Photos from India

Monday, November 17, 2008

The journey to Everest Base Camp

At four in the morning I awoke to the light outside my window disguising itself as the early morning sun. Looking at my watch, I realized the time and rolled back over trying to get another forty five minutes of sleep until my alarm was due to go off. Wide awake I lay there realizing it would be impossible to fall back asleep and decided to drag myself out of my warm sleeping bag. I packed the last few things away and headed out to find a taxi to take me to the airport. In the twilight of the early morning I departed my guest house and walked down Kathmandu's deserted streets, and quickly came across a taxi driver who was anxious to find a wealthy tourist that he could take to the airport for an inflated fare. We discussed the price of the ride and after a few negotiations, we agreed on a price that was probably double what a Nepali would pay for the same trip. Had I felt like walking for another few minutes, I could have easily found more taxis and cut the price in half but half awake at 4:30 in the morning, I didn't have the energy to argue over a few Rupees that didn't amount to much more than a dollar.

The daylight was spreading across the sky when I arrived at the airport. Once there, I found myself amongst several mini vans unloading groups of tourists with their shiny new boots, jackets and back packs all looking like they had been purchased just minutes before. For each person, there was also a bright blue waterproof duffel bag that was bigger than any bag I have seen in my life. Staring at the size of the bags, I felt sorry for the porters that would have to carry the useless and excess things that these people felt they could not live without on their short trip to Everest Base Camp. What was inside their bags? A change of clothes for each day of the fifteen day journey they would be making? A stack of books for when they were bored in the afternoons? I have no idea what these people needed for the trip but as I looked at my backpack, which I previously thought heavy, I was glad to be independent, not relying on porters and guides to make the climb to base camp for me.

After waiting in line outside the airport, I made my way through the so called security line and waited on my Slovakian friends, Joe and Maria, who would be joining me on the trek. I met Joe and Maria while trekking in the Annapurna Region. We had eaten lunch at a small tea house towards the end of the Annapurna circuit and were all heading into the Sanctuary for the walk to Annapurna Base Camp. That night, after an incredibly long and difficult day of trekking that ended with an enormous uphill climb in the rain, we found ourselves at the same guest house in the village of Chomerong. That night at dinner we found we had a lot in common and quickly became friends. For the rest of the trek, Joe Maria and I found ourselves walking at the same pace and sleeping in the same tea houses, sometimes even sharing a room when sufficient space wasn't available. Since the three of us were all planning on heading to the Everest Region after the trek and though Joe and Maria already had flights, we decided if I managed to fly on the same day we would make the journey together.

It didn't take long for Joe and Maria to show up and it turned out that we were all actually on the same flight to Lukla, the small mountain town where our trek would begin. At the check in counter, in a typically Asian fashion, the small airline decided I would be going on an earlier flight and rushed me out the door and on to the plane leaving me not knowing exactly what was going on, nor where my backpack had managed to disappear to. I was a bit confused but took the change in stride and hoped there would still be a seat on the mountain side of the plane so that I could take in the views of the Himalayas along the way.

Boarding the small plane, I was towards the back of the line of Sixteen passengers. Since the door was at the back, they all began making their way forward leaving an empty seat at the rear of the plane. With a few passengers still waiting behind, I happily took the last seat on the plane that would provide mountain views from the air. Since a similar plane had crashed into the tiny mountain runway just a week before I said a prayer, buckled my seat belt and hoped everything on our flight would be ok.

The tiny airplane with it's roaring propellers lifted smoothly off the runway and within a few minutes we were flying alongside the Himalayan Mountains. The snow covered peaks lined the entire Northern horizon and were gently lit by the early morning sun. As the short flight continued, I looked out the window to find us flying over and around mountain ridges that were needless to say a little to close for my comfort. It didn't take long before the plane began to descend back towards the ground and as we crossed another mountain ridge, I looked down to see a small Nepali hut and we were close enough to it that I could see the smile on the children looking up at the sky pointing at the airplane that crosses over their home every day. Again, I checked my seat belt as the plane began turning and now rapidly descending with the towering peaks soaring high over head. With a loud thump, the landing gear came down and I could see the tiny runway ahead approaching. Avoiding the nearby mountains, we began our approach and within seconds were on the runway with an enormous concrete wall not very far ahead. With a slight jolt that made me wonder if we were still alive, the plane quickly came to a stop and within seconds, the door was open and we were rapidly rushed off the plane.

Before I was able to traverse the short distance to the tiny terminal, three more planes had landed and mine had already reloaded and was taking off. A helicopter flew in as well and the chaos that had ensued after being the first flight of the day on the ground was gripping. There was only room for four planes at the airport and the flight schedule was a race against time. The mornings here are clear but as the day warms up, the moisture from the mountains begins to rise forming fog and clouds rendering the airport useless. It was one of these clouds which suddenly came in as the airplane that recently crashed was landing causing the accident killing all 19 passengers and crew.

