Kala Patthar

March 26, 2015

The fingers were finally saved, by another expedition of all things! This one was to a pile of rocks and scree known as Kala Patthar. Kala Patthar is probably the secondary objective on the minds of most trekkers to the Khumbu. It is a peak that is 5550 m (18,209 ft) high, but is dwarfed by everything around it. It’s claim to fame is the incredible views of Everest and Lhotse from its summit.

Right hand, looking more normal.

Right hand, looking more normal.

People trek to Everest Base Camp for the bragging rights, to say they’ve been there; they go to Kala Patthar to actually SEE Everest. Both of these locations are reached by continuing up the Pheriche valley until you reach the small community of Dugla, which is really just a couple of lodges next to a waterfall.   Above Dugla you come to the Thokla Pass, where many of the souls lost on Everest have been commemorated, including Scott Fisher, owner and lead guide of the Mountain Madness expedition, who lost his life on Everest in 1996, as described in Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air.

The small community of Dugla.

The small community of Dugla.

Thokla Pass.

Thokla Pass.

A memorial to Scott Fisher, one of the climbers who died on Everest in 1996.

A memorial to Scott Fisher, one of the climbers who died on Everest in 1996.

Thokla Pass.

Thokla Pass.

At the Thokla pass, you reach the Khumbu Glacier, and which is followed to Lobuche. Krakauer described Lobuche as a literal shit hole in his book. In the ensuing 20 years, things have slowly improved. Indoor toilets have replaced the outdoor pit toilets described by Krakauer, but there is no question, this is still the fringe of civilization.

Entering the Khumbu Glacier

Entering the Khumbu Glacier

Lobuche, where I stayed on my way up.

Lobuche, where I stayed on my way up.

I choose the nicest looking lodge, mostly because the walls are plastered instead of exposed rock, figuring that the plastered rock would be less drafty. After dropping my HRA credentials a bit, I have a conversation with the lodge owner, who is father-in-law to the lodge owner in Pheriche who sent Reuben and I on that wild goose chase. As it proves wise not to make enemies among the Sherpa, my friendship with his son-in-law nets me a free room for the night (saving me $5). The main room is cozy, and soon a group from Portugal befriend me and invite me to eat with them at their table. The leader of the group has had some incredible experiences, including biking from Kathmandu to the Holy city of Lhasa, Tibet. He has also solo sea kayaked for a week on the Antarctic Peninsula. We get along well. As is typical around here, it is an early night, as I plan on getting up around 4am to start the next leg of my journey.

I wake to a world in darkness. I had asked my lodge keepers to keep out a bowl of Muesli and powdered milk for me, and eat a creepy breakfast in a cold and dark dining room that last night had so much life. I sneak out in darkness, leaving most of my stuff in Lobuche. Too many miles, and I have to travel light. Travelling alone in the dark along the Khumbu Glacier is an exhilarating experience. Somewhere behind me I hear the occasional bell of a Yak train, like me making early time on this frozen highway towards Everest, but I’m as likely to meet a Yeti or a Snow Leopard, as meeting anyone else at this early hour of the morning.

The trail from Lobuche to Gorak Shep.

The trail from Lobuche to Gorak Shep.

The desolate landscape above Lobuche.

The desolate landscape above Lobuche.

People in the know say you want to be on Kala Patthar at sunrise, but these people also start their climb from Gorak Shep, 230m higher in elevation than where I spent the night. I’ll wake early, and just hope for the best. The road gets rockier and more desolate the closer I get to Everest. Finally Gorak Shep appears below me, a desolate little place for people making the pilgrimage to EBC. My goal is not base camp, but Kala Patthar, whose steep slopes start at Gorak Shep. The route is steep, and the altitude excruciating. We advise the people who come to our altitude talks not to ascend more than 500m per day. Climbing Kala Patthar, I will have gained 1300m in 24 hours.

Panorama view.

Panorama view.

Gorak Shep (in shadow at bottom of picture) with Kala Pattar in shadow and the morning sun on Pumori.

Gorak Shep (in shadow at bottom of picture) with the top of Kala Pattar just getting a bit of sun, and Pumori in full sun.

I feel relatively good. No headache, no nausea, just the fatigue of climbing at this altitude. I can do this because my plan is to summit Kala Patthar, and then descend back to Pheriche in one day.

DSCN0749

The sun rises directly behind Everest, a moment of panic. I didn’t climb all this way just to have the sun right behind the mountain I wanted to photograph! But still I climb. What I think is the summit is of course a false summit.

Still I climb.

Taking a break as the sun rises over Everest and Nuptse.

Taking a break as the sun rises over Everest and Nuptse.

Finally reaching the top, in true Nepali fashion the summit is covered with prayer flags. Literally buried in them. The summit turns out to be a slab of rock jutting out into nothing.

Approaching the summit.

Approaching the summit.

Reaching the summit, full of flags.

Reaching the summit, full of flags.

With all deference to Buddhists, I grab handfuls of prayer flags to pull myself up to the summit, and have to sit among them as I turn to look at the top of the world.

The route to the summit of Kala Patthar, with Pumori in the background.

The route to the summit of Kala Patthar, with Pumori in the background.

Sure I’m surrounded by giants, but the view sure is nice! Snap a few shots, enjoy the view, eat my favorite English candy bar made of chocolate covered sea-foam. Then it’s the long journey down.

View from the top, looking at Everest (left) and Nuptse (right).

View from the top, looking at Everest (left) and Nuptse (right).

Everest and Nuptse.

Everest and Nuptse.

Panorama of Everest.

Panorama of Everest.

Enjoying my favorite English candy bar.

