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Himalayan High Stories: Personal Tales From The HHT Trails...

Page 1:
   1. My Pilgrimage In Burma by Venerable Lobsang Chokyi
   2. A Himalayan Panorama by Chuck Warren
   3. Ladakh Family Adventure by Jennifer Widom
   4. Footloose In Burma! by Chuck
   5. Nepal/Tibet 2011 by Bill Thompson

Page 2:
   6. The Yak Patrol Trekking Through Nepal by Mike Nicholson
   7. Artist View of White Tara & Tibet by Nancy Davis
   8. Nepal: KB's Story by Amber Tamang
   9. Nepal: On A Journey To Learn, From A World Away by Sheila G. Miller
  10. Nepal: Solo in the Himalayas by JoAnneh Nagler
  11. Kangchenjunga: Trailside Poetry by Linda Oster
  12. Nepal: Teen Trek During Spring Break by Pam Koppe
  13. Bhutan: A Unique Experience For Bay Area Nurses by Pam Koppe

The Yak Patrol Trekking Through Nepal by Mike Nicholson

The Yak Patrol Trekking Through Nepal

by Mike Nicholson

Artist View of White Tara & Tibet by Nancy Davis

Artist View of White Tara & Tibet

by Nancy Davis

Nepal: KB's Story by Amber Tamang

Nepal: KB's Story

by Amber Tamang

Universal Peace Federation (UPF) wanted to send someone to the top of Everest with a peace message hoping to inspire people. One of our (KB and Amber's) acquaintances told us this and wanted to discuss how this could succeed. This person asked me (Amber) several questions regarding expeditions and ideas regarding how it could be for a good cause. One day we met and I suggested we set up a banner that all the members of parliament could sign wishing to write a new constitution and for lasting peace in the country. I also suggested arranging a mutual Buddhist and Hindu "puja" at Pashupatinath and Bodhnath. He agreed to the idea and we wrote a proposal to convince the tourism ministry officials.

Once the proposal was approved my acquaintance was busy obtaining a budget from UPF. He became the climbing leader; KB, along with four others, were hired as climbers to take the banner to the top. KB and other climbers never knew how much money was involved but it was said to them by the leader that there was not enough money to pay the climbers so all they would get was an equipment bonus. Climbers would have to do the job without daily pay! At this point I disagreed and subsequently I was out of the picture. But KB wanted to go, as this was rare opportunity for him.

KB had received little more than $1000 as an equipment bonus. We (KB and I) went to buy equipment: the down jacket cost $300, the shoes $600, a sleeping bag more than $500 and of course other clothing, bag and ice axe the total was certain to reach $2000. At the same time KB became sick, had a fever, and later was diagnosed as having Typhoid Fever. To cover the cost of equipment KB came up with the idea of using locally produced or second hand gear. He managed to get a locally made jacket and other equipment at cheaper prices except he had to buy international brand shoes. Due to the chaotic situation of not getting permits or flights on time, as well as KB being sick, I thought the expedition would not be successful so I didn't share this news with many friends before the trip.

However the UPF expedition managed to fly to Lukla on 25th of April which was at least four weeks later than the other expeditions to climb Everest in Spring of 2009. Once they reached base camp it was virtually full. There were 29 teams with an average of five climbers and ten Sherpas in each team. There was no space for their tents. KB's team also had no radio, satellite phone or computer to use for communication or e-mailing.

Later I asked KB why he wasn't worried. He replied that he was confident that he would be able to get to the top since, among the hundreds of Sherpas on Everest, he had several close friends. In an emergency he would seek help from them. I had managed to get one 10m pixel point and shoot camera through DB (another brother who lives in the U.S.). The camera was the best gift for KB; even though he was not good at taking pictures, he did manage to bring some good pictures from base camp and the summit.

Now what Karna says from base camp to summit: They had to hurry to set up the upper camps as they were already late! They went to camp I and camp II to transport the supplies. KB was still on Typhoid medication till reaching base camp. But he continued to work, carrying the supplies from camp to camp. One day he was returning from camp II (where he had reached in 2008) with a friend who was in Lhotse Expedition and he saw an avalanche and he took two pictures. Later he discovered that it came over the trail and killed one of the climbing Sherpas and hurt two Austrian climbers. At camp II he experienced AMS and he got aspirin tablets from a friend, after which he was fine. They did several up/downs between camps 3-2-1 and base camp. Then he discovered that the big western led expeditions' trip leaders had access to high tech weather forecasts. These trip leaders wouldn't tell what their plan to go up was as they were concerned other groups would follow them. However KB managed to get this information from a Sherpa friend in their team! So KB's team also set summit plans at a similar time.

When the final day came they had to start from Camp 3 to the summit in the morning. They arrived at Camp 4, also called south col where tents were set beforehand and oxygen bottles stored. Most climbers reach there at around noon. They rest till 6 or 7 PM in the evening and they continue climbing. So it seems like people walk almost all day, all night and the next day also. At this point Karna's team split as one of his fellow climbers was behind by 2-3 hours, and another one had a headache and turned back. The expedition leader continued (with extra supplemental oxygen and a personal Sherpa). Karna was told to wait for the slow Sherpa. The Sherpa showed up at 11.00PM (19th May) exhausted. By this time everyone who planned to summit was already far ahead of Karna. He didn't find anyone to go up with him, and had no support. He checked if this Sherpa wanted to go but was told he may have to turn back as he was exhausted. Then they separated. Karna wanted to give it a try even though he was four hours behind the other members. He followed the red rope placed by Sherpas of another expedition. As the sun was hitting Everest he saw the last climbers at "Hillary Step". He was among the last ones to reach the summit that day, at about 9:00AM May 20th.

