Day 18: Final Reflections

“Determination, with an optimistic attitude, is the key factor for success.”

-The Dalai Lama

Two years ago, this trip to Nepal was hatched by a group of classmates from the University of Vermont. Since our graduation in 1985, we’ve gathered roughly every five years to spend time in each other’s company doing something we mutually love, enjoying the outdoors. Together we’ve spent backcountry days in the mountains of Canada, the recesses of the Grand Canyon, the wilds of Alaska, and the outbacks of Glacier National Park. As we crossed the 50 years old threshold, our thinking began to venture overseas. Two of us were able to pursue and achieve a childhood dream, the summit of Kilimanjaro in September of 2017. The Nepal trip was intended to be a culmination of all of our dreams, climbing in the high Himalaya. Sadly, injury and surgery precluded two of the group from going in the end, but it was a joy to reunite with my Kili partner, Amy Daniels, to execute what we’d both thought about for years, actually being in the presence of the highest mountains in the world.

Neither Amy nor I was naive to the realities of sustained high altitude climbing, and executed a six month training regimen for preparation. But fundamentally, one never knows how one will react to altitude and circumstance. The best training, the right gear, appropriate acclimatization technique, and regular diamox pills while at altitude may be enough in one moment, but not in another.

This trip was the toughest physical experience of my life. Over the course of two weeks…

Traveled approximately 80 miles by foot.

Was above 9,000 feet the entire time and above 14,000 feet the majority of the time.

Ascended at least 12,660 total vertical feet. I say “at least” since there were always ups on days where the destination was a “down”.

Three times above 17,000 feet, Everest Basecamp, Cho La Pass, and Renjo La Pass.

Whereas Kilimanjaro was higher (19,341 feet) and tough, sustained high altitude and for a longer duration was the differentiator here in Nepal. Every day one feels the body wearing down. The battles to keep eating when you don’t feel like it getting stronger every day, the cold at night settling in more each move higher, the dry hack that begins to affect everyone from the heavy breathing of dry air and of yak dung stoves gets more acute, and the list goes on.

But I wouldn’t have missed it for the world:

To be in the presence of 4 of the 6 highest mountains in the world, including Nuptse, Cho Oyu, Makalu, Lhotse, and of course, Everest.

To be in the presence of numerous other mountains with storied histories such as Ama Dablam, Pumori, Tabuche, Cholotse, and many others.

To cross two major glaciers, the Khumbu and the Nogozumba.

To see Everest from both the south and the west multiple times, including at dawn and sunset.

To cross two major passes and to make it to Everest Basecamp.

To place a prayer flag at the highest point on the climb, Cho La Pass, and know that it flies there even now linked to key people in my life.

To meet and engage numerous Nepalese from various regions of the country, including the Sherpa.

To learn about both Hinduism and Buddhism and the culture and values that undergird each.

To experience not only physical, but emotional challenge as well, particularly with respect to the departure of my climbing partner, and persevering.

Beyond there, this experience has helped me to also be self-reflective on one’s life purpose. The morning of our first day in Namche, I noticed this quote on the tea house wall by the Dalai Lama:

THE TRUE MEANING OF LIFE

We are visitors on this planet. We are here for 90 or 100 years at the very most. During that period, we must try to do something good, something useful, with our lives. If you contribute to other people’s happiness, you will find the true goal, the true meaning of life.

For my roughly 30+ years in higher education, my focus has been on the opportunity that a college education provides and a relentless commitment to that goal, especially for student who are the first in their families to attend college. This trip has reminded me that purpose in life is important, but in service to others one finds true meaning.

Thanks to everyone who has supported me on this trip and and may you find strength and meaning in the contributions you make to others!

Tapā’īṁ ānandita huna sakcha

Day 17: Last full day in Nepal

It is hard to believe that tomorrow I begin the 3 leg flight back home. I’m anxious to be heading back but still reflecting on the past few weeks here and it’s meaning for me. Tomorrow morning before I leave I will offer thoughts on that front. Today, though, I will share insights on today’s activities and learning.

Asis picked me up about 10am and he joined me on a closing video. I hope you will watch it and get insights not only on the trip but he and his family. He was an excellent guide who I will miss when I leave.

