friday, Oct. 4 – Dole to Machermo (4 hours)
It was cold overnight, but we were warm in our sleeping bags. We went out to the cherpi at 3:00 am to pee (the Sherpas won’t go out alone at night here – this is Yeti country, and they believe), it was a very clear night, and the stars were RIGHT THERE! Some nights in upper Michigan you can see the milky way as a band where there are a lot of stars; last night in Dole, the milky way was a white streak across the sky, so thick with stars it was almost as bright as a full moon.
We got off to a slow start today. Breakfast was toast with jam and peanut butter. We hit the trail at 9:00, and of course it started out straight up! Up and up, as Heather likes to remind us. Eventually we hit some relatively flat, or at least not so steep parts. We passed several groups of Yaks going down carrying hay and firewood. Views of the mountaintops are amazing, the sky defines the term Azure Blue, the air is so clear you can see the craggy details from a long way away. It is hard going, though – the altitude just takes your breath, but a slooooow pace works best.
We made it to Machermo in four hours. This is a village of about a half-dozen large lodges, and most seem relatively new. There is a group in tents set up in a field next to one lodge. We get rooms in a large lodge. It seems O.K. (better than Dole), and not very crowded. They will heat water if you want to take a bucket/sponge bath in the shower booth they have built out front. We keep seeing familiar faces from previous nights. The Brits and Swiss who were with us last night are here. They got here much earlier than us and have rooms in another lodge. We meet a young German couple in our lodge who are on their honeymoon. They are taking a leisurely pace, staying extra nights at places they like, not in a hurry to get anywhere, just enjoying themselves more than the scenery (understandable, since it is their honeymoon.) They spend long hours in the dining room, reading and giving each other long massages. Lunch is Ra-Ra noodles with vegetables and egg. We have the afternoon off, and will take baths and relax.
We have looked at the map, and we should be able to make Gokyo tomorrow Mary Jane and I don’t think we will actually do the climb up Gokyo peak (18,093 feet) but there is a walk that we can take further up the glacier valley for views of Everest. We are feeling better – Heather says attitude is everything. Heather really wants us to go up Gokyo peak, but the idea of 3,000 more steep feet, especially when starting at 15,000 feet, seems almost too much right now.
I have been noticing the carpentry in Nepal, especially up here in the mountains. The Nepalis seem to be very good at it. There is quite a bit of interesting technique, and you just know there are no power tools involved. Tables are made with through-tenon braces; cabinets have through tenons and intricately carved trim. I saw a central support post in a lodge that had a splice in it that fit together like fingers. I have also seen some of the tenons with wedges in the outer ends for making the joint tighter.
Saturday, Oct. 5 – Machermo to Gokyo (8 hours)
There are spectacular mountain peak views in the morning from the windows of our lodge while we have breakfast. There is a frost on the ground. The big British group in tents started breaking camp at 6:00 am when I went out to the cherpi. They have about twelve big (probably two-person) tents and a bigger double-sized kitchen tent, and several small toilet tents. Each tent is assigned to one porter who carries the tent and all its contents to the next camp. There are probably three porters for every trekker in the group, about fifty people in all.
Once again the trail starts out with an hour of steep uphill climbing. This is followed by several long sections of gradual slope along the flank of the hills forming the river valley. However, even a gradual slope at this elevation is a strain for breath. The only way to make progress is in half baby steps. Toward the end of another hour-and-a-half of steep uphill with lots of loose, wet rock and rock “staircases”, we reach a short log bridge over the beginning of the river, which we see now is gushing out from under the end of the glacier. We turn around to look down the valley toward the villages we have come through. From here they look like toy houses.
Now we come to the first of a series of turquoise lakes. These are sterile lakes formed and fed by the glacier. The color of the water is a brilliant, deep, almost opaque turquoise that matches the stones that Mary Jane bought in Namche exactly. This is a fairly flat area, a wide valley floor that is the start of the terminal moraine of the Ngozumpa glacier (say that three times, fast!) It is basically just a huge rockfall or rubble field of castoff boulders from the glacier. People have built lots of Cairns of balanced rocks all over the field. It looks like the surface of the moon populated by so many petrified prairie dogs all sitting up to see what we are doing here. I take a minute to put up a cairn of my own to mark our passing, but quickly find that a ten-pound rock feels more like a hundred pounds here. I build a short pile and move on.
