Trip Journal - Sagarmatha

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Lukla -- 23 November 1998

We rose at 5:30 a.m., only just before a black- and red-uniformed brass band marched through the streets, celebrating some Newari holiday having to do with the King who founded Kathmandu. I watched through the tiny bathroom window. Nepalis are always celebrating something. I mentioned the early hour to Shyam, who said a little stiffly that all Nepalis were always already up at that hour. I felt a little bad for having complained, even in jest. The boys brought us chiya and then Shyam hailed a taxi to take us to the airport (250 rs.) The domestic terminal is really tiny and quite low-tech, there are no computers or conveyor belts. At first, Royal Nepal flight 121 was delayed, then it was cancelled. (All that worry about getting the permits yesterday for this.) Two Canadians from Vancouver, Trevor and John, had been booked on the same flight, and we got talking. We had been upstairs on the viewing platform, and a man came up to give us the bad news. He said that he could get us on the next flight, #127, that there were just four seats left. We thanked him, gave him our airport tax, and he went off to arrange it. He brought back boarding cards and we went to wait in the departure lounge for our flight to be called, after re-checking in and relinquishing our gear. (Paul and I had 20 kg between us -- I had less than half of that. John and Trev had 40 kg between them. We had left some of our gear with Shyam.) I paid way too much for some Cokes and cookies, as Paul and I hadn't eaten breakfast. It was a total ripoff, we could have spent the night at the Journeyman for what I paid.

Quite unceremoniously, we were informed that our second flight was also cancelled, to leave the lounge and retrieve our luggage. No explanations. And there were to be no more Royal Nepal flights to Lukla that day. It was so frustrating. Only much later did we piece together the whole story: that a pilot flying a cargo plane had crashed and died the day before at Shyangboche (sp?), up above Namche Bazar, on the Everest Trek. There were no flights because all the pilots were at the temple for the funeral. They had had no intention of flying for the next two days, and presumably, Royal Nepal knew this at the outset. This was sobering, but none of the four of us had any intention of not going to Lukla today. We booked another flight with Yeti Air and hoped we could get a refund for the Royal Nepal flight later. We did get the ground crew to scribble "Cancelled" on them.

More annoying was the man who'd told us he could get us on the next flight, the flight that obviously had no chance of leaving. He had even asked us for baksheesh. Paul and I had given him 50 rs. for the two of us, which the guy wasn't happy about, and he got a hundred each off John and Trev. He was nowhere to be found afterward, naturally.

Our Yeti flight was scheduled to leave at 10:50 but took off much sooner. A bus took us out to the runway and as soon as the plane landed, lots of supplies were loaded into the seats, mostly drinks. I didn't know where they were going to put the passengers. It was hard to tell how many passengers there were, because so many employees were running around, but we four and one other guy were the only ones flying. John works in small craft accident claims as an investigator and is a pilot himself. He told us that we were flying a twin Otter, and that it looked very safe. I got it in my mind that I must have a window seat so I could get a good view of the mountains, but the flight attendant was assigning seats and he put me next to the unknown guy, who had the window. I put up quite a fuss, all the left aisle seats were empty, why couldn't I have one of those? But the attendant remained kindly adamant. I sulked self-righteously as we took off.

Once we were in the air, I forgot all about my mood. The view was so beautiful. The low, lush terraced mountains came into view immediately, and were wrapped up with ribbons of river, both blue and brown. Then the flight attendant told me I could move up to the front left seat, near John. I was terribly embarrassed, so I'd only had to have the bad seat for takeoff. But how was I to know? I was excited and glad. I couldn't believe Trevor and Paul were so calmly engrossed in conversation in the back of the plane, and missing all this gorgeous scenery. John jumped out of his seat every 20 seconds or so, either to take a photograph or to ask the pilots the name of the latest mountain coming into view. It was a wonderful, magical flight. The big mountains came into view, all white with snow, and majestic. I began to think that perhaps we had no right to use that word about our mountains in the States. I'll never use it lightly again. Nor the word mountain, for that matter. John got a very quick glimpse of the mighty Sagarmatha through the cockpit window, I missed it though. Ah well, my first glimpse would have to be from the ground.

The airstrip in Lukla came into view. It looked very short and very steep, not level at all. John estimated that the runway was about 1500 feet long and on a 4-5% uphill grade as we landed. It was incredibly exciting, even though I couldn't help but think of the crash a couple of days ago. One second we were flying with the mountains, and the next we lost altitude very quickly and somehow landed on the runway. The grade helped stop us before we ran into the side of the mountain.

