For the last month or so I’ve been living with a Sherpa family at 10,000-feet in the Himalaya and training for my upcoming ascent of Mount Everest. Sherpa’s are naturally athletic, genetically designed for these altitudes, and as far as I can tell they don’t need to “train” for anything. My best hope for success in their kingdom is to stand on stilts in a valley full of giants. I spend my days here trying to find my stilts (and sandwiches).
Lukla (the village where I’m living) is a great place to prepare for Everest because of its location. The village itself sits at an elevation of 9,314 ft. Surke is below Lukla at the bottom of the river valley at an elevation of 7,511 ft. The Kalo Himal range rises above the village, with a couple of easily accessible peaks stretching above 15,000 ft.
When I arrived, I would spend the day running up and down the trail from Lukla to Surke to Lukla. A return trip between the two villages nets 2,000 ft. of elevation gain (and loss) over five miles and would take me about an hour-and-a-half to complete. As my training continued, I worked my way up to completing this course five times in a day – netting a total of 10,000 feet of climbing with 25 miles of running and hiking.
As the weeks passed by, the temperature began to rise and the snow started to melt up high. On my first trips up the ridge the going was very difficult and I had to break trail through snow that was often up to my thighs. It made for slow going, but good training. Eventually I was able to connect the two routes into a single course.
The trip from Lukla to Surke to the ridge and back to Lukla allows you to climb (and descend) 10,000 ft. in roughly 18 miles. It also allows you to spend a couple of hours above 14,000 feet and to reach an ultimate elevation of 15,100 feet. The groups heading to Mera Peak take three to four days to complete this course, but with training it is possible to complete it in less than eight hours.
The people in Lukla initially reacted to all my running around with great amusement. “Look at the American,” I imagined them saying. “He’s always in such a hurry, but never seems to get where he’s going!” Over the last few weeks the laughing has slowly turned to cheers, and the people who live in the incredibly modest houses along my course now come out as I pass to offer me encouragement and tea.
Three days ago we celebrated the Nepali New Year during the Losar Festival. Pasang and his wife (my hosts here) invited me to attend the celebration as their guest. After the villagers finished their worship and prayed for blessings in the New Year we spent the afternoon sitting together drinking milk tea and chang. I was surprised to discover that everyone already knew who I was.
“Oh! Running, running, running! Incredible!” An old man said while shaking his head.
“Stronger than a Sherpa!” Another added.
“Like a pink Yeti!” Another shouted (noticing my sunburn), and the group roared with laughter.
Stronger than a Sherpa, I’ll never be. But the “Pink Yeti” is something I think I can grow into.Continue reading
Experts will tell you that the airstrip in Lukla is officially the most dangerous airstrip anywhere in the world. The runway has been carved out of the side of a mountain and is therefore also one of the shortest airstrips in the world and the steepest. The asphalt slants downhill at a 15-20 degree angle before coming to an abrupt halt on the edge of a 2,000-foot cliff. The runway was recently extended, but when I first started coming to Lukla, pilots would roll down the hill, shoot off the cliff, and hope to find enough lift to support the aircraft somewhere during the resulting freefall.
In my opinion, the Lukla airport creates the perfect bookends to an adventure in the Himalaya and everyone who has flown to Lukla has a story to tell about it.
My friend Jon Quinn isn’t all that interested in the type of adventure that a flight to Lukla entails. Jon has been a supporter of The World Tri since it’s very inception and was one of a few people that convinced Cate and I to put the ball into motion more than two years ago. During the Channel crossing, he acted as the team physician, and months later he offered to head to Nepal for a visit and to help ferry some of our expedition equipment to the Himalaya.
When Jon made his plans to come to Nepal, there was no Lukla flight in the itinerary. My schedule originally placed me somewhere in northern India or southern Nepal. However, after I was diverted from northern India I arrived in the mountains a bit sooner than expected.
Jon is easily one of the smartest guys I’ve ever met. He’s a physician who solves the Rubic’s cube in about two minutes. He’s a chess champion who has played against many of the grandmasters (Karpov, Kasparov and Spassky to name a few). His chess library contains more than 1500 volumes. He craves knowledge and lives his life to research and learn.
When the flight to Lukla suddenly appeared on the itinerary for his four-day trip in Nepal, Jon approached it the way he approaches everything in his life – he called his brother and then he researched the hell out of it. I’m not exactly sure what form the research took. Perhaps he caught the History Channel’s current documentary, “The World’s Most Dangerous Airports,” which awards Lukla its grand prize. Perhaps he Googled the terms “Lukla” and “near death” and read some of the 1520 search results. Perhaps the burned-out airplanes along the runway in Kathmandu were enough for him. We’ll really never know.
What we do know is that when Neeraj went to pick him up in Kathmandu and transfer him to his flight, he had done his research and reached his verdict.
“I’m not going.” He told Neeraj.
