Everest Trekking Trip Stories
10 hardy men and one brave woman stepped onto the tarmac in Kathmandu on October 25th this year. It was my 24th time to walk into the Nepal sunshine, and my 28th group trek.
Our dream group was made up of 4 past trek leaders, Gary Coopland and
Merv Cavers from Winnipeg, Ross Macdonald from Calgary and myself. Don,
our son joined me for his first Nepal experience, and made the trek
even more special. David Gartshore left Oakland CA to be with Andreas
Poulsson of Vancouver, George Brazier and his brother-in-law Dr. David
Cannell came from Vancouver, and Leny and Jim Richardson chose to cross
the Renjo La as an extension of their honeymoon. And to complete the
perfect group, Tashi Sherpa, our partner and long-time friend, joined
We flew to Lukla, walked to Namche Bazar with a mass of other trekkers mostly from Europe and Japan, and then left the crowds to go up the valley to Thame at 3,800 metres. Most of us, that is. George Brazier and David Gartshore were stalled in Namche with flu symptoms and hypothermia.
The Bhote Kosi valley is uninhabited above Thame, and we discovered the reason for this. The high and dry Tibetan plateau heats up during the day sucking dense cool air from the lower Nepali Khumbu region causing high winds. Making the trek especially tough was an enormous boulder field at 4800m. Here, the trail became precarious for trekkers and porters as it crosses the Nangpa glacier. It took us 1 1/2 hrs hopping from boulder to boulder to cross the moraine, only to find a campsite that was totally exposed to the elements. An afternoon exploratory trip towards the pass and the Tibetan border revealed gorgeous views of the western flank of Cho Oyu, the 8th highest mountain in the world. Dinner was called for 6:30. With the temperature in the dining tent reading –11c and the wind blowing hard, we knew we were in for a cold night! Later that evening, the thermometer plunged to a bone chilling –16c degrees.
The following morning, Leney, Jim and Andreas, suffering from altitude and colds, left camp to return to Namche. The remaining six descended to the 4200m campsite in preparation to cross the pass the following morning. Once again, there were more casualties and for the first time ever, I was one of them, waking to bronchitis. Merv was sick with the “Khumbu cough” so we simply had to descend. That left Don, Ross, David and Gary to cross the pass to the Gokyo valley!
Our original group of eleven was now split into four parts; Jim, Leney and Andreas on their way to Tengboche Monastery, George and David (now recovered) climbing to Gokyo to meet the healthy four and Gord and Merv headed down to the warmth of a lodge in Thame. Who would have thought our merry band would become so scattered by day 7 of a 14 day trek!
We were reunited on Day 12 in Namche. The weather had returned to the warm, still days typical of early November in the Khumbu. Everyone had made the best of their time and felt fulfilled. George and David climbed Gokyo Ri. Jim, Leney and Andreas enjoyed Tengboche Monastery, the summitters had the pleasure of flying the group prayer flags from the Renjo la in sight of Everest, and Merv and Gord (the old dogs) relaxed in the warmth of a Thame lodge and enjoyed the care and attention of Dr. Kami Sherpa (who was on his day off from the Kunde / Hillary hospital).
We celebrated our return to Kathmandu with a fine wind-up dinner at the Thamel House, a menu of upscale Nepali food, rakshi and beer, a few emotional tears, and many complimentary speeches.
After five years away from Nepal, I felt privileged and a sense of deep pleasure to be able to return with close friends and family to the Nepali people and their beautiful country!
...in search of the sacred Kare Tal
Our group of eight hardy trekkers left Kathmandu bound for the west shoulder of Annapurna South. There, nestled at the foot of Annapurna lies Kare Tal, one of the three sacred lakes in Nepal. Each year thousands of devout Hindu and Buddhist pilgrims climb through the wilderness at full moon in August to perform puja (prayers) by the tiny lakeside shrine at 15,000'. We planned to follow these footsteps in the usually perfect fall weather. We had done this many times before and looked forward to our return with eager anticipation. It was not to be.
The Copra Ridge trek is rated strenuous. Over the first 6 days the route climbs 9,000' to reach an exposed ridge looking down into the Kali Gandaki gorge which is three times the depth of the Grand Canyon, and across and up at Dhaulagiri the world's sixth highest mountain. Above the campsite tower Nilgiri, Annapurna l and Annapurna South. The panorama is truly awesome.
