Monthly Archives: October 2012

Getting High in Nepal

As this post is rather long, I will divide it up into sections covering the following topics:

The trek itself,
the tea houses (food and accommodation),
health,
issues,
recommendations

The Trek

First off, I arranged this trek through a Nepalese trekking company called Mosaic Adventures. I arranged a custom trek more or less following the itinerary linked to in
a previous post. The company arranged all passes and permits for Sagarmatha  National Park and provided all accommodation and food (excluding beverages (including tea) and desserts), down coats and sleeping bags (not quite warm enough at -15 C), return tickets to Lukla, and a guide and two porters.

Today I arrived back from my trek through the Himalayas. I loved (almost) every second of it. We flew from Kathmandu to Lukla on a very small plane just about a week after another small plane flying from Kathmandu to Lukla crashed during takeoff–killing everyone. As you might guess, I made it safely to Lukla and back again despite the dangers of air travel and trekking in Nepal. From Lukla, we walked a few hours to Phading where we settled into our first tea house and explored the 500 year old monastery on the hill over looking the village (unfortunately, we all forgot our cameras). The next day we made the strenuous walk uphill to Namche Bazar (3441 m), the Sherpa capital of the Himalayas. We took a “rest” day in Namche which consisted of a seven hour hike to Thame (3800 m). The hike itself was beautiful and, the following day, I was thankful for the exertion, but my god was it difficult walking uphill at altitude for that long!

Walking to Machermo

We then walked to Dole (4200 m) where I felt a little inebriated from the altitude. I drank a few liters of water and after eating, felt grounded again. The next morning we walked a few more hours uphill to Machermo (4410 m) where we took an afternoon walk through our first bit of snow flurries. Wearing our down parkas zipped to the top with our hoods velcroed in place, we found a moss covered boulder on which to rest. In Machermo, we stumbled upon a clinic dedicated to the health of porters. The clinic itself had two volunteer doctors and a medical student from the UK. We sat through a talk on altitude sickness and I made a 100 Rs donation to get my oxygen saturation level which, if you trust the device, was a whopping 92%! Gokyo Valley, with its rapid elevation gain, used to be know as Death Valley as trekkers and porters alike would fall victim to the high altitude.

View of the fifth lake from “Kala Danda”

Summit of “Kala Danda”

From Machermo, we continued our walk up the beautiful Gokyo valley. After another strenuous stretch of what felt like an endless hill, we arrived at the first lake–breathtaking. We then walked to Gokyo Village (4790 m) which sits on the third and largest of the sacred Gokyo lakes. We settled into the Namaste lodge and then walked for about two hours around the circumference of the lake with two friends we met on the way up from Macherma. The next day, we rose early for a 3:45 am start to the fifth Gokyo lake and up to a scenic overlook. We used our headlamps to see for the first several hours as the sun slowly rose over the Himalayas. At some point, I needed a water break–but my water was mostly frozen. Finally, we reached the fifth lake and began the tremendous ascent up a nameless peak that I now refer to as “Kala Danda,” or “Black Hell.” The grade was steep for a few hours, and then turned to boulders that we had to scramble up, and I had to hang on to dearly, actually fearing for my life. Our guide went down early with Daryl, who had a 102 F fever, leaving us with our wonderful porter, Lacba, who, as we struggled up the mountain, floated effortlessly up carrying my pack. From the summit, the views were incredible in every direction. I could see Everest, Malaku, Pumari and countless other peaks through the clear 10:30 am sky. Finally, we began our descent and walked back to Gokyo, completing the first 11+ hour day of our journey. The next day, we decided to skip the 4 am sunrise hike up Gokyo Ri as the next day, we had to get over Chola Pass (5360 m) and then get all the way to Labouche.

Chola Pass was incredible. We left Dragnag (4700 m) around 4:30 am and headed up a narrow valley for several hours as the sun rose. We then came to what at first glance looked like a virtual wall. “That’s the pass?! How the fuck do we get up that?!” Slowly and carefully.

The pass was grueling. It was nearly vertical and was such that for every step up, I slid a half step back down. It was a mixture of ice covered rocks and sand. Finally, I made it to the saddle and had amazing views in both direction–one of the dark valley we just came up, and the other of a sunlit glacier with a backdrop of a new and unexplored range of mountains. We traversed the glacier and carefully made our way down this new valley towards more beautiful lakes.

