Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Leaving for Island Peak!

Wednesday March 28 We just said goodbye to Laura, Renee, Jane, and Sasha... And Naga, our Buddhist monk/ guide. It is so sad to see them walk away- they are heading downhill, and we are heading back up hill-although after a relatively warm night, we aren't looking forward to more cold nights. We will be off-grid for the next few days, so check out Linden's blog for his sat phone call posts. Love to you all and wish us the best karma!!! Xoxoxo

Pheriche, again!

Tuesday, March 27

 Corell and I rocked our borrowed down suits this morning at breakfast- we woke up so cold, despite the, theoretically, warmer night. We were also very pleased with ourselves because we only broke free of the tent once each during the snowy night. The path to the toilet tents is a bit precarious, and I was worried that in my exhausted stupor, I would somehow slip off one of the rocking rocks. Corell is still winning in the sleep department, not sure why.

 Today was a long day...we said goodbye to Jeff, although we Island Peakers hope to see him on trail in a few days...still, I hate to say goodbye! We have loved having him with us... We left EBC all bundled up, freezing, and then had to navigate the "minefields" of glacial moraine. Still think we are lucky that no one has injured themselves-- but I must admit that in the past couple of weeks, we have each drastically improved in the "mountain goat" department. My vote for Best Trooper? Renee. With recently injured ankles, she has such courage to brave the incredibly uneven terrain every day. And today, as I said, was long. We dropped about 3300 ft over the course of ?11 miles and about 7-8 hours of walking- most of it on treacherous ankle-snapping terrain. We walked down past Gorak Shep, this time covered in snow, and then on to Lobuche for lunch. After lunch we walked past the memorial grounds at the top of the Thukla pass, and headed down the other side. The clouds came in, alternately covering us and then breaking. By the time we reached the valley where Pheriche is located, the landscape was eerie. Rocks and fog, and a few stone-walled compounds. Our tea house was a most welcome site.

 Corell and I are thrilled to have, in comparison to our last visit, a room with light-colored walls. No doom and gloom- what a difference!!! We bolted to the showers since we will be un-showered for the next 5 days as we tackle Island Peak. After another delicious dinner of Dal Bhat, Corell hit the bag a bit earlier than usual while I am staying up trying to figure out why sending these posts is so problematic. 14,000ft or simply idiocy? I will try again in the am...before we leave for Chukkung... and before we say goodbye to the rest of our teammates who are walking down to Namche Bazaar tomorrow and then onto Lukla on Thursday.

 On a fun note, we met up with Mark Tucker, RMI guide and Base Camp Manager again this year. Mark was one of the senior guides on the expedition skills seminar I took on Rainier in '09- so it is fun to see him here. In addition to no showers for our Island Peak adventure, my understanding is that there will be no Internet or cell connectivity as well. I will post blogs, I hope, once we re-enter civilization. Linden will be calling in on the sat phone, so check out RMI's blog for news while we are off-grid. For the record, I am nervous about this climb--- being cold and tired and weak. Jeff and Linden have made a great effort to help me be at my best- including limiting my carrying my own pack- and you know how that gets me! So, I am working on my "PMA"- positive mental attitude and hope that this time, I will have a successful summit. If not, I will have another story to tell! It's late, and I need to get to sleep... Hope all is well back home--- and thanks for the blog comments- we love them!!!! Xoxo


Friday, 23 March
Well, after eight days on the trail, little things mean a lot. When we walked into our tea house in the windswept small village of Lobuche, we were all excited by our rooms. Light walls, sky-lights, carved and painted doors, wallhangings, and carpeted hallways all made us feel like the queens we are. Renee and Jane, however, had the ultimate throne room- complete with a Khumbu walk -in closet. And yes, they did hold audience, as only they can.

The rooms were so warm that we had a difficult time ignoring our yearnings to enjoy the sunlight and crash on our beds. Instead, we decided to follow Jeff and Linden's advice- to get out and walk around. At first, we told our chief Mother Earth Goddess, Renee, that we were going to town to check out the museum...and we "got" her! We felt pretty good about fooling her for that brief nanosecond until we realized that WE were the walking museum relics...sad, but true.

We went out to explore this tiny village, and it was a challenge to choose between the barren landscape and the barren landscape for our "photo shoot" backdrop. There is lots of laughter with this group- with Renee, Sasha, and Laura making comments that often bring me to my knees. My "standard" is "going to ground," but it is so dirty here that I try to avoid dropping that far when I lose strength from laughter. That said, I came close to the ground yesterday as the girls chose to do a squat pose for the shoot. (If I can ever get a strong enough signal to post photos- that one would make the blog!) As it is, after a week on the trail, we are the most awesome squatters around.

We laugh at ourselves because we cannot make it til 8:30 each night. Renee swears that we've yet to debase ourselves by "early-birding" because we dine nightly at...6. (Phew, so glad we dodged THAT label!) Each day, we begin with the shakedown of how we've slept, and each evening we end with our individual talks with Linden- when he measures our heart rates and oxygen saturations, and reviews our daily symptoms and med choices.