For our first travels of the day, he took me in a cab to the National Museum near the Monkey Temple. I would liken it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, albeit a lot smaller. Had much art, sculpture, and other items of historical significance. I only wish we had a docent who could explain the pieces beyond cursory words in English. As it turned out, the Nepalese Military Museum was right across the street so we had to also go there. There was a rich history on the Nepalese Army and especially the famed Gurkhas. They really were a force to be feared for centuries and their curved kukri knife that they wielded with great lethality and still carry it today as standard army issue.

From there we returned to the Himalaya Glacier office to wrap some things up and then I took a walk to the Palace Museum down the street. Nepal used to have a monarchy, but on June 1, 2001, Prince Dipendra shot and killed 10 members of the royal family before killing himself. It ultimately led to the removal of the monarchy in Nepal. However, there are still rumblings by some to bring it back. The palace has a modernist feel to it, and with some interesting collections including the Crown Jewels and the house on the property where the massacre occurred (complete with bullet holes still in the walls).

Went for a walk afterwards along what I sensed is the main drag for hipsters in Nepal and indulged myself with popcorn chicken at KFC. I normally don’t do that, but I was curious about the taste. They were a bit spicy!

Dinner this evening with my guide Asis at a very nice restaurant called The Ship. I had a Norwegian Salmon that was fantastic! Long way from Norway too! Finished packing after that and ready to roll in the AM to start the long haul home.

Day 16: Kathmandu

What a joy it was to sleep last night in real sheets versus a sub-zero sleeping bag in a room that was not freezing. Thank you Amy for suggesting the Hyatt as a great place to recover! My latest challenge is to figure out how to get my things all packed the right way to fit and get home. Fortunately I have eaten, or unloaded on my porter, my Cliff Bars and Gatorade Power Bars, which took up a surprising amount of space, but I have also purchased gifts for others and items for myself. Tomorrow I may decide to leave a few more items here like the array of pharmaceutical supplies.

After breakfast and some blog work (videos now uploaded) my guide met me at noon to take me to the original hotel where we stayed. Alas, no longer a 5 star, but a comfortable 3 star. Of course a 1 star would probably exceed some of the places we’ve been these past few weeks. After he dropped me off, I went exploring. Found my way to the Palace Museum which sadly was closed for a religious holiday involving horses. As it turned out, right in front a parade of horses, what looked like riders about to compete in some way, and carriages, went by. Quite the pageantry, and akin to the changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace.

As I write this part of the blog, I am having lunch outdoors in the beautiful Garden of Dreams that is open. It is a peaceful spot frequented by Nepalese families and not a small number of lovers whispering sweet nothings to each other. Washed my panini down with a delicious mango mule. Temps in the low 70s and partially overcast.

Following lunch I took a risk and ventured into side streets to shop. GPS helpfully kept me from getting completely lost amidst the chaos all over this place along the narrow streets. This place is, so to speak, definitely not Kansas! How one is not run over continues to amaze me.

The highlight of today, though, was being invited to dinner at my guide’s home. What an honor, and something he did not need to do. He met me at the hotel, flagged down a taxi, assertively negotiated a price for which at one point I thought they might come to blows, and then we proceeded to go deep into the heart of Kathmandu where for sure there were no westerners. We finally got to his apartment, very small and modest by US standards, but a warm home and quiet area by comparison to most places I’ve seen so far. His wife met me warmly but had very limited English. His daughter, about to graduate from HS, was absolutely wonderful with good English and we talked most intelligently about college. She is bright and talented and asked good questions about college in the US. She’d recently been to a US college fair in the area and I knew the 4-5 schools who were there recruiting, including Wright State University where I worked as an ACE Fellow in fall 2009! What a small world. Dinner was most delicious Dal Bhat, in fact the best I’ve had so far! And, it came complete with two large bottles of beer even though they don’t drink. Getting to know the Nepalese people was as much an interest to me as climbing in the Himalaya, so this was a real treat.

Tomorrow Asis picks me up for a visit to one of the national museums. Can’t wait.

Day 15: Lukla flight to Ramechhap and 5 hour van ride to Kathmandu – 4,593 feet

As I awoke this morning, I hear the wonderful sound of planes taking off. Yea! This airport gets closed often for fog and wind. As I mentioned earlier, it is also considered the most dangerous airport in the world. It truly clings to a cliff with a sloped and short runway to get enough downhill speed to basically fall off the mountain into the air. Around 9:30am, we had our turn. Most smooth by our pilot who looked way cool in his aviator glasses and gloves.

