Monday, April 30, 2018

Rajasthan with Raj

I like airport pickups. The comfort of a sign with my name on it when I leave an airport into what is usually a loud chaotic mess of taxi's, yelling touts, honking horns and confused travelers is reassuring. Sure, it is a bit more money than other options but this is my one travel luxury that I will never apologize for. Arriving in Delhi from Kathmandu we were met at the airport by a short smiling man with an A1 Tours - Ms Caitlyn Tran sign. He introduced himself as Raj and he was going to be our driver for the next 10 days.

I found A1 tours as you do, Google and Trip Advisor. Trip Advisor I usually take with a grain of salt. After a bit of back and forth and our constant schedule change, the owner Javed said that "it does not matter when you arrive, we will be ready." We arrived almost a month early as we did not hike Annapurna and he still accommodated us without issue. He teased us a bit when we arrived at his shop about our constant changes "nobody ever changed so much",  but it was all in good fun.

Our tour would consist of the major sites and cities around Rajasthan, the most popular tourist destination by province in India. The tour even had a great name, The Pearl of Rajasthan. We  would visit the following towns, Jaipur (2 nights)- Pushkar- Jodhpur - Udaipur - Bundi - Ranthambore - Agra (2 nights) - Delhi.

Each stop included a hotel and breakfast, plus English speaking guides in Jaipur and Agra. Raj would drive and pay for all gas and tolls. The cost for this would be less than a car payment back in Canada. Yes, it is that inexpensive to travel in India. Both Caitlyn and I agreed well before that this would be the best way to introduce ourselves to India. We only have 3.5 weeks here so there was no reason to spend most of our time "figuring it out". This tour was going to bring us to ancient forts, palaces, tiger safaris, spice markets and temples.
The website is  If you come to India I highly recommend them.

I did not know what to expect in India. Fellow travelers have told me it is unlike any other place you have traveled and to always expect the unexpected. Most travel articles confirmed it and every video reinforced it. The main messages seemed to be "Do not drink the water, do not eat the street food, do not eat any meat, be vegetarian while you are there, people will be aggressive when they try to sell you something". My head hurt and for the first time in my travel life I entered a country with pre-conceived negative thoughts. They would not last. I would rather not drink bottled water but sometimes you just have to do it. The chicken masala on day 2 was delicious and the vegetarian options are outstanding. Sadly, street food is still off limits until we find a busy "food street". The stomach viruses here eat Imodium like candy.

As for vendors, they are the same everywhere, except for Egypt where  "aggressive selling" is an art form. Here a smile and no thank you will usually suffice. If you look the person in they eyes you will usually get a smile in return. There may be a second attempt to have you buy something or jump in the Tuk Tuk but it is usually just habit. More times than you can imagine a cell phone will magically appear and you become the star attraction in a " Bollywood street selfie show".

With a little effort you can find decent coffee, American Fast Food (remember, no hamburgers as cows are sacred), soft serve ice cream and good inexpensive restaurants. For the record we destroyed 2 KFC meals in Agra in less than 3 minutes.

Poverty is a part of your experience here. It is tough and brutal to see. Advice in the form of "you must look past it" is easy to receive but tough to follow. Cows are everywhere and I mean everywhere. They are huge and do as they please. That being said, cow shit is also everywhere. There are lots of street dogs but they are skittish. In the streets you will also see camels, horses elephants, monkeys and goats. After a while they just become part of the scenery if you can imagine that. I still say "cow" 20 times a day to piss Caitlyn off but she does not bite.

The one and only Raj

You will instantly realized that India is loud, messy, dusty, dirty and hectic.You will marvel at the traffic, especially the traffic circles and large intersections. Police look like they are directing traffic but nobody listens. Cars, trucks, tuk tuks, scooters, bicycles, motos, delivery vehicles and yes cows all converge in a loud frenzy, but it works. If you watch it long enough you will see the patterns of madness emerge. It is quite impressive really.

Finally India is colorful, happy and helpful. The aromas continuously change and sometimes not for the better. It took me a few days but you really need to drop your shoulders, relax and just let India happen.

