Sunday, April 17, 2011

Trek to Loboche

April 15. Dingbouche to Loboche.  The route to Loboche takes us up the ridge behind the Snow Lion lodge where we climbed yesterday searching for a cell phone signal. Apa turns around. Someone is calling his name and waving a red handkerchief in the potato field below us. It takes him a moment to make the connection. “I forgot my scarf,” Apa says and runs back down the hill. When he returns he says, “Sherpa memory.” It’s a joke he likes to tease himself with, the idea that 4 ascents without oxygen have diminished his memory. Whether this is true or not neither of us know, but whenever something gets lost or forgotten we call it Sherpa memory. Yesterday several hours after we’d left Tengbouche Apa discovered he still had the key to the padlock of the room we stayed in at the Tashi Delak. “I’ll have to find someone headed down to Tengbouche and ask them to take it to the lodge,” he said, “I hope I didn’t lock the door when we left.” I tell him he didn’t, but he’s still concerned. “Don’t worry,” I tell him, “even if you did lock the room  they’ll blame it on those two American tourists.” We get a good laugh out of this. Ever since we ran into Tashi near Khumjung I tease Apa whenever possible about his being an American visiting in Nepal. “I’m an American tourist. That’s no good, that one,” he says.

The trail follows a ridge high above Pheriche, the town to the west of Dingbouche. Apa points out the hospital down below. It is very similar to the neighboring corrugated-roofed lodges, is not very big, and looks decidedly un-hospital like. “They run a hospital tent at base camp,” he says. A helicopter flies overhead and I take a photo of it. “Coming from base camp,” he says, “too many people up there. Someone always in trouble.” Word coming down the trail travels fast.  He goes on to tell me he’s heard the base camp doctor this year has five young female assistants. “The medical tent is very popular his year,” he says.

With Pheriche behind us the valley spreads out for miles. The debris from a massive landslide is on our left like.  It is larger and longer that those we saw on the way to Dingbouche. The scale of everything seems to have increased as we’ve gone higher. This particular landslide looks like a river of frozen rock dropping from a hanging glacier. The top of the mountain it clings to is obscured by clouds. The wind picks up and the temperature is dropping.

“Loboche is around that bend,” Apa says when we are several miles from a prominent ridgeline. The trail drops and crosses a river at a one-building hamlet called Thukla. Then it makes a steep ascent to the next valley which veers to the right. When we come to the top of the rise out of Thukla we walk through an area of low hillocks on top of which are hundreds of rock monuments that look like sentinels. “I don’t like to say this,” Apa says, “but each one of those is a memorial to a person who has died on Everest. Most of them are Sherpa.”  There are literally monuments as far as the eye can see. I walk a distance off the trail and yet another ridge comes in to view with square rock piles silhouetted against the dark sky. The larger monuments have plaques attached to them and as we walk by I read the mostly western names and dates. The Sherpa monuments do not seem to have plaques. Some of the western memorial’s plaques have fallen off and lay crumbled in pieces on the ground. Someone has thoughtfully gathered the broken pieces and arranged them so they can be read at the base of the monument. This one reads in Japanese. Most have descriptions with a common theme, a successful summit immediately followed by a demise on the way down. In this chilly windblown valley with gray clouds and spitting snow chasing us I feel a sense of forlornness and desolation that is so eerie I can’t wait to have it behind us. The valley floor drops slightly and rises again, and pretty soon the memorials are out of sight.

We take a break on the trail side when we catch up to Puli and Jetta who are always ahead of us with their heavy loads. Their stamina is incredible. I learn this is Jetta’s first time on the trail to base camp. He is from lower down and this is a new experience for him. Puli has been this way before and knows the lay of the land. I ask Apa to take a photo of me and Jetta. “First timers,” I say. Jetta isn’t quite sure what to make of me. He is about 20, Apa thinks 21. The reality is that I have been given great deference by everyone with whom we meet because of my association with Apa. This is both a pleasure and a source of discontent. It is presumed I have some idea of what I am doing in Nepal, some facility with the mountains, and this unearned respect is disconcerting.

