Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Pain of Progress

I’m parked in a modest lodge, protected from whipping winds, my body under two thick blankets and I’m scared.

Oh, this morning was pleasant enough. We sat outside in front of our rooms in Pangboche listening to the wakeup bells of the yak trains passing in front of us and let the sun warm us in its glare, watched it dust off the clouds from majestic mountains. We took our time eating homemade muesli, pre-cooked bacon brought from the USA but still had to be cooked, and thick toast with yak butter. We sent off the morning blog and retrieved emails while the electricity was available, recharging every machine we had. Jim said Nima was going to join us, that meant he was going to be my sherpa and watch out for me on today’s trek. It had been described as an easy one with lots of flat area and some steep areas maybe about a three hour trek.

Jim said to lead the way at 9:30 with Nima walking behind me. The rest would follow when they got their affairs completed. I get restless waiting. I got to set my own pace, remembering that slow and steady was the challenge. That’s not hard when one is going straight up hill over the rocks for a period of time. When we turned the corner leaving Pangboche, I could see for quite a distance the trail winding in and out of the mountain’s fat pleats. But what surprised me was there were at least 30 or 40 humans and yaks already stirring up the dust on this principle road to Everest’s base camp. So for the first half hour, there was, I guess you could call it, traffic. And often you had to pull over to the nearest rock and wait while the long horned yaks and naks passed and sometimes people speedily going downhill, those lucky ones, already done.

We made good time. After a huge ascent - huff, huff - Nima said to stop at a tea house where Jim, Karen, Matt and the Sherpas with our load would catch up. We waited and waited and waited, until finally Nima said we should go on because Jim has so many friends to speak to en route. OK. So we headed out again over country that looked like a cattle drive regularly passed there, not flat, but well carved with various trails so I could pick my own. Beside us was the sound of a rough unharnessed river. We crossed over a shaky area which was a bridge in the making (I’m not friendly with foot bridges) and then the trek was pretty much uphill for 45 minutes passing many Buddhist chorlas and painted rocks until there in the distance was Dengboche. It lay sleeping on the slope of a hill - mostly one story lodges and homes for a farming community marked off in sturdy stone walls. Behind it was a moody Mt. Everest hiding itself with a cloud towel this afternoon. The wind was invasive and my allergy to the billowing dust was only getting worse. Major sneezing.

The hot sun and a friendly Sherpa woman who is Nima’s sister, greeted us. We had made it in three hours, take away one half hour for our wait stop. I was pleased because we were 1000 feet higher (14,000 feet - the highest I’ve ever been) and although I felt like my lungs were blowing out, if we stopped for five minutes, I recuperated quickly and was able to climb some more. Each rest stop, Nima tried to sell me on eating piece of cheese, a bar of chocolate, hot tea, or whatever he had carried in his backpack. I told him best for me is to fill up with water and get the trek done then I promised I would eat something, and I did. A piece of cheese. A chocolate bar. Hot lemon water. After about twenty minutes Jim arrived, coughing horribly and suffering from a persistent asthma. Everyone else sort of dribbled in and we all sat and laughed and ate a standard lunch - my favorite grilled cheese, tomato, greens sandwich. We would stay here the rest of the day to rest and spend the night - giving our bodies time to adjust to this altitude.

I am scared because I worry that I may not hold up for the next two climbs and under very primitive conditions, which I don’t cotton to very well.. Already I have the Himalaya crud - which is sort of a lot of throat clearing - and the dust has my nose so irritated that it’s raw. I can still take deep breaths without a wheeze but I crash after lunch and cuddle up in bright colored thick blankets again. Then the worries come about how long can I survive in these conditions - Now comes the battle with my comfort zone. Showers are non existent for the next few days. Hot water has to be boiled. No more Western style toilets. Electricity shows up at a minimum although there is a small amount here at night. Paper thin walls where you can here everyone’s night noises. What do I do about washing my underwear? Forget washing clothes. One thing about hiking wardrobes that can last a week or so without falling a part. Plus it is getting much colder, so more layers and I even pulled out the giant snow and wind proof jacket to wear on the next trek. Thick socks can last a week and my trusty big black sweater.

But what about me? Sponge baths in the freezing cold aren’t appealing. My fingernails are cracked and filthy. What does my face look like? No mirrors, thank heavens. I can feel the dust eating into its pores as if I was a rugged cowboy on the range so I take a rag, cold water and some soap and scrub, then cover the mess with my, yes, La Mer creme, which is half frozen in the mornings. Water. I have to keep three water bottles filled with water because hydration is vital. They serve you tea and hot lemon juice anywhere you sit down. And then I also have not been able to sleep at night - walking again and again through agendas, trails, what ifs, can I make it, will my body hold out, those kinds of things, plus getting comfortable on a wooden bed with a thin mattress. Sleeplessness is also a side effect of high altitude. There is nothing to divert your mind and soul so everything rambles through. I try to read the Follett novel but have to wear gloves and use the headlamp to see it.

And I worry as the weather will get much colder so in afternoons you sort of have to shut down because the clouds roll in and stop views and treks. When the sun dies for the day, we all meet in the dining room where the pot bellied stove burns yak dung, order what we think we want to eat - it’ll be made in the moment by the lodge owner and our sherpas - get roasty-toasty warm and then head for the bed, oh, but don’t forget the toilet - once again it’s the lovely hole in the floor. In the afternoon, our porters tried to build a seat with a foam cover and a hole in it to place over the hole so I could sit on it, which I appreciated. But it was so wobbly, I used the other method and realized maybe I was getting with the program.