With that being said, we jumped into the air conditioned car with Raj and headed to Jaipur. It was time embrace the insanity that I knew was going to hit me smack in the face.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

EBC - The Descent

What took 8 days to climb took 4 days to descend.  Not because it was all downhill, it wasn’t. Not because it was easy, it wasn't. It was with each step and each hour we eventually were going down hill and downhill brought us much needed and glorious oxygen. Inflamed joints and swollen hands subsided, heavy breathing eased, legs felt lighter and steps were a bit quicker. We had achieved our goal but now had a new goal, Lukla and cold beer.

There were some interesting stops along the way. At the Dreams Hotel, the stop before our return to Namche, the owner had been one of the lead Sherpas on a French Expedition to the Everest summit in 2003. It was beyond exciting to meet this humble and kind Tea House owner who 15 years previous had scaled Everest. He was quick with a smile and a strong hand shake and patient for all the pictures we wanted to take.

After dinner he sat with us patiently answered questions and recalling stories of his Everest expedition and other Himalayan adventures. Not all were glorious and he spoke of watching friends die on the mountains and being helpless to assist them which gave him an an air of sadness. He had scaled the highest mountain in the world but he had also seen the price others paid when they failed. He also looked me dead in the eye and told me he could "train me and take me to the top of Everest but we would need many hard treks before that". I gulped and only felt fear and Everest roared.

Arriving in Pheriche after a long cold walk through a windy valley we discovered that there was a medical clinic. It that was managed by 3 volunteer British Doctors who came to Nepal on a 4 month cycle. The doctor gave us a great seminar on altitude sickness, what to look for and how to treat the symptoms. We were on our way down so it was a great reassurance that all the things we endured were normal and thanks to our experienced guide we dealt with  them properly.
**If you chose to hike EBC without a group or a guide, educate yourself on Altitude sickness and the two main types brain and lung.  It could save your life.

Along our descended we re-entered the pine forests that brought a great fragrance and a calming feeling. Steep cliffs and rushing blue glacier rivers surrounded by these great green forests signaled we were doing great. The air became clean and clear. Breathing returned to almost normal and that increased our laughter and attitude. The lower the altitude the higher the attitude.

Reaching and walking..well running through the Lukla gate brought everyone sheer joy. A different joy from the base camp as this was more  an exhausted relief. It was over except for one more very scary plane ride to Kathmandu

First through the gate was Dominic. Myself, Marie, Sarah, Sheila, Joe and Jojo were not far behind.  The rest of our intrepid crew filed into the tea house one by one until finally Katy and Dan arrived to a rousing round of applause. Katy had struggled but found her resolve to finish.

First things first. Beer. Everest Beer was the obvious choice. It was not the best beer in the world but it worked for the moment. Dinner and then downstairs to a bit of a club for some pool, bad music and dancing…and then all of us rock stars were in bed at 8:30. 

There are other treks in Nepal, most notably the Annapurna loop. I do not say I will return to a country often but I will return to complete that trek. Caitlyn and I had planned on doing it after EBC. It was on day 4 that we both looked at each other and said "Nope" and with that Annapurna was put off for another day.

I am not a religious person. I do however feel the power of nature when I complete a great trek.  Its beauty, strength and sheer enormity is enough to convince me of place on the planet. 

At the airport I was put on the first flight out of Lukla while the rest of the crew was on the third flight. Shankar asked me if I would because he knew it would not be an issue with me agreeing. This did cause some uncomfortable dark humor with all of us. Either my plane goes down and I am the only one killed or the plane with everyone on it goes down and I am the only survivor. We all made it.

Everest was not quite finished with reminding us of who was really in charge. The day we arrived in Kathmandu I started coughing, soon followed by Caitlyn. This Khumba Cough  is common and a vast majority of trekkers get it. News to me, well researched trip Ken. It can last anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. Guess which one I got?  I will let you read Caitlyn's Blog Post about the experience, it is well written.  

However there is a funny side. Another side effect is gas and the doctor gave me pills so I would not crap" myself. Every time I coughed, I farted, seriously it was ridiculous and loud. Caitlyn said it happened all night when I was sleeping. One night she woke me up and asked me why I got out of bed and moved the table..I never moved a table. Yes it was that loud.

So, who had the last laugh Everest,oh I guess you. There was that "shart" thing.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

EBC - The Summit

Now the only thing stopping us from driving to the summit was lunch.

