I don’t know where to begin in summing up my two week trek through the Himalayas. What can I say, except to write that it was always breathtaking, often NELPy, and just maybe life-changing? I journalled every day of the trek, but reading over those scrawled notes now, I don’t feel any closer to being able to accurately describe the journey…
We started by flying into Lukla, rated the most dangerous airport in the world, with a narrow runway that is sandwiched between two mountains and ends abruptly at a brick wall. Terrifying. Then, over the next fifteen days, we wound our way through lush valleys full of cabbages, rhododendrons, and hundreds of holy stupas, up above the tree line and across narrow ridges surrounded on all sides by unfathomably big mountains and nothing else, and then back down again. We climbed from 9,200 feet at Lukla to 18,200 feet at Kala Patar, but—and this is a big but—since the terrain is never just ascension or descension and is instead the hilariously dubbed “Nepalese flat” (up down up down up down), we gained/lost, according to a Midwest doctor I met at the airport, who had clocked it, 35,000 ft/24,000 feet just on the way to Base Camp, with the reverse on the way back. Brutal. But awesome!
We had some culture along the way, as well. We visited a 600-year-old monastery looked after by one very old, very drunk monk. In Namche Bazaar, one of the bigger villages where we stayed for two nights to acclimate at around 12,000 feet, we visited our trip leader, Thupten’s house. He showed us his elaborately decorated prayer room (typical of Sherpa homes), his own traditional, incredibly detailed paintings that depicted Tengboche monastery, where he had been a monk for ten years, with the mountains surrounding it and yetis peeking out from between them. (We got a chance to actually visit Tengboche on the return trip, too, on a particularly grueling day where we gained 1000 feet before lunch). Thupten also proudly displayed the photo of himself and Sir Edmund Hillary, who, after first summiting Everest, became close with the Sherpa people, as well as a photo of his father, a Sherpa guide, receiving an award from JFK for saving two Americans’ lives on Everest. The dogs were out of control at night in Namche, and when we stayed there on the way back down, they seemed especially insane. We later learned they had good cause: a hungry snow leopard had come down looking for a canine snack.
We were camping, but with REI, this was luxury camping rather than truly roughing it: Dokyo (yak/cow mix) lugged our gear; porters carried our kitchen supplies (some of these thin boys managed to lug up to 120 kilos in the baskets with their forehead straps!); we slept on plump mats in tents already set up for us when we reached camp; we had hot tea to greet us for our 6am wake ups; and we weren’t exactly eating camp food.
Oh, the food… As usual, I could go on for an entire blog entry about the food, but I’ll try to limit myself. First off, our cook, Madu, was a genius with a potato. We had every type of curried, mashed, and broiled potato you could imagine, each more delectable than the last. My sister Lisa would’ve been in heaven. Madu also somehow managed to pull off veggie burgers, pizza, and freaking APPLE. PIE. in a makeshift tent kitchen with not much more than a knife and an open flame. Not to mention my favorite, Sherpa stew. While our peers in the lodges had dahl day after day, we ate like kings, three times a day, plus tea.
All that said, even though our experience was leaps and bounds more cushy than it could’ve been, I don’t think I’ve ever been as uncomfortable for such an extended period of time in my whole life. On the second day, I was already sore, from the third day on I was absolutely freezing, and by day ten my nose was chapped raw, my cuticles were all bleeding, my hair was starting to dread, Delhi Belly was back with a vengeance, and the air was so thin I never stopped hyperventilating, even while sleeping. The treks up to Everest Base Camp and Kala Patar, on two days when I was at my sickest and weakest, were physically the most difficult moments in my life. Harder than the marathon, harder than Mt. Roy on Christmas hung over and with no water, harder than Ms. Suzette’s grueling dance practices throughout my adolescence. When I made it to Base Camp, I cried tears of sheer joy—I had done it! I was finally here! The top wasn’t so far away at all, just a few thousand more feet—maybe someday I could do it! But by the next day, when I collapsed with Brian at the prayer flag-clad pole atop Kala Patar and took in the awe-inspiring view of Everest and the Khumbu Icefall, I was sobbing for different reasons: I was absolutely miserable, I couldn’t believe I wasn’t dead, and I was so, so relieved that there would be no more uphill (that turned out to be a farce, too, but that’s what I thought at the time). I also decided right then and there that everyone who ever decided to summit Everest was a lunatic, and that there was no way in hell I was going to do Kili in two months, regardless of whether its famous snows were disappearing. Another year, maybe, but not now, no way.
But the mountains! LOOK at these incredible mountains! Every painful minute was worth it for those views. My companions were just about the best group of people I could’ve asked for. They were strong hikers who never complained, incredibly supportive of one another, and damn interesting individuals. Florin, who celebrated his 60th birthday on the trail, plodded along impressively and was always reliable for entertaining, unfiltered anecdotes. His dancing at our farewell party was extremely…memorable. Catherine was a terrific roommate—by which I mean she came prepared with every single thing imaginable in her bag, Mary Poppins style, and was liberal with sharing all of it, from baby wipes to drugs to an extra sleeping pad. Having lived in LA for twenty years and climbed Mt. Whitney literally dozens of times (not to mention the various higher peaks around the world she’d conquered), she was the strongest hiker among us and kept us focused and excited. She also ran the London Marathon the day after she got back from the trip. Safe to say that I was totally in awe of her (so was one of the kitchen boys, much to our enjoyment). Catherine, I want to be you when I grow up. Peta, our graceful ballerina, was always sunny and energetic, even on the downhill days when her knees (which had recently received blasts of collagen to keep the bones from grinding together) were no doubt causing her intense pain. I loved our easy conversation and her very entertaining banter with her husband, Chris. Chris, who braved his biggest fear and inched across dozens of swaying suspension bridges, provided endless quantities of dry, British humor as well as gummy electrolyte blocs en masse, and snored loud enough to wake the dead. One of the funniest moments of the trip was when Chris took on one of the porter’s loads, huffing and puffing for fifty yards behind the yaks. He was shocked, shrugging the basket off, that it was not, in fact, 60 kilos, but 20. And Brian, our Bostonian sweetheart. Brian had had a difficult couple years by anyone’s standards, but he was still out there achieving his dreams and helping all of us up and dealing out words of encouragement as we struggled along. On my really dark days, it was Brian and Chris who hung back, telling stories and making me forget I felt like utter crap. The staff was also awesome, and they are the deciding factor in what would make me recommend REI to anyone, despite the fact that you could definitely find ways to do it cheaper. Thupten was a patient, knowledgeable leader and totally dominated at Egyptian Rat Screw, Manny and K.C. were great guides who adjusted their pace to our needs while still pushing us physically, and the porters and kitchen boys were always helpful and gracious. Even in such a harsh environment, I felt utterly spoiled.Thank you, everyone, for a truly incredible experience. Next up: group reunion at the Grand Canyon for “rim to rim!”
Note: That is not me doing the splits in front of Everest; it is the incredibly impressive and flexible Peta Barrett.