On day four we noticed high cirrus clouds forming. By the next day our worst fears were confirmed - a low pressure system was moving in. During the night, on our magic ridge we heard rain on the tent. Our plan to move to the high campsite at 14,000' was postponed 24 hours while we waited for the system to pass. Enveloped in rain and cloud we spent the day playing cards in the dining tent. A lottery was held as to when the storm would pass. We watched the snow line above us move ominously closer. A second stormy night in the tent dashed our hopes. By morning, with the temperature at +2c and our campsite enveloped in cloud, we aborted the climb. Sadly, we broke camp and escaped to warmer and safer elevations acknowledging another lesson from the mountains on expectations. In 5 hours we descended 5,000' to bamboo forests, water falls, orchids and abundant bird life.
The following day in bright sunshine, we joined other trekkers and donkey trains on the busy trading trail to Tibet. The stormy nights at high elevations were replaced by warm campsites, local dancing and lush surroundings. Our final night was spent at Birethanti, a Magar village next to the rushing Modi Khola, where we celebrated our adventure with San Miguel beer. While we did not achieve one objective we did enjoy a high adventure in the Annapurnas. Maybe next time?
Gord and Gail Konantz
Mustang's culture and landscape are Tibetan, but the area was incorporated into the modern kingdom of Nepal in the eighteenth century. We arrived tired and dirty in the ancient fifteenth century walled city of Lo Manthang, the capital of the kingdom. It really was, as Michel Peissel described, "the mythical fortress of a lost planet; in a lunar landscape of barren crests with jagged contours...a fortified town, whose rectangular bastion enclosed in its shelter a whole city."
We had hoped to meet King Jigme Palbar Bista, but learned that he was planning to leave at six o'clock the following morning. It was a now-or-never opportunity, so, grabbing ceremonial katas (scarves), we rushed to the palace. We were ushered into a meeting room, served Tibetan tea by the Queen's niece and we talked to the King through an interpreter. We learned a great deal about the problems of the people of Lo, the status of their schools, and his expectations for the future. Our audience with the king was the highlight of a trek through a dry and dusty but magnificent land, with its rocky ravines and high passes.
The trek followed the ancient salt route between Tibet and India - still used today, but not for salt. Now modern goods are carried by the Tibetan ponies, including jeans and other manufactured items coming from India, and wool products and goats going south in return. This is not the Nepal of lush green valleys, but of dry dun-coloured rolling hills and high plateaus. Tibetan is the spoken language, and the villages are dominated by large monasteries and forts.
Travelling from Kathmandu by helicopter we arrived in the administrative village of Jomson at 8,900', to acclimatize prior to starting our climb to higher elevations. Here we met our support staff of cooks and sherpas, and the nine ponies that were to carry all our food and camping gear. Moving up the Kali Gandaki valley, we passed through villages with strange sounding names like Kagbeni, Tangbe, and Chhuksang. Then the work started, as we followed the Golden Staircase, a tough climb carved out of the side of a great gorge. Our reward was a delightful campsite and fine food, at the village of Samar.
At Tsarang we pitched our tents on the roof of a house owned by the King's nephew, Tsewang Bista, a twenty-eight year old who gave us our first understanding of how life was changing in Mustang. The landscape, however, is eternal, and a few more hours of walking led us to a magnificent view overlooking the medieval city of Lo Manthang, and the prospect of tea with the King.
Kalden and Ang Kenji Sherpa, who live and work in Vancouver, were married November 22 in a traditional Sherpa wedding at Namche Bazar in the Khumbu. This astrologically auspicious day, chosen specifically by the lama of Tengboche, brought together the family of Kalden Sherpa from Sallung (5 days walk from Namche) and the family of Ang Kenji Sherpa of Namche. A Buddhist wedding does not feature the bride and groom as in our culture. Instead, it is the coming together of two families, much exchanging of katas (ceremonial scarves) and a sequence of traditional ceremonies over a five hour period. The host family ensures that guests' glasses are constantly topped up with tea, chhang (beer), or scotch (served from 3 litre bottles) throughout the day. Juniper branches are burned in the courtyard as a ritual cleansing, and prayer flags decorate the walls and houses.
