Everest and India, 1989

In the fall, I went on a trek to the Solu Khumbu region of Nepal, home of Mt. Everest. I figured that if I wasn’t going to climb the world’s highest mountain, I might at least have a look at it, close up.

I signed up with an American commercial trekking company, Above the Clouds. It had been highly recommended, and while in principle I would rather have organized my own trip, in practice I couldn’t contend with the difficult details, especially because I had never been to Nepal. Fortunately, Above the Clouds proved to be a very congenial organization, as I discovered when I reached Kathmandu. Fourteen of us had signed on for the 23-day Everest from the East trek: equal numbers of men and women. All were American. The youngest was 19, the oldest--shockingly myself--52. All proved pleasant, in defiance of the law of averages, and all were competent hikers. This was fortunate, as the terrain was rougher than I had anticipated.

We began with a flight from Kathmandu, itself only 4400 feet high, east to tiny Tumlingtar, which is even lower. In late September, with the monsoon not quite ended, it felt tropical, although when the clouds cleared we could see the snows of Makalu, almost 28,000 feet, some 50 miles north. By the time of our late morning arrival, our bright green tents had been set up a few hundred yards from the grassy air strip. Tumlingtar is roadless; we saw no motorized vehicles until we returned to Kathmandu, more than three weeks later. I luckily drew a very amiable tent mate, Russell Zink, a California computer expert. We met our sirdar (head Sherpa), Dorje, along with our cooking staff and some of our numerous porters. (Our American guide, Bill Liske, had flown in with us.) The next morning we started our daily routine: tea and wash water at 6:00; breakfast half an hour later; on the trail close to 7:00. Although the porters took most of our gear--they ended up with at least 60 pounds each, supported by a tump line over their foreheads--we did carry day packs, and after a while my fifteen pounds came to seem very heavy. We usually had lunch around 11:00 (all meals were cooked for us) and later resumed until some time between 2:00 and 4:00. Along the busy trails, the only link between villages, we encountered numerous animals and the astonishingly friendly Nepalese. Then tea, supper in the dining tent, and an early bedtime.

The first few days were among the most difficult. The rain was fairly steady, further muddying the narrow trails and the rice paddies through which we threaded our way. We carried umbrellas, but it was impossible to stay dry. There was a great deal of climbing and then descending, which made for still more climbing. The most miserable hours were spent cramped in a gompa (Buddhist monastery) the third evening. This time we did not sleep in tents, as the grounds and we were very wet. We huddled in the gompa alcove, all fifteen of us, with no room even to sit until we were able to get inside. The latrine, a dark blue tent the shape of an up-ended coffin with a hole chopped out beneath, was fifty muddy feet away. But the intrepid cooking staff prepared our supper, we slept soundly and by morning the rain had stopped, not to return with such vigor the rest of the trip.

After a few days the rains were nearly over, though clouds formed over us as we climbed in the afternoon. There were fewer rice paddies, though even the steepest hills had been terraced for cultivation. Once we stopped for a desperately-needed wash beneath a waterfall. We must have seen fifty such cascades, some of them more than a thousand feet high. Tucked into the ravines they had formed, they were in some cases almost invisible. The vegetation thinned out and the air grew cooler. Early the fifth day we crossed the Salpa Pass, over 11,000 feet and had a view of snow peaks--relatively low, but still twice our altitude, and spectacular. This was the first of three passes we had to cross to reach the Dudh Kosi (Milk River), which leads into the Solu Khumbu. That evening, after descending 3000 feet, we stopped in the small village of Gudel. We camped in the schoolyard, surrounded by children staring at us strange visitors. Although we were on the original (1950) route to Everest, this part of it is now little visited. Gudel has no shops and seems to consist only of subsistence farms. By 8:00 that evening there was scarcely a sound, and not a single light.

Soon we had our most rigorous day: over another pass, then way down the other side to cross a sharp gorge and finally steeply up more than 2000 feet the other side. The trail was switch-backed, but unrelentingly steep. A few of the younger folk zoomed ahead and made the ascent in little more than an hour. They climbed 300 feet past our campsite to one of the first shops we had seen, where they bought out the entire beer supply, permanently endearing themselves to the rest of us. The (large) bottles cost over $2.00 apiece, a justifiable price since they had come over the same long hilly trail that we had.

During this part of the trip we encountered only a handful of foreigners, and we remained curiosities to many of the Nepalese, children especially. That largely changed when we passed the airstrip at Lukla, where as many as a hundred tourists a day arrive during October and November. (This popular route radically shortens the approach to the Sola Khumbu, but it also makes it harder to acclimatize. Lukla is 9000 feet, dangerously high as a starting point. Altitude sickness is distinctly unpleasant and can, quite suddenly, become fatal.) In addition to the Lukla throng, many others take the hideously overcrowded 14-hour bus to Jiri and walk in from there. Suddenly, the trails were wider, dotted with white backpackers and tourist lodges--no electricity, but sleeping pallets, food and drink. But now that we had reached what felt like civilization, we had our greatest crisis; our guide, Bill Liske, who never gets sick, developed severe abdominal pains. Considering where we were, this was especially scary. Fortunately, we happened to have two doctors in the group, one a urologist; and Bill, dosed with codeine, was able to walk to Lukla and fly out to Katmandu. But he left behind a lot of worried trekkers.

With Dorje in charge, we continued up the valley, crossing the Dudh Kosi gorge and ascending steeply up to Namche Bazaar, the major village of the Sherpa homeland. After what we had seen, Namche was a metropolis, with a few thousand residents and plenty of hotels for the tourists. Perhaps best known is the Khumbu Lodge, which features a guest book signed by Reinhold Messner, the first to climb all fourteen 8000-meter peaks, and Jimmy Carter. I was very impressed to learn that, though Carter was coptered into Namche, he trekked from there to our own high point, near Everest, in 1985. The town even had electricity a few hours a day and hot showers (though without the usual plumbing, the hot water being carried in buckets up to a convenient point). We camped right in the middle of town, constantly visited by sophisticated children wanting balloons and by yaks lying around and defecating in a major way. Here we took our first rest day in two weeks, visiting the nearby Mt. Everest museum, from which the mountain itself is clearly visible. Our stay was enlivened by the arrival of a helicopter, which disgorged a Japanese T.V. crew on its way to make a cigarette commercial.

We next made camp in Thyangboche, site of a beautiful monastery, the most famous in the country. Unfortunately it was then only a site, as the monastery had burned down the previous January. Reconstruction was to begin in 1990, astrologers having determined that 1989 was not a propitious year for such work. As we progressed, the air grew colder and the terrain more barren. At our highest camp, about 16,000 feet, it felt very chilly indeed--probably below 20 degrees at night. From there we set out in doubtful weather for our close-up view of Everest. Luckily the clouds gave way to a gorgeous day, and we forged up a rubble heap called Kala Pattar (18,450 feet) for a spectacular look at Everest, including its forlorn base camp and much of the climbing route, as well as the major neighboring peaks. I won’t attempt a description; I’ll just say that it was worth the considerable effort! The day was made happier by the presence of Bill Liske, who had rejoined us a few days earlier. His mysterious affliction had vanished as quickly as it had overtaken him.

We did not, happily, have to retrace our steps all the way to Tumlingtar. A few days past Namche we veered up to Lukla and a flight back to Kathmandu. Our hotel (the Shangrila, highly recommended) felt unbelievably luxurious, and we each took the half dozen or so hot showers needed to restore a semblance of cleanliness. And after a farewell feast at an Indian restaurant, we dispersed our various ways.

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