THE NEPAL EXPEDITION STORY
October 16 - November 10, 2002
Wed.-Thur. (10/16-10/17) Travel to Kathmandu. An hour to Chicago, four hours to San Francisco, nine hours to Tokyo, six hours to Bangkok, three hours to Kathmandu. To break up the trip I flew out to San Francisco on the 15th and stayed there with Jill that night. Jean Pavillard, Swiss mountain guide and owner of Adventures to the Edge, and outfitter Iswari Paudel from Himalayan Guides Nepal Treks and Expeditions, met us at the Kathmandu airport. Jean was the team leader and planner, organizer, and lead climbing guide for the team. Iswari and Himalayan Guides provided the support team for the expedition, but Iswari stayed in Kathmandu and did not go to the mountains with us. Jill's large duffle was not on our plane, but Iswari found out that it was in Hong Kong. It arrived Sat. night, and Sunday Jean and Iswari picked it up. First crisis averted.
Fri.-Sun. (10/18-10/20) Hotel Thamel and sightseeing in Kathmandu, and getting used to the time zone change and new environment. Halfway around the world from Michigan, Kathmandu is a bustling, dirty city, with virtually no sanitation. Our hotel was pretty nice. At least it had running water, toilets and showers in the rooms, and was relatively clean. We found most things quite cheap, such as a good dinner for three with drinks and dessert and tip, usually for less than . We visited the Swayambhu Stupa, or the "Monkey Temple," and saw a group of Buddhist monuments where wild monkeys roam around freely. Then we went to the Baghmati River where the Hindu funerals are performed. They burn the bodies with a flame from the decedent's home and sweep the ashes into the very filthy river. We also went to nearby Patan and saw some holy temples there, where I bought two hand woven Tibetan rugs. The shopkeeper had marijuana smoking in his incense burner in the shop, and wanted to make a deal for the rugs. After quite a bit of haggling over price, we settled on less than half of what he originally wanted. The rest of the time we walked around, did a little shopping, and enjoyed the setting and culture so different than ours. Dan arrived on Sunday afternoon, completing our team of four. Sunday night Iswari took us all to dinner at a nice restaurant, our last "normal" meal for fifteen days.
Day 01 Mon. (10/21) After three days in Kathmandu, and a slightly frightening 40-minute flight to Lukla (9,300'), we arrived in the Himalayas. The Lukla airstrip is just a small landing strip in the middle of the mountains, with a slanted runway that looked to be about 1,000-1,200 feet long. The planes must land going uphill so they can stop in time, and take off downhill so they can get up enough speed on the short runway to get enough lift. Jill closed her eyes, but I thought the flight was rather exciting. An army camp guards the runway because Maoist rebels, we are told, set off one bomb in the terminal area already and are threatening to attack the airfield and blow up the terminal or runway. After disembarking and waiting around for our baggage and equipment, we eventually started our trek to the first camp at Phakding (8,560'). Our support team consisted of one Sirdar (Head Sherpa in charge of the team), two Sherpa climbing guides, one cook, three assistant cooks, and about ten porters. After two days we realized that the porters were not high altitude porters (we were at 12'000' at the time) and traded them in for eight Yaks to carry the tents, food, equipment, and supplies for the 16-day expedition.
Day 02 Tues. (10/22) Hiked along the valley floor and then up to Namche Bazaar (11,283'), the last real "town" going north toward Tibet and Everest. Had a nice lunch as we usually did on the trail, and entered Sagarmatha (the Nepalese name for what we call Mt. Everest) National Park along the way. The cooks always arrived ahead of us and had tea waiting when we got to the lunch location. We also had tea every day in our mess tent, at about 4 PM. This day we ate in the valley by the river, then hiked a steep incline to Namche Bazaar. We crossed a few walking suspension bridges high above the Dudh Koshi river along the way. The bridges were a little unsteady, especially when Yaks also were crossing along with us, but great fun. We camped at Namche two nights to acclimatize, which unfortunately didn't quite do the trick. Around this time my throat became sore, and soon I had a severe cold that lasted for the rest of the time in the mountains, although abating somewhat during he last few days.
