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Trekking

In the trekking business a joke goes that there are two kinds of trekkers, those who look up and those who look down. The ones who look up want to see the mountains; those looking down are appalled by the filth and excrement.

Trekking

Inevitably, tourists’ first stop in Kathmandu, after the hotel, is the Thamel district. Thamel is the central location for food and tourist goods, from trekking gear to mountaineering equipment, from Tibetan thaankas (religious paintings) to Tansen brass, from “What a Long Strange Trip It’s Been” T-shirts to Nepali shoulder bags (jhollas), from drugs to horoscopes, from Zen bookstores to Buddha Lounge music, it is all there, along with beggars and thieves.

There are a huge variety of handcrafted items, some exceptionally high quality and some little better than trash. Newby tourists typically respond in one of two ways: go on a wild shopping spree or be completely overwhelmed and duck into a bar or restaurant.

On their first full day in Kathmandu most guided tours go sightseeing. Some of the usual stops included Boddhinath, Pashupatinath, Swyambunath, Durbar Margh, and other places around the Kathmandu Valley. At the time I was a guide. On one guided tour a group was visiting Swyambunath, known also as the Monkey Temple, for the obvious reason that monkeys lived in the surrounding woods. During their visit a couple of women broke off from the main group to look around; they stopped at one of the temple buildings. Next to the entrance was a small sign that said “no shorts”, and they were both wearing shorts. People in Nepal, and India too for that matter, greet each other and say goodbye with the salutation, “Namaste”. The women asked if they could enter the temple and the greeters said “Namaste.” The women promptly left, reporting later that they were told, “No more stay.”

The trekking experience in Nepal can be highly variable, summarized by the slogan “you get what you pay for.” And this is in fact the case. Everything from the quality of tents to the quality of the food comes down to what one is willing to pay. Some companies sell treks without an English-speaking guide, sometimes led by a Nepali who has a marginal command of the language. This situation applies doubly for trekkers who speak other languages. The most expensive treks have the best cooks, guides and equipment, including medical supplies and even a doctor, sometimes led by a big-name mountaineer. My experience with mountaineer guides was that most trekkers don’t get what they pay for. Mountaineers generally don’t speak the language, so can’t translate, understand little about the culture except what they’ve read in books, and aren’t attentive to the needs of paying clients. They can regale trekkers with nighttime stories of mountaineering exploits and recite histories of various attempts on different peaks. For trekkers who enjoy such narratives a mountaineer makes a good guide, otherwise it’s better to join a group whose guide has spent time in the culture, not on a mountain.

Trekking groups usually stay in Kathmandu no longer than a couple of days. Then they either fly or take a bus, or both, to the trailhead. A typical trekking day starts at dawn with a wake-up basin of hot water and tea, delivered to the tent door. Trekkers have half an hour to pack up their bags and get ready for the day ahead before breakfast is served. There is a dining tent, usually with folding stools around a table, and everyone gathers there for the meal. Breakfast might be anything from eggs and toast to cereal to rice or chapattis with curried vegetables. After breakfast people see to their last-minute needs and within 90 minutes after sunrise the group starts off. The porters have already eaten breakfast by the time that the trekkers are just getting started, and have a half-hour's lead by the time camp breaks.

Portering is a nondiscriminatory occupation, as well as equal opportunity. Nepalese of various ethnic groups, men and women, even boys and girls, all have an opportunity to be a porter. The main qualification is that they can carry a heavy load. Loads are carried on the head, neck and back; a special basket (“doko”) with a headband attached to it is slung just above the forehead and the neck carries most of the weight of the load. It is amazing sometimes the things that people will bring on a trek, which the porters have to carry. Bottles of liquor are common, along with all kinds of snacks, candies and chocolates, pillows, electric razors (sorry, no outlets), walkmans (in the 1980s) and a library of music, hardcover books, and on and on. Among trekking guides it was legend that a certain rock star and his model wife brought a full-length mirror with them. No doubt in the new millennium, trekkers bring their portable televisions, ipods and BlackBerrys. Why go if you can’t take it with you? Porters who have been at it long enough typically have cracked and calloused feet with toes that might be splayed six inches from little toe to big. Sometimes when they get above the snow line porters risk frostbite and are known to lose some of their toes, if not freeze to death. Porters’ behavior was a constant source of aggravation for my friends who were running some of the local trekking companies. They didn't like to get complaints about the condition of the porters from trekkers, nor did they like to see the porters suffer from inclement trekking conditions. Many had started out as porters themselves. Trekking companies would send shoes and warm clothing for the porters to wear on treks and expeditions. Unfortunately, it happened that porters sometimes would gamble away their shoes and warm clothes in a card game, or simply sell them for cash. The more experienced guides would keep the shoes and clothes until the porters absolutely needed them, and then hand them out.

