Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Flight to Lukla

View out the windows: to the left in the far distance snow-covered peaks show above traces of cloud, to the right steep slopes with fewer and fewer terraced plots. We are flying toward a wall of brown mountains. No snow at this elevation. “Not far now,” Wiggy says. There’s a gap in the mountains ahead, more like a saddle. We don’t change altitude but fly right over it barely 50 feet above the ground. It feels like we’re brushing the tree tops. I can see hoof prints in the dirt, we’re that close to the ground. Then just as suddenly the ground drops away, we’re 1,000 feet in the air. What would it be like to fly through this opening in bad weather, I wonder? But it isn’t. It’s a spectacularly clear day. Virtually cloudless, only the peaks have wisps of cloud and plumes of snow blowing off them to the west. Jum, the Japanese film maker is in the seat directly left of me. He has an enormous camera; the lens is about a foot long and 5” in diameter. I take a photo of him holding it. “Everest,” Jum says. The left side seats are prime. “Where?” I ask. “There,” he says. I have to squeeze in on top of him and his camera, but there is Everest tucked back behind a series of other peaks. I recognize it immediately from the panoramic photo we have in the conference room. It’s a gray triangle, well back, not large at all it’s so far away. Interesting to think we’re going to walk from here to there. I give Jum his space back. “There’s Lukla,” Wiggy says. “Get ready.” This time my window is the better view. The runway is about 2 or 3 miles away. The pilot banks the plane into a gradual right turn, we would have called it a starboard turn back in the day. I try for a photo of the landing strip, but the nose of the plane dips suddenly and the landing strip disappears from view to somewhere above the roof of the plane. Why would that be? There’s nothing intuitive about pitching downward, but then I realize, this is the landing. It’s happening right now and there’s no more time to worry about it. Fast as I internally verbalize the thought we slam the runway. I brace for the bottom of the plane to hit. Landing that hard has driven the landing gear through the fuselage, surely, but no, the plane seems intact. Everyone glances at each other with relief. We’ve made it. Only the sharp right turn in front of the building remains. It’s not as much of a slingshot turn as I expected, but it’s still a pretty dramatic veer. “You should see what it’s like landing in a wind,” Wiggy says. “That landing was as good as it gets.”

Stepping off the plane. First thoughts: Cold: Carolee would call it cool. Steep: never seen a mountain that steep. Cold (again): how cold will it be higher up? Blue: sky is blue as I’ve seen. Tall: that mountain right above us. Taller: the mountain behind that one. Snow: that’s some serious snow up there. Men: men lined up behind that rock wall. Porters: they must be the porters. Women: not one woman here. Men (again): that’s a lot of men lined up. Clothes: looks like they all have rugged gear. Building: pretty small. There: no reason to go in there. Plane landing: that plane made it too. Unloading: what’s that stuff? Plywood: they’re pitching it onto the tarmac. Big: that’s a big stack of plywood. Sun: move over there out of this shade. Warm: definitely warmer here. Apa: he has lots of friends greeting him. Dawa: wants us to go up this way. Stairs: they’re rock. Buildings: made of cut stone. Narrow: just single file through here. Dog: dog in with us. Paradise Lodge: what Dawa is saying. Walking: no turning back now. Uphill: these steps go up pretty fast. Photo: got to take one. Vantage Point: better over there. Plane taking off: get a look at that! It’s going downhill. Cliff: plane just drops off the edge. Comes back up: barely. Left: direction to Kathmandu. Later: when I’ll be doing same. Paradise Lodge (again): where’s our team? Have lost track of them. Behind: I need to catch up. There (again): there they are. Wow: am really here. Lukla: Carolee was here too. Russian helicopter: she must have got on it right here.  Sign: Paradise Lodge.

