Sunday, May 27, 2012

Thoughts About Everest

Finally, after writing this blog a couple months ago, I am getting around to posting. The news may be old but the impressions are still fresh in my mind.

Returning home from a month long vacation is chaotic, at best. The laundry is done, phone calls returned, the mail processed, but every day, my thoughts have reverted to that beautiful country of Nepal with its amazing people. How do I begin to describe our trek in the Himalayas and portray the majesty and respect that Everest demands? How do I possibly attempt to articulate the gratitude and humility I feel as I begin once again to restructure and assimilate my life back to its familiar surroundings? It is mind boggling and overwhelming.

We signed up for our trek a year in advance giving us opportunity to prepare physically, and to assemble the clothing and gear we would need. Much of the experience was lived through the anticipation of wondering what the trek would be like and planning the proper clothing for this temperature, or that scenario, etc. Everything that I packed was used except for an extra pair of Gortex pants and a heavy pair of gloves. My only regret was not taking my iPad. (Free advertisement for Apple!)

We traveled with 23 members from the Wilderness Medical Society and trekked with Peak Promotion Pvt. Ltd., a trekking and mountaineering agency in Nepal owned and operated by Wongchu Sherpa. He is affectionately referred to as the "Nepal Secretary of Tourism." He is very well known, connected and civic minded, returning thousands of dollars back to the people and infrastructure of Nepal. We had nine Sherpa guides and numerous porters, yaks and dzopkyos who carried hundreds of pounds of supplies and gear to our resting spots each day. Our trek success and comfort can be directly attributed to their extraordinary self sacrifices and care. None of us would have made it without them.

Our entire group was outstanding. We meshed well with a good mix of determination, ability, strength, camaraderie, kazoo playing, laughing, compassion, care,(medical and other), help, and fun! Five of us were from Utah and the others hailed from Texas, Idaho, New York, Colorado, North Carolina, Canada and even Norway! Ages spanned from the late twenties to mid sixties. All of us made it to EBC with relatively few barriers which was a wonderful accomplishment.

One of the questions asked most often is what is the attraction of Everest? George Mallery's answer from the 1920's is probably the most quoted, "Because it's there." Everyone has their own reasons, but it might be because Everest is the tallest place on Earth. Its massive, unyielding legendary size took hundreds (thousands?) of years to finally conquer. Its mystical appeal is what drew me there. I wanted to see it. And I did! Let me be clear, I did not attempt to climb Mt. Everest. I trekked to Everest Base Camp (EBC) which is now on my list of the most awesome things. Everest and the Himalayan range are unbelievable sights, and equally important were the beautiful people that helped us get there.

On our first day in Kathmandu, (the capital city of Nepal) our group met and had dinner with David Braeshears (Everest IMAX cinematographer) who has spent the last 33 years connected with Nepal. He describes the attraction to Everest with the following:
"Climbing Everest is about the deprivations, the challenge, the sheer physical beauty, the movement and rhythm. And it's partly about risk. You learn about yourself, about what happens when you abandon comfort and warmth and a daily routine, the tyranny of the urgent. You learn how you perform and how you handle a situation that may be life threatening. There's a reward for your effort and a lot of fatigue, too, but I even like the fatigue. I like to wake up in the morning feeling stronger than I was the day before."

I relate to this on my own scale. We had deprivations and challenges, but the numerous stops along the way allowed our minds to stop thinking about our hearts pounding out of our chest, or our lungs gasping for air and gave pause to raise our eyes upward to the most breath taking views. No where else in the world could we see and experience the things we did.

Our trek began in Lukla, Nepal, about a 45 minute flight from Kathmandu. We spent ten days trekking to Everest Base Camp, slept two nights there, and returned to Lukla in three days. The overall distance was around 75-80 miles going up, down, and all around, reaching elevations of 18,500 ft. In a nutshell, days 1-9 were fabulous, day 10 was hellacious, seriously one of the hardest, most taxing days in my life; days 11-12 in Base Camp were interesting but freezing cold at night, days 13-14 were good and day 15 returning to Lukla was hard, probably more so mentally than physically.

Am I glad that I did it? An absolute, resounding YES!! This trip ranks in the top three as one of the most interesting, satisfying things that Mark and I have done. The variations allowed self discovery on many levels with the physical and mental components, especially with such high altitudes and all surrounded by the amazing, beautiful Himalayan mountains. The trip exceeded both of Mark's and my expectations as a very special, meaningful, wonderful experience.

