All posts by Luke M.

I was born and raised in the prairies of Sioux Falls, SD. I succumbed to the creative lure of Austin, TX when I was 18, attending countless live music performances, as well as the University of Texas. I did not know it at the time, but that southern launchpad of many indie filmmakers had an impact on more than my musical side. While I spent much of my time over the following 14 years chasing day jobs in fields ranging from nuclear engineering to tuning up people’s pacemakers, I passionately poured my free hours into making music, photography, and now film. I recently shifted my time toward photography and filmmaking full-time, and wonder why it took so long. Nature plays the central role in my creative inspiration. As a student of science and avid outdoor enthusiast, I am constantly striving to show how we interact with our environment on an intimate and personal level. When I am not hiking up a trail or skiing down a mountain, you can probably catch me in Seattle, my current home base, planning my next photography adventure at one of my favorite pubs.

Luke ~ The return to Khote

On the 12th day of the trek, Christen and I were to stay back at base camp in Khare while the rest of the group hiked to high camp, en route to the summit. They planned to get to high camp in the afternoon, rest for several hours, and then climb through the night to reach the summit early the next morning. After that grueling task, they would hike most of that day back down to Khare.

As I walked around outside the lodge, the air was thick with excitement. Matt and Andrew both had to exchange pieces of equipment that failed during the climb to Mera La the day before. I had felt for Andrew as we were hiking together the previous afternoon, when I saw his left crampon explode in a spray of metal rivets and bands as he was trying to knock some snow off. He felt better about the replacement pair he scrounged up, since his original pair looked like they summited Everest with Sir Edmund Hillary. Glen and Karma were up to their typical mountaineering warm-up antics, which were part dance, part chant, and part making goofy faces and chasing each other around like kids. Kami had finally decided to take his flip-flops off and was, to my surprise, wearing boots. (I later learned he was back to flip flops while lounging at high camp, though).

Once again, I was feeling really good about the decision not to attempt the summit. Just watching the frenzy of everyone doing their last minute gear checks was more than my brain could take while fighting the thick fog of altitude sickness. I had not sleept well. I kept startling awake throughout the night out of breath. It felt like someone was sitting on my chest when I would try to sleep.

As the group said their farewells on their way up Mera peak, Christen and I settled in for a day of waiting and rest. We decided to hang out at Khare for one more day and then head back down to Khote, over 4000 ft below, where I would hopefully recover and we would wait for the rest of the gang to meet us after they summited. As we sat and had tea in the chilly dining room, we chatted with Pasang about his previous two days. While the rest of us had been acclimatizing and resting, he had taken on two sets of clients and summited Mera Peak two days in a row! I couldn’t even retort that I was by far the oldest member of the trek. I had just learned that Pasang is only a few months younger than me.

In the early afternoon, the weather started changing rapidly before a snow storm moved into Khare.
In the early afternoon, the weather started changing rapidly before a snow storm moved into Khare.

The next morning, Pasang, Sonam, Christen, and I ventured back down the trail making our gradual descent to Khote. It felt a little strange leaving the rest of the group behind us, since we were always bringing up the rear. We were also a little worried, since it had started snowing in the afternoon the day before in Khare. We did not know if the team would be caught in a snow storm while at high camp or if they were above it. Christen and I were both a little low-energy as we made our way. The weather started out sunny, but deteriorated quickly throughout the day.

Christen and Pasang gradually make their way down towards Khote in the fine weather of the morning.
Christen and Pasang gradually make their way down towards Khote in the fine weather of the morning. The rest of the group was just reaching the summit.

After a quick lunch in Tagnak, Christen tried to get into a dice game with some locals. Sonam would not let her, to her chagrin. Gambling is illegal in Nepal, he explained. I do have to give him credit. For a 21-year-old man, he held his own in corralling Christen away from something that looks fun. The weather was also starting to turn very quickly. It was getting windy, and we were starting to see some rain drops. That probably motivated her more than anything.

As we continued along the river and starting nearing Khote, we met a tour group from England. They were a friendly, talkative bunch, and they were asking about the camera equipment. I explained the documentary and some of the goals that Karma has for his business, employees, and Sibuje. One of the English trekkers said he was extremely happy to hear that Karma ensures that his porters carry loads below the legal limit, as he was personally disgusted to see how much weight some porters are asked to carry by their companies.

I felt extremely relieved when they were excited about the documentary we were capturing. I had been worried about whether we had enough to make a movie people would even want to watch. Making the film while also trying to manage the demands of the trek was turning out to be harder than I had imagined. I was relieved beyond words that other westerners could “get” what I was trying to say.

Weather changes extremely quickly in the Himalaya. Within a matter of minutes, a thunder storm swept up the valley and started to drench Khote. We arrived in town just in time.
Weather changes extremely quickly in the Himalaya. Within a matter of minutes, a thunder storm swept up the valley and started to drench Khote. We arrived in town just in time.

When Christen and I stumbled into Khote, I had one mission. I went straight for a shower. I do not think I have ever had a more satisfying shower in my life. Even though it was from an old paint bucket with a tiny spigot on the side sitting on a shelf in what looked like a tool shed, the water was hot, and it felt like it was cleansing my soul. Of course, when you only have 3 showers over the course of 18 days, they feel like ultimate luxury.

