Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Everest Base Camp / Island Peak

Three weeks? Really? Yep, we flew in on April 1 and back on April 20 - three weeks of walking up and down paths, looking at mountains and trees and yaks and kids and trying hard to fight off the various intestinal and respiratory bugs along the way. To Everest Base Camp and back, and a side trip to climb Island Peak for a few of us.

We actually had ridiculously perfect weather for most of the trek, just an afternoon of showers for us climbers and, unfortunately, some bad weather for the trekkers trying to fly back to Kathmandu before us. But the good weather meant lots of iconic views of all the famous mountains, Everest, Lhotse, Nupse, Ama Dablam, Pumori, as well as the less-famous mountains: Kangteka, Tamserku, Island, etc. The high Himalaya really are what they appear to be in pictures - striking, isolated, and BIG. Add some colorful prayer flags and timeless chorten monuments and stoic-looking yaks, and every picture is a keeper.

Interestingly, the challenge in climbing Everest is increasingly becoming not the altitude or logistics (that's what extra oxygen and amazing Sherpas are for), but simply keeping healthy in a valley with hundreds of climbers from all over the world (and thousands of trekkers), plentiful antibiotics, and lots of years for things to stew in a confined area. Everyone on our trip was sick in some form for some amount of time, and a few were hit badly enough to have to discontinue their ascent, meeting us only on the way down. Acute gastroenteritis (shit-barfs in the coloquial), respiratory infections, and the elusive Khumbu cough, a dry cough that doesn't resolve until you go down a LOT - these are often incapacitating and occasionally immune to antibiotic treatment. So train, yes, but carry a lot of drugs.

The main trekking route is indeed a Disneyland of sorts, and being in a large group made things much easier in many ways. The Sherpas (historical traders from Tibet who settled in the high valleys of Nepal about 500 years ago and are extremely strong at altitude) who porter, guide, and organize for us are amazingly hard working and attentive, and will run ahead to get tea or lunch started, load duffels on yaks, put bags in rooms, and a thousand other things that make our lives smoother. Most of them have a long relationship with Alpine Ascents, and the generosity of spirit they show is amazing.

We trekked up with the team of Everest climbers and guides who would be staying and climbing on the mountain for the next six weeks. It was a big group, but nice to get to talk to a variety of people, and interesting to get to know the climbers a bit before wishing them luck and heading back down. We had the opportunity to have lunch in base camp before heading back down, and the digs are nice!! They're there for some time, so the facilities (dining tent, outhouses, tents) are nice, and the food was great. We walked up close to the famous Khumbu icefall, a maze of shifting, broken glacier, and all agreed that we were glad we wouldn't have to walk through it!

A few odd things: after leaving the little airport at Lukla, we didn't see another wheel or cart until we returned. The terrain is too steep and broken - everything is carried by humans or yaks (or mule or zopkyo, a yak/cow crossbreed). And for many days we never heard an engine - no generators, no flights overhead. It is odd to realize that you haven't heard anything far away except for rockfall - everything you hear is close to you, within eyeshot. Yet there was internet in literally all but two of the villages we stayed in - ha!

The rest of the trekkers headed down and four of us (one had gotten quite sick) took a 5-day side trip to climb Island Peak, only 15 feet shorter than Denali! But so much more accessible. It's rock and trail about 2/3 of the way up, then a bit of glacier and at last some steep ice, which Chewang went ahead and fixed ropes on so we could climb up safely. Nice to be on a mountain instead of down in the valleys for a while!

Back down here in Kathmandu, a good rain had cleared out the smog, so it wasn't so much of a shock to our system. Amazing how fast you can readjust to cars and signs and civilization. A good shower, some fresh fruit, and cotton, and it's almost like we never left. But it's interesting to have seen another corner of the world, another cultural reference that people talk about, another understanding of a common experience. I managed not to offend any locals too much, or accidentally do anything terribly sacrilegious, so hopefully I'll get to come back and lead this trip in the future...

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