Enjoying my favorite English candy bar.

Back in Gorak Shep and I can already feel that a bowl of cereal 8 hours ago is not enough to keep me going, however the idea of eating food from one of the lodges in this forsaken land is not at all appealing. Just keep moving!

I meet up with my friends from Portugal, who are headed to EBC today, then Kala Patthar tomorrow. Wish them well, I’ve got miles to go. I don’t have time for EBC on this trip, plus I will likely go back to visit the Everest ER crew after they have set up, and meet some of the Everest players vying for summit glory.

The hike back is like all return journeys, and not really worth mentioning. Exhaustion has set in by 4pm when I am back in Pheriche. The trip was approximately 25 kilometers, with 1300 m (4,300 ft) of elevation gain and loss in a day and a half. Needless to say my wander bug has been satisfied for the time being. But I have fulfilled one more of my Nepal objectives, and have gained a significant altitude, which should help me reach further high altitudes later in the season.

View of Pheriche from further up the valley.

View of Pheriche from further up the valley, Ama Dablam on the right.

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The night before last I was feeling great. I had been reading articles about climbing mountains online at SummitPost.org, and simultaneously reading out of High Altitude Medicine and Physiology, 5th Edition, a great textbook about what happens to humans at high altitude. I had no sooner put the book down, when I had my own fist had experience of what happens to human bodies at high altitude.

No sooner had I turned out the lights than my feet started to really hurt, specifically the first and second toes of the right foot, and then the second toe of the left foot. Like excruciating pain. I’ve never had gout, but I imagine this is what gouty arthritis felt like. Except I had it in 3 toes! I also had mild pain in the 2nd MCP joint (that’s the first joint on the pointer finger) and the 3rd PIP joint (that’s the second joint on the middle finger). I tried taking ibuprofen, without any improvement in symptoms. I had to reach for the hydrocodone with acetaminophen, which was finally able to control my pain to the point where I could get some sleep.

I have never felt such pain before!

When I woke yesterday morning, my feet were not nearly as painful, but still quite swollen, but the middle finger on my right hand was so bad that I could not straighten it, and my fingers, especially on my right hand, were quite swollen. My knees ached, and I was generally not feeling well. It is as if I had aged decades overnight.

Yesterday I was on the day shift, and we were steady with 7 patients. I felt like my right hand was a withered, crippled, claw. Everytime I had to shake a customer’s hand it was excruciating.

After the day was through, I pulled down Auerbach’s Wilderness Medicine, 5th Edition (the copy at the HRA post has actually been signed by Paul Auerbach and Ken Zafren, who is one of the medical advisor’s for the HRA), not an easy task in itself! After flipping through Acute Mountain Sickness, High Altitude Pulmonary Edema, and High Altitude Cerebral Edema, I got to a small one-paragraph section on Peripheral Edema at High Altitude. According to this authoritative text, peripheral edema will occur in 18% of people over 4200 meters, and suggests the use of a diuretic medication for symptom relief. Ah, Acetazolamide (Diamox), you always seem to be near at hand in high altitude. I never needed it for Acute Mountain Sickness, it’s most common use at altitude, but here I am relying on its diuretic properties to let me pee away my peripheral edema.

My hands on the night of March 22.  The knuckle on my right pointer finger is obviously swollen, and I can't straighten my right middle finger much past where it is without significant pain.

My hands on the night of March 22. The knuckle on my right pointer finger is obviously swollen, and I can’t straighten my right middle finger much past where it is without significant pain.

My feet on March 22.  Look how swollen each of the toes look!

My feet on March 22. Look how swollen each of the toes look!

I took 125mg last night, and had two good pees overnight. In the morning, my left hand and toes had greatly improved. My right hand is still being a bit problematic, but acetazolamide and I keep waging our battle against excess fluid. 250mg during the day, and I’ll take another 125mg tonight. I am mostly back to normal, but still can’t quite straighten my right middle finger!

My hands on March 23.  The knuckle on the right 2nd finger is still somewhat swollen, and while I can straighten my right middle finger a lot more than yesterday, I still cannot straighten it completely.

My hands on March 23. The knuckle on the right 2nd finger is still somewhat swollen, and while I can straighten my right middle finger a lot more than yesterday, I still cannot straighten it completely.  My left hand looks pretty much normal.

While my toes look much more splotchy than they did yesterday, they are not swollen and feel much better.  I have a blister on the left 2nd toe from the trip to Ama Dablam, and my right 2nd toe has a bruise on it where a nearly blind guy stepped on my toe today (casualties of wearing flip flops in the HRA clinic!)

While my toes look much more splotchy than they did yesterday, they are not swollen and feel much better. I have a blister on the left 2nd toe from the trip to Ama Dablam, and my right 2nd toe has a bruise on it where a nearly blind guy stepped on my toe today (casualties of wearing flip flops in the HRA clinic!)

Adventure to Misadventure

There is a difference between adventures and misadventures. When Amundsen reached the South Pole, that was an adventure; when Shakelton got his ship ice bound in Antarctic waters, that was a misadventure.

Adventure: So Reuben and I set off yesterday to climb to Ama Dablam’s base camp. The plan was to backtrack down the same trail that we came up from Lukla. After approximately 2 hours, we would reach Pangboche, then cross the river and head up the trail to Ama.

Misadventure: At breakfast before setting off, I asked our head man from the HRA, Gobi, about the trek. He recommended that I talk with one of the lodge owners in Pheriche, who has a lot of knowledge of trekking in the region. So Reuben and I walked over to his lodge, and discussed our plans with him. He recommended that we travel over to Dingboche and cross the Imja Khola River to the east side. We would then find a trail and ascend. Following this trail, we would pass through a couple small Sherpa communities, and then end up half way up the trail to Ama Dablam’s with an easy final hike to the basecamp.

