Tag Archives: Trekking

Luke ~ Surrendering to the Story

How can you tell when you are in the midst of change? How do you know when it is time to surrender to the unfolding of a story, a journey, an experience? Why is it hard to let go of instincts? As I climbed the nearly endless stone stairway to the fourth-century temple of Changu Narayan, I thought about the unfolding dilemma I was facing. To explain, I have to rewind a bit. When I was originally invited months before to join the inaugural trek for Karma’s fledgling tourism business, I thought the trek would provide me opportunities enough to get sufficient footage to tell the story of sustainable tourism in Nepal. I would spend one week post-trek in Kathmandu valley after the trek, I had reasoned, to focus on getting the blog up to date with Christen. Then, she would return to Seattle, and I would travel to India to visit a friend. Life and the universe have a funny way of having their own plans.

As I neared the top of my climb, a nagging feeling crept from the murky part of my mind I do not like to visit. I started to worry whether we had captured enough footage to tell a complete story. I knew that, given this is our first film, there would be a significant learning curve – especially for me. My minimal experience with video combined with my novice abilities as a Himalayan trekker took their toll. Christen has said many times, “I wish you would have captured that moment on film!” I have said it far more times to myself. Many days, it felt like all I could do was simply finish the day’s mileage, get some usable footage, somehow charge my fleet of camera and laptop batteries, transfer hundreds of gigabytes of footage from cards to external hard drives, do my laundry, eat, rest, interview others in the group, and stay up late with Christen to take star photos and giggle at silly jokes acting like kids. It felt like I was frequently missing key moments during the trek when I would try to take a moment’s break.

When I reached the top of the stairs in Changu Narayan, I knew. We needed more…I was not going to India. I was going to spend my remaining four weeks in Asia in Nepal. I met up with Christen, Jenn, and Tatiana for lunch. Jenn (my wife) and Tatiana (an old friend) were joining us for this part of our trip in Changu. I was chewing on my new realization the whole meal.

After eating, Christen did what she does best. I was interviewing the master teacher at the Thanga painting school in the village when Christen came over to tell me that she had a couple more people I needed to meet. I had learned that when she says something like that, it is best to trust her instincts. Within minutes, I was sitting on the floor of a wooden mask shop and dodging shards of alder wood that were flying by my head at surprising speeds as Christen smashed a wooden mallet into a chisel. The owner of the shop had decided to teach her some of the finer points of mask carving.

As we explained our film to the him, he was very excited and insisted we meet his family members who help him with the shop. “Tourism,” he explained, “is the life of the village. There are few other forms of work here besides those supporting tourism.” It was easy to see, as we strolled down the cobble-stone streets of the little village. Shops lined both sides of the streets offering all manner of crafts, clothes, and souvenirs. The villagers who were not working in shops were working on the wheat harvest. They would carefully lay out their harvest on the street every morning to dry, and pick it up in the evening. After several days of drying, they would thresh it by hand on the same streets. Changu - Bazaar view

© Christen Babb. A resident of Changu Narayan sits outside one of many shops that line the narrow streets. Changu - Wheat woman

© Christen Babb. A woman from Changu Narayan dries wheat on the street from the recent harvest.

As Christen and I finished at the mask shop, she told me about another shop owner she had met earlier in the day. “You have got to interview this guy named Balkrishna, the owner of the singing bowl shop,” she insisted. “Really,” I asked? I had passed by his shop the previous day but was not drawn to it. I have no idea why. “Jenn had mentioned she was in there and wanted to go back to buy something.” “Trust me,” replied Christen. “You will be glad you talked to Balkrishna.” Did I mention I had learned to trust Christen’s instincts?

I returned to Balkrishna’s shop later with Jenn and Tatiana. Balkrishna is a great man. I immediately liked him and felt like despite the vast cultural differences between us, we shared something important: we both want to see our communities thrive and strive to devote our lives to that mission. Our conversation that afternoon spanned from the explosion of tourism in the village over the previous couple decades (and subsequent recent decline), to the complicated political situation in Nepal following the civil war (1996 – 2006) and shift from a monarchy to a republic. However, the most important part was how his eyes lit up when I explained that we are making a film about tourism in Nepal from the viewpiont of local Nepalis.