Tea is brought out for each of us by the proprietor, Dawa. Yet another Dawa. Wiggy is telling me that she’s been running the place for years, worked with Sir Edmund Hillary when he was building schools in the Khumbu.  There’s a framed photo of her and Hillary together on the wall right behind where I’m sitting. I take a picture of it and wonder if the flash will blank the whole thing out. “Right,” Dawa says (our Dawa), “Today we walk to Phakding. Two or three hours max. It’s mostly downhill. A beautiful day. Use sunscreen. When the cargo plane arrives the porters will bring your bags to the Eco-Chen lodge. Cross the suspension bridge in Phakding, make a left. Enjoy.” And we’re off, just like that.

Lukla recedes into the distance and there is no use worrying about anything. This is fantastic. What scenery, huge rhododendron trees 30 feet tall in full bloom, red flowers. And the Sherpa faces. Amazing faces, so much expression. Astounding architecture, what a contrast to anything I’ve ever seen before. The masonry is exquisite, the backbreaking work to cut each stone and construct these dwellings, all by hand--incredible. Not to mention the loads the porters are carrying, easily a hundred pounds. And the tzopios, no yaks yet, but the trains of fully loaded tzopios are like witnessing a time warp. The superlatives just don’t do justice to the sensory overload. I could go on and on about the sights, but it would be pointless. Suffice it to say that on a list of 50 things to do before exiting the planet, visiting the Khumbu region would definitely be on mine.

Phakding. 6:30 pm. We sip tea in the dining area of the Eco-Chen lodge. It’s on a patch of level ground about the size of a football field. Alongside is the roaring river that was below us all day. We’ve descended about 700 feet from Lukla. It will be cold tonight Apa tells me. The river makes it colder. There’s a damp mist hovering. Asian Trekking owns three lodges including this one. Another is in Khumjung; and a third in Lobuche. It makes good business sense to stay at the Asian Trekking lodges, and like everything I’ve seen them do so far, the experience at the Eco-Chen lodge is first rate. Not as in 5 stars of luxury (it’s rustic), but first rate in the sense of how they operate. The staff are incredibly attentive. More tea is brought out in a thermos. Everyone’s cup is refilled as soon as it is half an inch below the rim.

We are talking with two English teachers, not teachers of English, but teachers from England. They’re visiting schools in Nepal and developing a sister-school program with their schools back home. They inform us the two friends they’re trekking with are sick. “We came on a flight from Heathrow to Calcutta, direct, but James and Ian were on a different flight through New Delhi. Something they ate. James’s pretty sick, but Ian is flat-out ill. He’s to the loo and back all the time when he can get above horizontal.” This is not good news. No one in the room likes the sound of this. I make a mental note to do everything I can to avoid getting sick. Apa hasn’t been feeling well either. He hasn’t eaten for a couple of days. I ask him what’s wrong and he says his stomach is knotted up. “Too much time in America,” he says. “My stomach is getting soft.”

At dinner Wiggy says there has been sufficient sun and the solar panels have made hot water for showers. When I tried the water earlier it was on the wet side of freezing. Apa and I discuss whether Wiggy is kidding us or not. “We’re going to find out what kind of guy he is,” I tell Apa. “Let the water run for a while,” Wiggy says. “It was good and hot this afternoon.”

Apa and I share room 11, and the first order of business is to get his Suunto heart monitor working. Getting mine going in Salt Lake with Roger’s help was hard to do, but unpacking Apa’s from the box and trying to get the parameters set using a headlamp in the chill air is a challenge. I can see my breath in the room. If this is hard what will it be like trying to do things at base camp? After I get Apa’s heart monitor so it behaves in sync with mine when it’s on me I decide to reward myself with a shower. After running the water for an eternity it warms up. “Hey Apa, Wiggy wasn’t teasing us after all.” But the bathroom is freezing. The shower’s not much of a reward really, standing naked and wet in the cold. I haven’t packed a towel. “No towel?” says Apa. “You can buy one in Namche. We add that to the list along with down booties which we didn’t have time to get in Kathmandu. “You didn’t tell me I needed a towel,” I say to Apa knowing full well that only an idiot goes anywhere without bringing a towel. “What about the list Mr. G. gave you?” Apa asks. I tell him, “That list was no good. It was the list you told Mr. G to write down for me, and it was a no good list.” We have a laugh about this. “That list didn’t have city clothes on it.” I say. “You showed up with city clothes in Kathmandu, and city clothes weren’t on the list.” Apa says, “City clothes. You need city clothes and a towel.”

