Monday, March 31, 2008

Namche Down Day

Last night, Joe tried to teach me how to play Hearts which rapidly eroded into an exercise in comedy. After explaining the rules twice so I could at the very least seem like I knew what I was doing, the cards were dealt and counted. "Doug, what are you doing?" Errr... Five minutes later we realized that the deck we were using only had 51 cards in it, so it wasn't entirely my fault after all. Still, it was hopeless and Joe had to give up on teaching me how to play. Besides, Hearts is a 3-person game (look at that, I did learn something after all) and Willie quickly found himself trapped by a chatty but friendly Spanish teacher that had accompanied an International School hailing from Kuala Lumpur, on Spring Break and staying in our hotel enroute. Given that the rooms are unheated and arctic once the sun goes down, the center room/ restaurant/ lounge/ bar/ check-in counter is the only place to congregate where a mix of wood burning stove and body heat keeps the temp comfortable. So Joe gave up on the card game and we all hit the hay.

As a down day, the team woke late and have spent our time relaxing. Francisco is haunting the Internet Cafe despite the 10 rupee/ minute rate, Willie is sleeping, and Joe & I just went shopping for more stuff. Joe mentioned in passing that it's so amazing that despite dozens of shopping trips before leaving the States, there's always something you have missed. How convenient that just about anything you do need is available in Namche Bazaar. Except for a space heater.

There's a constant hum of construction going on outside in the Bazaar area- more hotels going up, more stores opening for next season, more house improvements before the monsoons hit. Roosters crow, dogs bark, and kids play. This place is truly larger than I ever expected when imagining what Namche Bazaar was all about. I even had a hot shower this morning. Maybe I should have looked at images a little more recent than Hillary's expedition in '53.

Sunday, March 30, 2008


I went back and forth on what to title this dispatch, and had to settle on Supermen based on what I saw on the trail today. Porters galore making the slow, hot, dusty trek from Phakding to Namche Bazaar with loads that easily clocked in at 80 to 90 lbs each. This, on a guy that probably weighs in at an equivalent amount. Doc P, a Navy Corpsman and one of our Pacific Northwest climbing team members received the nickname "The Ant" thanks to his ability to carry uber heavy loads with ease. These guys, here on the Everest Base Camp Trail, are easily all "Ants". In order to put this into context, I took a picture this morning of my porter complete with his load, here getting a hand up from another porter:

As bad as I felt, I recognized pretty quickly that these superhumans consider this all to be in a day's work and do the trek to and from on a regular basis. To them, sitting behind a desk staring at a computer screen for hours on end day in and day out makes as much sense to them as their job does to me. Given how quickly they scoot up the trail I'm guessing that at the end of the day, they are just as tired as I am after life in a cubicle, five telcons and fighting rush hour traffic. Perspective, sometimes, is needed with things like this. And yes, I'm still going to take more stuff out of my bag to carry myself before we leave Namche in a few days. Here's what these amazingly tough individuals look like from the trail as we moved higher and higher today, the trail winding along bright blue rivers and through deep green pine forests:

Today's trail involved quite a bit of effort. It's well traveled, but still rocky and you have to watch your step regardless. But the scenery along the way? Breathtaking. We left Phakding at ~7,800' this morning, and pulled in at Namche Bazaar at 11,323'- or so my altimeter says. The trail meanders through woody groves, past little villages that have harnessed the power of a local stream to provide electricity to a cluster of houses, and on to suspension bridges which dangle sometimes hundreds of feet above gorges- both inside and outside of the Sagarmatha National Park.

The entire way, smiling Nepali offer "Nemaste"- even the ones carrying heavy loads. Everyone is just so happy, despite such a simple life. In many ways, it makes me equally happy- it's infectious. The kids run alongside for a few seconds until some worried mother yells something in Nepali and they scoot back into their respective yards. Yaks- or as I learned some hybrid (Yaks can't survive this low.. too hot for them) are even polite as they work their way upward. They can sense when you are pulling alongside and will considerately stop themselves until you have passed before working upwards. It's a hot, dusty day today pulling into Namche Bazaar, but well worth it.

