Days 1/2 – The Stok Kangri, Ladakh, India Expedition

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This series of blog posts starts in medias res – right in the middle.  Since it’s the trek itself that I’ve been training for – why not start there and circle around to the rest of the trip later? If that technique was good enough for Homer in the Odyssey, it’s good enough for me. I’m writing this during 2 hours of free Wi-Fi on Emirates somewhere over the North Atlantic, although it’s going to be uploaded later.

I could start with a rundown of current and various minor injuries from the trek, which range from multiple bruises to swollen numb feet – but instead I’ll start with June 29, a Friday and the first day of our trek. We were awakened about 4 am or so at the Hotel Mogol in Leh by a family that apparently felt everyone around them should also participate in their departure from Leh. I couldn’t help but think where they would fit in on the Wheel of Life we’d been studying at a monastery the day before.

Our group of ten started with a drive to the very large Thiksey Monastery. It’s perched on a hill and consists of many white and orange buildings. Monks and nuns in their ancient red robes come and go; odd contrasts between their garb and the vehicles they are driving. The temples date back to the 1500s; the oldest contains a very serene Buddha that glowed in the dark setting. Another more recent temple houses a huge Buddha of the future surrounded by colorful Tanka paintings – many monks and nuns paying their respects.

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Back in the cars for a drive through the valley to our first camp. At first on paved roads; then a sharp right into an unpaved road through yet another valley. Rose/green stone mountain walls on either side reminded me of the striation in the Grand Canyon. Suddenly the road improved a bit and we turned into a meadow, separated into several areas by stones, with the brown/green/rose mountains surrounding us on all sides (Shang Sumdo, 12,467 feet). When the sun comes out, the mountains glisten, reflecting the tufts of green in the meadow and the high, pink flowering bushes that line the campsite.

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The pack horses arrived with their three “horsemen” and wandered around the campsite, bells jangling like a carillon.

What is the set up, crew and tents, you may ask. There are two toilet tents, basically canvas walls surrounding dug out latrines (one with a commode perches over the hole); a kitchen tent, dining tent, and sleeping tents. The kitchen staff consists of a Nepalese father and his three sons who are learning the trade (the food was fantastic), 3 Sherpas (2 Nepalese including one who has climbed Everest 3 times, and 1 from Darjeeling). We have an extra Sherpa due to the calamities that had befallen our group before we even set out – but more on that later. That’s part of starting in medias res! Ages of our fellow trekkers range from 27 to 61.

After we established ourselves in our tents,we took a “gentle” acclimatization hike. It turned out to be an extremely steep climb up loose dirt and rock to 13,467 feet. Then we did a little bit extra at the end without packs. Feeling very good with acclimatization.

Tea and biscuits follow at 4, with dinner at 7:30, which is apparently early for India.

First nights in a tent are always hard and it’s remarkable how things go missing in such a small space. The night included a horse bell clanging (one horse had to wear a bell all night although they were removed from the others), and a braying wild donkey that practically walked into our tent. The next morning it tried J’s coffee when he left his cup sitting outside.

Tea and coffee are brought to the tents at 6:30 am, warm water at 6:50 and breakfast is at 7:30. I managed to spill my tea in the tent immediately and was punished by having to travel with two wet towels for the next few days.

The trek on our first real day started on a road with a gradual rise. We passed an Army training camp where we saw a class being taught – it is very clear we are near disputed borders and there’s a strong military presence. We walked by the little village of Chang, a striking white monastery up on a hillside, fields of green barley and yellow mustard. Then we hit what I affectionately refer to as a river bed death march, although it’s technically glacial moraine where you have to pick your way over rocks of all varying shapes, sizes, and colors. Little did I know how well I would get to know glacial moraine on this trip!

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We eventually made our way to a lunch spot – an enclosed stone area with a shrine in the middle of it, ornamented with what looked like burned yak skulls. Our guide, R, immediately lit a butter lamp. We are completely alone on this trek. We’ve seen no one but locals (and very few of them).

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After a long lunch to wait for the horses to catch up and go on ahead of us, we were back on the trail, steeper, and you could start to feel more altitude. Suddenly we were at a meadow that was to be our next campsite, Shang Phu (14,380 feet). There was a shepherd’s hut where some small items were sold, but nothing else but  incredible views of layers of mountains, sun glinting off stone.

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The Hills of Austin, Texas

So I managed briefly to trade the flatlands of Florida for the hills of Austin, Texas – courtesy of daughter S who has just relocated there for a year long stint. As many of you know she’s been a six year resident of one of my favorite swamps – New Orleans. But I think I’m going to enjoy what Austin has to offer.

