Monday, November 7, 2011

Amadablam Bound

Tshering arrived yesterday as the fading light of day came past Pheriche, and we had a chance to discuss the plan from here. Essentially, he and the porters moved from Namche to Pheriche in one day- quite a haul. All our gear was still enroute to Island Peak, so he sent a runner off to chase that down and ensure it was redirected to Amadablam Base Camp, as we are out of time for a two mountain climb. This is fine.. The focus is now entirely on Amadablam and today's trip sets out from Pheriche, straight back down the mountain to connect up with Ama base camp trail. We will see a Lama on the way, getting blessed on our journey before the 2,000' push into Base Camp. Tomorrow will be a rest day- then we begin the climb in a series of altitude runs to finally summit in a few days and then launch back down the hill to Lukla and a flight out.

We had a fun day yesterday. After a late morning, the team sat tight and played rummy for a few hours while the morning katebatics played havoc on weary trekkers and passers-by. Finally around 11, the sky was crystal clear. The air crisp and fresh, albeit thin. We headed up, up, up roughly 600' to a pass that leads to Dingboche, a town on the other side of the pass and gateway to Island Peak. On this spine in 2008, I actually went for a jog, and after an altitude run to 15,000' did exactly that again. There are a series of prayer flags and stupas that connect the ridge, so I ran along the ridge before descending down to the town for lunch. We enjoyed a leisurely meal before heading back to while away the afternoon in the Himalayan Hotel common area in style.

No idea of a signal at Ama base camp but will try. Its mind blowing to me that Im even in range here, a two day trek from Everest when just 3 years ago I had to use a satellite receiver to connect with the world. Bonkers crazy.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Decision Point

Interestingly, we do in-fact have Internet way out here in the middle of the route. Its so amazing how different things are from 2008, we rolled in to Pheriche, a pioneer village of sorts that is perched at 14,000' and arrived at our hotel at a respectable 2pm today. The hotel here is definitely the best of any we have stayed at, and its relatively new.. Don't even think it was here when we cruised through last time. The trek here was uneventful in itself, a gradual 1,800' climb above the treeline and into much more of a rock-strewn dust path. The wind has definitely picked up and with a sun continuously shrouded by high clouds it is definitely biting.

So I have definitely reached a decision point, and had to outline options just to make sense of it myself. Flights today continue to be spotty into/ out of Lukla and I'm still not linked up with Tshering. Latest word is that he will meet me in Pheriche tomorrow, but that is too late for both an Island Peak & Amadablam excursion. In a nutshell, there just plain aren't enough days to cover the distance and altitude. Its one or the other, and I'm going to make that decision once he arrives and can provide me with some route Intel. Ama is the clear favorite, but I want to hold till then and make a call. Till then though, we are holed up here and relaxing.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Last day before out of range

Weather continues to look extremely gross, but at least it's not bitter cold and despite the clouds we are all getting nice facial burns thanks to the intense UV rays found up here at over 13,000'.

Today proved thoroughly enjoyable, we struck out frmo Namche at a respectable 9am, wandering the upper corridors and finally emerging on the trail, slowly plodding along and taking advantage of the mild temperatures to keep moving at a strong and steady pace. The guys were laughing, frequently, at my comments since a cloud bank continues to shroud the valleys. One (of several examples is: "right around this corner is one of my favorite views on this route"... to only see a mass of clouds whipping by, would be met with "yeah, thanks Doug:. :) It's all in good fun, the guys are all meshed and functioning as a well-oiled machine, critical up here. Everyone supports each other and especially cheer on good ol Mel, who actually celebrates his 71st birthday in a few weeks. That guy continues to plod along, impressing everyone with his Little-Engine-That-Could mentality.

Along this particular portion of the route, the path drops ~1,200 feet down to the river and then in an incredible mind game, immediately rises close to 2,000 feet up to Tengbuche Monastery. Along the way we dodge cranky yaks and falling rocks, winding via the climbers path to put on altitude and shave 30 minutes off our time. We topped out and then spent close to an hour exploring the monasteryitself, snacking down on apple pie at the local bakery with Buddhist chants still fresh in our ears. The monastery is a work of art, and has been for hundreds of years. Lovingly maintained by the host of monks that live, study, and worship here, paint is fresh on even the most ornately detailed carvings and figures. Monks chop wood outside, sweep the front steps and practice a dance ritual in the inner courtyard. They are completely at ease with our presence, blurting out a toothy grinned "namaste" when they see us. While the original monastery burned down in a fire roughly 25 years ago, this reproduced version is taking on the sort of rich patina one would expect given it's location in the Himalaya. We take it all in, go grab some pie to reflect and casually talk until it's time to move on.

