Yak Steak and Humble Pie
Trip Start Mar 11, 2006
45Trip End Aug 01, 2006
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The flight was short, the engines died, I said hello to the pilots, and we screamed to a stop on Lukla's unique 400-meter long, 60-meter lower at the start from the end, runway. The incline is to account for the mountain on which the runway is built as well as the fact that 400 meters is not enough to stop a plane in ... the incline slows it to not run into the mountain which, but for a last-minute right turn, we nearly did.
We were actually not bombarded as expected once off the plane by offers to guide and porter. In the spirit of going everywhere on our trip at the wrong time, we had chosen the low season to trek, no one else was going up, and the summitting expeditions weren't due to be heading down for another several weeks. Well, as they say, if you want something done right you've got to do it yourself, and in this case right was lugging ourselves the two-day walk to Namche Bazaar, the administrative center of the Khumbu region, where if we still desired help on the way up it would be easy to find at the Saturday Market
You can't start your trek in a drizzle on an empty stomach, and our first taste of mountain food from a menu we'd come to learn and almost-love very well (it was identical at every shop up save for prices increasing with elevation). Skipping popcorn listed under soup, we each furthered Ryan's pizza quest. Now chemically there is very little difference between tomato sauce and ketchup, or for that matter mozzarella and yak cheese. Chemically.
Finally on the road, coincidentally exactly 10 years to the day after the famous tragedy that claimed many lives on Everest and led to the book Into Thin Air which inspired me to want to pursue this in the first place, we made it as far as our Lonely Planet-prescribed first sleeping point, Phakding (2600m, ft), we scored free lodging as it was low season and the places make their money anyhow from you eating there and with nothing to do after talking with the proprietor carrying around his baby on a basket off his head, I went to sleep the earliest it's ever happened on purpose: 6:30! This would become a common occurrence.
Namche was our destination the next morning, only 1000m ( ft) of up and 350m ( ft) of down to the place. That, by the way was a lot more than it sounded when it was first quoted to me in meters, and they aren't feet at all. We hiked along with a Sherpa brother and sister and a German fashion model, enjoying stops to pump water with my fancy REI device and for tea and lunch midway. Ryan asked for water, they brought it boiling hot. Because the REI fancy water pump is fairly new (most pumps can't filter out viruses in addition to bacteria and cryptosporium, this one has a 0.1 micron matrix though), most trekkers historically ask for boiled water to ensure sterility. Nepalis, who have strong stomachs and don't have to thing about that, assume that Westerners just prefer our water always hot
We got cozy at the Khumbu Lodge as we'd be spending an extra day in Namche Bazaar (3420m, ft) to aid in acclimatization. As you may have personal experience with, oxygen (as we scientists refer to it) plays a fair role in the respiratory process and the darn thing is it goes increasingly missing the higher one goes. People can become accustomed to altitude all the way up to 25,000 feet, but it takes time and time we had.
Though we'd be staying extra time there, Namche was not just for lounging. Our day trek to the Sherpa village Khumjung to visit our new friends that we met while walking to Namche was scrapped due to rain, and we still had to arrange equipment, supplies, and as the monster pack was pretty ferocious, a porter-guide. I'd read and thought a lot about the ethical, monetary, and macho factors of hiring help and was leaning against, but I was persuaded by other equally thoughtful, poor, and manly trekkers that it was an alright thing to do. Paying someone to show you the way, carry a heavy portion of your stuff, and guide you with helpful tips is strange at first, but apparently mostly from a Western perspective. Manual labor is a very dignified job, especially as viewed by Nepalis, and the wages directly support a man and his family. These guys are hardcore, the best can carry 120 kg (over 250 lbs) on their backs and necks! We found Jangbu Sherpa, a 25-year-old with a young family who is half my size, twice as strong, and was a great companion to Ryan and I.
After we'd negotiated a reasonable rate with the promise of a nice baksheesh (Nepali for "tip") later if all went well, JB (as he became known, mountain-bataar doesn't roll off the tongue as nicely) led us out the next morning, Nadia the German model in tow: she'd gone back to ask permission from the school she'd been teaching at to take off for 10 days, they were almost insulted as in of course, this place did function before you arrived y'know
After a while trekking and dodging downhill yaks up the trail, Everest loomed into view, and what a spectacular sight to see it clear as day with a faint snow wisp trailing in the wind off the top. The sight kept us motivated to Tengboche (3870m, ft) which was to camp us next. Aside from staring at the beautiful nature surrounding us (trekking in Nepal is by no means a wilderness experience as it is well-trailed and settled but a beautiful natural experience nonetheless) we whiled the walking time away mostly ganging up for fun at the expense of Nadia, who was just short enough English to properly respond. German people like dragons.
