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.

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