I mentioned in a previous post that “rest” days on a Himalayan trek are rarely just that. Usually, they are used to hike around and acclimatize to the altitude. Since we were on our way down and waiting for the rest of our group, Christen and I lazed around and had a magnificent day of laying on the beautiful grass, reading, hanging out by the Tolkien-esque water fall, and catching up on days of nasty laundry. On top of that, if you are going to have a rest day anywhere, Khote is hard to beat. The sound of rushing water is everywhere, the air is clear, the grass is soft and green, and there are not rivulets of questionable brownness running down the hillside everywhere like in Khare.

Khote is an amazingly peaceful place to enjoy a rest day.
Khote is an amazingly peaceful place to enjoy a rest day.
The mountainsides around Khote are covered by beautiful trees that reverberate a mystical quality in the afternoon fog.
The mountainsides around Khote are covered by beautiful trees that reverberate a mystical quality in the afternoon fog.

In the afternoon of our rest day, the rest of the team made their way into Khote. Amazingly, everyone looked even skinnier than when we saw them two days ago. The summit seemed to melt the calories right off them. Karma, Matt, Andrew, and Becky all made it to the summit. In keeping with the general theme of the trek, the team hit the perfect weather window. They had mostly clear weather (they were above the storm that pelted us in Khare), in contrast to the groups going up before and after them.

Unfortunately, Becky was starting to take her turn with the dreaded trail sickness. Because we had been getting such good weather, we did not have to use any of our optional lay-over days yet. Given this, we all elected to stay one more day in Khote to help Becky recover and to give the rest of us time to catch up on much deserved reading and laundry. Ironically, when you are on a trek away from all of life’s daily chores, they can still pile up on you!

Dawa and Sonam relax in Khote.
Dawa and Sonam relax in Khote.
Matt and Andrew tell stories of the summit.
Matt and Andrew tell stories of the summit.

 

Luke ~ To the Summit: Tagnak to Khare to Mera Peak

With a little bit of altitude sickness thrown in for the complete trekking experience…

The 9th morning of the trek welcomed most of us in a fantastic way, with amazing skies and mountain vistas in every direction that left me dumbstruck. Unfortunately, Christen was laid up with some serious muscle spasms in her back that would leave her out of commission for the day. When your body speaks up on the trail, you have to listen to what it wants.

During breakfast, Karma explained what we would be doing for our “rest” day. In truth, there was little rest to be had. In order to help acclimatize to the growing altitude, we were to hike to the top of a nearby 5000 meter (16,500 ft) ridge, a gain of 2300 ft, and then come back down to Tagnak to spend the night again. Despite the effort and thinning air, it was like ascending into a hiker’s paradise. All around were 7000 meter peaks climbing straight up out of deep river valleys, scraped out by water over the years as both ice and liquid. Every direction I turned, my senses were assaulted by mind-boggling scenes of rock, ice, and sky.

Rose and Ang Rita work their way up the trail. 7000 meter peaks tower over a valley with a deep glacial lake and moraine. Tagnak, our home for the night, is in the valley below the lake. Khare, our next destination, is further up the valley in the top right of the photo.
Rose and Ang Rita work their way up the trail. 7000 meter peaks tower over a valley with a deep glacial lake and moraine. Tagnak, our home for the night, is in the valley below the lake. Khare, our next destination, is further up the valley in the top right of the photo.

As we continued up the winding and exposed trail, a low rumble thundered down the mountainside far up to our right. “Avalanche!”, yelled Karma with excitement. My eyes raced up to the right and spied the remains of a huge chunk of ice that broke off the hanging glacier and came crashing down to the rocks below. A gigantic cloud of frozen air and water billowed out for what seemed like minutes.

Almost like clockwork, this hanging glacier had an avalanche both mornings we were in Tagnak. Thankfully, it was off in the distance.
Almost like clockwork, this hanging glacier had an avalanche both mornings we were in Tagnak. Thankfully, it was off in the distance.

As we continued up the ridge, the trail continually switched back and forth on itself. The terrain was completely open, broken only by the occasional boulder. We all grouped up on an open section of the hillside to rest and shed a layer in the growing morning warmth.

Becky, Andrew, Sonom, and Matt enjoy the view from our rest point.
Becky, Andrew, Sonom, and Matt enjoy the view from our rest point.

From our vantage, we had a good view of the rest of the climb. The hillside ascended steeply, covered with grass, until it narrowed to a snow-covered spine terminating in a higher ridge above us. The higher ridge was too steep to climb, so the juncture would be our stopping point. When we got to the top, we all broke into an impromptu photo shoot. Glen actually needed to get some product shots for a sponsor who sent some snacks with him. Everyone else must have just been practicing for the summit of Mera peak later in the trek.

Chomba and Ang Rita strike their best pose standing high above Tagnak.
Chomba and Ang Rita strike their best pose standing high above Tagnak.

As we made our way back down to Tagnak, I noted that I felt a little dizzy at this altitude. I did not have any head aches, nausea, or any other symptoms, so I did not think to hard about it. I mentioned it to Glen anyway, and he said to keep him in the loop if anything changed.

The next day, Christen was feeling much better. We were all relieved that she would be able to continue on without too much discomfort. She was dealing with the demands of the trek with plenty of strength, grace, and just the right amount of stubbornness. Even though her clothes had not fully dried out from being washed, she still had a smile on her face as we wound our way up along the river towards Khare, the base camp for Mera peak.

