The Path to Everest
The path to Everest leads north, through the gorge of Dudh Koshi, an icy river choked with boulders. The trails are narrow and dusty. And often, there are massive traffic jams as trekkers, trains of yaks, and porters straining under back-breaking loads vie for space. But newcomers to the region quickly learn the ways of the trek. Yaks have the right of way.
A reasonably fit person, well-acclimatized to altitude, can walk from Lukla airstrip to the Everest Base Camp in three long days. But as most of us fly in from sea level. Our bodies need time to adapt to thinning oxygen. And so the trek takes at least nine days.
After hours on the trail zig-zagging up a steep canyon wall, I'm at Namche, the social and commercial center of the Everest region. I've climbed two thousand feet today and am exhausted when I go to bed.
It takes a while for my disoriented mind to register that I'm not in my warm bed in Kathmandu. That I can't just shut off the bird by depressing a button.
I reflect on the events of exactly a year ago, when India and Pakistan were testing nuclear weapons. I was getting ready to leave the U.S. to come and live in Nepal. The media was full of bombs. And I remember thinking: There is more to South Asia than just this. But how does a reporter explain this? Months later, I still had no answer!
I had to find my voice. But I didn't just want to wander aimlessly either. I needed a goal -- something concrete -- thus the trek to the base camp!
The weekly market at Namche, at 11,000 feet, is a crowded bazaar, catering to the needs of trekkers like me. Toilet paper, Duracell batteries, and cans of beer and Coke, have arrived from the road-head in Jiri seven days away. And rice, eggs, buffalo meat, and vegetables from villages four to six days away.
Life in the steep valleys draining the southern slopes of Everest has always been harsh. Farming is difficult. But in 1921, the British forever changed the region by engaging the Khumbu Sherpas on their first Everest expedition. Over the last decades, the region's economy has become increasingly tied to the seasonal inflow of climbers and trekkers, some 20,000 of whom visit the region annually.
New lodges are sprouting up. You can find solar heated hot tubs, Web access, apple pies and real cappuccino.
The trekkers have gone off to sleep. But their guides and porters are still awake, singing songs of famous sherpas, sipping the fiery local brew and telling jokes. Trekkers come in various shades, says Kamal, who has been a guide for nearly five years.
Some trekkers are arrogant, but there are others who say guide is everything. I guided two Americans one time and they said if you show us Annapurna and tell us it is Everest, we will believe you. Some others treat guides like yak herders-someone who shows the way.
My pack is light -- a couple pairs of thermal underwear, first-aid kit, T-shirts, a double-layered fleece jacket, and my radio equipment. I walk less than 10 miles a day, but even that is difficult at altitude. I have a slight headache the next afternoon -- my fourth day on the trail. But I'm not going to such a mundane obstacle stop me.
I see some Sherpas pitching tents for a group of Americans. They'd passed me earlier on the trail. Yaks loaded with duffel bags, tents, kitchen stoves and even a toilet seat. A radiologist from Florida invites me to eat with the group. When I hesitate, he goes on to describe last night's dinner.
Not everyone hires guides and porters to haul their gear, though. I keep bumping into solitary travelers like myself. We share lodges and teahouses along the trail, team up when we feel like it, and share insights. But we walk by ourselves most of the time, enjoying our surroundings, letting out minds wander.
I keep putting off thinking about my career! Except when I'm walking by myself, its difficult even to find the time to think. The daily grind of getting up and walking up and down the trail makes long reflections impossible.
Aay Quiherini! "Hey foreigner!" Kids would call out to me. In my lightweight trekking gear, they mistook me for a foreigner, I guess. I'd call out a greeting in Nepali, and they'd run away, sheepish!
I'd ignore them sometimes, grateful that my sunglasses and western cloths protected me from probing questions I was unprepared to answer: Where did I learn Nepali? Was I a Peace Corps volunteer? A guide? How much did I pay for my fleece jacket? How come I was traveling alone? Why didn't I have kids?
I swallow a Tylenol to get rid of my headache, zip up my fleece and continue up north towards the base of Everest.
Pheriche is a tiny, wind-beaten settlement, at 14,000 feet. It has a handful of lodges and a small medical post with two foreign doctors. Beyond Pheriche, the accommodations start to get pretty bad. So most people rest here for at least a night.
I join the dozen or so trekkers crammed into a small room waiting their turn to talk to doctors. My pulse rate is high and my headache is getting worse... I feel dizzy.
I'd heard of trekkers going up too fast and getting sick. But I'd just ignored the advice in the guidebook on coping with altitude. I exercise, my diet is balanced, I drink a lot of water. I'm not even thirty. How can I be getting sick?
I go to Dr. Eric Johnson for advice.
I might have beginnings of acute mountain sickness, said Dr. Johnson. His advice: Don't go any further. Last fall, even as the clinic advised hundreds of trekkers to rest at Pheriche or descend, 24 had to be evacuated by helicopter. And 10 died in the region. Your goal is just not worth risking your life, Johnson reminded gently!
I walked up a ridge, high above the clinic and thought this through. I did not want to become a number on a list for deaths and evacuations. But it wouldn't be honest to say I was not disappointed. I'd so desperately wanted to be able to get up there, feel the chilling wind as I walked through ice and snow. And get back and boast about the most spectacular views of Everest from the highest place a non-mountaineer can reach.
Heading back, I stopped at Tengboche and stood in the monastery grounds, staring up north!
No, I hadn't reached the base camp. But...I'd learned my limits. Before I took myself off of the trail, I was only worried about getting there -- I'd spent hours around the fire in the dining rooms talking to trekkers on their way back-about weather and trail conditions, lodges to avoid, food to order.
Now that I had time, I ate in the kitchens with the Sherpas, spoke with them in Nepali, and played tick-tack-toe with kids. Some had noticed me on the trail when I'd used my Nepali to order food.
They were surprised to see me back so soon, but were delighted that someone they'd thought an outsider was one of their own. I saw a part of Khumbu that I would have missed completely had altitude illness not slowed me down. I've come to realize this will be my career. This is what I'm going to do -- share that part of South Asia that only I have access to. Because of who I am, the languages I speak and the lives only I will be allowed to share.
I don't know how long I stood there in the wind, staring at the icy peak of Everest. A plume of condensation arose from summit, betraying the turmoil of the winds above.
On the trail back to Kathmandu, this is Manisha Aryal for The Savvy Traveler.
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