I thought the Kathmandu airport was small. This one didn't even have a departure lounge. All the passengers waiting for flights were massed behind a barbed wire fence. Their luggage was already stacked on the runway. Guides and porters approached us, some looking for specific passengers, some looking for work. John and Trevor had hired a guide in Kathmandu; he had taken a bus to Jiri, was walking to Lukla, and would meet the guys at the Khumbu Lodge the next morning. So we headed there. We had to walk around the airstrip as our plane was taking off, and got blasted with dust and wind. I even had dust all over my teeth. There was an initial mixup when we went to the Khumbu Resort instead of the Khumbu Lodge, but we found the place eventually. I was just glad that the altitude didn't seem to be affecting me unduly yet.

Khumbu Lodge had only one four bed dormitory left when we arrived. Everyone seemed fine with sharing it, especially since there weren't many alternatives. It cost 50 rs. each, exactly twice what a double room cost per person, which I had at first thought strange. Later we found out that all places charge about the same for beds. They make their money on the attached restaurants and incent you to eat at theirs by some sort of extra charge should you eat somewhere else. The commonly-accepted practice was that as long as you ate two meals at your guest house, you were fine. The place where we had lunch was right next to the airstrip and had an outdoor deck. When it was sunny, it was very warm, but it got really chilly until that stray cloud blew away. There was a sign on their menu that said that if you were staying but not eating there, they would add 1000 rs. to your bill. Yikes.

Khumbu Lodge's penalty was to double the bed price. We figured we could afford that. Menu prices were a little bit higher than in Kathmandu. Beers were 200 rs. We had fried rice and veg. spring rolls (both heavy on the carrots and delicious) and talked to a Dutch couple and an Aussie couple about their trekking experiences. The Dutch couple had walked from Jiri and she had been sick along the way. She said chocolate was outrageously expensive up here, but at the Saturday Tibetan markets in Namche Bazar, you could get a chocolate bar for 50 rs. She also told us that three people had broken their legs coming down from Gokyo. There had been snow and it was hard to see the rocks underneath. Both the Aussies were sick. All four were trying to get flights out of Lukla, but there was a huge waiting list. Apparently, you had to reconfirm your flight the night before or lose it. If a flight got cancelled, you lost your spot. Each day at 3:00, you had to go back and re-put your name on the waiting list. If you were having bad luck, as these people seemed to be, you could be stuck in Lukla for days. The Dutch people had nearly run out of money, and credit cards are not accepted. There's also no bank in Lukla.

After lunch Trevor, who had a cold, went back to the room for a nap. John and Paul went to explore and I stayed on the deck, writing in the journals. The air must have been thinner than I'd realized, I got a headache from the sun, or possibly the altitude, but I think it was from squinting.

We ate dinner early at the Sagarmatha Resort, a place John and Paul had targeted. Actually, they had chosen another place for its excellent deck and view, but it was full of people reading and it didn't look like meals were being served yet. The sun was setting as we walked across the now empty airstrip to get there, but it must have been quite early, maybe 4:30. We had expensive beer (230 rs.) to start, with popcorn, then I had pizza later. Unfortunately, my mushroom pizza also featured onions and I didn't enjoy it very much.

We went back to the Khumbu Lodge for tea (and Trevor had chicken noodle soup) hoping to fool our hosts into believing that this was our dinner. We got away with it. John was in bed by 6:00 p.m. It was amazing. Trevor wrote postcards, I worked on the journal and Paul worked on the photos. Pretty soon, Paul was taken away by the owner of the Lodge, Chungba, to play computers. Chungba has the only computer in Lukla, and can and does charge exorbitant rates for email. He let Paul dial Kathmandu to check our email for free, because he wanted to see how Compuserve worked. Paul showed Chungba the camera, how to alter photos, add text to them, etc., and our web site.

At 9:50, men began to stream into the restaurant and roll out mats on the benches around the walls of the room. All the layouts of these rooms are the same: benches built into the walls on three sides, tables in front of them and a wood stove in the middle of the room. Apparently, this was where many of the porters were spending the night. The others spent the night in tents outside. We gathered up our things to go. At 10:00 the power, run in the entire area by hydroelectrics, was shut off for the night.

If all goes well and you adjust properly to the altitude, you end up getting up three or four times a night to answer the call of nature. It got comical, how we all stumbled out of bed looking for shoes, Trevor handing me his flashlight as he came back in, knowing I'd have to go too. John snored quite loudly, and I had to wake poor Trevor up and ask him to hit John for me. I've gotten better nights' sleep, but few as entertaining. It was like a slumber party.