After reaching the summit he spent about one hour there. He took off his oxygen mask, took a few pictures, offered prayer flags; displayed the banner, etc. He was the only member of his team to take off oxygen. Later they turned back and in the daylight he saw several dead bodies still fresh looking between Hillary Steps and camp IV. He says that if it wasn't during the daytime he wouldn't walk alone through the dead bodies. At camp IV he discovered that his oxygen mask was not properly put back on so the sharp cold wind hit his right eye. He suffered snow blindness. It took about 12 hours to get rid of the pain caused by this snow blindness. At this point one of his friends managed to send a message to base camp that KB, his expedition leader and support Sherpa made it to the top and this message was passed to Amber in Kathmandu the same day. This is how friends and family knew he made it.

Then they returned to base camp. At base camp KB was told that at least fifteen people had bad frost bite because they had exposed their hands to take pictures, or maybe due to arranging oxygen masks, etc. Until arriving back at base camp a total of five people died due to avalanche, storm and so forth. Back in Kathmandu we had a small party for family and friends. People keep commenting on how thin KB looks (he lost about 40 lbs over the course of his sickness and the climb) and encouraging him to eat more. HHT owner Effie Fletcher came to Nepal to congratulate KB and everyone is happy that he is back leading treks at lower altitudes. However, climbing is still KB's main interest and we're all sure he'll be back in the high peaks sooner rather than later.

On A Journey To Learn, From A World Away by Sheila G. Miller

On A Journey To Learn, From A World Away

by Sheila G. Miller

      Ganga Tamang came from Nepal to study; he now dreams of returning to help others.

Ganga Tamang considers himself a lucky man.

Unlike many college students, Tamang is thrilled to be sitting through organic chemistry classes and writing term papers for English. Plus, he's got electricity at his house. And a car to get him places.

It's a far cry from working in the fields where he grew up: a remote village near Mount Everest. Now, the 21-year-old Nepalese student is busy studying for a degree in general science at the University of Oregon, through Oregon State University-Cascades Campus, and making plans to return to his home country to start schools so his story won't be the exception, but the rule.

And he's doing it with the help of a Bend family.

Born in Lumsa, an outlying village in northern Nepal, which is home to Mount Everest and not much else, Tamang was one of six children. The village had no cars or electricity, and his family built fires inside their home to keep warm. He finished sixth grade near the top of his class. That's when he started getting lucky.

His oldest brother, Amber, now 33, worked as a trek and cultural guide, taking foreign tourists around the country. Amber invited Ganga to live with him in Kathmandu, the capital city of Nepal and a place with more educational options than his village. To get to the city, Tamang said, he and his brother walked three days to reach a bus stop, then took a full-day bus ride.

"He saw something in me," Tamang said of his older brother. "That was my first reason for success. I had this amazing thing happen to me. I got to study in the city." But it was difficult. At his high school in Nepal, Tamang began taking English classes.

"I'd never heard of English," he said. "It was the hardest thing for me to do."

Tamang finished near the top of his high school class, then did two pre-college years at a school in Kathmandu to help improve his English. But in 2006, many Nepali people took to the streets to protest the country's monarchy and create a democracy.

"The situation got all messy," Tamang said. "There were revolutions, and the campus was closed. I didn't go to class because of the protests. There was no class at all. I was worried about my future." While he was waiting for the protests to die down, Tamang researched U.S. colleges and scholarships online. And when he got a scholarship and a visa, he decided to take the chance. "I was really scared to try it," he said.

A strange place

In the fall of 2006, Tamang arrived in Pueblo, Colo., to attend Colorado State University-Pueblo. He said that during the first month there, he didn't do much to help himself out.

"I was dumb. I did nothing. I never talked with my professors, my English was not good at all, and the system, everything was different," he said. "Everything was completely different. People couldn't understand my talking." But soon, Tamang was able to get his feet under him and made friends, which helped his English, especially the slang.

Once, a student approached him at a gas station and asked him what was up. And he called him "dawg." "I thought, 'This is a strange place,'" he said.

It got more strange.

After a semester, Tamang's scholarship ran out, and he didn't have the money to continue attending the school. In an attempt to hang on to his visa, Tamang and some other Nepalese students transferred to a small school in Denver. But he couldn't get the courses he needed, and he was struggling. Instead of studying, he spent his time in the library looking at schools and learning about the SATs.

Then, Tamang got lucky again.

A chance in Bend

Tamang's brother, Amber, met Carla Smith, a Bend orthopedic surgeon, when she traveled to the region on a medical mission in 2003. Smith and her husband, Mike Powers, adopted a Nepalese child, Sameer, who is now 6. Now, Smith returns each year to Nepal to perform surgeries, and spends time with Amber and his family. On Amber's suggestion, Tamang spoke with Smith, who suggested he come to Bend to study at Central Oregon Community College or OSU-Cascades. So he took another chance, moved in with Smith, her husband and 6-year-old, and continued his studies at the University of Oregon program at OSU-Cascades.

Smith was taking a chance, too.

"I feel like if you give someone a little bit of help, they'll do something with it," Smith said. "I think when you take a chance, you stand to gain tremendously." Smith said she was happy to bring Tamang into her home, mostly because she knew his brother Amber.

"There's something spiritual about (Amber) in a way," she said. "There's sort of a depth to him that you relate to."

Tamang is a year from finishing his undergraduate degree, and then hopes to continue school to become a pharmacist. He has traveled to places like California and New York, but Bend has been good to him, and he wants to continue his education in Oregon. He's getting a good deal. Tamang gives regular presentations to schools and community groups through the International Cultural Service Program. The program allows students to give back to the community; in turn, they receive a credit on their tuition.