After this treacherous pass, we walked several more hours to Labouche (4910 m). We walked along this beautiful valley that had a fantastic lake sitting in its depths. When we arrived exhausted at Labouche after nearly twelve hours of walking, we were told that there were no rooms. Several minutes later, our guide returned and said he had found a room at a very expensive lodge, and that he would pay for it with his own money. At this point we were weary of our guide (see the Issues section) and were all pretty sure that he was lying in order to redeem himself in our eyes.

From Labouche, we went to Gorak Shep (5140 m) which was a rather annoying hour and a half of weaving around tourists on the ever popular Everest Base Camp trail and trying to keep sanity while listening to the endless banging and tick tocking of trekking poles on rocks. We made it, found a room (lucky) right by the bathroom (very unlucky) and set off to Everest Base Camp (5364 m). Walking up the valley, Everest peeked out from behind the mountains and disappeared again. Then, we saw camp–tents at the end of the valley. With our guide, we were not actually allowed to go to the tents but stopped short where a sign reading :”Everest Base Camp 2012″ stood in the midst of a crowd of fellow tourists. Base Camp was actually the least impressive part of our journey.

Base Camp

The next morning Daryl and I set out around 4 am (none of us had watches so we had to rely on our guide to wake us and trust the time he gave us) to climb Kala Patthar (5550 m) (Elena was in our room sick with a frozen water bottle). As I started the ascent, I slowly began warming up. But as I continued to climb, I became colder and colder and my hands and feet began to freeze. In fact, a toe on my left foot, although it looks fine, still hurts about a week after the climb. I finally  made it to the summit, where I stayed for about two minutes. My camera battery immediately died because of the cold. And then we went down.

From Kala Patthar, we walked on the Everest Base Camp trail through crowds of people and monuments for those who died in attempt to climb Everest. We stopped in Pangbouche (3900 m) for the night on the way back to Namche. We stayed in Namche for two nights (including Daryl’s 24th birthday). After our trek, Namche felt like a bustling city with its bakeries and three bars. We found this amazing German bakery (Herman Helmers) with pizza and apple turnovers where we gorged ourselves for three meals. We then made it back to Phading for the night and spent the next night in Lukla for our early morning flight back to Kathmandu.

Teahouses

The teahouses we stayed in were fairly humble by western standards. Overall, I preferred the small, family run operations that had limited space and (often) adorable children. The food, like the accommodation, was simple but adequate. It consisted of eggs, spaghetti and tomato sauce (or ketchup if you make the mistake of ordering Italian up too far), eggs, soups, potatoes, and chow mein. By the time we reached Namche, we were all tired of the food, hence the German bakery that took credit card. After Namche, there was no more running water (and everywhere on the trek if you wanted hot water, you had to pay for it). The price of accommodation and food rose with the altitude. As gas-fueled cars and trucks cannot carry loads up the steep and narrow paths, everything was brought in by yak, doppio (a type of cow), or porter for 50 Rs per kilogram. Watching some of these poor porters carrying more than twice their body weight in beer and noodles at times made me not want to drink or eat (not that I could afford a can of cheap beer for 500 Rs).

The toilets. This topic almost deserves its own section. They were disgusting. And, at least on the Everest Base Camp trail, if you tried to avoid them by tucking behind a rock instead, at least 50 other people recently had the same idea too (unfortunately for you, they all had the idea before you). One last disgusting story on the topic of toilets. If you hold a high image of me and would like to continue to do so, please skip ahead to the section on health.

So, one day I decided to have a positive outlook on the toilet situation. I decided that one stall wasn’t too bad (it looked like it had possibly been cleaned as the floor was wet with what I hoped was water and there was some “dirt” behind the toilet). As I squatted
over the western toilet (I prefer squatting toilets as people generally seem to aim better) to pee, I looked down to see the floor under the toilet become drenched (and my aim is good). “Water” and “dirt” on the floor? Think again.

Health and the Dangers of Trekking

Health in the Himalayas is nearly always poor. I was lucky enough not to have suffered much from altitude other than not sleeping for 12 days (altitude and sleep do not get along), and being the purist that I am, I refused to take Diamox. It seemed like 90% of the trekkers took Diamox (several of them for sleep and minor headaches). Elena, Daryl, and I all took pride in completing our trek Diamox-free.