We were somewhat dubious; although this is the trail my friend Jenn had taken the previous season. We asked if there wasn’t too much snow, and if anyone had been on the trail, but we were assured that the trail was well used, and would be the best way for us to get to Ama Dablam.

So off we were, over the hill to Dingboche. We found the bridge and soon crossed. Things were well. It was a beautiful day, and we had a choice of two sets of tracks, which would surely lead us to the trail to Ama.

Reuben crossing the bridge at Dingboche.

Reuben crossing the bridge at Dingboche.

Wait…! Where did the trail go? We decided to break trail through the snow. Surely if we kept going, we’d find something that looked trail like.

Breaking trail with the town of Dingboche to our left.

Breaking trail with the town of Dingboche to our left.

This doesn’t seem to be working. Maybe we should drop down to the river, and we could cross to the other side, and then follow the trail out of Dingboche to Pangboche, like what we were going to do initially.

The Imja Khola

The Imja Khola

We are now hoping from rock to rock across and down the Imja Khola. There’s got to be a way across somewhere!?! We keep on. We know that if we keep following the river southwest of Dingboche, there is a place where the trail goes down by the river. Surely we can pick up the trail there.

Finding a trail of snow among the thorns and rocks by the riverside.

Finding a trail of snow among the thorns and rocks by the riverside.

Four hours, and we’re still just opposite of Dingboche. Doesn’t it only take two hours to hike from Pheriche to Pangboche?

 

Did you know that if we had gone the other way, we would probably be at the Ama Dablam basecamp by now?

We get to the spot. Look, there’s a trail going up the ridge! We decide to follow the trail. All seems good. Pace quickens. We are now following a trail. Someone has been here before. Who? Who was this person, and where were they going? It becomes clear that we are not just following one set of tracks, but someone has gone up, and then come back down in the same tracks. Fatigue is setting in, concentration lacking.

We follow the tracks to Rala Kharka, a small group of Sherpa huts with rock fences to differentiate small farm fields. The tracks stop in front of one of the shacks. All are locked. Nobody is home. No trail continues on from this village. We’ve been hiking for 6 hours.

The huts at Rala Kharka.

The huts at Rala Kharka.

It is still beautiful, but clouds are coming in from the south. A breeze picks up. We sit on the rock wall near the shack. A Snickers satisfies the hunger inside of me.

We keep punching on. There is a vague outline of a trail, and a monument of stone, more refined than a mere cairn. We head for it. According to the map, if we simply keep following this contour, we should end up on the trail from Pangboche to Ama Dablam.

Ama Dablam is no longer the objective. We are getting exhausted, dehydrated; the afternoon weather is kicking up. We are now seeking the warmth of a lodge in Pangboche. Just get there!

We keep post holing through snow. The first field is shallow with plenty of rocks protruding. Not likely to slide. We keep moving. We take turns. Reuben is wearing his mountaineering boots, with knee high gaiters. I am wearing a pair of light hikers. They aren’t Gore Tex (I don’t believe in that stuff in hiking boots, after all…). I’ve got a pair of permetherin coated ankle high gaiters made for keeping rocks and insects out of your shoes and pants. They would work great for Africa. Not made for Nepal. I will have to write a nice review of them online at Backcountry.com. My mountaineering boots are still in a bag on its way to Pheriche. My shoes feel like swimming pools. I can move my toes around, and see water slosh out of the canvas near the toes. I have already saturated 2 of my 3 pairs of sox.

The terrain gets sketchier. The snow is punchy, feeling like it might just support your weight, but then you break through a firm layer to the softer snow underneath. The lighter snow on previous slopes has given way to knee-deep snow that sometimes goes as high as your hip. There is no evidence of slides, but we kick off small snowballs with each step. I don’t have a slope meter, but estimate the slope to be approximately 45 degrees. It’s warm. It’s 2 in the afternoon.

Crossing snow fields that are looking ever more threatening on our way to Ama Dablam base camp.

Crossing snow fields that are looking ever more threatening on our way to Ama Dablam base camp.

Looking back from where when came.

Looking back from where when came.

We are walking above a forest of Rhododendron. These terrain traps are called “cheese graters” in the Avalanche community.

Knowledge is power. Knowledge is a dangerous thing. Nothing about this situation is good. This is where avalanches happen. This is where people disappear. The most common terrain to slide is 38-45 degrees. Slides are more likely to occur in the afternoon, when the sun has warmed the snow, in the spring. If the avalanche doesn’t seriously hurt us, being run through the forest below at 50 miles an hour won’t do anything good.

We come across a south-facing slope where all the snow has melted off. We can see a trail in the distance, but two more snow slopes, even scarier looking than the last separates us from this point.

We make a decision. We descend back to the river. We hike down the slope. When we enter the Rhododendron forest, the ground is again covered in snow. We slide from one tree to the next, slowly making our way back down.

Here we trade one bad situation for another. Post holing through a snowfield is hard work, but so is travelling among the boulders at the side of a quickly moving glacier fed river. The right bank of the river looks tempting, but there are no places to cross. There was a bridge at Dingboche. The next is at Pangboche.

At times large boulders completely block the left bank, forcing us to climb back up the slope to go around. This is not easy. In fact at one point, I find myself holding on to dried grass with my left hand, with bad footholds of soft snow. No tree trunks in reach. I am able to punch my right fist in the snow to make a questionable hold. This is the worst moment of the trip. I reached some more secure holding, but if I had started to slip, there’d be no stopping me, and I would have been in the river.