Shanna Hancock, who is filling in as coordinator of student life and international programs at OSU-Cascades, has helped Tamang coordinate his visits to local schools. "They talk about their country specifically, and the changes they've seen and the differences. They talk about their own experience growing up." For that work, OSU-Cascades takes 50 percent off his tuition. He also has worked in the school bookstore and done on-campus jobs. Smith helps with the rest.

"He's a very passionate person; he wants to give back to his country," Hancock said. "He's just a really nice guy all around, and he's very academically driven."

Smith has welcomed Tamang into her family. They've gone snowboarding and on other trips. He's helping Sameer with his Nepali language skills. And the group has had some laughs as well. Smith said that last summer the family decided to have a barbecue in the fire pit, and Tamang wanted to help by building the fire.

After collecting sticks, though, he wasn't quite finished. He asked her husband, Mike, if the family had any dung to put in the fire. "They often will burn yak dung or cow dung, so that was hilarious," Smith said, laughing. "We joked we're the only family with dung-cooked hamburgers in the whole neighborhood."

Memories of home

Aside from burning dung, Tamang has made a pretty good transition.

But he knows his family and friends in the village would be surprised by life in the U.S. "In New York, the subway? If people from my village saw that, I think they'd just go crazy," he said. "They can't even imagine it at all." It's still hard being away from home, though. Tamang hasn't seen his mother in five years, he said, and since his village has no telephone, he hasn't spoken to her since he came to the U.S. But Tamang sees a bright spot in that as well.

"I feel like I'm more responsible, being away from my family," he said. "I'm doing it on my own." And when he does feel lonely, Tamang has plenty of photos of home on his computer to look at.

Another way Tamang can feel a connection to his home is through the work he hopes to do there. Being a pharmacist isn't Tamang's ultimate goal. He wants to take the money he makes and start as many schools as he can in Nepal. He'd also like to see the end to Nepal's government charging tuition for schools. "When I was in high school, I never knew about my country. I didn't know the difference between poor and rich," he said. "Now, I can see."

Tamang said he looks at his friends who are farming in his village, and he wonders why it was him instead of them. It makes him angry that he was the only one who was able to get out and see what else exists.

"It's not like it's a hard thing," he said, to improve the lives of the Nepali people. "There's something I can do. I can't drive a nice car and buy a big house when my friends are in the fields. We all have the same things, we all have a body, a mind, two hands. But Nepal is behind." So now he'll try to bring Nepal forward, one school at a time. And then, he said, maybe kids won't have to come to the United States to get a good education, and highly educated people will be able to stay there and find quality jobs.

Tamang thinks his life has prepared him to do pretty much anything he wants, and in that way, he said, he's ahead of American students. "Life is changeable," he said. "What if tomorrow there were no cars and no electricity? I don't think these people are prepared for that." He thinks he's prepared for everything.

"I've climbed so far," he said. "I'm on my way."

Nepal: Solo in the Himalayas by JoAnneh Nagler

Nepal: Solo in the Himalayas

by JoAnneh Nagler

I was 21,000 feet in the air in the Himalayas, in a rattletrap plane even more flimsy than the Palm Desert skydiving tin can I had braved the previous month before, when I realized what I was doing.

My guide, Dahn, grinned at me. We were headed for Lukla, a tiny mountain town that would be our starting point for a twenty–day trek into the highest mountain range in the world. We were aiming for two 18,000–foot–plus peaks in the Everest region: Gokyo Ri and Kala Pattar.

The decision to take this Himalayan trek was a mixture of both fate and bravado. On the fate side of the coin was a series of Nepalese road signs that kept falling into my path; the latter was a pair of antique scissors I picked up in a trinket shop in the California wine country. Holding them up to the light, I heard the shop owner yell, "Those are from Nepal—and you should go!" I left the store with the scissors and the name of a woman who booked trekking expeditions across the Himalayas and India.

My solo fate was sealed in a simple moment of daring: Effie Fletcher, president of Himalayan High Treks in San Francisco, called to say that all five of my compatriots on the six–person tour I had signed up for had bailed. Baiting me, she asked, "You don't want to go alone, do you?" "Yes!" I said without thinking. Never a girl to cry uncle where adventure is concerned, I packed up, showed up, and set out.

Days later I would fly high above the mountains I was about to climb, looking down upon my destination. "Kala Pattar," I said to myself slowly, rolling the words around in my mouth while the plane jolted and swerved. In a few weeks I would be standing 2,000 feet above Everest Base Camp, leaning upon the 19,000–foot mountaintop that would likely be the highest elevation I would ever stand upon in my lifetime.

Suddenly, and without warning, our little sixteen–seat aircraft took a serious dive nearly straight down through the peaks, and landed—if you could call it that—on a 500–foot strip of loose gravel. The whole thing took less than sixty seconds. Skydiving had nothing on our pilot's moves, and we cheered for him like he was Santa Claus.

Nepal, for me, was a "no–muss, no fuss" experience, and with the humble grace inherent in everything I had seen the previous four days in Katmandu, we set off on our twenty–day trek without a word. No pomp, no circumstance. Out of the plane, load your pack, and start walking.

Dahn, my guide, and Ishor, who would carry my heavy gear, were cousins in their early twenties. Dahn spoke very good English, Ishor almost none, and we had met only hours before the plane ride to Lukla. The Nepalese are a gentle–souled people, and when I took off walking at my Guns–of–Navarone, Let's–Take–This–Mountain pace, Dahn only said gently, "Go slowly. There's much more walking ahead." When I did slow down, I fell into a steady, metered climb just behind him, a rhythm I still hear inside my moving limbs any time I hike.