About 45 minutes up the trail, we started to notice little rock cairns everywhere, or small piles of rocks people leave to mark a trail. As we walked between the little monuments, steadily moving into thicker and thicker concentrations of them, we came up a small hill overlooking an emerald-green glacial lake. We paused to take in the other-worldly scene. High up the mountainside hung a huge sheet of ice, where a gigantic chunk broke off about 15 years ago, causing the tidal wave that eventually killed many people in the lowlands. It was easy to see immediately why the local Sherpas paid so much respect to this place.

Rock cairns mark this place as one of importance. This glacial lake overflowed 15 years ago when a huge chunk of ice fell into its waters, killing many people in the lowlands far below.
Rock cairns mark this place as one of importance. This glacial lake overflowed 15 years ago when a huge chunk of ice fell into its waters, killing many people in the lowlands far below.

As we neared Khare, the river valley opened up more broadly, and we could see the last big hill we would need to climb before reaching base camp. We were almost to what would be our destination for a few nights, and Christen’s goal for the trek. Christen and I walked around the corner of our lodge to where the rest of the group was just ordering lunch and assembling a bunch of climbing gear. As Matt attempted to haggle for some crampons without broken rivets piecing them together, Rose and Becky tried to find some boots that were not 4 sizes too big. In the end, we were all happily fed all sorts of different soups, mo-mo’s, mounds of noodles, and many varieties of teas. We all even had (mostly) the right gear.

The 11th morning started fresh and white. This was quite the relief. Don’t get me wrong, Khare is in a mind blowingly beautiful place. Unfortunately, there is little to no vegetation, it is on a sometimes frozen, sometimes melting mountainside, and it is inhabited by almost 150 people at any given time during the trekking season. There was only one, (1), “uno”, toilet that people were willing to enter without a full body hazmat suit, and that one was also questionable. To say that the couple of inches of new, fresh, clean, white snow over night was welcome by all was to say that I was overjoyed when Ang Rita’s phone stopped spewing out Justin Bieber. I was.

Andrew and Matt work their way up the snowy trail from Khare towards Mera La, our next acclimatization point at 17,500 ft.
Andrew and Matt work their way up the snowy trail from Khare towards Mera La, our next acclimatization point at 17,500 ft.

During the first full day at Khare, we were to hike up to Mera La, a pass at 17,500 feet in order to acclimatize for the summit climb the next day. Along the way, I struggled to keep my footing. The trail was covered in only a thin layer of snow, too shallow for crampons. The hard plastic mountaineering boots I had rented were not the best fit. In addition, I was starting to feel the effects of mild altitude sickness. I explained to Glen that I was feeling light headed, dizzy, and had mild nausea. We stopped frequently, and drank water in small amounts. We also ate small amounts of food regularly, all to counter the effects of altitude.

Dawa enjoys a break along the trail to Mera La.
Dawa enjoys a break along the trail to Mera La.
Sila, Surya, and Sagar carry supplies up to high camp, in advance of the trekking party.
Sila, Surya, and Sagar carry supplies up to high camp, in advance of the trekking party.
Becky leads the way from Khare up to Mera La.
Becky leads the way from Khare up to Mera La.

As we continued our ascent, the scenery kept getting better and better. That is, until the clouds came in. It had become a pattern that the mornings would be bright, clear, and blue, while the afternoons would be socked in by fast moving banks of clouds.

Sila and Surya enjoy the views of Mera Peak just as the clouds begin to move in.
Sila and Surya enjoy the views of Mera Peak just as the clouds begin to move in.

When we got to Mera La, Glen, Becky, and Rose all decided it was time to geek out and calibrate their altimeter watches. 17,500 feet was certainly the highest I ever had been in my life. I was starting to feel a bit better. I think the food and water helped quite a bit. Even better, we all decided to break out some more snacks now that we were at the turing around point for the day’s hiking. Karma and I looked around for some good photo ops, but the clouds came in so quickly that we did not get much time.

Andrew, Becky, Matt, Ang Rita, and Karma rest at Mera La.
Andrew, Becky, Matt, Ang Rita, and Karma rest at Mera La.
Karma explores Mera La, looking for good photography opportunities.
Karma explores Mera La, looking for good photography opportunities.

After returning to Khare, most of the group decided to get some rest for the afternoon. I opted to hang outside the lodge and take some time lapse photos. While chatting with Matt and Andrew outside, I again noticed that I was not feeling completely all there in the head. My legs felt great, I had plenty of energy, but my thoughts were very slow and I felt mildly dizzy all the time. As I was walking across the dining area outside the lodge, I tripped and banged my knee badly on some rocks.

Dawa inspects the remains of a snow demon we came upon when returning from Mera La. Christen surely had a hand in its construction.
Dawa inspects the remains of a snow demon we came upon when returning from Mera La. Christen surely had a hand in its construction.

I decided I should have a conversation with Christen, since she has known me for so long and she could give me a fair assessment on how “out of it” I was. I explained to her what was going on and that I was thinking of not climbing to the summit. She confided she was planning on suggesting that herself if I had not done come to my senses myself. She explained that I had been acting strangely since the acclimatization hike to Mera La at 17,500 ft. Gambling with altitude sickness was just not worth it. It is always great to have good friends whom you know have your back. The summit was not my mission, anyway. As it turned out, Karma, Matt, Andrew, and Becky all made it up to the summit for the rest of us two days later.