The air is considerably thinner, I'm sweating like crazy, but fortunately Joe's wrong- he has been on this trek twice now and offered up that our goal was over 13,000'. I'm incredibly happy when I see he's wrong. Willie works his now famous Jedi Mind Trick with the Nepali guards who ask us for our permit- "Tuesday".. I don't even know what day it is- the 30th.. what is that? Saturday? Friday? Wednesday? I have no idea but Tuesday seems ok to these guys and Willie again smooths everything over for us. We are in. Then in another change from what I guess I had set as an expectation it's absolutely nothing like what I had envisioned. There's a literal community up here- shops, stores, coffee houses, Internet Cafe's, laundromats.. you can even get a massage here. Not that I'm complaining as I sit here typing this from my bed in a hotel room, which is complete with private shower and toilet (many are community here). Just that I wasn't expecting it. We had a great apple strudel & coffee when we first pulled in as snow flurries blew by outside. Oh, and apparently the Dali Lama is popular here despite a consistent Maoist presence. I just don't get that I guess..

So greetings from lovely Namche Bazaar. Tomorrow is a rest day in order to build up acclimatization en route to Base Camp. The team's doing great, in high spirits and every one's extremely motivated.


Wake up call came at 04:20 this morning and we were all downstairs at 5am with bags, checking out of the Yak & Yeti. The whole process from that point forward moved like a well-oiled machine: Transfer to the airport in no time thanks to little traffic on the roads, Willie knowing all the right people to speed our way through the check-in line and ensure that all of our bags made it along with us. "Remember to take all of your batteries out of your carry-on luggage and check them through". Five minutes later while being frisked and doing a bag check, I am asked "do you have any batteries?" Willie has been through this so many times that he was even able to chat it up with the airport security as we prepare to board what appears to be the first flight of the day out of the Kathmandu Domestic Terminal. Tired and all with bloodshot eyes, we were truly excited to finally be on our way.

The little twin engine Otter was jam packed with climbers and trekkers to the point where we all felt like sardines. I laughed when I realized that we actually had a Flight Attendant to service the plane- it's only like a 30 minute flight to Lukla.. seriously? She crawled over us as she moved to the back of the plane on her single pass, offering a wicker plate of hard candy and cotton for our ears if so desired. Then the plane taxiied onto the runway and seconds later lept skyward, pointing toward a faint ridgeline looming over Kathmandu.

After a few minutes, peaks became visible, then entire mountains, and soon the pilots literally started to thread the needle by flying not above ridges and valleys, but in them. I looked out the cockpit window at one point and noticed another plane about 1/2 mile in front of us that we were following. The way the plane banked left, then right, up, down, left and right again it almost appeared like we were dogfighting. Pretty cool for sure.

A few minutes later we were approaching Lukla and got our first view of Everest. This picture isn't very hot thanks to the scratched up plexiglas and spinning propellers that I took the pic through, but you can still make out the distinct profile and it was pretty exciting to see.

Lukla is a remote town and the trailhead to Everest Base Camp. Here, the plane literally lands uphill- there's no margin for error and once the plane is on final we are committed, I learned thanks to Joe.. who happens to be a pilot. I'm glad he saved this little gem of info for after we landed. The Otters basically conduct a hot load- we get kicked off, our bags are thrown onto the tarmac, and before we even get the chance to step aside a waiting stick of passengers is already boarding. The whole five minutes this occurs, props are still spinning and the pilots are dialing in on their flight plan back to Kathmandu. They turn back around, point back downhill and then -poof- they are gone.

Lukla is great- loaded with little guest houses, restaurants and "hotels". We grabbed breakfast while our bags were being assigned to various porters.....