Day 03 Wed. (10/23) At about daybreak we walked up the trail behind Namche to try to get a look at Everest, since the weather was pretty clear. Unfortunately, clouds started to roll in, and we only got a brief look. The observation point was right next to the army camp guarding the town. While we were up there, we visited a small Sherpa/Nepalese museum. Back in Namche we heard that a tourist recently had also gone up to the army camp to view and photograph Everest at dawn, and had his headlamp on and one of the Nepalese army guards got spooked and shot at him, but missed. May or may not be true, but sounds plausible. Dan started feeling a little altitude sickness when later in the morning we hiked up to Kunde (a small town at over 12,000') to visit a Monastery and local medical clinic founded by Sir Edmund Hillary. Dan went back down to Namche early with one of the Sherpas, to rest.
Day 04 Thur. (10/24) In the morning Dan felt a little better, and we continued on to Tengboche (12,683'), which, despite being only a little higher than Namche, was severely downhill and then up a long steep incline, again from the valley floor. Arriving in Tengboche late in the afternoon in a cold fog made the place rather unpleasant, but we visited the Monastery courtyard and observed a colorful ceremony marking the end of some Buddhist holidays.
Day 05 Fri. (10/25) The next morning we went inside the Monastery and took some pictures. Dan again was not feeling very well. We hiked on and up to Dingboche (14,268'), where Dan's altitude sickness became quite severe. After we arrived at Dingboche Dan retired to his sleeping bag and stayed there for the next eighteen hours. Jean slept in Dan's tent that night to observe Dan in case he got worse or had breathing problems. Jill threw up outside her tent in the middle of the night and I moved in to her tent with her in case she had further health problems. Interesting night.
Day 06 Sat. (10/26) Due to Dan and Jill's condition, we stayed at Dingboche and rested. I took a short hike up to a Stupa (a dome shaped Buddhist monument) above Dingboche, with Jean.
Day 07 Sun. (10/27) Dan still didn't feel well, but decided to go on with us since Jean elected to make it a short day so everyone could recover a little more. Our camping location that night was Thukla, or Dughla (15,154') depending on which map you use, which was really just a couple buildings along the trail to Lobuche. We arrived there early in the afternoon, and Dan was still not feeling very well.
Day 08 Mon. (10/28) Dan felt no better and decided that he just wanted to go back down to Lukla, catch a flight to Kathmandu, and on home. Jean sent one of the Sherpas (Ningma) with Dan and three of the Yaks, and they hiked down to Lukla (3 or 4 days), where Dan caught a flight to Kathmandu and flew out to Hong Kong the next day. It was clear by then that we just didn't have time to go to lower elevations and rest and get well in order to attempt the high altitude technical climb (20,300') we had planned near the end of the expedition, so Jean, Jill and I resigned ourselves to trekking up to near Everest base camp to Lobuche (16,170'), and going on to where we could observe Everest and Nuptse from up close, at Gorak Shep (16,810'). So, we went up the trail above the Khumbu glacier and Dan went down toward Lukla. At Lobuche we decided to stay at a fairly decent lodge, although there was no heat or running water and our drinking water still froze in the room overnight.
Day 09 Tues. (10/29) I felt weak, tired and listless, with some stomach disorder, so we just stayed at Lobuche for the day. Jill took a hike that day with the Sirdar, as she was feeling pretty good by then. We decided that the following day we would start early and trek to Gorak Shep and climb Kala Pattar, and come back to Lobuche for the night.