Becky on the summit of Mera Peak. Photo courtesy of Matt Dreger
Becky on the summit of Mera Peak.  Photo courtesy of Matt Dreger
Karma on the summit of Mera Peak. Photo courtesy of Matt Dreger.
Karma on the summit of Mera Peak. Photo courtesy of Matt Dreger.

 

 

Luke ~ The Heart of the Himalaya

Here is a little time lapse video taken in Khare, the base camp area for Mera Peak. The audio track is from a Sherpa song and dance performance by some of the villagers we met in Sibuje, Nepal.

Enjoy!

Luke ~ Into the alpine

Day 6 of the trek started with bright blue skies and high spirits. Although we had been following what seemed like a roller-coaster track built into the sides of Himalayan ridges, the word was that we would start to gain some more elevation overall in the next few days. Mind you, we would still have to do some serious ups and downs as part of the elevation gain.

Karma looks back toward Sibuje as we continue our steady, roller coaster-like climb.
Karma looks back toward Sibuje as we continue our steady, roller coaster-like climb.

During a pretty serious uphill section early in the morning, we met a farmer from Sibuje who just happened to be ‘pasturing’ his cows along side the steep trail in a rhododendron forest, 4 hours trek from his home. At the top of the pass, there was much celebration. Christen turned to me, stunned, saying something like, “I know that can not possibly be Nicki Minaj!” Ang Rita Sherpa had just turned the music on his little Nokia cell-phone, and he was proving just how disturbingly deeply western pop culture has spread into what we foolishly thought was one of the world’s last strong holds against the likes of Justin Bieber. And yes. Justin Bieber was next up on the cell-phone play list. The next thing I knew, Glen had Kami on his shoulders and was chasing everyone around. Nothing is as fearsome as that dynamic duo.

Glen and Kami do the only respectable thing you can do while listening to Justin Bieber at high elevation.
Glen and Kami do the only respectable thing you can do while listening to Justin Bieber at high elevation.
Ang Rita shows off the sleeping area we had at the spot lovingly named by us as "the Tick Farm", where Glen found a large tick trying to burrow into his back.
Ang Rita shows off the sleeping area we had at the spot lovingly named by us as “the Tick Farm”, where Glen found a large tick trying to burrow into his back.

As we ended day 7, we walked along a gigantic river gorge, picking our way through boulders the size of houses and buses. Karma explained to us that the gorge we were walking up ended in a glacial moraine and a glacial lake that we would see on Day 8 in Tagnak. 15 years ago, a huge ice chunk broke off the overhanging glacier above the lake. This building sized block of ice caused a huge wave to come overflowing out of the lake, down the river gorge, and far into the Terai, the lowlands of Nepal, where hundreds of unsuspecting residents were killed.

As we continued up, we glimpsed our first view of Mera Peak. It is the triple-humped snow-capped mountain on the top right of the photo.
As we continued up, we glimpsed our first view of Mera Peak. It is the triple-humped snow-capped mountain on the top right of the photo.
Christen picks her way through the boulders as she follows the trail along the river gorge.
Christen picks her way through the boulders as she follows the trail along the river gorge.

The next day, we were completely in the Alpine. Trees gave way to boulders everywhere, and the sun was impossible to escape. I thanked Glen silently multiple times for picking up the industrial grade sunblock with titanium in it. The day had us following the same river up the valley. We came upon a Buddhist monastery on the way, and Pasang and Karma offered prayers up for safe travel.

Pasang prays for a safe journey.
Pasang prays for a safe journey.

The scale of the landscape in this region is almost beyond comprehension. Distance was difficult to judge. It felt cozy and intimate while still making me feel tiny and insignificant. When we got into Tagnak, at about 14,200 ft above sea level, it felt like we were in the heart of the Himalaya. It was fitting that Glen gave us the high altitude safety briefing that night. He explained that if symptoms become serious enough, the best treatment is to descend at least 1000 ft below where you slept the previous night – not a particularly easy feat while suffering from altitude sickness, I thought.

The group begins the 8th day by following the river valley into the alpine area.
The group begins the 8th day by following the river valley into the alpine area.
Chongba,  , Karma, Ang Rita, Dawa, Pasang, and Christen take a quick break.
Chongba, Kami , Karma, Ang Rita, Dawa, Pasang, and Christen take a quick break.

Tagnak is a stunningly beautiful place. We were surrounded by 6000-7000 meter (19,800 – 23,100 ft) peaks. The weather was also very dynamic here. One minute, the sky would be clear. Only a moment later, clouds would move in up the valley with eerie speed. We were all taking in the beautiful scene while trying to do our laundry outside in the afternoon. The next day would be a “rest” day, so we were all glad to be here. In truth, we were to use the next day to acclimatize to the altitude by hiking up to a ridge at over 16,000 ft. So much for “rest”…

Tagnak is a stunningly beautiful place surrounded by peaks up to 23,000 ft.
Tagnak is a stunningly beautiful place surrounded by peaks up to 23,000 ft.
Christen does her laundry outside, Himalayan style.
Christen does her laundry outside, Himalayan style.