Some porters had been doing this work their whole lives, and it showed; they looked a decade older than their actual age. They often smoked and would sit around campfires every night cooking and keeping warm. In the predawn hours one could hear them hacking, coughing up their lungs. Many porters had aspirations for advancement and knew that the key for them was to learn English. They would pepper me with questions about how to say various English phrases. The porters could aspire to a job as one of the guide staff because many of them knew people who had done so; it was one means of upward mobility in Nepal’s rigid caste society. In his book, “Dark Shadows Falling,” Joe Simpson writes about the plight of porters during a really bad snowstorm in 1984 in the Everest region. While the helicopters came to rescue trekkers the porters were left behind; some died, others were maimed by the cold. I was in the region at the time; the deep snow created a lockdown situation. Having experienced hypothermia at altitude I know how quickly the body's condition can deteriorate. Stuck and isolated in the snow, they didn't have a chance.

A cook once related a story about two porters who froze to death on an attempt of Rupina La pass near Baudha Himal. The weather was bad and the porters ill-prepared. They didn’t have their jackets or shoes. The cook, who was the last one to leave camp, came upon them sitting down beside a boulder, complaining of cold. They told him that they would get up in a few minutes and start hiking again. They didn’t show up at the campsite that evening. A couple of sherpas returned the next day to find what became of them, and found them beside the same boulder, frozen to death. It was an unhappy group of trekkers that continued on. The thought that someone died carrying your load is unpleasant; it is enough that we die carrying our own loads. Loud complaints were heard half a world away. I worked with this cook several times. He was a hard worker with wild eyes, an infectious laugh and quick wit. He drowned during a trek, attempting to bathe in a river during high runoff.

As morning wears on and trekkers tire there is a short stop for tea and then later a picnic lunch. How much time there is for lunch depends on the distance covered during the morning. After lunch everyone begins walking – inevitably up or down – the trail again. It was hard to comprehend what some people were thinking when they decided to trek in the Himalayas. I had to address some of the most asinine complaints. “The trail is too steep.” “You’re making us walk too far.” “Doesn’t it ever get flat?” They were in the Himalayas for Christ’s sake, what did they expect? The world’s highest mountains, and they’re expecting flat? Up and down is the only way to get anywhere! The companies that sold them the package had sent them glossy brochures and day-to-day descriptions of the trek, so if they thought about it just a bit they would have realized what they were in for.

Evening camp is usually made sometime between 4:00 and 6:00 p.m. If we were near a village the villagers would gather around and watch us; we were the main event. The cook gets busy with the kitchen right away while the guide staff set up tents and fetch wood. Some cooks have an awesome talent for culinary innovation using an open fire and a couple of kerosene burners. “Let them eat cake,” they would say, because sometimes the cooks would bake a cake for dessert. Trekkers would complain about the food, but then some people will complain about anything. They couldn’t appreciate the skill needed to make them their meal nor did they grasp that the cook was the first one up in the morning, usually the last one to bed at night, and had to carry many of his own pots, pans and utensils. Iron Chef indeed!