Perhaps it should be called Alternative Austin because I have the feeling it’s real different than the rest of Texas. I found it deceptive. As we approached S’s apartment from the airport I had never seen as many apartment complexes in my life. They line Lamar Boulevard, leading toward a cityscape of yet more apartments – this time high rises – and office buildings. But buried between the complexes are what at first blush look like strip shopping centers – but are actually cool little restaurants and cafes. I commented on how few chain restaurants I saw. Of course, there was also a high volume of car repair and automotive focused shops, including a car wash across the street from S’s apartment that starts vacuuming cars very early on Saturday mornings.

But it was the music and the hiking and green areas that spoke to me. Live music is everywhere. Even the tiniest neighborhood bar has a sign up advertising the upcoming show.  On Friday after a dinner of small plates at the Odd Duck – within walking distance of S’s abode – we ventured into the Saxon Pub. Its big neon guitar sign is right outside her window and S had been wondering about it.

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The Saxon Pub features three shows a day, the last at 10:30. It’s been around for 20 years or so.  We arrived in time to hear an Israeli guitarist Oz Noy  – but most remarkably guitarist Eric Johnson just showed up to play a few jazz tunes including some amazing Theloniois Monk. That was followed by the Lucas Johnson Band (no relation) – hard hitting rock and blues from a 20 year old singer songwriter.  This crowd bore no resemblance to the tourists filling lots of venues New Orleans venues. These people were serious about their music and chatting while the musicians played would definitely have been out of place.

The next night was equally amazing. Following sushi at a rooftop restaurant in the warm dry Austin evening we made our way to East Austin. According to our Uber driver it was a low income area now reeling from rapid gentrification. Our destination was the historic Scoot Tavern, a saloon since 1871 that now operates as a bar and music venue. The inside is furnished with crushed velvet sofas and and chairs that S thought would make a good addition to her apartment (which currently has no furniture in it). The opener was a very talented female singer from near Waco. But the headliner was Shinyribs – a large band led by Kevin Russell. If you like music that ranges from a scat singing cover of Bowie’s Golden Years to original music with a music hall quality – all featuring a portly gentleman with a long white beard who plays the ukulele and is surprisingly light on his feet (think Jackie Gleason) – then you’d like Shinyribs. The show culminated with a Congo line led by none other than Mr. Shiny Ribs himself.

The age range at these events was extreme. At Shinyribs there were other mother- child combos, including a tiny woman standing next to me (we agreed it was fair for us to stand in the front row) who explained to me that Florida was for “retirees” while Austin was welcoming and filled with “aging hippies.” The most inspiring person there was an elderly gentleman with an oxygen tank who managed to get up from his folding chair and dance spiritedly around, oxygen tubes moving in sync with his long white beard.

But between our musical Austin adventures we managed to find a sort of summit to keep up my training regime. Austin is surrounded by a Greenbelt – and a mere 7 miles from S’s apartment there are miles of trails running along side and above Barton Creek. This is clearly a popular way to spend weekend days in Austin and practically every swimming hole was packed with revellers. After about 3 1/2 miles we came to the “Hill of Life” – a nicely steep third of a mile or so uphill. Granted it was hot and S and I looked somewhat lost, but I still don’t think we deserved the concern expressed by a woman hiking up who warned us it “was a really steep hill.” I resisted the urge to say something extremely snarky about training for 20,000 foot mountains and Everest Base Camp last year. But then I did climbed it twice (and fast) just in the hopes I would see her the second time!

S didn’t bother with the second circuit and I met her at one of the less populated swimming holes where we ate very spicy prosciutto sandwiches. The highlight was watching a young couple trying to teach their labradoodle to swim. Water dogs they are not!

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My Austin weekend closed out with a Mother’s Day Brunch at Phoebe’s Diner. Blood orange mimosas accompanied by a smoked beet hash. Yes, I spelled that correctly. It sort of sums up Austin.

Under 5 weeks out from India and Stok Kangri. The gear check is coming up next.

The Florida Foothills- 10 Mile Clay Loop

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Foothills is a misnomer- it implies a lead up to something large and here in Florida that’s apparently only a 375 foot mountain called Sugarloaf. But the Ten Mike Clay Loop has an outsized reputation around here – it’s rumored to be the site of many a professional athlete’s training regimen and numerous folks have mentioned it to J and me as a good candidate in our never ending quest to find some topography in Central Florida.

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Lots of abandoned footwear

So now that my weekends are slightly freer than they were in the midst of my trilogy of trials and arbitration, last Saturday we ventured out to try the famed loop. Of course, everything we had read urged an early start but for us that translated into arriving at the small parking area just before noon, when the thermometer was just topping 89 degrees.