We were beaten down by the snow slopes; we are beaten down by the river. A few hundred yards away, we can see the hikers, yaks and porters travelling along the trail. The trail we were planning on taking that morning, until we listened to the worst bad advice I’ve ever listened to. They are on one side of the river; we are on the other. I curse the lodge owner. My anger does not stem from getting bad advice, but from bad advice that turned out to be incredibly dangerous.

We keep crawling along the boulders of the river. Dehydration is making me weak and mentally drained. I have only peed once today, and it was the color of Ale. This is when mistakes happen. Occasionally a porter sees us down in the river valley and calls out to us. This does not make anything better.

The tension eases in a subtle way: we come across yak dung. If there are yaks here, we must be close to a trail. Yaks have pretty free rain over the hills and pastures of this land, but they still need to get there. We walk along, following the pies of yak dung. Where a yak can go, we can go.

"Where a yak can go, we can go!"

“Where a yak can go, we can go!”

The next piece of evidence is trash. Candy bar wrappers and Coke bottles. Garbage has never looked so good. The going gets easier. Soon the bridge to Pangboche is in site.

Crossing the bridge is like the end of a nightmare. A trip that should take approximately 2 hours by the standard route has taken us 8 hours by our ridiculous alternative route.

Pangboche is on top of a hill, and we slowly make our way up the steps. Reuben knows of a good place that he has stayed in before. We enter and ask for lodging. After looking at us, they want to put us in one of their outdoor rooms. We insist to be inside. After some long consideration on their part, they reluctantly agree.

I quickly change out of my wet socks, and wring dirty water out of them. I am very grateful for the down booties I had been carrying all day. I change into a world of down: down jacket, down pants, down booties.

We head upstairs to the dining room. The custom in the Khumbu is that the lodges cost almost nothing (my stay cost me Rs 100, which is approximately 1 USD), with the understanding that you will eat there. We order a large pot of Honey Lemon Tea, and as we each drink cup after cup, my dehydration headache slowly dissipates. Since we get food free at the HRA post, I am eager to eat things that we don’t get there. I order chips with egg, which is French fries with an over easy egg on top. The egg yolk and fries are a great combination. I also order a freshly made apple pie, which was full of cinnamon-y goodness.

We sit around the stove talking with a firefighter from Melbourne, Australia, and a guy from Portsmouth, England, who have both left their trips early because of high altitude illness, before heading off to a much deserved rest.

Misadventure to adventure

Ama Dablam and Mount Everest, looking north toward Pheriche and Dingboche.

Ama Dablam and Mount Everest, looking north toward Pheriche and Dingboche.

We awake early in the morning to try a second attempt on Ama Dablam base camp. Just like yesterday, the view of Ama this morning is spectacular without a single cloud in the sky.

Breakfast is Tibetan toast with butter and jelly. Tibetan toast is a deep fried pastry that is somewhat like a doughnut. We pack our bags, and head off back down the trail to the same bridge that we were so thankful to cross the evening before.

Down the hill from Pangboche, cross the river, up the hill to Ama Dablam. We find a place to stash our excess gear under a shrub so we can travel light. Base camp is at about 4600 meters (15,100 feet), which is only about 300 meters higher than Pheriche, however we have to climb from the river, and so have a gain of over 600 meters from the river. Luckily for us, someone knowledgeable about the trail has recently been up to base camp, and we have a solid trail to follow. Plus, in the early morning, the snow is still firm enough that we don’t break through. Another day of breaking trail would not be an option.

Prayer flags on the route to Ama Dablam

Prayer flags on the route to Ama Dablam 

The approach to base camp

The approach to base camp

We get to basecamp around 10:30 am. There is nothing there but snow, cairns with prayer flags, and a few “long drop” toilets. But the views are spectacular! Ama Dablam continues to impress, but from this vantage point you can appreciate that it is on one side of a cirque of incredible peaks. In the background sits Everest, unassuming from this location, with its famous strand of cloud drifting off into space.

Prayer flags and Ama Dablam from basecamp

Prayer flags and Ama Dablam from basecamp

The author with Ama Dablam in the background.

The author with Ama Dablam in the background.

The other peaks that share the Cirque with Ama Dablam

The other peaks that share the Cirque with Ama Dablam

As we head down, we meet a guided group of Chileans and Spaniards heading up. By now the snow is softening, and the ground is turning to mud. They are already too late, as days quickly age in these altitudes. How funny to be just two people freely trekking around, among all these groups of guided tours.

The trip back to Pheriche is relatively uneventful. We passed several trains of yaks heading up to Everest with gear to support one of the Everest expeditions. One of the yak handlers told us that this expedition would use 60 yaks to get all their gear to basecamp. Multiply that by the number of various groups sending teams up the mountain, and it is clear why Everest is big business indeed!

Reuben and I shook hands as we crossed the bridge into Pheriche. The first hiking goal of the trip was accomplished. In the end, we bought more than we bargained for, but not more than we could handle.

A World Lit Only By Dung

March 17, 2015

The front of the HRA clinic in Pheriche, with the Everest Memorial monument out front.  It lists the names of all the known deaths on Everest, currently accurate through 2012.

The front of the HRA clinic in Pheriche, with the Everest Memorial monument out front. It lists the names of all the known deaths on Everest, currently accurate through 2012.