It was a long walk that day as we were transversing down and back up the walls of a river canyon and also the still relatively low elevation allowed us to gain more of it per day without ill effect. Paused for lunch at the bottom of the gorge, we were amused by the convenient perpetually karma-generating water-driven gompas (prayer wheels) and an odd German trekker going the other way who perpetually wanted to discuss diarrhea and also how I should gift him my guitar as "every kilo more you carry up is awful." We stumbled at last upon the clearing that Tengboche is built on and had JB lead us to the lodge of choice: they are all pretty much the same price and quality in a given area but some are better to Sherpa guides than others. I did laundry on a rock, felt extremely self-sufficient and domestic.
Tengboche monastery is the spiritual center of the Khumbu region and we made sure to seek an audience with the lama, who is the monk in charge and a reincarnate of the previous lama. The custom is to bring with you a kata, a ceremonial prayer scarf with some money that you tuck inside. Lama takes the cash, kata gets a blessing, neck gets the kata back, it's a good system
On our way out of the soon-ended audience, we played soccer out up front with a few of the monks and a flattened volleyball and were invited into their quarters to play some rock 'n' roll on their half-full, 12-string guitar. They had recognized me as on the hike up I'd stopped for a moment to sing Resham Firiri, a popular folks song that seriously every Nepali knows, for that group of monks also headed up. We headed back across town (not far, one can run across it in about 35 seconds even at altitude) and had the best yak steak ever for dinner. The funny thing is that, as yaks are a relative of the sacred cow, their slaughter is prohibited yet nearly all the lodges in Khumbu happened to be stocked with yaks, a sure-footed animal in general, who just happened to "fall off the trail." Out to pump some water later, we were amazed by the stars: very bright and clear when visible but obscured in some places by the clouds that always streamed just overhead and in other places simply by the panorama of high mountain peaks all around us
One of the acclimatization strategies for a trek like this are purposeful days to remain at one altitude to further adapt. Better for it not to be a day of rest though, as getting the blood flowing moderately only helps, so we pointed to a high rock bordering town and climbed up 500m ( ft) sans trail until those clouds launched an assault and we figured a descent was in order while the visibility of at least our own feet remained. A mohawk trim by the monks later, I enjoyed a tuna pizza (better than it sounds and 100% Nepali) and had a little walk across town to lie down and write in the rhododendron forest and I didn't even notice how quickly the days were beginning to let themselves by.
Before we could start the next morning it was blister control time. Though my shoes had been near sufficiently worn-in by this point, they were just a touch too bit and despite my valiant and creative efforts involving different combinations of socks, lacing, and gauze, the back of my heels looked like I'd accidentally stumbled backwards on a working deli meat slicer. Each morning thereafter I would try elaborate orchestrations of moleskin, tape, and bandages, but really the only thing to do was to grimace, bear it, and keep those socks washed before they got crusty.
The walk to Pheriche (4240m, ft) was relatively straightforward, a bit longer than the prior day's but with a stop in Pengboche at the bottom of a gorge for a raw potato lunch
The guesthouse in Pheriche was made of plywood and squat toilets, a bit windy at night (as was the whole town, we were smack dab on the floor of the valley wind tunnel), and contained no one besides us and the folks who worked there. Still low season, there was roughly one trekking party to each guesthouse ... our Scottish and Estonian trail friends were just down the road and the other American and Kiwi were slightly further, with the Canadians lagging just behind. The population increased come dinner time and Ryan and I had the pleasure of speaking with the absolute dumbest trekkers of all time; a representative sampling from New Zealand, UK, Canada, and USA, these four guys who met on the plane on the way over resolved to do the whole trek in 3 days and were gaining 900m elevation (3 times the proper amount) daily. Of course there are reasons for proper amounts, and they were on their way down having not made it all the way up because, as expected, they were properly wrecked with massive headaches and altitude sickness. Shaking our heads in disbelief, we had only to start a game of War, which though I hadn't played since 6th grade made a comeback in a big way on this trek.