Monju -- 24 November 1998

Because John had gone to bed so early, he was up even before the sun, and he was not quiet about it. At 5:45, he was cracking jokes and carrying on about the gorgeous whites of the snow on the mountains. I wanted to kill him. It was just like being a kid again, and having my father wake us up with way too much cheer in the morning (way too early). I rose slowly, watching the sunrise from bed and doing my best to ignore John.

Dawa, John's and Trevor's guide, arrived at 8:30. He had walked from Jiri in only three days. (All the guide books recommended allowing seven days -- Yikes!) We had toast, eggs, and chiya while Dawa arranged for a porter to carry John's and Trevor's packs. He turned out to be a skinny kid, no more than 18 years old, wearing only canvas hightop sneakers on his feet. John and Trev were planning on doing snow trekking, I wondered if their porter would make it.

Our goals were less ambitious but no less lofty. We intended to find the monastery that George had told us about and see if we could stay there. We would walk with John, Trevor and Dawa (assuming I could keep up) as far as Namche Bazar (two days' walk from Lukla) and then go our separate ways. John and Trevor are both enthusiastic mountaineers, and I admit I was a little worried about keeping pace with them, especially since they weren't going to be carrying their own gear. Dawa's pack was very light, probably five pounds or less. It appeared to contain only a fleece and a blanket. The porter left a little ahead of us. We left our flight tickets with Chungba's nephew, who promised to reconfirm them for us so we wouldn't have to be back by 3:00 the afternoon before our flight. The five of us hit the road by 9:10 and set out at a nice easy pace. Dawa kept stressing taking it easy the first day. He didn't want us to burn out early. I was grateful but secretly afraid he was just accommodating me.

The first bit of the walk was mostly downhill. We had all we could do not to skip. The scenery was gorgeous, all green, terraced fields, stone walls, and houses in little nooks and crannies of the hills. We walked through a prayer wheel gate and said our "Om mani padme hums" with fervent intent. John told us that in one of the Everest books he'd read, Into Thin Air, I believe, they talked about how important it was for the Nepalese guides and porters that everyone walk a virtuous path while on Sagarmatha. That meant no sex while doing the trek, for example. Apparently, two of the group violated that rule and someone else had a Playboy magazine on this particular ill-fated trek. We resolved to circumambulate all prayer flags poles and manis in the proper clockwise direction, and to walk as virtuous a path as possible. We probably wouldn't be able to afford intoxicants up here anyway, so it wouldn't be too bad. I walked along with this euphoric "Isn't the World Incredible?" feeling anyway, so who needed alcohol? We stopped for lunch at the Sunrise Lodge and Restaurant in Pakhding, which is usually the stopping place for the first day of the trek. Okay, maybe I could make it.

We crossed a really terrific steel suspension bridge to get to the restaurant. We sat out on the deck, the sun was almost too warm. We took off our boots and socks and let them dry and our feet breathe. The Lodge had some really excellent dogs on hand for our entertainment, ready to be showered with affection or food. They looked liked rough versions of Burmese Mountain dogs, with black and tan fur, and lots of it. There was a smaller black and white dog who growled at every joka (the yak/cow hybrid you tend to see at lower altitudes) team that went by. He had to be reprimanded quite harshly for not sharing the scraps. We continued along the river, meeting more jokas on the way. They are so sweet-looking with their long, flowing tales any self-respecting horse would envy and their big, long-haired shaggy bodies. They all wear colorful hand-woven collars with deeply resonant clanging bells attached, and some wear earrings, which presumably help to keep the flies away but are also quite decorative. We arrived in the village of Monju and the path turned uphill. It seemed to go on forever. I was beginning to suspect Dawa meant to walk all the way to Namche in one day, although I thought I'd heard him tell John and Trevor that we'd be stopping for the night in this village. I could feel my legs starting to get all shaky and uncoordinated on the stone stairs cut into the hill. And then, suddenly, we were walking nearly level again. Just at the edge of the village, we stopped at the Monju Guest House, run by the venerable Mrs. Dolma, a Tibetan (Sherpa?) woman, I believe. (I learned later that her name means sweet potato. Her name fits her perfectly.) Our rooms were nominally made of wood, with 1 inch spaces or better between all the boards. We could see right into Trev and John's room. The sink and mirror were outside on a wall in the front yard. The toilet was upstairs and sunk into the floor. (Not quite enough pipe when they installed it?) Our rooms didn't have any power at all, not even lights. There was power for the one light bulb in the dining room, 12 volt solar. Paul and I were very excited to learn that there was a shower. This turned out to be a shed out back with an earthen floor. But the solar-heated water wasn't hot (it was in an oil drum upstairs and I think Mrs. Dolma said it had been cloudy) and so Mrs. Dolma brought us a kettle of hot water from the kitchen stove. Still it felt great to remove some of the sweat and grime. We had walked six hours today. It was a really brisk dash back inside though. The sun had set and it was really cold. I put on my silk thermals and my one pair of clean clothes and went downstairs to the detached common room (unlit and unheated) to write in the journals and share a roll of Polos with Paul. John and Trevor came down to write postcards. I think Trev was a bit high on the Tiger Balm he'd rubbed into his sore muscles. I think we were all high, in a quiet, weary way, on endorphins. We were happy to sit. Paul played his recorder, a very sweet sound.

