Himalayan Highs and a Terrible Low

I suspect I had a silly grin on my face the whole first two days trekking in the Himalayas until tragedy struck at the end of the second day. Before the grin came the tears as I left my home stay family. When the father took my face in his hands and said in tentative English how happy he was that I had been their guest, we both got teary. As I waved goodbye to them and my British friends, the tears flowed freely as the taxi took me to the bus. As challenging as my time was in southern Nepal, I made good friends there and it’s always hard to leave friends behind.

Fortunately, the four hour bus ride to Pokhara was much easier than the way south. This driver did not seem to have a death wish like the previous one and this time other buses passed us. After the rest stop, I had a nice conversation with my seat mate, a man from Portugal who sells speciality corks for wine and liquor bottles. Almost all the corks in the world come from his region and I learned a lot about the industry.

As soon as I got into Pokhara, I was happy that it was on my itinerary in Nepal. My guest house was near the largest lake in Nepal, a peaceful place with colorful boats to rent, surrounded by large hills and on a clear day – an amazing view of the Annapurna Himalaya range. This is a huge tourist town and all the amenities were there – Western food, coffee shops, internet and enough souvenirs to satisfy any shopping urges. I treated myself to a tuna sandwich as I caught up with email and had a small can of beer that night in my guest house. Wouldn’t you know that my body no longer seemed to know how to digest anything but dal baht and I had a great case of indigestion that night.

In the morning, I enjoyed my first hot shower in weeks and shortly thereafter, my fellow language classmate, Debbie from Belgium, showed up on the bus from Kathmandu with Jorge, our Sherpa trekking guide. Early the next morning we headed up into the mountains with our porter by taxi to begin our week of trekking. Our first real glimpse of the high peaks was breathtaking. I had seen a glimpse of the highest ones from Pokhara but being so close was surreal. The taxi bumped its way down the twisty road, crossing stream beds, navigating potholes and mostly driving on the shoulder that was smoother than the road. After a quick check in with our permits, we were on our way, climbing uphill immediately.

After being in the smoggy city and the sweltering south, the mountain air was clean and refreshing. The temperatures quickly climbed as we ascended and before we knew it, we were mopping sweat from our eyes. The trail narrowed as we got higher up the valley until, by the end of the day we were walking through villages about the width of a car perched on the sides of the mountains.

All over the trekking routes are tea houses – little lodges where you can eat basically the same menu and choose from a variety of teas. Each day we had tea stops every few hours and in the evenings, spent the night in a tea house. The rooms are basic – just a couple of typical hard wooden Nepali beds with a thin mattress, a quilt and a pillow. Sometimes there might be a bare lightbulb but headlamps are usually the only light in the evenings. The walls are the thinnest of plywood so you can hear everything in the adjoining rooms from conversations to the zipper of a sleeping bag or a snorer.

Lucky for us, in the next room the first four nights were some new friends that we met early on the first day – Karen and Pat. They are Americans about my age and Karen is from Keene, New York, the next town in the Adirondacks where we have spent many days hiking. We know several people in common including Rebecca who biked the western half of the Northern Tier with me!

On the second day, the serious climbing began. A lot of the trails are stone steps built into the side of the mountains. After crossing the river, we headed straight up, basically for the rest of the day. With the morning sun on us, we heated up quickly but I kept a steady rhythm uphill as I climbed. I was pleased that I was ahead of Debbie – not that I’m competitive but she is 30 years younger and has some breathing problems – so it built my confidence to know I could climb at altitude without suffering too much. We took breaks every once in awhile for tea or to let a parade of pack ponies pass us. They carry huge loads including bags of cement and even live chickens to deliver to the mountain villages that dot the hillside. Human porters also carry hefty loads on their backs with straps across their foreheads to help with the weight. As in the rest of Nepal, life is lived to a large degree outside so you can see people bathing, washing clothes and dishes, cutting grass for the animals and other chores as you pass.

The second night was spent at Ghorepani, our highest lodge. It is cold once the sun goes down and I bought myself a yak wool hat to help keep warmer. Even at high altitudes there are shopping opportunities and this town is where people leave for an early morning ascent so there are several tea houses. We gathered around an oil drum wood stove where laundry hung on lines above and people from many countries gathered for conversation. I sat next to an American who has been living in Bangkok for many years who was trekking with his two teenage sons. The older son hadn’t been feeling well with a stomach bug so they had stayed an extra day at the tea house. When the son went upstairs to rest, I talked with the father and son about their lives and advice about how to spend my time in Bangkok.