Day 10 Wed. (10/30) After starting toward Gorak Shep at 6 AM, I realized that I could not keep up and still do the Kala Pattar (18,200') climb, which affords great views of Everest and the Khumbu Icefall. So Jill and Jean went ahead. Jean tested our blood oxygen levels and pulse every morning for signs of altitude sickness, and as it turned out mine was very low that day, accounting for my lack of energy. Jill, Jean, and the climbing Sherpa were able to climb Kala Pattar and come down and pick me up at Gorak Shep where we all had a late lunch, and we then went back to Lobuche for the night. Great views of Nuptse and Pumori. Long day, especially for Jill. While we were at Lobuche, we observed a German woman in the Lodge who appeared to be quite ill. She was with a small group of 6 or 7 people, and one Sherpa guide. Jean tried to take her pulse/oxygen readings, and it would not register at all.
Day 11 Thur. (10/31) Early in the morning the German woman who was ill collapsed in the lodge, and it was determined that she had severe high altitude pulmonary edema. After unsuccessfully trying to arrange for a helicopter rescue from Kathmandu, they decided to take her to a lower elevation by horse. After waiting a while for the horse and it did not arrive, a Sherpa carried the woman on his back down to the medical clinic at Pheriche, which was also on our route for the day. We began our trip down from Lobuche along the mountains rising from the Khumbu valley, stopping at the Stone Memorials. The memorials are for climbers and Sherpas killed in the Khumbu and surrounding mountains. Jean left a slate memorial for a friend of his who died in a fall while climbing in Nepal. We stopped at Pheriche (13,900') for lunch. The sick woman was at the clinic waiting for a helicopter evacuation, arrangements having been made by the medical staff there. As we were leaving Pheriche the helicopter arrived and picked her up for the flight to Kathmandu. Hope she made it OK. We continued down to Pangboche (13,000') and camped there for the night. Our route back took us down the mountains on the opposite side of the Khumbu valley. Pangboche was a nice, very small village on the side of the mountain. Throughout the hike down we had great views of Ama Dablam and other tall Himalayan mountains, as well as great scenes of the valleys and gorges.
Day 12 Fri. (11/01) First thing in the morning our Sherpa Sirdar arranged with the Priest of the Monastery in Pangboche for us to go inside and observe a prayer service. The Priest sat in a corner chanting prayers for a local man who came there asking for prayers for his health, as apparently he was quite ill. The Monastery was one of the oldest in the Khumbu, and very impressive with masks of scary faces hanging all over, to ward off the evil spirits. We then started hiking south, down the west side of the Khumbu valley, and camped at Phortse (12,600') for the night. Phortse is at the junction of the split where the Khumbu valley continues northeast and the Gokyo valley turns northwest. It is a pretty little village with no tourist activity. In the middle of the night, Jill thought someone was fooling around with the outside of her tent, and it turned out to be a one of our Yaks that had wandered into camp. The Yak got scared and tried to climb up a four-foot stone wall behind our tents, and fell back down onto our Sherpas' tent, smashing it and breaking the poles. Jill's tent was right next to the Sherpas' tent. Luckily the Sherpas were in the stone hut next to our camp playing cards, and they weren't hurt. The Yak then ran through the camp, bumping into our tents but doing no more damage. When the Yak bumped into my tent I thought the Yak and my tent were coming down on top of me, but fortunately the tent held and the Yak kept running. We were all a little shaken up, knowing that if the Sherpas had been in their tent the "yakccident" could have caused serious injury.
Day 13 Sat. (11/02) We started the fairly long hike to Namche Bazaar (11,283') early, first hiking down from the highest part of Phortse where we had camped, and then crossing the river and hiking up a steep incline to Mong, a high point with great views, where we had lunch. We then continued on along the side of the mountains, to Namche Bazaar, camping there for the night. Jill and I walked down to the Tibetan bazaar in Namche where goods are sold that have been carried in by foot from Tibet. We did a little shopping in the town, buying some prayer flags, and had coffee and sweet rolls at a western-style bakery that was pretty good.
Day 14 Sun. (11/03) Hiked down to Phakding (8,560'), a fairly short day, arriving there shortly after lunch. Our campsite was taken by a large group just starting up the valley, so we stayed at a lodge that had the first actual flush toilet we had seen in two weeks. Wow. We spent most of the afternoon in the lodge dining room where they had a warm fire. Our rooms had windows on two sides and at night and you could see the mountains silhouetted against the stars - quite a sight. In the early morning we awoke to the drumbeat of early prayers at the Monastery that was up the hill from the village. Wonderful experience.
