Prologue – before hitting the mountain
The 7th day on the mountain we woke up to a clear blue sky. The air temperature was at least -5C. The water bucket that the teahouse owner left outside for his customers to wash up in the morning turned to ice. My cold got worsen. I got weaker and weaker by day. The whole trekking up to this point was very adventurous. However getting into Nepal itself was an adventure of its own.
Let’s start with day zero:
I left San Jose at a crack of dawn to SFO to catch my flight. This would be my first time flying to Dubai – India. First flight from SFO to Dubai was a blessing. Only half of the airplane was filled. I had the whole roll to myself to lay down during my 16 hours flight.
To kill time I continue reading A Fine Balance. First couple hundred pages were hard to digest. Mostly introduction to all the characters. By the time I reached Dubai, the story is getting more interesting.
16 hours is a long time to be in a confined space. When I got tired of reading, I turned to movies. Sometimes I felt asleep during the movie. I cycled between sleep/read/movie to pass the time.
In India I had to wait for 16 hours for my connecting flight to Nepal. This would be my longest layover. At night all the shops are open. I was able to find a bench to lay down for a short nap. It was hard to fall asleep when there are so many people walking around, Bollywood musics are playing and bright light coming down from the ceiling. At the Delhi airport, I found it interesting how there’s always a cleaner in the men’s room keeping the place tidy. It was voted to be #1 airport in 2014, I can see why.
At 8.30am on Saturday 10/10, I finally arrived in Kathmandu. Not to my surprise, KTM is an old airport. Once we got off the airplane, we were shuttled inside by a bus. Visa can be purchased at the airport. I paid $25USD for 15 days, which is very reasonable I thought. For lack of experience I went straight to the custom officer but he asked me to turn around to pay first. So here’s the order of how to obtain a visa in Nepal (1) register with a kiosk (2) go pay the cashier (3) then approach the custom officer. Quite simple right?
When I got the baggage claim area, it was packed with people. The space is tiny (see video here). People shuffling each other to find their luggage. Some folks came back to the airport just to look for theirs from yesterday’s flight. After 2 hours of sweating myself amid hundred of angry passengers I called it quit. I went to the counter to see if they can track down my luggage only to find out there’s no computer system. They told me to come back later today to see if my bag will show up with later flight or better yet show up tomorrow and for sure it will be here.
At night I pushed my tour company to take me back to the airport. Though where I stayed wasn’t far from the airport but amid fuel shortage in the country I felt bad for asking them to take me. At 7pm I once again left the airport in despair. My trekking starts tomorrow, I must come up with a backup plan.
After the welcome dinner my tour guide took me to the Thamel street to shop for clothes and shoes. I spent $120 for the following items: 1 pair of shoes, 3 underwears, 2 long pants, 2 long sleeve shirts.
That day alone I might have lost 5 pounds for not eating well. I went to sleep angry and worried how my trek would turn out.
KTM – Lukla – Phakding: a daring flight
Ring…ring..ring, that was my wake up call. I barely had any sleep and it was 6am. In half an hour, I was ready in the lobby waiting for my ride. Wes and Diana had a good laugh at my green Salomon shoes. Wes and Diana are from Tampa, FL. They had planed to come here 2 times prior this trip but had to cancelled due to personal reason. This time they were determined to make it to the base camp.
Our breakfasts were boxed up for us to take on the ride. At 7am we arrived at the airport but on the domestic terminal side. I thought the international side of the airport was poorly managed, the domestic side is worse. In the check-in area, pigeons come and go as they please. They make several nests inside. Their poops are everywhere on the wall. Our flight suppose to leave at 8am.
I looked around at the waiting area and found myself intimidated by some of the gears that others had on. Everyone was so anxious to get on that airplane to get out of the city and start trekking. Two hours went by and we were still waiting. The main reason was – weather condition in Lukla was poor, unsafe for landing. At 10am our group started talking about alternative plan – get helicopter in. The cost for that would be $3,000 with 6 people maximum. For us it would cost $1,000 each person unless we find more people and hoping the company can take some people back from Lukla then the cost would be significantly reduced. The plan won’t be executed until the flight is cancelled.
With an unknown waiting time, I decided why not make a trip to the international terminal to check on my luggage. So I went. Lo and behold, it arrived. I was so happy to see my long lost luggage. I rushed back to the domestic side, transferred my stuff to the duffle bag and within 10 minutes, they called us to check in. The time was 11am.