Shortly after I landed, Joe and Maria stepped off another plane and we gathered their bags, ate a quick breakfast, and set off on our trip up the valley. Having had several difficult days in the Annapurna Region as well as plenty of time to make the trek to Base Camp, we agreed not to rush and to take it slowly here. For our first day, we planned on walking about four or five hours and to stay in one of the villages along the way to Namche Bazzar. We began our walk and found that the first couple of hours were mostly down hill. Along the way, we found the views up the valley to be incredible and the weather to be hot and sunny. Though it was early in the morning when we arrived and the air in the mountains was cold enough to make you pull out a jacket, we now found ourselves in shorts and t-shirts sweating profusely looking forward to the cooler air high above.

Eventually, the downhill turned into a series of ups and downs following a cascading turquoise river flowing down from the mountains and glaciers far beyond. By lunch time, we found ourselves at a small village called Monjo, our intended destination for our first day of trekking. We nourished ourselves at a small tea house that served excellent hot chocolate and tasty bowls of soup and decided to push on walking into the afternoon. Looking at the map, we found that Namche Bazzar, a bustling mountain trading town situated at the convergence of four valleys was the next logical stop. Located 700 meters higher than where we were eating, it was a pretty tough climb to make before dark. Feeling pretty good however and ignoring our earlier decision to move slow, we decided it would be easy and pressed on.

The sun was setting after the tiring climb and as we crested the hill, we came over a small ridge to where we could finally see Namche Bazzar. I couldn't believe the size of this town located high in the mountains and so isolated from the world. Isolated from cars and from airplanes by a long and exhausting day of difficult walking. Five and six story buildings were everywhere and you could buy anything from Yak Cheese to Knock off North Face Jackets. Bakeries, souvenir vendors and Internet cafes lined the pathways between the quaint little hotels while porters and yak herders passed by ready to deliver their astoundingly heavy loads. There were tourists everywhere buying and browsing the variety of goods, all which are available in Kathmandu for half the price. It was a fascinating place to be and exactly what I expected along the trek to Everest Base Camp.

It's strange that I have met so many people traveling in Nepal that have no intention of trekking in the Everest Region. It seems to be mostly group tours that were organized from far over seas that are making the trip. Most of the independent travelers I have met tended to set out on shorter and easier walks throughout the country. When I asked them why they have come to Nepal and are not taking the opportunity to see the tallest mountain in the world, they usually respond that they heard there was too many people there. Now if that was actually the only reason, they could easily come in early December or mid March and make the journey practically alone. Sure it might be a bit colder and you walk through snow every now and then but essentially you would find that the trail was empty. Personally, I think they are too scared to attempt a trek at such a high altitude. Of course there is a lot of people here. It is the tallest mountain in the world! What do you expect? It's like going to see the pyramids in Egypt and expecting a full days walk across the desert to where you would have the pyramids to yourself for the day. If you choose to see any of the seven wonders of the world, in this day and age you are going to have to share that experience with a lot of other people!

After a night of eating yak steaks and drinking more hot chocolate, Joe, Maria and I enjoyed a long relaxing breakfast before heading out for the day. We didn't have any idea where we would be sleeping that night but we had taken note of several view points along our intended route and had aspirations of catching our first glimpse of Everest that morning before the afternoon clouds began to roll in. From Namche, it was a steep climb up the mountain to the first view point of the day. High on top of the hill above Namche we found a hotel operated by a rude and unfriendly staff. A cup of tea there was impossible as they only sold it by the pot which in turn would cost us about ten U.S. Dollars. That's highway robbery as far as I'm concerned! Near the hotel however we found plenty of wide open space to sit back and enjoy the incredible first views of Mount Everest, Lhotse and Ama Dablam. From where we stood, the peak of Mount Everest could be seen soaring high up into the jet stream with the wind blowing an enormous cloud of snow from it's peak and off into the air over Tibet.

We continued down the path to the Sherpa town of Khumjung where we were happy to find cups of hot tea for about thirty cents and a menu filled with cheap food. From the table at the tea house, relaxing in the noon day sun, snow covered Ama Dablam towered high above giving us a spectacular setting for another meal in the mountains. With our batteries recharged, we set off into the afternoon being watched along the way by the snow covered peaks that were now beginning to surround us. The trail continued climbing high up into the Gokyo Valley and we were now separated from the typical route to Everest Base Camp by a seemingly endless wall of impenetrable mountains.

The end of the day left us in the village of Mong, nearly 4,000 meters high already. It was cold and we were happy to take refuge inside the warm dining space of one of the three tiny tea houses that were located there. The clouds came in late in the afternoon and didn't leave us with much to take photographs of that day so we managed to pass the time in the warmth of the dining hall, sipping on hot chocolate and talking with the Nepali family who owned the home we would be sleeping in.

It was now the third day of the trek and the views were continuing to get better. While there was still a few tour groups floating around the Gokyo Valley, we found ourselves to be trekking alone throughout the day only occasionally passing a few hard working porters or a man and his line of yaks bringing goods and supplies to the villages of the Gokyo Valley. From Mong, we continued our climb into the mountains through beautiful alpine meadows that were filled with grazing yaks and stone shepherds huts. The hilltops were covered in prayer flags flapping in the strong winds that raced up the valley. After another long day of walking and beginning to feel the effects of the cold, we found ourselves in a tiny tea house at an elevation of almost 4,500 meters. While Maria took refuge inside the warmth of the little tea house, Joe and I braved the icy cold to watch the sunset on the mountains. Though clouds continued to block our views to the East, at the end of the valley, Cho Oyu could be seen towering high into the sky with a colorful array of clouds drifting past it's summit. As the sun continued to set, the 8,000 plus meter peak of Cho Oyu began to glow orange in the distance. It looked like a giant smoking volcano with fire spewing from it's conical peak. It was a spectacular way to end another glorious day of trekking in the Himalayan Mountains.