The first half–day was beautifully scenic—centuries old rock fences lined with small farming plots, many of them abandoned hundreds of years before. The trail was peppered with wild rhododendrons, fluorescent green grasses, and the mists of the Dudh Kosi river—a bright emerald and voluptuous snake of a waterway that would guide us all the way up the valley.

At the end of the first day's trekking, we stopped at Phak–Ding, a tiny, two–teahouse spot located across a rickety rope bridge over a river. Teahouses—as accommodations are called on the trekking trail—are mountain lodges named for the strong milk tea they serve all day long to trekkers. There are no formalities about them: stone outer walls and wood plank floors, a central dining room with a wood stove (which mostly burns yak dung to save wood), a dark kitchen, and a few rooms with built–in wooden cots covered with a thin foam lining. Teahouses look like mining town shanties, complete with cracks in the walls which let the cold—and often the snow—blow in.

When we unpacked, I realized that Ishor's carrying strap had accidentally squeezed out all of my contact solution. It really was the only thing I couldn't live without. I wandered down to the campsite below the teahouses where I had heard Everest climbers were camping. The Everest Team was composed of Yanks, Brits, and Australians, along with a whole team of supporters who would staff Base Camp. After a gracious loan of the precious liquid I needed, I was invited to trek with them until our paths divided.

Climbers are an interesting sort—all North Face vests, Gortex boots, Velcro sandals, and bits of gear stuck to their bodies by assorted zippers and straps. Their stories are peppered with daring leaps over icefalls, near escapes from crevasses, cramp–on mishaps, and foiled attempts at summiting.

They told me to skip the altitude medicine (it would make my vision blur and my hands tingle), to drink three liters of water throughout the day (to avoid altitude sickness), and to stop and breathe deeply whenever I felt light–headed. I did, and I never had a problem, not even at 19,000 feet. Trekking up the steep slope to Namche Bazaar the next day, Dahn would stop and say, "I think you are very healthy." I smiled.

Our first peak would be Gokyo Ri, almost 18,000 feet in height, and 9,000 feet from our starting point in Lukla. Namche, at 11,500 feet, would be our first acclimatizing stop. We would stay two nights there to let our blood and brains adjust, take a day trek on the "rest day," go up in elevation, and come back down again to help our bodies acclimatize.

On the morning of our "rest day" trek, I asked Dahn if we could hike to the Thami Monastery at 13,000 feet. His eyebrows rose. "My guidebook says it's a two–hour trek." He smiled gently and said, "I will take you." I have decided to stop saying things are hard in life, and instead refer to them as challenging. The trek to Thami gave new meaning to the word. Six–and–a–half hours of uphill climbing up above the tree line, and ascending up trail after trail of heavily snow–covered paths, we finally reached it.

Steep and grueling as the trek was, the monastery was worth every step. It was one of the most exquisite sites I would see on the trip. The temple was painted red on the outside and sat perched on the side of sharply peaked glacial mountains like a chalet. At the door, we took off our boots (a fellow American traveler laughed at me for wearing my Oakland Raiders socks in such an esoteric locale) and passed through the cloth tapestries to enter. A stunningly beautiful prayer wheel, giant in size, sat right in the entryway painted in gorgeous reds, blues, greens, and yellows.

I had seen prayer wheels all along the trails so far: small metallic or wooden cylinders, about a foot high with Tibetan markings on them. Rows of them would be built into a roadside trail to bless passersby as we twirled them with one hand, a walking prayer. In the Thami monastery, the prayer wheel was eight feet high and about six feet in circumference, carved and brightly painted. As I walked around it twirling it on its axis, I felt the special blessing it was reputed to bring.

I sat on my knees and let the place sink into my skin. Thangkas—religious tapestries depicting Buddhist deities—lined the walls. Prayer scrolls filled endless tiny bureau drawers built into the temple's inner perimeter. Thick red curtains shielded the windows from the light, and a golden Buddha, raised on an altar, sat in the center of the room. It was gorgeous.

The trek back to Namche would test me in ways I did not know were possible. It was late in the day, cold was settling in, and we still had a two–and–a–half hour trek to return to our teahouse and acclimatize. Though I had trained for this, about an hour into the descent I began to get scared. I was over–tired, chilled, a little delirious from altitude and exertion, and the bones in my left foot were starting to strain and ache. "Stress fracture," I thought, with the instantaneous sense memory that only an old injury can bring. Dahn saw my concern, and we stopped for a moment to rest.

"You must rest to walk," he said, "and then go quickly. It is too cold in the dark." I looked up at the peaks above me—this extreme range of rock that had pushed its way through centuries of the earth's crust to stand in grandeur unequalled by anything I had ever seen before. Just a day ago I had heard a Nepalese woman talking about the Spirit of the mountains. The Tibetans believe that the Himalayas are an embodiment of mystical kings and queens, and when in trouble, they call on the spirit of the mountains to grace them with help. I had nothing to lose.

I said a prayer in that moment, asking for whatever forces that had built these majestic peaks to come up underneath my feet and grant me the strength to complete this trek. In the next seventeen days, I would have no injuries, no colds, no bronchial trouble, no blisters, no need for painkillers. Call it what you will: I called it mysticism.

Over the next few days on the trails from Khumjung to Dole to Macherma, the climate would grow colder each day, with snow falling in the late afternoon, and then clearing before sunset—just long enough to climb up a mountainside and watch the sun catch each golden twinkle of lingering snowflake, light pouring through the mountain peaks in a design of sun–splayed rays more exquisite than any kaleidoscope.

Miles of wilderness stretched between the few lodges, with almost no other structures populating the valleys. The local women farmed potatoes and some meager cabbages in the frozen ground and tended the teahouses, their men gone for the season to porter gear for trekkers and expeditions.