Another running argument we have is whether to shave or not. Apa maintains that it is essential to shave every day. “Why wouldn’t you shave?” he asks, “You want to look good.” I don’t much care whether I look good or not, but I am concerned about sunburn.  The question no one seems to be able to answer definitively is whether a beard protects you from the sun, or makes it hard to apply sunscreen and therefore works against you. I do not want to get sunburned at the higher elevations. My official list of worries, roughly prioritized: (1) avalanches, (2) crevasses, (3) the cold, (4) altitude sickness, (5) dehydration, (6) sunburn, (7) diarrhea, (8) landing and taking off from Lukla, and (9) frostbite. I’ve downgraded Lukla to number #8 since half of that concern has already been dealt with. Frostbite maybe should be higher on the list, but what would you trade it places with? Shaving, though, this is still a card I want left on the table, but no amount of persuasion can convince Apa. He’s the boss and he says we are going to shave. “I just use cold water and drag the razor like this,” he demonstrates. “No shaving cream. You have to toughen up.” “Even with cold water?” I ask. Fortunately for me the next morning the water is still warm. “I’ll do it, but I won’t like it,” I tell him, and we have a laugh because I’ve appropriated one of Mr. G’s favorite sayings. So I shave, but I draw the line and use shaving cream.

April 7. Phakding to Namche Bazaar. There’s some good news and some bad news. The good news: I didn’t put this next concern on the official worry list. The bad news: I’m nervous about what is being billed as the “Namche Wall.”  Peter has me spooked about sustained heart rates in excess of 135 bpm, and I’m sure I’m going to peg the meter hiking up the Namche Wall. Dawa calls it an uphill trek, not a climb, and he says it will take 4 to 6 hours depending on one’s pace. Given the shape the rest of our group is in I’m pretty sure I’m going to be lagging and come up in the 6 hour category. That’s a long uphill. The trek starts out on more-or-less level ground to Larja Dobhan, which I think translates to Long Bridge. We will stop for lunch at 11:00 AM at the long bridge. “It will be an early lunch,” Dawa says, “but it’s our last opportunity before the Namche Wall.” There’s that mention of the Namche Wall again. On top of that I’m now wondering how I can choke down food so soon after breakfast, but when 11:00 comes around I’m hungry and the bridge is indeed long.

An hour later we’re well into the uphill and my heart monitor is steady at 145 bpm. Not exactly what I was hoping for. Apa has run into a friend and has dropped back to visit for a while. Dawa, Wiggy and the rest of the team are out of sight ahead of me. Another three hours at 145 bpm and I’ll be cooked, I say to myself, but I keep the steady pace going. Small steps, one after another. The sights are spectacular and there is constant activity on the trail to keep one entertained. I come across two porters carrying the plywood we saw being unloaded at the Lukla airport. I speed up so I can get a look from the side, edgewise that is, at their loads. It appears they each have a stack about 4” thick of 4’ x 8’ plywood sheeting on their backs. When we get to the next hamlet one of the porters takes a break, sets down his load. I go over for a closer look. Amazingly he’s carrying six sheets of 3/4” plywood, that’s a stack 4-1/2” thick on his back, on his head actually. The porters use a carry strap, a loop of nylon webbing that goes over the forehead and then down behind the back. This loop is tied on to the load by any means possible. That’s all they use, a head-strap. All the weight on the head and neck. I try to calculate the total weight, but am unsure what a sheet of 3/4” plywood weighs. 20 lbs perhaps?