We set off early the next morning for the village of Gokyo and it didn't take long for the first of the six lakes in the Gokyo region to show up. While the first lake wasn't much more than a wide and shallow spot in a small stream, you could already see the brilliant color of the turquoise water in it's shallow depths. Shortly after the first, the second lake came into view followed shortly there after by the third with the picturesque village of Gokyo quietly resting on it's shore. I couldn't believe the setting for this tiny village high up in the Himalayas. The mountain backdrop behind the lake was incredible in itself but that wasn't the half of it. A few hours climb up a nearby mountain would provide us with spectacular views of Everest and the surrounding peaks as would a short trek further up the valley toward the border with Tibet and the base of Cho Oyu.

In Gokyo, we managed to negotiate a good price (about sixty cents) for a room at a tea house that we found had the best price on yak steaks in the entire village, a very important item for my survival in the Himalayas. It was still early morning when we checked in and after a second breakfast followed shortly after by lunch, Joe, Maria and I headed up to the top of Gokyo Ri, a nearby mountain peak, to watch the sunset on Mount Everest and all of the other surrounding peaks. Most people, or at least those with the energy, make the climb up Gokyo Ri in the early morning of their second day here, trying to catch sunrise. It makes sense to allow them a days rest in the village and then a good nights sleep before making the six hundred meter plus climb to almost 5,400 meters. They then typically return to their guest houses for breakfast and head back down the valley to one of the villages below. Both being photographers, Joe and I couldn't understand their mentality. Everest is due East of Gokyo Ri and you wouldn't see a single ray of light strike it's face until at least around noon. It is the perfect place to be to watch the sun set on the mountain and everyone seemed to be doing just the opposite. Happy with the ignorance of the other travelers around, Joe, Maria and I were excited about the opportunity to have the mountain top to ourselves.

With the sun low in the sky and the clouds rapidly moving in, Joe, Maria and I arrived at the top and happily found ourselves to be the only ones around. Since we knew the temperature would drop rapidly as soon as the sun was completely gone, we all immediately changed into our thermals, heavy coats, gloves, hats and extra socks. The clouds by now had filled up the valley and were blocking most of our views down but all of the mountain peaks in the area being the tallest mountains in the world, were poking through the clouds high up above. Joe and I began taking pictures while Maria, already starting to freeze, headed back down the mountain. As we snapped photo after photo of all of the mountains around including Mount Everest, Lhotse, Cho Oyu, and Ama Dablam, everything just kept looking more and more incredible. My photos of that sunset will never do the experience justice but I now find myself being unable to quit looking at them over and over again.

After watching the last rays of light of the day turn the tips of the mountains the brightest color of orange you can imagine, Joe and I now freezing to death, packed up our things and began the steep descent in the dark of night down the face of the mountain. Today, the clouds which typically disappear just after sunset decided to stick around. We walked down the hill hoping we were following the right path with our headlamps reflecting off the surface of the clouds that were now engulfing us. Since it was well below freezing, Joe and I kept up as fast a pace as we could trying to keep the blood flowing to our already numb fingers and toes. It didn't take long for us to suffer the first of several falls on the way down but eventually we found ourselves below the cloud level and could see the shore of Gokyo lake not too much further below. The few lights of the dining halls in the village could be seen glowing and both Joe and I couldn't wait to get inside to warm up by the stove that was filled up with dried yak dung and sip on a hot chocolate to revive the feeling back into our fingertips and toes.

The following day, Joe, Maria and I continued our exploration of the Gokyo region further up the valley towards Tibet. We packed lunches of canned tuna and cheap crackers and headed off to visit the upper lakes of the region. Our legs were pretty tired from the day before but it wasn't too long until I came across the fourth and fifth lakes of the Gokyo Region. The shores of the fifth lake were as beautiful as the other four so waiting for Joe and Maria, I found a rock to shelter me from the frigid wind that was beginning to pick up speed and amongst the beautiful setting I sat there alone and ate my simple meal. A half hour or so passed when I finally spotted Joe and Maria climbing up a nearby ridge on a pile of scree. They were heading away from the lake and up to the top of an embankment that looked down on the nearby glacier that we were going to eventually have to cross on our way to Mount Everest. Neither of them seemed to see me by the lake so I walked over to wear they were heading. At the top of the hill, across the glacier, I discovered the reason for the climb. You could see more of Everest from here than from anywhere we had been so far. There were no people around and the three of us spent a couple of hours just sitting on the rocks and photographing the incredible vista that surrounded us. It was a magical place to be at the convergence of three glaciers surrounded by the highest mountains in the world.