It took closed to an hour to get the four of us checked in. Everything was done by hand. Writing ticket, processing baggages. By noon we made it to the pre-boarding area. Another two hours went by with the gloomy weather condition. We got really tired for not having anything to eat for the whole day and our chance of flying out seems to diminish with time. The airline stops flying to Lukla at 3pm so we had another hour of hope.
At 2.30pm they told us to get ready for boarding. We were speechless. I thought I was dreaming. We rounded up everyone and headed for the shuttle. The airplane is small. I couldn’t stand up straight. I was wondering how old are these planes and would it safe to fly in them. I have no choice but to trust the pilot and hope for the best. Once we airborned I felt much safer.
After 45 minutes of flying in mostly cloudy weather, I had no idea how closed were we to Lukla. I can tell that the pilots are circulating the planes around to find the run way. Out of nowhere the runway opened up in front of us. Since I sat right behind the pilots I got a bit of a driver view. And here we go the moment we were all waiting for. The plane was nicely landed. Our flight was the last to leave Kathmandu. Those who didn’t make it had to come back the next day for their flight. A few groups I later caught up with on the mountain ended up took the helicopter up for they couldn’t wait another day.
After we met our porter we had lunch in Lukla at 4pm. We hurried to finish our meal so we can start hiking. We got only one hour of daylight left to hike. With a total of 3 hours we reached Phakding in the dark. The elevation is around 8,500 ft. I felt fine.
In Phakding each room has its own shower. After a whole day of sitting on the floor waiting, I couldn’t be more happy to jump into the shower to freshen up. The water was freezing and the room was not well insulated so the moment I stopped the water, I had to put on clothes right the way. It was probably the coldest shower I ever had.
We huddled in the dining hall around 8pm for dinner. A Chinese-Brazilian trekker stroke a conversation with me while I was waiting for my meal. He had been on the trails for 20 days, solo, doing three passes. I can see he was craving the human conversation. 20+ days solo can be very lonely. He showed me all the places he had trekked to and all the photos he had taken.
I withdrew to my room around 9.30pm. I was tired mostly from waiting and sitting around at the airport more so than from the hike.
Phakding – Namche Bazaar: the last shower and goodbye
I bid farewell to Celio in the morning after breakfast. As I mad my way to the front of the lodge I noticed there’s a small Vietnam flag sticked to the lodge’s window. I must have missed the last night for we arrived in the dark. There were some names and it was dated the day before my arrival. I concluded that there are some Vietnamese on the trail.
Before heading up to Namche I picked up one of my porter’s load to see how heavy it was. I put it up on my head and started walking but didn’t last for more than 200 meters. My neck hurt. The whole thing must have weighted about 100 pounds. I was amazed by how strong these guys are and they are only half of my size.
The hike up to Namche is very scenic. We trekked along Milk River the whole time. There are water falls along the way. The trail is well covered. We crossed a number of suspension bridges. Closer to noon we reached the last town before Namche, we made a stop there for lunch before a big climb. Leading up to this point, the hike had been gradually uphill, nothing serious. The air was still rich.
After lunch the hike got steeper and steeper. I mostly hiked at my own pace and left Wes and Diana behind. There were check points along the way so I would waited there for them. Light rain came and gone. When I was not moving I had to put on a jacket. The weather is getting a bit colder as we move up in elevation.
Because Namche is a big town there are a lot of traffic going there. Porters carried all sort of stuff from plywood to beers to meat. Everything you can imagine. Yaks and donkeys were also everywhere. Sometimes we had to step aside and wait for them to clear out. The smell of meat made me nauseated. Since it’s a holy mountain there is no butchering can take place, therefore all the killings were done else where and they transport them up the mountain. Who knows how long these meats been going without refrigeration.
After 6 hours hike (8-2pm) we arrived at our lodge in Namche. Diana was pretty done at this point. She could barely walk. For this was our second day on the trail, the routine started to set in: unpack – shower/clean up – chilling out at the dinning hall – dinner and finally light out. During dinner time Diana didn’t show up. Wes informed us that she didn’t feel well. Our guide started to treat her case as altitude sickness. Mountain sickness medicine was subscribed, hoping she would feel better by tomorrow morning.
Introducing our porters:
From left to right: Sundar – 31 years young, 10 years of running marathon. His personal best from base camp to Namche was 4 hours. Kandir – 25 years young. His fingers are stiff, must be arthritis. Buti – 16 years young. I hope he will go to college and stopped being a porter.
