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.