This trek was so different from a mountain hike because the "trail" was actually the main drag through villages where people live and die. Generations of families have grown up in these little villages. Motorized vehicles are non-existent except for an occasional helicopter. Food, supplies and building materials are carried along the trail by people, yaks and dzopkyo (half cow, half yak). That makes for interesting sights. We saw porters carrying stoves, propane, wood, food, cases of drinks, Pringles by the oodles, etc.

For me, the most memorable things along the trail were:

Prayer Flags:
The prayer flags are arranged in order in five colors - blue, white, red, green and yellow. The five colors represent the five elements of life. Blue symbolizes the sky, green symbolizes air/wind, red symbolizes fire, white symbolizes water, and yellow symbolizes earth. According to traditional Tibetan/Nepalese medicine, health and harmony are produced through the balance of the five elements. Thousands and thousands of them dot the Himalayas making a beautiful, colorful sight. They are used to bless the surrounding countryside and the people passing along the way. They promote peace, compassion, strength, and wisdom. A common misconception is that the flags carry prayers to the gods; rather, the people believe the prayers on the flags will be blown by the wind to spread the good will and compassion into space. "Just as life moves on and is replaced by new life, the people renew their hopes for the world by continually mounting new flags alongside the old." I hung a lot of prayer flags in our yard and house after arriving home. I was originally going to keep them up until Tom Burton and Will Calton returned from their summit of Everest. Although that is over, I have kept the flags up because they take me to a happy place!

Prayer Wheels:
We saw many, many prayer wheels which are basically cylinders on a spindle made from metal, wood,or stone. Traditionally, the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum is written in Sanskrit on the outside of the wheel. As you pass by, you can spin the wheels, which is supposed to have the same effect as orally reading the prayers. We saw small wheels just a few inches high and some as large as life.

Buddhist Stupas:
Many Buddhist stupas sit right in the center of the trail allowing traders, pilgrims and travelers a blessing for safe passage over the mountain passes. We quickly learned to always walk left, passing in a clock-wise direction resembling the direction that the earth and universe revolve. They give tribute to Nepal's rich spirituality and culture.

Mani Stones:
There were hundreds of mani stone structures which were intricately chisled into granite walls and on stone tablets. Most also have the inscription, "Om Mani Padme Hum" which loosely translates to "Hail to the jewel in the lotus". These structures, like the stupas, are approached from the left and passed in a clock-wise direction.

Tea Houses:
The tea houses are in every little village serving food and drinks all day long. With the exception of our two nights in tents at Base Camp, we stayed overnight in tea houses, ate our meals there, and stopped in for mid-morning and afternoon breaks. Most tea houses had a variety of herbal teas along with traditional black and green teas. I drank loads of lemon tea which is basically a hot, diluted lemonade. It felt wonderful to take our packs off, rest our feet, hydrate and socialize. This was a favorite part of the trek.

Buddhist Monasteries and the Lama Geshe:
We spent a night in the beautiful Thangboche monastery which sits atop a hill at nearly 13,000 ft.
It was built in the 1920s, destroyed by an earthquake in 1934, and burned down in 1989 before being rebuilt.
A highlight of the trek was visiting the Lama Geshe in Pangboche. As "the highest ranking Buddhist Lama in the area," he is a remarkable humble, gentle, kind, eighty plus year old man.
Almost every climber to the Everest region visits him to receive a blessing for a safe trip before their climb. Our trekking group was invited to sit on benches in a large room where we presented an offering wrapped in a silk kata which was graciously accepted. Then one by one each person approached the Lama, knelt down, bowed with the palms of the hands raised together and greeted him by saying, "Namaste". The Lama Geshe gently butted our heads and tied an orange string around our necks while offering a blessing and encouragement to each trekker. Wongchu told us that he would not proceed without receiving his permission for a safe trek. Each of the physicians were asked to stepped forward.

The Lama Geshe spoke individually with each one as he handwrote their names on an envelope and gave them a card with a story about a Yeti (a mythical character similar to the Loch Ness monster or the abominable snowman) who asked a physician to remove a bone from the throat of his Yeti wife who was dying. The Lama Geshe was so very thoughtful with the personalized gifts and blessings. As we exited the monastery we saw a skull and hand bones of a Yeti cased in a glass box. Very interesting to have such large bones from a mythical character!