Photos: Tashi in Grizzlie cap serving breakfast; What one sees off of cliffs; Dengbouche, our next stop; Alma Dablan, always at our side; the guys build my toilet seat.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Editor's note

Audrey informs me that this morning (Tuesday in Nepal) that she will be making the final push to Lobuche, Gorak Shep, and (hopefully) Base Camp. Due to the enforced news blackout, and the limited electricity, she probably won't be taking her computer and communications gear all the way. That means we probably won't be hearing from her for a couple or three days - probably not until Saturday. Her most recent post is "Hospitality the Sherpa Way."

Meanwhile, if you want to take a close look at Base Camp, click the link over in the sidebar. It will take you to a Google satellite image. Yes, those red, blue and yellow thingies are actually tents.

Hospitality the Sherpa Way

In the Khumbu Valley of Nepal, God is most generous in his beauty. After a night of rain, I awoke to crystal bright skies and stepped outside my cubicle to the warmth of a morning sun. Then I look 360 degrees around me and realized I was in the most beautiful place in the world surrounded by rugged, snow cast peaks. To one direction Mt. Everest beckoned its frozen hand as strong winds blew snow powder off its summit. With the early sun, cracks and crevices of closer mountains like Alma Dablam and Contega made dramatic scenarios. Of course there were no climbers this morning because no one can summit Everest until after May 10th, by order of the Nepali government and China.
But there is more to Pangboche than just this incredible landscape. There is a generosity among its people living a simple, almost peasant style life, that I’ve not found anywhere else. It’s here that you put aside the need for Western conveniences, and let yourself become part of a tremendous Sherpa spirit.

After a leisurely breakfast at a table outside in the sun, for this is an acclimatization day, we set out for one of the most important destinations of this pilgrimage: to visit Geshi Lama, a friend of Jim’s, most of the major climbers, and the Sherpas. People who believe in the spirit of Mt. Everest, visit the Lama to seek out the most auspicious day for climbing, summitting or something simple like where to hang the prayer flags I’ve brought from the children of Memphis and Nashville. It was a short uphill hike to his gompa. Our group was Jim Williams, my guide; Nima Tashi, Jim’s Sherpa guide and long time friend; Karen, Matt and myself. Outside of the monastery, beside the views and the perfectly put together stone walls that define this valley, was yak dung drying on a huge canvas spread. Since wood cannot be sold for fuel, the yak dung is dried and burned for fire and heat.

As we entered the dark room lit only by numerous windows and decorated with Buddhist art and thousands of photos of climber friends of the Lama, we sat down to await audience. We each carried with us a goldenish white silk scarf with some rupees folded in a corner to present to Geshi Lama as we are greeted. When my time came after Jim’s, I placed the scarf in his hands, my rupees dropped on the floor, I picked it up and he took the scarf, blessed it then placed it over my neck and pulled my head to his - bumping heads is a sign of respect. Then we all sat down along the benches lined with carpet for comfort and listened to Jim catch up with his friend Geshi Lama, mostly telling him how well his grandson was doing at an university in the United States. The translator was Tashi, the Lama’s beautiful daughter who runs the lodge where we are staying. She is young and full of spirit and copies her father’s sense of humor.

After much conversation, Jim explained to Geshi Lama that I had brought a gift for him - the prayer beads made by Suzanne Hensley, which he took out of the velvet bag and smiled greatly with pleasure. We took lots of photos as we then showed him one by one the many prayer flags which I hope to hang at significant places related to Mt. Everest. He looked at each one and seemed touched by the effort of the children. Then he suggested to Jim where we should put the flags and said he would be glad to fly some of them at his monastery, the oldest in the Khumbu, after we had carried them with us to the base camp area.

We were offered a Rikikur for lunch, a potato pancake spread with yak butter and to be dipped in very spicy hot sauce. The Lama ate first and then we followed. In addition a small glass cup of Johnnie Walker Red Label was poured for each of us. I don’t drink alcohol but had to at least touch it to my mouth for respect. On the lip of the little cup was a smudge of sampa, a grain powder for good luck. As my companions began to drink their cups, Tashi was waiting to re-fill their cups. It is all in the spirit of abundance, blessing and hospitality that never ends here.

After lunch, Jim presented the Lama with much needed new shoes, and he proudly tried them on, after blessing them, and walked around. Tennis shoes were brought for Tashi and her mother and son. Then I received special blessings and a protection prayer to hang in a pouch around my neck in a ceremony along with a Sherpa who had just arrived for protective prayer and for the Lama’s naming a day and time for him to summit Mt. Everest with his large group of Westerners. Rice was thrown with each prayer, incense was burning, and Geshi Lama created little packets of prayer tied in string - and put in a small baggie for safety - for each of us. Geishi Lama also prayed for my strength to complete this pilgrimage then reported that Buddha has blessed my journey and that I will accomplish that which I want. Then he and his wife and his daughter each placed huge golden silk scarves around my neck (so I had four total), and then presented me with a small carpet also tied in one of the scarves. It was generosity beyond the norm, and the feeling of such welcome was unique.

With much laughing and prayer, it was time to go. Tashi would descend with us, everyone having finished their meals and been blessed with a neckful of golden scarves. Before we departed, another Sherpa friend of Jim’s arrived for blessing and discernment. He told Jim that at Base Camp the police were not allowing any laptops, cell phones, video cameras or satellite systems because of the problems with Tibet protestors. We at least would not be carrying our equipment to Base Camp, as we spend the night in Gorek Shep, the nearest village. Since we are not a member of an expedition group, we would not be welcomed to use the facilities and space in Base Camp.