Each day when we arrived, the hostesses would invite us into the dark kitchen to eat boiled potatoes dipped in ground hot chili and oil. The women would always look at me curiously, asking Ishor and Dahn about me, and half–smiling at me as they checked me out. I was quiet during these inquisitions, and waited for their scrutiny to soften, as it always did. I owe a lot to Dahn for these moments, for I knew that how he presented me was how they would see me. In his easy, openhearted way, his laughter bridged the gap between our vastly different worlds.

After the first few days of being welcomed into Nepalese kitchens with Dan and Ishor, I took to eating on their schedule: tea or hot milk at breakfast, Sherpa stew or "mess" (a goopy buckwheat ball in broth akin to matzo–ball soup) at nine thirty or ten, soup or noodles at midday, potatoes in the afternoon, and whatever protein I could muster up at dinner. Dhal bat, a curried potato and lentil stew served over rice, was the main staple. Beer became a day's end reward, and a Snickers bar was the official trekker's snack. All the lodges carried the exact same items: a few Snickers and Mars bars, bottled water, Coke, Sprite, Tuborg and Carlsberg beer, and toilet paper. That was it. Nothing else.

By the time we reached Macherma, anything with water in it would freeze solid by morning. I slept with my contact lenses and drinking water in my sleeping bag, fully clothed inside my down parka. Unlike many other trekkers (one Brit bragged that he hadn't washed his hair in seventeen days), I took a bath in a bowl at the end of each day's trek. Since our rooms often had wind–whipping drafts of icy air creeping in from outside, this was no small feat. The hostess would boil a big metal pan of water for me, and I would undress piece by piece, wash, re–dress, and dunk my head. I hated doing it, but afterwards it always felt wonderful to get all that trail grime off of me. I would forego any "showers" up in the high country: my one attempt to bathe under stove–heated water dribbling from a gravity–driven showerhead would end in a soap–covered, waterless disaster inside a barely constructed corrugated shack with freezing snow blowing through it onto my naked body. Once was enough.

The night before we summited Gokyo Ri, I awoke out of a restless sleep to find the moon shining straight into my window like a laser beam from heaven, beckoning me outside. Looking up as I stepped out, I almost tripped over the head of yak sleeping at the foot of the door. The moon was incredible: cutting through the blue–black sky like a sun from another planet, it backlit the mountains so they appeared to have been lifted off the canvas of earth's horizon, leaning towards me in anticipation. The sky was cobalt blue with black edges, and the snow–dusted frozen lake turned a pale violet in the sky's reflection. It was otherworldly.

I realized I was on another planet, a place called the top of the world, and much like the depths of the ocean, it was a place I had never before inhabited. As I walked toward the lake, the stars were a flurry of abstract art, washes of whole galaxies painted on the sky inside some kind of infinite myth invented just for us. It was exquisite and incredible, and it humbled me.

The next morning the trek up Goyko was a don't–lose–your–footing, don't–lean–back, straight–up climb. The trail simply went directly up the mountain, with none of that Western zigzagging. The air had become markedly thinner after the first half–hour, and breathing became a Zen practice. So far, I had been moving into Dahn's pace whenever the trek got tough, and now I stepped right in behind him, hugging his back step for step, like an 800–meter runner who's letting the frontrunner break the wind.

Walking with others in the wilderness is an intimate practice, a slowing down of all the stuff of daily life, requiring a sensitivity toward each other and a willingness to know without speaking. Dahn, in his quiet assurance, had this quality in abundance. Thinking about it as we were heading up Gokyo Ri, I realized what talkers we are in the West: our days are filled with word noise. And though the world of words is a precious land to me as a writer, the ability to intuit, to know beyond literal sound, is a quality that is developed in quietness and stillness. As we three crested the top of Gokyo Ri, climbing into the completely silent, golden–splayed rays of the morning sun just burning over the peaks, every visible thing was filled with its soundless, omnipresent fire. The entire sky was ablaze with a kaleidoscope of light, and the absolute passion of the moment rushed toward me in an epiphany. This rocked.

The view was breathtaking, with a three–sixty sight line to Everest, Cho Oyu, Nuptse, Lhotse, Makalu, and several other peaks. I twirled around like a seven–year–old, blurring the heights of the snow–crested horizon line and then took pictures, Hockney style, across each piece of the mountain sky. Dahn and Ishor climbed the rock piles and tucked Tibetan prayer flags across the top of the peak. I leaned over the edge to where our teahouse blurred into a small blip 2,400 feet below us, and even the lake looked like a small puddle. We had really climbed. I took some more photos, not caring that the majesty of this moment wouldn't even remotely translate through a camera—I would know; I would remember.

The day after reaching Gokyo Ri's peak, we came down the valley very fast on the opposite side of the Dudh Kosi river gorge, practically jogging sometimes with the effortless exhilaration of going down. Coming down quickly was to feel a rush of pressure slowly release out of the altitude–balloon my head had become, and I felt a surge of pure, free–falling energy. As we walked, we had valley views so vast we could see whole weather systems moving in and out of the gorges, and it seemed as if we were witnessing life itself blowing its breath up the Everest valley. We would hike for several days through Phortse and Pangboche, and then head steadily up through Dengboche and Luboje.

The morning we hiked to Kala Pattar, our second peak, there was a perfect, fresh snow upon the ground, just enough to frost the earth. It was dark when we headed out, and the snow looked light blue and pristine in the pre–dawn morning. We took the back trail out of our lodge, sliding off the barely–there path cut sharply into the side of the mountain. We stopped for some Sherpa stew at Gorek Shep, and then got up to begin the ascent. Dahn looked at me with that now–familiar fire in his eyes that read, "Ready for this?" I laughed, knowing he was challenging me to compete with him; it was also my warning sign that I was in for a real push. Ishor, finally walking with only a daypack on, laughed at us both.