Morning came and there was no sign of Diana during breakfast. Today we acclimatized so we stayed around town with short hikes up and down small hills. Before headed out to local hills Wes broke the news that Diana wanted to call it quit. She didn’t get any better, worst actually. They made a pack that if anything goes wrong to one person, the other will push on to the finish. Wes couldn’t let Diana to be alone for the next 10 days so he decided to follow her down. I felt terrible for them. After 3 attempts and against all odds at the airport, they turned around at 11,000 ft due to altitude sickness. I waited with them until the helicopter arrived. Wes left me his Steripen for mine had quit working on me. I promised them I’ll make it to base camp and send them a photo. A promise I must keep!
After Wes and Diana departed I was left with Sundar and Buti. Our official guide, Shankar, had to come down with them. Sundar’s English was ok. I can understand him but not Buti. The load is lighter for Buti, he must be really happy but so was the tip. I now felt a bit alone on this trip. Having the rest of the day to kill, I walked around Namche. Visited shops. I stopped by a bar to use their wifi. I started to miss home. I wondered if it rains at home. How are my plants are doing without water. How everyone is doing as autumn sets in. The mountain view came and went as the cloud move. When the sunset hit, some of the peaks glows beautifully.
Namche Bazaar – Tengboche: closer view
This morning I woke up with a scratchy throat. I knew right the way I was coming down with a cold. I was warned by others that after Namche the condition is worsen. Shared toilet, no shower, colder weather. I braced for the worse. Like most hike up to this point, we started out flat-ish and a steep hill toward the end. The climb to Tengboche at the end was quite intense. Now that we got up a bit higher Thamerku, Ama Dablam and Lhotse became more visible. A closer view of these peaks are stunning. Unlike Namche with about 40 -50 hotels, Tengboche is more concentrated with maybe 10-15 buildings in the area.
At 3pm as I made my way to a monastery nearby, the rain started to come down. I didn’t mind it at all. I have always love the rain, unfortunately there’s not enough of it at home. I thought to myself when I was the last time I experienced walking in the rain. Must be long time ago when I was a kid in Vietnam. At that very moment with a rural setting, it reminded me of those summer days mom used to send us kids to the countryside to live with our aunts. The rain brought this scent of freshness in the air. From the distant smoke coming out of the chimney signaled it is time to start making my way to the dinning hall.
At this point I ran into the same people over and over again. Everyone is following the same itinerary. Headed in the same direction. We were programmed like robots to complete repetitive tasks over and over. I befriended with a group of four (3 from Mumbai, 1 from Baltimore). I called them INAM for Indian American group. Kate and I would normally chat up about stuff happening in the States. She told me her lacrosse games and I returned the favor with my cycling adventure. And with the Indian folks, mostly random stuff. The oldest guy, Nishith, is an economist so he was giving an insight of all the stuff going around in the world. Their English is perfect.
I started drinking mostly hot lemon everytime I sat down hoping that it will make my cold to go away. Most dinners served the same food. I’ve dialed in a few dishes that I can tolerate. For breakfast I’d go for scramble eggs, toasts, oatmeal and hot lemon drink. For lunch fried rice, potato soup and hot lemon drink. For dinner potato soup, noodles soup and hot lemon. Occasionally I’d pick on Sundar’s food if they look interesting.
Most hotels don’t have enough staff to wait and bus tables so having a guide helps a lot. They would take your order, fill up your bottle of water, bring your food and clear the table once I finished. Once I was happily full and all the guests in the lodge are served, then it’s time for the guide/porter to eat. That’s how the system works on the trail.
Was it the elevation that makes me sleepy early? I thought to myself. While Kate indulged on her gluten free vegetable soup I folded myself to my room. That was only 8pm. Life on the mountain is hard, most electricity is from solar. The 24V LED light is dim. I usually turned out the light and used my head lamp instead. To take a shower at this point, it would cost $5 (for hot water).
Tengboche – Dingboche: full exposure
This morning I woke to the sound of chatter in the balcony next to my room. I peeked through the curtain to see what going on and to my surprise a beautiful view of clear sky with sunrise hitting the mountain behind the monastery. The rain from the night before brought with it some snow in the mountain and it glows when the sun hits it in the morning.
Now that I get darker and hadn’t shaved for days, the owner of the lodge thought I was Nepali. We chatted for a little while waiting for Sundar to finish his breakfast. I sensed the pride he possessed for being the owner of the lodge. “This is my home” he claimed!
Today we headed into a new terrain – less vegetation, no more trees coverage, rocky, full exposure to the sun. With only 3 sets of clothes/socks/underwear and very little sun light after 3pm, most of us washed our clothes the moment we reached the lodge and hang dry them while trekking.