The afternoon I relaxed with very peculiar shower (the hot water was not so hot), then sitting in the very warm sun, having recharged all our gear using the electricity at our friend Sherpa Nima Tashi’s home, we bundled up and walked again to Nima’s house where we were greeted by his beautiful wife, Ang Fura, who flashes a gold tooth when she smiles. She was building a fire (with yak dung) in their pot bellied stove in a new dining room for a future lodge. Warmth was the biggest welcome here. The heart of Nima and his Ang Fura has no limit. All our guides and Sherpas (four total) joined us for dinner cooked by Jeta, Nima and his wife. First we had tea or hot lemon in water. Then Jim, Karen and Brad were served a rice beer, a milky looking substance made by Nima from fermented rice. As soon as some sips were taken, the cup was filled again. Shay, Shay, they say. Drink, drink. These aren’t rounds, it’s continual refills.

The meal was enormous - from potato salad to momo (potstickers) to chicken curry and spicy tomato soup. In Pangboche, they farm potatoes so most of the meal is based on that food. But tonight rice was being served by the mountainfulls for the curry. I have never seen so much rice put on a plate. And then the Sherpas, small and thin as they are from carrying huge loads up these mountains, came back for seconds. Meanwhile there were second, third, fourth helping of everything until the food ran out. After the desert of canned mango in syrup, a sake like rice drink was served and served and served until everyone was about to fall asleep.. There was such a feeling of friendship and satisfaction that it’s hard to describe. And when Tashi and Jeta helped me back up the cobblely road to the lodge - in

the dark - Jim leading slowly, I felt a warmth from the inside, as well as from the outside.

Photos: Snow blowing off Mt. Everest; Tashi Sherpa, daughter of Geshi Lama; First blessing by Geshi Lama; Geshi Lama with prayer flags; Geshi Lama and the pancake lunch; Nima Tashe and Geishi Lama sorting flags; The well blessed group; the dinner party for our crew.

BBC: News Blackout at Everest Base Camp

From BBC News, Monday April 28:

By Charles Haviland
BBC News, Gorak Shep, near Everest base camp, Nepal

Just a short while after arriving in Everest base camp on Monday, we were politely but firmly told to leave by an official from Nepal's Ministry of Tourism.

The move came as China prepares to take the Olympic torch up its northern side of the world's highest peak.

The Nepalese authorities have imposed a complete communications ban from the base camp upwards and closed territory on Everest above 6,500 metres until the torch has been and gone from the top.

We knew there were restrictions on satellite phones and video cameras but were now told that even pre-recorded radio material on non-political subjects would not be allowed.

Nor would informal chats with the hundreds of mountaineers currently in the camp, the tourism ministry official, Prabodh Dhakal, said. If any mountaineer talked to the BBC, he or she would be expelled, he added.
More here

Monday, April 28, 2008

Map: Pangboche

Audrey's progress to date. Click to enlarge, Back button to return. Note: Those grayish fingers that look like they might be glaciers are, indeed, glaciers.