Kala Pattar is over 19,000 feet and looks straight into the highest mountain in the world, towering over the Everest Expedition base camp by about 2,000 feet. While Gokyo Ri had been a dirt–and–snow covered mountainside with a trail that went straight up to a plateau peak, Kala Pattar, by contrast, was all rock. There was no "trail" to speak of, and it looked like some deity had just dropped an unbelievable amount of broken stones atop the entire mountain. With snow dusting each rock and the sun not yet moving over the peak, it was definitely an ankle–twisting threat. I held my breath and steadied my concentration. Once again, we moved straight up at an incredibly steep incline, using hands and feet to balance and pull ourselves skyward. It was like scaling some sort of ancient stone earth–archive, with barely any air to breathe. I truly felt like I was walking on the moon.

For the next hour and a half we climbed boulders and stones, moving up into the sky. Each exertion required more air—and less of it was there. Yet I could feel something inside me jangling like a bell choir, a celebration brewing that was getting ready to sing out with the simple matter of a few more steps. I coached myself: Just another step up! Push yourself! Breathe easy. Easier. Alright! Again. Dahn and Ishor, usually unaffected by the altitude, were visibly panting.

Finally we took our last steps up to the crest of the peak—and the bells began to go off in my head. With my last push up, I closed my eyes and gulped in a huge new breath. We had done it! Then I turned around to face my destination, my goal of all goals for days and days now, and as I opened my eyes, there she was: Sagarmatha, Goddess of the Sky. Mount Everest, highest place on earth, right here in front of me. I looked straight into her, her famous white plum gracing the top of world, as the sun began to burn its fanned rays over the peak. Oh, it was majestic! Mythical! Exquisite and unmatched by anything else I had seen. Snow and rock, sky and atmosphere—simple things, really, yet I felt a reverence no cathedral or temple any place on earth could match. Bright white snow glistened all over her like twinkling glass in the crisp air, and plumes of ethereal clouds rose up from the sides of the peak, giving the appearance that the snow was dancing in mid–air. And the sun! Suddenly the whole Everest valley was being illuminated as if a golden floodlight had come up from the ground and moved the scenery up toward us in a rush of light.

Dahn, Ishor, and I slapped hands, hugged, and cheered each other. Twenty or so trekkers joined us at the small plateau of rock which was the peak, and we all had grins on our faces miles wide. I began to eye the very large, sheer piece of rock that looked to be the highest point on the peak. It was about fifteen feet higher than the plateau where we were standing, and its point dropped off sharply on both sides to the valley floor, over 1,000 feet below. Dahn watched me eyeing it, and said, "Now, you don't need to go up there, do you?" I flashed him a grin, "Oh, but I do"

I slid my rear end up the slick side of the rock and snaked my way up to the top of it, Dahn and Ishor eyeing me, then following me. Suddenly I heard a rumbling like the sound of five earthquakes rolled together—a low and growing groan from inside the earth, gathering momentum from across the valley. It made my knees go weak.

I was about ready to catapult down the rock anyway I could, when Dahn touched my arm and pointed across the gorge to Lhotse, the mountain just next to Everest. "Avalanche," he whispered. I sat stock–still and watched a whole chunk of the mountainside fall in a huge mass of ice and snow, bellowing like mythic thunder, and landing with a sonic–boom crash. Snow blew up around it like a nuclear cloud. A wave of humility washed over me then, experiencing first hand the vastness of the power in this place.

I sat quietly for a moment, remembering that we did not do this alone, that we were helped and supported along the way by all kinds of things—fueled by the hands and hearts that fed us, guided us, housed us, and many, many more who had, years ago, simply taken adventure by the hand and walked up this vast valley. And here I was with The Thing Done, completed, accomplished. I sat on the very top of my own achievement, looking out from its mountaintop.

"If I can do this, I can do anything," I had said to myself before taking this trip. But sitting astride the loftiest piece of earth I have ever rested upon, I realized that it had become much more than that. It was about changing my perspective, the way I see things. Because here, now, at the journey's destination, I could look out at the majesty in front of me and see that the trail that had looked like hardship had become the grandest view I have ever seen; what looked like difficulty had become a joy unparalleled; and what had seemed to be struggle became an opening into gifts so divine I could not have imagined them before now.

The trek down–valley was nothing but a delight for me. I was giddy with joy for the time we'd had and the thing we'd done, and supremely happy. To let myself walk downhill for a change, with nothing else to do but relish the accomplishment—what a revelation! I remembered walking into Namche the first time over two weeks earlier and thinking what a small and remote little place it was, with its fifty or sixty structures and its handful of mud–path shops. Now it seemed like a booming city to me. Back in town, we drank beer, ate yak steak, partied with our newfound trekking friends, and snacked on the local junk food: coarse popcorn and fried cheese curds. Sean, a good–hearted, boisterous construction worker from Boston, dug an Allman Brothers tape out of his pack to play on the pub owner's deck, and, hearing the music, I felt America slowly come back to me.

One afternoon a few days later, as Dahn and I wandered out of a Tibetan jewelry store in Katmandu, a flash rainstorm caught us off guard and we found ourselves stranded in the dirt street, suddenly drenched. There was no place to go—no awnings or doorways close enough—and in twenty seconds the pouring rain had stuck everything to our skin—clothes, hair, dirt, and humidity. We stood laughing at each other, surrendering to it, the rain welcome after all, cooling our sticky skin and dusty feet. It struck me then, cracking up over our meager attempts to get a cab with our clothes drenched and our hair dripping, that in a few short hours I wasn't going to see him, or Ishor, anymore. It was time to say goodbye, time to head back home, and as I caught his gaze, I felt my heart well up with the knowledge that acts of grace and companionship last a lifetime. I was deeply moved that he and Ishor had graced me during my discovery of their homeland.

