Monday, November 26, 2007

7000 m. peaks don't look too high from 5416 m.

Revised November 27th

Another epic adventure has come to a close. I returned to the land of mechanized transport, Internet, hot showers, and most importantly, good food!!! Trekking through the Himalayas may have been the most amazing experience of my entire life! Sadly, I lack the ability as a writer to convey the sheer impact this trip had on me. Words such as magnificent, awe-inspiring, phenomenal, and overwhelming do not come close to describing what it is like to wake up in the morning and stare at 8000 meter peaks from your bedroom window. Nor do words like spiritual, moving, or blissful express what it is like to walk through monasteries, hike past Mani walls, or stare at rows of prayer flags strung across sheer vertical cliffs.

The trek took me deep into the Himalaya , and while there were many travelers passing through the area, thus creating more wealth than in many other areas of Nepal, the poverty I witnessed along the route was truly shocking. Again, I find it difficult to write about how I felt as I watched a young child gnaw on a hunk of raw, fur covered, yak meat, or how I felt watching 100 pound people struggle to carry equally heavy loads of fire wood or straw to prepare for the coming winter. I was also equally overjoyed by the genuine friendliness of most of the Nepalis I met. The feelings of false friendliness that I felt so strongly in Kathmandu were replaced by feelings of true friendliness as I chatted with porters, guides, and guest house owners. These conversations left me feeling that the people of Nepal are truly the warmest people I have met on my travels.

I have taken the time to list some of the memories that stand out from these past eighteen days. There are many many others, some to gross to share (though after reading the giardia section you might wonder what could be worse, but trust me IT GOT WORSE!), and others that I think I will keep tucked away for just myself. I hope you enjoy them...

Day 0. I am on my way to Pokhara with my soon to be trekking partner, a Canadian named Natalie, who I met in Kathmandu. Pokhara is a pretty weird place to be going considering it is four hours from Besisahar, the starting point of the trek. This is a clear case of why you should have a guide book to help you navigate around a foreign country. As we are riding along we start to realize our error when we start seeing spray painted rocks indicating that we will be going through Dumre (two hours from Pokhara, and where we were hoping to catch a bu tos after we reached Pokhara). As we drive through the town I take a risk and ask the bus driver to let us off hoping we can catch a bus to Besisahar. He obliges, and soon we are sipping tea and waiting for a bus. After half an hour a man comes over, rushes us to a bus (which looks like it should have been retired 50 years ago), and asks if we would mind riding on top of the bus for the two hour trip. I say yes at the same instant that Natalie says no, and after a brief discussion we are riding on the top of a bus with some Nepali kids as it whips around hairpin turns on the way to Besisahar. What a way to start the adventure!

Day 2. I am climbing a steep, rocky, hill and sweating profusely. I stop for a quick rest and look behind me to see a guy climbing quickly with a mountain bike over his back. He was a Dutch guy named Jack and he was biking the Annapurna Circuit!! As his guide he had hired the Nepali mountain biking champion, an 18 year old kid, who made me very jealous of his skills on a bike! Imagine carrying a bike on your shoulders all the way to 5416 m.

Day 3. The Maoists. I come to a Maoist controlled checkpoint and have to give them a "voluntary donation." I have never had to pay a bribe before and despite the fact that the situation is non-threatening I feel a bit nervous. I pay the fee and continue on my way. That's it, nothing more. Oh, one of the Maoists was wearing a red white and blue U.S.A. jacket. Kinda funny, huh?

Day 4. We stop for a rest on our way to Chame and are invited to join the village celebrating Dashain. Dashain is the most important festival in Nepal, and celebrates the goddess Durga vanquishing evil spirits. During the final day, known as Tika, elder family members bless younger family members, brothers bless sisters, etc. by giving them Tika (painting their forehead). Everyone in the village celebrates with dancing, food, and of course booze, Riksa a homemade wine reminiscent of moonshine that I found to be very potent. We are blessed with the Tika, eat, drink, and watch the dancing on the rooftop for about 30 minutes before heading on our way. Truly incredible.

