Out of Thin Air

Trip Start Jun 19, 2005
Trip End Jun 19, 2006

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Flag of Nepal  ,
Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Sometimes we weigh travel options knowing full well that the best choice is simply the lesser of two evils. Walk an extra week through sub-tropical woods, developing much-needed stamina for the trail ahead and dealing with the expense and other unforeseeable hassles associated with the Maoists who control the area between Jiri and Namche Bazaar, or spend the money up-front for a flight to Lukla, thereby foregoing both the beautiful prelude to the Solu Khumbu's high elevation hike, as well as the boys with guns. In the end, it was the all-day bus ride, the over-crowded coach creeping along death-defying switchbacks that tipped the scales - we'd take our chances in the air.

After a by-then anticipated delay, in an unnecessarily harsh reminder that budget travelers tend to get what we pay for, and pay for what we get, we were ushered onto the cloud-covered tarmac of Kathmandu's domestic airport to face our latest challenge. Simply put, we had to overcome every instinct for self-preservation to board a plane that looked about as flight-worthy as the busses we had so intentionally left behind. The fuselage was a long, thin box that could have used some duct tape in a few key spots, and the front tire was decidedly low on air. Like sheep we allowed ourselves to be herded through the miniscule hatch and took our places, dutifully inserting cotton into our ears and candy into our mouths, thereby taking full advantage of the in-flight services at our disposal. The engines revved and we somehow managed to get off the ground, and before we knew it, the green terraced fields of the Kathmandu valley gave way to snow capped peaks. The plane shook and yawed as planes should never do, and as the distance between us and each succeeding range below diminished, H decided that the flight could and should proceed without her observation. Head in hands, eyes squeezed shut, she went to her happy place as we barely cleared the last ridge and began to dive straight toward a runway as steep as and no longer than a San Francisco city block. The front tire, apparently flat so as not to burst on touchdown, held fast, and just like that we grabbed our packs and were walking toward Mt. Everest.

The Everest hike is all about elevation. When you fly to Lukla to start the trek your first steps are at almost 11,000 feet, and it's pretty much straight up from there. We decided to take it slowly so as to avoid any risk of altitude sickness, plus we basically couldn't breathe. So we spent some extra days acclimatizing around Namche Bazaar, and again in Tengboche, the picturesque Buddhist monastery in the sky, whose maroon and saffron-clad monks happened to be hosting the annual Mani Rimdu festival just as we arrived. Tengboche sits on a small shelf surrounded by some of the area's/world's most impressive peaks, and when we weren't checking out the intricate sand mandala or sitting in the frigid temple watching the colorful puja (ceremony), we watched in awe as the full moon rose from behind AmaDablam's spire, and Nuptse caught the last embers of the setting sun, with Everest sitting demurely in the background, ever coy in the diminishing distance that divided her from us.

As we continued our gradual ascent up the valley, the alpine forests began to yield to a more lunar landscape, and soon rock and ice dominated our days. We hiked up a side valley (Chukung) and climbed a, 18,500 foot peak that afforded unbelievable views of the massive glacier that continues to carve this valley, and the sheer cliffs beyond. You never could have guessed as we skipped down the trail that it had taken almost three laborious, breathless hours of sherpa shuffle, the slow-motion pantomime that replaces walking at this altitude, to get up the thing - a tough climb worth every step.

As we neared the terminal point of the Khumbu Valley, and prepared to visit Everest Base Camp, we found ourselves with front row seats for the start of the Everest Marathon. This event draws elite Nepali athletes, most of them Everest summiters, and a rowdy bunch of masochistic, philanthropic Brits who, despite obvious disadvantages, lined up beside the local favorites one freezing cold morning and somehow made their way over 26.2 absurd miles to Namche, with all proceeds going to village projects. Temporary hypoxia allowed us for a deluded moment to consider taking part in this madness sometime in the future, but we have since come to our senses and have set our sights on the more realistic and fulfilling challenges of international competitive eating.

Walking on the Khumbu glacier was a highlight, not for the views, which were far better from the vistas of Kala Pattar and Chukung Ri, but for the other-worldly sights and sounds of all the rock and ice. Huge boulders sit suspended on columns of ice while bubbling, gurgling, crackling sounds of indeterminable origin emanate from every direction. Several avalanches tumbled dramatically in the distance, and two helicopters, unable to stay aloft in the anorexic air of base camp, had tumbled as well, sometime in the last year, and like the aforementioned boulders sat suspended improbably on pedestals of ice. We deposited rocks in crevasses and listened to their perilous descent, threw rocks on frozen glacial ponds, trying in vain to fracture their icy armor, and despite our growing fatigue and frustration with the ever-present cold, more or less turned base camp into a play ground before heading back down the valley toward our final high elevation goal.

Cho La pass is the most direct route to the Gokyo Valley which lies to the west of base camp and the Khumbu glacier. The all-day journey up and over the 18,000 foot plus pass made us feel like we were on expedition, and convinced us that despite all this incredible beauty, we were ready to shower (it had been almost two weeks), eat salad and be warm. In addition, as you can see from the photo of H's salute to Everest, the altitude had begun to take its toll. The environmentally unpleasant effects of H.A.F.E. (high altitude flatulence expulsion) were readily apparent in the lodges, but we were surprised to witness the emergence of heretofore undiscovered malady, H.A.H. High altitude hatred compels its victims to walk behind their husbands compiling detailed lists of his transgressions and foibles, and to share them brutally with him when she caught her breath. These tirades provided temporary relief to the victim, and prolonged suffering for her mate. When she wasn't busy hating Mike, H became convinced that a conspiracy to taint her food with mothballs was afoot. First the water in Tengboche, then dal baht in Chukung - no meal was immune. Like any good therapist, Mike did his best to take her seriously, validate her experience, then to ignore her, until the morning when her oat porridge emerged from the kitchen tasting like garlic noodle soup, at which time we decided it was definitely time to GO DOWN.

En route back to civilization we enjoyed a couple days on the shores of Gokyo Lake, and one final climb to bask in the panoramic mountain views before heading down the valley. In a matter of days the air became intoxicatingly thick and we were surprised to find out just how much we had missed the trees. After 17 days we again boarded a plane and are now back in the bright lights of Kathmandu, where food tastes good again and H has begun to think that Mike's not so bad after all.

The last 6 weeks in Nepal have been amazing, and we can't wait to return some day. But for now the beach beckons. The tickets we bought a few days ago for Thailand were a great deal, until we learned that the airline had ceased to actually provide service pending payment of its fuel bill. Details. With two freshly printed tickets on a slightly more reputable airline in hand, we are very excited to be heading for the warm sands of Thailand, where we will begin our competitive eating training by consuming mass quantities of curries and phad thai. We plan to spend the holidays there, crash the Smith honeymoon for a night and perhaps hook up with some other friends that we've met along the way before heading for Indonesia, or Burma, or wherever the warm breeze blows us. Namaste for now...
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