A young woman comes up the trail and spots me. “You’re an American,” she says, “there aren’t many of us.” And she’s right. This is true. In addition to our Eco-Everest group we have met South Africans, Canadians, Finns, Brazilians, Irish, Australians, Kiwis, British, yet more British, French, Russians, Italians, Japanese, Koreans, Nepalis, Austrians, and Swiss—but no Americans.  Without fail they all speak English. There is no mistaking the universal language, it has become as prevalent as cell phones. Alex tells me she is from North Carolina, and just graduated from college. “Chapel Hill?” I guess and I’m right. Not a hard guess as guesses go, but still she is pleased by that. She has on enormous sunglasses and I can only see half her face, but it is clear she is very striking, with a huge smile, and gregarious. She talks with Apa and me for a while, and is so enthused about being in the Khumbu, and effusive in expressing her good fortune, that I cannot resist letting her know who she is conversing with: who Apa is. This amazes her and she asks if she can take a photo. “Better even,” I tell her, “let me use your camera and get a photo of the two of you.”  Her’s is a cell phone camera so I have to ask how to use it. “Move closer,” I say, “Don’t be shy.” So they squeeze together. “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for you,” I say, pausing for effect, “for you Apa. You get to be next to such a beautiful woman in a photograph.”  Obviously the altitude has gotten to me, but we all have a good laugh.

Trekking in the Khumbu involves long stretches of silence where one can contemplate the position of a step, a particular blade of grass in the mud, the shape of yak dung on the trail, or when energy permits, larger concepts like the relative expansion of the cosmos. We are on a gradual uphill, a virtual flat really, and my mind is mastering the obvious: we have passed through the valley of death with respect to the memorials, and that grim view was immediately juxtaposed with the youth, vitality and beauty of Alex from North Carolina. What a panorama of extremes. I relay my thoughts to Apa. “Life is short,” he says, “forgeddaboutit.” It’s a phrase he’s picked up from Mr. G. and he puts it to good use when the occasion requires.  We trudge on in silence. I keep my musings to myself.

As we come around the bend Apa points out Loboche Peak. It’s a dark gray menacing massif on our left. “That’s Russell’s Brice’s camp,” Apa says. A half mile northwest of us are five large bright yellow rectangular tents that look like they could hold ten or 15 people each, and a dozen, maybe 15, smaller two person tents. All are pitched in perfect rows with military precision. “That’s Russell’s base camp for Loboche,” Apa says, “he has his team acclimate on Loboche Peak. He has a second camp set up at base camp.”  I’ve heard this strategy discussed earlier in the trip and it is all coming together now. Even to a layman like myself it makes sense to acclimate near Everest, but not actually on it. The requisite elevation can be gained, but the ice fall can be avoided in the process, and the ice fall is reputed to be the most dangerous portion of the mountain. Suddenly shifting ice and avalanches are a constant threat. There is an opposite argument, however, in favor of acclimating in the ice fall. By doing so, one gets to practice the rope-work and crevasse crossing skills that are necessary to the climb.

Loboche is ahead. It is a cluster of about six low one-story rock buildings, plus one large L-shaped multi-level structure with a terra cotta colored corrugated roof. “That lodge is new,” Apa says, “must be Tashi’s lodge.” Tashi is the person we met on the way to Khumjung who first got us on to the idea that Apa is a de facto American. “After we check into our rooms at the Asian Trekking lodge we’ll visit Tashi,” Apa says.

First there’s the mandatory tea break in the dining room of the Eco-Everest lodge. Next to us is a man in an orange-rust colored wind breaker with a huge camera. The lens is at least a foot long and the battery pack is about 2” x 2” x 6”.  I strike up a conversation with him and surprise of surprises, he is an American. Justin Nyberg, ex-associate editor of Outside Magazine, now on assignment for Backpacker Magazine, doing an article that will feature the top ten treks in the world. He thinks the article may be published around October. He’s thrilled to meet Apa since he just came through the Thame valley and stayed at Apa’s lodge, just missing him there by a matter of days.  He and Apa agree to an interview for the following morning after breakfast, and Justin gives me his card and email address.

As part of Apa’s rules for proper acclimatization, after tea we hike higher so we have an elevation to drop down from before becoming sedentary for the night. We climb the ridge directly east of Loboche. The view from the top is astounding. Above us towers Nuptse, as magnificent as any mountain I’ve seen. At our feet lies a sprawling view of the world’s longest glacier. We can see all the way from the south end to the north, I’m guessing it’s at least ten miles, maybe 15 miles long. It’s the view perpendicular to the poster we’re bringing back for Jeff Clark, same as the poster in the Diamond Mold conference room. We are standing at the extreme right side of that poster and looking left, as it were, up the glacier. What I learn right then and there is that the glacier is rock on ice. I’m not sure why I didn’t understand this before, but now, looking down at it 300 feet below us, I can see that it is a frozen river with an exposed upper layer of rock. The ice must grab the rock in its travel downhill and carry the rock along. The sun then beats on the surface, melts away any exposed ice, and leaves a blanket of visible rock for a top covering. The exposed rock layer is made up of huge boulders the size of car--and larger. It is beautiful and terrifying at the same time. Nothing scientific about my theory of why the glacier is rock-on-ice, mind you, but where there are gaps and holes I can see blue/gray ice pits with no apparent bottom. “That end there,” Apa says pointing about ten miles to the north, “at the bottom left-side of that dark mountain, that’s base camp.” In the distance are a range of peaks so high and ferocious that going to the top of any one of them is a prospect I cannot fully comprehend. "Look at those mountains. Climbing those would be insane! I'm here in Nepal with a crazy guy," I tell Apa. "See that mountain there," he says pointing to a peak with an absolutely vertical face of pure white snow rising 5,000 feet in one pitch, "it's called Lingsher. Mike would ski down that," he says, "Now that's crazy."