Nepalese Farms:
We saw beautiful farmlands terraced into the sides of the mountains. Oft times we observed family members working together to farm primarily potatoes, vegetables and chickens.

Yaks and Dzopkyos:
Yaks and dzopkyos(1/2 cow and 1/2 yak) rule the trail. Each animal carries probably two hundred plus pounds of equipment/packs with a serving of hay on top. Dzopkyos perform best at elevations under 11,000 ft. and yaks do better at the higher elevations. The animals (along with the Sherpas and porters) are absolute necessities to the natives and trekking groups. They have incredible balance and agility to traverse the steepest, rocky terrain. Large, brass bells hang from their necks giving warning to step aside. They carry wide loads with attitude! You quickly get off the trail on the INSIDE to avoid being pushed off the mountain. Usually one to three people, even children, hold the tails of the last animals, whistling or encouraging the yaks to move along. It was thrilling to see a yak carrying my dufflebag inscribed with my name in black, magic marker. Really, where else in the world would you ever see that!

These people are unbelievable work horses. It broke my heart to see the heavy loads they carried. One young porter who weighed probably 135 lbs. was carrying a load of solid wood planks. When we asked one of the Sherpa's how many kilos he was carrying he guessed around 100 lbs. He then asked the porter who replied, "100 kilos," (220 lbs.)! We were all shocked and sickened. I struggled to carry my little day pack up and down the steep hills wearing great hiking boots. These poor porters so often have nothing more than flip flops, a cotton strap around their forehead bearing the weight, and a little stick of wood in the shape of a "T" that they sit on to rest the load when it gets too heavy. Oft times it is their only way of earning a living. I can only imagine the back and knee problems they must suffer as the years roll on. Some of them carried MP3 players and cell phones to relieve the monotony of carrying their heavy loads day after day. It was more than humbling to know that all of our meals and comforts on the trek were because of these dear porters, working their guts out.

The Cooks:
We had hot, delicious meals three times a day. The cooks, in conjunction with the Serpas made it all happen. We often ate the same food for lunch to save preparation time, but the majority of our breakfasts and dinners were individually ordered off the menu. As each meal was prepared, the Sherpas would call out, "Oatmeal and Chapati, who has Oatmeal and chapati? Yak sizzler, yak sizzler, who has yak sizzler? Two eggs with toast and jam, who has two eggs with toast and jam?" This became a rather comical ritual at mealtime. And the meals were so good! The cooks at Base Camp really outdid themselves. A huge dining tent seating over thirty people was set up and decorated with flower garland. We affectionately called it the "Aloha tent." We had peanut butter, Nutella, crackers, cookies, biscuits, hot chocolate, cidar, teas of every flavor, syrup for pancakes, etc. The cooks made such delicious meals in a very desolate place! And to think that every bit of food was hand carried there was mind boggling.

Nepalese Children and People:
The children were so delightful. They clearly understood, "Namaste." As we greeted the children, they would put their little hands together, bow, and repeat back, "Namaste." (The higher good in me honors the higher good in you). Children everywhere are so charming, honest and innocent and the Nepalese children were no exception. It made me happy to see little families working together, or to see elderly grandparents spending time with grandchildren giving love, guidance and advice. Some things are heartwarming, regardless of where you are in the world.

The Sherpas:
I have already mentioned how lucky we were to be guided by Wongchu Sherpa. He is smart, caring, a shaker and mover type and a bit of a rule breaker which I found refreshing. For example, trekkers are generally allowed to stay no longer than an hour or two at Everest Base Camp, but Wongchu arranged for our medical group to be there for three days. Trekking groups are also not allowed on the glaciers leading to Camp 1, but we were able to get "just a taste" with Wongchu's guidance. Upon my return, I have read and learned so many more things about Wongchu respecting him even more.

All nine of our Sherpas were wonderful. Several of them had summited Everest. They cooked our food, filled our water bottles with boiling water each night which kept our sleeping bags warm, guided us through the mountains, had hand sanitizer for us at every meal, took care of our every need, etc. They couldn't have been more professional and accomodating. But the Sherpa that stayed by my side and helped me so very much was Denji. He offered to carry my pack, handed me water to stay hydrated, would find a little rock for me to sit on if I started breathing too hard, made sure my bags were promptly delivered to my room each night, and on and on. He taught me the name of each mountain, told me about his family and children and helped me so many times along the trail. I am so thankful for his help and encouragement.