Arrived to Ramechhap Airport which could be literally nowhere’sville. Sure feels like it. Loaded into a Toyota van for ride to Kathmandu. Let’s just say, this was a white knuckled experience for the ages, particularly disorienting because they drive on the left side. With no seatbelts to be found in the vehicle, our driver whizzed around corners like Mario Andretti, and the topography around here is all corners, on the edge of cliffs! One bad brake or broken steering control and we would be airborne. Our driver was very good though and seemed to simultaneously know when a section was too narrow or dangerous to pass, where potholes would disembowel the fairly new Toyota we were in, and where a cow, a goat, or chicken might be located as I suspect that would be a particularly bad thing in this majority Hindu culture. Given the topography, it is a wonder there are even roads at all! At one point, passed what appeared to be a Hindu ceremony with a young girl being carried in a basket up high and a band of sorts leading the procession. I don’t know what it was, but given it was near a river, perhaps a baptism or coming of age ritual? Our guides didn’t seem to know.

Stopped for lunch at a place that at best could be described as a small Stuckey’s, Nepalese style. But they had very good Dal Bhat, something I am growing fond of and our guide and porter anyway, eat basically at each meal! Shortly after departing, we came upon a traffic backup due to an accident. Another van got too close to a vehicle coming down and mushed the right front. Fortunately they were not careened off the road into the deep canyon!

Finally arrived Kathmandu and my one splurge, a night at the 5 star Hyatt where my climbing partner stayed for a few days earlier in the week. Yea for a real hot shower, toilet paper provided, clean crisp sheets, and great WiFi. And, perfect for washing a few needed necessities in the gorgeous tub :). Tomorrow I hotel downgrade again for my final few days in Kathmandu. As a sidebar, I hadn’t planned on a few extra days on this end, but the readjusted route due to bad weather in Kangma La Pass created it. I could have lingered another day in Gokyo, but it would have meant doing the last pass solo and not with my new partners on the same route, Adam and Sandra. Groups are generally wiser when doing the challenging passes so more guides and porters (theirs and mine) are in the mix in case of an emergency. As it turned out, it snowed again the night following our crossing of the Renjo La Pass which might have made a crossing the next day impossible, or at least extra treacherous.

Hyatt Kathmandu is amazing. 5 star and still only about $130 per night. My big splurge and only wish my climbing partner were here to celebrate with me. She was able to get a flight change earlier based on medical and insurance coverage. Superb dinner of wood fired chicken and washed down with an Everest beer. Have uploaded a number of pics and tomorrow hoping to upload some video. Good night all from the other side of the world.

Day 14: Namche to Lukla – 9,383 feet

Descended over the course of 6.5 hours from Namche to Lukla where we catch our plane out in the morning – destination Kathmandu. I say “descend” with some irony as like everything here, going either up or down involves a mix of both. At first I wondered why they couldn’t just carve the trail in more or less in a straight line, but the terrain, the need to cross the gorge numerous times on shakey, but blessedly steel spans, precludes that. But the “thicker” air and anticipated real bed at normal sleeping temps, is a lot of motivation!

Since I already traveled this ground in earlier blogs, I’ll focus on some different things. First, since we first went through about two weeks ago, spring has sprung! A number of fields were sprouting green, rhododendrons, the national flower, were in bloom. And we saw beatific white flowers blooming on what we thought were cherry trees but that were a form of peach tree. Point of trivia: Any guesses on the state animal (like the eagle is for America)? Hint – what would you guess in a country that is 81% Hindu? You guessed it, the cow. They are literally everywhere. India, also a mostly Hindu country, similarly holds the cow sacred (the highest form of reincarnation) but its national animal is the bengal tiger.

Coming down the mountain also revealed how much trekking and Everest expedition provisioning has accelerated now that April is here. The animal trains, and people, were noticeably more frequent. Some of these trekkers I saw I think have insufficient reserves to make it to basecamp, the most common destination by far, and perhaps that is why helicopter flights up and down the Khumbu are so frequent. As I was hiking, I also marveled at the quantity and types of manure everywhere. I have garbage bags to seal up my dirty clothes for home, but cleaning my boots strikes me as important. Not sure how the US Dept of Agriculture feels about small amounts of animal manure coming into the states in a world of foot and mouth disease.