I arose very very early the next morning (4:45AM) to get over to the neighboring town on the east, Dingboche (4360m, ft), where we estimated through emails back in Namche that Elliot would be passing through on his way down
I set down for breakfast just as the sky was lighting up at a prime piece of turf overlooking the trail leading into town and up the valley so I could spend 40 minutes each time squinting at the approaching person-shaped dot trying to decide if it was Mr. Cohen indeed. I ate, read, and wrote in the sunny shadow of the greatest mountains in the world, which in the clear morning look like a painting that's close enough to touch and was inspired to write such magnificent prose as the first half of this sentence :) Looking at how high the peaks were above me there, it was still bizarre to imagine that I was equal to that difference higher than sea level at the most severe elevation that I'd ever been at in my entire life (until the next day, and so on). I sat at my table perch all day, keeping an eye out, only interrupted by meals and Ryan finding me to jovially inform me that it had taken only 15 easy minutes on an actual trail for him and JB to reach town. It was eventually too cold and windy and I went back in to our guesthouse where I had the odd flashback experience of reading a tattered August 2001 Newsweek when our biggest issue was that China spy plane thing
I rose at 6AM to stretch my arms, rub the sleep boogers out of my eyes, and shake my head vigorously to yelp that my headache was (mostly) gone! I sipped hot cocoa in the sun room of the Sonam Friendship Lodge (I only put the name to help me remember the place, but if you have your own trek you'll likely be unable to find it ... lodges in Nepal change their names nearly yearly to exploit some sort of tax-avoidance loophole) under the "Diane Feinstein for Governor" sign and hummed blissfully along as everyone was woken up to Vivaldi's Four Seasons. I applied sunscreen like paint-by-numbers to tend to the oddly burned areas of skin that walking one direction all day will leave you with and we set out to Duglha (4620m, ft), meaning to stop there only for lunch.
Most people, though Lonely Planet recommends a night here as it is 300m higher than Pheriche and Dingboche, blow right through and bum another 300m on up to the next town as Dughla consists of even less than the usual few shanty shacks and is a rather uninspiring place to rest your head for the night
We took out time getting up as the next town was only 2-3 hours walking away and I thought I was gettin' a touch of the altitude crazy when I looked outside to see a winter wonderland
As it was a shorter hike to Lobuche (4930m, ft), we wanted to do some more physical activity (better to acclimatize) so we set out to make a snowman with the large patches still remaining
Two friends (Ryan Hallahan and Jangbu Sherpa) and I (Misha Leybovich) built what we believe to be the highest-altitude snowman ever constructed on May 19, 2006 in Lobuche, Nepal. We were at 4930m and it had just snowed while we nearly to our destination of Mt. Everest Base Camp. We took photos and video to prove where we were and that, most importantly, it was a kick-ass snowman (he even had a corncob pipe!). We believe it was the highest-altitude snowman ever constructed as the geotopology of the region, local meteorological trends, and cultural and socioeconomic considerations rendered this the optimal and perhaps only possible place to accomplish this feat
I thought I could hold out but with about a week left on the trail and with my aromatic meter approaching record levels of gnarly, I ponied up for a shower. Relative term, as it all is up there, of course, it consisted of a small bucket of hot water slowly dribbled through a faucet at chest-level. I did have to be careful not to run out, but got mostly clean and even had a little left for two pieces of laundry, which rocked my world as even the magic REI boxers and socks only hold so much power. Of course nothing can dry in the cold, humid air so I fell back on my only reliable heat course: me. I was quite the pretty pretty princess going to bed with my wet boxers over my spare, broken khaki sleeping pants with the split side safety-pinned up over long johns over my other boxers and wet, heavy wool socks over bottoms of long johns and pants over still-dirty medium wool socks over mittens-turned-socks. Not all dressed up for nothing, I got to be on display a lot trundling through the hall as well, as Diamox, in addition to aiding in altitude respiration, is a diuretic and while trekking you drink at least 6L of water per day
I do loves me the hot chocolate, but the higher I got the yakkier the drink tastes. Not yucky, but definitely yakky. That, with my ny-now usual garlic tomato egg-drop soup and the best chocolate pancake of my life set me up well for what would be a long day ahead. Ryan says that, with my odd cravings of food combinations at strange times, not only in Nepal but throughout the trip, that I have the metabolism of a pregnant woman but I usually ignore him as I chow on my pickled egg dipped in caramel. I also am noticing again that I am talking a lot about food in this post, as I've done in a few prior. In Japan it was because it was all very interesting. In Mongolia it was because it was all very odd. In Nepal, it is simply because it was all there was to do. As my main activity for the day with the most variety from day-to-day (not that that's saying much), that and my assorted bodily functions occupied most of my thoughts and I wasn't having as many conversations about God and love and the meaning of life as I was with Canadian John about his "big wet dumps" (which, as an eco-friendly Canadian he would aim towards rocks so they would be less cold and biodegrade more disgustingly fast).