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Treks could be as hazardous for guides as for trekkers and cooks: While guiding a trek near Baudha Himal, between Kathmandu and Pokhara, I had a severe case of hypothermia. There were a dozen trekkers, all from the US; trekkers came to Nepal from all walks of life for the walk of their lives. Doctors and lawyers, bankers, entrepreneurs, actors, travel agents, carpenters, all sharing the common denominator of money – guided treks cost. This trek was not easy, lasting several weeks including crossing a high – over 18,000 feet – pass. One particular day about a week into the trek, starting at low elevation we began climbing and we climbed and climbed some more, nothing but climbing all day long – and this was just a hill! By the end of the day we were close to 12,000 feet. The weather changed as we ascended the last thousand feet, first getting cold, then starting to drizzle, which became rain, which soon changed to snow, and then became a squall. The paying clients were our main concern; camp was set up quickly and we made sure that they were able to get inside their tents and change into warm, dry clothes as soon as possible. As we were attending to them, I didn’t notice how much my own body temperature had dropped. When everyone was getting comfortable and assembling around a crackling fire I noticed that I was shivering. The shivers turned to shakes, becoming quite uncontrollable, to the point where I could no longer stand. A couple of the other experienced guides noticed my condition. By the time they sat me in front of the fire and covered me with sleeping bags to warm me up, I was pretty far-gone. Then the strange sensations began; first I noticed a general numbness accompanied by mental lucidity: I knew what was happening and why it was happening and that I had no control over my deteriorating condition. For a brief time, I'm not sure how long, I felt as though I was having an out of body experience, my consciousness drifting. It was indescribable then and it's less describable now. Many hot water bottles, hot almost to the boiling point, had been packed around me to bring my body temperature up, yet I couldn’t feel them. This condition lasted over an hour. Intermittently I was talking to my companions but the whole time I was aware of the unusual state of mind brought on by the hypothermia.

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Living in a tent surrounded by the world’s tallest mountains is not always exotic. After spending several months this way, one longs for a hot shower – but makes do with washbasins and rags. I reached a point of being glad to guide lower elevation treks instead of treks at higher altitudes. The views at high altitude are of course terrific but lower elevations have some advantages. Life on a high altitude trek typically goes like this: After dinner in the dining tent, or a small trekkers’ lodge if available, you climb into your tent. Don’t brush against the tent fabric; if you do you will get showered with ice crystals. Take your boots off if necessary, but leave the rest of your clothes on and crawl into your sleeping bag. You will need all of your clothes on inside the bag to avoid freezing during the night. If the altitude is high enough or if it is cold enough, you will be lucky to get even a few hours of sleep. When you wake up in the middle of the night, be careful not to knock the tent walls or the ice will shower down on you again. If it’s snowing you don’t want to get crushed by the weight of the snow pressing down on the tent roof, so you may have to knock the tent walls and get showered by ice crystals anyway. In really bad conditions use a pee cup and toss the urine out the tent flap. God forbid should you have to take a crap! When the kitchen boy brings you your morning tea grasp it with both hands until your fingers burn. This will warm up the rest of your body. Don’t leave the tent until you have to, once you lose your bodily warmth at that hour you will not feel warm again until after you’ve been hiking for a while. Pack up your stuff; ignore the ice crystal showers. Now for your boots, damn they are cold! Yes, you have to put your stocking feet into them or you won’t ever leave. At lower elevations getting started in the morning is a lot nicer.

The flipside to this picture is that you step out of your tent to a scene beyond description. The Himalayas are towering above, their jagged peaks piercing the atmosphere. As the sun rises, its rays make the glaciers sparkle, blinding the eyes. Diamonds should be so brilliant. The glaciers appear small from a distance but when seen close up they are as tall as three-story buildings. Sometimes they collapse on themselves into a heap of crumpled ice. The air is thin, and pure, steam rises from the yaks, as they are loaded up for the day. On a distant ridge there is a Buddhist stupa, prayer flags fluttering beside it in the morning breeze. The moon, still visible in the growing light, is passing behind a magnificent peak, its sheer face still cloaked in darkness. Thin wisps of smoke rise from a distant village in the valley somewhere down below. And you, who are you? It doesn’t matter.

