This morning's freezing cold, pre-dawn lecture explored the long history and basic tenants of Zen Buddhism. If you would like to experience what I went through, then all you need to do is wake up at 4am and grab a "North Faux" sleeping bag. Take it into a walk-in freezer along with your therma-rest. Now get inside your bag with all your clothes on, curl up into a ball, and put your tangled earbuds in so that you can listen to Alan Watts pontificate on the nature of emptiness until you are able to doze off. Also make sure there is significantly less oxygen available for you to breathe. Now you know what my mornings on the trek are like.
Hiking through the snow.
After a breakfast of oatmeal and black tea (hold the milk) we packed up and hit the trail early. The snow from the day before had dissipated and we wound our way through the trees and gradually uphill until the great Ama Dablan peak came into view. Yak trains were coming and going in both directions and several times we were forced over to the edge of the trail to let them pass by. Most yak trains consist of "Zhou" which are a hybrid between a yak and a cow. However, pure bred yaks are up here too with their long matted hairdo's and their extra long horns. You can always hear their bells before you see them so you have enough time to find a safe space on the narrow trail to let them go by. The yak drivers are also constantly yelling out commands like, "Hey! Sho! Pshh!" which doesn't seem to have any effect on the yaks whatsoever. One guy even got his whip out and cracked it on his poor yaks, who continued to plod onwards as if nothing had happened.
HEY! PSHHH! SHO!
We walked slowly up and up, struggling against the altitude with every step. The narrow trail ran alongside the edge of a steep cliff of a beautiful river valley. The rivers here are all glacial runoff which gives them a surreal light blue color. Everest peak once again came into view along with Lohtse, but this walk was all about the views of Ama Dablan. According to the locals, the mountain looks like a giant eagle with its wings spread, but I don't know- I can't really see it. My guide told me that I have to use my imagination and I explained to him that, tragically, I was born without an imagination. I'm not sure if he understands my sarcasm or not.
On and on we hiked until we made it up above the tree line. Without any trees to get in the way, the wind really picked up. The landscape changed drastically into a barren, windswept grassland. We finally climbed up to our next lodge in Dingboche, the Good Luck Hotel- elevation 14,500ft. My brother was not coping well with the all the exertion at high elevation and when we entered our room he got into bed and passed out within the space of about thirty seconds. Geoff, Dave, and I were still feeling strong so we decided to take a walk around the town. Walking anywhere this high up means that you move really slowly, almost like you are going in slow motion. We found a bakery and I had my first sweet treat since the hike began. After hanging out in the lodge around the yak dung stove and eating dinner, we went to bed. A bed, I might mention, which comes equipped with a giant, puffy blanket. Very exciting.
I awoke again a couple of hours before dawn, this time because my legs and feet were freezing. I am beginning to get suspicious of my so-called "North Face" sleeping bag. How was I able to get it for so cheap? On closer inspection of the sleeping bag label, I noticed that it was made with "foft" down and that it was "Gore Dry." A -15C sleeping bag should be able to keep me nice and warm at temperatures above freezing and this "North Fake" bag was already letting me down. I put on some extra layers and curled up tight for my pre-dawn Alan Watts lecture on the iPod. I ate a delicious veggie omelet for breakfast and packed up my duffel bag for the porter to carry. Our porter is named Narang and he is only about 19 years old. He ropes my duffel bag to my brother's and then straps the entire 70 pound load to his head. He doesn't speak any English but he always has a big smile on his face. His load is actually pretty light compared to most of Sherpas we see walking uphill with 150 lbs + strapped to their foreheads. I showed Narang how my duffel bag has straps that come out so that you can wear it on your shoulders like a backpack. He got the straps out and tied everything to his head anyway. I guess they just prefer it that way.
Narang with Pumari Peak in the background.