[Favors to ask: Mr. G., when you read this, next time you’re at the 112 see if you and Pinky can calculate what 6 sheets of 3/4” weighs. I’m guessing 120 lbs. Speaking of favors, Carolee, could you print this blog and surface mail it to Grumpa so he can be here vicariously. Thanks. Dana, any chance of setting up another gmail account for me? My work email is forwarded to my current gmail and there are 400 some unread messages I’m not able to get to. Lots I’d like to read but it’s turning out not to be practical. If you were to set up another gmail account and email me the login and password I could get just a few messages that wouldn’t be buried down in. Not sure if that’s a workable idea since I’d have to somehow get the initial email from you, but it’s a thought…]

Back to the porters. My pack probably weighs 25 lbs, most of it this laptop. Hard to complain when kids smaller than I am are hefting outrageous loads up the Namche Wall. Surprisingly, as I come around a bend there’s a sign announcing Namche Bazaar is just over the next rise. When I crest the rise I see Dawa and Wiggy a couple hundred yards ahead of me. Namche Bazaar fans out on the hillside. I’ve essentially arrived at the same time they have, and it’s only been about four hours. Granted, this is just a beginning, but I’m cheered up by the idea that the Namche Wall hasn’t been my undoing. I’m going to sleep well tonight.

Sub-heading: In which the supporting character has trouble sleeping in Namche. Not long after midnight, at 2:38 AM actually, I wake up. It’s way too early to be awake since I’ve only been asleep for four hours, maybe less. I try various techniques for falling back asleep, none of which work. Eventually I give up and decide to try writing instead. The laptop is cold and as soon as I power it up moisture forms in a layer from the heat it is generating. I’m not sure I like that. Worse though is that I’m not able to see the keyboard in the dark. I don’t want to use a headlamp and wake Apa up. I try typing a bit and realize it is next to impossible. The layout of the function keys is unfamiliar and I bog down immediately. I try tilting the monitor screen at an acute angle to see if directing its light at the keyboard helps. Nothing doing there. I have the monitor’s screen setting at the lowest light level to conserve the battery. As it is, the laptop is only lasting 45 minutes to an hour each time I charge it.  This blog will grind to a virtual halt as soon as we’re past Dingboche, maybe Lobuche. Apa says the power in Gorak Shep is by solar only.

Getting nowhere I turn the computer off. By now it’s 3:30 AM and I give considerable thought to writing in the spiral notebook I’ve packed. It’s 8-1/2” x 11” and another heavy, bulky item Apa looked at suspiciously when we were sorting our gear at the Norbu Linka. Now it seems like a good idea to have brought it along, but the more I think about it the more I realize that to write by hand will be difficult in and of itself. After 25 years I’ve grown so accustomed to thinking with a computer that I’m not sure how to get the ideas to flow with a manual instrument like a pen. I decide sleeping will be more productive than writing, but sleep won’t comply. A solitary dog starts barking. The sound carries for what seems like miles echoing off the bowl shaped hillside. Namche Bazaar is somewhat like a natural amphitheater with the stores, lodges and teahouses arranged in concentric rings on tiers facing west. Speaking of directions, a few days ago one of the emails I was able to open was from Carolee saying that Vladivostok wasn’t on the Kamchatka peninsula. Always good to know.