I was about to learn over the next several weeks that Balkrishna is a person with a big vision. I barely finished explaining it before Balkrishna was running off an impressively insightful and diverse list of people and places that he could introduce me to for the film. I was looking for anyone to help me understand just how far the tendrils of tourism reach into the economy and lives of the people of Nepal, and here was Balkrishna, my new Nepali production manager whom I did not know that I had, waiting right there for me with an ambitious production schedule. Even better, an amazing friendship started with Balkrishna that I will cherish the rest of my life. I owe a large debt to Christen for my friendship with him. 10258679_10152167837887496_8756685174630154594_o

© Luke Mislinski. Balkrishna Baj assists with filming in Lumbini, Nepal, the birthplace of Buddha.

As I write my next posts about filming in Nepal, I will shift from the trek phase of the trip to the second half covering several other major parts of the country. I hated to see Christen go back to America. I felt like I was losing my right arm, and I was worried that I would not capture the same depth of story without her. Once again, I learned to trust her judgement. Although she could not stay in Nepal, Christen somehow found the right person in Balkrishna to help me uncover the rest of the story…The more one learns about tourism in Nepal, the more it becomes clear just how vital it is to the Nepali people country-wide. The best part about meeting Balkrishna? I was starting to learn how to surrender to the story, and there could not have been a better teacher than he was.

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#buskingforkarma – St Dominic’s Trio Returns

Once again, at Nye’s Polonaise Room, here is the next of several #buskingforkarma songs that St. Dominic’s Trio was gracious to perform for us. This is one of their original songs, titled “Bike Ride on 35W”.

Enjoy!

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Christen ~ Rabbit Trap

Bit from the letters ~

“Flamingo legs are an asset, right?”

“Good quote- “Get on your knees and thank God you are still on your feet.” I hope you are still on your feet.”

“Be you. Be safe. Be nothing else.”

~
Pasang 2

The last two days was going down to 11,000 feet and then up over a difficult pass that exceeded 15,000 feet and finally down to 9800 feet into Lukla, where we had begun the trek.

Prayer flag sky

I have learned that the ascents take physical strength, which is harder on me, but they make you pay attention. It makes it less likely you will fall on the inclines.

Descents are different. The descents are mental. You must keep your mind focused on the steps you are taking because you find your mind wandering much more easily on the declines, which makes you more vulnerable to slipping or tripping. For someone who is prone to daydreaming, this can be tough for me, but I will take the mental over the physical any day.

However, the real challenge for someone as clumsy as I am, it turns out, is when you get to the bottom and you stop paying attention altogether.

I made it through the trek without slipping and falling, without injury, and without getting sick, neither traveler’s sickness nor altitude. (Luke was kind enough to do all of those well enough for the both of us.) That alone was cause for celebration, and we did just that. The staff and the trekkers sat down to a celebratory dinner, followed by some impromptu dancing.

Being in Lukla again meant a return to internet access, as well, which let me call people to let them know I was not dead, (a bigger worry for some people than one might have guessed.).

I finished these calls in the pitch black of night (for the almost 13 hour time difference). With little to no electricity, pitch black has a different meaning. Your eyes do not adjust and all you can see is what is lit by the pinhole of light from your headlamp in front of your feet.

After taking this pinhole of light to the outhouse, I made my way back to my room by way of a narrow flight of uneven, and sometimes loose, stone stairs. In my attempt to not stumble on them, I did not notice that the left side of the stairs was lined with twirling barbed wire. (For what purpose, I still do not know.)

Forward and downward motion does not combine well with catching your left leg in barbed wire in the dark. As the rest of me went forward, my left leg pulled up behind me, which effectively hung me upside-down by my left ankle. As I did not know yet that it was barbed wire, my first coherent thought was something roughly akin to, “Did I seriously just get caught in a rabbit trap?!” I started laughing because, well, what else can one do when one is hung upside-down in the middle of the night.

Being rather lanky, it makes my ankle a long ways away, as I tried to do upside down sit-ups in an attempt to free myself from whatever briar patch in which I had found myself. Every time I tried to reach for it, it pulled tighter around my ankle.

Realizing I would not be getting myself out of this, I attempted yelling for help, to no avail. As I sat staring at the sky, hanging off the side of a stone wall, dangling above a flight of stone stairs, I realized that I was stuck here until the sun would come up in a few hours and people would start waking.

I did the only thing that seemed logical. I went to sleep.

I cannot decide if it is fortunate or unfortunate that there is no photographic evidence of this. It is likely much more hilarious in my mind, as I picture the first people who came around the corner that morning and came upon a girl, bundled in a black parka, hanging upside-down, sleeping like a bat.

I hope my rescuers found it as funny as I do, before they woke me up to help me down.

As a friend lovingly said before I left, “I can see why they want you to come on this trip. You are absurd.”

Thank God for getting that tetanus shot before I left.

