Everest Trek, Nepal November 2000

About three days after leaving Kathmandu this past summer, my friend Ray Kreisel invited me to join him and his friend Liyang Zhou on a November trek in Nepal. Having just navigated the overwhelming fumes, Hindu holidays, and craziness of that region, I can't say I was overly enthusiastic about returning so quickly…but the opportunity to get up high in the Himalaya with Ray and Liyang lured me in to hopping a plane back to the subcontinent in a jiffy. In between mountain bike trips across the plains of Tibet, Ray has been living in a Tibetan monastery in India for the past several years, studying Tibetan language and Buddhist dharma. Having pedaled two bike trips in Asia with Ray, Liyang was eager to take a break from her Silicon Valley tech job to go trekking in the Himalaya.

We all met up in Kathmandu, a bustling city from which many a historic Himalayan expedition has been launched. Like great explorers of the past, we took stock of our gear, purchased last minute necessities (such as all sorts of prescription drugs for less than a dollar - no prescription required!), and rigorously trained by consuming vast amounts of Thai food. Then in the wee hours of November 9th, we taxied over to the Kathmandu airport to catch a twin-prop flight up to the mountain town of Lukla. The amazing thing about Nepali airports is that there are lots and lots of people around - behind counters, sitting at desks, patrolling the runways - but no one seems to know what's going on with the flights! You're actually quite lucky if the person behind the makeshift counter actually works for the corresponding airline. So we waited in the waiting room for four hours, were rounded up onto a bus, driven out and deposited on the tarmac where we waited for another hour or two (literally sitting on the asphalt), and finally loaded up into the 15-seat plane for take-off. The flight was fantastically beautiful - Himalayan peaks towered over the clouds in every direction. After all that waiting, you can imagine we were quite excited to get airborne…we were, until we saw where we were going to land. The destination "runway" was a gravel track running a couple hundred meters uphill on a slope in Lukla at 9,000 feet above sea level. As a dubious Nepali public relations move, wreckage from a previously unsuccessful landing sat just off the edge of the runway. Fortunately the bumpy landing was successful and we grabbed our packs as they were offloaded with cases of beer, chicken eggs, and dehydrated Rara noodles (which we would become intimately familiar with higher up).

We hit the trail and started up the lush river valley of the Khumbu region. Our goal was to walk to the foot of Mount Everest. On our backs, we each carried personal gear, warm outerwear, and a sleeping bag. Although controversial amidst the team, I had brought along the magic bullet of high altitude warmth, the coveted "down parka". Our days of trekking consisted approximately a half-day of walking and then retiring into one of the numerous teahouses along the trail. While not deluxe in any sense of the word, the teahouses afforded us hot food and accommodation, meaning we didn't have to carry a tent, stove, and food all the way up. Menus included various configurations of rice, noodles, and potatoes (boiled, fried, roasted, deep-fried, whatever) and we were happy to sip away at hot lemon tea next to the wood stove which was heated using dried yak dung. We took our time up the trail, taking a rest day every three days or so to allow our bodies to acclimatize to the thinning air. As we walked up higher on the trail, the accommodations and the food became increasingly rustic and the prices, like the altitude, climbed higher. We reminisced more and more about the Thai food at the Yin Yang restaurant in Kathmandu and even went so far as to give ourselves the team name of "Team Chicken Red Curry".

On a crystal clear sunny day, after 8 days of trekking, we made it to 18,222 ft at Kala Patar, a viewpoint overlooking the Nepal side of Everest, Lhotse, Nuptse, and Ama Dablam - some of the highest mountains in the world. The Khumbu ice fall spills down the side of Everest for thousands of feet and the glacial moraine trails down the valley, splotched with high altitude lakes and giant blue ice walls. We then crossed 18,000 feet two more times over the next week, crossing a wilderness glacier-covered pass called Cho La and then up to Gokyo Ri, another viewpoint with views of Cho Oyu, Makalu, Lhotse, Nuptse, and more Everest. It's difficult for me to find words to describe the grandeur of the Himalayas. Walking in the valleys, the mountains are so strikingly huge and vivid against the bright sky. After pushing my body to get to 18,000 feet, I was amazed to look up at Everest, which continued up for another two vertical miles. Besides just being gigantic, these mountains also have a tangible spirit, channeled by the unique peoples that have inhabited their flanks for hundreds of years. The Sherpa people seem so at home and complementary to the snow-covered terrain. They have quilted every pass in colorful prayer flags and carved intricate rock paintings and mantras in the most remote areas, nurturing the magical and mystical pulse of the Himalaya.

Team Chicken Red Curry had great fortune and health. None of us had to take Diamox, medicine for high altitude, although I had a bout with diarrhea I will never forget (thank god for Ciprofloxacin!). Besides being a pair of lungs with legs attached (he was always ahead on the trail), my buddy Ray speaks fluent Tibetan and so we enjoyed cavorting with Tibetan smugglers and singing songs with Nepali porters. Did I mention that Ray did the entire trek including the glacier traverse in Teva sandals?!? Not recommended, although many of the porters wear flip-flop sandals across the glaciers at high altitude. These porters are quite extraordinary - using a sling across the forehead, most of them carry loads equal to or greater than their body weight. One porter let me try to pick up his load and I could hardly get it a few inches of the ground. The porters are the lifeblood of the distribution network throughout the Khumbu region, carrying lemon juice concentrate, live chickens, cases of beer, 50 KG sacks of rice, and anything else of value up and down the trails between mountain villages. Many of the porters we met were extremely interested in which of us was Liyang's husband. It was so bizarre to them that an Asian woman could be traveling with two Westerner dudes simply as friends, that Ray and I alternated being Liyang's husband.

I'll always remember the yak meat momos in Namche Bazaar, hot lemon tea and cold nights at high altitude, and looking up at the tons and tons of ice cascading off of Mt Everest. So, those of you who haven't yet been, I highly recommend a trek in Nepal. The best reason to go is to share the trail with the inspiring and beautiful Sherpa people and get an up close glimpse at the towering mountains of the Himalaya.