A Rough Trail

Mornings are cold in the Himalayas. It’s hard to pull out from under thick blankets and sleeping bags. Heat is not a given until the sun shines. The lodges have one old fashioned pot bellied stove in the middle of the dining room, but that’s about it. The higher we go, the colder we get, and therefore the more down, fleece and Gortex one must cover the body in. My fingers freeze and it’s hard to type on the laptop. I stay wrapped all night in sweaters, wool gloves, and my long brown cashmere airplane blanket cum scarf. It’s just too cold to change out of your daily attire. And somehow, when there is a shower, you have to gather up the courage to get in it. Jim tells me this is probably the last of the hot water showers, here in Pangboche, where we spend two nights in a small lodge owned by the daughter of the highly respected lama here. It certainly can boast of the last of the Western style toilets on the route toward base camp.
The road (path) from Namche Bazaar to Pangboche is probably the most difficult of this foot safari. It’s the principle highway for gear and supplies going to and from the Base Camp of Mt. Everest. The dust stirred up by people, yaks, naks (female yaks), an occasional horse and the cross-bred zoe turns the trekker into a nose blowing, sneezing, throat clearing, coughing idiot. When the wind whips up in the afternoon, it’s like living in a whirlwind. You constantly have to move to the side for yaks and porters carrying amazing loads that range from stacks of lumber, to huge jugs of kerosene or water, to garbage being brought down from Base Camp.
Anyone who has booked a climb this year has already settled in base camp. It takes about two months of preparation and conditioning in the actual base camp level of altitude. One of the most discomforting aspects to me is that everyone is responsible for his own human waste removal. This is why visitors to camp are not very welcomed because they add to that burden. Nothing can be left on the mountain or in the base camp. Human waste is collected and brought back down the mountain by Sherpas to be buried in deep holes in a dry lake bed. All other garbage must be transported to Namche Bazaar where it’s separated into burnables and non-burnables. Oxygen bottles, batteries, non recycle cooking gas canisters must be taken back home or sent back to the country of origin. Most oxygen bottles come from Russia where they are tested, refilled, recertified and sent back for another use for a total of three times per bottle.
Our daily trekking log leaving Namche started out pleasantly as the sun rose. For two hours we followed a rather flat trail with only a few ups and downs around the sides of forever mountains. Around the first curve was the spectacular view of Mt. Everest and all its partner mountains, so tall that it’s hard to imagine anyone could deign to tackle the conditions and the hours to get up there. All the mountains Ama Da Blam (Grandmother’s Jewel Purse), Lhostse, Nuptse (in front of Everest), Cantega , Tawache have been summited. Some are actually harder than Everest, but Everest is the highest and therefore it’s the one men and some women feel they need to own in their souls. You really can never own Mt. Everest. You can only spend ten or fifteen minutes - photo minutes - at the top, and never feel comfortable wrapped in face masks, oxygen tubes, dark glasses, frozen beards, every kind of warmth protector and boots thicker than a triple decker sandwich. I look up at this nemesis of so many climbers and wonder if God created these peaks to show humans that nature is much more formidable than they are. The greatest climbers and the Sherpas attempt these challenges to learn more about their own spirits and endurance abilities, not because they want to be focus of a documentary, or write a book, or to make money in some commercial way. It’s one way to learn what you are made of, if anything at all.
After two hours on the trail - I was cheerful thinking I can do this, I’m acclimitized - we began a difficult hour downward trek to a raging river, full of milky green water splashing over enormous white and gray boulders. We crossed a bridge and began a trek back up hill, stopping briefly for a cup of hot lemon juice and a Snickers at the bottom. I was feeling good and was amazed at my strength at this point. I had energy to burn and didn’t want to sit and rest too long, trying to make decent time. I had been warned this was the most difficult and longest day of my excursion (We left at 8 a.m. and arrived about 3:45 p.m.). Then began the uphill push. Nima Tashe, a fine Sherpa who had been on successful expeditions with Jim in 2002 and 2007, but is more famous for the 50th anniversary summit with the sons of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, joined us on this difficult ascent to his home town. He told us to take the old trail which meant less traffic, less dust, less sun, and a bit longer. It was excruciating for my soul and my lower back. So many times I wanted to burst into tears but then I knew I had to do it since it was a long ways back and this was what I was here for. So I pushed on, huffing and puffing as we ascended 1300 feet higher than Namche.
Finally after a tedious hour we reached Tengboche, site of the major administrative monastery in the Khumbu. As we passed through the elaborate gate, and took photos in front of the lions at the entrance, great swirls of dust surrounded us and sneezing began. All I could see was a tea house with the large words Bakery written on the front. We headed there and were rewarded with a piece of lemon meringue pie that was absolutely delicious. We collected some croissants (these things are not found anywhere in the Khumbu) for the next breakfast, and finally headed out a bit more rested to reach Pangboche, our destination for the night. This part of the trek included a long down hill, once again to the river where a Buddhist nunnery resides, a wobbly bridge crossing, and then a straight up hill climb that seemed like it would never end. Nima and our regular Sherpa Suka were right at my elbows to lift me up when a step was too high for my sagging muscles or my vertigo kicked in because it was straight down thousands of feet on one side of the trail. It was embarrassing to have to be helped up, but it was comforting at the same time. These people really care about your safety. About 3:30 we passed through the gate of Pangboche, a charming village, home of the oldest monastery in the Khumbu, laid out on tiers of land where potatoes are the main product. On all sides are the most majestic mountains and the tallest mountains in the world. All are snow covered. All change their faces as the sun moves across. Pangboche itself is as 13,000 feet, high as the Grand Teton in Wyoming.
In my usual exhaustion from over-exertion, I began to freeze in the evening breeze, and wrapped up in two thick blankets, a wool hat, gloves, and a hot water bottle - until it was time to crawl up a creepy ladder to the dining room where the pot stove was burning and the room was filled with loud Russian trekkers. All four of us were tired, Karen and I kept laying down on the benches, unable to keep our heads up, a sign, I guess of a good days haul. I got numerous hugs because I had made it on the hardest trekking day.
Photos: A white yak; the back end of a yak; Mt. Everest on the trail; the bakery at Tengboche; Tengboche monastery entrance; Arriving at Pangboche.
See map.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Finding My Way

I am a lonely pilgrim wandering in a wilderness so unfamiliar even the dust seems less buoyant.
I don’t know these mountains. I don’t know this Asian air. I don’t know this Nepali language or Sherpa culture. I cling to God for I feel far from the cathedrals of my faith but I can still listen for His Spirit in the wind, the ruach, the messenger carrying prayers to His ears. I don’t feel lost nor deprived from the constant feeding of religiosity we have in the Bible Belt of America. It seems that at such a distance faith flattens out into a given, a certain kind of permanent strength that survives all sorts of challenges to what one is used to.

I am seeing in Nepal a survival of the fittest first hand, people who are not impressed by those things so impressionable to Americans, people who find a depth of meaning and happiness in areas we’d never consider comfortable or pleasant. But then they do. And learning why they do is part of the task of leaving behind the regular and figuring out how to deal with someone else’s habits. Sometimes, if we can divest our prejudices, we can actually see things with a different eye.

I’ve mostly been horrified at the conditions of life, the filthiness of the urban areas, a poverty to Western eyes that is not a misery without company. It is not about giant houses, thousand dollar wines, Prada purses, best sellers, getting the best draft pick or the biggest donations, or being the best or even being humble. Humility is the given here. No one has to work for it or go somewhere to learn about it. It’s in these peoples and that’s the reason they can smile at the stumbling trekkers in the latest gear who effort to get off the couch and live in nature at its best. Is it about the soul? To me it is. It’s questioning if I even have a soul and what does that mean. It’s thinking about death on a daily basis and not being afraid since that adventure can not be much more challenging than the one I take each day trying to stay upright on hikers poles and not stumbling on spreads of rocks.