So, the cough/cold I had before entering Nepal got a little worse at altitude and everyone around me seemed to have similar symptoms. Daryl had the flu for a few days (one of our porters got it too and had to go down) and Elena also succumbed to something flu like in Gorak Shep. We all improved on the descent until I spent Daryl’s birthday in a smoke filled bar which made my cough and cold several times worse than its been since arriving in Nepal.

On to a more serious topic–emergency evacuation and death. Everyday, several “mountain taxis” (rescue helicopters) would fly over head to rescue people with cerebral and pulmonary edema. On our trek, I heard about two people dying from altitude sickness–one in Gorak Shep, and one on his way down to Namche.

An American girl I had spoken with several times was hit on the head by a fallen rock on her way down from Namche. No helicopter came for her but it sounded serious. These stories remind me how lucky I am that everyone in our group stayed healthy and happy.

Issues

Our “issues” involved our guide so this section will inherently blend into the recommendation section. The first few days our guide was great. He was friendly and offered a window into Nepali culture. Then we started meeting other trekkers and our guide began to sulk and was outright rude to our new found friends. He would sit across the room and sulkily stare at us.

There was also the issue of us being three pretty, independent girls. We could have gotten him fired for inappropriate behavior but decided not to due to his poor wife and two children. I am going to write Mosiac an e-mail suggesting that our guide not lead groups of women as “he cannot relate to western women” and just stick with large groups of men.

Recommendations

As you might guess, I would recommend doing the trip without a guide unless you like to be baby-sat or follow a set itinerary. However, there are obvious benefits to having a guide (their knowledge of the the area and names of mountains). Instead, I would hire a porter or two (and treat and pay them well) and possibly go through a trekking company for plane tickets to Lukla and permits. I would also bring a lot of money for chocolate and tea. If I go back to Khumbu (which I hope too!), I would skip Everest Base Camp and instead do the three passes trek.

Up, up, and away

My color-coded packed backpack

This week preparing has been eventful! My cold lingered longer than I had hoped and with it came a tremendous amount of bloody noses. This blood loss worried me for several reasons, the first being that my training for Nepal had to be modified to the point of near non-existence. The second worry was that if I continued to loose blood at such a rate, I might become anemic and, as a result, suffer more at altitude as my body would not be able to snag the little bit of oxygen hanging around 18,000 ft above sea level. And, mountains are notoriously dry which would only cause more nose bleeds, further perpetuating the problem.

So, after a visit to my family doctor, I was referred to an ENT specialist in Flagstaff who thought it best to cauterize both of my nostrils, thus preventing further blood loss. The cauterization itself wasn’t too bad. What was terrible was not being able to blow my nose after, even though I was suffering from a bad cold. Thankfully, today I am feeling much better.

Today (was it today or was it yesterday or the day before?) started off with a 5:30 am wakeup in Sedona, AZ. My parents drove me the two hours or so to the Phoenix airport where I boarded a flight to Los Angles. In Los Angeles, I noticed that my next flight was going to Tokyo (for some reason I thought it was going to Hong Kong before touching down in Singapore) and leaving from a different terminal. Disoriented, I found my way to my gate where I had the most complex boarding imaginable (to the airbus 380) and a twelve hour flight to Tokyo. Before boarding, I had a humorous encounter with an old Japanese musician while charging my tablet via the USB port of his laptop (waiting lines for every outlet). He asked me where I was going and I told him that I was going to Nepal to hike. He said that because of his generation he associated mountains with men and told me a hilarious story about when he was a boy in a mountain club. The story involved disposing of human waste in bottles and then throwing them. “Shit bomb!” the old man exclaimed.

On board, I think I watched four movies. In the Tokyo Narida airport, I witnessed the most complex and variable toilets in the women’s bathroom. From what I saw, you could choose between at least 3 “toilet experiences.” Already an interesting trip.

From Tokyo, I boarded the same airbus and rode it seven hours to Singapore where I sit writing this post (I managed to sleep about four hours as I had three seats to myself!). I arrived here at 2:40 am Singapore time and have a 9:10 am (direct?!) flight to Kathmandu. I hope that someone from my hotel will be waiting for me at the airport as I am in desperate need of a shower. After 40+ hours of traveling, I look forward to a few days in Kathmandu before my trek (starting October 6!). Well, I’m off to hopefully find something resembling food!