Earlier in the season, when all the big Everest expeditions were coming through Pheriche, the owner of an unnamed expedition company offered me the invitation to join his guides and clients climbing Lobuche East “anytime between April 12th and 20th.” Despite my efforts to secure a more specifics, I was merely assured, “show up at our base camp at Lobuche, and the guides will take care of the rest.

Not wanting to pass on this opportunity to get onto one of Nepal’s “trekking peaks”, I arranged with Katie and Renee to take off a few days during this time to try my hand at this peak. My hope was to be able to climb both Lobuche East, and Island Peak, two 6,000m peaks in the Khumbu region.  I have ascended to 5,500m twice in preparation for these bigger mountains.  Island is scheduled for May, so this was the perfect time to climb Lobuche East.  So I left on the morning of April 12, with plans to meet up with the group at their base camp that evening, hike to high camp the next day, and then summit the third. It was all going to be great!

Prayer Flags over Thokla pass

Prayer Flags over Thokla pass

I love taking pictures of these prayer flags....

I love taking pictures of these prayer flags….

Well I had good reason to be a bit worried about the specifics, or lack thereof.

I arrived at base camp in the mid-afternoon with cloudy weather closing in. I asked the Nepali’s around where the guides were, and they told me “they’re all up at high camp.”

Oh.

So I used their radio to speak with the expedition company owner, who was currently at Everest Base Camp. At first he didn’t remember me (great!), but then said, “Oh, well just go up to the high camp and you can meet up with them there.”

At this point I had already gained 700m in elevation. At the HRA we teach that in altitude, you shouldn’t gain more than 500m elevation per day, and here I was preparing to climb higher. Well at least I’ve been acclimatized to Pheriche’s elevation for several weeks.

There was one westerner, a Sherpa and a porter who were preparing to leave base camp for the trek to high camp. It was very clear to me that if I didn’t leave with them, there’d be no way for me to get to high camp that night. No way was I going to walk into a cloud to find a camp on the side of a mountain I’ve never seen before.

A call came in from the guides on Lobuche. They had no knowledge of me, and were not excited to have me joining their expedition. Further, they told me that the sleeping bag and mattress I’d been promised were not actually there. Thankfully I’d brought my own, not trusting the vague promises I’d heard. I’d hoped to dump some weight before starting up the mountain, but this means that I’d be carrying my full bag of equipment up to high camp.

The group heading up the mountain was equally as unhappy about me being there. This is a great way to start an expedition, feeling that you are totally unwanted!

The trail was tricky, intermixed among rock fields. At one point, a rope had been strung because the trail was rocky and icy. Exciting, but a bit unnerving.

A sketchy section of icy boulders that required a rope for safety.

A sketchy section of icy boulders that required a rope for safety.

As five o’clock rolls around, it begins to snow, and twilight sets in. I gain a ridge, and there are about a dozen tents marking. The camp is at 5,200m, a full 1,000m above Pheriche!

Arriving at high camp, 5,200m.

Arriving at high camp, 5,200m.

The group has been kind enough to let me stay in their gear tent. I set up my sleeping bag and mat, and share a stove with the team doctor, Tracy, who works at Vail Valley Medical Center. We spend some time discussing doctors we both know.

Night sets in early. The plan is to be ready by 7 to climb to the top of the mountain. I snuggle into my sleeping bag wearing all the clothes I own! Inside my Mountain Hardware 0-degree sleeping bag I wear a long underwear top, a Patagonia sun-shirt, a lightweight Patagonia Down sweater, and my heavy synthetic Rab jacket. On the bottom, I’m wearing midweight long underwear, trekking pants, and Gore-Tex pants.

Still I’m freezing!

After the obligate getting up three times to pee overnight (I forgot to pack a pee bottle), the dull light of dawn starts appearing. It is snowing. Hard. It snows at least 1-1.5 feet overnight.

The camp the next morning.  My tent was the green one.

The camp the next morning, buried in snow. My tent was the green one.

Me at the high camp.

Me at the Lobuche East high camp.

The call goes out: we’re going to hang tight and see what the weather does before deciding to go up the mountain. By 8 am, it is decided to down climb back to basecamp. No shot at Lobuche East this time.  A snowfall this big is too much a risk of avalanche.

Downclimbing in the snow.  Stuff avalanches were going off all around us.

Downclimbing in the snow. Stuff avalanches were going off all around us.

Last night’s rock scramble has become a snow route today. Stuff avalanches are falling all around us.  Difficult but fun down climbing leads us back to basecamp, where tea, ginger cookies, and a meal of French Fries with an egg (a new culinary favorite!) awaits.