Bits from the letters ~

“…what might you need, right now, at some unknown yet moment…perhaps 2am Himalayan time, under a starry and frozen sky…”

“Love was real.
‘Love is bigger than whatever you have experienced, so far’
Someone told me that once.
So, you go and look at the sky…”

.

.

.

.



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Finally! Some footage…

Many have asked to see some footage from the trip. While there is still a mini-mountain of files to go through, we wanted to share some moments from the first third of the trip, so you can see what it was like on the trek. We figured this would be a nice compliment to the regular blog posts.

There will be more footage coming soon, including the official promotional trailer. Stay tuned!

Karma Documentary Teaser from Luke Mislinski on Vimeo.

Luke ~ The return to Lukla

Two entire days in a row of actual rest can have a strange and unexpected effect when on a multi-week trek in the mountains. My legs had not felt worn out or sore at any point on the trek. However, my legs were stiff and sore when we hit the trail to make our way back to Lukla. This was a nagging detail in the back of my mind, because our two day return to Lukla would be arduous. Our return would be shorter, because we were taking a “short-cut” over the Zatrwa La pass. However, we would have to descend first to about 11,000 feet and then climb up and over a very steep 15,120 pass feet before descending down to Lukla at 9800 feet. “Nothing like waiting until the end to do a burley pass”, I thought, as my legs begrudgingly worked their way down the trail.

Our last night in Khote was beautifully clear.
Our last night in Khote was beautifully clear.

Just before lunch, we made it to Takto. It was clear that the members of the group were starting to move more at their own pace the last couple days. Matt and Andrew, being the fastest and strongest, were far ahead of the rest of us. Christen and I, like usual, were still bringing up the caboose. We still wanted to keep moving, though. We opted to move ahead of our porters while they ate lunch and eat snacks as we hiked. It felt good to get a little bit ahead, since we frequently had to stop to rest. The trail after lunch started the very steep climb toward the Zatrwa La pass.

Pasang, as always, makes his way down the trail with uncanny ease and grace.
Pasang, as always, makes his way down the trail with uncanny ease and grace.

As we continued to climb, the view behind us opened up to staggering perspectives. Mera Peak was prominent in our sight. It was almost as if it were saying goodbye to us. The sun was warm and bright, and the clouds were big and fluffy. Once again, though, the weather started to cloud up very rapidly and temperatures dropped as we continued to climb through mid-day.

As we climb toward the Zatrwa La pass, Mera Peak says farewell.
As we climb toward the Zatrwa La pass, Mera Peak says farewell.

In the early afternoon, Christen and I appeared to be nearing the top of the steep climb and crested a ridge. I had gotten myself into trouble with Christen several times by suggesting that we were nearing the end of the day’s hike or the end of the uphill sections when we in fact were not. I almost ended up losing my life on this day. I made the very poor decision to tell her that I thought we were nearing the top of the pass. Not only was I wrong, we had several hard climbs left before reaching our destination for the night, Thuli Kharka, and a significant climb the next morning before reaching the pass. As we continued hiking (upwards) throughout the day and the next morning, Christen seemed to emit a little steam from her ears every time she looked my way.

As we got to Thuli Kharka, I made sure to give Christen a little space to protect myself. She cheered up quickly, though, as we made it to the lodge. There was an interesting group of people hanging out, highlighted by a Polish team that had a professional classically trained pianist as their chief diplomat. We had lots of fun comparing trekking stories and drinking tendencies with our Eastern European brethren.

As we were all laughing at one of Christen’s jokes, a porter with another group staggered up to the lodge with a load that was at least three times his size. I asked him how much it weighed, and he said it was 60 kg (132 lbs)! So much for legal weight limits for porters… They are supposed to carry no more than 35 kg (still 77 lbs). I was again glad to be working with a company that believes in fair work conditions.

Sunrise at Thuli Kharka, just below the Zatrwa La pass, gave us the perfect start to our last day of trekking.
Sunrise at Thuli Kharka, just below the Zatrwa La pass, gave us the perfect start to our last day of trekking.

On the morning of the final day, the weather was cold and bright. We were all anxious to get going, though. We had all been through a lot, and getting up and over the last big obstacle was all that was on anyone’s mind. The landscape was very open. There was no-where to hide from the wind. As we neared the top of the pass at 15,120 feet, the wind grew bitingly cold. The trail was also slick with snow in spots. Our normal routine of going fast on the descents had to take a back seat. The last day of hiking would prove to require just as much mental attention as any other.