As the afternoon wore on, we hoped to stick around for as long as we could to catch the afternoon light descending on the mountains. The wind however had different ideas in mind. It had been picking up all day long and since we were at an elevation of over 5,000 meters, the icy wind had a nasty bite on our unprepared skin. With Joe still taking photos, I decided to head back down the valley and retreat to our tea house for a much needed bowl of sugary hot porridge. As I left the relative shelter of the pile of rocks we had been resting behind, I couldn't believe the strength of the wind in my face. It was coming right at me and I had several hours of walking directly into it. I tied the hood up on my jacket and closed all my zippers but it still felt like something was pushing me back and trying to keep me from my destination. Breathing the thin oxygen up there (50% less than at sea level) wasn't helping much either. I quickly became tired, cold and hungry and wanted nothing more than to finish the days walk. The views no longer mattered to me, only getting out of the relentless wind which was blocking my path home. After over two hours of walking up and down hills and staring at the mountains I knew to surround the village of Gokyo, I finally began to see the shore of the lake and the rooftops of the buildings that would provide me with some shelter. It was a welcome site to see and as always, I couldn't wait to get into the tea house and have a warm cup of hot chocolate!

Another cold night passed with me inside my sleeping bag wearing all of the clothing in my bag and I awoke to find the water in my bottle mostly frozen. We were heading over the Cho La Pass and possibly making our way to Lobuche that day and I knew it was going to be the most difficult day of all of my trekking in Nepal. Earlier along the way, we has spoken to several guides and discussed options for going over the pass that connects the Gokyo Valley with the Everest Valley. There is a place to stay at the bottom of the mountain on both sides and combined with the distances and steep climbs involved, they all told us that the journey from Gokyo to Lobuche via the Cho La pass was a two day journey, minimum and most people do it in three.

At 6:00 a.m. Joe, Maria and I made our way back down the valley to where we found what we thought was the path that led us to the glacier we needed to first cross. It went over a ridge and dropped steeply down to the scree covered glaciers. As we walked up and down amongst the enormous piles of rocks and ice, we finally found our trail came to an end. The mountains on the other side of the glacier came down to what we figured would be the beginning of the trail over the path and in the distance we could see a few prayer flags marking the tea house on the other side of the glacier where we planned to have breakfast. With the trail at an end, we found ourselves quite unsure where to go as much of the rock piles were unstable and there were small lakes and streams wandering across the surface of the ice everywhere.

Not too long after we began forming a plan of how to get across, we spotted a group of porters carrying enormous loads and moving fairly quickly. They seemed to be on a path across the glacier and were passing a point that seemed easy enough to get to. We headed straight for them, found the path and easily followed along. From the point where we picked up the right trail, it didn't take long to find our way to the tea house where we warmed up with coffee, tea and a couple of bowls of oat porrige. It was now 8:00 in the morning and we were in a small settlement known at Dragnag that rested at 4,700 meters at the entrance to the pass. From what we could tell on our map, the trail climbed fairly steadily all the way up to the pass at 5,300 meters. It is supposed to be a pretty difficult traverse often requiring crampons, ropes and ice axes but back in Kathmandu, the local people had said that there hadn't been too much snow and ice lately so it shouldn't be a problem to make it over without all the gear. Sitting at breakfast, Joe, Maria and I were all hoping they were right.

Following a small ice encased stream, we began our way up the pass. The air was thin but the path wasn't too steep and gradually we began to climb. Up, Up, Up we went as trail continued on. Eventually, I found myself in the front of our group climbing up to what I thought must be near the top. I figured it would be a false summit or in this case, a false pass but in my mind, the pass couldn't be much further beyond. I easily reached the top and when I was there, I couldn't believe what I was seeing. While I had been right about the pass not being too far away, the trail dropped back down a couple of hundred meters before leading up to the face of what seemed to be an impenetrable wall of rock, snow and ice! Another man that was leading another group across that day was standing nearby, resting and waiting on his group, who had left an hour before us, to make it up the hill. He was wearing an Altimeter that read 5,100 meters. In theory we were only two hundred meters from the top but with a two hundred meter descent, that put the final climb at another four hundred meters. I stared at the path down below disappearing into the rocks along the base of the mountains and after unsuccessfully locating a good way up, I asked the nearby guide where the pass was located. He pointed to a snow and ice covered gap that wasn't much more than a sliver of light shining through the mountain ridge. I couldn't believe that there was a safe way up the vertical face lying before me to this tiny gap high up in the mountains!

We descended down and made our way across the barren valley floor and found ourselves staring up at a steep wall of rocks with a a few scrapes here and there designating our way up the mountain. The climb was difficult and slow forcing us to stop and rest every couple of minutes to catch our breath in the thin mountain air. I don't know how long it actually was before we reached the frozen top but by then we had all decided that maybe the journey we had intended was a bit long and we should try and take refuge in the tea house located at the bottom of the pass on the other side.

After a few minutes up top for photos, a snickers bar and a bit of rest, we began traversing the glacier that led down the opposite side of the mountain. Though not as steep, it was an equally difficult and slippery journey down. In the flatter sections, there was enough snow to walk on to keep you on the mountain. As the trail descended however, it yielded to slick ice causing us all to suffer several small falls along the way. An hour or so after setting foot on the glacier the ground began to reveal the rocks beneath the snow and ice and the trail dropped steeply down the back side of the mountain ridge. We could see the tea houses in Dzonglha down below and were looking forward to a healthy lunch though it was already past 2:00 in the afternoon.