Due to the eccentricities of google maps we actually ended up driving most of the loop before we finally located the small parking area, just off of Hwy 27. At that time of day, there was only one other car parked and in fact, on the whole trail we only saw one or two very hot looking runners. We didn’t see any other backpackers.

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The clay roads start off with some gradual uphill through cattle grazing land. If you try hard, you can imagine you’re in some spot more exotic than Central Florida.

But at the same time, there’s a tremendous amount of what appear to be very industrial water reclamation or drainage structures. My favorite was at the top of a small hill – large metal pipes and structures by a hollowed out pond of some type and a sign indicating it’s a recharge area for the Florida Aquifer. I guess it was a large scale version of a rain barrel.

You hike first along Five Mile Road. There are a moderate number of cars but they are relatively well behaved. We enjoyed the high school,students who kept stopping in the middle of the road to take photos on top of their car. Eventually you walk past a never ending tree nursery. If you ever wondered where maples, cedars, and the like some from in Central Florida, we found the spot.

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The orange tree of last resort

Most of the land to the side of the road is cordoned off with barbed wire, but thankfully, there’s an old, unmaintained orange grove without such barriers close to mile 5. I say thankfully because although we had plenty of water we’d brought absolutely no food. Who would have thought a purloined orange could taste so good.

At mile 5, just as you leave Five Mile Road to turn onto SchofieldnRoad I decided to switch into my Grade B2 mountaineering boots, bought specially for the Stock Kangri climb. It seemed a bad idea to me to wear them for the first time on summit day. My costume change was just in time for the hardest and hottest part of the hike. It turns out the steepest hills (and some are quite steep) are during the last three miles. Plus, a lot of it is through soft sand, adding an extra challenge. The other part of the experience is that you can’t tell whether you’ve hiked the final hill or not.  There always seemed to be bigger one just over the horizon. Good training for the “fake summit” experience you find on a mountain, just when you think you’ve reached the top.

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The final hill – as seen from the parking area

So, once again we Florida hikers try to morph sand into snow, hot temperatures into below freezing ones, and the rolling hills of what was probably an ancient seabed into mountains formed from earthquakes and volcanos. It’s worked before and I hope it will work again. We leave two months from tomorrow for Stok Kangri.

A New Year, A New Trail – Seminole Wekiva Trail

 

The day before New Years Eve seemed the perfect time to check out a new urban/suburban trail. We’ve hiked Cady Way more times than I care to remember – entire housing developments have mushroomed in the seven plus years we’ve been hiking it.

It was time for a change. So we invoked the trusty google search to see what trails might be be lurking in our back yard, or close thereto.

Now, Wekiva State Park itself is an oasis of wilderness surrounded by a sea of suburbia. But you can follow a 14 mile trail through multiple ecosystems and feel you are truly in the wilds (except for that one area where you can hear the gun shooting range and become convinced a serial killer is pursuing you).

Even though it parallels the outside perimeter of parts of the park, the Seminole Wekiva Trail is anything but wilderness. In fact, it makes the West Orange Trail look positively fierce.  For multiple adventure on that trail, see  West Orange Trail – Beginning to End.

After following some very poor directions from one of the Florida Trail associations’ internet sites, we finally resorted to Google Maps and with only a little less difficulty were able to locate the parking area. The trail itself, which runs along an old railway line, is a walk through suburbia. You pass a softball center, a park, a church, and wind between the backs of many houses. At one point you emerge onto a road lined with McMansions.  There is perhaps a couple of hundred feet of elevation gain. At a certain point, there’s a sign commemorating the fact you are standing at a former railroad flagstop location – leading to much discussion about the relationship between flagstops and whistlestops.

Lots of families were biking –  Santa apparently brought a many bikes this year. Loved the older brother helping out sister (even if he did inadvertently almost pull her over).

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After a few miles the backyards are all enclosed with wooden privacy fences which some good soul decided to paint. It’s called the “Art Wall” and each panel is ornamented with scenes ranging from rock stars to endangered animals to movies. Apparently the artist has another few miles to go. It provides a welcome addition to an otherwise rather boring stroll.

 

We managed about ten miles, five out and five back.  Not sure it did a whole lot for our Stok Kangri training. Part of the challenge of climbing high mountains when you live in Florida is simply finding a way to train. Oh well, still five months to go.

 

 

The Man in the Mist – Mt. Jefferson

We’ve all been there. That one thing that keeps you powering on, even when your legs and your mind say this is a really dumb idea.