I wonder why Americans feel we must make the world copy us? The British wanted the world to be at their feet and so they colonized lands that had nothing to do with their way of thinking, eating, or signing and made a mess of it. That world eventually was wrenched from them or unleashed as it should have been. But Americans have got to make a buck. They push to be the hand of power in everyone else’s affairs, and mostly, we aren’t even cognizant of what other cultures think, want, and do because we can only measure them if they are like us or hunger for our desires. Why do we presume we might judge poverty, religion, politics as if we were masters of greatness when really the diversity formed around the world is what gives greatness, even richness to life? Why do we think we have the monopoly on justice and that everyone else is corrupt and wrong? Truth can be an auspicious discovery.

There is nothing worse than sameness. Or counting on the familiar. Change happens. It must happen. Yet I’m as bound by routine, regularity, judgement just as much as the intolerable tight-minded capitalist or hater or bigot or politician. It is hard to understand concepts are far from the apple of the television eye - things not clean, not in our control, not dependent, not weak, not permitted by laws created to make living next to another man tolerable. It is hard to realize our current government has squashed every ounce of friendship that those of us who have lived abroad worked so hard to make positive. It is hard to be the bad guy whose only good point is his dollar bill, and even that has lost its favor. We are considered war mongers with muscles based on military magnificence. We excuse ourselves as fighters for freedom, but is freedom USA-style worth such cost?

Even Mt. Everest, a sacred mountain which randomly or with some order selects who will reach the top and who will not - it’s never a sure thing for anyone - has become a commercial enterprise. The Sherpas believe a female diety, Jomo Miyo Lang Sangma, lives on and rules the mountain at its peak of 29,035 feet. She rides a red tiger and carries a spitting mongoose in one hand. The Tibetan name for Everest (named Everest for the original surveyor) is Chomulungma or Sagarmatha ("head of the sky"). Its well-traveled route has brought prosperity to the Sherpas in the Khumbu, as they open lodges with modern conveniences, offer delicious meals with what can be brought here on a man’s back, and prosper as guides to the many mountains and treks in this area. To climb Mt. Everest costs from 25,000 to 120,000 dollars for a single person. The permit fee is 14,000 dollars per person alone. But to think you are entitled to that climb because you paid for it, is stupid. Nothing can be guaranteed.. You must get to the base camp first. Don’t think you can beat the odds. Too many factors are uncontrollable, leading off with weather, conditions and of course the stamina, patience, and soul of the person climbing. Who can even make it across the ladders of the Ice Fall? Is it right to risk so many lives - including those of the Sherpas - to be able to say "I did it?" Where do you become the fool? A real man is not afraid to admit he couldn’t make it. He wins if he sees value in the effort he made to push himself beyond the couch of a comfortable routine.

Edmund Hillary, the first to ever summit Mt. Everest 55 years ago with his faithful companion Tenzing Norgay, wrote: "It’s not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves." I know my toughest enemy is myself. How do I convince myself to continue when I feel like a dissolved snowflake? How can I deal with the loneliness factor, because, in the end, I do it alone and according to what is struggling in my spirit? It’s nice to have supporters to cheer me on. But it goes back to the core of heart and soul, the faith that one clings to whether on an operating table or about to cross a wobbly bridge. I am doing things now in my old age that I would never have tried when I was young when I was more able to do them. Is it because I have nothing to lose? Maybe. I do have God. But before I die, I am taking for real T.S. Eliot’s quote: "Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go." I believe this is what I am doing, finding out how far I can go at my age, in my condition, in my health and in my faith.
Photos: Mt. Kongde, a foothill of Mt. Everest - they are all incredible; The Buddhist way to Nirvana; Happiness is making momo for guests; The four animals which answered Buddha's call for help: elephant, monkey, rat and bird; the strangling fig vine which lives off trees in Chatwin.