To open the ceremonies, a welcome speech by the Lama praised the qualities of those in the room with great wit, to judge by the gales of laughter and rejoinders that came from the audience. The activities then include a Tibetan blessing of the house, the food and the families. the reading of the bride's dowry (land, carpets, jewelry, etc.) and a short service joining the bride and groom. The wedding represents the 'transfer' of the bride from her family to her husband's family. It is a highly emotional moment for everyone, and distressing for the bride. She presents gifts to each member of her family as her parting gesture.
The service is followed by dinner and dancing. Sherpa dancing is performed in a line. Three or more men link arms and with one person singing and chanting, a complicated series of steps follow. Alternately, everyone dances in the standard traditional way to music from a large stringed instrument while the host circles the room filling up glasses with an encouraging "che, che, che"...(drink up).
Sherpa wedding clothes and jewellery are outstanding. Men wear long black cloaks, high leather boots and rumpled fedoras. The groom, resplendent in yellow brocade, crowned with a red boater style hat, looked like an Oriental potentate. The women were dressed in colourful brocade decorated with lavish necklaces of zei stones and gold and silver boxes encrusted with turquoise, coral and pearls. Many of the brocade pill-box style hats were trimmed with panels of fox fur.
And if this was not enough, one had only to look up at the snowcapped peaks of the surrounding mountains, towering 13,000 feet over the village, to feel that the scene was complete. In sparkling sunshine, it was indeed an auspicious day for the wedded couple, as well as a privilege for two wide-eyed Canadians!
Gord Konantz / Ross Macdonald
Golden temples, reincarnate lamas and colourful pilgrims - this is the Shangri La that bring to our minds memories of the magical world of childhood fairy tales.
It is now possible to fly from Kathmandu to Lhasa in an hour, surely one of the most spectacular flights in the world. Our plane floats along the Himalayan Range taking a left turn around Mount Everest. At this point the white mountains stretch to the horizon separating the lush greenery of Nepal from the dry moonscape of Tibet. We land at 12,000 feet and are met by our guide Phubu, to be whisked away in a minibus along sparkling rivers through high rocky folds for the 1 1/2 hour drive into Lhasa. We expected poor food from all we had heard, but are delighted to find that every meal is a seven course feast in all our Chinese hotels.
Travelling by bus from Lhasa to Gyantse and Shigatse over several days, we were witness to many wonders - chanting red robed monks, prayer flags on high passes, a yak skin boat on a turquoise lake, glorious fifteenth century paintings in a mandala shaped temple, small horses threshing grain, or pulling entire families to market hitched to two wheeled carts, and always the smiling faces of the Tibetan people. The contrast between the Tibetans and the Chinese was palpable, and it was difficult not to make comparisons - hospitable and warm versus stern and cold, colourful and spiritual versus drab and practical.
Tibetan women are beautiful. They circle the Jokhang temple spinning prayer wheels, with turquoise and silver twined into their shiny black braids. The men wear multicoloured hand-woven cloaks lined in lambskin. Is this the 20th century or have we somehow been transported back on a magic carpet to the 10th century pilgrimages that we read about in our history books?
Temple roofs are sheathed in gold with dharma wheels and snow lion gargoyles glimmering in the sun. Inside, colours of ochre, red, maroon, vermilion and gold surround us and the statues of Buddhas and Lamas glow in the soft light of hundreds of butter lamps. Brightly painted wrathful gods recall the Last Judgments of 10th century France. The devoted pilgrims prostrate themselves before the deities on paving stones worn into deep furrows by the thousands who have preceeded them. They brush by us making their offerings of butter, silk scarves and money, touching their foreheads to the base of the gods in respect.
The Chinese are busy rebuilding some temples and repairing others, for this is what the tourists come to see. Surveillance cameras line rooftops, the monasteries are empty, the prisons full and Tibetans are restricted in their activities. For now, the borders are open to tourists travelling in groups.
We felt privileged to see Tibet. It affected us all and changed us in a profound way that is difficult to put into words.
Nepal, the size of Washington state, has a population of 22 million. It has one of the lowest GNPs' in the world, and with a geography that seems to be designed for yaks and mountain goats, it is remarkable that so many people inhabit such a relatively small space. There is no oil, gas, or minerals. In some areas forests have been depleted as wood is used for shelter, heat and cooking by the local people.