When we finally ducked into a taxi, a Joan Baez song was playing on the tinny radio with some sixties lyrics about change and moving on. I was filled with a perfect–moment nostalgia for my time in a land which I had never thought to know: a land which taught me to accept change and challenge, and to walk through obstacles—not away from them. What a gift, I whispered to myself, thinking of Everest.

At home now on the coast of America, I stand outside on my veranda watching the sunset at the end of the day, and I feel myself connected to Nepal, to the other side of the world. That simple feeling widens my heart.

Kangchenjunga: Trailside Poetry by Linda Oster

Kangchenjunga: Trailside Poetry

by Linda Oster

Kangchenjunga Trail

The white peaks tower in the distance
We hike through rhododendron forests
Rocks form rude steps
The trail leads straight to the ridge

We hike through rhododendron forests
We rise from summer into fall
The trail leads straight to the ridge
Rocks are stepping-stones across a stream

We rise from summer into fall.
The trail descends into mud.
Rocks are stepping stones across a stream
Gooey black slime, deep and slippery

The trail descends into mud
Tree branches to step on
Gooey black slime, deep and slippery
The water is swift and deep

Tree branches to step on
A narrow board lies across a stream
The water is swift and steep
The mountain steps up to the sky

A narrow board lies across a stream
We step from stone to stone
The mountain steps up to the sky
We hike through barren rocks and snow

We step from stone to stone
Black and white jagged crags
Through barren rocks and snow
We embrace the mountain

Black and white jagged crags.
Rocks form rude steps
We embrace the mountain
And the white peaks tower


Namaste, each one greets you as he passes by
loaded with his particular burden, chairs, tables,
propane bottle, stove, tents, cooking utensils.
Some wear running shoes, some, sandals
the yak drivers in yellow galoshes.

We carry our little packs with jacket
gloves, hat and water for the day
and are walking as fast as we can, but
can't match their pace.

In the morning the tents are down
before we finish breakfast
We know we are a half-hour
from our lunch site when we meet one
or two of them who have carried down
a large pot of hot fruit juice,
always with a big smile and greeting.

At the lunch site, a full meal
is waiting for us served at our table and chairs.

In the afternoon we sit and watch
the Yaks come up the trail.
They are unpacked
and the tents put up
in half an hour
They take the yaks across the river to graze
after they've
poured mustard oil down the yak's throat
the animals protesting.
It takes several of them to hold the animal down

The evening we return to Yaksum village
they sing mountain songs and dance
with flute and drum
around a bonfire

Trail Food, or why I didn't lose weight

Coleslaw, chapattis,
cucumber salad
cheese fritters, cauliflower,
deep-fried bananas
rice pudding, bread twists,
potato pancakes
mushrooms, bamboo shoots, Sherpa stew
bean salad, garlic soup,
pot stickers, hot pears, peas,
smoked salmon balls,
fry bread, yak cheese, potato salad
mushroom pepper tempura,
spring rolls, green beans, noodles, squash,
cheese potatoes,
chicken sandwiches
on fresh baked bread,
vanilla pudding, garlic rice,
bean and carrot casserole,
hot cheese sandwiches
chow mien noodles and stir-fry vegetables
hot mangos, smoked salmon dumplings
Om Tare tu Tare ture svaha

Nepal: Teen Trek During Spring Break by Pam Koppe

Nepal: Teen Trek During Spring Break

by Pam Koppe

When Tony and Mario Barbero's dad came home one day and said, "How would you like to go to Nepal?" Tony said, "Where's that?"

"I mean I had heard of the Himalayas," said Tony, who was 12 at the time, "but I wasn't sure where Nepal was. I was doing my homework and said, 'Sure, okay' just to get him out of my room. I had no idea what we were going to do there."

Three years ago, Marcello Barbero, 47, a manager in the environmental clean up field, saw an ad for Himalayan High Treks in a magazine. It promised "The Trip of a Lifetime" and he decided to go for it. "I chose the Everest Spring trip because it coincided with spring break, and I wanted to go when the views were clear, "he said. Barbero knew his sons would be receptive. " If nothing else, they'd get a few extra weeks off school," he said. When his wife decided to stay home with their younger daughter, Barbero persuaded his friend Mike Stocker to join them. "This way we could pair up," said Barbero.

Tony, paired with Mike, was a seventh grader, the youngest in the group. "He was physically slight, " commented Himalayan High Trek owner Effie Fletcher, "and I was worried about him. He was the youngest person I'd ever taken on a trek." So Fletcher tested him out. She took him on a strenuous ten mile hike in the Marin Headlands, across the Bay from Barbero's Berkeley home.

"Effie was afraid I wouldn't be able to make it so she took me on this hike to see if I was in shape," said Tony. "I don't know why," he added. "I could have run the whole way."

"He came through with flying colors," said Fletcher.

In fact, Tony was in the best shape in the group. "He had no trouble keeping up," said Barbero. "We'd be hiking along at 15,000 feet and Tony would be ahead of us singing." Barbero, on the other hand, found the first full day of trekking up to Namche Bazaar to be the most physically trying time in his life. "When we got there, I just lay down and went to sleep," he said.

For Mario, it wasn't a question of the physical shape you were in, but what you ate. "My brother and I were athletes," he explained. "We both played basketball, soccer and ran track, so we were in good shape." It was the food that did Mario in. The first night of the trek he ate something that disagreed with him. He thinks it was the pasta; Fletcher thinks it was the apple juice. "The next day was the longest day of my life," said Mario. "It was the most difficult hike of the trek--a 3,000 foot climb at high altitude--and I was throwing up all the way."