We arrived at out final town of Gorak Shep (5160m, ft) at 11:30AM after a 3-hour walk, we played War and ate lunch until 12:30PM, and thought we'd be chillin' the rest of the day. JB comes in, says let's get moving to Everest Base Camp (5360m, ft)! We says JB yo crazy what are you talking about mate it's on the books for tomorrow and we won't even be able to get on the trail till 1PM at least and it's 3 hours each way and it gets dark at 6PM. And we have no flashlight. JB knows best though, and we manned up to get out and press on. Not going to lie, I was pretty beat and was moving more sluggishly than I'd like until the iPod and Tom Petty appeared like angels in the dark of my cochlea with "Life is a Highway"
We woke up bright at early the next morning for our last bit of tough elevation gain: a climb up to the peak of Kala Pataar (5545m, ft), which means "Black Rock" in Hindi and is meant to host the best views of Everest in the world (you can't see it fully from Base Camp, it's just too close)
Eating a dense PowerBar just sitting at sea level is usually good cause to get a bit winded, and it was especially CPR-requiring while running down a mountain at 18,000 feet. JB and I thought we saw a Yeti and, in hot pursuit, my need for a snack almost sent me choking and tumbling down the face of it. Reaching Gorak Shep again safely and Yeti-less (I told JB if we caught one we'd double his tip) we set a plan to book it as fast as possible down the trail: no need for acclimatization, and downhill, while rough on the knees, is still loads faster. We set off into a blizzard, at one point with no visibility to speak of at all I had gotten ahead and not sure if I was lost or not so I sat down and played guitar loudly until JB and Ryan came walking by as well
Though pretty wiped, we did have enough in reserve to have a turn on the highest snooker table on earth (how did they get that thing up there!) and walk about town again. I saw a Sherpa fight, though 20 seconds later they were all in a circle talking and smoking again, including the guy with the budding black eye, and Ryan saw a few of the women so involved quarreling amongst themselves that neither noticed the yak mosey into the house. I had time to muse the clever advertising on a lodge of "candlelight dinner" (read: no electricity) as I struggled to work down a spoonful of custard and piece of Tibetan bread, and a few finger chips for Ryan and we passed out early and hard. We were up again early morn, ready for another long day down. I had mentioned blisters earlier as a symptom of going uphill with hiking boots just a touch too big, but in going downhill the whole new problem of hiker's toe presents itself, where the first few toes running once and again into the front of the shoe cause the toe and nail to start slightly but surely separating. While considering how to deal with this chapter of my foot saga, I caught a look in the mirror for the first time in a while and whoo boy, between my peeling brown nose, black and cracked lips, mangy beard, and mohawk run amok, I was all kinds of ready to be prom queen. But the thing was: I'd rarely felt this absolutely great and happy.
We hiked to Tengboche at a good pace, making sure to steer clockwise around any gompas or chortens should our luck run out, and I got to have a few minutes on the satellite internet and phone to tell my family that I'd made it
Again up early, it was time to man my whole pack for the LONG walk (about 15km horizontal, not including up- and down-hill) to Lukla, and needing to make it soon enough to buy our plane tickets back to Kathmandu for the next day
Our flight was delayed again the next morning, but not unexpectedly so, and I had time to reflect on this whole experience. While none of the hikes- the last day possibly excepted- were the hardest individual things I've ever done (Half Dome at night without a proper flashlight, winter track conditioning days in high school, and quantum mechanics finals come to mind as harder moments), taken all together it was a helluva two weeks of getting my butt kicked constantly. I'm glad we did it. Reflection was a proper activity for the moment as I hadn't even thought about it earlier, but the other reason for a slanted runway was to give the plane enough speed headed down to lift off before falling off the cliff a la Back to the Future III. We really did either push the envelope or the pilot's got a sick sense of humor as I saw the ground disappear and felt the plane drop not-so-slightly before we lifted up and away to Kathmandu, leaving Everest to tango with another time.
Moral of the Story:
"I heard it's possible to do the Anapurna Circuit in 14 days."
"It's possible to do it in 40 days, my friend."