Downclimbing in the snow.

Downclimbing in the snow.

The icy rope section the next morning.  This time going down.

The icy rope section the next morning. This time going down.

I didn’t make it up to Lobuche East, and at first I felt a bit like the redheaded stepchild no one wanted, but as I got to know the group, I still had fun in the end.

I made it back to the HRA clinic in time to celebrate the Nepali New Year. Nepal does its best to assert its uniqueness from the rest of the world (thus being 15 minutes off the rest of the world in time), and according to their calendars, April 12 is New Years Eve, and the year is 2072! To celebrate, we bought some beers, which tasted really good after two days of heavy hiking, and Jeet and Tan bought rakshi, the local moonshine, which was remarkably smooth and basically tasted like water.

While the trip wasn’t the one I wanted, it was fun to camp out in a snowstorm, and to celebrate New Years with friends. The next time I ring in the year 2072, I will be 91 years old….

Advertisements
Ama Dablam shrouded in clouds

Ama Dablam shrouded in clouds

As part of my continuous efforts to explore more of the Khumbu region, I took a day to do a sprint hike up to Chukung Ri, a 5550 m peak behind the town of Chukung, which is a town up the valley carved out of the Imja Khola river, which has its source on the mountains of Island Peak, Amphulapcha, Lhotse, and the North Face of Ama Dablam. Chukung is the stepping off point for expeditions up Island Peak (Imja Tse), 6189 m.

But I’ve been eyeing Chukung Ri on the map, at the same height as Kala Patthar, and close enough to turn it into a long day trip, it looked like a great peak to “bag” for an acclimatization hike to better prepare for mountains like Lobuche East (6119 m) and Island Peak. Reuben was supposed to join me for the day, but wasn’t feeling well, so off I go on another solo adventure in the Khumbu.

The trail from Pheriche to Dingboche

The trail from Pheriche to Dingboche

In spite of the long distance to be covered during the day, I took the hike out rather casually. After crossing the hill from Pheriche to Dingboche, I stopped in at the Snow Lion Lodge, where Renee’s research medical student is staying, to catch up with him and accept a cup of Sherpa Tea from the proprietress.

The Stupa in Dingboche

The Stupa in Dingboche

Decisions, Decisions.

Decisions, Decisions.

The trail from Dingboche to Chukung offers some great views of Imja Peak, which is also known as Island Peak. It is a relatively easy 6000 m peak, and for some reason seems very popular with Asian tourists. It has a distinct black diamond on its Southwest Face. Renee and I are planning on summiting this mountain in May.

The Southwest face of Island Peak with its distinctive black diamond.

The Southwest face of Island Peak with its distinctive black diamond.

Ama Dablam, apparently beautiful from any angle

Ama Dablam, apparently beautiful from any angle

Just before arriving at Chukung, I catch up with Scott Simper, an Emmy Award winning photographer and friend of my advisor, Scott McIntosh. He is out here working on some video projects, and will be climbing Everest later in the season. They’re headed to Island Peak as an acclimatization climb for Everest.

Memorial to a Polish Climber who died on the South Face of Lhotse (in the background)

Memorial to a Polish Climber who died on the South Face of Lhotse (in the background)

With Scott Simper on the trail to Chukung

With Scott Simper on the trail to Chukung

I enter Chukung, another hole-in-the-wall place that has a series of lodges and not much else, and look for the Sunrise lodge on the advice of Katie. The proprietor is kind enough to refill my water bottles and point me in the direction of the trail up Chukung Ri.

The town of Chukung with the South Face of Lhotse and Island Peak behind.

The town of Chukung with the South Face of Lhotse and Island Peak behind.

The trail is a dusty uphill battle, and almost immediately I catch up with a group of Chinese trekkers. Katie, Reuben, Renee, and I have discussed this on several occasions. It’s funny to feel so comfortable travelling these trails alone, only to constantly pass trains of trekkers clumped together with a guide in the front and another behind. The freedom of being able to explore these mountains and trails at your leisure, with all your needs on your back, free of guides, clients, and porters, is a freedom elusive to those who spend thousands of dollars for the chance to trek to Everest Base Camp.

Following the Chinese up the trail to Chukung Ri

Following the Chinese up the trail to Chukung Ri

But on this occasion, the group of Chinese trekkers worked to my advantage. I was able to get advice from their guides about the route, and at the summit, they were friendly enough. One of them was even a Pathologist in China. He was kind enough to take a couple of “summit shots” of me with my camera.