Being at lower elevations in the Himalayas usually means a long hike up. Many trekkers are not ready for how unendingly steep the (4,000 meters) hills are. Occasionally in the Hindu areas one finds stone steps on the hillside, put there by someone as penance, thus improving their karma. Whether the stairs go up or down, or karma does for that matter, is a matter of perspective. Upon reaching such stairs one’s first reaction is relief, but after climbing them long enough, one longs for the rocky uncertainty of a trail. To reach the summit of some “hills” can take a day-and-a-half. The guide points out the day’s hike and, looking up and up and up, beyond view is the destination. Many hilltops are covered with rhododendron forests; not the small rhododendrons one sees in North America, but Himalayan rhododendron trees, 15 meters tall. These forests are often shrouded in mists, moss hanging from the tree limbs. Once in springtime, walking through such an area with several inches of snow still on the ground, we came across an early blossom, flowering bright red against the snowy forest backdrop. We caught our breaths. All thought of the climb vanished in that blossoming moment.

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There are many different trekking routes in the Everest region besides the one to Everest Base Camp. There is a route to Cho Oyu, to Ama Dablam, Gokyo Ri and Lhotse. The trek to Gokyo Ri climbs over 18,000 feet and offers a commanding view of the region, from Namche Bazaar in the southwest to the Tibetan Plateau to the north, beyond Everest. The elevation is high enough to dissuade trekkers who can’t adjust to that altitude but not so high as to make breathing difficult. Most trekkers prefer to go to Everest Base Camp, and then climb Kala Patar for a better view. People are generally unaware of the Gokyo Ri climb and so miss out on a more interesting vantage point, without crowds. From the view on Gokyo Ri one can feel the slow motion of geology; the entire region is caught in an ice flow, glacial though it is. With a little imagination one can picture how the mighty glaciers of the Pleistocene and other glacial epochs might have appeared. Climate change and shrinking glaciers may make such imagination more difficult.

The Arun to Everest route, along the Arun River starting near Hilé and venturing due north to the Everest region, is one of the great Himalayan treks, but not to be undertaken without sufficient time; at least 24 days are recommended. The Arun River route passes through a culturally diverse area, peopled by Nepali hill tribes, Rai and Limbu, ending in Sherpa country. One starts in a lowland Hindu culture and ends in yak terrain, passing from rice fields to millet, on to remote forest, rock and ice. There are several ways into the Everest Region, including by plane to Lukla. The “Instant Everest” trek sold by one company had as its objective to get its clients a view of Everest from Tangboché Monastery in seven days. This took a four-day trek to Tangboché and three days to get back out. My experience was that few people actually managed this feat due to altitude issues, flight cancellations, etc. But if one doesn’t fly, the only way into the Region is by foot. The closest road is a couple of weeks away. There is no landing strip in the world like the one in Lukla, gateway to the Everest region. The runway is short and steep, with an approach that foreboded a mountainside plane crash. One plane did. At the runway’s end lies a burnt-out fuselage, a grim spectacle for passengers watching out of the window as the landing plane screeches to a halt just in front of it and spins around. Leaving the Kathmandu airport to Lukla was always a hassle. The flight left shortly after dawn, which meant that travelers would have to get there much earlier. The later a flight departs in the morning the greater is the likelihood that Lukla Airport will be clouded in. This was no small concern as it was not unusual for planes to get within ten minutes of Lukla just to turn back because of cloud cover. Airport scams happened all the time. A common swindle was for someone official looking to ask to see your ticket and, with slight of hand, return a ticket – but not your own. No one can be sure they’ve got an assigned seat until they’re sitting in it. I’ve been stuck in Lukla when planes haven’t been able to land for a week. People start to behave like animals – no, worse. Desperate to get out, they argue, fight and offer bribes. The flight out of Lukla is as intense as the flight in. The landing strip falls away to a stony field below. It always felt to me like the departing plane dropped altitude when it left the runway and then, catching an updraft, would slowly climb skyward. Once I got to fly from Lukla to Kathmandu in a small helicopter – an Alouette. This method of flight was more hair-raising than the plane, much like a rollercoaster ride. At each ridge we passed over the wind would gust up into the helicopter’s blades and blow the small craft up and back; it would quickly right itself and continue onward. My stomach was left somewhere behind. My girlfriend was waiting for me in Kathmandu. I was a week late in arriving because flights out of Lukla had all been cancelled. When she saw me climb out of the helicopter she ran to greet me and, upon reaching me, jumped into my arms and wrapped her legs around my butt. The soldier standing by dropped his rifle. My friend Gyaljzen, who was there to meet one of the other passengers, couldn’t stop laughing.