Increasing numbers of tourists put an added strain on the environment while at the same time generating badly needed foreign currency. Now approximately 150,000 trekkers come to walk on the finest hiking trails in the world. We often hear about garbage left on trails and in more remote high places by climbing expeditions, and how efforts are being made to clean up these areas.
In our ten years of travel to Nepal we have seen major improvements in the way the Nepalese and travellers treat the environment. The Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP) provides education for locals in water preservation, trail cleanliness and lodge hygiene. The Sagarmatha National Park has strict rules on the cutting of trees by Sherpas and trekking groups must now use kerosene. Tree planting programs are flourishing. The Austrian government completed a hydro project in 1995 for the Everest region that now provides electrical service to Namche and the regional villages. Instead of 200 loads of woods coming to Namche Bazar every day, now only 5 loads are brought in. Villages provide weekly cleanup crews that walk the busy 60 km. trail from Lukla to Tengboche.
As a trekking company bringing people to this mountainous land, we are committed to responsible travel. Our campsites are left clean and kerosene is used for kitchen fuel. The lodges we use provide electrical heat for food preparation and hot water. We support the reforestation program of the Hillary Foundation.
Bagwan means god in Hindi. He drives like a god too, and miracles come to mind when the road appears to be one car wide, and coming towards you is a herd of goats, two men pushing banana carts, three women in orange saris balancing water urns on their heads, and one large truck. Somehow the road expanded to allow passing, and we sink into the back seat of our Ambassador, pleased that the top speed is a leisurely 70 km/h.
Rajasthan is desert country. Silver sage, Cerulean blue skies and ochre sand are the dominant colours. But these are punctuated by explosions of pure colour. Dashing men sporting handle bar moustaches, wear turbans in yellow, pink and red. Women float along in their lime green, purple or orange saris.
Rajasthan is camel country. Nomads herd these odd beasts from watering hole to market to fair. We see them loping single file along the side of the road, herding the gangly young ones, or perched precariously behind the one hump swaying with the beast's ungainly gait.
We stay in Haveli's - small architectural delights built by the flourishing business class when the Maharajas reigned the land and traded on the silk route.
Our destination is Jaisalmer, a fairytale fortress town on the full desert. From a distance it looks just like the sandcastles we built as children. There are forts at every stop in this part of India with fabulous carved gates big enough for the elephants to enter. They carried Royal families then, but now they carry tourists like us. While it is desert outside the walls, inside there are flowering trees and chattering green parrots. We visit Jain temples with lace marble domes that are symphonies in stone. On a busy street in Jaipur, we are staggered to see a Jain priest walking along in the crowd wearing a string purse around his shoulder, and nothing else. No one seemed to notice.
And then fabled Udaipur, where we stay at the Jagat Niwas on the lake overlooking the Lake Palace Hotel and watch the sun's orange ball sink beyond the hills. Pink light deepens to plum. I was here 18 years ago and then I remembered the sunset in Udaipur as the most beautiful I have ever seen. It still is. At dusk, the monkeys swing down from the temple to the Bhodi tree by our room where they curl in their young and settle down for the night as the light fades from plum to black velvet.
For a change of pace, we drive off to Ranthambhore to experience jungle in this national park and to look for tigers. We were lucky to see three, a mother strolling with her two cubs.
Back in Delhi, we stay one night before returning to Kathmandu. It's only an hour's flight. We find it hard to say goodbye to Bagwan at the airport and promise to return soon. Rajasthan has worked its magic on us. There's so much more to see and do next time.
Trekkers who first experience a third world country are often overwhelmed by the generosity and gentleness of the local people. They have seldom encountered such material poverty or such generous natures. Their first impulse is often to lavish money on the individual people they encounter. "A hundred bucks is nothing to me and a lot to him" "I feel guilty because I have so much and I'm going to give him whatever he needs" are some of the comments we hear. Some trekkers want to bring someone who has carried their bag or helped them over a stream to what they think is a better life in our country, or offer them a holiday in their home town. But pause a minute. You are trekking in a poor country but in the richer areas where more people have employment. Take those generous feelings of compassion from your specific encounter and think what you can really do to help.
That hundred bucks could:
* provide clean water to an entire village
Everest Trekking has researched giving programs and chosen several where not only will your money go directly to the people you want to help, but in most cases the Canadian International Development Agency will match it.
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