The plaque on the front door of the Pheriche HRA clinic

The plaque on the front door of the Pheriche HRA clinic

We have made it to the HRA post at Pheriche, and are slowly adjusting to our new routines. The valley that contains the small village of Pheriche is absolutely beautiful, with towering spires surrounding the houses, lodges, and farms. After arriving, we assigned ourselves rooms and got to work cleaning the residential side of the clinic. We then spent the next two days, March 13 and 14, cleaning the clinic, and arranging the medical stores.

View of the Pheriche Valley to the Northwest.

View of the Pheriche Valley to the South.

View of the Himalayas surrounding Pheriche.  Looking to the Northwest

View of the Himalayas surrounding Pheriche. Looking to the Northwest

The "business end" of the Pheriche HRA clinic, the reception area for patients, and the shop for selling t-shirts, etc.

The “business end” of the Pheriche HRA clinic, the reception area for patients, and the shop for selling t-shirts, etc.

The examination room, where we see most patients.

The examination room, where we see most patients, still in the process of being cleaned.

Our "Inpatient Ward" where patients staying overnight will sleep.

Our “Inpatient Ward” where patients staying overnight will sleep.

The kitchen, where Jeet keeps us well fed, and where there is an unlimited supply of hot water for drinks (my new favorite being a combination of Hot Chocolate and orange Tang, delicious!)  We sit around the small table for all meals.

The kitchen, where Jeet keeps us well fed, and where there is an unlimited supply of hot water for drinks (my new favorite being a combination of Hot Chocolate and orange Tang, which I call a Terry, after the British company that makes chocolate oranges.  It’s delicious!) We sit around the small table for all meals.

The common room at the HRA clinic in Pheriche.  My room is the door on the right.

The common room at the HRA clinic in Pheriche. My room is the door on the right.

A Panorama of the staff enjoying the heat of the Dung stove in the evening.

A Panorama of the staff enjoying the heat of the Dung stove in the evening.

My bedroom at the HRA clinic

My bedroom at the HRA clinic

When we arrived, we had the bags we carried, plus one bag carried by a porter. The rest of our supplies, including food, medications, and personal effects, were to arrive by Yak train. This hasn’t happened yet….

Supposedly they’ll be here by tomorrow. The clinic has now been open for the past 4 days, and we’ve seen several Nepali locals and guides, and have diagnosed two people with High Altitude Pulmonary Edema. One has been flown out, and the second is spending the night in the clinic tonight, and will be flown out tomorrow.

We have split up the schedule so every day there is a daytime doctor, a nighttime doctor, and a doctor who is off. The night doc is also responsible for our 3pm altitude lecture, which I gave for the first time today. Our schedule is such that you work each shift twice in a row, which ultimately gives each person 2 days off at a time.

So tonight is my first “night shift”. We’ve had good luck in the past not getting patients during the nighttime hours. We’ll see if it holds for tonight. Tomorrow I will also be on overnight, and then will have two days off. If I get good sleep tomorrow, then Reuben and I are planning on trekking down to the Ama Dablam basecamp, which is at approximately the same elevation as Pheriche, and is supposed to be quite spectacular.

It has been cold, and even snowed yesterday. Our building is powered by solar, with a solar water heater, so our ability to function is dependent upon how much sun we get, and how much we need to use the oxygen concentrators for our patients (our major source of energy expenditure).   It’s kind of interesting to have to be so conscious of our energy use. Many Americans and Westerners would probably be well of to have to live by solar for a period of time to have a better understanding of the implications of power use.

But today was sunny and warm, and we got enough of a charge that I could take a nice, hot, shower. This is the first shower I’ve been able to take since leaving Kathmandu on the morning of March 8, 10 days ago. The good news is that it is so cold here that you never really develop the bad smells that you would in more temperate climates, but I was still happy to wash all the days of travel off of me, and change into some fresh clothes.

Our daily routine is such: Jeet, our cook, has breakfast around 8am. We usually lounge, or work on projects until noon when we have lunch. If it is sunny, one or two people can take a shower after lunch, during the warm part of the day. Then at 3 we have our altitude talk. This usually brings with it a small flurry of business, as people realize that they are actually suffering from altitude illness. Dinner is at 6pm. Yesterday they bought a chicken, which was cooked with the Dal Bhat. I have decided that one determination of whether a country is civilized is how they cut up a chicken. Needless to say, I’ve been carefully picking around jagged pieces of bones here. But protein is still good! After dinner is the real treat of the day: Jeet loads the potbellied stove full of dried Yak dung, and we sit in warmth, the only external source of heat we have other than the kitchen’s gas burners, and the very occasional warm shower. For several hours in the evenings, we relax in the common room in comfort. We are only allowed one stove’s full of dung a day, so when it is done and the room starts to cool, people head towards bed. Renee and I have our bedrooms directly off the common room, so we have gotten in the habit of opening our bedroom doors after the others have left, and letting the remaining warmth of the dung stove heat our rooms before bed.

The following are pictures of the clinic, Pheriche, and nearby Dingboche, which Renee and I visited a few days ago.

The author in a PAC bag, which can effectively increase the ambient air pressure by 2 bar.  In Pheriche (4200m), this  simulates the much lower altitude of Lukla (2800m).

The author in a PAC bag, which can effectively increase the ambient air pressure by 2 bar. In Pheriche (4200m), this simulates the much lower altitude of Lukla (2800m).

Practicing with the PAC bag inside the sun room.  The author is currently inside.

Practicing with the PAC bag inside the sun room. The author is currently inside.

The village of Dingboche, a 30-45 minute walk from Pheriche. It is 200m higher than Pheriche, and quite a bit larger.

The village of Dingboche, a 30-45 minute walk from Pheriche. It is 200m higher than Pheriche, and quite a bit larger.