"I wasn't as concerned about Mario," said Fletcher. "He was 14 but looked 17. "But he was the one who had some trouble. He was a typical teenager: one day he was sick, and the next he was having a great time, saying how cool the culture was."

"Marcello wanted his kids to see other cultures and have a better understanding of the world around them," Fletcher added. "I was impressed that he had his priorities in life really clear." Tony and Mario each kept a journal of the trip as part of their school work. For Tony, the highlight was going to Everest Base Camp. "Not everyone in our group made it," he said. "Just me, my dad, and our friend Mike." For Mario, it was reaching the top of Gokyo-Ri at 18,500 feet. "It wasn't an especially hard climb, but when you got up there, you could see Everest and Lhotse, and I felt on top of the world.

"I had a lot of time to be by myself and think," he added, "and I got to know myself a lot better."

Barbero also remembers getting to the top of Gokyo-Ri. "It was a real sense of accomplishment," he said. "I took the boys aside and told them to think about the fact that not many 12 and 14 year olds have the opportunity to do something like this. And because it had been so physically demanding, I told them to use it as an example of what you can accomplish if you set your mind to it. It's something they'll be able to reflect on throughout their lives." But there was more to the trek than just getting to the top of Gokyo-Ri. "I came to understand the Nepalese," said Barbero. "What struck me when I first got home was that although Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world, the Nepalese Buddhists have an incredible peace of mind. It makes you realize that materialism doesn't make you happy."

"Marcello and I are kindred spirits," said Fletcher. "On the trek we visited a small nunnery. It was very poor compared to all the monasteries we'd seen. The women were Tibetan refugees, and they lived in a hovel. Marcello left a very generous donation. And the kids totally thought it was cool. They realized these were real people dedicated to Buddhism, to spirituality."

"The trek was physically very demanding," said Barbero, "but spiritually it was the most uplifting thing I've ever done."

Bhutan: A Unique Experience For Bay Area Nurses by Pam Koppe

Bhutan: A Unique Experience For Bay Area Nurses

by Pam Koppe

Bay Area hospice nurse Sharon Stoepler, 58, thought her traveling days were over until she met colleague Eileen Jackson.

"Eileen has visited every country in the world," said Stoepler, "and she lights the flame that nothing is impossible, that you're never too old. She was the driving force behind this trip." The trip, "Window on Bhutan," was a gentle two-week adventure to the Land of the Peaceful Dragon arranged by Effie Fletcher of Himalayan High Treks.

Home care nurse and world traveler Eileen Jackson, who always said she would never travel with a group, decided to go to Bhutan because "it's a place that's hard to get to and the more difficult something is, the more I want to do it."

A visit to Bhutan is by invitation only. The government sets a limit on the number of tourists allowed in at one time. "So when the opportunity presented itself," said Jackson, "I took it." And she told her friends.

Retired urgent care nurse and former colleague Emily Thoman had never heard of Bhutan before, but when she saw the brochure, she said, "This is it; I'm going." For colleague Christine VanDewark, it was a spiritual journey. "In the mountains I am able to regroup and renew my spirituality," she said. For all four woman, it was a unique experience.

"Bhutan is the last Buddhist kingdom in the Himalayas," said Jackson. "There are only 600,000 people in the whole country. Education and literacy are priorities. The king banned television, and without television, there is no commercialism. People walk everywhere, there are no private cars, and there is no pollution." Thoman feels Bhutan is run by a very wise king. The inhabitants maintain an indigenous culture and everyone has enough food. She hopes it won't be ruined by tourists. VanDewark was impressed at how the people work together as a community. "When our bus broke down, the local judge and a monk drove for an hour and a half down the mountain to pick us up," she said. Stoepler, who practices vipassana meditation, was interested in seeing the monasteries, monks and prayer wheels. "It was very powerful to see the way the people come together in rituals" she said. "They find such joy in doing simple things in the present moment."

One of the highlights of the trip was visiting Taktsang Monastery, built 12,000 feet above the valley floor. Also known as Tiger's Nest, it is said that here, in the eighth century, Buddha entered Bhutan on a tiger. "We jointed a gym before we left to get fit," said Jackson, "but after one look at us, our guide rented ponies and mules. Except for Chris. She made it on foot." "Chris inspired us," said Stoepler. "And Effie stayed with us and was very supportive."

"Effie was inspirational," added VanDewark. "You can sense her spirituality. She connects with the local people, walks right with them." Nowhere was this more evident than in Calcutta.

"Eileen asked Effie if there would be any way we could visit Mother Theresa's hospice," said VanDewark. "She knew that Sharon, in particular, would really like that." So Fletcher made the arrangements.

"We never expected to actually see her," said VanDewark. "When we got there we were ushered inside. 'No photos,' they said. 'Just wait.' So we waited. It was a lovely, cool courtyard, the nuns were scrubbing the floor, and we felt a sense of serenity."

Stoepler went into the chapel to wait. "When I walked out, there, in the midst of the group, was this tiny little woman, and I realized it was Mother Theresa," said Stoepler. "She smiled and gave each of us her 'business card,' a prayer card.

"I felt I was in the presence of a very holy person. I never knew she was so small, and I thought, how could so much love and compassion come of out this tiny person?" "It was like meeting a living saint," said Thoman.

Perhaps VanDewark summed it up best. "I wanted humility," she said, "and I got it." Friends Stoepler, Jackson and Thoman agree. This sense of humility stays with them still.

All Photos & Text: © 1988-2017 Himalayan High Treks (for the authors)