For both J and me (and maybe daughter A and her boyfriend N – although i haven’t asked them) the man in the mist on Mt. Jefferson in New Hampshire’s White Mountains did just that.

It had taken us forever to find the trailhead, which seemed to veer off of Google maps onto some narrow dirt road. And once there, the hike up the rocky, fog-laden trail was more uncomfortable than awe inspiring. The one overlook was a bleak landscape of grey fog, with none of the autumnal offerings we were hoping for.

We’d just encountered a miserable family of four – two parents, two kids – one of whom was scampering up the rocky cliffs like an energizer bunny while his older sister wept below and threatened mutiny if forced to go further.

We knew we were near the top, but we were still in the fog, The goal was starting to seem less and less significant. A was making serious queries about the rationale for further climbing.

But just at that point – looking for all the world like an older Jamie from Outlanders – a figure emerged through the mist. In a vaguely European accent he said it was no more than 20 minutes to the summit and he  had already come through the pass from the next mountain, which he summited already that morning. At that point, it was only the fact we’d all collectively seen him that reassured us we weren’t having individual delusions.

So we kept on climbing. It took us another 45, not 20, minutes but we got there. Sometimes it just takes a man in the mist. J claimed he was the spirit of adventure. Something most of us don’t get enough of in our lives.

Lake Apopka Loop Trail, Florida – Amid the Alligators

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We were supposed to start at 9:30. Which still wasn’t early enough given the projected mid-90s temperature – but would certainly have been preferable to 10:30 when we finally set off on the Lake Apopka Loop Trail. I had heard great things about the trail from someone who hiked parts of it in the fall. Her account omitted two facts. 1. It’s not a loop. 2. There is absolutely no shade.

The trailhead (it turns out there are two, since, as mentioned, it’s not a loop), is fifteen miles from downtown Orlando.  It starts in a park in some lightly populated areas.  For years Lake Apopka was one of the filthiest lakes in Florida. Victim to agricultural runoff, the lake was basically dead. But a few years back the state started buying up the surrounding farmland, and recreated the wetlands that had previously existed.

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The birds have come back – I’m not sure about the fish, but the alligators have definitely returned. More in that below.  And there are more dragonflies, grasshoppers, moths, butterflies, and of course mosquitoes than one can count.

The trail goes around the northern part of the lake, and is approximately 14.5 miles in each direction. The part we hiked is compressed gravel and dirt. It follows the top of a narrow levee a few feet high that separates wetlands from the lake. In a few places the water can flow under the levee. In a hurricane, it would be wiped out.

The levee had more significance after we spoke with a couple at the beginning of the trail. They pointed out an alligator head poking out of the green algae and remarked how many they had heard further down the trail. A few feet of elevation was a good thing.

Although you might not technically be in the middle of nowhere, Lake Apopka Loop Trail feels like it. As we walked along the endlessly flat path, the palms and rushes cleared on one side to reveal an enormous vista of the lake. There were hardly any boats – I think we saw one all day.

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Looking up from our boots and the white grey trail provided some variety . Ospreys, hawks, falcons, herons, and anhingas drying their wings. And although we couldn’t see them, to our sides we could hear a remarkable amount of life in the swampy water. Ducks and frogs, but most startling of all were the grunts of alligators. I started to have fantasies about what we’d do if we encountered one sprawled across the path in front of us. And then suppose we turned around, only to find one lying across the trail in that direction also.

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Such thoughts were getting me nowhere. We finally saw an informational billboard with a trail map – and realized the trail did  not in fact go around the whole lake. If we’d planned to hike 14.5 miles, as we had originally planned in the cool of our air conditioned house, we were going to have to hike 14.5 miles back also. Despite the hot noonday sun, common sense kicked in and we decided to hike 5 miles out and 5 back. We stopped at mile 4 at what appears to be the only historic landmark – an old pump house with a shelter where there was at least a vestige of shade. There’s a marshy lake nearby where we counted at least 15 alligators. My Kind bar had completely melted.

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The next mile is open to vehicles for a wild life drive and we finally saw some other humans, most of whom looked at us as though we had lost our minds. By that point we might have.

At mile 5 we turned around and tried an even brisker paced for our return. By now we were completely drenched and the heat index was well over 100. Even the alligators had gone to sleep, and  now the spookiness of the trail came from the eerie silence.

After a couple of miles, we saw a black shadow down the trail, about the size of a bear.  I saw no way that a bear could possibly reside in this environment but J pointed out they habituate easily….as we drew closer, we found ourselves face to face with an older English gentlemen on a motorized scooter. He was hooked up to an oxygen tank, and was apparently just out for a sightseeing ride. He was by himself, which didn’t seem like a good idea in the best of circumstances given the warnings at the beginning that you were to buddy up before starting the hike. In any event, we had a nice conversation- although I couldn’t resist a quip about mad dogs and Englishmen. After he’d had a rest he trundled along, soon overtaking us.