The village of Dingboche with Island Peak (Imja Tse) in the background (looks like a black diamond).  I am planning on climbing that mountain in May.

The village of Dingboche with Island Peak (Imja Tse) in the background (looks like a black diamond). I am planning on climbing that mountain in May.

Returning home to our small village of Pheriche.

Returning home to our small village of Pheriche.  Hard to see, but the HRA clinic is mid picture.

The Stupa in Dingboche.

The Stupa in Dingboche.

An old Stupa above Dingboche

An old Stupa that sits above Dingboche in need of repair.

The helicopter landing to pick up our HAPE patient.

The helicopter landing to pick up our HAPE patient.

The helicopter taking off with our HAPE patient.

The helicopter taking off with our HAPE patient.

Namche to Pheriche

March 12, 2015

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Namche Bazaar is a transition. It is the end of the world, and the start of Khumbu. It is the last place with a reliable power source, free internet, quality bakeries, and stores where you can buy high quality mountaineering equipment. Although most journeys into the region start at Lukla by flight, or Jiri by foot, Namche Bazaar has always been the embarkation point.

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On our acclimatization day, Katie, Reuben, and I visit two villages further up the hill from Namche: the villages of Khumjung and Khunde. Both villages are known for having green rooftops, to reflect the fertile farmland of the valley in which they reside. From the path to Khumjung, we get our first real look at Everest, Lhoste, and Ama Dablam. The village itself has spectacular views of Ama Dablam, which is one of the most incredible mountains I have ever seen.

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Khunde is home to a clinic whose clientele is 98% Nepali. The doctor who runs the clinic, Dr. Kami, is very famous in the region. It is important for us to visit this place, because this is where we will be sending many of our Nepali patients throughout the season.

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The trek to Khumjung and Khunde is arduous, however, as the snow is melting in the warm air and the trails turn to mud. By the time we make it back to Namche, we are very hungry, and an exquisite piece of apple pie and an cappuccino at one of the local bakeries hits the spot nicely, then we head over to a bar that shows a documentary called “The Sherpas: The True Heroes of Everest” every day at 3pm. The movie highlights a group of Sherpas, and the work they do to prepare the way for Westerners to climb Everest. It is truly remarkable how these people toil and prepare so that people from a far away place can bask in the glory of standing on the highest point on Earth.

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After the movie, we return to the Panorama lodge for some Dal Bhat, which is the local staple. Dal Bhat is a combination of white rice, a liquid called Dal, and stewed vegetables, sometimes with meat. It’s actually very good, and there is always a lot of it, because it is traditional and expected for you to get seconds when you are eating Dal Bhat.

The next morning we have a last delicious breakfast at the Panorama Lodge.  It is more pricy than the other places we stay, but it is well worth it because the proprietors treat you like family.  Before leaving, they blessed us each by presenting us with prayer scarfs to take on our journey with us.

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We start off early to take advantage of the night’s cold to cover some distance before the heat of the day brings back muddy trails. Again transition: below Namche, the terrain was pine forests familiar feeling to many parts of America. Above Namche, the terrain transitions into an alpine zone, where trees become more like tall bushes and life becomes harsher.DSCN0404

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Our goal for the day is the hilltop outpost of Tengboche, which is most famous for its Buddhist monastery, and also has a few rugged lodges for guests. After a long, seemingly never ending, uphill hike, we reach Tengboche. After checking into the lodge, we make our way over to the Monastery to have a look. Respecting the wishes of the monastery, I took no photos inside. The main room houses a large Buddha statue, and places for the monks to sit. The walls are adorned with colorful images of gods and scenes that hold no meaning to me, and I walk away with little understanding of what stories and lessons were being taught on the walls of the Tengboche Monastery.

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The accommodations at the lodge were extremely crude, and the difference in quality between the lodges of Namche and those of Tengboche is striking. However the Sherpa stew is good, albeit being made with some unknown overcooked meat. The secret jewel of the stay, however, was being able to eat dinner watching the sun set on Everest and Ama Dablam. The whole room was silent as we watched these mountains transition from white to gold, to rose.

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The next morning began early. Our porters wanted to be off with our bags by 6am. Their goal was to drop our luggage off at Pheriche, and then be back to Lukla. These three young men make their money carrying goods uphill, and when they reach their destination, they want to spend as little time as possible on the return journey. There’s simply no profit on the way back. Starting early again allows us to benefit from walking on frozen ground, instead of mud.

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The trail continues to get higher, the air continues to get thinner, and the trains of animals carrying goods, so frequent below Namche, has become a rare sight.   Reaching the stone mounds and prayer flags that mark the top of the pass before entering Pheriche is a cause for celebration. We now just have a short downhill hike before entering the town that will become our new home for the next couple of months. The hours cramped in an airline; the days breathing dust and exhaust in Kathmandu; the miles of hiking have all been for this: to reach the Himalayan Rescue Association aid-post at Pheriche.DSCN0477

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This morning I awoke to sore shoulders, which often happen to me when I sleep on a hard surface. Breakfast was a basic “rice pudding”, which held none of the cinnamon-y goodness of what we have in America, but was basically a porridge made out of the previous night’s left over rice.

Monjo is the entrance to the Sagarmatha National Park, which is home to the Sherpa people and some of the highest mountains in the world, including Ama Dablam, Cho Oyu, and Mount Everest. Today we continued to follow the Dudh Koshi Nadi river upstream. It is a tough day starting at 2835m (9,300 ft) and ending up Namche Bazaar, which is 3440m (11,300 ft).