Day 5. I am wearing long underwear, wool socks, a beanie, and am shaking violently. I am huddled with my trekking partner (who is similarly attired and also shaking violently) under two -20 C down sleeping bags. Who knows what we have, but we are not in good shape. The aches and chills are probably the worst I have ever had, and it literally takes all my strength to drag a Clif Bar out of a stuff sack and dip it in peanut butter for a very meager dinner. Exhausted, I fall into a fitful 13 hour sleep that does little to replenish my strength.

Day 6. After a small breakfast we decide to continue trekking despite the previous nights horrors. Taking a very difficult route from Pisang to Manang we struggle to keep moving for eight painful, yet incredibly beautiful, hours arriving in Manang at nightfall utterly exhausted.

Day 7. Rest Day. I do almost nothing all day, but do manage to drag my ass to a makeshift movie theater (the only one on the whole trek) where I watch a camcorder recorded version of Super Bad while wrapped in all my cold weather gear and huddled in front of a fire. If this seems unremarkable, remember where I am. There are NO roads here, and this is a pretty small village, where most of the buildings would look right at place in the middle ages. Also, Super Bad (which was hysterical) isn't even out on DVD, yet here I am in the middle of the Himalayas watching it in a "movie theater".

That night I listened to an incredibly talented young Nepali play all my favorite Metallica songs on an acoustic guitar. Anyone who knows how much I covet Metallica knows what this must have meant to me.

Day 8. Acclimatization hike to 4600 m. The symptoms of giardia (which I did not know were symptoms of giardia at the time) have been ever present for the past few days and on this hike the parasite finally strikes hard. I am rushing off the trail to evacuate my bowels every 20 minutes. I complete the hike and feel fine by the time I return to Manang. The next day I will continue the trek, though I will feel miserable the whole day.

Day 10. I arrive at Thorong Pedi, which is to be the base camp from which we will mount our attack of the pass the following day. A group of six of us have been bonding over the last few days, and as it is recommended to do the pass in groups, we decide that we will stick together tomorrow and help each other over the pass. I am feeling well, and am getting very excited for the following day. That afternoon our anxiety begins to mount as we begin hearing stories of the guy who died a week and a half earlier on the pass, and as a Frenchman is evacuated by helicopter in the early evening after spending the whole day unable to move (due to giardia). All day acquaintances of ours have been turning back first it's the English couple, then the Israeli girls and so on and so on. It is quite disheartening to see the mass exodus from base camp. The final blow is delivered when our friend Tariq, who was attempting the pass that day, comes stumbling into base camp without his pack, and barely moving under his own power. When I see him 9 days later in Pokhara I will almost be unable to recognize him. The image of his pale, ashen face is burned into my brain. Having worked in a hospital for several years I am accustomed to seeing very sick or dying people, though I don't think I can ever recall seeing anyone who looked as bad as he did at that moment. Later we will find out he had giardia (much like I do) and made it to within 200 meters of the top before becoming violently ill and having to be supported down the mountain by several fellow hikers. With all this drama at the high camp floating in my head I turn in early feeling a mixture of anxiety, excitement, and nervousness.

Day 11. Pass day. This is a day I will remember forever. Not because of the physical challenge of crossing the pass (it actually was not that difficult), but because of everything else that happened that day. The six of us meet at 5:30 for a quick breakfast and by six we are on the trail. We are climbing 1000 m to the top of the pass and this is going to take about four or five hours before will begin a brutally steep 1600 m descent down the backside. Over the first 45 minutes we are going to climb 400 m and then after this is over the rest of the climb will just be a slow grueling walk to the top. After gaining about 250 m of elevation in half an hour we take a quick break to check on everyone and to watch the beginning of the sunrise on the Himalayas. As we start out again Natalie remains seated on a rock and is not moving. I am alarmed, though I can't imagine AMS setting in this quickly especially after just 250 m. We talk for a few minutes and I am concerned enough that I make the decision to take her down to base camp. I call up to the others, tell them our plan, and wish them luck on getting over the pass. This was not the way we had hoped to say goodbye, but under the circumstances there is little time for formalities.

As we start descending Natalie becomes incredibly dizzy and says she is blacking out. Soon I am supporting all of her weight (plus her pack) and half dragging half walking her down the steep slope, while yelling at her not to close her eyes and to keep putting one foot in front of the other. We descend about 100 m and she is feeling fine. We slowly walk to base camp, have some tea, and talk things over. After deciding that it was not the altitude, and after deciding that it was not to late to try to still make the pass we start out again, reclimbing the same steep section we had just did.