 

Luke ~ Back on the trail

After spending almost 48 hours in Sibuje, I was well rested and excited to start up the valley towards the high alpine environment. At the same time, it was difficult to leave the people from Karma’s home village behind. Despite the difficult lives they lead, they shone with happiness and warmth to all of us. In just a short time, I felt like I was welcomed in as family.

Andrew receives a customary kata scarf as a token of good luck on the journey.
Andrew receives a customary kata scarf as a token of good luck on the journey.
Christen saying goodbye to some of her new friends from Sibuje.
Christen saying goodbye to some of her new friends from Sibuje.

As we began our hike, which would be a relatively short 3 hours, we started traversing the gigantic ridge lines leading up the valley toward Mera Peak. About 30 minutes up the trail, we came to the village’s water wheel, which is used for grinding buckwheat into flour. When water is low and it can not operate, the villagers must grind it by hand. Karma showed us how to do it when we were eating lunch at Pasang’s house before our departure. It looks like back-breaking work!

Immediately after the water wheel, we had to climb a very steep trail that went up a slope that had been a recent landslide, and then go back down another steep trail right after. We were to experience this joy over and over again throughout the day, and most of the next. These trails were some of the steepest of the trip, and certainly some of the steepest I have ever hiked.

The group sets out from Sibuje. The next day and a half would see us climbing up and down steep trails as we traversed the ridges shown in this photo. These were some of the steepest hiking trails I have been on.
The group sets out from Sibuje. The next day and a half would see us climbing up and down steep trails as we traversed the ridges shown in this photo. These were some of the steepest hiking trails I have been on.

As we continued through the day, we walked through some amazing forests. We started seeing rhododendron trees blooming everywhere. Everyone was in high spirits, but the weather reflected a gloom that everyone seemed to be feeling about the tragedy on Everest. Karma was warm and immensely friendly, as always. Yet, it seemed he carried a sadness because of the avalanche on the world’s highest peak. Details were still coming in piece by piece, and there was some conflicting information. I think he also was missing Sibuje already. He does not get to come back as often as he likes, having to reside in Kathmandu to run his fledgling business. At every vantage point, he would stop and turn to gaze on his home village.

The end of the day brought us to a lone lodge situated in a steep valley. The group was really starting to bond, and people were acting silly as we started to experience the first light rain of the trek.

Our lodge for the night was 3 hours from Sibuje. It is run by a family from the village.
Our lodge for the night was 3 hours from Sibuje. It is run by a family from the village.

Kami and Christen started the fun off with some carefree mock kickboxing. Glen emerged from his room carrying quite the stylish umbrella. As if to show that style does not belay agility and functionality, he then quickly did a head flip over a bench. Remember kids, he is a professional guide. Do not attempt any dance moves or stunts demonstrated by Glen.

Kami shows Christen his kickboxing skills.
Kami shows Christen his kickboxing skills.
Glen shows off his impeccable style with his fancy umbrella. Guides do not like to get wet.
Glen shows off his impeccable style with his fancy umbrella. Guides do not like to get wet.
No, Kami. Do not attempt Glen's head flip. If our cook were to break his neck, it would be very bad...
No, Kami. Do not attempt Glen’s head flip. If our cook were to break his neck, it would be very bad…

Luke ~ Life in Sibuje (Part 2)

The morning on our full day in Sibuje was a delight. We learned much from some of the elders about the village, its people, history, and current challenges to daily life. After lunch, we were in for a special treat. Sibuje now has a primary school teacher, who teaches the village kids through grade 3. Although his salary from year to year is not guaranteed, as he is paid by a foreign NGO, not the Nepali government, he provides a tremendous resource to the children.

One of Karma’s Japanese friends bought school uniforms and donated them to Sibuje. We were invited to join a celebration all afternoon at the school, where Karma and Glen gave brief speeches about the Karma project before Karma gave the happy kids their new uniforms.

We were welcomed in Sherpa style by the villagers to the school. We were expecting just a visit, what we got was a celebration.
We were welcomed in Sherpa style by the villagers to the school. We were expecting just a visit, what we got was a celebration. Photo Credit: Christen Babb

Upon walking into the playground, we were immediately greeted as special honored guests. The people of the village went well out of their way to show their gratitude for what the Karma Project is doing for their village. We were seated at a head table, and literally every family welcomed each of us with a traditional silk kata scarf. It was more than a little funny to watch all of us try to manage the huge mountains of scarves around our necks.

Kata scarves are given as welcome gifts and are also given to provide safe travels and good luck when someone leaves to go on a journey.
Kata scarves are given as welcome gifts and are also given to provide safe travels and good luck when someone leaves to go on a journey. Photo Credit: Christen Babb
Underneath their scarves, Glen and Matt enjoy a little shade from Glen's trusty parasol. Photo Credit: Christen Babb
Underneath their scarves, Glen and Matt enjoy a little shade from Glen’s trusty parasol. Photo Credit: Christen Babb

After we were all settled in with our kata scarves and tea (you can not sit down as a guest in Nepal without tea being readily offered and refilled), Karma and Glen spoke a bit to the village about the goals of the Karma Project. Seeing the gratitude of the people of Sibuje in this way was truly an unexpected treat. Something that started as one friend asking another for some help with his village has blossomed into a truly wonderful and impactful project.