Some porters came in and indicated that a big group was coming in for dinner. The four of us had sprawled out to take up the whole room, now we moved over to two small tables in one corner while the porters lay tablecloths and kerosine lamps on the other tables.

The new group came in, apparently they were staying in the tents pitched on the lawn. All of the group wore parkas, gloves and hats, while we were comfortable in just our shawls. An Australian man told us about his daughter-in-law from San Diego who'd pretty much gotten used to living in the bush but still didn't like goannas, which sounded like 7 foot long prehistoric lizard dragons, coming into the driveway. I made a mental note to avoid them when we got to Australia.

Mrs. Dolma came out and asked us to order dinner, and hastened to explain that we weren't going to have to eat right away (at 4:30), she just wanted to get the orders so she could plan. She left a really nice order pad, with her name and that of the guest house at the top. The sheets were normal letter size and I confess that both John and I stole some for future letter writing. We ordered mushroom soup, Tibetan bread with Mrs. Dolma's very yummy homemade apple jam, apple pie for dessert and a large thermos of chiya. Mrs. Dolma suggested that she put some garlic in our soup to ward off altitude sickness. The Nepalese and Tibetans also believe garlic, if rubbed on the temples, will cure a headache. Mrs. Dolma also tried to talk us into coming into the dining room, where the stove was warm and the one light was on, but we declined. It was cozy with our candle and we weren't cold yet. Later on we went inside and played guts and poker. John, and Trevor especially, seemed to love cards. We had chits for 200 rs. each at the start. By the end of the night, I was down 80 rs. and Paul 20 rs. John had won it all.

Later we lay in bed reading. We couldn't help overhearing John and Trevor's conversation. They discussed their health and diet, and seemed about to pop sleeping pills so they'd get enough rest. They were so dedicated to being as fit as possible. They were also making sure they stayed hydrated by drinking lots of water (iodine-treated with Koolaid added) all night. I was amazed. We all got up again several times so we must have still been doing fine in the altitude.

Namche Bazar -- 25 November 1998

We were up before the alarm, which we had set for 7:00. Who needs wakeup devices when we have John? He was such a nice guy though, and so oblivious of his loudness, you couldn't stay mad at him. We packed and then went downstairs for breakfast. I had porridge, Tibetan bread with jam and hot chocolate, and couldn't believe I ate it all. We left at 8:00 and almost immediately came to the entrance of Sagarmatha National Park. A soldier with a gun, loafing in a chair in the sun, pointed to the office. There were two men there, one to register people and one to take fees, the redundancy system again. The man at the counter told me to go outside to the man at the window to pay, which I did. But then the guy at the window told me to go inside and pay. Now, these two guys are working not two feet from each other. I felt I was being jerked around. I was trying to pay in a reasonable amount of time so we could get on with the walk and I was being thwarted. But it was finally done (John put Paul's and my permits with his and Trev's).

Dawa pointed out some sort of pheasant (name?), the iridescent national bird of Nepal, which I took to be a good omen, even though I couldn't see them very well through the trees. (I did see some later, and did some reading about them. They look like metallic, mechanical, brightly-colored pheasants and they are only able to fly downhill. They have to walk or run up. If only I could recall their name -- I think it starts with an I.)