The highest elevation I’ve been on was Mt Shasta in California at 14,000ft. Today would be my ultimate test to see how well I do. The hike slowed down significantly. I took more breaks and snacked more. I felt a bit of a headache and runny nose got worse. I took some cold medicines I brought with me. Before the trip Suzie gave me an accupressure bracelet, I put it on with a fine hope that I will feel better. After 4 hours we reached Dingboche at noon. A lot of time left to recover, I thought. Dingboche seems bigger than Tengboche. Every house/lodge is fenced off with stones.
I took a short nap after lunch. Light snow came and gone. At this point, I had a 900 filled down jacket on when I walked around, even in the dinning hall. Clothes takes a day or two to dry. We spent 2 days/nights here in Dingboche to acclimatize. First night the lodge was empty. There was myself and another solo guest from Italy. Life up in the high mountain is very simple. There’s no TV. People entertain each other. The room was not very well lit. Electrical power is sacred.
Soon after the sun went down the lodge workers closed the curtain and started the fireplace to keep the place warm. The fireplace was fueled with yak’s dungs. On this mountain, every lodge has a similar layout. The fireplace is in the middle of the room. Tables are laid along the wall. That way everyone can sit around the fireplace. When the daylight completely gone, shop doors were closed, the owner and his wife made their way to the dinning hall and thawed themselves out by the heat. Their son join in occasionally. They invited me and the Italian to join them by the fire as well. To my surprise the dung doesn’t smell at all. People here would take the dung, flatten it in the shape of a pancake and dry them out before burn them.
The lodge owner’s son, Amar, is still young, “first year in college” he told me. His English is perfect. He usually helps out during climbing seasons (march-may and september-november). Other times they live down in Kathmandu. I was told most lodge owners are millionaire. When climbing seasons are over, they live else where while letting other manage their lodge.
Amar filled the room with western musics (James Blunt, Adale…etc) and everyone silent. I closed my eyes and listened to similar favorite tunes in a country so so far away from home. It made me think of home even more. These are songs that I would carry on a long solo ride or use to drown out the noise from the surrounding cubicles on my work days. “What am I doing here?”. “What am I trying to prove here?”. “Will I find what am I looking for?” all these thoughts came to me through tunes and lyrics.
A Fine Balance: in a parallel universe
On this second acclimatize day we walked up a nearby hill where I could see the entire Dingboche. I went up there early enough that I was able to see both Ama Dablam and Thamserku.
My friend, Yadira, gave me A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry on my 30th birthday. That was almost 7 years ago. I started first couple of pages but couldn’t get on with it. The names and small texts made it hard to have any traction. I started again a month before the trip and brought it along hoping I’d finish it by the end of the trip. Here in the high mountain, it became my only source of entertainment. If I was not tired, sleeping or making small talks with strangers I dripped into the world of fine balance between hope and despair. My present circumstances and settings in the story somehow collide. The life in the mountain, the lack of water and power, the food (dal), the porter, the lack of transportation, I felt like I am part of the story.
People here in the mountain have very little but they seems very happy, just like how Mistry portraits the happiness of people in the slum. People can find laughter through their sorrow. I find this very true “After all, our lives are but a sequence of accidents – a clanking chain of chance events. A string of choices, casual or deliberate, which add up to that one big calamity we call life.” And “…you have to use your failures as stepping stones to success. You have to maintain a fine balance between hope and despair. In the end it’s all a question of balance.”
Dingboche – Lobuche: out of my comfort zone
If I get to Lobuche today, it would be the highest elevation I’ve been on. My cold is worsen by the day. Coughing was added when I woke up this morning. I rested more often. Walked at a slower pace. Drank more. Ate more. Once we reached Lobuche, I got a really bad headache. I felt very very cold even with 4 layers and a big down jacket on.
I went to my room to lay down. I must have felt asleep for a little bit. Before the daylight went out I walked around the area (with less than 10 buildings) and up a small hill to have an aerial view of the town.
At sunset some of the peaks glowed beautifully that left me in awe. The dinning hall is full with people from all over the world. There wasn’t enough sittings for everyone. I heard mostly noise. I didn’t have any desire to make friends with anyone. My breathing at this point is heavier than normal. Occasionally I checked my heart rate to make sure it’s within reasonable range. I forced the food down my throat just so I have something in my stomach. I curled up in bed trying to get some rest for the next day.
Lobuche – Gorek Shep: this is it!