The trail up Chukung Ri

The trail up Chukung Ri

Island Peak from half way up Chukung Ri

Island Peak from half way up Chukung Ri

Getting to the top of Chukung Ri was a race against time, however. As I climbed higher, I was watching the clouds slowly gobble up Ama Dablam, Island Peak, Lhotse, and finally as I reached the summit of Chukung Ri, the clouds were threatening this small peak too. I wasted no time, and quickly descended. After all, getting to the top is just half the journey; I still had to get home.

Island Peak shrouded in cloud

Island Peak shrouded in cloud

Ridge line to Chukung Ri

Ridge line to Chukung Ri

Summit of Chukung Ri

Summit of Chukung Ri

Luckily, the return trip is an uneventful slog retracing my previous steps. I arrive back to Pheriche in time for dinner, tired but happy to have made one more assault in the Khumbu.

DSCN0837

DSCN0834

So after the Kala Patthar post, I thought I should write a more general post about what we do at the Himalayan Rescue Association clinic in Pheriche, because up until now, all I’ve shown you is my little adventures in the field. We actually do work too!

The author doing Nepalese Ebola Training.  Actually, I'm just wearing the bag from a new down comforter donated by the Australian Embassy, and using the EKG probes to harass people!

The author doing Nepalese Ebola Training. Actually, I’m just wearing the bag from a new down comforter donated by the Australian Embassy, and using the EKG probes to harass people!

There are three doctors at the Pheriche Clinic. Renee Salas is a Wilderness Medicine Fellowship at Mass General Hospital in Boston. We have known each other since we were both in a Wilderness Medicine Institute “Medicine in the Wild” course in 2009. Katie Williams is a general practice doctor from the UK, who is also a Diploma in Mountain Medicine graduate. She has been to the Himalayas multiple times, including working at a different clinic in Machermo last fall. Her fiancée is Reuben, who is a professional photographer who is starting to orient his career more towards wilderness and expedition photography. Katie and Reuben are planning on getting married 3 weeks after we leave Nepal.

We opened the clinic on March 15, although the patients couldn’t wait and we saw four patients on March 14th. To date, we have seen 124 patients in the past 23 days. We have evacuated evacuate 13 patients, or over 10%, mostly for High Altitude Pulmonary Edema, but have also seen High Altitude Cerebral Edema, an Upper GI bleed, and a pancreatitis patient.

Renee ultrasounding a patient

Renee ultrasounding a patient

Using our old-fashioned "suction cup" EKG machine on a patient.

Using our old-fashioned “suction cup” EKG machine on a patient.

Katie testing a patient's neurological functioning

Katie testing a patient’s neurological functioning

We do an altitude talk every day at 3pm, and thus far have given the talk to 229 trekkers and climbers. Renee is also running a research study looking at using Ibuprofen versus an anti-nausea medicine to help people with altitude symptoms. Since my research study has ground to a halt due to a malfunctioning ultrasound machine, and because the Nepal Health Research Council has not bothered to approve it yet, I have been helping her with her study. She also has a medical student who has been working over in Dingboche, the community next to Pheriche. So far we have enrolled 25 participants, with a goal of enrolling 200.

The author giving an Altitude Talk to trekkers and climbers on their way towards Everest.

The author giving an Altitude Talk to trekkers and climbers on their way towards Everest.

Evacuating patients by helicopter is often a big deal around here, and the helicopter services use it as a reason to send goods, food, or people up to Pheriche, as well as taking patients down.   The helicopters used here are used for general purposes, and are not specifically for medical usage, they have no medical crew or medical equipment.

Escorting a patient to the helipad.

Escorting a patient to the helipad.

Reuben and Gobi waiting for a helicopter.

Reuben and Gobi watching a helicopter to land.

Getting the patient secured in the back of the helicopter.

Getting the patient secured in the back of the helicopter.

A helicopter on approach with a box full of Easter goodies.

A helicopter on approach with a box full of Easter goodies.

Easter goodies landing at Pheriche.

Easter goodies landing at Pheriche, with Ama Dablam in the background.

A panorama of Pheriche and Ama Dablam from the helipad.

A panorama of Pheriche and Ama Dablam from the helipad.

Of course Easter here is business as usual, and the closest church is probably in Kathmandu, but we did find ways to enjoy the day. Reuben and Katie brought out Cadbury Eggs for each of us, and I broke out some Archer Farms (Target brand) Carmel flavored coffee, which was pretty good. We even had enough time to play a little Cricket with Jeet and Tan. It was my first time playing, so needless to say I was pretty awful.