As we approach the third lake we see lots of prayer flags strung between piles of stones, then around a corner, the village of Gokyo comes into view. It is a small collection of lodges built on a slope just above the lake. Our lodge (whose sign announces 15,650 feet) is still partially under construction, so our room is very new and quite nice, as these things go. The door has a regular latch (instead of the typical Nepali hasp and lock) and there are actual beds just like in the hotels in Kathmandu. The toilet at the end of the hall has a gravel floor, two western-style camp toilets (sit down but no flush), a sink and a container of wash water. Very luxurious. The windows of our room overlook the lake and the huge peaks on the far side. We have no problems breathing when we are still, but we run out of breath after climbing a flight of stairs. It actually takes your breath away rolling over in bed at night, but you recover quickly.
This brings up the subject of fitness. We were very proud of ourselves for doing so much hiking in preparation for this trip, but we now realize that except for Bird Hills Park in Ann Arbor, we didn’t do many real hills (if you could call Bird Hills hills), and certainly no high altitude stuff. I now believe the better plan would have been to do a lot of hard aerobic exercise to get our hearts and lungs in shape, not just our legs. The longest hike we took this summer was only about six hours on fairly flat land. Here, in our first week we have already done at least two eight-hour-plus treks, mostly up very steep hills. We would recommend to someone who is interested in a trip like this to work a lot harder than we did to get ready. We actually were in better shape a year ago before we canceled after the September 11 disaster – we were regularly going to the gym to do stairclimbers and a lot of time in Michigan Stadium climbing up and down the steps for hours. Age has nothing to do with it – I have seen plenty of people older than me cruising right past me without stopping.
There is a real mix of people on the trail and in the lodges. We have seen German, British, French, Swiss, Italian, Spanish, Canadian, Japanese, Chinese, Indian, and Eastern European countries represented. Americans seem pretty scarce. Sitting around the stove in the dining room is a very cosmopolitan group. They are generally young, fit, and adventuresome, talking about where they have been and where they are going next, mostly exotic places. Tonight a French guy is telling a British guy how to sneak across the border into Tibet without papers. We keep seeing the same people here and there and hearing their impressions of places we are thinking of going.
For tomorrow there are three options – vegetate here at the lodge, enjoying th e sun and the view; climbing up over the small ridge behind the lodge to see the glacier; or hike up the valley to the fifth lake to view Everest. We have ruled out climbing Gokyo Ri which is about 3,000 steep feet above us. We can always buy a postcard of that view – or borrow one of Heather’s photos.
Sunday, Oct. 6
Our room on the first floor is located directly below the dormitory area on the second floor where the porters and guides sleep. At about 4:00 am, one of the guides for an Italian group gets up to knock on the doors of his group to wake them for an early start. He has very heavy, hard-soled boots that make rather a lot of noise on our ceiling at 4:00 damn am.
We woke this morning to find ourselves fogged in. The clouds are slowly rising, we may see sun later. People are getting up slowly. Some talk of heading up to the Cho La pass, which leads over to the Everest base camp. One woman has had a headache for two days and is debating going down to Machermo until it goes away, then back up here. The big British group has already broken camp and headed over the pass. Lodges seem to all follow a basic pattern. There are dormitories for porters, rooms for trekkers, a kitchen, and a big dining room. The dining room is square with benches around the perimeter, individual tables in front of the benches, a few plastic chairs, and a stove in the middle. These stoves burn either wood or dried Yak dung. Most places only run the stove in the evening from sundown until about 9:00. Otherwise you bundle up.