Today we hiked from Pheriche to Lobuche, and the landscape became rockier and all traces of green disappeared. We started out on a low grade incline- walking up along, and in, the alluvial fan of the Khumbu glacier. The middle part of our trek involved a steeper climb, and I was instructed by Jeff to "lose the pack" once my heart rate reached 135 bpm. I had been doing well before that, but once he said that, I went into what I call "vklempt" mode- when my heart rate speeds up and my throat constricts. So lose the pack I did- but I hated doing so. I don't like not carrying my own weight, but in addition to saving my energy for the Island Peak climb ahead, it allows me to better keep with the team- and minimize "accordioning" the line. Still, it pisses me off.

The neat part of the hike today was reaching the top of the Thukla pass. We climbed for about an hour after our tea break, and then crested out at a large chorten. On the far side of the chorten, I was surprised to see a football-sized field of chorten memorials for climbers who have been lost on Everest. We saw the chorten for Scott Fischer- a guide who died in the disastrous Everest season of 1996. The spot was moving, and Linden commented on just how sobering it was to pass through there last year on his way to his own summit of Everest.

The rest of the hike was up and over rock- sometimes a bit of a scramble, but mostly ankle-snapping territory. This world is desolate- that is, if you ignore all the yak trains and herders and Trekkers. We are fortunate to be walking early in the season--- less noise in the tea houses and less dust on the trail.

As far as those little things? Happiness is: sunlit rooms, hot lemon tea, hot water bottles for our sleeping bags, indoor plumbing, toilet seats, pistachios, Sherpa bread with rosemary and honey, and "warm days" ( it's all relative...).
It's "bag time"--- love to all back home!!

Sent from my iPad

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

A Day in Base Camp

We slept surprisingly well last night in our tents- the largest hurdle was getting out of our sleeping tent to walk across the rocks to the toilet tents. RMI has set up quite a mountain home here- with a lending library, movies, board games, and outdoor games. Solar-lit pathways and a communications tent make it seem very high tech. And then with Kumar the chef and his crew, dining is a highlight each day. For the first time in 10 days, I didn't have boiled eggs for breakfast!

It was great to have the morning to lounge a bit, but then Lucy, Corell and I went it on the glacier with Linden and Phura for some ice climbing training. While I had had some practice with fixed -line travel in an expedition skills course on Rainier a few years ago, Lucy and Corell hadn't. Linden set up a course with a few sections so that we could practice ascending, traversing and rappelling. I really enjoyed the ice climbing, but I am worried about the 500-800 ft head wall that we'll need to tackle on the way to the summit of Island Peak. It's not the Lhotse face on Everest, but it's a helluva lot of wall for me. Hopefully my knees won't give out mid-way. Our arrival in Everest Base Camp marked a transition for us- most of the group will be heading down and out tomorrow, but Lucy, Corell and I are gearing up for this climb. We are still hoping for those down suits, but alas, I think they will stay at EBC.

After a wonderful lunch, Corell and I did our devotionals, and we are struck once again about some of the similarities between Buddhism and Christianity. The concepts of dying to self, of compassion, and of oneness resonate. After our brief discussion, I again spent some time trying to get out these posts but the coverage was very spotty and my luck has been poor. Instead, we headed out to the horseshoe pit that Jeff created, and proceeded to play as we watched the snow cloudscape drift ever closer. Thank God for those downsuits, because weather became almost immaterial. As Sasha says, "They are the bomb!". And so we played snowshoes...and the game is very different on ice because the shoes slide and bounce. It was great fun, and I know we all looked fantastic in our suits! For the record, Sasha and Laura are the ringers, but Laura is now the Khumbu champion!

I felt better today, so I was better able to appreciate the food that Kumar prepared- fried cauliflower, pasta, meat pie--- and for dessert a chocolate cake! It's amazing that he can pull all of this off- with the aid of an oven, a pressure cooker and huge stove- all at 17,000 feet. Impressive. Muscles evaporate at high altitude, so food is an ultra -important part of each day. It is obvious that they take great pride in their work, as each course is served with a slight bow, and a shy smile.

Its been a tiring day, even though we actually didn't do too much. At this altitude, walking to the toilet tents wipes me out, and tugging on my snow boots leaves me gasping for breath. The snow has been falling since late afternoon, obscuring the landscape and our earlier footprints. Linden and Jeff tell us that it should be warmer tonight because of the heat trapped by the cloud cover- so here's hoping I won't need to sleep in the down suit!

Love to all!!