DSCN0222The route feels like continuous steps, although the Sherpa people are more forgiving in their step building than the Incas were in building the trail systems in Peru. The steps are lower and wider than the steep steps built by the Incas. We walk through a pine forest for most of the day, following the river, and occasionally crossing suspension bridges tenuously hung high above the river. The surroundings remind me of the story For Whom the Bell Tolls by Hemingway, which is about an American explosives expert who is fighting in the Spanish Civil War. He spends the book with a group of resistance fighters in the secluded forests of Spain, where he is planning to blow a bridge. As no one in the group had ever read the book, I remarked that it also reminded me a lot of hiking in the Colorado Rockies, albeit the mountains here are much higher.DSCN0251

About an hour out of Namche, we get our first glimpse of Mount Everest, its peak shrouded in cloud. To think how remarkable it is to be able to travel this land, which has been held sacred to so many, both for religious and adventurous purposes. It is easy to see why travelling in Nepal can become very addictive.

Namche Bazaar itself is sprawling, at least by the standards of villages in the Khumbu. It is a town in a small bowl, with many hotels on terraces up the sides. My dad would be happy to know that there is a Comfort Inn located in Namche, so he could earn “frequent stay” points with that company if he came here. It must be the highest chain hotel, at least from a Western Hotel Company, in the world.DSCN0271

The town looks across the river to the Kongde Ri mountains, which include several 6,000 m peaks, including Mupla, Shar, Kongde, Nup, Thyangmoche, and Paniyo Shar. The names are foreign, but the mountains looming through the windows of the lodge illustrate for the first time how truly massive these mountains really are.

DSCN0288There are other signs of Namche’s unique standing as the economic epicenter of this rooftop kingdom. There are several bakeries, and the one we went to today makes very tasty desserts and cappuccinos. There was even a mountaineering store that carried gear from North Face, Black Diamond, OR, Solomon, and other recognizable brand names, and the prices seemed very comparable to what would be seen in the US. Although there are a lot of “knock-offs” in Kathmandu, these are clearly real. It is amazing they can get there stock delivered up here, likely on the back of donkeys, and still manage to charge prices comparable to REI, Backcountry.com, or other American mountaineering stores.

We are staying at the Panarama Lodge and Restaurant, which I have been told by many of my colleagues who have previously worked for the Himalayan Rescue Association, is one of the best lodges in Namche. It has been frequented by such famous climbers as Reinhold Messnier, who is famous for being the first person to climb Everest without supplemental oxygen. A large American climbing company, Alpine Ascents, stays there each year.  They charge us approximately 400 rupees per room per day. There are about 100 Nepali rupees per 1 USD, which means that our lodge costs us $4 per night. The arrangement, however, assumes that you eat your meals at the lodge that you stay at. When it comes to the Panorama lodge, this is not a problem, as their sunroom is cozy, and their food good. I had Thukpa with Buff for lunch, which is like a cross between chicken noodle soup and egg drop soup. The “buff” is a bit of a mystery, although it is assumed to be buffalo meat, again shipped up to Namche on the back of some beast of burden to end up in my soup. Dinner was fried noodles with egg. The Thukpa cost Rs 500 ($5), and the noodles Rs 550.

By the ornamentation and craftsmanship of the Panorama Lodge, and the bakeries and shops in town, you can tell the wealth of the Sherpa people compared to their compatriots in other parts of the country. Tomorrow will be an “acclimatization day”, which means sleeping in, and an acclimatization hike up to Khunde and Khumjung. This serves the duel purpose of allowing some movement to higher ground to help acclimatize in the “climb high, sleep low” mindset, as well as allowing us to visit the clinic at Khunde, where we refer many of our patients.

The others have gone to sleep, and our Nepali guides, along with two other Nepali who are heading up to Pheriche to work on our solar system, are talking at one end of the sun-room, while I write on the other. There will be enough time for a little reading, and then soon it will be to bed.

Today our journey really begins. Waking up at 0415, I take one last shower, and pack the last of my things, and say goodbye to my internal room (so weird) before heading down to the waiting taxi, which takes us to the domestic terminal of the Kathmandu Airport. There we board the first flight of the day, which takes us to Lukla in approximately 40 minutes. The flight is absolutely spectacular, and Reuben Renee, and I are sitting on the left side, where we can watch the Himalayas the entire time. It beats any in flight movie you’ll ever see.

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The Lukla airport is notorious, with good reason. It is known as the most dangerous airport in the world, because of its short runway, which begins at the edge of a precipice, and ends with the stone retaining walls of the hill and the town. The runway is tilted to help deceleration during landing, and to increase speed during takeoff.  If you google the Lukla Airport, you will see several examples of planes landing and taking off at this small airport. DSCN0132

 

After landing, we gather our gear, praise God for our safe return to Terra Firma, and have breakfast in Lukla before heading into the field. Today’s hike is very pleasant, still at relatively low altitude, with beautiful glimpses of the Himalayas, which I have been so longing for since arriving in Kathmandu. We pass several small villages, and I am continuously impressed with the neatness of each village, and the beautiful stone buildings that we pass by. Amenities are basic, and everything is al a carte, from toilet paper, to hot showers, to electricity or WiFi. I am glad that once we get to the HRA, these basics will be provided for us by our little outpost.