One thing of note is that a vast improvement over 3 years ago: people here have mastered the art of making light, flaky breads. Gone are the heavy, doughy and tasteless breads that clump in ones stomach after forcing down... something to seriously celebrate.

15 minutes later we arrive at Debuche and gear down. We also receive some good news: Tshering, my climbing Sherpa was able to somehow get into Lukla despite flights being grounded yet again for the 5th day. He will connect up with us tomorrow, somewhere around Pheriche. From there we carve off- weather dependent and begin the technical aspects of this trip. Unsure when the next posting will be, I hear there is no telephone signal at Island Peak as it's in the shadow of the Everest-Lhotse-Nuptse massif.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Namche to Debuche

After an interesting and event filled two days at Namche, its time to continue higher on up into the Khumbu. We relaxed here, enjoyed the high end facilities (Hotel Camp de Base is like a Namche Bazaar Hyatt) and talked about things to come. Yesterday the team did an elevation run to a local museum and the Namche Airport, stopping along the way for copious amounts of lemon tea to sustain ourselves.

As we wandered the Namche city canyons, I was struck by how much had changed in a place where it seems like little changes. Three years ago, we didn't have a consistently hot shower here, or uninterrupted 24 hrs of electricity. There was a standard suite of bakeries, massage parlors, doctors, grocery stores and more equipment shops than you could throw a stick at. But WiFi was an unknown and now it's readily available in almost every coffee shop and restaurant. I even passed an ATM here yesterday.. Crazy how technology has advanced forward in just such a short time as even the ruggedized laptop I brought in 2008 now looks like a dinosaur when even this blog is being typed on my Windows7 phone.

The weather continues to be of great concern. Not for the team physically, but for the Amadablam leg. All of my high altitude climbing gear is currently parked in Kathmandu along with Tshering and the soonest it looks like they will get out is Monday soonest. The low lying clouds have caused the town of Lukla to approach a state of concern as over 1,000 people mass there in an attempt to leave, and can't. Even local news is talking about it as Lukla hotels exceed capacity, food stores grow low and even water supplies dwindle. Its not a good thing down there. Up here we are fine, but I'm approaching the point where Amadablam just isn't feasible in the time window available. But it is what it is, the mountain isn't going anywhere and I'm having a complete blast with my 5 new friends. Last night we spent close to 3 hours playing a German version of Rummy that Mike (a German) stated the rules for and as a new rule popped out of the blue had us all in stitches. Got to the point where Trevor goes "well, you are wearing a black jacket and it is after 7:00, so that new rule now applies". Probably had to be there but it all made for good fun.

So today we continue on to Debuche, a little town about 20 minutes beyond Tengboche Monastery. The most holy of Khumbu Buddhist shrines, this facility is a sight to behold. From here, roughly parked at the height of Rainier's summit we continue about 20 minutes beyond to arrive at Debuche. One of the hardest pushes of the trek will come today and a complete mind game. At the end of a long, 2 mile traverse you have cleared most forms of vegetation, green surrendering to altitude and retreating to pines, spruces and ground vegetation. It will likely snow on us today and even the hybrid Gopkyo (a cross between a Yak and Cow) used to haul loads will replace in presence with the Yak- who can't work in the lower, hotter temperatures.

The trail moves to an overlook, where you look 2,000' down to the Dudh Kosi and green below. And then, roughly 2 miles distant, lies Tengbuche at the same altitude you are at. From here, the trail descends the full length of the drop, only to immediately climb straight back up, and over into the monastery. Coupled with the altitude it makes for quite a day.

Not sure when I'll get the next dispatch out but from Debuche we continue on to Pheriche, where the team will rest for two days before continuing on and around to Everest Base Camp. This is where we part ways, as I move to the north, and Island Peak- a long day hike beyond. That climb will take roughly two days and then I beat feet back to Debuche and Amadablam.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Namche Bazaar

Interesting few days to say the least. To start with from new experiences to recalling old memories.

During a 6 hour wait at KTM, I passed time by meandering among tons of haphazardly strewn cargo, climbing gear and immensely bored passengers. In a way this wasn't all bad, as Tshering introduced me to a restaurant I had no idea existed and even spent time on the airport roof when not chased off by a band of local monkeys that took great pride in badgering people and rummaging through unattended bags. Somewhere during all this I was given a five minute alert to grab gear and head to a mini pickup that would take a team of five Americans & Canadians from Mountain Gurus to an awaiting helicopter. All great guys- fit, strong and eager- it seemed like a solid fit and in short order I had joined the team easily. We drove a short distance to the LZ and then crammed as much gear as possible into an awaiting bird before boarding ourselves, sardine-like, into the passenger compartment. With a whine of turbines and whiff of JP5, we were quickly airborne and heading north-northeast as the city disappeared beneath us.