Sent from my iPad

Monday, March 26, 2012


Excited to leave our fine digs in Gorak Shep, as soon as the sun hit, we hit the trail. I've been feeling a bit iffy the past couple of days- my gut in an uproar- so while I was eager to depart Gorak Shep, I wasn't eager to leave even gross rudimentary toilet facilities behind. But...onward. Jeff sprinted ahead because, well, he can- and he wanted to make sure base camp was set up for us. Our hike today was over similar rocky terrain, where concentration was critical to avoid injury. Our trail was flanked by huge mounds of dirt and rock on both sides- evidence of the immense power of the glacier- one huge construction site courtesy of God's bull-dozer. It really is impressive. Since we had had intermittent luck with cell service in GS, we made several breaks along the trail dictated by the pings of incoming texts. (I still have difficulty sending out my blog updates, so there may be a blog flurry when we return to Pheriche in a couple of days.)
I am still monitoring my pulse, and if it reaches 135, I have been dutifully following Jeff's advice and reluctantly yielding my pack. Today was no different- I carried it for half the trek, but gave it up at the crest of a hill when I maxed my pulse. (I think it has become obvious that I need to visit a pulmonologist/ exercise physiologist when I return.) It has been an interesting study-just not one in my favor.
After a couple of hours, we climbed down off the lateral moraines and onto the glacier itself. Here we were surrounded by the meringue of icy pinnacles formed by ice melt and the heave of glacier moving downhill, the surface ice pools (also formed by ice melt), the ice fall itself, and those mountains!! Surreal and other-worldly, we picked our steps carefully, inching ever closer to Everest Base Camp.

It seems that the Nepalese government issued a new restriction last week on trekkers spending the night in base camp. The outfitters reacted negatively, of course, and the restriction was stayed for this season. But we may be the last season of trekkers spending the night at EBC. Glad we came now.

We made it to "base camp rock"- an arbitrary rock on the glacier where trekking groups often turn- and we took a break. This time, Linden found a string of buried prayer flags, and Phura helped Corell and me string them up in memory of Tara. It is important to not step on these flags, even though they are often underfoot, and really bad karma to step over, rather than under, the streams. Made it kind of tricky for us on the summit of Kala Pattar...

Jaya, one of the base camp cooks, greeted us about half way on our final slog into base camp with warm mango juice. Talk about a treat and a warm greeting! When we finally pulled into RMI's site, the farthest one it seemed, we were further welcomed. The sun was warm, and we took advantage of a bit of down time to bask in its warmth until lunch was served- and lunch was delicious! A far,far cry from the ubiquitous tea house fare. Salad of fresh carrots and cucumbers, stuffed pastry, and I can't remember what else ( remember the three A's? Alzheimer's, age or altitude? Actually, there is a fourth "A", but alcohol is, for us at least, a non- issue at this altitude!).
After lunch, we settled into our tents- which Corell and I appreciated all the more after some of our tea house stays. That is, in good weather, of course- and we have been blessed with warm sunny mornings and afternoons, when the clouds roll in, where we've been relatively tucked away inside. Corell, Lucy and I- the three heading to Island Peak, had a short training session with Linden- going over equipment. Hard to believe that we'll be tackling another mountain in 4-5 days! And I am just a wee bit intimidated because Corell and Lucy are so much faster than I am, and if they slow down to my granny pace, Lucy will freeze. Guess we will have to see how that all plays out...

Before dinner, and while I was futzing with this iPad trying to catch the evanescent cell signal, I was called down to the dining tent. Linden and Jeff, in their great wisdom and, I think, love for this team of ours, presented us with the best gift of all- down suits! We are all so thrilled with them, regardless of the blimp look. We have had great fun trying to work the "trap doors" and managing the bulk. A few of us swore we'd sleep in them. It is amazing, but the cold hardly penetrates these babies! Corell, Lucy, and I hope we can borrow them for Island Peak- but we haven't heard the word on that yet.
Unfortunately, my gut has been on the warpath all afternoon - yet I am not sure what it is- so I've been popping every GI pill I have. Just praying to make it through the night without having to visit the "blue tent" too often so that I can get some sleep.
Lala Salama! (Oops, that's Swahili for "sleep well"--)
So, in Nepali- Ramro sanga sutnos!
Love to all!!!
Sent from my iPad

