Walk in the House of Snow
When we flew from San Francisco in early October to Nepal for a 15-day trek in the Himalayas, I had no idea which of a long list of responsibilities could doom me.
I had only been training seriously for about six months, having added excess pounds during the pandemic, which would have made conditioning even more difficult.
I worried that my right Achilles tendon, never fully healed from a severe sprain suffered nearly three years ago, would get in the way on rough, steep trails.
Then there was the vertigo. Dizzy, nauseous episodes that could flatten me for an entire day were rare at first, but their frequency accelerated just as COVID-19 locked down the world. Episodes subsided with time and medication, but remained unpredictable.
So this was the personal luggage I was taking along, along with my backpack and a 90 liter pack, as I set off on a month-long journey that would take me to Everest Base Camp at the foot of from the highest peak in the world in a mountain range known as the House of Snow.
This adventure was not my idea. I had been quite sedentary due to my stubborn injuries and the demands of the job and I despaired of ever being rid of my tired self.
I was pulled out of my discomfort by the woman who introduced me to hiking over 25 years ago and who has inspired me ever since, Marga Kellogg Cooley.
My inaugural hike was 14,500 foot Mount Whitney in the Sierra Nevada Range. This one day adventure, a 21 mile round trip, nearly killed me. While I was used to running marathons, I was ill-prepared for the altitude. But I was hooked, and Half Dome in Yosemite National Park (8,800ft), Longs Peak in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains (14,200ft), and Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania (19,300ft) followed over the years. decades.
So when Marga approached me earlier this year and asked if I wanted to join her and her friend Bethany House on a trek to Everest Base Camp to celebrate her 60th birthday. , I jumped at the chance to reset my life.
Then she showed me the itinerary prepared by our trekking company, Nepal Social Treks and Expedition. We wouldn’t join the masses on the popular and busy so-called Everest Highway. Oh no. We would embark on the lesser-known Three Pass route, which involves climbing a trio of passes rising to 17,500+ feet. Mount Whitney, by comparison, would seem like a walk in the park.
When we arrived in Kathmandu it was hot and muggy, a marked contrast to the freezing temperatures we were soon to encounter. We were herded into a makeshift building for the first of three stations where they checked our passports and COVID-19 test results. It took about two hours, but we eventually emerged on the other side of the building and met our guide, Achut Pandey, a cheerful, kind man who has hiked Everest Base Camp over 100 times.
He greeted us with wreaths made of marigolds and escorted us to the Woodapple Hotel & Spa, a welcome respite from our 20+ hour flight. Like many inns and motels, it was tucked away in the middle of a maze of very narrow streets where motorists, mostly motorcyclists, honked their horns to alert other drivers that they were bypassing what seemed like an endless succession of blind intersections. No traffic lights; no traffic cops.
The next day, as we recovered from jet lag, we visited the capital of Nepal, strolling through a historic temple where monkeys roamed as freely as people. We stopped across the river from a cremation site where the remains of bodies were prepared to be slid into the water. We visited an art school where students were taught to paint mandalas, some with exquisite detail and color.
The next morning we were to fly to Lukla, the mountainside community that is the gateway to the Everest region, but bad weather forced us to wait a day.
Because there was a backlog of hikers and climbers ahead of us and a limited number of flights each day, we chartered a helicopter. It was the smallest eggbeater I’ve seen capable of carrying five people. It was a breathless 45 minute flight, but it allowed us to see the verdant terraced hills as we leave behind the densely populated capital, home to 1.5 million people, and head into the countryside, whose residents have welcomed the return of tourists and hikers who have supported their economy.
Once in Lukla (9,300ft), we met our two porters in their twenties, Purna Dumjan and Aidahan Tamang, whose lightweight frames would support loads weighing 100 pounds or more, and began our journey for us. gradually adapt to higher altitudes. We hiked a short distance that day to Phakding (8,500ft). The next day we walked to Namche Bazaar (11,200ft), a bustling mall of restaurants and street vendors selling everything from yak bells to hand-woven headbands to toilet paper, which would become one of my most coveted items during the trip.
We took a day hike from Namche to the Everest Hotel, where we got our first glimpse of the tall lady from afar. We wouldn’t stay at his base for 10 days.
When we left Namche Bazaar, we turned east of the crowds on a less travelled, longer and more difficult route known as the Three High Passes Road. Each day we climbed progressively higher, 12,000-14,000-16,000-17,000 feet, descending a few hundred or a few thousand feet between climbs to acclimatize.