A Busy Bazaar

In Namche Bazaar, clouds throw themselves over the steep mountain tops like crocheted shawls. But when it gets dark, it’s dark. As exhausted as I was after trekking to Namche Bazaar, even to eating dinner in my room, even warm under a duvet and a sleeping bag, even fading quickly when I tried to read Follett’s novel, sleep came like smoke signals, sometimes si, sometimes no. Dogs chanted the night away. The night seemed long until the hounds quieted and the crows, big as dachshunds, were the only fowl music, as was the early workmen chipping masses of round stones - clink, clink, clink- to make them rectangular. There is a lot of construction in progress in this pueblo. Jeta arrives at my door with a cup of hot instant cappuccino. I could get used to this.
I get the courage to leave the warmth to test if hot water comes in the shower. I let the sink water run until it turned hot. That was a good sign. So I finally got a full-fledged cleansing shower in hot water. That gave me a new lease on life. And because we don’t have to trek today as we acclimatize, I put on my favorite old trousers, my big black baggy sweater, and a huge cotton scarf. I’m going to attempt to recreate a slice of my comfort zone, at least in the morning. Breakfast was a buckwheat apple pancake with the thickness of three pancakes. Good for a tempestuous spirit breaking the rules of her diet.
After a morning on the computer and a splendid grilled cheese, tomato and spinach sandwich lunch, Jim thought it would be good to stretch the legs. I felt good and said let’s go. We’d hike up to the top of the town and around to the other side of the mountain to visit a gompa (Buddhist temple) which was in the process of celebrating the arrival of a new statue of Guru Rinpoche, who centuries ago declared the Khumbu Valley would be a sanctuary from the world; then we’d head to the bazaar for which this town is named. It’s a weekend event that brings locals from as far as a seven day walk to sell their harvest and supplies. It would be a good photo op..
Grabbing my sticks, I set off up these endless wide stone stairs - hardly had I gone up two and I was winded, my heart started beating fast, and I got discouraged because I realized I still had a way to go before my lungs were ready in this high altitude (11,000 feet.) Darn it. I thought. We took it slowly, very slowly, pacing me, ascending step by step as I broke out in a sweat under my warm jacket. I had wrapped myself in the big cotton scarf for protection against the dust. There was a brisk cool breeze as well. Finally we circled the entire city passing red rhododendron trees and giant boulders carved with the Om and painted white, then arriving, after some complicated step work, at the yellow roofed gompa. More high steps up through the entrance, I felt dizzy, then we removed our hiking shoes to pay respect to a holy place. This old gompa had fallen into disrepair and the community had come together with offerings of every sort (grains, coins, kata scarves for good luck and rolled sheets of prayers covered in ochre fabric) which were being organized to be kept in the large base of the statue. I guess it is sort of like leaving food and eternity entertainment in tombs of Egyptian Pharaohs. The gompa items are never removed from the statue’s base. Village women had brought huge vats of hot tea, and one elderly monk was about to indulge in a grilled cheese sandwich. Right on.
The gompa is rather dark but every piece of wall space is covered in glittering fabrics, repetitive block prints and thangkas (holy art) as well as one long wall, a glass cabinet of sort, contains 108 ancient books of Buddhist wisdom from which the monks constantly read. The statue will be placed in the middle of the books. Much of Buddhist art is in block prints, which the lamas give to the villages. These are printed on par-shing, wooden blocks carved with the reverse image of the print. These blocks are also used to make prayer flags. Each image has a function: Ku-par are pictures of gods and historic figures; Srung-par are protective prints worn in bags around a person’s neck or put on the door knob of a house; Lok-par, mostly commonly evil eyes images, are burned during ritual exorcisms; Others are used as prayer flags, displayed at weddings or placed under a dying person’s body about to be cremated. Then there are Mandalas which are geometric art works symbolizing order and harmony and used for meditation much like religious icons are used in catholic churches. Some Mandalas are made in colored sand.
A dip down into this layered village took us down a lane of tourist shops (good mountaineering gear can be found here) where I found a skein of colorful yarn for my crocheting and also some much needed gloves (ski gloves are too big for daytime warmth.) The market having just begun in the afternoon, was a bustle of trading. Big white sacks of flour, of Dak (white beans, black beans) of a kind of flattened rice that is great in muesli, giant tins of fresh cottage cheese which I was eager to sample, but Jim said not to; every kind of hot spicy pepper, turmeric by the tons, baskets of live chickens, eggs that were small by our standards but fresh, and many packaged goods. Sherpa women with dark faces and rosy cheeks drive a hard bargain and sit among the large sacks. This is serious merchandise, not the usual tourist fare of beaded necklaces, bandanas of every sort, clothing and trinkets which are laid out along the narrow passageways of the town.
As we climbed our way back up to our Panorama Lodge, I took it one step at a time. I wonder how foolish I look to the Sherpas and young tourist (there was a whole load of youngsters from New Zealand just fallen into the large dining room, who were going only to Tengboche a day away) as sweat drips off my forehead and I keep my eyes on the stone so as not to cause a wreck.
Lakpa, a beautiful Sherpa woman who owns the lodge in which we stay, joined us for tea and showed us original Thankas created by her cousin. She has been the subject of a book on Sherpa customs and has traveled extensively in the US. Today Jim and the cook made potato salad American style (mayo, mustard, capers, eggs) which really lifted up my sagging appetite. I have to admit they were they were the best potatoes I’ve ever tasted. Jim had warned me. r

Photos: View of Namche Bazaar; Inside a gompa; rolling Buddhist prayers; woman selling cottage cheese at the Bazaar; Vendor of spices and yeast; Sherpa woman; a young monk; Tea with Lapka, the Sherpa owner of our lodge.

Map: Mt. Everest region

Map of the Everest region and Audrey's trek to date. (Click to enlarge, Back Button to return.)

Friday, April 25, 2008

A Worn Out Day

I couldn’t sleep last night, though the room was warm. I wrapped up in my sleeping bag but the mattress was hard and so after lying on one side for very long, it got sore and I’d wake up and shift. But mostly I was worried about the trek today . Getting to Namche Bazaar was a four hour hike mostly straight up til we reached an altitude of approximately 11,000 feet, not quite as high as the Grand Teton in Wyoming, but close. I do pretty well going down hill or down steps, however dangerous they might be, and I soar on the flat areas, but uphill is tedious and there never seems to be enough breath to go with the constant lifting of my body to new heights. So I fretted during the nights and wondered if there would be hot water for a morning shower at the Mt. Kailash Lodge in Monjo. (I guess that is as close as I’ll get to the holy Tibetan mountain of Mt. Kailash, one of the destinations on this trip which has been cancelled because of angry Tibetans trying to turn the Olympics into conflict, and for which the Chinese have closed all borders into Tibet until after the Olympics.)

I found that out early, at 6:30 when Jeta brought me a cup of instant cappuchino which we had bought in the supermarket in Kathmandu. (I long for a frappuchino from Starbucks, but realize ice is out of the picture until the end of this trip.) There was no hot water. So I sponged bathed and as is in all cases, brushed my teeth using mineral water from a bottle. It’s so hard not to automatically pass the brush under the sink water.

After an apple pancake, we set out for today’s tough trek. Departing Monjo, we passed through the entrance to the Sagarmatha Park, where we were required to get passes and were also stopped by the military bearing rifles for a bag inspection. Everything they had to view. They even got nervous about my prayer flags, not understanding that these were made by innocent children and not by some protest group with a purpose to upset China’s Olympics.. But they let them through in the end, as well as Jim’s satellite system, which is also suspect. Nepal is enforcing China’s desire to prevent any kind of use of Mt. Everest for political purposes. During the inspection, I walked through the brightly painted entrance gate which housed a dozen prayer wheels. So I turned the wheels and as I did, a troop of soldiers ran through in cadence. I wondered how anyone could run down those crude stone stairs.