Ok, I need to tell these two stories. At one point I walk outside to my bag to collect my batteries, trekking poles and knife. Some girl in her early 20s is hovering over it, so as I'm walking away I mention that I feel bad that she's carrying the thing around, but at least its just to a waiting Yak or something. "Oh, no- that girl is carrying your bag all the way up to our stopping point today". Whaattt? I felt bad, so I ran back outside to take some more weight out of my trek bag and offer her the straps, telling her that she can use them as shoulder straps of sorts. "Oh, she doesn't need those- she'll use a burlap strap around her head". Yeah. I thought I felt bad before. Hearing that? Now I truly know what feeling bad is all about. Then they started passing us on the trail like we were driving an electric car on the Autobahn. The crazy part is that it wasn't even just my bag. The load consisted of my bag, another bag, some expedition equipment, water.. Here's what the rig looks like, complete with the standard issue high-tech head strap:

The other story comes in a bit more comical. Before leaving Lukla I realize that my Camelbak has sprung a leak. GREAT. What perfect timing. What the heck am I going to do now I wonder? 20 yards down the trail, I pass mini shoppette after mini shoppette. Some have daypacks and miscellaneous climbing gear. After passing the second store, I casually ask one of the owners in what I assumed was a long shot move if they have a Camelbak, pointing at my water hose. The owner points at a brand new Camelbak dangling on a chain at the front of his store "Like this?" You have got to be kidding me. Yep, like that. Total hook-up.

Over the next few hours we slowly and patiently wind our way higher, following a well worn trail past bunk house after restaurant. Willie knows about half the owners on this leg of the trip, so I laugh as we enter one store after another where he knows legions of locals. It's great, too- they are all amazingly friendly and kind, offering us sodas, prayer scarves and a place to sit and catch up. While not in one of these shops, we continue onward and pass over rickety wire bridges and around yaks that are meandering in front of their shepherds. There are tons of trekkers too- from all parts of the world I'm guessing based on the languages I hear and clothes they are wearing. Since the intent of this leg of the trip is to build on acclimatization, we don't push it too hard and are at our destination around noon and in time for a nap, some french fries with ketchup (this is a specific menu item.. If I see it tomorrow I'll take a pic of all the different french fry options in this part of the world).

Oh, and check out a local band of Maoists who swung through, flags a wavin'. But true to form, they all left us alone. Just hung a few flags here and there, then on their way to canvas the neighborhood. Just like Kathmandu, they are literally everywhere.

Tomorrow we depart early and will press on to Namche Bazaar.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Territory Ahead

One unmistakable thing that I have realized through all of this mass of training and preparation is how incredibly lucky I am. All of this, and even my position here as I am poised to head out tomorrow into another great unknown is that every last piece of this expedition is in-fact only possible through the love and support of all of my friends and especially family. Those that love me, those that support me. Those that are there for me- often unquestionably through thick and thin. Deployments, dive trips to the far corners of the world, school challenges, work assignments and even falling out of tree houses when I was a kid. Through all that, it is absolutely clear that above and beyond anything else, I have been given a unique and absolutely special gift that many going on their day-to-day lives can't always say at the end of the day:

I have lived.

But not just in the ability to go and see and do things that others don't have the skills to do, or physical ability to do. That comes with hard work and dedication- the great hero in my life, my father taught me that. Not in the unconditional ability to support someone no matter how crazy, or whacked, or unique the idea happens to be. Make no doubt about it, I know a mother's love leaves her always concerned for her kids. But my mom has somehow managed to put those fears aside time and time again in order to show her support.. AND keep her youth (ok, a couple grey hairs but both my sister and I are equally responsible for that). She, along with my sister and so many of my friends have learned along the way that while I do press the envelope to go out afield and experience all the wonders this world offers, I personally feel that I've only seen a fraction of what I want to see and accomplished an equally small fraction of my goals. So in that respect, it's just as important to be safe and smart, which to me is in a way a Golden Rule of this sort of activity.

Tomorrow morning our team heads out for Lukla and our journey takes on yet another special chapter. And we must face whatever it may hold with determination, joy.. and bravery. In many ways, I can't help but feel that it's not just me that's going out on that trail, taking on this adventure with me- it's all of my friends and family that are there, along side, experiencing and supporting.

Anyway, so here we go. Thanks to this whole Nepal/China flap I don't know when I'll be able to send out another dispatch, but rest assured I'm going to do my best to get them out with regular consistency.