Day 15 Mon. (11/04) Left Phakding for Lukla (9,300'), arriving about noon. Had a coke at the lodge, outside in the sun. It really felt good just to sit and relax. Then we went down to the campsite, which was right next to the Army camp guarding the airstrip. Our cooks made a couple extra lunches and we ate with two guys from England, one of which is a guide that Jean knew. They had just taken a group up Mera Peak, and were resting a couple days before a hike up the valley to Gorek Shep and then to meet another group to climb Ama Dablem. They were very pleasant and interesting, and we enjoyed having lunch with someone other than the three of us. Later in the afternoon we walked around Lukla (between rain and snow showers), although Lukla is basically only one street, about a block long. We stopped in a restaurant and had a hot chocolate and a bowl of popcorn. Tasted good. That night our cooks made dinner but brought it to us up in the dining room of the lodge above our campsite. We ate, had a couple drinks with the guys from England, and went down to our tents at about 8 PM, realizing that there was a curfew in effect. The guys from England said that the night before they got a little rowdy after dinner at the lodge, and were singing and being loud, and the Army came in and told them to stop and go to bed - party over because of the curfew, even though they were inside. So on our way to our tents, with our headlamps on, the Army guards yelled at us wanting to know who we were and what we were doing. We said we were camping there and going to our tents, and they sternly told us to turn out our headlamps and get in our tents.
Day 16 Tues. (11/05) Packed up for flight from Lukla to Kathmandu. The airport terminal was a madhouse of confusion, but we managed to get checked in and through security, then waited for our plane. Our Sirdar, Gyalzene, was indispensable in such confusing situations. The flight was not bad, although it was starting to get cloudy. The pilots in Nepal have a saying that they don't fly into clouds because "they have rocks in them." Iswari met us at the Kathmandu airport and we went to the Hotel Thamel, deposited our gear, and had a nice long, hot shower. Felt great. For the rest of the day we just walked around and did a little shopping, and had a good dinner with Jean that night.
Wed.-Fri. (11/06-11/09) Wednesday Ningma, the Sherpa climbing guide who took Dan down to Lukla, called and asked if he could see us before we left for home. So we had him come to breakfast at the hotel. Ningma is young, only 22, but, has been on two Everest expeditions, and apparently reached the summit of Everest once. Jill gave him the pens and paper she brought for the schoolchildren, and he said he would distribute them in the small towns where they are needed. After we returned home we received an e-mail from Ningma and he told us that he did give the paper and pens to the children, and they were much appreciated by them. For the rest of the day we decided to just rest and enjoy the warm sun, and walk around Kathmandu. Jill did quite a bit of shopping, and when I tired of that, I went back to the hotel and read on the patio. That night we again had a good dinner with Jean.
Thursday Jill and I took a taxi to Bhaktapur, a nearby town that was supposed to have some temples and sights worth seeing. It cost to get into the town, and there really wasn't much more than we had seen before in Kathmandu and Patan. The town was supposed to be automobile-free to keep down the dirt, smog and noise, but there were so many delivery vehicles and motorcycles that it was still noisy and dirty. Plus, the taxi rides back and forth were rather harrowing. There appears to no rules of the road or traffic control, except generally they drive on the left side. No one stops at corners and intersections, and often there is a standoff as to who should go first. There are people walking in the street (no sidewalks, of course) and I'm sure the cars must kill "hundreds" of pedestrians a day, or it seems like they would. But for the most part the cars seem to just nudge people out of the way and keep on going. For our last dinner in Nepal Thursday night, Iswari took Jean, Jill and me out to an authentic Nepalese restaurant. We first went to the top floor where we had to take off our shoes before entering, and sat on the floor at low tables. Here we had cocktails, including very strong rice wine, and appetizers, and watched a floor show of Nepalese women wearing native costumes and performing Nepalese dances. We then went downstairs to eat, and Iswari did the ordering. We had the native Dal Bhaat (rice with lentil sauce) and other vegetables, and wild boar. The boar was pretty fatty. The dinner was good, though, and we really enjoyed the evening.