As I waited for Jon at the airport in Lukla, I was thrilled to receive this news. I immediately jumped on a flight back to Kathmandu to meet my friend. After my first hot bath in more than a month and a trip to the steam room at the Yak & Yeti, I told my friend, “Jon, you absolutely made the right choice.” As he watched me devour every dish in the lunch buffet, I think he began to smell a rat.
The next morning we were on the plane and headed to Lukla.
Some days, I’m not very smart. My optimism and intelligence are constantly at war with one another and on a great many days, my optimism wins. What is so shocking about these battles is that my optimism frequently prevails on days where there is an unbelievable amount of contrary evidence to be drawn upon by my intelligence. Nevertheless the evidence is too frequently overlooked as I press on enthusiastically into disaster.
About three weeks ago I contemplated this as I stood knee deep in what had appeared to be a frozen river. As the icy water slipped down into my shoes, my brain clicked back into action and I thought, “Something about this is not right. If I was on the trail, there would be a bridge.” As I looked around there was not only no bridge, but there was absolutely no sign of any trail.
Three hours earlier I had crossed a bridge in the valley below, taken a sharp left turn, and charged up a ridge where I expected to find a pass at 11,000 feet. As I climbed, the thunderstorm that I had been hiking through turned into a thundersnow. The snow began to pile up with awesome speed and the trail quickly disappeared. I marched on, with a stupid grin stretching from ear to ear.
Now the grin was gone. I looked at my altimeter and discovered that I had somehow reached an elevation of 14,000 feet. After extricating myself from the river, I sought shelter under a nearby tree. With images of Jack London’s “Call of the Wild” racing through my mind, I carefully consulted my map and wrung out my socks.
Without any visible landmarks I couldn’t make any sense of the map and decided I had to go down and look for help. Thirty minutes into the descent the snow was so heavy there was almost no visibility. However, through the storm I noticed a very small shack on the ridge with smoke rising from a chimney. Salvation.
I charged through the whiteout toward the shack, as a mangy dog appeared to greet me. In retrospect I’m certain that I scared the hell out of the dog. Here I was emerging from this incredible storm, in a very remote area, in my bright red coat, screaming “Namaste! Namaste!” The dog knew I was trouble right away and shot out of the hut, circled around behind me, and locked firmly onto my heel.
Not to be deterred I continued on toward the house, dragging the dog through the snow while beating it wildly with my walking stick, all while continuing to yell my cheerful greeting, “NAMASTE! NAMASTE!”
Just as I sensed the dog was about to get the upper hand, a man emerged from the hut. He was wearing a pair of flip-flops and carrying a chain of Buddhist prayer beads in his left hand. I’m certain that he though I was an apparition who had traveled through the storm to carry him off to the afterlife. After what seemed like several hours, but couldn’t have been more than a few seconds, he realized that I was in fact a man - a “tourist” even - and ordered his dog to release me.
“Nuntala?” I asked, and gestured off into the storm optimistically.
“Nuntala? NUNTALA?” He responded, wide-eyed.
I nodded again.
He laughed and laughed. Then he pumped his arm vigorously as if preparing to throw one final Hail Mary at the end of a game.
I understood immediately. I had climbed the wrong ridge.Continue reading
October is the peak trekking season in the Everest region and last October more than 10,000 people walked the trail to Everest Base Camp. It is a mythically beautiful place and unlike anything else you can experience in the world. If you haven’t been here, you should come. Just don’t come in October!
February is the official trekking season for solo travelers and social misfits. During the month of February about a dozen or so trekkers descend on the trails of the Khumbu region with the realistic expectation that they will bump into absolutely no one. In February, the Everest region is probably the most quiet, most peaceful place on earth. You can walk for days without the obligation of talking to anyone. It’s just you, the mountains, and your thoughts.
This year was little different. This year Saturn moved into a new constellation, upsetting the natural order of the universe and causing all six of us “February trekkers” to descend on the Jiri trailhead on the same day. Perhaps this was an event that was foreseen by the astrologers and saddhus in Kathmandu, but it was a complete surprise to the six of us.
During the first day of the trek we tried our best to ignore each other. Most civilized people would find it hard to ignore someone when you’re sitting six feet away from them in a tiny room in a solitary teahouse deep in the Himalaya in February. But solo travelers are really good at this sort of thing. Books, journals, and headphones are the most useful tools for conversation avoidance in remote areas, but I’ve also witnessed solo travelers fake illness or pretend not to speak English in order to avoid a conversation with someone who looked like they might be from the same hemisphere.
On the second day each of us realized that we were most likely going to be spending the next month or so together on the trail. Our social isolationism gradually caved in and we decided to be pleasant to one another. Within another 24 hours our motley crew had become an improbable team, and two of our six were even sharing a room!
It was a great group. Casey and Jimmy were responsible for getting the kindling going. Casey is an interior designer in Capetown and you can tell that she has a knack for working a cocktail party. She has blonde hair (exactly like my sister’s) and greenish eyes (exactly like my sister’s) and expresses herself in a way that felt very familiar (she acts exactly like my sister). We became immediate friends.