Life is a blessed, fleeting and unique miracle. Rise to it.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Power.. more power

This morning, the below flyer slid under my door:

It basically said that there would be "intermittent power disruptions due to load shedding by the Nepal Electricity Authority" in one of the greatest understatements of this trip so far. I say that only because there's nothing better than being stuck in a pitch black elevator for several minutes and then experiencing five power outages a day. Since everything in this country is still paper-based, I did find it amusing though that we were informed of this load shedding via a paper announcement while I filled out a paper visa extension form while staring at a paper visa receipt that was filled out with paper upon arrival. Man, what a BPR effort could accomplish here. But then again, what should I truly expect in a developing country where UN patrol vehicles freely roam the streets?

Went to dinner tonight at a local restaurant known as Fire & Ice for pizza with Willie, Fredrico and another team leader Willie knows who also has several summits under his belt. It was amazing sitting across the table from these two guys who combined have 9 Everest summits to their credit. Here's hoping that in a few weeks the four of us will again be sitting in the same chairs with 13 summits to lay claim to.

This meal came only after I had conducted a final gear check where I had gear spread out all over my hotel room. The below picture shows with pride what it looked like:

Remember all those gripes about how much crap I was hauling across the world, especially after getting hit with excess baggage fees by one Asian carrier after another? Well, as it turns out I'm apparently packed "light", as I learned today. Francisco brought five bags (FIVE) worth of gear, and Willie even has a storage locker here in Kathmandu. Fine by me though, I'm already used to things being Spartan so no big deal truth be told. I repacked into a trekking bag (light sleeping bag, day pack, toiletries, etc) and all my mountaineering gear went into a duffel that I won't see till arriving at Base Camp.
I did need to pack one piece of squish gear though- something that I can toss around with the Sherpas and keep busy in what may erode down to the highest altitude football game in the world:

Coke is everywhere in this country- it's logo displayed proudly everywhere. A few years back I was driving down this death-defying (and in some cases I actually saw where death won) mountain road that winds down from Kathmandu to the grasslands of the Terai. About four hours outside of Kathmandu and thirty minutes after seeing any sign of civilization, you drive right through the center of this little town called "Coca Cola Village". I'm not kidding- everything is awash in the Coke logo, Coke signs, Coke bottles, and all buildings are painted in that familiar Coke red.

Speaking of red.. Maoists. Everyone has to have heard at this point of what's going on in Nepal with the Maoists and their efforts to take over the country. The first democratic elections are due to take place in just a series of days now- the countdown clock plastered on the front page of the Himalayan Times shows 14 days now and all of the European Commission Observers walking around the Yak & Yeti lobby give away how close it is. So even with all that, the Maoists are supposed to be in control of a good part of the country while the Nepali Government is technically still in control of the capital. Here's one election banner among hundreds that states otherwise, and a quick pic of Nepali campaigning= aka drive around with a loudspeaker while throwing flyers out the window and onto a street that already is in need of a serious sweeping. I think I sneezed 10 times today:

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Swayambhunath Stupa & Durbar Square

I woke today and found this in my bed. What it is I don't know but I was more entertained than freaked out. Could have been worse, I know but mebbe Yak & Yeti need to do a better job in changing sheets:

By the way, please no-one steal my fingerprints & identity now.

Had some time today and decided to hit a few of the more famous city sights with the window of opportunity presenting itself. Here's hoping that we do in-fact fly on the 29th, and that I'm not going back to these stupas and monuments over.. and over.. and over.. just to go do something- anything while waiting for our trip to kick off.

First stop was Swayambhunath Stupa- downtown Kathmandu, located on a hill/ ridgeline overlooking the city far below. According to the origins of Buddha, Nepal was essentially Ground Zero for his travels and teachings. According to legend, Buddha did/ said something enlightening at that very spot or a significant event relating to the Buddhist faith occurred. A stupa was then erected in memory of this event, and Swayambhunath Stupa is no different, one of the most holy and ancient of sites in all of Nepal. Wikipedia does a pretty good job in summarizing Swayambhunath but in a nutshell this stupa looks down over the Kathmandu Valley and is linked to the creation of the valley from a primordial lake and lotus.