Nobody had to say it as we all understood, this had been a long week. Motivation was easy. Every day was more beautiful than the day before. Sure we were surrounded by the Himalayas.  There were also the smiling sun burnt faces of the Nepalese villages cheering us on. The sun energized you, the wind pushed you and you found your rhythms listening to your breath and the crunching of the trail coming from your boots.

The seeming long uphill hikes hurt but we did not falter. Stop to breathe yes, falter no.  Reflecting at the memorials of the mountaineers who attempted and died trying to climb Everest reaffirmed that we were only tourist on this mountain. They died trying to to reach the ultimate summit. The least we could do was to honor them and bust a gut to get to the base camp. The same base camp that was our end goal was for Scott Fisher, Rob Hall, Anatoli Bourakeev and so many others, the beginning of their climb.

From our lunch spot we could see the Khumba Ice Fields and Khumba Glacier in the distance. Sherpas were heading out to fix lines through the glacier, seen thanks to a pair of strong binoculars. That gave the moment a dose of reality.

Our finish line was now only 3 short hiking hours away. Small specs of orange and yellow bundled together would soon grow and show themselves as Base Camp. These tents were off limits to us as this is trekking season. Those in the base camp were preparing for their attack on the Everest Summit.

All the altitude sickness, coughing, swollen digits, stomach issues and tired bodies disappeared once we stood up after lunch and knowingly looked at each other. It was time. Everest Base Camp and the monument symbolizing our achievement was clearly within our grasp. 
The trek started uphill but most of us woud have run the 30 minutes in full sprint if not for the sounds of Shankar to “go slow, the mountain is not going to leave you”.  The voice of reason keeping us safe. At the top of the first climb we reached a level plateau. Here we could walk for a while bringing the colors of base camp closer. One of the girls in our group started to cry. She reassured us it was not because of pain but because we were so close. Raw emotion.

Down into a small valley with a huge glacial cut to our right, we scuttled across the scree filled trail. The massive Himalayan to our right knowingly guiding us. The sun was still strong and the snow glistened on the soaring 8000 metre peaks, close enough to reach out and touch. The peak of Everest would becoming visible for a while. It’s wind swept cap push snow in all directions reminding us that it warm and sunny at base came does not mean warm and sunny on the summit. Just as it appeared  it was gone as we moved forward. Protected from our gaze from its brother and sister peaks reminding us to keep focused on our own goals.

Up from the small valley through a winding trail came the team. We were close. Maybe 30 minutes. In the near distance people became visible at the monument. Other teams having reached their goal. We kept moving forward. Across the ridge and suddenly a right downward turn, 10 minutes away. Nobody spoke, nobody took pictures, nobody did anything but walk, focused only on the huge white flag strewn memorial in front of us. 

The final 20 metres was a gentle slope up. A symbolic upward push. Suddenly there we stood at Base Camp, at the Memorial, at our personal summit. There were other groups or people around us but they all disappeared, melting into the back ground of our reality.  We all paused and looked around dumbfounded in disbelief that were had made it. Suddenly tears. Everyone hugging and swaying and crying. Raw Emotion. I found Caitlyn in the huddled mass. We looked at each other and as on cue, “we planned it and now we did it”. We hugged a short time and averted our eyes because we both knew if it was any longer we would have burst into uncontrollable tears.  I will not speak of individuals in the group and what they were experiencing .  Some were crying, others found a quiet place to reflect while other just stood around in awe of what we achieved.

It was our turn for photos and we did just that. A huge smile on everyone’s face, arms around each other in brotherhood/sisterhood, happiness, elation and pure joy. Raw Emotion

We had 30 extra minutes so most people wandered off alone or in small groups to view the basecamp and the Knumbu Glacier/Icefield.  Others found quiet places around the camp and took in the views and I suppose had personal reflections. I did both and then heard Caitlyn yell for me. We had other pictures to take.  There was a message to our former workmates, there was a Canadian flag that we were determined to sign our names to plus we deserved photos of the two of us, away from the group. What started as a random email back in September of 2017 turned into the two of us hugging and smiling while posing for a photo at the flagged draped monument at Everest Base Camp.