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We finally made it back to the old faithful minivan. J suddenly had a complete dehydration or heat stroke experience that started with nausea and then left him with an enormous leg cramp. I’d moved over to the drivers seat but even in the passenger seat he couldn’t stretch out the cramp. It began to pour on  the 15 mile drive back – one of those blinding Florida rains where you can only see six feet in front of you. But all I could keep thinking was that at least I wasn’t trapped between two alligators! That put everything else in perspective.

Everest Base Camp – M and S Speak! Guest bloggers.

IMG_0142It did all start in 1991. Only one of our now four children had been born. She (A) spent much of her time in a plastic contraption that we called her rocket seat — a plastic rocker with a foam insert and a carrying handle that proved very useful for lugging her around to all the restaurants we still planned to go to with our good friends M and S.  The fact we were 29 and 30 and found ourselves with an infant offspring was not about to deter us.

As the years went by and the offspring expanded to include three others, we four parents found ourselves in high risk environments – such as a fondue restaurant with four under 8 year olds – with hot oil, fire and long sharp forks – and various other and sundry similar problems and situations. They are the subject of another blog post – or possibly even another website.

But throughout it all was always what we used to call our travel fantasies. It could be Vietnam, New Zealand, wherever. Just something more than New Smyrna Beach or – heaven forbid- the Outer Banks. We called it travel p**n – the fulfillment of our travel fantasies – but I’m concerned WordPress and Facebook will block the  phrase of what we actually called it. Just understand – it was supposed to be the ultimate escape and self realization.

Travel po**n kept us going through many a career shift, stressful work situation and the other vagaries of life in the ’90s and ’00s.

After some preliminary trips to see if we really were compatible adventurers – see Iceland Part 2 – The Golden Circle, or All Roads Lead to Fludir, we decided late 20’s angst could translate to mid 50s midlife crises. So we went for it. I’ve already published J’s and my experiences on our trek to Everest Base Camp with friends. Here’s the take from the other bedroom in our amazingly cold tea houses in Nepal and how it happened:

M and S speak:

“You could definitely do it!”

J nodded emphatically as he picked up the conversation thread from MR. As always, J’s contribution focused on the technical specifications. “It’s all trekking. There’s no climbing, so no ropes or crampons.  We go alongside the Khumbu Glacier, not across. Highest we get is only 18,000 feet at Kala Pattar—that’s the best views of Everest.  Kala Pattar is steep and there’s some scree.  But you should be able to make it!

MR chimed in eagerly at each reference, “It’s basically just a really long hike.”  “You’ve got boots and rain gear. You’ll just need to buy some poles.” And “Kala Pattar is an optional day. We could just leave you behind.” [They did.]
E familia.

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“Just leave me behind,” S called out, only half in jest.  He was sitting on a rock, head bent down, one arm stretched in front of him, palm facing out.  It was the universal signal of defeat.  We had updated the wills before we left but our Nepalese guide, Z, wasn’t having anything to do with S dying. “You have to keep moving, S.  It’s not good to sit too long at this altitude.”  I caught up to where S had planted himself.  It wasn’t like I was moving any faster.  Z exhorted both of us with the now familiar, “Tomorrow will be easier.”  Z told us things that weren’t always 100% true.  Like “rest days” were anything but.  Turns out every day was hard and “rest days” (a/k/a acclimatization days) were the hardest!

Since S and I spent most of the time staring at our boot tops, we are grateful for MR’s detailed posts which we can confirm are based on contemporaneous and copious notes.  S and I huddled exhausted around the yak-dung fires in tea houses fighting to stay awake long enough to eat dinner.  MR was on-line busily researching and cite-checking.  It was enough for us to simply say, “We did it!”

“We did it” began long before we were captured, smiling but completely, utterly spent, in the photo taken at Base Camp.

“We did it” began years ago at that very first meal with MR & J talking about how, one day, after the kids were grown, we would go on a “couples vacation.”  Until this year, that continuing conversation had yielded only a few extra pounds, a shared condo in St. Augustine for the Gentlemen of the Road concert, and a long weekend in Iceland functioning as something like cold-weather gear crash dummies for one of MR and J’s upcoming summit attempts.