Casey’s sidekick is Jimmy. Jimmy is a bush pilot. He wears aviator sunglasses and spikes his hair. He is very tall and very handsome and has a very thick accent. Casey explained to me that his accent is evidence of his highly prestigious family heritage, but it resulted in me being able to understand only about 10% of the things he said. Our inability to communicate wasn’t a huge setback as Jimmy is a man of few words and mostly stuck to his Kindle while Casey and I gabbed. Jimmy’s nickname is “Jimmy James” just like my Jimmy James!
Casey and Jimmy were in Nepal celebrating their recent engagement with a seven-month trip through Asia. We met on day four of their journey. (Cate and I did the same trek the summer after we were engaged, and at the same age as Casey and Jimmy!)
The third member of our group is the Belgian, Kachima. I’ve long believed that every multinational travel group should include a Belgian because they speak every language that you can name and are more than happy to translate. In addition to speaking five languages, our Belgian came with the added talents of being an expert in Mayan calendars and a psychic! Kachima has the appearance of a man who has been on the road for a very long time and immediately won our contest of “toughest travel story” by recounting a tale of two weeks spent in a Thai prison.
Cecile was the next addition to our team. Cecile is a French nurse who works to rehabilitate homeless substance abuse addicts in the South of France. She is tiny and has the two classic features of French women – her eyes are as deep and dark as a black hole and she has between 20 and 30 pounds of flowing brown hair. She kept her hair a secret until our third night around the fire. Then, as she removed her stocking cap and carefully ran her hands through her knotted locks, Kachima instantly fell in love with her.
Nick was the last of our group. He’s a nineteen year-old kid who has trouble with questions like, “Where are you from?” After a *long* discussion it turns out he was born in Boston, but lived most of his life in Kenya and several other places that I couldn’t keep track of. He is in Nepal as part of a three-month stint teaching English in a remote Himalayan village - because hey - what else are you going to do at nineteen? If he wasn’t nineteen he would be the best-read fifty-year-old I’ve ever met and he was sitting on offers from a handful of Ivy League schools while drinking rakshi in the high country. (Also - I’m 90% sure his dad’s a spy, but you didn’t hear it from me.)
(More on my adventures with the February Misfits next week…)Continue reading
Today is officially Opening Day in the Everest region! “Starbucks” put out their welcome mat (it’s not a real Starbucks), “Illy” fired up their espresso maker (it’s not a real Illy), and as I walked past the “Irish Pub” I swear I could hear an order of “fish and chips” drop into the fryer (it’s not a real Irish Pub and the “fish and chips” are made of Yak).
When I arrived here two weeks ago it hadn’t occurred to me that Lukla might actually close for the winter. In my memory, Lukla has always been a place that was bustling with excitement and expectation. It’s the place where the biggest climbing expeditions in the world begin, and where they end. It’s a place where uninitiated trekkers belly up to their first Yak dung fire as their lives begin to change. With the airplanes and the porters and the yaks and the buzz… there is an energy here that is unlike any place in the world.
Except, of course, in February. In February, everything is closed.
Of course, February in Lukla was never part of the plan. I hadn’t expected to walk into the Himalaya for another five weeks. However in early February I abandoned my plans to travel across northeast India to Calcutta after a group of WWF workers were abducted along my route and increasing political instability in the region made travel unwise. Upon reaching India my machismo cracked, I got scared, and I turned my bike around and hightailed it back to Kathmandu.
In Kathmandu I received a series of stern trans-pacific pep talks from my wife, who, having been raised in the South, could be overheard telling me things like “don’t choke on the tail” and “inch by inch, life’s a cinch.” A week or so later, I was packed and headed up.
Most people who wish to stand on top of Mount Everest take whatever advantage they can get and kick things off with a 45-minute airplane flight from Kathmandu to Lukla. I, on the other hand, have spent the last year attempting to connect Mount Everest to a tiny village in England called Cricklade, in an effort that only periodically makes any sense at all (even to me). The continuation of this effort required that I walk from Kathmandu to Lukla, rather than fly. It took 11 days and I’ll tell you all about it later.
Since then, each day has become a routine of training, eating, reading, writing, and reflecting. It’s been a good two weeks, but I’ve been feeling the distance of home a bit more than usual.
Today as I walked through town to complete the final task in my daily routine, I was thrilled to discover the doors of the bookstores, bakeries, coffee shops, and gear stores opening and welcoming the spring. A team of yaks passed me carrying huge expedition barrels addressed to Everest Base Camp. A group of trekkers stumbled off their flight with cameras blazing. Things were finally beginning to feel familiar.
As I reached my destination on the far end of town, the shopkeeper recognized me, opened his door, and waved me inside. He nodded and grinned at me as I handed him a postcard, completing my daily ritual.
“Good man, you!” He laughed. “Proud father.”
It’s funny how the simple things can keep us going.Continue reading