Karma and Glen speak to the people of Sibuje about the goals of the Karma Project. Photo Credit: Christen Babb
Karma and Glen speak to the people of Sibuje about the goals of the Karma Project. Photo Credit: Christen Babb

Like everything they do, when Sherpa people welcome guests and say thanks, they spare no effort. After the ‘official’ part of the afternoon was over and speeches were made, we were all treated to some dancing. To begin, some of the school children took to the open space and danced to a popular Nepali song that Christen and I learned early on in the trek. The main words of the chorus are, “…slowly, slowly, slowly..” It became our mantra for the trek. Next, some of the adults demonstrated their dancing moves. We were even treated to a traditional Sherpa Dance, where four villagers (including one of our porters, Pasang) dressed in traditional clothing and chanted an almost haunting song.

Some of the village children dance to the song, "...slowly, slowly, slowly..." Photo Credit: Christen Babb
Some of the village children dance to the song, “…slowly, slowly, slowly…” Photo Credit: Christen Babb
Donning the traditional garb for the Sherpa Dance. Photo Credit: Christen Babb
Donning the traditional garb for the Sherpa Dance. Photo Credit: Christen Babb

After the talented dancers finished their displays, the rest of us were invited to join the fun. Several generations of people took part; no one was spared the embarrassment of showing just how badly they move across the dance floor. Glen even gave a few lessons in silliness, something for which he could easily receive an honorary doctorate. During the fun, I was never wanting for an assistant. It seems that Sibuje has several aspiring photographers/filmmakers.

Christen gets some help managing her kata scarves, so she can dance more safely.
Christen gets some help managing her kata scarves, so she can dance more safely.
Glen takes the rest of us to "school". Photo Credit: Christen Babb
Glen takes the rest of us to “school”. Photo Credit: Christen Babb
My new Assistant Director provides some wise oversight of the filming. Photo Credit: Christen Babb.
My new Assistant Director provides some wise oversight of the filming. Photo Credit: Christen Babb.

At the end of the afternoon, the shared sense of friendship and family was impossible to ignore. We were all welcomed with open arms. However, the thing that was most heartening to see was how the kids of the village were already directly benefiting from the Karma Project. What started as Glen helping his friend Karma has now grown well beyond that relationship. People from all over the world have jumped in to help to make the lives of the people of Sibuje a little bit easier.

When you live several days of strenuous hiking from the nearest larger town, it is hard to find school uniforms. The gracious gift from Karma's Japanese friend brought smiles to the faces of the parents and children alike. Photo Credit: Christen Babb
When you live several days of strenuous hiking from the nearest larger town, it is hard to find school uniforms. The gracious gift from Karma’s Japanese friend brought smiles to the faces of the parents and children alike. Photo Credit: Christen Babb
The children of Sibuje show off their beautiful new uniforms.
The children of Sibuje show off their beautiful new uniforms.

 

Luke ~ Fun in Sibuje

There are times when words are not enough to describe a scene. Thankfully, when Christen needed some local knowledge on how to manage her traditional welcome scarves given to her at celebration at the school, this woman was on the task. We are also in great debt to Glen for teaching us his secret high altitude dance moves…

Luke ~ Life in Sibuje (part 1)

The first part of the trek was behind us. After three days of strenuous hiking on steep trails, fighting travel fatigue, stomach cramps, and diarrhea, a rest day in Sibuje was very welcome. In fact, I could not imagine a more serene and picturesque village.

Sunrise in Sibuje is a magnificent sight. The valley shown here is the valley we would follow the rest of the trek, all the way to Mera Peak.
Sunrise in Sibuje is a magnificent sight. The valley shown here is the valley we would follow the rest of the trek, all the way to Mera Peak.

Life in Sibuje is simple in many ways; easy it is not. The 16 families in Sibuje must work very hard for everything they have. They build their own homes and grow their own food, preserving many of the farming techniques used for centuries. They cook over wood fires that also serve to heat their homes. The hillsides surrounding the village are dangerously thin of trees, a result of deforestation for firewood over the years. To help prevent future deadly landslides (Karma’s Aunt was killed 20 years ago by one while sleeping in her home), villagers must walk at least an hour each way to gather firewood. People (mostly kids) are constantly making the journey back and forth all year long so that they have enough wood come winter.

Villagers have built terraces into the steep hillsides. Farming here is challenging, but it is how people have survived in villages like this for centuries.
Villagers have built terraces into the steep hillsides. Farming here is challenging, but it is how people have survived in villages like this for centuries.

Despite the hard way of life, the people of Sibuje have a warmth, friendliness, and happiness I have never seen before. They value hard work, family, and a light-hearted silliness that leaps into form as dancing and joking with friends, family, and guests. I have never felt more quickly and wholeheartedly welcomed by strangers into their homes.

The building on the right is the home of Pasang Sherpa, my friend and porter for the trek. After sleeping under the stars in the yard, I was awoken by Pasang coming outside. When he saw me, he immediately offered me a cup of tea. His hospitality and friendliness is unmatched.
The building on the right is the home of Pasang Sherpa, my friend and porter for the trek. After staying up very late photographing the stars and then sleeping in the yard, I was roused by Pasang coming outside. When he saw me, he immediately offered me a cup of tea. His hospitality and friendliness were a perfect start to the day.