A third observation was the Nepalese children. They seem completely unphased by cold temps, and on a few occasions observed mothers bathing their small children, helpfully in the sunshine. The children are all positive and fun loving in disposition, and seemed fine with having their picture taken, although one small group said, “no photo, no photo” and held up two fingers that might have meant peace or 200 rupes (about $2) 😊. Their mom seemed most entertained by the exchange.

A last observation I will make now focuses on the creativity and industriousness of the people of the high Himalaya. First, as a reminder, there are no cars, roads as we know them, or ready power or utility infrastructure (although they are most clever with solar and hydro in places, but the sun doesn’t always shine and water not easily accessible everywhere). While helicopters frequent the area, they aren’t financially practical for bringing in goods, except when an evac happens or hikers decide to book a heli out – communities piggyback on an empty heli coming in to bring some supplies since someone else is by definition paying for it. This, basically EVERYTHING you and I take for granted to exist everyday, comes in on someone’s back – a person, a donkey, a cow, or a yak. As you might guess, prices for goods are higher as you head up the Khumbu. We bought liter water bottles for instance (need to drink 2.5 to 3 liters a day). They started at the equivalent to $1 a bottle in Lukla to $4 a bottle near Everest Basecamp. The doing of everyday things such as laundry and building construction are also fascinating to watch. The former with soap and a scrubber over a table or rock and air drying and the latter with hand tools to cut stone blocks (will post some pics when I get better WiFi in Kathmandu).

Late this afternoon in our Lukla tea house, was the moment to tip our porter. Amy and I wished to be appropriately generous within an 8-12% of trip cost framework, but I also used the occasions to provide some gifts. First, I gave him my Vermont State Colleges shirt with an explanation of what it was and the admonition that he ensure he enables a good education for his 3 children. I perhaps laid it on more thick than I needed to (but, I do work in this industry and certainly see the opportunities enabled by education, especially firstgens in college), and he assured me it was a priority for him too. I’m not naive to the financial and geographical barriers he confronts In his country, but I’m hopeful this American made a small difference. At the very least, he is likely to wear his shirt on the Everest trail in the future, advertising the 4 regional colleges in Vermont! A second gift was a pair of clean socks (my last ones), that were high quality Patagonia smart wool. He told me a few days ago that his boots were not waterproof and on multiple days they were wet. He tried to dry them by the yak dung stove with varied success. I also gave him my hand and toe warmers that he said would come in most handy during late fall/winter treks (as it turned out, I did not use them). Finally I gave him my remaining Gatorade protein bars and Cliff bars with the admonition to eat them only when exerting energy and not sedentary in front of the TV 😊. I will miss Sundar’s positive spirit, extraordinary smile with straight white teeth (not that common in a country where dentistry and orthodonture is limited in rural area especially), and his inspirational vigor in dragging our bags up and over passes.

That’s the news from Lukla. I’m excited for tomorrow, with a twist. Apparently in the month of April, all domestic flights are being diverted to an airport 4.5 hours from Kathmandu. Hence while going direct to Kathmandu would be preferred, seeing the countryside will also be something new. Stay tuned…

Day 13: Lumde to Namche – 11,290 feet

There is nothing quite like a long down with the opportunity of a shower at the end! Officially completed the last leg of the Himalayan circuit with return to Namche. Last shower was here 8 days ago! Blissfully wonderful to get clean, even if it meant wearing clothes that were the least soiled. I have fully clean clothes back in Kathmandu. The trail down was typically a mix of rocky and dirt paths, with some stone steps in the mix that really tax the knees. Passed a number of small towns, most of which that are actively engaged in potato planting, a commonly grown crop in the Himalaya. I learned that women do most of the farming and that was my observation. As I understand it, men tend to be porters or join the army.