I will not try and compare this trek with anything I have done before. This trek to the base camp  challenged me like nothing had before.  I am considered “strong” on the trail and the hike itself was manageable both for the distance, the ups and downs and the altitude. Where I was personally challenged, and I did not realize it until I stood at base camp and started to cry, was how challenged emotionally I had become.  The mornings were cold, the days were long, your legs, feet and body were sore and you did not realize it. We had not showered for 10 day and personal hygiene because “ah whatever”.  The coffee was terrible, the food average but plentiful and the altitude was in charge.
All I could do was wake up, put one foot in front of the other taking everything in.  

What started as an idea between friends exploded into reality at 5538 metres.  All great achievements begin with an idea … then going for it.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

EBC - The Climb

It would be impossible to write about this trek from my day to day notes. There was quite a bit of daily repetition during the climb that went something like this.

Wake up call 6:00 am.
30 second pause knowing you will instantly be freezing cold the second you lift the bed covers.
A new Olympic sports called "getting dressed before hypothermia sets in" is created.
Pack you bag and run downstairs for hot coffee and breakfast
Hit the trail for 7:00 and trek 5 to 7 hours uphill and down
Stop for lemon tea after the first 90 minutes. Stop for lunch half way and random stops to layer on or layer off.
Be constantly in awe of your surroundings that included mountains, trails, wildlife, porters, yaks, other trekkers, helicopters, rivers, bridges and each other while trying to breath and find your trail rhythms.
Reach the tea house around 4:30, drink tea and order dinner
Eat dinner at 6:30, nightly brief at 7;00, cards until 8:00 then nighty night.

With the routine in mind we left Phaktang (2660 m) and it took 6 days of hard trekking plus 2 acclimatization days. These were actual rest days but on both occasions we needed to hike up for a few hours and then return to our Tea House. It is all a part of the process. Each day started with a 6:00 am wake up and each morning got colder than the previous one. These Tea Houses were as basic as they come. Two hard beds for each small room and each was afforded a huge warm comforter. Each of us had a sleeping bag so falling asleep was no problem. As there was no heat, waking up and jumping out of bed became a sport of Olympic proportions.

The skill does not lie in bundling up for bed. The idea is to sleep in just your short and tshirt and put all your clothes in the bed with you to keep them warm. When you wake up you need to flop off the covers and dress as quickly as possible then run down to the common room for breakfast and a hot coffee that was available pretty quickly. After a good breakfast of oatmeal or eggs and toast we packed our bags and were hiking by 7:00. This was the morning routine and it never faltered.

Evening meal was at 6:30. Depending on the hike or the day you would get to camp around 4. You found your room, dropped your bag, pre-ordered dinner while drinking hot lemon tea and talked about the day. Dinner then a debrief for the next day from Shankar was followed by a bit of card playing or chess or general chat but that usually did not last very long. The first few nights 9:00 was good night, then it became 8:30, then 8:00 and yes on the last night before Gorashep I led off by going to bed at 7:30 and Caitlyn was not far behind. Everyone teased me but 5 minutes later I heard the pitter patter of little feet climbing the stairs and the tell tale squeak of each door as my trekking pals went to sleep.

The team was a great group. They were Caitlyn and Myself, Kim, Anna (Canada) , Sarah (Wales), Sheila (Ireland), Marie, Jojo, Dan, Katy and Emma (England), Domenic (Swiss), Brianna (New Zealand), Elvar (Iceland) and Joe (USA). Most had travel histories and for a few this was their first real trek.

Seeing the Hillary suspension bridge with the old bridge underneath stopped everyone in their tracks. This was the first real "monument" that everyone recognized on the trail. Crossing the huge swaying suspension bridge covered in prayer flags was the moment we realized the trek was real.

We trekked through small villages and stayed at towns that are famous along this trek. Namche Bazaar, Tengboche, Dingboche, Lobuche and finally Gorashep (5180 m), the gateway to the Base Camp Summit.

In Tengboche we visited the famous Monastery rebuild by Edmond Hillary after it was destroyed by a fire in 1989. It was a surreal experience to say the least. One monk was inside chanting while looking around at all of us exhausted trekkers. It was totally a show for us hoping to inspire donations. Such an odd experience.

Waking in Tengboche could not be rivaled. We were surrounded by clear blue skies and the soaring peaks of the Himalayas. The air was crisp and clean and the morning energized everyone despite the cold.