In Dzonglha we discovered an expensive menu, an extremely rude staff and the worst dorm room you could ever imagine. Two layers of beds stacked on top of each other, all built as one. There weren't even separate sheets, just one big bed with each spot designated by a dirty pillow. Not able to believe the fact that this place was so expensive and dirty, we found it even harder to believe that it was packed full of people who had either come over the pass earlier that day or were planning on heading over in the morning. Compared to everywhere we had slept along the way, this was by far the worst place yet. There was no way Joe, Maria or myself wanted to have anything to do with it. Though we were tired, the food had given us a bit more strength to go on and we continued on our way to Lobuche, another three hours climb further up the Everest Valley.

In Lobuche, we found the accommodations to be as bad if not worse than Dzonglha but somehow we managed to get our own room with three separate beds. The lodge was packed and lit by candles and even in a small room filled with people crowded around a wood burning stove, the bitter cold was still coming through. We ate dinner in our warm hats, jackets and gloves and all headed off to bed early. It had been a 12 hour day of walking and climbing, the hardest of any of my days trekking in Nepal but we were just a few hours walk from the last settlement along the way to Everest Base Camp.

We all awoke to another freezing cold morning and I was beginning to find the hardest thing for me to do in the morning was to pack away my sleeping bag. Within minutes of exiting the bag, it would quickly drop to the temperature of the air around. Gloves inhibited my movement too much to stuff it in efficiently and I found the pain of the extreme cold on my hands to be almost unbearable. Later in the journey, I began bringing my sleeping bag into the dining space and resting it near the wood stove before putting it away making it a much more tolerable experience.

After a moderate two hundred meter uphill that morning, we finally arrived at the village of Gorak Shep, the end of the line of tea houses along the way to Everest Base Camp. After checking in and enjoying some warm drinks and food, we spent the remainder of the morning relaxing and enjoying the views of Nuptse high ahead blocking our view of Mount Everest nor much futher ahead. For the afternoon, we planned to head up to the top of a nearby mountain known as Kalla Patthar and again watch the sunset on Mount Everest.

Gorak Shep is located at 5,140 meters and the top of the mountain we were heading up was 5,550 meters high. The trail didn't look anywhere near as steep as the previous one up Gokyo Ri and by now, we were all very well acclimated so Joe, Maria and I were looking forward to an easy afternoon climb up the mountain. Around 2:30, Joe and I set off alone up the hill as Maria was feeling tired and didn't have enough clothes to brave the extremely cold temperatures that we would be experiencing from the top after sunset. It was a beautiful afternoon walking and it didn't take long for the summit of Everest to begin to appear. There were only a few clouds in the sky and the wind was blowing strong. Joe and I were taking our time, in no rush to reach the top and though breathing heavily at times, the excitement of where we were kept us moving along.

At the top, we found the last few remaining people who came to visit earlier in the day making their way back down. Joe and I had the mountain and the incredible panorama of 360 degree views all to ourselves. We took a few pictures at the peak amongst the colorful prayer flags and each found a spot to set up our tripods and sat back to enjoy the show before us with the sun changing the sky and mountains into a bright and beautiful display of colors. When the sun was no longer shining on us, the temperature quickly began to plummet. We were wearing everything we could but were still freezing cold. High up above however, the sun was still striking the top of Everest along with all of the mountains that surrounded it. Gradually, the white snow caps turned gold and then bright orange. With only the peaks of Nuptse and Everest lit up and not much color left in the sky, the color on the summits changed to a brilliant burning red leaving the peaks flaming amongst the evening sky. I have never before beheld such a beautiful sight. I had waited for this moment for my entire two years of traveling. Here I was, I had finally made it to the only place I had intended on visiting since leaving home and I was rewarded with one of the most spectacular experiences of my life. With a few tears in my eyes, I said a prayer thanking God for giving me the opportunity to have seen so much of his beautiful creations and in the darkness of early night, I began packing away my things for the journey back down the mountain.

There was no rush to be anywhere so we decided to take it easy the next day, visit Everest Base Camp and spend another night in the freezing cold lodge at Gorak Shep. In the morning, it was colder than usual making the task of getting out of our sleeping bags even more of a challenge than usual. There wasn't as much light coming in the window as normal so I could tell that something in the weather had changed. Looking outside revealed a cloud covered sky, the first time we had awoken to clouds since beginning our trek. The weather was changing and I hoped it would hold out for the day so we could have the opportunity to explore base came and the face of the Khumbu Ice Fall.

Outside it was windy so we took our time with breakfast and hoped the weather would begin to clear up. It wasn't showing any signs of improving but also wasn't showing any sign of getting worse outside. We decided to bundle up in our warm clothes and head on out, besides, if the weather began to worsen or snow heavily, we could always turn around and come back. Though not that far away and only a further 200 meter climb, the walk to base camp definitely took us a bit of time. Most of the trail was loose rock that had been piled up by the movement of the Khumbu glacier and once we were on the glacier, it was a series of ups and downs over boulders, loose rock and ice. Along the way, it began to snow a bit but further down the valley we were already beginning to see blue skies.

After walking for eight days, we finally came upon the prayer flags and tents that were scattered around the portion of the Khumbu Glacier that everyone refers to as Everest Base Camp. Though this is not the time of year for people to be summiting, there was a bit of life amongst the few tents there that were set up for tour groups coming to have a look. This day however, we found ourselves sharing the experience with just a few people who all departed shortly after our arrival.