Life in the village also seems uncertain. In the last year, two families have left due to hard times. Karma took us in the morning to talk to two separate village elders to get their perspectives on the village and the challenges they face. They know that their way of life is threatened. To help, they seek some modern solutions while holding fast totheir culture and tradition as they can.

Karma walks the group around a buckwheat field on the way to visit some village elders. Buckwheat is a mainstay in the village. The flour can be roasted in a pan and made into a thick porridge that is higher in protein than almost any other food. It also tastes amazing!
Karma walks the group around a buckwheat field on the way to visit some village elders. Buckwheat is a mainstay in the village. The flour can be roasted in a pan and made into a thick porridge that is higher in protein than almost any other food. It also tastes amazing!

The first home we visited was the home of one of the oldest families. The husband was out in the hills tending to their cows. We spoke with the wife, Pemdigi Sherpa. When we asked her age, she said that she is in her 80’s. It is difficult for many Sherpa people to tell you their exact age. Because many do not have birth certificates (a trip to Kathmandu is required by the father of a newborn baby to get one), and they use a different calendar, much confusion can arise.

Pemdigi Sherpa is a wonderful old woman. She quickly welcomed our whole group into her home for tea while chatting casually about the helicopters flying overhead all morning (a rare sight in the village brought about that day by the sad events happening on Everest). She smiled warmly as she recalled the first time a small group of tourists came to Sibuje, more than 20 years ago. She said she came outside one day to find several tents on the nearby terraces. She and her family were a little shy at first, but became quick friends with the adventurous visitors from strange lands. Ever since, tourists have been welcomed into the village wholeheartedly, although infrequently. Since Sibuje is off the typical trekking routes by a couple days and has no lodges, it is visited by very few tourists. Nevertheless, locals love to meet people from the outside world and hear about their lives.

Pemdigi Sherpa tells tales of the first tourists to visit Sibuje.
Pemdigi Sherpa tells tales of the first tourists to visit Sibuje.

After having salt tea (a Sherpa mainstay) with Pemdigi, we walked through some more pristine fields and climbed some very steep (of course) hills to get to the home of Dorje Sherpa. Dorje is a man of approximately 65-70 years with a serious demeanor that can turn into a childlike laughter at the drop of a hat.

Glen, Dorje Sherpa, and Karma Sherpa get their 'silly' on.
Glen, Dorje Sherpa, and Karma Sherpa get their ‘silly’ on.
Quick friends; quick laughter.
Quick friends; quick laughter.

Dorje has done fairly well for himself and family. With that said, he spoke of many of the challenges echoed by everyone in the village. Water. It is a common refrain I have heard from people in the mountains close to the sources and from people all over Kathmandu valley. Access to fresh, clean water for crops and drinking is becoming a major problem. Sibuje gets its water, like many Himalayan villages, from a nearby stream. Unfortunately, during many parts of the year, the stream dries up – either because the source is frozen in winter, or because the fall and spring seasons are too dry. The summer months bring the monsoons. Once a welcome restoration of the moisture needed for farming, the recent intensity of monsoons has resulted in too much water and landslides.

Some of the local kids supervise the filming at Dorje's house. I was never short on helping hands.
Some of the local kids supervise the filming at Dorje’s house. I was never short on helping hands.

In addition to water, Sibuje is in need of electricity so that their kids can study at night. Sanitation systems are non-existent. The villagers are frequently getting sick from bacteria, and a way to more efficiently heat and keep their homes warm is needed. Infrastructure is not the only shortcoming. In order to help raise needed revenue for the village, many of the younger generation seek education so that they can work in the tourism industry when not working in the families fields. However, to get an education past third grade and to learn English, as absolutely necessary to succeed in tourism, kids must be sent away to a village half a day’s hike away to live with a host family. The expense is far more than most locals can afford.

Ang Rita Sherap and Andrew hanging out with the kids.
Ang Rita Sherap and Andrew hanging out with the kids.

Later in the day, we attended the local primary school, which teaches through grade 3. The teacher is funded by a foreign NGO, and his salary is sadly not guaranteed for next year. Regardless, Karma and the rest of us were invited to a celebration. A generous Japanese friend of Karma’s donated school uniforms for the kids, so everyone was in high spirits. The next post will highlight that wonderful afternoon when Karma got to bring them the uniforms!

Luke ~ Sibuje, here we come!

Day three started with a disconcerting rumble in my stomach, but I was starting to feel a little better. It seemed that the Cipro was starting to work its magic. I enjoyed the brisk morning by setting up my camera to take some video notes, and Christen basked in the warmth of her first hot bucket shower of the trip. When you have no plumbing, you get creative in the mountains.

Morning in Pangom was crisp and beautiful.
Morning in Pangom was crisp and beautiful.

The day began with a short 30-minute hike that was surprisingly difficult. Ah, yes… Everything is uphill in the Himalaya. We had early morning tea and biscuits at an overlook at the monastery where Karma’s uncle is the Lama. We could not go inside because of a flurry of construction work. Some Japanese businessmen had donated $100,000 for the renovation of this picturesque and remote Buddhist monastery.