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Of all the groups that I led, one trekker stands out for his obduracy - “Ralph”. Ralph was a retiree who had been on a couple of treks already, a decade earlier. This trek was to be, and deserved to be, Ralph’s last. Ralph had had quadruple bypass open-heart surgery a couple of years before and had no business going on this trek. Two family members, who mostly left the guide staff to keep an eye on him, accompanied him. Ralph thought he could speak Nepali, but when he tried the Nepalese couldn’t understand what he said, yet he would correct me. My command of the language was far from perfect, but I’d been speaking it for several years and could at least hear a conversation and understand what was being said and be understood. The trekking group was large, with more than a dozen people. Ralph was continuously falling behind, as might be expected, and because of his health issues was often found panting on the trailside near the rear of the procession. The Sherpa guide, Dorje, and I were concerned that Ralph wouldn’t make it all the way to the Everest Region and I found myself spending much of my time monitoring him. This situation was unfortunate for the other trekkers since they didn’t get as much of my time as they might have liked, and had paid for. On treks I would try to divide my time between clients to answer their questions and address any concerns. With Ralph on the trek this wasn’t possible. I admired Ralph’s dogged tenaciousness, but feared that he would kill himself as a matter of principle. The entire group came to appreciate the conundrum, which came to a head when we reached the base of Kala Patar. Ralph was in a bad way, his family members urged him to remain at Gorak Shep, the last small outpost, but he stubbornly refused. Instead, he pushed himself steadily up, imagining perhaps that he was some mountaineer. He became gradually paler, started to lose his coordination and would have to stop occasionally to prevent himself from keeling over; he was gasping for air like a fish out of water. I tried to get him to stop out of concern for his health, but he would have none of it. Other trekkers had held back, sharing my concern. Finally, as a party, they confronted him, individually expressing their concern and begging him to stop. He again refused, at which point the group, seemingly spontaneously, all agreed that if Ralph would continue up they would not and he would be the cause of their not reaching Kala Patar’s summit. With this entreaty, Ralph finally relented. He agreed to hike up to a small flat spot a short distance away and wait there for the rest of the group. Ralph finished the trek without further incident and seemed much humbled by the group’s espirit decorps in its concern for him.

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Doctors make the worst patients. Most treks that I led had doctors and lawyers in the group; such professionals could afford the often-steep prices, which matched the steep terrain. The lawyers would listen to what they were told concerning the health risks, but doctors knew better. I would do pre-trek briefings, explaining what to expect, the do’s, the don’ts, and health care precautions. I urged them to dry any plates, glasses or utensils that they used since 90-plus percent of Nepal’s diseases are waterborne. One cannot always be certain that kitchen items are clean but they can make sure that they are dry. I would discuss altitude sickness, describing symptoms and treatments (go back down). I encouraged them not to take altitude sickness medication unless they were in the direst need. The medicine covers up the symptoms, making it difficult to know how severe a person’s case is, until it is too late and they are already experiencing cerebral edema. Did the doctors listen? No, they were usually the first ones into the medicine kits – they always brought their own. They reminded me of some mountaineers who told “med kit” stories about their recreational use of prescription drugs during climbs. More than once I had to argue with a doctor about going back down and being concerned about the effects of altitude. But one of the symptoms of altitude sickness, like being drunk, is loss of judgment. I would hear “I’m fine” as they strayed off the trail, stumbling and disoriented.