What appeared to be simple haze in Kathmandu quickly became foggy, pea soup clouds once airborne. Using GPS and following rivers that hug craggy, rugged valleys torn from the earth and forced skyward, our helicopter crabbed its way through passes that seemed barely wide enough for our rotor blades as the pilot waypointed his way to Lukla and an LZ that appeared no more than 30 seconds before landing. It became quickly clear that there was no way a fixed wing could safely travel to, let alone land at the worlds most dangerous airport in these conditions. Over the coming days we realized just how lucky we were to even have had this rare rotor opportunity as now everything has been grounded for five successive days with no plan to get operations moving until Monday soonest.

After being inserted, we immediately stepped off and began our odyssey. Hot, humid and cloudy, the valley loomed above us as wisps of clouds clung to nooks and crannies, waterfalls cascading hundreds of feet and the whole experience a very Lord of the Rings feel. We continued moving about 3 hrs that day before pulling into Ghat, just beating an oncoming squall that we knew meant snow up ahead.

The next morning, we set off over several hours for Namche Bazaar, the capital of the Khumbu Region that sits at 12,000'. The trail to this storied destination continues on through one minor village after another, up and down, one countless step after another. At times the trail passes over wire and aluminum bridges suspended hundreds of feet above the raging and milky white Dudh Kosi river, carrying mineral rich Himalayan meltwater hundreds of miles to the coast. Finally, several hours after leaving Ghat we arrive at the final bouncing and bobbing bridge before beginning the long, 1,500' slog up, up, up on the final push into Namche. Sweat streaming and lungs aching I find it funny to look over to a local Nepali teenage girl who is ambling along at the same pace, in lime green & pink sneakers while chatting away on her cellphone to someone.. Either a boy, or one of her friends about a boy. Completely fine and not at all out of breath it makes me impressed yet again at how people here are completely adapted to this environment.

Finally we arrive into Namche and are awash in the sights, sounds and smells of this little horseshoe shaped, cliffside city that bustles with activity. Within 30 minutes we bump into a Nepali woman who lived in NY before marrying a Sherpa and moved here, from Queens, to Namche Bazaar. Talk about an adjustment. She tells us that she did the hike from Lukla once, and will never do it again.. So it's strictly air for her going to <-> Kathmandu. None of us can blame her.

After meandering the endless corridors of shoppettes and restaurants we arrive at our hotel- the top end Hotel Camp de Base. This place is like a lap of luxury and its a great score to stay here. Hot showers, comfy beds and good grub await as we acclimatize over the coming days. The team relaxes in, has dinner and chats away about things to come. They are all great guys- three from the US: California fire fighter, an inspirational speaker from Commack NY and a Professor from Colorado. Two are in construction and hail from Alberta Canada although one is of German descent. I love these sort of teams as it keeps things real and enjoyable.

Off to bed for an enjoyable and relaxing night sleep of funky, high altitude dreams!

Tuesday, November 1, 2011


Woke up after a restless sleep, walked through my gear and stared at the ceiling for a few hours before the sound of Kathmandu city street noise forced me from bed and down to a vacant breakfast hall where I sat tight until 9am, when I was able to link up with the guys all climb logistics are being coordinated through. This conversation went smoothly enough, and was introduced to Tenjing, my climbing Sherpa. As it turns out he and I were on Everest together in 2008 when he climbed with an adjacent Spanish team and recently returned from Manaslu- another 8,000m peak and the 8th highest in the world. All told, seems like a great guy and I know we'll have fun together.

Did bump into Willie and Damian Benegas in Hotel Yak & Yeti- Damian has just returned from Amadablam and Willie was leading a film team on Everest, so it was a bit of a reunion in the Yak & Yeti lobby coupled with some real good route intelligence in what turned into an hour long catch-up. Damian's recommendation, which I will definitely be following is to acclimatize on Island Peak, then make a fast strike on Amadablam when we can find a window of opportunity.

Rest of the day was hectic in a way- time just whiled away downtown and in the Thamel corridors as lunchtime came and went.. and then dinner did the same. Final packing of equipment into separate gear bags (one for Ama, one for Island Peak, one to accompany the trek in) and then it's off to bed for a last night sleep before things get uncomfortable for a few weeks. Next post from Namche Bazaar, the capital of the Khumbu Region.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Feet Dry- Kathmandu

Arrived Kathmandu yesterday and was immediately struck by how temperate it is here. Was a bit curious about how late October would be striking this country, given that as a sign of things to come both New York and Seattle have been slammed by snowstorms (before Halloween?!) yet days remain mild, sunny and with a strong sun. Initial reports are of a Himalaya chock full of expeditions, implying a solid climb season.