We hiked up out of Namche and then began our six hour walk which took us steeply up and down again and again. Just when I thought we had gained maximum elevation for the day we descended steeply all the way down to the river bank where we had lunch. Everyone in our crew ordered hot lemon tea but I was feeling a bit groggy and had a bit of a headache, so I ordered milky coffee. This proved to be a very bad decision with disastrous consequences. I will spare you the details of my next misadventure but let's just say that I will never order a milky coffee with lunch again. Ever. It was all uphill from there with storm clouds rolling in and pretty soon we were hiking in a snow storm. Temperatures dropped and we had to keep moving to stay warm. My mild headache was getting worse with every foot of elevation we gained. After hours of ascending through the snow, we came to the famous Tengboche monastery at about 1:30pm. At this point we could have waited around until 3pm to witness the monks chanting but the group, wet and cold, unanimously decided to keep pushing through to Deboche so that we could take shelter from the snow in the lodge. We arrived at the lodge in Deboche-elevation 12,500ft- and I went straight up to the room so that I could change into dry clothes and get into my sleeping bag to warm up. I fought off the urge to take a nap because I didn't want to have another bad night of sleep. It snowed for the rest of the evening and we huddled around the wood stove in the middle of the dining room to keep warm. After dinner, I went up into our tiny, freezing room to read about Bear Grylls' summit attempt on Everest. I was asleep by 8pm.
We hiked all the way down to the river and back up the other side of the canyon.
Another night where I woke up at 3am with no chance of getting back to sleep. I was battling against jet lag, high altitude, and the aftershocks of a yak cheese 'pizza.' I made the best of my time lying in my sleeping bag by listening to "The Power of Now" by Ekhart Tole. Listening to his voice drone on and on about the importance of separating your thinking mind from your conscious awareness is almost as good as sleep. I must have drifted off at one point because I came to and he was still explaining about the past and the present and the future. At this point I switched over to Alan Watts who, like Ekhart, has also mastered human consciousness but has managed to take things one step further by bringing a sense of humor to the whole thing.
I got up at sunrise in Namche Bazaar, feeling particularly enlightened. The rain clouds from the evening before had cleared and I was surprised to see an amazing view of snow-capped peaks from our lodge. This was to be the first of many incredible mountain views that I was to experience today. Come to think of it, today ranks as one of the most memorable days of my life. Over breakfast we learned that my Dad had not been able to sleep at all during the night due to the frightening sensation that he was suffocating. He spent the night gasping for air, unable to derive enough oxygen from the thin atmosphere at 11,500 ft. The rest of us were feeling relatively good and I was relieved to discover that my guts had won the epic battle against the cursed yak cheese pizza. After breakfast- oatmeal this time, just to play it safe- we began our acclimatization hike, heading up and out of Namche Bazaar.
More like Namche Bizarre.
Powered by the combination of Cordyceps, ginseng, chlorella, and ginkgo biloba I was feeling charged up and ready to go. We hiked up a short ways out of Namche Bazaar to a high plateau where we were rewarded with a 360 degree panorama of mountain peaks including the elusive Everest view. The Everest peak was not shrouded in clouds yet and, in my excitement, I took way too many pictures of it. Mount Everest reaches up so high into the sky that it actually scrapes up against the jet stream, causing high winds and clouds on the summit all year round- save for the precious few weeks in May when the warm monsoon front travels up from the south. The warm air forces the jet stream up and the high winds at the top cease, allowing climbers to summit the peak. Although it is impressive, Everest is not the most impressive mountain to be viewed from our location. Other mountains such as Ama Dablan, Nuptse, and Thamserku were much closer to us, and thus they appeared to loom higher in the sky. After about ten minutes of photos, Dad decided that he could go no further as he needed to go back to the lodge and rest up. So the four of us and our guide, Gopal, continued straight uphill for another 1000 ft to The Everest View hotel- the highest five star resort in the world. By the time we got there, Everest was once again hidden by thick clouds and so "The Everest View Hotel" was a bit of a misnomer.
Everest. The peak on the far left with the jet-stream coming off it.
We enjoyed some delicious, overpriced tea on the back porch and bundled up against the wind that was growing in force by the minute. The Everest View may have been a let down, but the views that we took in along the way were nothing short of spectacular. There were several times when I was forced to a standstill, with nothing else I could do but stare in wonder at my surroundings. It was breathtaking, and not just because of the lower oxygen levels at 12,500 feet. We returned exhausted and were glad to take part in the second part of our rest day which involved lying in bed, reading a book, and then taking a very slow walk through village to check out the various trekking shops. Eventually the weather picked up, as it seems to do every afternoon, and soon it was snowing sideways. I was too exhausted to care and happy to go back to the room and read my book written by Bear Grylls about his summit of Everest back 1998. The more I learn about what it takes to get to the top, the more I am convinced that I never want to attempt it. Hiking to Everest base camp at 17,700ft- higher than any peak in the US- is enough of a challenge for me. We went to bed early again because tomorrow is meant to be one of the hardest hikes of the trek. I lay in bed with visions of the amazing peaks we saw during our hike- I fell asleep instantly.