Gorak Shep

Saturday, March 24
We had a short trekking day today- from Lobuche to lovely Gorak Shep. Motivated by the cell tower in the village, we were all looking forward to communicating with our families. The timing has been difficult- 6-7 AM here works with ~ 8 PM back home, but mornings are hurried with the gear shove and breakfast. In the evening, there is another window, but that corresponds to getting-ready-for-school time back home.
The trail was rocky today, as we continued up the lateral moraine of the Khumbu glacier. We stopped several times for yak trains, often in the worst possible spots on the trail. We'd scramble uphill, and attempt to get out of the way, but we don't have much yak trust these days. Lucy, however, has found a new role to add to her many talents- she is our " yak whisperer". When the yaks go by, she gives them encouraging words, admiring their head gear and earrings, and is generally most supportive. She is also the one to be found petting any dogs on the trail- some of whom have been darn cute.
The tea house where we are staying in Gorak Shep is dark and dingy. As Jeff says, "You can't use enough hand sanitizer in Gorak Shep.". And that is how it felt. As soon as we dropped our bags in our plywood-surround rooms, we went for our acclimatization hike up nearby Kala Pattar (18,200 ft). As many times as I've read about Kala Pattar, I was surprised about what I saw- a huge pile of dirt and rock rising a couple of thousand feet above the "Gorak Shep desert" behind the village. Apparently the name " Kala Pattar" means something like "large black rock."
The climb was steep initially, but we were rewarded with views of the Upper Khumbu valley and Everest. I can't believe we are finally here!!!
After our break at the " bench", we climbed further to the summit- and the last several hundred feet were complicated a bit by,you guessed it with this crew, some high winds- with gusts up to 35-40 mph. Considering we were often climbing from perch to perch, it made for some solid footwork and balance. ( Which brings me to my shoes: a couple of months ago, as Corell and I, or Sasha and I, we hiking the Priest trail (on the Appalachian trail), we noticed how we often felt unstable going downhill in our traditional hiking boots. For me, it often felt as though I couldn't feel the trail, and when I'd try to balance on a rock, the stiffer ankles on the boots would often kick me over. So, we migrated to hiking shoes and trail shoes- and what a difference! I can actually feel the trail beneath my feet, and my balance is worlds better because these shoes allow me to self-correct any mis-step. And so, on Kalar Pattar, and on the rocky rocky trail to Everest Base camp, they have been a god- send.)
Back on Kala Pattar, we scrambled to the summit in those winds, and then, as often happens to me on peaks, tried to find a little niche somewhat protected from the winds. The views were tremendous- base camp, up the icefall, and Everest. Still boggles my mind that Linden stood on top last spring! It was a gorgeous day, and our views even carried us into Tibet. Pretty wild to be here.
After the climb, we headed back down the mountain in time to place our "safe" orders for dinner. I wandered around to an internet cafe to type a blog entry, but after an hour or so of typing, that wonderful gift of a cell-tower went down, and my entry was lost- so I've had to retype.
So, for now, hope all is well back home. We love and miss you!
Sent from my iPad

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Rest day in Pheriche

Today was a  rest day...again, a day free from packing exploded bags!  This rest day also began with a bit more rest, as breakfast was delayed a bit.  I had a fitful night sleep- had a difficult time breathing and even felt as if  the sleeping bag was a bit restrictive.  This new altitude of over 14K feet can play havoc with my physiology.

We took a day hike up the hill behind the HRA clinic, and when we reached our break, we had an awesome view up the Imja Khola valley to Island Peak- the objective for Lucy, Corell, and me...but all in due time.  We will think more about that later.  Island Peak, or Imja Tse, looks so...tiny compared to the surrounding peaks.  The views from the top must be astounding- and I hope I get the chance to share my reflections on that experience.

Kathryn joined our "heart rate study" today...she's the third subject, well, fourth, including me.  Her heart rate, after a steep bit of hill, was 99.  Mine? An unfortunate 133.  And so the story goes... My calves did feel a bit of burn today on the second part of the hike.  We went up to over 15K, and the views were again, amazing.  I don't know if I could get tired of these "hills" and my new "mantra song" may be
"Sound of Music"- 

"The hills are alive, with the sound of music
With songs they have sung for a thousand years
the hills fill my heart with the sound of music
My heart wants to sing every song it hears.
I go to the hills when my heart is lonely
I know I will hear what I've heard before
My heart will be blessed with the sound of music
And I'll sing once more."

And so, I've been singing that one quite frequently.  That is, when I'm allowed to, and not being told  to focus on my breathing!  At any rate, we had to come down from our high point, and we were grateful that this wasn't the Khumbu highway up the valley because we didn't have to dodge any yak trains.

We made it back for lunch, and, like so many days, our major decision was what to select for lunch.  We put our orders in an hour or so ahead of time, so that we can sit down and eat without waiting.  The Himalaya hotel is known for its good food- at least, we've been hearing about it for days from Jeff and Linden.  So we tried our first Dal Bhat last night- lentils, vegetables, curry sauce and rice.  And it was delicious!  We all took hot showers...probably our last hot showers until we return to Pheriche after Everest Base Camp.  There may be some glacial showers up ahead on the trail, but I think we'll choose to pass.  As it is, last night's showers were the first the hotel had been able to offer this season because the water has been frozen.  Same for laundry.  But they love us, because we are spending a ton on laundry, showers, internet, and water.  And I didn't bring enough rupees with me up valley- I think that this hotel stay will find me paying with US Dollars. Oh well.

We went over to the HRA for an altitude lecture,and it was fun to chat with one of the docs there about her experience- as it is also one I've contemplated doing...someday.  She'll be doing the Diploma in Mountain Medicine program as well, so I'll see her this summer in Whistler. How cool is that?