Around Base camp you could see the small clearings amongst the rock where various tents had been pitched in the past. I was impressed with how little trash had been left there as even though I had read that the many mountaineers along with the government had helped get the remnants of past expeditions cleaned up years ago, I still expected to find plenty of debris lying around. Though there was nothing large on the ground or any piles of plastics or rubbish, a quick glance almost anywhere would reveal a few artifacts from the past. Tent stakes, old Budweiser cans, an old warn out glove and numerous other small articles seemed to be popping out of the glacier everywhere, testaments to the history that is still being made with new ascents to the top each year.

At base camp, Joe, Maria and I took our time enjoying the experience. I collected a few rocks as souvenirs and gifts, small pieces of Mount Everest that have traveled far down the face of the mountain along the Khumbu Ice fall and resurfaced at Base Camp. In my bag, I had carried a set of prayer flags which in the tradition of the Nepali and Tibetan people and out of respect for the sacred mountain, I hung them up to fly in the wind, a way of thanking God and the mountain for the experience at hand. With the prayer flags flying, a few rocks in my bag, and now alone as Joe and Maria had already turned back, I sat down on a pile of rubble and stared up at the Khumbu Ice Fall, the treacherous highway that leads climbers to the top of the mountain. The wind was blowing and the only sound in the air was the flapping of the prayer flags. Further down the valley, the sky was nearly clear now revealing the deep and rich blue that can only be found so high up in the mountains. There was nothing more to see now, nothing more to do. I took one last look around and again thanked God for the experience and turned around and headed back down the valley to Gorak Shep for another nights sleep in the freezing cold.

The next day with the thrill of the journey now gone, Joe, Maria and I headed back down the valley. It was an easy walk down as it was all downhill and we quickly found ourselves far away from the mountain. Though still surrounded by the phenomenal beauty of the peaks of the Himalayas, our journey was complete. I still took time to look around and enjoy the scenery but even though we were traversing new ground through the Everest valley, a place we had not seen before, something was missing now and it just wasn't the same as on our trip up. At the end of a long but easy day, we found ourselves half way back to Lukla where the journey began. We slept at a small tea house in Phuki Tenga off the main tourist route and were happy to be out of the freezing cold now already having descended to 3,250 meters. The air felt thick and our lungs no longer struggled for oxygen. Without even needing to zip up my sleeping bag, I got the best nights sleep I have had since the beginning of the trek.

The following morning, on our last day of trekking, I stopped along the narrow path we had been following alongside a steep mountain heading towards Namche Bazzar. It was the last point on the trek from which we would be able to see Mount Everest and I wanted to have one last look. I took a picture with only the top of the snow covered peak barely showing it's face amongst the surrounding mountains and said goodbye to the mountain that has brought so much joy and devastation to the lives of so many people. For this trip, it was the last time I will see the mountain but I know that one day, I will come back. Nepal has captured a place in my heart and it's spirit will remain with me throughout my journey home and to many other places around the world. There is still so much to see here and I feel I have only scratched the surface. Perhaps to the summit one day, who knows what the future will behold. For now however there is nothing more I can do but say goodbye to the mountain and continue on my journey back towards civilization.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Nepali Paradise

It was a hell of a rough journey by I am glad to be out of the slummy cities of Agra and Varanassi. After a cramped and crowded night train followed by a two hour jeep ride, I walked across the border to Nepal where I then bordered by far the bumpiest and bounciest bus I have ever ridden on in my life. It felt like riding on a combination of plywood and steel over a rocky landslide stricken road on my way to Pokhara, Nepal. Eight hours later, feeling as if I had been stuck in a washing machine for the last eight hours, I was tired and soar but happy to be in a friendlier and cleaner country.

The rapid change upon entering Nepal was astounding! In India, people were constantly pissing and shitting everywhere you looked. In the early morning light, looking out the window of my train I witnessed every person that lived near the train tracks squatting down and shitting in their back yards. Why after living there for year after year, it never has occurred to them to dig a pit, I will never know. Riding in cars and buses throughout India, around every corner is someone else pissing out in the open. It is impossible not to notice, it is everywhere you turn your head. I have never seen so many penises in my entire life, nor do I care to ever again! Combine all of that with the constant filth of trash, shit and cows on the streets and everywhere I visited in India outside of the Himalayas was like one giant slum! I am not kidding. Trash everywhere! Massive amounts of it of all sorts. There was not one single rubbish container anywhere in the country and no one ever cleaned up what was laying around!

Riding along in my bumpy bus up a winding mountain road I immediately noticed the change. No one using the toilet along the road, no trash along the way and everyone was ten times as friendly to us. When I finally arrived in Pokhara, I couldn't believe how clean the streets were. Not a bit of trash to be seen. The hotels looked like royal honey moon sweets compared to those in India and the white table clothed restaurants that lined the streets were a welcome change to the dirty places I found myself eating throughout the low lands of India.

Now I have awoken after a good nights rest, finished a pot of coffee as I sit on my balcony watching the mist clear from the nearby tree covered hills. The sun is still low in the sky and the steep snowy peaks of the Annapurna range are glowing in the sun. With a lake that is deep blue and surrounded by lush green rice paddies, the stark contrast of the white snow on the peaks and the blue sky overhead is a breathtaking sight to behold. I am already regretting now coming to Nepal sooner and find that I may be hard pressed to ever leave.


