The Road to the Clouds


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April 11th 2007
Published: April 4th 2008
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Dear Loyal Readers,

I apologize most abjectly for my failure to post anything on this blog about the last three months of my trip last year. It's not that it hasn't been in my thoughts. I think my reticence stems at least in part from the profound difficulty of summoning memories of places so different from New York that they seem little more than a fantasy. However, of all the places I marveled at, the one that returns to my thoughts above all the others was my trek to Mt Everest base camp, in the remote reaches of the mountains of Nepal. The story is long, and the world so alien, that it will take several entries to recount it fairly, so I apologize in advance if I bore you (as I surely have done with many friends in person when this subject came up). However, it struck a chord in my heart like no other place I have ever been. To some, the trek to Everest Base Camp is nothing but toil, exhaustion and relentless cold, but to me, despite (or perhaps thanks to) a litany of difficulties, it was like home. I cannot exaggerate the importance of this experience to me. Perhaps this will help explain why I bore the blisters, the thin air, the bitter cold, and the endless upward-climbing paths with such glee. It was as if I found a part of me in the snow-capped peaks of the high Himalayas.

I am posting this entry out of order (Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore and India are yet to come), but I promise to fill in the gaps in the near future. Today is the anniversary of my return from the Everest base camp trek, so I am posting this today, my self-imposed deadline.

The Beginning

When I stepped off the bus, I expected to encounter a phalanx of eager porters and guides. Instead, I was greeted by a chill breeze, the fading light of evening, and the quickly-fading bustle of the many locals who had taken the same bus that I did. Jiri is a small town by western standards, built mostly along the last half-mile of road before it tapers to a tractors-only pair of ruts. For this region, Jiri is pretty big, though, and it is distinguished by an electricity supply that can power quite a few light bulbs, and does not go out nearly as frequently as less well-connected towns .

I set off to find a hotel with Bishal, a Nepali university student I met on the bus and the only other person planning to start trekking the next day. We settled in to Jiriel Gabila, a pleasant affair with hot water and freezing cold rooms. I took the opportunity to take one last hot shower before starting off on my trek, shivering vigorously as I hurried from the (shared) shower to my room to put on multiple layers; I had no idea when I could expect to find another hot shower on the trail.

The absence of porters was worrying me. Let me explain: I had expected to find at least a few more trekkers in Jiri. Though there were no others on my bus, there are probably ten buses to Jiri daily from Kathmandu. Since I wasn't going to meet up with my friend Heather, I thought it would be wise to find others to walk with, so that I wouldn't be alone and vulnerable to robbery on the trail. "Surely, one of those buses brought other trekkers?", I inquired of my hotel man in so many (short, carefully enunciated) words. "None" he assured me, the town being small enough that he would know it if another hotel had landed a catch. I decided against my puritanical nature that I would enjoy the trek more if I had somebody to carry some of my stuff. Moreover, a porter would know the trail and ensure that I didn't make a wrong turn, of which I presumed, there were many. As an added bonus, he would serve to discourage thieves. Mind you, I had not heard of problems with robbery on the trail, but I think you'll agree that it's natural to worry about such things when alone in the woods.

I asked the maitre d'hotel if he could locate a porter for me, as I was not having much luck finding him on my own. He told me that my porter would be waiting for me in the morning. I then unpacked my sleeping bag on the thin mattress, wrote in my journal, and went to sleep. I'd say the temperature in the room was about 55 degrees. As I drifted off to sleep, I mused that, if it was this cold at 1900 meters, what would the weather be like at 5100 meters, the highest town I was to sleep at on the trek?

In the morning, there was no porter waiting for me. I figured he'd show up as I ate breakfast. By the time I was finished with my ground millet porridge, it was clear that the porter wasn't showing up, and the gentleman running the hotel confirmed my concern. I was partly relieved to have a second chance at self-reliance, but it also presented an interesting engineering challenge. I had brought only a medium-sized non-frame pack, basically a large day pack to carry my gear, since I didn't think I'd be carrying all of it. The rest came with me on the bus in a plastic grocery bag. I went in to my room and began to cram. I had packed very carefully, and there was little that wasn't necessary in my bag. In addition to the clothes on my back, there were:

2 t-shirts
a wool shirt
3 pairs of underwear
4 pairs of socks
a light fleece
a heavy double layer fleece, fake North Face Nepali vintage, reversible
wind/rain pants and jacket
gloves
hat
a compression sack to squeeze down the bulky warm stuff
sunglasses
trekking guide book, Lonely Planet
journal and pencil
map, contour, with trails marked
snacks
sleeping bag, ultra light 1.75 lbs, rated to 35 F, but I'm sorry, the person who dreamed that number up wasn't sleeping in this bag
sleeping bag liner (supposed to reduce the minimum sleeping temp by 15 F - hah!)
water filter
1 L nalgene
Lots o' Sunscreen, SPF 30 and 50
Misc toiletries
flip flops
first aid kit