Every day we're thankful for being in good shape- for not being too sick.  Linden actually told us last night that we are the healthiest group he's had at Pheriche.  Guess we women take our preventive meds seriously.
That's not to say that Jeff and Linden don't have their hands full with all of us.  They keep coaching us to have "PMA"- positive mental attitude, and to not have "UMS"- ugly mood swings (and yes, I asked Jeff if they say that to men as well...and they do!), and to not have a "TTSS" - to the sh** show fallout.  Rest days can be difficult because it feels like we're not progressing further, yet we are, as Jeff says, "setting ourselves up for success later on" by becoming better acclimatized.  Even though we can appreciate that, it is still difficult to be far away from home for so long.  So morale is important.  Luckily for this crew, there are lots of laughter and lots of hugs.  And today, as a treat for us and for Lucy's son Christopher's 12th birthday, Lucy put together a Skype call- and we all sang to him!  They didn't hear us, but they saw our lips moving!

For now, we are about to dine...they are setting our places and lighting our candles.  We have flowers, and, our own personal "eye candy"- Jeff and Linden.  Eat your hearts out! Our nightly entertainment consists of  reading Linden's blogs, looking at the posted photos, and reading the comments. Our favorite one last night was Christian Halsey's "Remember that the world is flat"!  Cracked us up! They are our huge morale booster, so post away!  After that, it's hot water bottles for the frigid rooms, and stuffing our bags in preparation for our trek to Lobuche tomorrow.  I think it's gonna be a tough day, so I'll be spending more time with my new friend Phura, and he'll teach me something new.
So for now..."Pheri betola"- See you later!
Love to all back home...miss you!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Warm in Pheriche

I am now toasty warm, sitting next to a wood stove in the dining room of the Himalaya Hotel in Pheriche.  We are across the street from the Himalayan Rescue Association clinic, which we will visit tomorrow- and where I will drop off some airway supplies that the porters have toted thus far.

Right now, we are showered and warm- and looking forward to another "rest" day tomorrow.  At 13,800 ft, most of us are feeling some altitude- from headaches to breathing to sleep.  For some reason, we are still eating well- but the food has been much better than expected.  Noodle dishes and Rara soup (ramen), boiled vegetables, other soups, fried potatoes...carb loading is not a problem.  I've actually been eating boiled eggs each morning- a new concept for me-and even tried them for dinner.  Now that was not a good idea!  There was a different cook for dinner last night, and the eggs were so soft-boiled that my stomach rolled.  One of my goals here in the mountains is to avoid the "BR"s (bowel rumbles) for as long as possible.  I came close last night.  Breakfast has been great- porridge, omelets, french toast, apple pancakes.  Really much better than I'd hoped.

I had a bit more sleep last night- a couple of hours due to Ambien, but some actually on my own- and my brain seems to be functioning a bit better. (I did not, however, have the sleep of Renee- who spent quality time with George Clooney.) There has been so much to say here, but usually I'm so tired that I forget half of what I'd intended to mention.  Whether it's age, altitude, or Alzheimer's.. I've left some gaps:

1) The "Kathryn"- dropping any item into the squat toilets...for Kathryn, it was her sunglasses on the second day on the trail. Ew.

2) One of the rules of the trail:  No photos below the knee- for we are sporting too much "euro-trou" ( rolled up pant legs and pushed down thick socks.  Real sexy.)

3) Renee : "Life is about suffering"

4)  Another ROTT (rule of the trail):  Stay left.  As we pass chortens and mani walls, some of which are fairly subtle, stay left for good Karma.  Luckily for me, since I'm usually in the back of the team, Naga and Phura are helpful in keeping on the right (or left, in this case!) path.

5)  Cialis:  For me, a great thing. I've been able to breathe deeply and sigh and yawn without difficulty.  Unlike when I was in Ecuador- and that's a wonderful thing.

6) Electrical Showers:  In our tea house in Deboche (the previous two nights), the shower has an electrical box within the spray range of the shower. Good thing the box has a sign on it which reads, "Do Not Touch"!

7) Beware the Yak:  Linden was gored by a yak yesterday (minor abrasion), my German friend was rock-struck, and I had a near miss today as a yak took a sharp right turn toward me and missed me by a few inches- thanks to quick-thinking Uberoj who hit him with a stick to divert him. 

 I'm sure there are more... but for later...

These tea houses vary in their accommodations.  The Himalaya Hotel, where we currently are, has laundry service, hot showers (although in a questionable room), satellite tv, and wifi (although slow). Walls, however, are plywood thin.  So thin that last night, I called John from the room while Corell was sleeping, only to realize, after she tossed and turned a bit, that the snoring was coming through the wall on the other side of her! Ah, but life is good.

We had a great hike today- out of Deboche and up and down  toward Pangboche.  I tried to keep my heart rate below 140, and Renee joined the "heart rate study" and wore a monitor as well.  When she was 105, I was 130; when she was ~125 on hills, I was 145-150.  More data that shows how messed up I am!  At least I can now use the data and walk/climb at a pace where my heart rate stays below 145- or at least I can continue to do so.