I had heard that Varanassi was the epitome of an India experience and was a must see town on the travelers route heading towards Nepal. It was said to be all at once beautiful and disgusting. If you wanted a taste of the real India, this was the place to go. Be prepared however people warned, it is overwhelming. Not just the sights, but the smells, the touts, and everyone in the town!

Coming in on a 12 hour train ride that was delayed a further five hours, I fought my way through the hotel touts and moto rickshaw drivers and managed to get to a point where I could walk down the maze of narrow alley ways toward my hotel. Fortunately a man on the street began talking to me and leading the way. At first I was reluctant as this type of person is usually after a commission from bringing you to the hotel you want to stay at. Without him however, I would still be out wandering the streets.

I arrived at a dirty hotel, as dirty as any I have ever been in but the roof top restaurant that overlooked the city made up for it and most likely I would only be here for a couple of days anyway so that didn't really matter to me, at least not to much. After recharging my body on a ridiculous amount of food at the restaurant, I decided to take a sunset stroll along the riverside ghats (bathing and washing areas). I could see smoke coming from the closest ghat to my hotel and I assumed that this was the ghat I had heard they burned bodies at. A few turns through the alley and there I was, immersed in the middle of a giant outdoor crematorium. People from all over India were burning the bodies of their loved ones while others were still waiting for their turn in the hospice building that overlooked the ghat. A man began explaining to me the different processes the families went through with the bodies and how much money it costs to burn each body with the special wood while all the conversation, ash from the burning corpses rained down upon my head.

After being persuaded to make a small donation to the hospice to help pay for funeral wood, I found myself in the middle of some kind of a religious procession marching down a narrow alley way. Along the way there were stones that people touched, shrines that were kissed and bells that were rung. I never determined where it was going as I turned back toward the river at the first chance I had. Alongside the river again I found myself immersed in a crowd of people bathing, swimming and washing in the Ganges river. Keep in mind now that this river has over 30 sewer systems flowing into it just upstream from the city. It is supposed to be one of the most polluted rivers in the world yet people from all over India come to bathe, wash, drink and sink the bodies of their loved ones into it.

I was enjoying all of the activities of the historic ghats of this holy city but since I was feeling tired, I sat down on some steps overlooking the river to take a break. As I looked out at the river, an old woman dressed in a beautiful purple sari walked down to the edge of the stairs on the riverside. She turned around to face me and then squatted over the water. As there is urine covering almost every inch of ground in the city as well as enough cow shit to make you feel like you are walking through an obstacle course, I figured she was just being polite and urinating in the river. The fact that people nearby were scooping water out with their hands and drinking it didn't seem to matter to anyone and she continued squatting. After a minute, it occurred to me she had been squatting a bit too long to be just urinating. A few more minutes passed and she finally stood up and walked off. Left in her place was exactly what you would you would expect, an armada of little chocolate boats! As they floated toward the people who were drinking the water and swimming, I couldn't bear to watch so I began the confusing journey through the twisting maze of alley ways that lead in the direction of my hotel.

The Taj Mahal

I spent the morning watching sunrise over the Taj Mahal. It is every bit as magnificent as you could imagine. The rest of the town in which it sits however is quite the opposite. Dirty hotels and although the restaurants were on the rooftops and had views of the Taj, the service and the food was some of the worst I have seen in India!

Trapped in Manali

I am trapped in Manali! Not sure when the roads are going to be clear but I was just about to board a bus heading towards Delhi and I was informed that it has been canceled do to landslides along the road. It has been raining for three days straight since I returned from my last trek so the landslides are quite understandable. The sky this afternoon however has finally cleared and hopefully tomorrow the roads will be as well and I can venture out of the Himalayas for a bit before heading off to Nepal.

Monday, September 8, 2008

A morning in Manali

It is cold this morning, colder than it has been since I arrived in Manali. I am still in my sleeping bag but I can tell something is different today. The window as always was open all night and when the first light of the day came in, I began to awake. I pull the sleeping bag over my head and cans see through a crack in the curtains that the sky is gray today. Yesterday, it had begun to rain in the afternoon canceling my plans to follow a nearby river up to the snow line on a nearby mountain. Now, I emerge from my room to find a stunning scene before me. Mist is rising off the pine trees that surround the steep slopes of this narrow valley that I am in. The clouds are high enough to reveal the peaks of the mountain tops flanking the valley that are freshly dusted with snow. It is cold today and the shorts and jacket I am wearing are nowhere near enough to keep me warm. For some reason I decide not to change into something warmer and I pick up my book, sip on my cup of coffee and enjoy the brisk air along with the beautiful mountain views.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Leh to Manali (unbelieveable!)