The group anxiously works its way up to the Zatrwa La pass on the last day.
The group anxiously works its way up to the Zatrwa La pass on the last day.
Pasang, Christen, and Karma enthusiastically hike upwards.
Pasang, Christen, and Karma enthusiastically hike upwards.
Karma enjoys the view as we work our way up higher.
Karma enjoys the view from the Zatrwa La pass.
Pasang takes a break on the descent towards Lukla.
Pasang takes a break on the descent towards Lukla.
Pasang and Christen prepare for the descent to Lukla.
Pasang and Christen prepare for the descent to Lukla.

As we made our way down over 5000 vertical feet to Lukla, we were greeted by many trekkers climbing up the pass. They were taking the shorter route to Mera peak over the Zatrwa La pass instead of the more gradual climb we took on the start of our trek. While their route is more direct, it is much riskier for altitude sickness. Many of the trekkers we met were going from Sea Level where they lived to Lukla (9800 feet) to the top of Zatrwa La pass (15,120 feet) in the matter of a couple days. We had run into a trekker several days earlier who had tried this aggressive itinerary and had to cut his trip short due to altitude sickness… I am glad we saved this pass for the end of our trek.

The view from the top of the Zatrwa La pass is breathtaking.
The view from the top of the Zatrwa La pass is breathtaking.

Just as we were working our way down from the pass toward our lunch stop, a hail and rain storm rushed in from seemingly nowhere. Once again, we were fortunate to be walking up to the tea house just as the deluge began. Thankfully, Glen had one more opportunity to break out his stylish plaid golf umbrella.

Just as we did through the whole trek, Christen and I decided to get our money’s worth and arrive last in Lukla. As we slowly worked our way through the farms dotting the mountainside, silliness prevailed. It seemed like we were in a constant state of goofing around and dancing. Everyone was in a fun mood despite the wet weather.

Dawa walks toward Lukla after lunch.
Dawa walks toward Lukla after lunch. We had crossed the mountain ridge in the background earlier in the day.
Pasang, Christen, and Karma break out into spontaneous dance.
Pasang, Christen, and Karma break out into spontaneous dance.
Lukla welcomes us back in style with a beautiful view.
Lukla welcomes us back in style with a beautiful view.

The last night of a trek is always special for one reason or another. In our case, the trekkers decided to do something nice for the porters and guides. Through the entire trip, they had been serving us at every meal. Matt had the brilliant idea that we should take a turn serving them dinner. The thought was nice, but the lodge owners were (understandably) weary of letting a group of clumsy, untrained, western tourists into their kitchen. We settled for a compromise. We had all of the staff order what they wanted off the menu and had a large meal all together to celebrate. They even let us buy the beer (and Red Bull for those who do not drink).

Kami, Matt, Ang Rita, and Dawa loosen up with Everest Beer and Red Bull.
Kami, Matt, Ang Rita, and Dawa loosen up with Everest Beer and Red Bull.

What started as a warm, relaxed dinner with friends turned suddenly into a West-meets-East dance party, complete with Everest Beer, Cheap Canadian Whisky, Red Bull, traditional Nepali music, and yes, Justin Bieber. Christen even joined the staff in a confusing, if not mind-numbingly lengthy, traditional Sherpa dance. It may be what drained all of her energy leaving her vulnerable to the rabbit trap that would snare her in the middle of the night… but that is for another blog post.

Kami makes the appropriate face when sampling Canadian Whisky.
Kami makes the appropriate face when sampling Canadian Whisky.
Karma catches his breath while waiting for the Justin Bieber reprise.
Karma catches his breath while waiting for the Justin Bieber reprise.

Once again, the weather in the Himalaya were to show us yet again how little we have in our own control. Lukla has a notorious airstrip. Not only is it nestled deep in a valley between a mountainside and a cliff, the weather frequently decides to muck up the flights. As we made our way off to bed (except Christen who was preparing to get caught in the rabbit trap), we all crossed our fingers for the weather. Flights had been cancelled for the previous three days. Glen told us that if we faced cancelled flights, our fallback plan was to hike an additional two days to where we would rent jeeps. Then, we would have to ride over treacherous roads for 18 hours a day for two days to get back to Kathmandu. I was crossing all the fingers I could. The jeep ride did not sound as much fun as it did when discussed in ‘theory’ at the start of the trek.

All of our fears were for naught, though. We woke to a beautiful morning with partially cloudy, but clearing, skies. Our flight back to Kathmandu was to take off as planned. The general theme of our trip had been ‘timing’. Because of weather, groups who were as little as one day on either side of us failed to make their entire trip without a hitch. Mother nature was very kind to us indeed.

Our final morning in Lukla was one to remember.
Our final morning in Lukla was one to remember.

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…