We ended the morning in Pangboche, at the home of Lama Geshe- one of the two High Lamas in the Khumbu valley.  He has been in Pangboche for 42 years, 9 years before that at Tengboche, and has been a monk for much longer.  He is the one with whom all climbers visit and from whom all climbers ask for a blessing as they climb on Everest.  We wrapped our "donation" in scarves, and then lined up before Lama Geshe in his home.  He prayed over each of us, unwrapping the scarves, dropping the money beside him, then placing scarves around our necks.  He then continued praying for us and tied a red cord around our necks, and then pulled us toward him so that our foreheads touched.  He was a lovely man, laughing so freely and easily that we smiled along with him. His wife served us mint tea, and he held a long conversation with one of our Sherpa guides, Naga, who is a monk and spent 9 years at a monastery in India- a monastery of the same sect of Tibetan Buddhism as Lama Geshe.  Lama also gave Linden a signed card - as a reminder of his Everest summit last year?- and then he performed a blessing service over Yubaraj and Phura.  He gave them talismans, and blessed their backs, hearts, and legs.  Then he picked up a nearby urn with a peacock spout and a tail feather top, and sprinkled them with ?water?oil? They also received cards for the summit ( as a way to thank the mountain god), and then he sprinkled them, and all of us, with white rice.  All with incense burning at his feet.  Lots of similarity to Catholic ritual!  The ritual obviously meant a great deal to all three of our guides, and it was special to witness.

After Lama's house, we hiked for another couple of hours, then had a snack at a teahouse on the top of a ridge where two young children delighted us.  The trail followed the cliff wall, and at times I made certain to stay as far left as possible to avoid any possibility of an errant fall down the cliff! After a push up the last hill, we rounded a bend, and fought the wind down the ridge into the village of Pheriche.  We arrived around 3- and immediately headed up to the brand new sunroom at the hotel, and basked in the warmth while we waited for some food to be brought up.  That sunroom is wonderful- we are looking forward to a little time there tomorrow afternoon!

Our lenten meditation today was apt -especially for me as I struggle with so many things-but it rang so true for Corell and me:

"Surrender is for the mature.  That is less true of us during the first half of our lives, for we are still building, but it becomes the deepest truth of the second half of life.  After 40, understood religiously, life is not about claiming worthiness, or about building things, especially our own egos, but about getting in touch with helplessness.

Age brings us physically to our knees and more and more everything we have so painstakingly built up begins to mean less and less. That is the order of things.  Salvation is not about great achievements, but about a great embrace.  All we have to do is surrender."- Ronald Rolheiser

I'll close with a prayer from Lama Geshe:

"A request to all sentient beings on this planet...

Give up all intentions to harm others from your heart
And do your best to benefit them all.
If each and everyone feels the universal responsibility to do so,
We will all enjoy the feast of peace!"

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The "Angel" of Ama Dablam

Tuesday, 20 March

After a great meal last night, I spent a few hours crawling through the phone lines trying to upload photos...and not yet with much success.  It is amazing how much patience this retro-communication requires- I am so used to the speed of the internet.

Today was a "true" rest day...we ate breakfast at 7, but then didn't set out for the day until 9 AM.  We went a bit further down the trail into the village of Deboche to visit a Buddhist nunnery (gompa).  Behind the front door there is a central courtyard flanked to the left by a large prayer wheel, to the back by the sanctuary, and to the right by the kitchens.  I walked around the prayer wheel, then joined the others as we took off our shoes in order to enter the sanctuary.  Brightly colored paintings of Buddhist gods and goddesses covered the walls, and embroidered silk/satin panels hung from the ceiling.  There were rows of prayer pots and padded benches on which to pray.  In the corner was a small altar, with several icons within glass cages. The ornate room is rather a surprise in comparison to the rustic village- a hidden jewel.  In the kitchen a couple of nuns were cooking and churning butter, and,  thanks to Phura and his trail lessons in  Sherpa/Nepali, I was able to ask them for a photo.

After the nunnery, we retraced our steps back up past the teahouse in which we spent the night, and then ascended back up the hill to the Tengboche monastery.  I ended up being first in line up the hill, I think as a sort of trial to see if there was any way I could stay with the team. I went as fast as I could, and tried to keep my heart rate around 145 bpm.  After about twenty-six minutes, we reached the top of the hill, and the Tengboche monastery.  And what a view! Mountains in all directions...  We continued up the ridge past the monastery to gain a wee bit more altitude than we'd been, all in preparation for our hike to Pheriche tomorrow.  (For me, it was just a joy to leave the bags "blown out" (as Linden says) and to not have to worry about squeezing everything in.)  Sun-lovers all, we hung out at the chorten on the ridge, basking in the mountain sun.  After a while, we headed back down to the monastery, and took up residence at the Tengboche bakery.  Our plan was to hang out there until the afternoon prayers at 3pm.  We ate and read and chatted and...shopped... as an adjacent building housed the small but aptly named "This Is My Shop!"
We have definitely raised the GNP in the Khumbu valley.