“We did it” included:  going to a gym to attempt to regain something resembling good shape (and updating the wills just in case); buying a ton more gear than MR and J let on would be required; flying twice as far as we had ever flown; trekking ten times farther than we had ever hiked—and that was twenty years before; sharing close quarters and more about our bodily consumption and elimination than we were comfortable; and worrying that we might end up ruining someone else’s trip of a lifetime by succumbing to altitude sickness or injury.

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We did it” also included:  being graciously welcomed into the homes and monasteries of people from a rich and vibrant culture; sharing the trail and tea house conversations with travelers from around the world; getting, if not to the top of the world, then pretty close; beating back the demons that taunt us as we age with the bold statement that we’re not dead, yet; discovering that friendship can survive the trek to Everest Base Camp; and, having taken every step together as a couple, finishing the last, longest, hardest day together.   Our marriage is the stronger for it.

MR and J were right.  We could definitely do this!

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Everest Base Camp Trek – It’s A Long Way to Katmandu

It felt as though we’d already had a full day of activity – after all, we’d just peered at Everest from 18,200 feet at the summit of Kala Pattar – but we had hours of trekking ahead of us. After breakfast in Gorak Shep, we headed off to Pheriche, via Lobuche, where we had stayed two nights ago. We had lunch at the same tea house – the Oxygen Altitude. Such an appropriate name – M and S suffering a little bit – sometimes the way down is actually harder than the trek up.

After lunch in Lobuche, we traversed again past the memorials to the dead Everest trekkers (this time getting a photo of the one in honor of Scott Fischer – after all, his old company, Mountain Madness, has been responsible for a lot of our adventures), and then down what had been a very long uphill on the way to EBC. After a bit, we made a right turn and headed into previously unhiked areas toward Pheriche.

We descended into a wide flat valley with spring grasses and flowers sprouting up. The monsoon was starting early this year, and we experienced a bit of hail, followed by rain. The wind picked up, and we marched along stoically, picking our way amid puddles and piles of yak dung.

We finally reached the village of Pheriche and our abode for the night, the Himalayan Hotel. It was the nicest place we had stayed for a while. Each room had its own bathroom and there was a huge dining room.  I had dahl bat for dinner. J and I were both exhausted after climbing Kala Pattar and then hiking five plus hours mostly in rain. But we were at a lower altitude and it’s amazing how well you can sleep lower than 16,000 feet – especially with an en suite bathroom.

I awoke without a headache for the first time in a while. For me, at least, altitude just does that. You learn to live with a low grade headache each morning –  but two ibuprofen and two cups of coffee typically take care of it.  We took our time and finally departed about 10. There was a lot of downhill and then up along the side of the valley with the milky river below.

Stopped for some bathroom breaks at various small villages; we were moving back into village culture. Mani stones and stupas were the order of the day again. At the Wind Horse Lodge – the elderly owners sat outside in the sun. The man had a mala in one hand and an individual prayer wheel in the other – as he spun it the mala beads slipped through his fingers, effortlessly counting his prayers. His wife wore the traditional apron over her brown skirt – topped by the ubiquitous down jacket that everyone wore.

This time, instead of Upper Pangboche (home of the flying monk – recounted in Everest Base Camp Trek – Tengboche and Dingboche (or Lost Horizons)) we went through Lower Pangboche. It was an active little village, with juniper incense burning outside many of the tiny shops. By now blisters were running rampant and I was the cause of the next stop for foot care issues.

We had descended to the tree line now, and wild purple iris were starting to reappear. We crossed the river a couple of times, and then made our way up a long uphill through the rhododendron forest back to the placid setting of Tengboche. It truly was a Shangri La moment, and even more pink and purple spring flowers had bloomed since we were last here. We had lunch and hung out in the dining room, watching the grey mist settle in over the grazing cows and horses. Despite this, a group of monks in their crimson robes made their way across the meadow into the neighboring field for an energetic game of soccer. We did nothing so energetic. Instead, our little hiking group engaged in a lively game of snakes and ladders on one of the many board games in the dining room.

The next day we had to make our way to Namche. We’d walked this path before. But it looked totally different from the opposite direction. I think this is possibly the most beautiful part of the whole trek – and possibly any trek. It was nearly all rhododendron forest – crimsons of all shades, steep snow-capped mountains, clouds, and blue skies. The rhododendrons were so bright you could see splashes of colors in the distant mountains like fall leaves.

At one point we saw a musk deer, unusual for this area. They are hunted for their musk glands, and grow long canine teeth.