When I went upstairs to get my clothes to hang by the fire, the dad went upstairs to check on his son. That’s when his life changed forever. I heard him yelling his son’s name and Pat, a cardiac nurse, and Karen, an EMT went into the room. The son was apparently dead and they started doing CPR. They hoped that an epi pen might start his heart so I ran into the adjoining guest houses, shouting and asking if anyone had an epi pen or a doctor. By the time I got back, it was too late. Brian had been declared dead by a young American doctor who was staying at another lodge.

The rest of the evening passed in a shocked blur. The family had been trekking without a guide which caused lots of confusion as to how to manage. Eventually, the Nepali police came and his body was taken to the police station down the mountain a bit. The father had to call his wife who was visiting family in Holland and to let the other two siblings know the terrible news. Those of who are parents were especially upset, sympathizing with a parent’s worst nightmare. I heard the dad say, “I can’t believe this is happening!” as events unfolded and all of us were struck by the disbelief and the challenge of trying to come to terms with such a shock. It reminded me of the night one of our Northern Tier riders was killed and that sense of shock and conversation among strangers trying to understand what has happened. The logistics of dealing with a death in the high mountains was also discussed. How can a father make decisions under such conditions?

No one slept much that night, especially as we were leaving at 4:30 a.m. with headlamps to climb to the top of Poon Hill for a sunrise view of the Annapurna range. The climb was cold and difficult – more uneven rock stairs to climb, our breath blocking our vision, and Debbie struggling with her lungs. Our minds were clouded with thoughts of Brian and his family, even as we tried to resume our trek. Getting to the top was a triumph and although the view was not entirely clear, we still had the satisfaction of a successful climb. After a cup of tea (you can get them anywhere!), we headed back down for breakfast.

The guests were abuzz with news and we learned that Brian’s body was to be cremated on the mountain, which is what the Nepalis living there do, after the paperwork was completed in two languages. Apparently, Brian had epilepsy and the theory was that he had suffered a seizure soon after he went upstairs, had vomited and choked while lying on his back. I hugged his father as we were about to leave and spoke the platitudes of grieving that one hopes will offer some comfort. Our hearts were heavy as we left, climbing up to a nearby ridge where he and his younger son would trek out in another day or so.

The restorative power of nature helped us get us back to some semblance of normalcy as we hiked through gorgeous forests of rhododendrons in full pink and red bloom and glimpses of the Annapurna peaks through the mist. The sun never broke through that day, reflecting the grey of our moods, as we ascended and descended up and down muddy and snowy trails, sometimes through the jungly forest, other times along stream beds and finishing the day with another straight up climb to Tantepani.

Once again, we donned our warmest clothes and settled in by the wood stove. Many of the same trekkers from the previous night were with us and we took comfort in the closeness of the terrible experience we had shared. Our conversation also veered away to our lives in our respective countries from Russia to Dubai, Scotland to New Zealand and other places.

In the morning, our guide woke us at 5:30. “Ellen – the mountains”. I opened the door and my jaw dropped. The whole range was lit up right in front of us all across the horizon. Snowy peaks, jagged into the sky, had shown us their full morning glory. Cameras clicked as we all tried unsuccessfully to capture the grandeur of the moment.

After breakfast, we started out into the jungle with the peaks off to our left much of the day. Our guide told us there are monkeys and tigers that make their home there but we didn’t see them that day. Instead, we stopped frequently, trying to frame pictures of the peaks through the trees and to rest our weary knees, suffering a bit from descending so many uneven stone stairs.

We arrived at our next tea house early in the afternoon and took advantage of the day to visit the local monastery and tour this larger village. The village is built into the side of the mountain so in order to go anywhere you need to climb either up or down. There are no overweight people that live there.

Early in the morning, once again I heard our guide’s voice, “Ellen – the mountains”. I should have been prepared but once more the sky was lighting the peaks of the Annapurna range, invisible in the clouds the day before. Debbie and I ate our breakfast outside bundled up from the cold but eyes wide and voices stilled, trying to take in the reality of the view in front of us. Below us, we could hear the morning chants of the monks in the monastery and I finally solved the puzzle of the snippet of music that had provided the rhythm for my trek – it was a Buddhist chant I must have been hearing somewhere earlier that stuck in my brain (an ear worm, the Germans call that).

Very reluctantly, we resumed our descent turning back many times to view the mountains as the light changed. We passed more rural homes along the way – people living their lives in the shadow of the Himalayas. There were terraced fields of rice and grass, buffaloes and cows and more teams of ponies carrying their loads up. It was also Nepali New Year and the ponies wore decorations on their heads.