Moving on from there, I hit Durbar Square, an area loaded with Hindu temples that date back to the 1400s. This area maintains a flurry of activity and you have to look both ways when walking through the square or you'll get creamed by the cars, motorcycles and bicycles that come flying through the square with reckless abandon.

One temple known as Maju Dega was built in the late 17th Century and is known for its central location and size that dominates the local skyline. You can ascend ~30 stone steps to arrive on a porch of sorts up top. From there, you have a commanding view of the entire Square and find that you don't really get pestered all that much, either. Except by this cool boy trying to sell cotton candy.

On one end of the square is Kumair-ghar- a 3-story building lavishly ordained with fine wood carvings and famous for the housing of the Kumari- or living goddess that was built in 1757. The 4-1-1 on the Kumari is that every few years a girl is chosen to be the human incarnation of the goddess Taleju. Every few years, the Kumari is replaced with another girl- mainly when she grows too old (as in, hits puberty). Former Kumari go on to lead normal lives, get married, finish school, etc. But for those several years when she is a living goddess, things are pretty good for her. Guardian priestesses, building all to yourself, adoring fans, tourists with cameras acting like Paparazzi.. I'm sure the list goes on and on from there.

Today all these sites are lovingly maintained by local Nepalis and even more lovingly maintained by tourist dollars that are broken down into fees based on your home nation being either a member of SAARC (South Asian something something- a.k.a. are you Indian, Sri Lankan, or Nepali?) or from another land? Since I blend in so well here too, my attempts to make them believe that I'm a SAARC'er are brushed off with laughs and a bill 3x higher. Same thing happens to me at movie theaters back home too when I tell 'em I need the Senior Citizen Discount. Hmm.

Team update

Got together with the team last night for dinner and lay out our plan, which involves a degree of uncertainty surrounding the permits and aggressive strategy to get ahead of the mobs.

Uncertainty because rumors continue to persist in the Nepal climbing permit category, although our trip leader Willie Benegas is so well known and has summited so many times that we actually received a phone call yesterday from the person in the Nepali Government who does the issuing. He's supposed to follow up on that today and learn more, although the word on the street is that we will be able to proceed in some fashion.

Aggressive strategy because the Nepali Government is now being innundated with permit requests from teams that initially were going to go via China, received the Heisman thanks to the Torch Relay, and are now scrambling to try and go via Nepal. One team (Altitude Junkies) magically appeared yesterday even though I know their initial plan was to route via Tibet. All of these teams are running a huge crap shoot because of Base Camp & route capacity among the chances that Nepal may just not issue them a permit after all. Our team is well ahead in the queue for permits given our original plan and Willie's contacts. "I know a guy..."

All things moving ahead, we wll still be flying to Lukla on the 29th and place ourselves a few days ahead of the other teams getting up to Everest Base. From what I hear no-one has yet started laying fixed lines through the Khumbu Icefall so we agreed that if it comes down to it, our team will begin to do that in order to get as high as possible before the blackout window of 1-10 May hits. Standard mix of pickets & ice anchors.

Gear check goes today along with any last minute gear purchases in Thamel District of Kathmandu, an area where you can pick up just about anything (like, oh, say, the two bottles of sun block that security in Bangkok snagged from you at the metal detector) and is loaded heavy with mountaineering stores. I walked right by North Face and Mountain Hardware stores too- looked to be brand new too.

Although... from what I learned last night at dinner from Willie and another teammate (Joe) who has been to base camp twice and made it up to Camp I about 3 years ago? The trail to Base Camp in storied and mythical places like Namche Bazaar are loaded with stores where you can pick up oodles of gear. Seriously! So much for that that image I had in my head of a bunch of Sherpas with their yaks in tow meandering through two or three buildings and an occasional temple nestled among remote wind swept plains. Huh. In some ways I was surprised to hear that sort of thing and in others I can't wait for this trip to get going more than I did before.