This is it! Today is the day everyone was looking for. The day we reach the base camp. This air this morning was cold. It hurts my nostril just to breath in the air. What I failed to do was buying a face mask like to cover my nose and mouth. A lot of people do that on the trail to warm the air up when they breath. I didn’t think it was a big deal but now I can see why.
Every one hundred yards or so I’d stop and break. Some areas the trail would disappear. Everyone makes their own trail, walked over big boulder. On the right we can start to see the glacier, which mixed in with rocks. There were two small avalanches from the distant that I could see and hear.
Once the sun comes out it was really bright and intense. I had my sun glasses on and it helped a lot. Gorek Shep is also a small town, just like Lobuche. A few building here and there. Packed with people. Sundar and I rested for about 30 minutes without lunch and continued on to base camp, which is about 2 miles with roughly 800ft gain in elevation. Half way to base camp I realized I made a mistake for not having lunch. I hit the wall. It was the same feeling I had when I bonked out on a bike. I dragged myself to the base camp with Sundar’s encouragement. By the time we got back to Gorek Shep I collapsed.
I ordered some food but couldn’t put it down. I threw up the minutes I swallowed down the food. I had a major headache. Sundar helped me to my room and I passed out. By the time I woke up it was already 8pm. I must had slept for 4 hours. I didn’t feel hungry or wanted to eat but Sundar insisted that I should drink some soup. I declined and felt back into sleeping.
When I woke up in the morning I saw Sundar slept in the other bed. He must have spent the night to keep an eye on me. I didn’t feel any better. Same and worse. My voice is nearly gone. My clothes were wet, I must had a fever last night. I saw Sundar left the room and minutes later he came back with Buti and the lodge owner. Buti carried with him a first aid kit and the lodge owner carried with him a pulse oximeter.
My oxygen level was at 60% and 100F temperature. They suggested I should immediately go down to lower elevation. In this case it would be Lobuche. I could barely walk, let alone go down that far. With a lot of effort, I managed to make it to Lobuche but my condition remained unchanged.
After a conversation with the tour manager in Kathmandu they decided to pull me off the mountain for good.
Kathmandu: the Hilton
The moment the helicopter landed, a van-bulance was waiting. In a matter of minutes they laid me down in the van and drove me off to Swacon International Hospital. They must have done this many times. I found the process was so fluid.
The room at the hospital was clean. Cleaner than I would expected. I found it funny how nurses and doctors here don’t wear shoes. Everyone was in flip flop.
I was in great care of nurses and doctors. They started my IV, take my blood samples, x-ray my chest. The room was equipped with a flat screen TV but I didn’t bother to turn it on. Toward the evening Shankar from the tour company stopped by to check up on me. The night at the hospital was very pleasant, just like at the Hilton four stars hotel. I was treated for acute mountain sickness and upper respiratory tract infection.
For dinner I brought me some soup, chicken kabobs and naan. It was probably the best meal I had in Nepal. I was so hungry and dehydrated that I finished the meal in matter of minutes.
The next morning I was discharged with some medicine to take and a report to take back to the States with me. Shankar came pick me up and dropped me off at the hotel. It was Dashain festival in Nepal that week. Most people including Shankar would go back to their village for the festival. We exchanged contact information and bid each other farewell.
Mt Everest is just a bit left of my head peeking out
“But nobody ever forgot anything, not really, though sometimes they pretended, when it suited them. Memories were permanent. Sorrowful ones remained sad even with the passing of time, yet happy ones could never be recreated – not with the same joy. Remembering bred its own peculiar sorrow. It seemed so unfair: that time should render both sadness and happiness into a source of pain.”
― Rohinton Mistry,
I got to where I wanted to in this trip but wasn’t able to complete it by definition. It was harder than I thought. Though I wasn’t sure how much of it was mental vs. actual physical challenges. Would I perform better if I didn’t get sick to begin with? Would the trek be better with Wes and Diana present? There are a lot of IFs in life and to paraphrase what Mistry had said “use your failures as stepping stones to success.”
Despite all the troubles, illness and complications in Nepal I never regret for coming here. The view up in the mountain was stunning that no words and photos can be described. I have never been surrounded by so many mountains until now. Some of my favorite moments were to sit there and soaked in the stillness and the quietness from these mountains.
The experience I gained through my trekking days with the locals were priceless. They have taught me so much with so little. It made me realized that we take so many thing for granted here even the air we breath in. Up in the mountain there only 3 things that were somewhat free: thin air, freezing water and sunlight. Everything else came with a price. Everything else were valuable.
To be able to find what am I searching for, I have to know what that is first. In my case I didn’t know what I am looking for. Perhaps one day I will.