I am overwhelmed by the traffic of trekkers, hundreds of them with their porters carrying huge loads of bags. Many of the young sherpas wore black T-shirts bearing the face of Brittany Spears. Each time a string of them came through going the opposite direction, we had to move off the trail and balance until they passed. I envied them that they were done with heir treks and were on the way back to Yeti Airlines. But my task was still to come. After about two hours - there are no tea houses or rest stops on the route to Namche Bazaar - we had crossed three long suspension bridges that wobble as you step on them while hanging over rowdy rivers and boulders below. Prayer flags are hung on all of them because that’s a good place to catch the wind to carry prayers to God. When we turned on yet another switchback out of the pines and rhododendron trees, and stepped into the clear morning sun, there before us was the first but hazy glimpse of Mt. Everest. It’s one tall monster of a mountain more than three times as high as we were at the moment (about 9500 feet.) Imagine that men and women climb to the top of that peak. Seems impossible. And maybe it is an invasion of what the Nepalis consider the property of God. There are so many deaths, not all of them made public. This year there are twice as many teams planning to attempt to summit Everest, but no one can do so until after May 10th, after the Olympic torch passes to the top on the China side.

We took a breath to keep on climbing. It seemed never ending until turning another corner, spread across the side of a steep mountain was Namche Bazaar - it’s bright colored stone buildings, two or three stories high, braced against the soil and rock, each one stair-stepped above the other and stone walls encircling terraces of land for farming. I was full of pain by this time, my calves calling, my hip bones raw, my breath shortening by the minute. But by golly, we had made it in good time. To celebrate, Jim led us to a German bakery for tea and pastry called Herman Helmers Brackerie und Condetori. It was about one-fourth of the way to the top of the city where our lodge Panoramic stood. That’s about another 25 minutes of hiking straight up stairs. A rest would give us a boost. I requested a large cake donut that I had been seeing in bakery windows all along and felt good about eating it after the morning’s long skirmish. The bad news was we still had a ways to go, and the sun was hot, the wind cold, the dust flying. My Sherpa stayed with me as I slowly huffed and puffed up the crude stairs, dodging the porters passing me as if I was standing still - which at times I was - until we reached a white gate. This is it, he said. It was a good thing. I probably didn’t have enough umph for much higher. This is when the shortage of oxygen begins to set in. The red blood cells weaken, the bone marrow needs to get cracking to produce more, so we stop here to have time to re-adapt, the body being exhausted. This is why we are staying in Namche Bazaar for three nights. Acclimatize.

After a friendly welcome by the Sherpa lady who owns the inn and restaurant, we sat on the pillows on wall benches around the room and ate lunch. The cook who knew Jim well brought in every kind of Sherpa specialty - mostly the Dahl Bok which is a hefty meal of rice, bean and lentil soup, greens, potatoes and homemade pickles. A Sherpa friend of Jims who had been with Hillary’s son when he climbed in honor of his father’s fiftieth anniversary of reaching the sumnmit, came to join us. He will go with us the rest of the way and we will stay in his home in Panboche. Here I live in luxury - a room with a double sized bed, a modern toilet and a hot water shower. There is plenty of electricity here so we can recharge batteries and I can read Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth. This is sort of the routine, town to town. You go with what’s there.

I had the additional experience after lunch to trip down many stairs to see the dentist. My old faithful tooth on a post fell out again, and a young and knowledgeable Nepali dentist, trained in Canadam who runs a local dental clinic, glued it back in for me. Then Jim took me to see a puja in progress in the house of one of his friends a few more steps downhill. Puja is a special blessing that happens once a year. It can last two or three days. We had to take off our shoes to enter, as had the monks - who appear to prefer Nikes. In a large room are elaborate tables, wall paintings and collections of holy books and a low altar of different kinds of yak butter candles, incense and silver urns all of which are thanksgiving and holy items. Six monks in red and yellow robes sat yoga-style at long tables and began to hum deeply when lunch was served to them. Most Buddhist houses have a designated sacred area or an elaborate room which the monks visit to cleanse, forgive and bless for the next year. It’s a time of horn blowing, text reading, chants and serious thought but the owners go about their business while it is going on, making sure the visitors are well-fed and attended. This must happen in every Buddhist home each year. Meanwhile, I could have used a blessing to get me back up the magnificent steps to my lodge.
Photos: Entering Sagarmatha Park; Inspections by police; the suspension bridge number three; soccer balls are good horse feeders; a wild flower surprises; first view of hazy Mt. Everest; Namche Bazaar; the dentist visit' a "puga"; one worn out trekker.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

We're Off To See Whatever

We are off on the most difficult challenge of my life - facing Mt. Everest at the base camp.
Ours was the first of four 20 passenger planes to plow through the thick smoke and fog at Kathmandu airport at 6:30 in the morning. It’s always touch and go if the tiny Twin Otter props will take off at all. Today we were among the flying Yeti Airlines.