The views we have as we pass 5000 m are truly incredible and we take our time enjoying the views. The progress is slow, but we are both feeling fine and soon we are passing groups that had set out ahead of us (woohoo for being in good shape!). We reach the pass without incident, though I am starting to notice the symptoms of giardia again as we reach the summit. For those of you who do not know what the symptoms are let me now take the time to list some of them. They include the following: eggy burps, excessive flatulence, stomach pains, and of course diarrhea. I am not feeling good, but do not feel the need to mention this to Natalie since I know that it is not the altitude that is affecting me and I do not want her to worry. We pose for some pictures, have a Snickers and then start the long steep descent. Immediately I begin feeling much worse and within 20 minutes I have the worst diarrhea of my life. I am racing off the trail and finding cover where I can, though there are not always places to hide and I am forced to evacuate my bowels in plain sight. At one point in time it comes on so suddenly that I don't even have time to make it away from the trail and Natalie has to ask other trekkers to turn their backs and wait for me before coming down. After this incident I collapse on my pack gasping for air (remember I am still above 5000 m while all this is going on), and trying to collect myself. A man walks by and in a stern voice tells me that next time I need to move farther away from the trail. The burst of anger that I feel when he tells me this is so sudden and so strong that all I want to do is get to my feet and just start pounding this guy. Of course I am way to sick to do this, and simply remain lying on my pack and ignore his comment. I start moving again and for the next five hours will hike in a dehydrated haze, continually rushing from the trail to relieve myself before continuing down an incredibly steep trail. I recall very little of the descent though I do remember the feeling that I was not really in control of myself and that I was sort of just waiting to see what would happen. I have only felt this once before. Standing in line at a pharmacy after having surgery I had the feeling that I was no longer in control of my body and it wasreally sort of up to my body to decide what happened next. In that instan my body chose to shut down and I blacked out, collapsing in line. Thankfully this was not the case and I sort of just sat back and watched myself navigate down the icy path.

At this point I need to make several things clear. There were not a lot of people around, and I could not simply sit down and wait for medical help as it would most likely mean staying overnight in the open before anyone could return. The best case scenario would be someone reaching Makutinath, finding help (which is doubtful), and them returning that night by 10 or 11. These are obviously not good options and so I continued downward. Finally after an exhausting nine hours we reached Makutinath where, by word of mouth, our friends had heard we had actually made the summit and were on our way down to meet them. They had reserved a room in the guest house they were staying in. I was escorted to my room with its own western toilet. I have never been so happy to see a toilet as I was that night.

Day 12. After a rough night and a MASSIVE dose of antibiotics I awoke feeling much better and ready to keep trekking. There was a town three hours from Makutinath and so our group made our way there where we enjoyed good meals, a temple, and a celebratory beer.

Day 14. I watched for 30 minutes as at least 20 enormous vultures pick a mule clean to its bones. These birds were incredible! I watched in awe as they tore through flesh, scraped bone, and routinely buried their whole heads inside the carcass to feast on the inards.

I also passed several fields of marijuana growing along the trail, and yes, I did frolic through them singing happy songs.

Day 16. I hiked through the most amazing landscape of the entire trek. Imagine the Shire from Lord of the Rings. This was almost identical...minus the Hobbits.

Day 18. Descended 1700 m, including a stair case of almost 4000 stairs. Arrived in Pokhara after a seemingly very long and uncomfortable two hour bus ride, checked into a fancy hotel, which cost all of 6 dollars (and seriously, this place is posh!! It would probably cost at least 80 dollars back home), and took a long overdue, and much needed shower before blissfully drifting off to sleep.


Divya B said...

I am totally making a "dramatic re-enactment" documentary of your diaherrea trek. It will give "touching the void" a run for its money. You guys are so hardcore.

Jun Blaine said...

giardia... sounds pretty bad... who gave you some antibiotics?

Jun Blaine said...

giardia... sounds pretty bad... who gave you some antibiotics?

dottie said...

can i make the obvious joke of "holy crap?"

Maeve said...

omg omg omg

I love it. Poo stories rule. This is going to be so funny a few months from now.