I was immediately bathed in now familiar sights: Tribhuvan International Airports crumbly taxiway, long lines at the visa queue, a dimly lit baggage claim area that instantly reminds me of my first visit in 2001. The note of interest is that with time and successive visits, one learns how to streamline the massive amount of time (and money) this process can take if not aware of the upcoming pitfalls. Plenty of folks here, from the 4 visa processors who, if given the window of opportunity will proceed to take 20 minutes of q&a before admitting you. Or, the fleet of 'porters' who follow you to a car like a gnat cloud and then ask for payment. Once its clear one knows the ropes, this process takes 1/10 the time and 1/10 the money.

Kathmandu remains a time capsule in itself and nothing has changed. Progress is slow, but I'm thrilled that a 6.8 earthquake did little to no damage. Stunning in a way given that everything here seems constructed of mud and brick but apparently the epicenter was somewhere in India. Given that the Himalaya consistently rise as the India subcontinent slams into Asia, it does seem like just a matter of time. However, for now everything continues to tick along Nepali style. No tv, no phone. My laptop power converter died immediately on plugging in, thanks to a generator surge. My phone battery died. No ATMs are working w/in a 10 block radius of the hotel, meaning that I cant pick up a new converter to charge either laptop or phone in the immediate future. But in a land full of ear-to-ear smiles, this just doesn't matter, and if you talk about work stress, it is met by a meaningful and quizzical gaze.

It didn't take me more than 2 minutes at Hotel Courtyard (where I always stay) to connect up with good friends. The people who run this amazing hotel smack in the center of Kathmandu put rooms aside for familiar returnees, and climbers have special flexibility as they completely understand the challenges of targeting occupancy dates based on weather and climb variance. I can go on and on about this special oasis right in the center of Thamel District, its a wonderful place. As we reconnect, the phone starts ringing and both climbing friends and locals start checking in. I immediately reconnect with one of my closest friends here who has summited Everest twice (we actually met on the mountain in 2008) and is one of the most genuine people I know.

The afternoon turns into a series of tag-team presentations on Everest and an Australian beef BBQ on the hotels patio before this caffeine addled camper finally surrendered and passed out for the night.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

One Night in Bangkok

Couldn't help the cliche'.. just too great.

Landed close to midnight into Bangkok's new and ultramodern Suvarnabhumi International Airport and made my way downtown, struggling with a taxi driver doing his best to separate me from my money. Fortunately, good friends at United were kind enough to check my bags from Narita straight through to Kathmandu on today's Thai flight.. meaning I was spared the challenge of hauling 150 lbs of climbing gear through subtropical swamp weather. Does mean I'm wearing the same clothes that I left Seattle in 3 days ago, but it is what it is & doubt anyone notices.

It has been interesting to note all the sensationalizing going on in the media when it comes to what is going on downtown. Stories abound on flooding, and while the elevated highways here are definitely jam packed with parked cars for storage above the water, the main portion of the city remains bone dry. This did make the hotel decision a complete crap shoot though.. get one and risk getting marooned? Hop from lounge to lounge and grab some tile during the wee hours? Fortunately the gamble paid off and instead of feeling like something the cat dragged in, I feel relatively well rested.

The lack of flooding is definitely a good thing, especially for this low-lying city that sees water as it's life-blood. Given the warnings of record flood waters raging down the Chaopraya River mashing with seasonal high tides, the Shinawatra government here- considered inexperienced and quite cavalier when it came to flood preparedness- seems to have dodged a bullet. The sky is crisp and clear and no rain in the foreseeable forecast so perhaps things here will return to normal in a few days. Without a doubt this will be a thing of the past by the time I'm routing back through in ~2 weeks.

Airport is still a zoo, but that's to be considered since a bajillion locals are camping out here rather than grab a hotel. On to Kathmandu, flight departs in an hour.

Narita layover

Thanks to Thailand's flooding, I found myself both without a hotel in Bangkok to park at and with a major question as to whether I'd make my connecting flight from BKK to Kathmandu on the 31st. As a result when the opportunity to hold for a day in Japan came up I jumped at the opportunity. Much rather be delayed in Japan than on a marble floor surrounded by 150 pounds of climbing gear in the Suvarnabhumi lobby with one eye open and fingers crossed that flood waters wouldn't encroach on both of Bankok's airports.