29 March Target Date

Team is on-deck now, the other 3 arrived about 30 minutes ago. 29 March departure for Lukla has been green lighted by the Nepali Government so thats the day we leave from Kathmandu. Permit pickup goes tomorrow.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Hey Henny

Made it to Kathmandu in one piece after a fairly uneventful 3 hour flight from Bangkok, slowly descending down into the valley under cloudless skies that allowed great views of the Himalaya. I don't know what the forecasts look like over the next several weeks but you could tell even from as far out as we were that the tops of the peaks were being buffeted- snow plumes must have spread for a good mile beyond the particular mountain it was blowing off of. But once we hit the terminal, the reindeer games kicked into high gear. On my first visit to Nepal in 2000, I was on Royal Nepal Airline in a 757 where most of the passengers must have been Nepali. So when we landed, getting through immigration was absolutely no big deal and the arrangement you can lock on once in KTM to pick up a Visa on-site seemed like it was much easier than it had been to deal with all the hassle of going to the embassy in DC. Yeah. Smart move I think as a 777's worth of tourists coming straight from Bangkok pile off of the plane and straight onto the "No Visa" line. As the 10 miscellaneous lines with "Visa" above them whip forward, about half of the planes passengers slowly creep toward what I learned is possibly the world's last holdout paper-based immigration processing systems. After an hour and a half goes by, this is what the two different lines look like even though I'm still nowhere near the front:

Finally, I reach the counter. Even after all that I still have no idea what took this long given that four people are working the processing of passengers. The first guy takes your money and then hand writes a receipt for you- taking the two pieces of carbon copy paper to reinsert them every time he has to write out a new receipt. What happens to the two other copies is beyond me but my guess is that they sit in a box somewhere until someone else throws them out. The second guy just looks at you and does something behind the counter before pointing you to a third guy that finally hands you your passport back. After staring at him for a minute, he gives me a look like "what do you want?" and then gestures unemotionally that I'm done, can go now. Sha? Stupid tourists. Our process is so simple and clear, what's to be confused about? The visa is haphazardly slapped in my passport and is so basic it looks like it was designed by a 14 year old.

Shockingly, the carousel continues to rotate and "poof" there's my mountain of bags which also translates into the "You need help sir" guys looking for a buck. I shoo them away until I find that my cart front wheel doesn't work and then I'm hosed. Two bucks for some guy to push my bags 200 or so feet to a minivan (mini being the operative word) that'll take me to the Hotel Yak & Yeti, where I will be staying.

After talking with some of the advance members of the team, I learned that some permits have been issued.. some have not. So in essence, we are still on hold with no clear picture of what'll be happening. I did notice that the checkout date is the 29th on the hotel sheet though. But I don't know what that truly means. Here's the latest word I was able to glean today from a website that is pretty on top of this whole debacle but I'm guessing that as teams start to roll in one at a time things will begin to resolve themselves in short order:

The rest of my team arrives on the 26th and we'll meet for the first time in the afternoon. From what I saw on the manifest of flight arrivals, there will be four climbers and 14 Base Camp Trekkers on our trip. Among the trekkers are about 10 couples/ husband & wives/ etc. I think it's already clear that I'm a superstitious climber so I hope someone points out that for the good of the rest of us, there needs to be.. not should be, but needs to be No Nookie- especially while these couples are at Base. That's bad, very very bad. I'll be the bearer of that news if need be in between tossing the football I brought to toss around with the Sherpas.

So for the rest of the afternoon I hung out and caught up with a good friend of mine who lives in Kathmandu named Henny. This guys is so great. I met him in 2000 when I first visited and he was my tour guide. We have kept in touch ever since and he's a true success story here in this big city. Originally he started out with a global tour network, but then around 2002 he and his wife Lakshmi decided that they wanted more. She's highly skilled as a reservations agent and what better a pair could that make for a travel/tourism company? They set off on their own and today A Global Flight Tours runs a brisk business with visitors from Australia, Russia and Europe mainly. He does have friends like me who hail from the States also and when dad arrives in Kathmandu toward the end of May we'll be driving him all over this area.

We spent some time drinking local beer (Everest Beer complete w/ a pic of Tenzing Norgay on the front, superimposed behind the beer name on the front label), talking about family and friends, and ironing out dad's schedule for when he arrives. It truly was a great way to return to this city.