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We eat lunch in a nice hotel in Phakding, where they had some very good chicken fried rice, and delicious lemon tea. I am trying to get as much protein as possible in the lower villages, because the higher you get, the harder it is to find things like chicken, beef, or eggs. Everything that comes to these villages, comes up by trains of donkeys or Zopkyo, which are a cross between a Yak and a Cow. Before leaving the restaurant, I was asked to talk with an Aussie who had hurt his ankle several days before and was having some mild pain posterior to his medial malleolus. This could be an area of concern for fracture, however he really didn’t have any swelling or bruising. He said his pain was only minor, that he had been seen by two Indian doctors a few days before, and that he was ACE wrapping, icing, elevating, and using ibuprofen and a Tylenol / codeine combination. I told him he could try some tape, which he said he knew how to apply, and that he could probably continue onward, at least to Namche Bazaar, so as not to lose his whole trip, however the guy seemed perfectly happy to sit in the warm hotel watching cricket on TV. I’m not really sure how he wanted me to help him, but as Katie said later, some people are just looking for a reason to not have to continue onward. The guy reminded me of Katz from Bill Bryson’s story A Walk in the Woods.

 

DSCN0201We continued climbing, and ended up in Monjo, which is where we spent the night. Monjo is a small community literally built into the hillside that surrounds the main hiking trail. Although I wouldn’t know it until morning, Monjo has beautiful views of Kusum Khangkaru, a 6,000m peak that we would continue to see most of the next day. The hotel we stayed at was very basic, although Reuben and I each had a good Sherpa Stew, called Shakpa, for supper. Renee had only got two hours of sleep the night before, and so went to bed immediately, skipping dinner. She must have slept for 14 hours. She later told me she is a “professional sleeper”, which I believe.

Blessings for my trip

March 7, 2015

Many people come to the Himalayas seeking enlightenment and blessing from the Hindu and Buddhist masters who reside there. Before starting out on my great journey into the Himalayas, I also sought spiritual enlightenment.

 

The church I attend in Park City, Mountain Life Church, has partnered with a church in Kathmandu, Nepal. In fact, the weekend my parents and I first came to Utah to look for a place for me to live, Pastor Rajan was meeting with a group of men from the church I would start attending 6 months later for breakfast at the same place my parents and I were meeting. So while I had not met the man, I had seen him and heard his story.

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The Greater Grace Church is located in a district of Kathmandu called Pepsi Cola, and when I told the taxi driver I wanted to go to Pepsi Cola, he looked at me strange, then asked why I was going there. I told him I was going to visit a church, and then asked him why the area was called Pepsi Cola. He told me that this was where Pepsi Cola was bottled for the country of Nepal.

 

The church is located just down the road from the bottling plant, and true to form for all churches in countries where Christianity is in the minority; they make do with what they have. But in reality, it looks like they are thriving! On top of the local pastor, they also have a missionary from Baltimore Maryland who is running a Bible College with approximately 25 young men learning how to teach the Word. They also have an active women’s ministry that met after the main worship service. Like many Protestant churches around the world, young adults lead worship with guitars, bass, and a drum set.

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The biggest surprise of my visit, however, was when Pastor Rajan and Pastor Jon took me to the orphanage the church has started. They provide a home for 20 children who would otherwise be out on the streets. Pastor Rajan told me the story of one boy who had learned to fill a water bottle with sand and water because it made his stomach feel more full. At the orphanage, the children receive a safe place to live, water from a reverse osmosis filter system, vegetables, and occasionally eggs and chicken. They also attend a school where they are taught English along with Nepali, so that when they become adults, they will have greater opportunities. By American standards, these children don’t have much, but what they do have is a foundation from which they can build a successful life.

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I was able to make a short film of these little orphans singing in both Nepali and English.  If you’d like to watch it, you can see it here.

 

Happy Holi!

March 5, 2015

High-Noon

So there is this Hindu story of an ancient battle High Noon style battle between good and evil, Vishnu and Hiranyakashipu.  It is said that after Vishnu defeated Hiranyakashipu, he created color in celebration.

Each year around this time, the festival of Holi, or the Color Festival, is celebrated by Hindus all over the world.  We had been hearing about this festival for a few days, and of course were planning on attending, however the Holi festival ended up being one of the most surprisingly awesome experiences of the trip, and a great time for the Manang and Pheriche groups to bond and have fun before our departure to our respective aid posts.  What follows is a series of photos, each going a bit further down the rabbit hole.

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This is our “pre-festival” formal shot.  From L to R: Remi (Manang volunteer), me (Pheriche volunteer), Katie (Pheriche volunteer), Reuben (Pheriche, spouse of Katie), Renee (Pheriche, volunteer), Emily (Manang), Lara (Manang volunteer), Christina (friend).

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Reuben and I at the start of the festival.

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Kind of a color beard, still looking pretty clean.

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Lara excited about color.

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Christina, Renee, and me

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We followed the crowds to the Basantapur Durbar Square, where this Rave was going on.  Spontaneously fun party of thousands of people full of color and dancing.  Watch my video of the party on YouTube here.

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Lara getting a better view.

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Remi getting into the festival

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Portrait of the artist…IMG_1073

 

 

The Pheriche Crew: Andrew, Katie, Reuben, and Renee.

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The Manang Crew: Remi, Lara, and Emily

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Katie full of color

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Enjoying a beer after the festival.

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The “post festival” formal shot.

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One last selfie before cleaning up.

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Today was another sunny day in Kathmandu, and with some free time on my hands, I decided to do some tourism by heading to Swayambhunath, commonly called the “Monkey Temple”.

 

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The complex, which includes this stupa and several temples, is among the holiest pilgrimage sites for Buddhists, and one of the oldest religious sites in Nepal.  The stupa has the eyes of Buddha looking in all four directions, which represent wisdom and compassion.

 

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Prayer flags bless the site.

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Prayer wheels at the base of Swayambhunath.

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The view of Kathmandu from Swayambhunath temple.

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Pena, my personal chauffeur for the day.