Tashi gives us a tour of his new lodge. Apa and I do some quick math on our fingers and decide he’s built at least 80 rooms, forty rooms each wing. The lodge is 2-1/2 floors and the lower levels are full-size rooms, 20 rooms per floor per wing. The uppermost floor has semi-rooms under the eves for one third price.  Tashi’s been working on it for seven years, six years in the planning and material acquisition phases, and one year under construction. It is open but only about 80% finished. I am fascinated by the construction going on and take numerous photos of the masons, carpenters, and laborers.  Mr. G will appreciate this: they use the same-string line technique for setting the level of the rock blocks as masons do in the US. One huge difference is that each block is cut from a rock by hand. First a laborer goes to the rock pile which has been created over the previous year, and selects a stone. He puts this jagged stone in a wooden backpack of sorts and carries it to the rock cutter. The rock cutter sits in a small tin shed and with hammer and chisel, one whack at a time, carves a rectangular block to set dimensions. Naturally the guys at Diamond Mold will be interested to know what the tolerance is for these blocks and I put it at +/- .167”. There’s one photo I hope comes out which is of the rock cutter taking off his right sandal, and with his bare foot, holding his chalk-line with his toes. He snaps a line on the rock to establish the next face to be chiseled perpendicular to the one he’s already completed. The “chalk-line” is a descriptive term. What we’re really talking about is a piece of string run over some charcoal.  With the line snapped on the rock, he puts his sandal back on and positions the chisel about an 1/8” away from the line, then pounds with the hammer. No safety glasses, just a calculated squint. A gouge about an 1/8” deep and ¼” wide results. Process is repeated. Mesmerized, I watch for an eternity until I can’t stand it any longer: I ask him in sign language if I can trade places with him. It takes some doing to convey this desire, but once he catches on he slides toward the back of the tin shed to make room for me. There clearly isn’t enough room for both of us so we trade places and he steps outside. I hand him my camera and indicate I’d like a photo of me cutting the stone. He is unsure with the camera, hesitates, but one of his associates jumps at the opportunity. I shift myself to get into position and in doing so manage to knock the back wall of the tin shed over. Open to the wind the roof peels off and there is general chaos. The American has arrived and in his zealousness has destroyed everything. I try to help re-assemble the shed but they’ll have nothing of that. Once the tin is wedged back together I take up position and wail away with the hammer and chisel, the whole time thinking that if I were born in Nepal I’d probably either be a carpenter or a mason, and this enterprise, instead of an amusement, would be my lot in life.

At dinner we fall in with four South Africans from Durban. They are on their first Himalayan trek and are heading back down from a visit to base camp. They all want their picture taken with Apa and he obliges with the same indefatigable smile he always has. While the others have their pictures taken Fazel and I discuss South Africa as a model for how change can actually occur. The end of Apartied (sp?), the extraordinary forgiveness of Nelson Mandela. We wonder is this might not be a concept that could work miracles in the middle-east.  No, probably not we conclude, but a good example is still a good example; the difficulty is that people tend to focus inward and all good intentions, social or otherwise, often have to be recreated from scratch by the visionaries of their time and place. Fazel thrills me with his blow-by-blow recount of the 2010 World Cup in South Afrioca and the six games he went to. “As a South African, the way the tickets work you have to pick a country,” he says, “and your tickets follow that team. If they are beaten, then your tickets track with the winner, and so on. I picked Demark,” he says.  A good pick, I tell him. We discuss the 2014 World Cup to be held in Brazil. Fazel’s worry is that construction on the stadiums hasn’t begun yet. “They should be mostly completed by now,” he says. Dinner in the Khumbu can be pretty international in scope.  Fazel and I exchange email addresses. Good fun, that one, as Apa would say.

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