It was a relatively short hike to Namche and we were back at the now familiar Himalayan Culture Home by lunch.  It seemed warmer this time. In the afternoon we climbed a series of hills to the rather dilapidated National Park Museum (most notable for the Tenzing Sherpa statue) and the Sherpa Culture Museum. It is an odd place. Owned by a man who had lost his hearing to meningitis, didn’t go forward with his education and instead opened the museum. He’d hosted Sir Edmund Hillary in his later years. We were ushered into a dank and moldy basement where we sat on folding plastic chairs and watched a 20 minute slide show about Sherpa culture projected on the wall. And the inspected the very impressive – but not updated – photos of every Sherpa Climber who had scaled Everest.

We had an early night that night (not that any weren’t early).  The next day we had to make it all the way to Lukla. On the way, this had taken  us two days and now we had to do it in one.

Everest Base Camp Trek – Under the Eaves of the Roof of the World

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It had now been eight days since we left Orlando, and we were finally ready for our trek to Lobuche at 16,180 feet.  This took us well above the tree line into a very barren area, through valleys occupied only by grazing yaks (who seem able to eat anything), and what can only be described as a stone hobbit house for the yak herders. Everest peeked through clouds and mountains in the distance.

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We had lunch at a tea house on the other side of a slightly less scary swinging bridge, which was followed by a very long uphill, culminating in the many memorials placed in honor of those who have died on Everest. They reminded me in some grim way of the above ground tombs you see tthroughout New Orleans.

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From there, it was more up and down and finally into Lobuche. We were by now completely out of village culture and into trekking culture. We kept running into the same people everywhere – the guys from India, the nurses from Florida who were working in Nepal, the Australian couple. And I think I forgot to mention that he who hogged my seat on the flight to Katmandu ended up staying across the hall from me in Dingboche!

The Oxygen Altitude Hotel was our next residence and one of the worst bathroom experiences yet – even though by then we had adapted to the fact that the existence of an ostensibly normal looking toilet meant nothing about flushing. Instead, flushing was correlated to the barrel of water with the plastic jug floating on top that was placed next to the toilet – and usually in just a spot to make it hard to close the door. But when you realize how difficult it was just to get that water there it becomes much more understandable. At that height – despite the surrounding glaciers – there’s no easy water source. There’s also no source for fuel. Yak dung fed the one stove in the dining room – and it was the only source of heat.

After we arrived,  J and I went with our guide for a short acclimatization hike up the nearby ridge to look at the Kumbo Icefall. I forgot my poles and it was dicy on the way up and started to snow on the way down. The Icefall itself looks like someone took a big bag of snow covered ice cubes and dumped them down a slide.

None of us slept well that first night at over 16,000 — and the next day was to be the trek to Gorak Shep and EBC. We started at a reasonable hour but the team wasn’t moving very fast – it’s a lot harder to get oxygen at that altitude – and we ended up going first to Gorak Shep, checked into our tea house and had lunch. This was a much smaller lodging – our rooms were up three flights of completely uneven stairs – some almost 20 inches high – and I found getting to the room as hard as the trek itself. To add insult to injury, due to the water issues the inside bathrooms were barricaded off during the day!

The trek to EBC – theoretically the talisman of the trip – is challenging. You hike alongside the glacier – mostly stone-covered but with deep divots through which you can see tens of feet of blue ice and frozen lakes.  Lots of rocks to pick your way between and finally you reach what feels like a natural levee between two valleys that you hike along.

 

IMG_0410The creepiest part of the experience was to hear avalanches and rock fall by Everest and the surrounding g mountains. J and I were hiking by ourselves ahead of the team. At first I heard a sound like thunder – a slow roar, a rush, and then I heard someone yell from across the valley. I think it was on Lhotse. We heard several more similar soundtracks – and on the way back I saw a huge rock become dislodged and start a slide.

We waited for M and S at the levee just before base camp so we enter together surrounded by prayer flags. It’s very spread out and I wish we’d had the time to poke about. Weather had been terrible at the summit so most of the climbers were still at base camp.

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After photos, we headed straight back. Exhausted and early to bed – especially since J and I were rising early to climb Kala Pattar – 18’200 feet – which was our main mission.

We got up at 5, had a coffee and a Cliff bar, and met up with our guide. Our tea house was very close to the beginning of the trail. Very steep dirt for the first part and my fingers were absolutely numb. The ground was frozen solid. Then, there was sort of a tundra area and another steep uphill, this time through black stone (which is what kala pattar means). A tiny bit of scrambling, especially at the top – and we were there. Surrounded by the panaramic view of the highest of the Himalayas – I finally I had that over 18,000 feet of altitude nothing will get to you feeling that happens only  at serious height and after days of trekking. I was happy.

Descended, and had breakfast with M and S. We headed back to Lobuche, for lunch at the Oxygen Altitude. We were about to start the trek for the long way home. (More to come in that front.)