If you could see how we fly, it would curl your toes. Everyone piles on - no seat assigned - with their backpacks and trekking gear into seats hardly wide enough for a toddler, they lay their gear in the aisles, in the tiny space in front of them or on their laps. No overhead bind and the steps are two bars with no bannisters. There is a pretty Nepali stewardess in the Sherpa long dress with striped apron and she attempts to pass out cotton for the ears and caramels as we hip dance down the runway. Then we fly into the sun across the tallest mountains I’ve ever seen, ridge after ridge until suddenly the motors slow and a runway about the size of four football fields appears with a rock wall built against the mountain at the end. We land on two wheels and a prayer and everyone scrambles out into Lukla. This is the setting off point for all treks to Mt. Everest and the Sagarmanta Park, home of Everest and its sister peaks. As our bags are removed from the tiny pocket in the plane, others are being piled on and the plane leaves before we are through the exit gates and into the village. Then lands the next plane, and so on. There is even one helicopter flight.

Outside the airport gates are stacks of men hoping to be chosen as porters for a trek. Jeta, our head man, sees porters he knows and signs them on to carry our extensive load. There are four of us now. Jeta’s cousin carries my backpack. But first we stop at the Nameste Inn for breakfast. It’s all so casual, the preparation of the meals. I had asked for a toasted cheese sandwich (it was on the menu) and they had to go to the market to get a loaf of bread. There is no light in the restaurant, just daylight a bit reluctant to shine in but the interior is made in a blonde wood and tables with cushioned bench seats running along the wall. Outside one could see the activities of trekkers starting their days and also we could hear a puja in progress - that is a blessing ceremony at someone’s house - loud horns of three types, bells ringing, and chanting. This ceremony might go on for two or three days until the lama had cleansed everything in the patron’s home.

I was ready to get on the road - to see how hard this was going to be. We haven’t hiked in a week. My muscles were tight. But to begin with after registering with the official trekkers office and the police we wandered through a few villages, very pristine and fixed up for tourist - two story gray stone buildings with white or blue trim on the windows and doors, some little tourist shops for gear and souvenirs, but still, hovering even here, the horrible smoke from morning fires and the smoke still rising from the valleys. We began to see rhododendron trees in bloom, reds, hot pinks, whites, and also along the road violet colored primula. The road was full of rock, but not steps as in Annapurna. One had to concentrate to hit the right steps going down hill or up. It is tedious and a bit frightening because one false step and it could be over. My sticks are my saviors at this point, and in these Buddhist towns we pass through arcades of prayer wheels, which we each turn, and also pass on the left side clockwise of the vertical prayer flag poles or giant boulders which have been tediously carved with the Om of the Buddhist chants. Jim never misses a one, so I follow. We cross swinging metal suspension bridges that take a kind of balance or a rhythm to master, they cross high over rivers or just canyons so I try not to look down and get dizzy. It reminded me of the "exposure" factor when climbing the Tetons. There’s a lot of space between me and below.

Overwhelming is the amount of trekkers and their porters going both directions. A real traffic jam at times if you both need to step on the same bunch of steps. Lots of Germans, French, Russians, and Chinese were returning from successful excursions, I guess. But I couldn’t look up to see their happy faces since I was concentrating so hard on stepping on the right step and not folding up into a falling ball.

Zoes, a cross between cow and yak, pass on the trails, their bells ringing from their necks, and their backs loaded with packs. Donkeys too pass, and even a lady on a gray horse also with giant jingle bells who is being led by a sherpa. A-ha, I think. But Jim won’t even let me think about that. We trek for three hours before lunch. Since we arrived early this morning, we’d be able to go further after the meal, once again, cooked on the spot. Stopping for lunch is never fast food. It’s lots of waiting for ingredients to be prepared from scratch. Most meals are potatoes or rice or noodle based with sides of greens. I tried yak cheese momo (potstickers) but there wasn’t much flavor to them. There are two kinds of chocolate Snickers and Mars bars in a display case. I knew I’d need energy food so chewed up a Snickers. There’s not much sugar in foods, only in tea, which my group drinks excessively. Tea is brought in giant thermos that are almost comical for their size. Each place we’ve stopped, the higher we reach, the thermos has gotten larger, encouraging guests to sit and drink a while.

When we took off after lunch at Phakting (which was our original destination for night, but we arrived early), I was full of energy and set off first by myself. Of course, I did it slowly, as instructed, and finally everyone had caught up. We were all stopped by soldiers at the crossing of a river, who had to inspect our backpacks and luggage. This was a surprise but apparently is Nepal’s effort to appease China so there is no Free Tibet protests on Mt. Everest. We hiked along the Dudhkosi River, its water milky green because it was fresh melt from the and then began a sever upward climb which lasted about two excruciating hours. My muscles almost fell out of my skin and each step I wondered if I was not doing a foolish thing, would I ever be able to make it to my goal, and I concentrated on how exhausted I was. Each rest stop I tried to deep breathe as much as possible and drink water. Dehydration is an enemy, as can be the altitude. We went from 7500 feet, where we landed, down about 1000 feet, and then back up 8500 feet by the time we reached our destination for the night in Monjo.

Jeta went ahead of us to look for a lodge with an attached bathroom. The room was new with bright colored bedspreads and pillows but I was so exhausted I just folded up in the bed using the sleeping bag as a cover and my cashmere blanket wrapped around my shoulders and neck. I tried to stretch my hips and legs, but after such extreme effort on the trek, all I could do was shiver from the cold. It took a while to warm up. There is no heat in these lodges, but there is a large stove in the middle of the dining area where everyone gathers for tea and food. We are too wrapped in a valley to be able to use the satellite to send the blog or emails. Tomorrow we’ll be up higher and in a more populous areas.
Photos: Landing at Lukla; Brush the prayer wheel for luck; Rhododendrun trees; trail traffic - these are crosses between cows and yaks; A beautiful Nepali woman and child; Things we walk around to get right; a suspension bridge high above a river.