We were feeling a little blue at the prospect of a day of inactivity, so we decided to take the walk up to the fifth lake. Heather set out for the top of Gokyo Ri at 9:00, and we loaded up our packs and headed up the valley toward the fourth and fifth turquoise lakes. It is a rock-strewn valley with scattered lumpy hills like the bottom of an egg carton – rough going. The rocks range from grapefruit size to house size, and the trail isn’t easy to follow. We get to the forth lake in about an hour and fifteen minutes and feel pretty good. Looking at the map the fifth lake looks like about another hour and a half. However, the moguls get bigger, the rocks rougher, and of course the altitude is always higher. The trail, such as it is, also gets less distinct the farther we go, probably because there has been less traffic up this far. We finally figure out that following the valleys between the hills works better than going over the tops of them; then we reach an impasse, so must once again go up one of the hills. At the top we find ourselves on the edge of the glacier. There is a steep precipice where the glacier has worn away the hills and there is a drop of a couple hundred feet. This makes for rather nervous going. We take shelter from the wind in the lee of a big rock and sit down for a rest. We are sure that we are only a couple of ridges away from the fifth lake, but as we snack on trail mix, a big black cloud comes over a peak below us headed this way, and it starts to snow. The views are magnificent even though we haven’t gone quite far enough to see Everest, but it would be shrouded in cloud at this point anyway. We can see huge glaciers coming down the mountains, sunny snowcapped peaks with snow blowing over the tops. We can hear an avalanche high up one of the mountains – it sounds like a lightening bolt cracking nearby. Before we leave we take pictures of Mary Jane in her Food Gatherers shirt and me in my Mud Hens shirt with glaciers in the background. I took almost three hours to come up to this point, and I am interested if Heather’s theory about going down being faster is true. It is very rough, rocky going, especially since now we have howling cold wind in our faces roaring up the valley.
Yes, the theory is true, but it doesn’t matter as soon as you hit the first uphill (there is always an uphill) after the first five steps you are out of breath at this altitude (approximately 16,800 feet.) It was only two hours back, but it was a grueling trudge. Mary Jane is exhausted, lies down on a bench in the dining room and is asleep in minutes. Heather is here and says the climb to the top of Gokyo Ri was a hard two and a half hours, only to find her view blocked by clouds too. Then she had a two-hour climb down. We have had a glorious walk with spectacular views, but we are tired now. Mary Jane says this was definitely the pinnacle of our hiking career. We have a snack of tea and popcorn, watching the Yaks through the windows as they mow the front lawn of the lodge. Later we discover a bookstore in the lower level of the lodge. It is pretty well equipped with novels, sci-fi, mountain climbing books, etc. Who was it that got the lucky job of carrying all these books up the mountain?
Over dinner we talked again with Megan Cleary and her friend Fred the Frenchman. She is a professional downhill ski racer originally from Seattle, currently living in France. She is determined to be the first woman to ski down some significant mountain to make a name for herself. She and Fred have sponsors lined up, and are confident they will succeed. She is energetic, positive, gregarious, tall, and fit. Fred is quiet almost to the point of being morose or brooding. He is huddled in layers of wool sweaters and week-old stubble. We also talked again with a young French-Canadian woman named Caroline Simard, whom we had met earlier at other lodges on the trail. She is in her twenties, wafer-thin, curious, and enthusiastic. She speaks passable English (certainly better than our French), is outgoing, and friendly. She is traveling alone, but is accompanied by Gi, a Nepali guide that she hired in Kathmandu. Gi seems somewhat more of a city person who may have taken this trek out of economic necessity, and he seems just a little too personally familiar with Caroline, which makes us uncomfortable. We like her a lot, but are wary of Gi, and wish her the best of luck.
Monday, Oct. 7
Observation – Kitchens and food at the lodges:
The kitchen is usually a small, dark, smoky room with one or two women running the whole thing. Menus are almost standard everywhere – potatoes, rice, noodles, bread – lots of carbos. Eggs are cooked all sorts of ways. Most places use a small wood stove, some have kerosene. Rice is cooked in a pressure cooker to save time (and fuel.) When meals are ordered, they are cooked one at a time, unless several people are having the same thing. This can be a slow process. At most places all the cookware, plates and utensils are stainless steel. We have tried a wide variety of dishes and have had no stomach problems. The people who run the lodges are required to attend classes and take tests, which assure uniformity and a predictable level of cleanliness. The rule of thumb seems to be as long as the food is hot when it gets to you, it should be all right. The food is vegetarian (mostly) and bland, but seems clean and healthy. Tonight we are in a fairly small lodge, but it seems crowded. There are about fifteen trekkers and at least that many porters and guides. Mealtime should be interesting. There is one woman in the kitchen to feed this crowd, using a one-burner stove.