A pretty great backdrop for a cricket match.  Katie pitches with Jeet at the bat.

A pretty great backdrop for a cricket match. Katie pitches with Jeet at the bat.

Our three puppies, Grizzly Bear, Black Bear, and Brown Bear, respectively.

Our three puppies, Grizzly Bear, Black Bear, and Brown Bear, respectively.

Katie playing with puppies.

Katie playing with puppies.

Luanne Freer, founder of the Everest ER, playing with puppies.

Luanne Freer, founder of the Everest ER, playing with puppies.

Puppies taking shelter from the snow.

Puppies taking shelter from the snow.

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.

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.

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.

IMG_1003

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”.

 

IMG_0984

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.

 

DSCN0033

Prayer flags bless the site.

DSCN0016

Prayer wheels at the base of Swayambhunath.

DSCN0045

The view of Kathmandu from Swayambhunath temple.

IMG_1008

Pena, my personal chauffeur for the day.

 

 

After a light morning rain, the skies opened up, and we were able to enjoy our first blue-sky day in Kathmandu.  The morning was taking up learning a new skill: emergency dental extraction!  Not something docs do in the US very frequently, because we send patients off to dentists, but in the Khumbu, it may be necessary to extract a tooth from a local who has been suffering from dental pain.  The description and practice on models makes it look remarkably easy, but we’ll see what happens when and if I get the opportunity to practice my “mad doctor” dentistry skills.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

After dental training, we travelled back to the Himalayan Rescue Association headquarters to meet with staff regarding clinic procedures, rationing, and equipment.  It looks like there will be plenty of Tang, in 3 different varieties.  If it’s good enough for the Astronauts….

I was also able to coordinate delivery on the 150 spirometry turbines that I missed being able to pick up in Salt Lake because the guy at FedEx gave me bad advice, and they were delivered 3 hours after I had to leave for the airport.  It just required meeting with an “importer / exporter” and paying an additional “import tax”.  Thankfully these small, and by now very expensive, cardboard tubes are now safely in my possession!

As a shout out, Stephen Kreuer from Medical Equipment Resource, Inc. in DeWitt, Michigan has been extraordinarily helpful in getting these tubes to me, and I would highly recommend anyone else wanting to buy a pulmonary spirometer to work with this guy.  It’ll be a popular item this Christmas, I predict!

With a few hours left before language class, I went to the “Garden of Dreams”, which is a restored neo-Classical garden built in 1920, and restored in 1996.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The garden had a small 200 rupee entrance fee, which presumably helps keep the facilities up.  It is an incredibly peaceful and relaxing place located at the intersection of two incredibly busy streets in the Thamel district of Kathmandu.  But once inside, you are transported back a century and time seems to stand still.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Gardens and ponds are interspersed along the site, which also has an Amphitheater and three Pavilions.  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The site was obviously a popular place for couples to go within the city to relax and enjoy each other’s company.  The air was cleaner and had the fragrance of flowers, again amazing considering the amount of traffic just outside the Garden’s walls.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Garden was originally built by field Marshall Kaiser Sumsher Rana, and was donated to the Nepali government upon his death, after which time it went into disrepair.  From 2000 to 2007, with help from the Austrian government, the site was renewed, and is now restored to its original opulence, with modern updates.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOne such update is the Kaiser Cafe, a wonderful little restaurant on the grounds.  While expensive for Kathmandu, prices ranged from 600-1500 rupees (again, approximately $6-$15 USD), the meal I had cost approximately $13 after VAT tax and tip, and was quite enjoyable.

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYesterday’s dust, pollution, and confusion, along with the chagrin of confirming the recommendations of so many climbers who told me to spend as little time in Kathmandu as possible, gave way to air cleaner air filtered by a thunderstorm.  A thunderstorm in Kathmandu was strangely unexpected, however as dirt roads gave way to mud, the particulate matter in the air noticeably decreased, and yesterday’s N95 mask gave way to today’s GoreTex.  I’ve always had a secret joy for staying comfortable in waterproof clothing, ever since my brother and I had to dig ourselves out of a blizzard that hit our house in Denver  back in collage.

Officially, the past two days have been filled with meetings at the Himalayan Rescue Association and language lessons.  Today we met with Dr. Buddha Basnyat, the medical director for the HRA.  Buddha has a genuine warmth of a long-time friend, even when you just meet him for the first time.  He met with all the volunteer staff of the Pheriche and Manang Aid-posts along with volunteers from another organization that run an outpost out of Machhermo, which is an approximately 2 day hike over the Cho La pass from Pheriche in the Khumbu region.  We had a good conversation about various high altitude illness and gastrointestinal diseases of Nepal (which is notoriously frequent).