I have been trying to sleep now for a couple of hours. My warm fuzzy hat is pulled down over my eyes to keep out any light even though it was three in the morning when I boarded this bus. I am wearing the same clothing I wear snow boarding and yet I am still cold. The bumps on the road and the freezing cold are keeping me from sleeping but I continue to close my eyes and try. Finally I give up. I can sense something different and my curiosity leads me to figure out what has changed. We have definitely begun to descend as the engine is not straining the same way it was for the first two hours of the journey. I open my eyes but everything is dark. My hat is still pulled down over my eyes. As I roll the soft edge of my hat back I find it is still night time but light is beginning to appear in the sky. Everything is white. There is a thick blanket of snow covering everything that surrounds me. Suddenly I realize how dangerous this is, driving in a small bus over a mountain in the snow and I sit up in my seat to take a closer look.

I had crossed the highest and the third highest mountain passes that were just down the road from where we were now and neither looked like this. One had bits of snow here and there and was tucked in between a few glaciers while the other was engulfed in a blizzard while I was there causing me to nearly freeze to death on the motorcycle I was riding. Seeing as how I was trapped in that snow storm just a few hours back, that is most likely the same snow storm that caused all the snow to cover the ground here. As I look out the window and observe the skills of the bus driver, I begin to relax as there are tire tracks embedded in the road from other vehicles that have passed before us. We are driving slow and the road doesn't seem to be covered in ice so I begin to relax.

The sun never rises but the sky begins to lighten. We take a break by stopping the vehicle in the middle of the snow on this one lane winding mountain road. I am grateful as I have been staring out the window at one of the most photographic opportunities I have ever seen. There are snow covered mountains everywhere and down the valley in the direction we are heading, you can see the snow line on a mountain with the blackness of the unlit portion of it's base supporting a graceful transition to the snow covered top. There is enough light to see everything clearly and the cloudy sky is lit by the early morning light. I jump out of the bus and take one of my favorite photos from my entire trip. Even though I am nervous about the twenty hour bus drive I have ahead of me, it looks like the endless scenery provided by the Himalayas is going to make up for the difficulty of the journey.

We transition from snow back down into a valley where the stark desert scenery of the Northern Himalayas returns. The road winds back and forth for hours at a time and actual sections of pavement are rare. We cross streams, mud, fields of boulders and road construction sites yet we do not break down. Not only can I not believe the condition of the roads but I can't believe that this is the most popular journey to do by motorcycle in the area. It takes three to four bone crushing days to make the journey on motorcycle and I had actually considered doing it. After learning that the cost to rent one for the journey was almost the same as buying a bike, I thankfully elected to travel by bus. There isn't much for roads here and we are averaging about twenty kilometers an hour. I don't sleep for the entire journey as the road is so rocky and bumpy that my whole body is being tossed around in my seat. Thank God I am not on a motorcycle!

The day winds on and the scenery continues to be as incredible as ever. I can't even believe the things I am seeing out of my window. How can there be so many enormous mountains and endless valleys with no one living in them and it not be named some sort of National Park. This is one of the most beautiful landscapes I have ever seen and could possibly exist in the world and yet so few people outside of India even know about it. I think about how lucky I am to be here, smile and open my window fighting the bitter cold wind every chance I get trying to take just one photograph that will come close to telling the story of the epic journey I am making on the highway from Leh to Manali.

We are getting closer to Manali, I can feel it. The desert environment is gone and grass and trees are beginning to cover the hillside. There is a small river flowing through the valley we are in now and the air isn't as cold or dry anymore. I can't imagine that we have any more mountain passes to cross before I arrive and then I realize I am wrong. We begin going up the hill on a rocky and muddy stretch of road. The bus continues to climb and I continue to hang my head out the window to photograph the snowy peaks that the clouds are slowly exposing on the opposite side of the valley. Up and up we continue to climb and I can't see the top of the mountain, only the craziness of the winding road that lurks beneath us. Some parts of the road are washed out by the streams that flow over them and there is barely enough room for our bus to cross over yet we continue to press on. Our climb continues toward yet another pass. Two hours after we begin our ascent from the valley floor, the road levels out and we accelerate up to at least forty kilometers an hour. This lasts for about four minutes before we get to the other side of the ridge and I look down to see an endless snake of road ahead coiling around itself trying to keep it's grip on the near vertical cliffs that tumble far down below to Manali.

This seems to be the worst stretch of road yet and to make matters worse, there is an endless stream of trucks, buses and jeeps making their way up the hill. Uphill traffic has the right away on this single lane mountain road and we are continually tucking onto the edge of the cliff with the wheels nearly falling off the side to let the traffic pass. We are traveling slow, as slow as we have been traveling for the entire journey. I can see Manali up ahead and the last sign I saw put us only thirty five kilometers away. It is now dark again and our headlight barely light up the road ahead. Fortunately the lights of the endless stream of vehicles ahead continues to light the way for us. Down we continue for another two hours. Again I am looking at the road and feeling every bump and the bus slip and slide through the mud and wondering why anyone would want to make this journey on a motorcycle which is made to travel on smooth pavement.

Buildings begin to appear on the sides of the road and I can tell we are close. The last sign I saw put us just a five kilometers away from Manali. The journey is almost over and while I am happy that it is nearly over, I am sad that it is ending. It has been one of the most amazing trips I have taken, crossing the Himalayan mountain range on a slow bus over some of the worst roads I have ever seen. I am tired and stiff from the journey. It is nearly nine o' clock at night and I have not had dinner. A warm meal before crawling into my sleeping bag is the only plans I retain for the evening followed by a deep deep sleep. I am here, I am in Manali.