Namche Bazar
A long, strenuous hike rising from 10,000 ft. to 12,000 ft. leads to the very cute village of Namche. Every Saturday the town is abuzz filled with vendors and people at the Namche Bazar. The villagers gather from miles around to buy and sell supplies of all kinds. It was a bright, colorful place and very fun to see. Wongchu suggested that we delay our purchases until our return to Kathmandu to alleviate any extra weight on the porters and yaks. We spent two days there acclimatizing to the altitudes going up and one night on our return. I availed the internet service in the teahouse we stayed at and caught up with life back on the home front.

The Sherpa Museum

It is equally as big a deal for a Sherpa to summit Everest as it is for a Westerner or anyone else for that matter.

The Sherpa Museum just outside of Namche Bazaar was very interesting to see. It houses pictures of every Sherpa that has had a successful summit, the date, and the route. Several of the Sherpas on our trek proudly showed us their pictures.

Ogden's own George Lowe is proudly represented on the wall for being the first to summit the most difficult route of Everest, the Khangshung Face in October of 1983.

Apa Sherpa, currently living in Salt Lake City is the most renowned Sherpa in the world with twenty-one successful summits. He chose not to attempt a summit bid this year because of the dangerous conditions on Everest with little snow, sun exposed surfaces and an unusually large number of avalanches.

The Bridges:
We crossed numerous metal suspension bridges that shortened the span across deep canyons and rivers.

Many were strung with prayer flags and katas, a cream colored scarf that is placed around the neck as a symbol of honor and inscribed with Buddhist prayers. I chuckle when I think of Dr. Dave Fitzgerald who was terrified of crossing the bridges but overcame his fears by the end of the trek.

The Medical Expertise:
Our trek was unique in that we had numerous physicians and medical personnel well versed in acute altitude sickness, cerebral edema, pulmonary edema and the like. A month before we left I picked up an obnoxious cough that refused to subside for another month and a half. My talking was constantly interrupted by a cough that wouldn't stop. It was worrisome as we gained elevation with compromised lungs. Thank heavens for Dr. Tony Islas, Cory Huffine and others who gave me Albuteral treatments, Adavair, cough drops, and suppressants. Around 17,000 ft., Mark, Jed and Amy were affected with various degrees of acute altitude sickness the day before we reached Base Camp. They, too, were the recipients of specialized care and medications that helped them acclimatize.

The volunteer physicians who work with the Himalayan Rescue Association Clinic in Pharache and the Everest ER provide invaluable service to those in need. They spend approximately three months during the climbing season manning the clinics 24/7 treating and saving many lives of both foreigners and natives. One of the physicians, Maria Namathey, is an ER doc at the University of Utah.
She found a little dog nearly frozen to death down by the river and nursed it back to health. Nema became sort of an icon for the clinic, sporting a little parka with a Rescue Association patch sewn on the side. I held him any chance I could because he was not only darling but provided good body heat in a cold place.

Between the villages of Phariche and Lobuche is a steep hill called Dugla Pass. As we reached top of Dugla Pass, we observed hundreds of prayer flags and various memorials built to honor and remember many people who have died on Everest. Having read, "Into Thin Air" and "High Exposure," I was particularly touched by Scott Fischer's memorial which lay so still and quiet. Wongchu told us about so many of his personal friends who were honored there.

Everest Base Camp:
Arriving at Base Camp was extremely emotional for me. We began the morning in Gorekshep where Jed, Amy and Mark were suffering from typical signs associated with acute altitude sickness: headaches, nausea, and overall fatigue. Guided by a Sherpa they took the most direct route to Base Camp. The rest of us summited Kala Patthar at 18,500 ft.
The views from the top provide the most excellent and accessible photo opportunities to see Everest in its majestic glory, from base camp to the summit. Only the top triangle of Everest is visible because of Lhotse and Nuptse which crowd the base. The views of the beautiful and massive Himalayan mountains in every direction were breath taking. Just indescribable. A clear, sunny, blue sky prevailed but hiking at that altitude was extremely taxing. The descent down the far side of Kala Patthar was horrendous. Every step on its sheer cliff caused an avalanche. Wongchu grabbed my hand, passed off my pack and trekking poles to a Sherpa and told me literally to follow in his footsteps. It was definitely the most technical and treacherous part of the trek.