In Dingboche there was a fantastic cafe with proper coffee. As this was one of our acclimatization days we took advantage of it on the second day. There we were at 4350 metres in a hard scrabble town dating back centuries, sipping hot cappuccinos while watching the movie Everest.

The altitude effected everyone. Most of us were just short of breath and walked slowly. However if you bent over to tie your boots and brought your head up quickly you would get a great "70s head spin" for those who can relate to the times. Anna's hands started swelling and the altitude really affected her, Emma had a stomach virus that she brought along from India, Brianna had the Khumba cough that started from about day 3. The poor kid coughed day and night continuously and never once complained. Katy could not make the entire trek due to altitude. She and Dan met us back down at a Tea House on the return. Dan also suffered the first few days with a stomach virus and Sarah had issues with the sun. Caitlyn had an ongoing cold but the winner was Elvar. We were playing cards one night and he shifted the wrong way dislocating his shoulder. Yes, you read that right. He had to walk to Nemche with Shankar during the only raining night on the trail to get to a medical clinic. Through it all there was a bit of normal complaining but nobody was going to be denied the summit. What a crew we were!

In Dughla we came across the memorials to fallen Everest Trekkers. Included were Scott Fisher and Rob Hall from the ill fated 1996 expedition. This was brought to our attention by the book Into Thin Air by John Krakauer. It was humbling to wander the memorial to trekkers who had died and are still on Everest. Another book written by Anatoli Bourakeev, The Climb, was his personal account of the 1996 tragedy. His account contradicts quite a bit of Krakauers book who slammed Bourakeev. Sadly Bourakeev died in an avalanche while climbing Annapurna just before his book tour was to begin. I found a memorial to him and other Kazaks who had died on Everest. He does not get the recognition outside of climbing circles but he was a mountaineering rock star.

Food was never an issue. There was a general menu at each tea house. Rice and noodle dishes, pastas, potatoes and lots of it. The go to meal was Dhal Bat which consisted of rice, potatoes, some type of greens and a tomato chutney along with a bowl of garlic soup. This was good the first few times because it was unlimited but after a while looking at it make me sick. It was the go to meal for all porters and guides. Plates were piled high and Caitlyn and I finally started sharing meals and we were both stuffed. Breakfast was eggs, toast, porridge with fruit or pancakes. I survived on black coffee and whatever Caitlyn could not finish. Go to snacks were the usual. Pringles, Mars, Snickers, Oreos, or gummies. At one time Joe brought out the American Beef was madness.

Each day if you did not drink at the very least 4 litres of water you could find yourself becoming dehydrated. The end game was always "clear pee" no matter how often you had to go to the washroom. Caitlyn was the "pee on the trail" gold medal winner. Water was available at all stops along the trail thanks to the hard working yaks. I chose to use chlorine pills with tap water and it was fine. Anna had a UV light that she swirled in the tap water for 2 minutes and it killed the bacteria. There was the option to have your water boiled for a price and a few people did that mostly to take to bed to keep warm, but it was drinkable in the morning. You could forgo any of these options and drink the water directly as the locals do. Doing so would be taking your life for granted and there was a 95% chance you would need to be evacuated by helicopter. Nepal has some of the highest water bacteria issues in the world, even on the trail and unlike the locals our bodies are not prepared for it.

Eight days climbing and acclimatizing took its toll without any of us realizing. The physical aspect was manageable. Each of use climbed according to our abilities. Looking back, we did not even realize how mentally exhausting this was becoming. We rose and trekked all day constantly being challenged by the weather, the terrain and the surroundings. There were emotional breakdowns along the trail but they were short lasting and the person who was struggling regrouped and kept going.

My personal relief came in the form of solitude. The crew trekked in two distinct groups. I was with the front group, lead by Lopsang, who were a bit quicker on the trail. If I need some space I would fall back knowing the other group, a bit slower, were about 200 metres behind. I could hike by myself for any length of time just taking it all in and loving it, even during the most difficult stretches. Most of us fell into this pattern from time to time. Other times you could walk with a partner for an hour and nobody had to say anything, both of you knowing exactly what the other was thinking. Immediate trail bonding.

All the hard work paid off when we arrived at Gorashep. The last leg to the Base Camp Summit. It was there that the real raw emotions of this trek showed themselves in all their unabashed glory.

** I want to thank both Joe and Marie for some of the pictures used in this post.**