Amazing scenery on the way up to Everest View Hotel.
I was not able to sleep past 3am this morning. The time difference between Tahoe and Nepal is twelve hours which is pretty much the biggest time difference that is possible. In all the excitement of the previous day I had forgotten about jet lag being a factor. We had a big hike planned for today all the way from the bottom of the river valley up to Namche Bazaar, which sits at 11,500 ft. After a delicious breakfast of eggs on toast we all hit the trail with high spirits. The rocky trail took us up and down through an area called the Ghats which consists of numerous colorful prayer wheels and Buddhist Stupas. In addition, large boulders have been painstakingly chiseled away with the words "Om Mane Padme Hum" in Nepali script. This loosely translates in English to "Hail to the Jewel of the Lotus." All stupas must traditionally be passed on the left side with the stupa on your right and all prayer wheels must be spun in a clockwise direction to purify your soul. With the addition of Tibetan prayer flags, the whole area is both colorful and sacred.
A stupa surrounded by prayer flags.
We crossed over six different suspension bridges which are really not so bad once you get the hang of them. The trick is to bend your knees to absorb the shocks and try not to step to heavily or else the bridge will start rocking too much. The other trick is to not get on a suspension bridge at the same time as a yak train because there is not enough room for both of you to pass each other. All the bridges are built relatively low to the water except for the last one that we crossed which was only built last year and is suspended about 350 ft up above the river.
Crossing a suspension bridge.
We had to climb up the side of a steep cliff just to get to it. When we arrived on the platform there was a crowd of people waiting to cross and a large yak train making its way across the bridge. As soon as the last yak exited onto land a rush of people began their crossing. We were up near the front of the line and things were going quite well until another train of yaks was spotted on the far side. Normally the Sherpa who is driving the yaks would hold them there and wait for the bridge to clear before taking his yaks across. This time, however, the Sherpa had fallen behind his front yaks. With no instructions to follow the yaks just did what they normally do and began crossing the bridge. The only problem was that we were still on there with about 20 others, 350 feet up with nowhere to turn. Panic quickly spread and several people ahead of me broke into a run. I was close to the far end but there was no way I was going to beat these yaks to the landing. Turning back was not really an option because the crowd behind me was still moving forward and so I pressed myself up against the side wire and tried to make myself slim as these great horned beasts plodded their way past me. The Sherpa finally managed to stop the yak train after three or four got through so, after they passed by, I peeled myself off the side and made it safely to the landing on other side. Driven by the adrenaline from that crossing and rocking out to my iPod, I managed to hike all the way up to the top and into Namche Bazaar with only one stop. On arrival we were given hot lemon tea and the key to our room at the Foot Rest lodge. I rested my feet, connected up to wifi and whittled away the rest of the day writing emails and posting photos to Facebook. Dinner was Nepali pizza which is a meal I would not wish upon my worst enemies. Yak cheese has the odor of athletes foot and the flavor to match. It sent my digestion into panic mode. Ah well, live and learn. Tomorrow was a "rest day" which, loosely translated into Nepali, means that you hike straight uphill to 12,500ft and then you come back down again for the sake of acclimatization.
That line on top is the final bridge you cross before heading up to Namche Bazaar.