The day seemed to drag on and on although the tents at Base Camp were within view and didn't seem far. We stumbled over huge boulders and rocks, and more boulders and rocks for hours. And. Hours. Finally as evening approached, we reached the infamous rock welcoming us to Base Camp. With tears in my eyes, I couldn't help but contemplate what an incredible journey this was and how grateful I was to have arrived.

The sherpas surprised us with hot lemon tea and cookies as we rested and rejoiced. Base camp is big filled with about 1400 people during the peak climbing season. It took over thirty minutes just to traverse from the base camp rock to our tents. The Peak Promotion sherpas had staked out the flattest, most desirable tent spots in all of Base Camp six months in advance and kept a continuous guard over the site until spring.

Two trekkers were assigned to each tent which came furnished with soft, foam pads to sleep on. Because Mark had arrived early, he collected my bag from the yaks and had the sleeping bags and everything set up. I was so fatigued from the hardest day of my life and so overwhelmed with everything, I lay down and cried. I could contain my emotions no longer. It was truly bittersweet. I quickly gained my composure when our friends and fellow Ogdenites, Will Calton and Tom Burton came to visit. They both successfully summited Everest about six weeks later.

Base camp was fascinating but definitely not my favorite part of the trek. It was cold and vicious at night and unbelievably warm in the day. The nighttime temperatures dropped to 10 degrees or below with high humidity and wind chill with the constant and ever present jet stream that surrounds Everest. I stayed warm by filling two water bottles with boiling hot water and clutched one on my chest and put one by my toes. My down mummy bag was zipped to my nose and surrounded my face leaving nothing more than a tiny hole from which to breath. Directly above my mouth, the moisture from my breath froze on the tent creating a snowfall when I attempted to flick off the crystals. It was hard to get adequate oxygen. In the middle of the night, I felt I was choking. I couldn't get my bag unzipped fast enough to sit upright and just gasp for air. I panted with urgency until finally my body caught up with oxygen and then I was fine for the rest of the trip.

After spending three days and two nights in these harsh conditions, I empathized with those fearless climbers who spend six to eight weeks, day after day and night after night contending with the harsh elements of Everest. Several times we heard and felt huge, crashing avalanches roll off the mountains and shake the ground. They sounded like the roar of a 747 taking off or a building collapsing under the wrecking ball. Apparently, these are common, everyday occurrences in that part of the world. It was nice to have arrived but equally nice to depart.
Enjoying the beach at basecamp.

The Beauty of the Himalayas:
And finally, the beauty of the Himalayan mountains are unsurpassed. Ten of the fourteen highest mountains in the world are in Nepal with their majestic presence beyond description. My favorite mountain was Ama Dablam.It sported bright, white snow on jagged ridges so perfectly framed and so very visible on much of the trek. Everyday provided a spectacular view with beauty unsurpassed. I couldn't help but think, "How Great Thou Art" and how lucky I was to be experiencing the things on this trek.

For my final parting thoughts, I have great respect for those who have summited or even attempt to summit Mt. Everest. I am amazed, perplexed and almost troubled, at the same time. So many lives have been lost. Three people died the week we were at EBC. It was tragic. It made me sick because I am sure they were great, outstanding people with a lot of life yet to live. Those who successfully accomplish this feat have to be so strong physically and mentally, coping with extreme dangers outside of one's control. It is a big deal. A lot bigger than what I ever imagined.

Joseph Hooker, a botanist and one of the preeminent scientists of the nineteenth century once wrote that above 14,000 feet, it was as if he had "a pound of lead on each knee cap, two pounds in the pit of the stomach, and a hoop of iron around the head." Above 21,000 feet, the body simply does not acclimatize to altitude. Everest is over 29,000 ft., an unbelievable height. I am just grateful to have reached EBC with relatively few problems. Many trekkers never reach it, partly because of the marked change on the body with the shortfall in oxygen resulting from reduced atmospheric pressure. It is taxing. But thanks to so many, including Denji, Wongchu, Mark, and all the other Sherpas, porters, trekking friends and yaks, I made it. We all made it -- all 23 trekkers in our group. Thanks to everyone for making a difference in my life. As my Great Grandpa wrote at the end of his journal entries, "And I came home rejoicing." Namaste.