It has been here that I did notice a few parallels between 2008 and this trip. For starters, a layover in another city enroute to Nepal. Great for getting the mind off of things, ease into the shock of jetlag and enjoy the trip along the way. Sure, I want to get there and get going on the climb. But on these sort of expeditions I'm also all about smelling the roses as well. Delicious Yakiniku for dinner, sushi at Narita's Gate 34 and a relaxing day all coupled into a wonderful transition from the last month's batty and chaotic day-to-day activities where I even found the fact that my cell didn't connect to be thoroughly enjoyable.

Interestingly, the time spent in Narita is well worth it, especially considering the new aviation events occurring as of late. In 2008, Dad and I were fortunate enough to see the world's first Airbus A380 when we landed at Singapore's Changi International Airport. Sure, A380s are becoming more commonplace globally. But as of last week, the world's first Boeing 787 Dreamliner was put into service with Japan's All Nippon Airways. Today, this 787 paraded proudly down the taxiways for all to see, and immediately following that was a Singapore Airlines A380. Novel and hokey, but all told I'll consider that a good omen. :)

Off to Bangkok, where it seems that the flood waters have spared the city from what could have been an extremely bad scene.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Next Himalayan Chapter

Surprising how fast three years can zip by when you aren't paying attention. When I left the Himalayas in May of 2008, I was convinced that this unique part of the world- a mecca for climbers looking to sharpen their teeth on mountains unlike anywhere else on earth- would be a recurring zone for me. In some ways, it has been- and continues to be. Friendships that I had made years ago continue to flourish and grow. Thanks to social networking tools such as Facebook and email, communications are much easier to maintain. Other climbing friends have returned, time and time again to tackle the far-off peaks whose names now dribble off the tongue with ease. It really has been an interesting few years in this light to say the least, only the path that I have followed to get here is not nearly the one that I had expected it to be. Not really a surprise, that's the way I have found it to always be and life's plan rarely ever gives one hints on what lays in store.

Over the past three years I have been back to Nepal several times now. Perhaps this is because to me, Nepal has always been and continues to be one of the singlemost places where I feel like my spirit is truly free. The cares of the world drift away. Time stops. Earthy and sky colors take on hues unlike anywhere else on the planet. The streets of Kathmandu echo with laughter intertwined with Buddhist chants and the clatter of cyclos. I relish every minute here and thoroughly enjoy how enriched I feel zen-wise after just a few days.

I look back on these trips fondly, and appreciate that almost all memories include someone who I was able to share them with- no matter how unique. This includes a return into the depths of Bardia National Forest to look for the elusive Bengal Tiger, only this time on foot and not from the protective height of an elephant's back. In 2008, Dad and I spent 24 hours on the back of elephants hunting through 10' high grass to see a tiger for 2 seconds. What can only be described as a mishmash of adrenaline, boredom, intrigue and physical discomfort to see one of nature's most rare and beautiful of creatures in it's natural habitat truly does disservice to the experience, as it is one of Dad's and my highlight adventures together and I wouldn't trade it for the world. But what amazes me is that I managed to make it back there. The country of Nepal is as remote as it gets, and Bardia is a day's travel from Kathmandu. So to have the immense fortune to return, and to have friends that actually work and live there, dedicating their careers to protecting Nepal's wildlife is incredibly special. To drop off an elephant, enter the food chain and wander the forest in search of creatures who had killed and eaten our guides father in the mid-80's is a bit insane. But, exciting nonetheless.

So this may explain why this time around, for this particular climb on Amadablam (22,300') isn't as full of chaos and wonderment as the 2008 Everest climb was. I know people there, from the Sherpas who I'll be climbing alongside, the team administrators who are pulling together permits and back-end logistics, the dear and close friends who I consider brothers & am now tied in with their businesses- tourism, hotels, wildlife. Nepal, to me is a nation fill of warm-spirited, smiling people whose hearts are bursting from their chests. I am fully confident that in reaching Kathmandu, the portions of the trip not fully in-place will take form quickly as typically is the case there. All my gear is packed and in the belly of a 777 bound for Thailand and I'm excited to just get boots to trail and set off for base camp.

I left Seattle yesterday after one of the most chaotic and time intensive months I have spent in a job. Microsoft is now completing it's annual Giving Campaign (a monthlong period where people give back to their community through donations, volunteer hours and events designed to bring attention to charities and causes) and having been heavily caught up in that, my ability to do things like pack for Amadablam distilled down into a 3 hour whirlwind of activity the night before I flew, and the day of travel.

Before I knew it, the time had come to leave for Sea-Tac and the last of the packing was complete. Then I winged it off to Japan, and the first leg of this new adventure was underway.