Apa wakes up suddenly and apropos of nothing asks how my pillow is. “Good, good” I say but he is already back asleep. I decide to check the time on my watch and push the light button, but this time the light doesn’t come on. Watch must be in the locked mode so I press the lock/unlock button and hold it down. That button doubles as the down arrow when cursoring in the heart monitor’s sub menus. This is not a watch per se but a wrist computer with a dedicated purpose: tracking heart rate. It only tells the time because it can; it can also calculate speed and distance traveled, altitude, temperature, plus any number of other esoteric functions that one might have an interest in. I try pressing a few more buttons in the dark, but nothing. Inside the sleeping bag I turn on my headlamp. The watch display has seized up and a series of hieroglyphic pixels covers the lower left quadrant of the watch face. There are five buttons I can push in various combinations to enter various modes, but there doesn’t seem to be a mode for fixing random graphics.  This will have to wait for daylight, but I start devising a plan. Given that the watch has seized up, that the time is not changing, that half of it is overwritten with bar coding, what I’ll do is remove the battery and that will/should reset everything back to normal. Problem is that this will also likely eliminate the HR data collected on the uphill into Namche. Without my watch’s data, having Apa’s for the same segment and duration will be somewhat isolated. The control group for that portion of the hike will be lost. How’s Roger going to sift through that data gap a month from now? We’ve promised University of Utah Health Care good, consistent HR and blood-oxygen data in return for their sponsorship. I’ll elaborate later, but part of the Univ. Health Care sponsorship is a generous donation to pay a full year’s salary for one teacher at the Thame School in Apa’s home town. We are excited about this.

I give some thought to potentially losing the Namche Wall data and decide that we’ll just consider that approach to be part of the test phase. The real HR data collection can begin later. It’s not as if we won’t have ample opportunity to track uphill stress over the next few weeks.  Ok then, the watch battery will come out, but not before I take a photo of the watch face. It may be important to have this to document the struggle I’m having with electronics at higher elevations, and lower temperatures. Problem with the photo idea is twofold: (a) the flash will reflect off the watch crystal and the photo will be of nothing but white light, and (b) the flash will wake Apa up for sure. This is way too much thinking, too much analysis. I need to figure out how to suppress the flash on the camera. No wonder I can’t sleep. Still, best to wait until later for the photo idea. I’m not accomplishing much of anything in the wee hours except setting myself up for being tired on the hike to Thame. Four hours’ sleep just isn’t enough. Apa has informed me that his brother Nawang, the monk, together with the other monks from the Thame monastery are going to do a special two-day Puja ceremony for Apa and me. It starts in Thame at 4:00 PM. “My brother says we can’t be late,” Apa has said to me on more than one occasion. “We have to go at a steady pace to Thame.” I’ve asked Apa about my pace before, and he has always replied the same: “It’s good, that pace.” But now I’m not so sure. “How fast is steady?” I ask. “Not fast,” he replies, “just steady.” So steady it will be, but I’m wondering about that--that and the lack of sleep. I wanted to be good and fresh for the Puja. No luck there though, tired it will be. A rooster announces dawn has arrived.

Apa wakes up. I show him my watch. “No good, that one” he says. I take a photo of it with the flash suppressed which I’ve now figured out. We try to get the watch battery out. The case back has a slot, along with open and close indicators marked on the edge. Obviously we need to rotate the back plate to the open position using a tool. “Use your two rupie coin,” Apa says. He knows I have a two rupie, worth about 3 US cents, since it was the first and only coin I received as change the whole time we were in Kathmandu. There’s no sales tax, so most purchases are round numbers, usually in 5 rupie increments, very convenient. Chagrined, I tell Apa “I don’t have that coin anymore. I gave it to a woman at the Monkey Temple.”  He looks at me, “Ah, that one, you shouldn’t do that one.” I know this already from our experience with the kids in the street in Thamel. Giving coins to the beggars is frowned upon in Kathmandu, and probably in all of Nepal. It brings to mind the panhandling issues in Salt Lake and the whole philosophical argument around creating supportive services so that people don’t have to panhandle in the first place. But I digress. We need to get the back off the watch.  Apa has a nice knife he got at the Outdoor Retailer’s show in Salt Lake. It removes the back plate handily. Battery out and back in. Perfect. It works. Now just have to reset the parameters unless some are retained in memory.  The things we do for money. Ha!

1 comment:

  1. Dad! Your new email address is: EverestTerrell@gmail.com.

    XO, Dana

    All, please feel free to reach out to my dad while he is in Nepal @ this new address rather than his Diamond Mold account.