Christen enjoying some company at the monastery.
Christen enjoying some company at the monastery.
Matt receives a gift of a scarf from the Lama to wish him safe travels.
Matt receives a gift of a scarf from the Lama to wish him safe travels.
Karma and his uncle, the Lama
Karma and his uncle, the Lama

After spending the better part of an hour at the Monastery, it was up the trail again. Thankfully, we did not have quite as much vertical gain/loss that day. As we were rounding a steep ridge, I marveled at the sheer depth of the valleys. It seemed that the mountains (still called ‘hills’ at this point by the Sherpas) rose almost completely straight up out of the rushing river thousands of feet below.

Along the distant ‘hills’, I could make out tiny little houses and row upon row of immaculate terraces hewn out of the steep hillsides. With no roads into this area, the only way is to go on foot. I marveled at the strength and ingenuity of the people who lived in these little villages dotting the landscape.

In the mid afternoon, we came around a corner to see a spread-out cluster of little homes and bamboo cow sheds cascading down the mountainside. On one border, a sheer cliff hugged the trail. We were finally in Sibuje, Karma’s home village, and it was even more beautiful than I could have imagined.

Karma's parents home is in one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. Life in Sibuje is far from easy, though. Villagers literally live off the land. If they want a home, they must build it themselves.
Karma’s parents home is in one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. Life in Sibuje is far from easy, though. Villagers literally live off the land. If they want a home, they must build it themselves.
Some of Karma's parents' neighbors enjoy their view perched high upon the cliff.
Some of Karma’s parents’ neighbors enjoy their view perched high upon the cliff.
Tsongba helps Karma's mother, Kima, prepare our evening meal in her home.
Tsongba helps Karma’s mother, Kima, prepare our evening meal in her home.

Luke ~ The second day always seems the hardest.

When starting a new adventure, it usually takes me a day to begin to hit the rhythm of the new routine. The long, complicated journey from Seattle to the Everest region ensured that the first day of trekking was a bit of a blur. By the time we started up the trail on day 2, the reality of the trip finally started to settle into my simple brain.

Glen started our day by describing the route to all of us over breakfast. This was a morning ritual that began more formally (with a mini white board and contour maps) and gradually loosened up throughout the trek as we all got the hang of things and began to realize that the map was about as accurate and precise as something that may have been drawn up on a napkin in a Kathmandu bar… Thankfully, Karma and the rest of the staff showed their worth time and again along the trail. It seems they had every turn, rock, and stream memorized as well as the backs of their hands.

Tsongba (son) and Pasang (father) made a wonderful porter team. They were the two who Christen and I hired to carry the myriad of camera and personal gear we needed to make the film and keep us warm and safe. They began as our porters and quickly became our family too.
Tsongba (son) and Pasang (father) made a wonderful porter team. They were the two who Christen and I hired to carry the myriad of camera and personal gear we needed to make the film and keep us warm and safe. They began as our porters and quickly became our family too.

The day was to start with a 3-hour climb up a high ridge (about 2500 ft gain, if I recall) to a pass where we would have tea. The main trail had been recently washed out in a storm, so we would have to take a much steeper trail, practically straight up the ridge.

Christen was all smiles as we began our hike in the morning up the high ridge.
Christen was all smiles as we began our hike in the morning up the high ridge.
Andrew was just getting warmed up by the demanding morning.
Andrew was just getting warmed up by the demanding morning.
Rose was always finding puppies along the way. This one was at the top of the pass where we had tea.
Rose was always finding puppies along the way. This one was at the top of the pass where we had tea.

After lunch, there would be a couple more, slightly smaller, ups and downs until to our destination for the night. We were to stay in a home in Pangom, about a 30-minute walk from a monastery where Karma’s uncle is the Lama. We saw no other tourists throughout the day. However, we did see many local villagers carrying all sorts of loads on the steep trails. The cargo on their backs varied from huge baskets of piglets to firewood. Their way of life makes even the most demanding American life look easy.

Local villagers go about their day carrying huge loads between villages.
Local villagers go about their day carrying huge loads between villages.

Glen explained before the trip that it is not a question of if you get sick in Nepal, it is a question of when. I guess I must have wanted to get it out of the way early, because I was feeling terrible all day. I had picked up one of the dreaded digestive system bugs. After much discussion at the meal table about how everyone’s stomach and bowels were doing, Glen made sure I started my regimen of Cipro (warmly referred to as ‘Vitamin C’ during the trek) and Imodium. When I mentioned earlier that the reality of the trip was setting in, I meant that day 2 took on the tone of “Wow, I have some really tough hiking to get through, and I already feel like my body is revolting to the concept.” Oh well, all you can do is take it slowly and enjoy the view.

Christen's strategy of putting on her bunny ear muffs was a good one for feeling a comfort from home when utterly exhausted after a steep climb.
Christen’s strategy of putting on her bunny ear muffs was a good one for feeling a comfort from home when utterly exhausted after a steep climb.

As I brought up the “caboose” into Pangom, as Christen liked to call our habitual place bringing up the rear of the party, I never felt more happy to reach a destination. Each stop along the way felt more separated from the hectic life in America. I was finally earning my place, however temporarily, in a simpler life. As I settled into the daily ritual of washing my feet and socks, I looked out over a sun-swept terrace of buckwheat. My body was aching from whatever bug I ingested, but my soul was beaming with peace.

This was my view as I washed my socks.
This was my view as I washed my socks.
The homeowner we stayed with helping his calf get some of it's mother's milk.
The homeowner we stayed with helping his calf get some of its mother’s milk.