Our plane to Lukla was due to leave at 8:30am which meant that we had to be up by 6 to catch a ride to the airport by 7. Nothing could have prepared me for the spectacle that is the Kathmandu domestic airport. We pulled up to the airport parking lot for the third time in two days only this time we were immediately inundated by eager Nepalese men. They grabbed our duffel bags out of the car before we even had a chance to get out and started stacking them onto a luggage cart. They were literally fighting over who would help transport our bags the short distance to the airport terminal. After an obligatory tip, we were inside the terminal which was so full of people and luggage that you could hardly move. Next thing we know another little man had taken control of our bags and he was rapidly leading us through the crowded maze towards the check-in counter. The line was backed way up with throngs of people jostling for position around the counter. But the crowds did not seem to bother our guy at all. He grabbed our flight printout and our passports and pushed his way through the masses, straight up to the front of the line and placed our documents on the counter in front of the official. Now, keep in mind that we had no idea who this guy was but somehow we trusted him- we had no choice in the matter. Gerard stayed with our bags while I followed close behind, determined not to lose possession of my passport again. Within minutes he wants our bags and so I yell over to my brother to bring them up. People were obviously getting pissed off at us and at all the chaos and crowds. One Australian guy had reached his limit and starts laying into us. "This is a line and the line starts here- now get to the back of line!" Everything was happening so quickly- it was out of my hands by that point. I just shrugged and continued to push on. Our bags were passed up and tagged and our random little man handed us our boarding cards and passports. After another tip- this one well deserved- we thanked him and made our way to the boarding gate. Who that man was I'll never know, but I can tell you this: we may not have asked him for any assistance, but without his help we would never have made our flight. A half hour later we were airborne in a tiny plane headed for Lukla and the beginning of our trek.
I have heard so much about the flight to Lukla that reality had a hard time catching up with my imagination. Above the thick brown layer of pollution that sits over Kathmandu and the surrounding foothills there were sweeping views of the Himalayas. The plane ride only lasted about half an hour and then the pilot expertly touched the plane down on the world's most dangerous runway. The runway at Lukla is short, sloped, and perched precariously on the edge of a cliff. Descriptions of the runway really can't do it justice so I included a photo.
Upon landing, we met up with our guide, Gopal and he took is up to a restaurant where Dad, uncle Geoff, and Dave were waiting for us. After a short breakfast we took the first steps of our long journey. We had a mellow 3.5hr walk past countless prayer wheels and stupas. We followed Dudh Kosi river valley crossing over a few sketchy suspension bridges and came to rest at our first guesthouse in Phakding. Our guesthouse was named the Beer Garden. We took the name as a sign from above and celebrated our first day together with some beers and some friendly games of pool. I am still impressed that they were somehow able to lug a slate pool table up and down all of those hills and over those suspension bridges. That took true commitment.
Geoff, Dave, and Dad, all 65+, had hiked all the way from Jiri over the last eight days and were visibly exhausted. After dinner we all retired to our rooms early to rest up for the big hike up 3,000 feet to Namche Bazaar.
A prayer wheel. Soul = Purified
I awoke this morning with a creeping feeling like there was something missing. And then I remembered what it was: everything. Everything was missing. My backpack full of trekking supplies that I had spent the last three months amassing was lost somewhere in a random Chinese airport. My brother assured me that my bag would be there by tonight but both of us had to consider the possibility that it was gone for good and we pondered the various ramifications this would have for us in the coming weeks.
We spent the day venturing out into the bustling streets of Kathmandu in search of additional supplies for the trek. I quickly managed to rent myself a -15 degree sleeping bag from a local trekking shop. When I took it back to the room I instantly went into a cycle of regret. The bag I rented bore the odor of the sweat of countless other trekkers who had rented it before me. The thought of spending the next 12 nights wrapped up in this smelly old bag was too much for me to bare. After a small crises I resolved to return the bag and buy myself a new one instead.
Kathmandu offers great bargains on trekking gear for those who are willing to haggle. I entered a different gear shop and, armed with the fact that I already had a sleeping bag in my possession and hence did not actually need one, I was able to haggle the price of a brand new North Face sleeping bag down to $65. I was also able to score some sweet waterproof pants for $11. Come to think of it, I wish I'd saved all my shopping for Kathmandu. I really enjoyed the haggling process and so did the shop owners, or so it seemed. I was able to return the rented bag and get my deposit back without too much hassle. I felt much better about owning my sleeping bag and, for a moment there, I almost forgot that everything else I needed for the trip had gone missing.
My brother and I spent the day walking around on the busy streets fending off pushy salesman and then retreating back to our hotel room as soon as things got too overwhelming. At one point I got hit hard in the head by a small flying object. I spun around and a beggar was laughing at me and then asking for a free handout. He really needs to work on his technique if he is going to be successful as a beggar because nailing me in the head did not exactly bring out my charitable side.
After a long day trying to not think about my looming crises, it was finally 10pm and time to once again venture back into the chaos of Kathmandu International Airrport. We took a taxi to the terminal and, with my yellow missing-luggage slip in hand, I was able to slip past security and return to the baggage claim area where it had all gone so horribly wrong the night before.