Several hours later, we were back in the village where we began, completing our circuit. After a celebratory lunch and a couple of Advil for the sore calves, we got back into our tiny taxi for the 2 hour ride twisting our way up out of the valley and over the “hills” back to Pokhara. The New Year festivities were in full swing right near our guest house. Debbie and I were the only westerners we saw as we wandered the carnival rides, food booths, games and live Nepali music. The field was packed with people wearing their finest clothing as children begged for cotton candy, vendors hawked their wares and screams were heard from the rides. Debbie and some new Belgium friends joined our guide for the evening of rock music but I decided to spend some quiet time on my own in my room. I could still hear it all, though, and stepped outside to view the fireworks.

I was still awake when Debbie returned which proved fortuitous. She had heard that there was to be a strike in Nepal beginning on Sunday which was the day I was supposed to take a bus back to the city to catch my flight to Bangkok. It was only a rumor but I got up at 4:30 to confirm it with the owner of the guest house. He was able to score me the last seat on a tourist bus leaving at 7. I hurriedly packed my bags and was ready to go, banana pancake in hand to eat on the way.

After 8 hours of bumping along, I am back in the city. I’m writing from Thamel, the Westerners part of the city, where I’ll pick up a couple of souvenirs I was going to get in Pokhura and beat it back by the tuk tuk bus to the hostel in the another part of the city before everything shuts down. Since internet access is limited and nothing is supposed to be running, I wanted to get this online before I disappear again into cyberspace. Apparently the flights still go but getting to the airport can be a challenge. The hostel has a little van so I’m hoping that won’t be a problem for me. Hanging out there for a couple of days will give me a chance to sort through my pictures and repack for Bhutan. I’ll add a few photographs now but will post more from Bangkok when I get a chance.

I’ve wanted to do a trek in Nepal for over 40 years. Now, I just want to do another one…

(Sorry, no photos. For some reason they won’t upload here. Just picture snowy jagged peaks for now and I’ll try again asap.)

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10 Comments

  1. Connie

     /  April 14, 2012

    Hi Ellen, So wonderful to hear about your experiences. I appreciate the way you are recording the highs and lows, and am thinking of you often. The flowering trees are about to burst into bloom here, and Maureen’s little blue flowers have been up for a week or so. The boys leave for Kenya on Wed.! Hugs!

    Reply
  2. Candice Stein

     /  April 15, 2012

    Oh, Ellen, such beauty and such tragedy. Can’t even begin to imagine the father’s anguish. Ben’s girlfriend (we had dinner with her at the Thai place) spent one of her college semesters in Nepal. Can’t imagine she had the experiences you have had. I repeat, you are an extraordinary adventurer.

    Reply
  3. Mary Kay

     /  April 15, 2012

    Hello, my friend. You are amazing. This trip has many transitions for you and you continue to grow! Bless you and keep safe.

    Reply
  4. Mike McNutt

     /  April 15, 2012

    Ellen, I’ve enjoyed reading about the trip, When I read about the teenage son, I yelled out loud “No!!!” and I was at work and everyone was asking me what was wrong. I’m living vicariously in you blog.

    Reply
  5. pam perkins

     /  April 15, 2012

    Ellen, I am sooo sorry you had the tragedy during a time of such specialness. I will echo what Candice wrote. You are an extraordinary adventurer. Thanks for the giving us the joy of following you everywhere you go.

    Reply
  6. Beth-Ann Betz

     /  April 16, 2012

    Ellen, You are giving us such a clear view into your experience. This was a very rough one, and my heart was pounding hard reading about the young son Brian. How tragic but so very sadly, true. I send you wishes for safety and calm throughout.
    More hugs, Beth-Ann

    Reply
  7. Beth-Ann Betz

     /  April 16, 2012

    One more thing, the photos are gorgeous, and the mountains are spectacular.

    Reply
  8. Hank Lange

     /  April 16, 2012

    Ellen, what an amazing adventure as you wander the world. Your sharing kindles something inside me to explore more and move beyond the comfort of home. This Vermont morning dawns. Your words and pics draw me outside. A walk with the family dog along the West River for a half hour does not compare to the wonders of a Nepali trek or the grandeur of Annapurna, but it will serve to connect me to the landscape, to feel alive and robust, and to better appreciate the gifts that today may bear.

    Your blog is a great start– just the impetus I need to get up and Go! I’m pushing away from my desk now, beng pulled outside to greet the day. Thanks for the inspiration. Keep on trekking!

    Reply
  9. I like your new hat and your donkey friend.

    Reply
  10. Margery McCrum

     /  April 16, 2012

    Dear Ellen, I am humbled by all you have experienced and shoulder on this epic journey. Your photos are breathtaking and I too love your hat! And your beautiful smile!
    Much love, Margery

    Reply

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