I still do not yet have a good feeling for the city of Kathmandu.  The hotel we are staying at, the Hotel Marshyangdi, is nice, but basic.  Most importantly, I have a room to myself.  They also have sufficient Wifi access to allow me to speak to my family on the phone through Viber.

Having been here for two days, I have yet to see a mountain.  I feel stuck in alleys cut between a dense population of 3-5 storied buildings.  It kind of reminds me of a movie I watched on the plane to Qatar, the Maze Runner.  The streets are filled with a flurry of motor vehicles, pedestrians, and rickshaw like machines, all of which are trying their best to take you out of commission.  The time has been useful to pick up a few last minute items, including a Primus French Press, two pounds of coffee from locally grown and roasted Himalayan Java, a pack cover, and a copy of Peter Matthiessen’s “The Snow Leopard”.  According to the FedEx website, my precious spirometry turbines will be coming in tomorrow, which is critical to the success of my research.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Still, I am anxious to get into the mountains of this country.  So many of the world’s most beautiful places seem to share their plain of existence with the ever encroaching consumerism of humanity: Yellowstone to West Yellowstone, Denali to Talkeetna, Machu Picchu to Cusco, the Wasatch Range to Salt Lake.  Perhaps as the Himalayas (which I just learned means “abode of snow”), as the greatest of mountain ranges, also has the greatest of tourist embarkation cities, in Kathmandu.

 OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The author risking “life and limb” in a 300 rupee taxi, Kathmandu, Nepal.

It’s been a long time since I’ve added to this site, but I thought attempting to keep up on my blogging, while being on such an extraordinary adventure would be a good thing.

I am currently in Doha, Qatar, on a layover on my way to Kathmandu, Nepal to work with the Himalayan Rescue Association (HRA).  Already it has been an adventure!  It started with FedEx failing to be able to ship some important equipment to me that I need for my research project.  (Well they got it there, but about 3 hours too late.  I missed it by THREE HOURS!!!!) So the very nice guy whom I bought it from is now shipping it to the HRA headquarters in Kathmandu Nepal!

Boarded the long flight 1/2 way around the world.  They were nice enough to check 3 of my 4 bags for free (so awesome!)  The flight gave me 12 hours to numb my brain with several movies and a few reruns of M.A.S.H.  (I never sleep well on airplanes).  But I can say that “Gone, Girl” absolutely did not disappoint!  One of the better movies I’ve seen in a long time.

Doha, Qatar, is an incredibly pleasant city!  Especially in February, when the climate is comfortable enough to wear a long sleeve shirt, and there is a nice breeze that comes off the Persian Gulf.  In spite of my parents worries that I would be abducted by ISIS or something, Doha is a really nice place, and even walking around alone at night I felt very safe.  There were tons of jewelry stores, Jaguar / Austin Martin dealers, nice restaurants, and banks around, and yet I haven’t seen anyone that looks like Police, or Military, or Security.  The only weapons I’ve seen are old styled swords and maces that would be sold to tourists.

I was able to walk to the Souk Wadif, which is about the one “absolute must see” tourist thing in Doha.  It’s an old styled market, but it is very sheek and trendy, without feeling pretentious.  It had a much more upscale and safer feeling to it than the Kejetia Market in Kumasi, Ghana.

IMG_0937

IMG_0936

Some of the women wore traditional Burqas, or Hijabs, but many also had their complete face and hair exposed, and it didn’t seem to matter at all.  Many men wore the traditional white robes (I don’t know their name), but others worse suits or tee-shirts and jeans.  There were lots of families and groups wandering the streets of the Souk Wadif, and many children were playing.

IMG_0948

There was also a beautiful spiraling minaret, that ended up being an Islamic Community Center, and presumably a mosque.  I haven’t been able to see the Persian Gulf yet, but hope to tomorrow morning before I fly out.

So tomorrow I continue on my journey, making it to Kathmandu!  Stay tuned.

P.S., I am so grateful to have such great friends such as Jonathan and Kristy Nellermoe, and TJ and Alyssa Johnson, all friends from Mountain Life Church, who are willing to stay at my house while I’m gone and look after things for me!  Especial thanks to Jon and Kristy for putting up with me during me melt down today regarding the FedEx fiasco!

IMG_0944 IMG_0946

Beautiful interior shots of buildings in the Souk Wadif

 

IMG_0951

Another mosque I was able to photograph