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Nepal is the land of Karma. There is something in the air which seems to attract it’s balancing. Many PCVs noted this propensity. We compared notes on how we might be thinking about something or someone and then, voila, the event or person would “materialize”. For some inexplicable reason, in Nepal the universe’s propensity to bring about events involving one’s fears and expectations seems to be enhanced. On one trek there was a woman doctor who recently had earned her Ph.D. in medicine. At some point during her studies she decided that she didn’t want to treat sick people; she was more interested in helping healthy people to stay healthy. She joined a trek to Baudha Himal, a very aggressive trek over the treacherous Rupina La. The region, between Pokhara to the west and Kathmandu to the east, is exceptionally remote, with few people and fewer visitors. Most of the people in the higher altitudes are herders; those living in the deep river valleys grow rice and potatoes, and raise some animals, as subsistence farmers; in the high hills in between people grow millet. One of the few villages in the region is Barpak. To get to Barpak, one hikes north of Ghorka for several days. It was from Ghorka that Nepal’s Shah dynasty originated, conquering their neighbors and establishing a Kingdom. When we arrived in Barpak and set up camp the usual crowd of onlookers came to watch the show. As in most such isolated areas there is a dearth of trained medical staff, even less likely a clinic, and people would come to us for their ailments. I had to follow very strict rules, which I explained in the pre-trek briefing; we would bring a medical kit with us but the meds were for the trekkers, not people we met along the way. If any trekker wanted to share their own medicine they were free to do so. These rules didn’t usually receive comments, at least until we visited some of the villages and the trekkers saw first-hand the dire health care needs. Then there would be complaints about the rules’ harshness. They had a point; the rules were harsh, for we might have medicine in the kit that could save a life. There was a good reason for the rule, though; not too long before an American guide had given medicine to a sick villager but later one of the trekkers became severely ill. If they hadn’t given their medicine to villagers it might have saved the trekker’s life. In the event, I was later told, the family sued the guide and won their case. This case changed the liability situation and guides took greater responsibility for the medical kits in particular, and trekkers’ safety and welfare more generally. The Barpak campsite was set up, including the dining tent. Some villagers came down to enquire about medicine, bringing their sick ones with them. The doctor agreed to examine some of the afflicted. One woman brought her young son. He was in a bad way, catatonic and unresponsive. He was laid on the table in the dining tent. While the doctor was examining him he had a seizure and died. The doctor was beside herself. What she wanted to avoid, treating sick people, caught up with her. I heard later that she gave up medicine. Similarly, on a trek to Annapurna Sanctuary, there was a nurse in the group who wanted a break from work. Camping outside a village one night a man brought his son to us. This was the first time I saw gangrene, as his ailment was diagnosed. The boy – maybe eleven – had gotten a cut that became badly infected and was now oozing pus and smelled bad. His father had brought him to us looking for help and medicine. In such circumstances most parents would have brought their child to a doctor, no matter how far the distance. We were several days out of Pokhara. I don’t know what his circumstances were but he was not inclined to seek help if it meant going very far. By this time, the boy’s leg looked like it would have to be amputated. I wasn’t able to give him medicine from the kit, but the nurse, several others, and myself dug into our personal kits and gave the father some medicine for his son and insisted that he take him to a clinic. But, he was a Brahmin and, in my experience, the motivations, whether cultural or religious, of some people in this caste was to accept the hand of fate. Reincarnation as a worldview can have a de-motivating influence on certain people.

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On another trek a Brooklynite with a pessimistic turn of mind – what could go wrong would – was complaining frequently about his shoes and how sore his feet were; so what should happen? In the middle of the night on the outskirts of a small hamlet, someone reached into his tent and stole – his shoes. All he had left to walk in was a pair of sneakers. For him and his wife the trekking route changed. He would be unable to continue on that particularly ambitious trek. They broke off from the group to rejoin later. On several occasions, the strongest, most physically fit men, who had braggadocio to spare, were rushed to lower elevation because of altitude sickness; one big mouth was carried down on a yak’s back in the middle of the night to save his life. One can’t be sure how they will react to altitude, and one and the same person can be fine one time but suffer severe affects another. Inevitably, we all carry our own baggage; it is a load that no porter can carry for us. It is best to travel light.

Last update: October 17th, 2011. That's all.


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