It's nice to be needed, and today, I was able to help a 75 yo German trekker with a small head wound.  Seems that while he was on the trail, an errant rock (thrown by a yak-herder- presumably at a yak) found its mark on the back of his skull. Fortunately, my new friend "Friedreich" was wearing a hat, and that saved him a nastier wound.  So, using RMI's medical kit, I tended to his wound.  He was very sweet, even after the orange dye job I gave him with the betadine!  After going through some routine wound care advice, and cautioning him against gaining elevation for a day or two just in case he had subclinical brain trauma, he thanked me profusely and very elegantly. We took photos outside with the mountains beyond, and he called me his "Angel of Ama Dablam." Love that!  He even stopped by the bakery a while later to thank me again.
Like I said, it's a blessing to be able to help someone.

We waited a couple more hours for the monastery prayer time- and we were pretty chilled by then as  the crowds had rolled in. Some other trekking groups stopped to chat with us, sharing their horror stories of the upper Khumbu weather.  One Irish trekker told us, as if he hadn't previously known, that " Everest Base Camp is on a glacier, so it's cold, eh?..."  Probably a rather large understatement-appropriate for an Irishman.We waited in the courtyard until we heard the blowing of the horn (signalling the commencement of prayers) and then, after removing our shoes, we entered the sanctuary.  Considering the number of trekkers passing through, I am surprised that the funky-feet-cloud wasn't more potent.  But it was still bad.  The interior of the sanctuary held a ~20 ft high statue of Buddha on an altar-and perhaps ten long benches piled with blankets on which the monks sit and pray. We sat along the perimeter of the room as the prayers began.  What amazed me was how the monks all seemed to be chanting different prayers, yet they ended precisely on time- like a jazz band.  It was funny to watch Linden's face as the three (!) monks who were praying got up and left after only about 15 minutes.  Linden and Jeff had told us that prayers often last for hours...but not today! Turns out the Lama from Tengboche is down in Namche Bazaar doing a puja ceremony, and the monks are all on vacation.  Apparently, so are the nuns from the nunnery we visited this am. ( I do not know if they vacation together!)

Returning to the tea house, Corell and I surveyed our room explosion, and decided to pack it all up...later.
This tea house houses the sleeping rooms on the lower floor, and the kitchen and "dinning room" on the upper level.  Last night the dinning room was warmed by the central wood stove, but today, not so much.  My fingers have clamped down as I type this.  Physically, some of us are starting to feel the altitude with slight headaches, and some of us are beginning to have a bit of GI upset.  So far, all mild, so that is great news.  I've been enjoying the benefits of it helps open up my pulmonary vasculature so that I can breathe better. Tomorrow, we head to 14,000 feet, so keep your fingers crossed for all of us!
Love to all back home, and, now,
Ramro Sanga Sutnos!

Monday, March 19, 2012


Monday, March 19

During an all-too-brief phone call with John this morning, I learned that my dear friend Tara has died. She had been battling stage 4 breast cancer for 5 1/2 years, and she left behind her 4 girls and her husband Kevin. Although I knew that she was fading these past few weeks, her death has still hit me hard.  I wish I could be back home to give her daughters and Kevin hugs, and to share with them some of the stories I have of Tara.  Corell knew her as well, and we said a brief prayer outside in the cold, while others prepared to depart Namche.

It was a difficult morning for me, thinking of Tara, trying to breathe, trying to keep a pace.  Fortunately, the day was beyond gorgeous, and the morning hike was along a trail high above the river.  It was a busy day, and we must have hit Khumbu rush hour, because we were often clinging to the upside of the trail as the dzopkyos and yaks lumbered by.  I asked Phura about all the village names ending in "-buche", and he informed me that the ending "-che"' means "footprint", so therefore all the villages ending with "-che" are places where Lama Sangwa Dorje traveled. What an amazing place this is! All morning long we had views up the Khumbu valley, and they were spectacular.  Walking along these trails with Everest, Lhotse, and Ama Dablam (among others) guiding our way was magical.  I often stopped and looked back- something I don't do a lot of on the trail, and I think I need to.  I'd walk for a while, cameras at the ready, snapping away, and then turn around and my soul would soar. It is just so phenomenally beautiful here. And there has to be a better word, but I can't seem to think of one.  We began our day with a glorious, majestic peacock on the side of the road, and peacocks are, aptly, the national bird of Nepal.  Majestic bird, majestic land.  And glorious. And spectacular. We passed through more pine forests, and the shade within was most welcome as the heat of the day was also impressive.  As we passed by a tree nursery, Linden explained that there is a significant problem with deforestation here in the Khumbu as the population has increased.  Juniper is an integral part of the puja ceremonies and because of its importance, it has been raked from the countryside.

After a delicious lunch down by the river- egg and vegetable fried noodles for me!- we began our ascent up the mountain to the Tengboche monastery.  It was an arduous hike- a gazillion switchbacks- and reaching the top was a blessing.  The Tengboche monastery is the largest monastery in Nepal, but not the oldest.  There is an beautifully colored ornate entrance gate to the monastery, but we didn't enter. That'd be tomorrow's treat- afternoon prayers.  We did stop for a break at the bakery- where we enjoyed the apple pie.  (Mine is still better!)