The altitude kicked my ass. I didn’t sleep more than a few hours the first few nights because my legs were restless, I was cold and I couldn’t adapt to the altitude.
I was blessed, however, that sleep was one of my few concerns.
Helicopters are a common sound – and sight – in the mountains and a reminder that many can go wrong to derail a dream. While some carry essential goods, building materials and tourists, others evacuate hikers who underestimated the effects of high altitude or who were simply unprepared. One group evacuated at 8,200 feet. One person was airlifted after suffering from snow blindness. A man called him out when his knees gave out because he couldn’t keep up with the group he was in.
As we walked from village to village, climbing higher into the Himalayas, we passed colorful prayer wheels, walls of mani (stones inscribed with prayers), shrines and suspension bridges adorned with prayer flags. , and trains of mules and yaks laden with goods, always announced. by the bells ringing around the neck of the leading animal. We navigated the Ngozumpa Glacier, a vast expanse of slow moving ice full of scree, boulders and boulders.
We were cold. Very cold. The teahouses we stayed in each night were only heated in the common room where we ate and hikers gathered around a single stove usually fueled by yak dung. The rooms we slept in weren’t much warmer than outside, where temperatures ranged from teens to below zero. And we felt blessed if the toilet was more than just a hole in the ground and we didn’t have to share. When we finished dinner, usually around 7am or so, we retired to our sleeping bags and any extra bedding provided by our hosts, and waited for the morning call for another day of trekking.
We woke up every morning between 4 and 6 am, depending on the mileage and the destination of the day. While we could initially descend a few eggs and a piece of toast, the higher we got the less we ate. Eventually, just eating a bowl of rice or a plate of potatoes was a Herculean effort. I lost almost 15 pounds.
Altitude lowered in other ways. As our appetites slowed, our pace also slowed.
Renjo La Pass (17,500ft), the first pass that took us from Lungden (14,300ft) to the scenic town of Gokyo (15,700ft), was supposed to take eight hours. It took 12. The second pass, Cho La Pass (17,700 feet), was expected to take six hours. It took eight, partly because of the driving rain soaking our clothes and bags.
When I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro 20 years ago, guides nicknamed me Pole Pole Mama. In Swahili, pole pole translates to “slowly slowly”. I earned a similar nickname in Nepal: Bistari Bistari (“slowly, slowly” in Nepali) Mama, although the guide and porters eventually called me Mama.
The day before our ascent to Everest Base Camp, we hiked for five hours in a snowstorm. I created a bit of a traffic jam on the trail when I couldn’t get down safely because I couldn’t get my footing and needed Achut’s help. I finally put on my microspikes, but I quickly lost one because I had put them on backwards. Achut, once again, saved me from myself and retrieved the lost spike.
In fact, we succeeded — I succeeded — thanks to Achut. His faith in us never wavered. He greeted us every day with a knock on our door and a cheerful “hello”. He carried our bags. He skillfully negotiated bureaucratic checkpoints – as well as our moods and abilities.
He prepared a plate of fresh apples, oranges and pomegranates every evening. He didn’t flinch the morning after Everest Base Camp when I greeted him, shouting, “What’s wrong with my face? after seeing the puffy image in the mirror that showed my fair skin was no match for the relentless cold, wind, altitude, sun and snow.
We trusted him implicitly as he guided us – confident, strong and self-assured – down icy, uneven and sometimes narrow paths. We forgave him for the slight liberties he took when we asked him how much time we had, coming to understand that he was fiddling with the times to get us going.
Obviously, it was not an easy hike, but each day was rewarded with a gift: late blue delphiniums; a Himalayan monal, which looks like a peacock with its bright plumage; the morning call of the Tibetan snow rooster; 360-degree vistas of snow-capped peaks that shimmer silver at dawn and turn golden at sunset; the sound of glacial melt rolling down the slope; and a herd of Himalayan tahr, a species of wild goat, navigating a steep slope.
Every day I had to remind myself: I am hiking in the Himalayas. In Nepal. At 65 years old.
All those passives I feared might trip me up? Not found. Bi-weekly personal training sessions, spinning classes, daily walks and weekend hikes paid off. The cranky ankle was only really cranky for a day or two. And there was no trace of dizziness.
We created it. I did it.
Marga Kellogg Cooley plays chess with one of the pallbearers. She lost.
My sunscreen and my hat were not up to the altitude, the cold and the wind.
Prayer flags hang from the top of Renjo La Pass in the Himalayas.