M and S had never done anything like this before. They did great. But it’s nothing to do with the training or  physical discomfort you endure. The outcome of trekking at high altitude takes a while to sink in.  The reality is – no one and nothing can ever take away it away from you. We had stood in the attic just under the roof of the world.

Everest Base Camp Trek – Tengboche and Dingboche (or Lost Horizons)

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After two nights acclimatizing in Namche Bazaar, it was time for the march to continue. Sleep patterns were by now most peculiar – I found myself asleep by 9 pm, awakening at 1 am or so and reading, and then returning to sleep. I seemed to have reverted to the Middle Ages concept of first and second sleep.

The day we left Namche was the day before Buddha’s Day. We walked clockwise (of course) around the monastery where prayers had already started and along the trail that we had looked down upon the day before. At first it was relatively flat, with some gradual ups and downs. After some time, we entered the Sagamurtha National Park and the altitude where the rhododendrons were still in bloom. Pink, white, red – forming an arcade over the trail. Another swinging bridge – I can feel myself start to sweat – and then time for lunch in a small cafe. The walls were covered in tapestry and all the food was prepared by two women over a wood burning stove. It felt as though we were in an old fashioned gypsy caravan.  After, we were backed against a wall by one of the many yak trains coming through. This was S’s first of many encounters of the not good sort with a yak.

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A couple of hours of up through layered jagged mountains, overhanging fog, framed by rhododendrons.  These mountains are new, geologically speaking, and a young world appeared around each bend in the trail.  Light green trees interspersed with dark pines, creating a textures that clothed the mountains.  We made it to the top in a respectable time, turned a corner, and suddenly we were at the Tengboche Monastery.

Checked in to the Tashi Delek Lodge and then visited the monastery. Tengboche is centered around the very old monastery – there were a few tea houses for trekkers and a bakery, but we were now far away from the village culture we had previously experienced. It is bucolic. There’s an open meadow area where cows roam, the gate to the monastery and some low buildings where the monks live in numbered rooms, and a few grey stone tea houses.

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Six of the 12 resident monks sat in the center, chanting in a low drone. They spend their lives here, in very small rooms.  When we stayed at Tengboche on the return, we saw the younger ones going off to play soccer, crimson robes flapping in the wind.

The fog rolled in, slowly covering the small dwellings.

The next day we trekked to Dingboche, where we were to spend two more days acclimatizing to to over 14,000 feet. We could hear prayers chanted in each of the villages as we walked through.  The wooded part of the trail soon opened up into a stony valley – the milky river below and some serious rock slides where I did not want to linger. Ultimately we ended up in Upper Pangboche. Most trekkers go through Lower Pangboche only, but it was clear that our guide wanted to make a special stop at the monastery for Buddha’s Day. This is a 400 year old structure, founded by a monk who allegedly flew there. Various people were coming in and out to pray for Buddha’s Day. Z lit a butter lamp, incense was burned, and he prostrated himself three times. A lay monk poured water in all of our cupped hands to drink and smoothe on our foreheads as an act of purification. He also showed us a niche in the wall of the monastery that housed a relic of the flying monk – a bone of some sort.

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Hiked on and on, including a stop for lunch, and then another couple of hours to Dingboche. Trail normally about 2 feet wide, sometimes with very steep drops on each side. Across the river the stones were white with splashes of red. We were above the tree line now. Small junipers, yaks, and a lot of helicopters making their way to base camp.

in Dingboche we stayed at the Good Luck lodge. It was packed. We had a nice little room where the sun shone through the window and it was almost warm. The last few have been cold and damp. We are now at the point where yak dung provided the only fuel for the fire in the comunal dining area (which is never ignited before 5 pm). The middle of Dingboche is all privately owned potato fields – to get anywhere you have to walk three sides of a square.

The next day we did an acclimatization hike to the Chukung Valley. We followed the milky river. A wide, stony expanse, with Ama Dablam peering at us from the right, Lhotse to our left, and Island Peak in solitary splendor straight ahead. We stopped at a cafe – and who was there but the guy from the plane. This time he explained that his seat hogging actions had been fueled by a few too many pints after he unexpectedly ran into a cousin at the Dubai airport. He and his friends were doing the three pass EBC route.

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There was a piercing wind on the way back and we went much faster.  Once safely ensconced in Dingboche,  J and I explored the village while M Andy S made friends with some fellow trekkers who were happy to share the very exotic salami they had brought from France. A nice change from gu’s! The dining room was packed because the rooms were so cold.

We were now acclimatized to over 14,000 feet. Next up – two nights at over 16,000 feet – EBC itself and Kala Pattar!