Friday morning we were up early and had to leave for the airport at 6 AM. We had some breakfast, and said goodbye to Jean at the hotel, and Iswari drove us to the airport. When we arrived at the airport we were pleasantly surprised that head sherpa Gyalzene was waiting there at the curb. We only had a couple minutes, and security would not let him inside, but he came to say goodbye and wish us well, and to give us the traditional yellow Nepalese scarves for good luck on our trip home. We were quite touched. Iswari also gave each of us a yellow scarf. When we checked our bags we were told that they were considerably overweight. They were not particularly heavy by US standards, but apparently Royal Nepal Airlines have very light weight limits. After some argument and negotiation, we settled on paying about half of the original surcharge. In Bangkok, we had about an eighteen-hour layover, so we stayed in the city and walked around a little in the afternoon. Very crowded, noisy, and dirty. That night Jill treated me to dinner at the world famous Oriental Hotel, on the river. It was a great dinner, and much appreciated.
The mountains were unbelievably beautiful and impressive, and the trekking was much more difficult than we imagined for such a long period at those altitudes, especially above 14,000'. The trails were very rocky and steep, and we were somewhat surprised at the unsanitary conditions and culture in that country - it's the 10th poorest in the world. The weather was great, even in the mountains. In the valleys it was about 40-50 degrees and sunny in the middle of the day, until the sun went behind the mountains and the temperature dropped very quickly. At altitudes above 15,000' the temperature probably didn't get above 30 - 35 degrees in the middle of the day. We were thankful we brought our down jackets for the camp in the evenings. Clouds and fog often rolled in about 3 PM, but dissipated in a couple hours. Overnight it was about 20 - 25 degrees, but warm enough in the tents and sleeping bags. A little cold and tough to get up and out in the morning, despite the fact that the cooks brought us hot tea every morning in our sleeping bags, and then brought a pan of hot water so we could wash up. Jean had a satellite phone that would be most helpful in a life-threatening situation to try to call for a rescue helicopter from Kathmandu. Otherwise, if you are sick or injured, a Yak, horse, or Sherpa would have to carry you down the mountains to the airstrip at Lukla, probably days away. This remoteness and the effects of being at high altitude for such a length of time were probably the most surprising aspects of the trip for me.
As far as the planning, supply and logistics arrangements, and performance of the support staff, it was especially helpful to have Jean heading up the operation. The Sirdar did a great job, but there were numerous changes and items needing attention. Jean took the lead in resolving those questions and problems. As to risk, we were glad that Jean had his satellite phone. As mentioned above, Jean also took our pulse and blood oxygen levels every morning, along with a daily review of our comfort and physical condition regarding stomach disorders, headaches, tiredness, and ability to sleep. I felt that the health and safety risk management was a high priority with Jean, as it should be.
It appears that with the political turmoil and "Maoist" terrorism in Nepal that it's getting increasingly dangerous to travel there. I'm not sure that I'd want to go back until those problems lessen, but there is some amount of unfulfillment at not being able to attempt the Imja Tse (Island Peak), 20,300' climb. So I would consider going back and taking advantage of the lessons we learned and our experience there, to attempt Imja Tse or a similar peak. We would not have to spend as much time in Kathmandu, but might have to spend a few more days in the mountains acclimatizing. I wouldn't mind going up the Gokyo Valley the next time, crossing the high Cho La Pass (17,482') to Dughla and going up to Kala Pattar, and coming down the Khumbu valley to Dingboche, Chhukhing, and then Imja Tse. Maybe some day.....
ADDITIONAL PHOTOS CAN BE FOUND ON THE NEPAL PHOTOS PAGE