The first part of the walk was downhill, and then a flat walk along the river, with big boulders. Then the ascent began. We took off our fleeces and still sweated. We noticed a bottleneck ahead, which we at first thought was due to the steep steps to the bridge, but it turned out that the bridge itself, a steel suspension with a wooden plank floor, was on the verge of collapse and was closed for repairs. Dozens of people waited on either side while two men replaced old planks. I was amazed to see another man going around with a big book and a wooden box for donations. Makes you wonder where our permit fees go. We found out it costs $70,000 just to set foot on Everest and they have to collect donations to fix the bridges in Sagarmatha National Park. Finally the bridge was deemed safe enough and reopened. Paul put away the recorder (he'd been entertaining us with a little music) and we filed across. John put his foot through a hole and nearly gave me a heart attack. (He was walking directly in front of me.) The steps down from the bridge were the last easy thing we did. The rest of the walk was all uphill. I had to stop and rest frequently (like every 50 steps) and felt like I was holding everyone else up. Paul claimed they all needed to rest too but wouldn't admit it. It wasn't so much weariness as the lack of oxygen. It's a strange sensation to be breathing at a quite rapid rate but still not be getting enough air.

We had our first (okay only) glimpse of the mighty Sagarmatha, from 20 km away. Actually what we could see was the top 1000 M, because all the mountains surrounding it are nearly as high, but we were all really excited, and took pictures of each other in front of it. Then we got back to climbing. We finally arrived in Namche Bazar, but as in Monju, the city limits were about 300 M lower than the town center. We still had a lot of up to go. John and Trev were going to stay the night right in town at a place Dawa knew. The porter had already checked in and was waiting for us. We were planning to stay at Chungba's friend's place, the Panorama Guest House. The owner, Jangbu, had Namche's only computer. Chungba had set up his email and shown him a few things, but insinuated that he could probably use some help, and would probably let us check the email for free in exchange. We were fairly certain the place wasn't called Panorama for nothing and that we still had some climbing to do but first things first: lunch. Paul put our packs in John and Trevor's room and we went to the Namche Bakery to eat. As soon as we stopped walking, I was cold and drenched in sweat as an added bonus. But the bakery was lovely and sunny. We ordered hot chocolate, mushroom pizza and apple pie and looked at the 3D model of the Himalayas while we waited. Our "climb" looked like a little knoll compared to Everest.

After lunch, we climbed to the Panorama. It was very nearly the highest building in town. And above that was Shyangboche, the airport where the pilot had crashed. It was a really tough climb to the guest house, it had been hard to find, and I was really tired. And after all that, it turned out that Janbu had left that morning for Lukla and so wasn't here. Our room was A2, a little yellow-painted cell with two single beds right off the courtyard. There was one light bulb and no power outlets. We went up on the wall (a yoga pose) and I fell asleep afterwards doing the pose of the seed. Paul went into the dining room to charge up the computer so we could take the photos out of the camera and be able to take more. He came back disgusted because they were charging 100 rs. an hour to do it. That's what we were paying a night to stay here. (Hot showers also cost 100 rs.) Paul took apart the light switch and hooked Tamino up to that. He realized a little while later that he was running the charge through the light bulb and that the battery wasn't really charging. There was only enough juice to turn the charge light on. The wiring was really weird, one wire to the switch and one to the light. Later, just before we went to bed, Paul dismantled the light itself and attached Tamino to the wires, he even woke up unaided in the middle of the night to switch out the spare battery.

I woke up and went outside. The world had turned all white and cold. The clouds were rising up from the valley and obscuring everything else. John, Paul, Dawa and Trevor were outside. John and Trev had said they'd come up around 3:30 with playing cards and gin, but Paul was pretty sure they'd never find the place on their own and had gone down to get them. We ordered a thermos of tea inside (which turned out to have 20 cups and cost 400 rs.!) and played 31, a game I really liked. I'm just not the gambling type. (Dawa wouldn't play at all unfortunately.) All the while we were playing, John was really out of it. He'd space for whole minutes at a time. I was feeling a bit like the processers weren't running at full capacity, but my mind was stunningly clear. I figured it must be the air. John, however, was really sick. He said he felt nauseous and had a headache. First two symptoms of altitude sickness. At 5:30, John said he had to go to bed and Trev went with him.

We ordered finger "cheaps" (sic), potato momos and chicken noodle soup for dinner. The soup, as per Mrs. Dolma's prescription, contained all the garlic we needed to avoid altitude sickness, and would have been better named garlic soup. A group of Aussies on a guided trip sat next to us. They had yak steaks. Afterwards, we worked on the journals and Paul played a computer game on the Pilot. I was really tired. We had a hot shower, down in the basement next to the half-stripped hanging yak carcass. If I wasn't against eating yak before, I definitely was now. The shower, only ten minutes long and shared, was quite tolerably warm. We were clean by 8:30 and in bed by 9:30, not even all that upset that we had two single beds.