The day was again clear. I guess I spun enough Buddhist prayer wheels and passed on the left into and out of towns to shine good fortune on us most of the time weather wise 😊. Mountains are equally amazing on the west side of the national park, despite their most famous brethren on the other side of the range we traversed. Also much less visited than the other side’s “highway” to basecamp. Folks that way don’t do the high passes, the most difficult non-technical climbing as I noted in an earlier blog post. The passes are also higher than Everest Base Camp. Arrived Namche around 1:30pm for a late lunch, shower, and final shop-up before we beeline it tomorrow on the long haul to Lukla (took us 2 days to come up) and a flight to Kathmandu the morning after. is nothing quite like a long down with the opportunity of a shower at the end! Officially completed the last leg of the Himalayan circuit with return to Namche. Last shower was here 8 days ago! Blissfully wonderful to get clean, even if it meant wearing clothes that were the least soiled. I have fully clean clothes back in Kathmandu. The trail down was typically a mix of rocky and dirt paths, with some stone steps in the mix that really tax the knees. Passed a number of small towns, most of which that are actively engaged in potato planting, a commonly grown crop in the Himalaya. I learned that women do most of the farming and that was my observation. As I understand it, men tend to be porters or join the army. The day was again clear. I guess I spun enough Buddhist prayer wheels and passed on the left into and out of towns to shine good fortune on us most of the time weather wise 😊. Mountains are equally amazing on the west side of the national park, despite their most famous brethren on the other side of the range we traversed. Also much less visited than the other side’s “highway” to basecamp. Folks that way don’t do the high passes, the most difficult non-technical climbing as I noted in an earlier blog post. The passes are also higher than Everest Base Camp. Arrived Namche around 1:30pm for a late lunch, shower, and final shop-up before we beeline it tomorrow on the long haul to Lukla (took us 2 days to come up) and a flight to Kathmandu the morning after.

Day 12: Gokyo to Lumde – 14,327 feet

This is the first moment I have had WiFi in days. So if you wish to read in chronological order, start from where you left off (likely day 8).

Today was the official first day of coming down from the high mountains. Lumde is about 1,200 feet lower than Gokyo which should start to manifest in better sleeping. But don’t be deceived, today was the hardest day of climbing in my life. On the heels of 10 hours yesterday and the Cho La Pass, we again were on trail at 5:30am and proceeded up the trail to the pass, 2,000+ vertical feet, some of it more suited to mountain goats than humans. Our first view was of Cho Oyu at the head of the glacier we traversed yesterday. Once we got up higher, at one point, our guide hurried us through an especially dangerous rock fall section. Going “fast” was mostly out of the question; simply breathing predominated. Amazingly, joining us were two dogs from Gokyo (one of whom I am sure barked all night making sleep all the more fitful). They seemed completely unfazed by the elevation and at moments sprinted up the steeps. They actually followed us all the way to Lumde. Dogs around here are not owned by anyone but all feed them. I decided to name them “Blue Green Sherpa” (had two different eye colors) and “Socks Sherpa” (looked somewhat like the wolf from Dances with Wolves that the Kevin Costner character adopts). Our guides also revealed an interesting factoid – April is dog breeding season.

Anyway, I digress. We made it to the Pass after almost 4 hours of climbing. Once again we were blessed by a mostly clear sunny day and feasted our eyes on the most comprehensive view of Everest and the mountains surrounding it. Many 23,000+ foot mountains all in fields of view. On Everest, the Hillary Step, the South Summit, the South Col, and the shear face in that area were in clear view, all of which have been the source of great achievements and tragedies. Having been 2 for 2 weather wise through the passes was a stroke of good luck that I will cherish given that the high passes are the hardest climbs in this part of the Himalaya that don’t require technical equipment beyond microspike crampons and a helmet. As a result many fewer do it. Everest Basecamp is the primary trip people do. Our guide calls the trail there the “superhighway”.

Headed down after about 20 minutes of photos and snacks. Once again, rock faces loomed above and we all found an extra gear while using great caution on the steep icy track down. Trail varied from snow/slush covered and often muddy. My boots held up well, as did the gaiters my kids got me for Christmas – kept the snow and muck out. Our porter was less fortunate with boots that don’t appear to be waterproof. I really feel for him, but he always has a warm smile and friendly spirit. He’ll be getting a good tip.

Arrived Lumde in the afternoon and had what is becoming my meal favorite, Sherpa Stew. I confess, though, that I am looking forward to a burger at the LA airport when I get there. And, for the first time in days, I have a bathroom in my room! Still a hole in the floor with a bucket to flush water into it though. Tomorrow we are back to Namche having completed our circle route of the Himalaya (with a deviation to Everest Basecamp) and the first shower in 9 days! Can’t wait.

As I write this we are hovered around the yak dung stove. I have great video of the proprietor loading it for any of that wanted to get a stove like this :). Outside it is sleeting/snowing. We were so fortunate to get over the last pass today as it might be snowed in tomorrow.