Believe it or not, I managed to get everything in the bag except the thick fleece, which was huge, and the sleeping bag. The fleece I figured I would just tie to the outside on those rare occasions when I wasn't freezing. The sleeping bag, I realized in a flash of brilliance, I could lash to the outside of the bag with some string. All told, my bag weighed about 20 pounds, exceptionally light for a hike of this length and in this climate. It was only possible because I planned to stay in guest houses every night rather than a tent. Thus, I didn't have to carry said tent, nor a sleeping pad, nor would I need to bring my own food or cooking equipment. But this brings us to some bigger questions about trekking to Everest that must be answered. Such as, what was I doing in Jiri. So now, for a little...

Orientation

My goal, if it wasn't clear already, was to trek to Everest Base Camp (hereafter referred to as EBC) in Nepal, which lies south and west of the summit, just a few miles from the Tibet border. The basic, shortest Everest Base Camp Trek does not start in Jiri. It starts a considerable distance north and east of Jiri, in a bustling town called Lukla, which has no road leading to it, just a few foot trails and an airstrip situated so precariously on top of a cliff side that it would give Chuck Yeager nightmares. The airstrip is 1500 feet long with a steep drop at the end and it is inclined, so as to slow down incoming planes and give an extra boost to aircraft taking off. Not knowing how frightening this is a priori, most people trekking to Everest reach Lukla by flying in a 19 seat twin prop DHC6/300 Twin Otter propeller plane. Starting from there, the trek takes roughly two weeks: 9-10 days going up and 3-4 going down. Lukla is located at 2860 meters (9380 ft) above sea level, which is high enough that most people living near sea level will have a tough time getting enough air for the first few days.

The route that I had mapped out (which I'm calling the Jiri route) went the same way after hitting Lukla, but had about 7 more days of hiking tacked on at the beginning. It had an impressive pedigree - it was the route that pretty much all of the Everest expeditions followed with massive herds of gear-laden yaks until the Lulka air strip was built by Edmund Hillary in 1965. Since the airport now receives the vast majority of the trekkers, the walk from Jiri to Lukla is blissfully peaceful. In particular, it is very rare for organized groups to go this way. The terrain is partly responsible for this: the trail from Lukla to EBC follows one valley northwards, resulting in a fairly constant uphill hike with just a few descents to cross rivers. Going to Jiri to Lukla is quite a different story. It heads east, then turns north at the end, about 2 days before hitting Lukla.

(Warning - earth science interlude)
So what, you say? Well, to appreciate the importance of this difference, you need to know this. The tectonic action that created the Himalayas and the Tibetan plateau left Nepal as a ramp connecting the lowlands of Northern India with the vast, high plateau to the North, which is now Tibet. What happens when damp winds from the sweltering, humid Indian subcontinent blow northwards and up that slope? Why, they cool off and drop moisture as rain or snow. This precipitation runs back down the ramp, from north towards the south, cutting valleys as it flows. Just a couple of the rivers that result from this phenomenon are the holy Ganges and Yamuna. Which means that Nepal is riven with a series of almost-parallel river valleys that run north to south. So can you imagine what it's like to walk across the axis of those valleys, west to east? Here are some specifics. Every day, I climbed over the edge of at least one river valley and into the next one, with an altitude gain and subsequent descent of 1000-1600 m (3300 - 5200 ft)! For somebody like me who relishes the extreme physical exertion that this requires, this is a masochistic delight.

Time Machine
In addition, the landscape has a natural beauty unlike anything else I've seen: there were endless verdant green hillsides lined with an implausible number of step-like terraces extending to the sky, like giant green step pyramids. The fields are farmed with techniques that surely have not changed in any significant way for centuries. Oxen pull the plows and fertilize the soil. Harvesting is done by hand, and water is channeled to the fields through pipes fed by gravity. There are no wires of any kind connecting these villages to the rest of the world, so electricity, if there was any at all, came from small waterwheel generators or solar cells, and telephone calls can only be made by ultra-expensive satellite phone.

Let's Get Moving Already
Ok, I think I've given you more than enough background orientation to get started with. I'll start the blow-by-blow in the next post. It feels good to be back on the blog. Sorry again for the ridiculously-long delay. The next entry will be posted very soon.

Sincerely
Dan

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