Tensions were running high- at least mine were. I found myself pacing up and down the cramped baggage hall, unsure of my fate and unable to stay still. The name of the airline that had lost my bag was China Southern and, disconcertingly, their name did not appear on any of the overhead screens. Luggage started moving on various different belts and, not knowing which was the right one I was faced with the impossible task of watching them all at once. It wasn't going well for me until I overheard a security guard telling a passenger that China Southern was on carousel 1. I walked straight over to #1 and there it was. I'd never felt so glad to see a backpack before. I was the first person out of the airport wearing my bag with pride. We spent the rest of the night organizing and packing our things into duffel bags for our porters to carry. At about 1am I crawled into bed exhausted from the emotional roller coaster of the last 24 hours. Still, I had to smile. After all, the very real chance of total disaster is what makes an adventure an adventure- otherwise it's just called a holiday.
Traveling to Kathmandu is no easy task. Having left Tahoe early Saturday morning, I am still in transit two days later at 6pm, Monday evening. And I still have another 5 hour flight ahead of me. After a 14 hour flight from LAX to Guang Zhou, China I faced the daunting prospect of hanging around for 15 hours in a random Chinese airport before catching my flight to Kathmandu. Fortunately, the airline took pity on me when they saw the length of my layover and offered to put me up in a free hotel room.
The long flight to China went by without incident, besides the fact that I was seated across the aisle from a elderly Chinese man with a particularly bad cough. Apparently covering your mouth while hacking up a lung in a confined public space is not a part of polite Chinese custom. The last thing I needed was to catch some random chest infection before this trek even gets going and so every uncovered outburst was met with stifled groans of disapproval and nasty looks from me.
The hotel room they gave me was really nice. I had a warm shower and enjoyed a free breakfast buffet consisting of eggs and bacon and a variety of Chinese food or as the locals here call it "food." I met another traveler from Sacramento and we both headed out on a long walk through the city. The sky in China is gray with shades of brown and the sun is virtually non-existent. The people are friendly enough but very shy when it comes to speaking English. Ten hours later I caught the shuttle back to the airport.
My dream of everest base camp was very nearly all over due to a very basic error. When I got into the line to the board the plane I had a small panic when I couldn't find my passport in any of my pockets or inside my carry-on bag. Premonitions of being stuck indefinitely in a Chinese airport caused my heart to race and cold feeling to spread throughout my chest. Then, out of the blue, this very kind lady walks up with my passport in her hand and asks, "Did any of you guys drop this?" Relief washed over me as I thanked her profusely. My faith in humanity restored, I boarded the plane brimming with newfound optimism. This new positive feeling lasted all the way until the baggage claim area in Kathmandu when my trekking backpack, full of essential supplies and equipment, failed to make an appearance on the luggage carousel. Apparently my bag is still stuck in China although the officials assured me it would be there by tomorrow night. What this means for me is that I get to keep on wearing the same clothes (and the same socks) that I have had on this whole time as I explore Kathmandu tomorrow. Let's hope my luggage arrives before my next flight to Lukla or else I will be forced to buy all of my equipment again.
Beginning on April 5th, 2014, I will embark on an epic journey all the way to the base camp of the world's highest mountain. Our team of five hikers consists of my father, Tim, my uncle Geoff, an old family friend named Dave, and my older brother, Gerard. We will also be joined by three guides and three porters to assist us on our journey. I have spent the last couple of months training at altitude up here in Tahoe and getting together the various clothing layers that are necessary to make the 13+ day trek up to 18,365 feet. I feel a mixture of warm optimism and cold terror when I consider the arduous journey that lies ahead. I have never hiked up to that high of an altitude, nor have I ever wanted to. I will be keeping a blog of my trip here on Well Being's website so please tune-in from time to time to check on my progress and leave any comments or advice that come to mind. This trip promises to be a transformative experience and I plan to document it as well as I can.
See you when I get to Kathmandu!
Nick Hughes is a massage therapist, yoga instructor and co-owner of Well Being. Influenced by the ideas of Alan Watts, Eckhart Tolle and Deepak Chopra, Nick presents his unique take on human existence with the goal of helping others live a happier life.