I ended the hike with Renee- both of us singing "Amazing Grace" as we walked into Deboche. A hot shower, a hot meal, the internet, and now, hopefully again, "Ramro sanga sutnos"!

(Photos to follow...)

"Rest" day...

Sunday, 18 March

Well, so much for Ambien land...Corell and I both took pills last night, but our sleep was minimal.  The interesting part is that we were not that beat during the day.  I've had such little sleep that the past couple of days have been trying.  On re-reading my post from yesterday, I realized how exhausted and down I was. Perhaps sleep, or rather, no sleep, had something to do with my mind set. (I actually had to amend the blog because in my stupor I'd forgotten to add a poem that John had emailed.)  Corell and I are so frustrated that we have each contemplated taking from the other's Ambien stash- thinking that our own must have been a bad batch! And so, we are having a "competition" to see who gets the most sleep...and there are many "nanny nanny boo boo"s flying in the mornings.  I think Corell is winning...

We have also been reading daily devotionals, as this is Lent.  It helps to keep our minds on higher things while we challenge our bodies here on earth.  It's great to have Corell as a room/tent-mate, because while we can laugh at so many things, we also share a penchant for deeper thought, even if only for a few moments.

Upon awakening this AM, I was reminded again how much I love my sleeping bag!  As our Seal Team leader John McGuire says, "There is no such thing as bad weather- just bad gear." And I'll concur. We are so thrilled when our -40 degree bags keep us warm- and then we realize that we need them to keep us warm if the temps are down around zero...or maybe even below??? Brrrr.  Still, it's great to be warm for the moment!

Today was a "rest" day- which means that we won't move up to a higher elevation.  Instead, we took a hike out of town.  Linden has been writing a wonderful blog, filled with imagery, and I simply cannot "compete" with it, so please check it out!  (The RMI blog link is to the right...)  We climbed up out of town, and a couple of hours later we reached the Japanese-built Everest View Hotel, hidden in the trees.  It was a gorgeous day, with blue skies, warm temps, and a spectacular view of Everest, Ama Dablam, and the upper Khumbu. So, we lingered over tea on the back terrace of the hotel.  It was certainly a photo op, and Laura, with one of her frequent quick and clever comments, said, "We look like an advertisement for overpriced sportswear!"  She is another team member who keeps us laughing. 

After our lounge-in-the-sun-time, we headed back down the mountain to a nearby town of Khumjung, where we had hoped to visit the Sir Edmund Hillary School. The School was closed for exams, but some kids were still hanging around.  I had been walking with Naga and Phuru, two of our guides, and our conversation quickly turned to Buddhism. I learned that the five colors of the prayer flags have meaning. Yellow- skin, green-earth, red-blood, white-heart, blue-sky.  Naga and Phuru told me that this is also seen as the pathway to nirvana- from the external skin and earth to the internal blood and heart, to the spiritual, other-worldly sky.  They also gave me a new insight into the architecture of the chortens (or stupas, in Nepali).  The terraced plinths represent earth/mortality, the white dome- the life-giving force of water; the face- the spirit; the segmented spire- the 13 steps to Enlightenment, and the finial represents the sun and moon. There is just so much rich symbolism here.

After passing through the school, we climbed back up the mountain.  Along the way we saw a young boy of around four doing cartwheels on the side of a hill.  He was adorable, so I asked him in Nepali if I could take a photo. He said yes, so I tried to capture him. I've brought numerous pens with me to give to kids as a thank-you for photos...or just simply as gifts. I gave him one. We made it back to Namche by early afternoon, and after a quick shower, we walked down into town to grab a bite to eat.  I then went to the nearest internet cafe, and jumped on.  I am still trying to post photos, but connections have been difficult.  I will try again in the AM.

Life is "athisundar"  (beautiful) here in the Khumbu, but now I am hoping, and praying!, for "Ramro sanga sutnos"  (Good Sleep!)

(Photos to follow...)

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Namche Hill

Saturday, March 17

We awoke to the golden light of early morning glancing off the nearby mountains. Our tea house, tucked away on a bend in the Dudh Kosi River, looked even more charming in the morning light.  After a quick breakfast, we started up the trail.  Today was also touted as a difficult day, because we'd end the day with the climb up the infamous Namche Hill.

The first part of the day was a lovely walk, rolling up and down along the granite stone path, through villages and past fields. We walked on beds of pine needles, and I often felt that I could be on the east coast- until a local walked by, or the porters, toting their 100+ pounds.  I was still in the rear of the pack- a position 1) I am used to; 2) where I don't slow anyone down if I stop to take a few photos; and 3)where I can have conversations and chat with the local guides who stay with me.  I have been wearing a heart rate monitor when I work out, and I brought it to Nepal so that I could essentially track my rate.  I gave my older one to Corell to wear, and we compared.  It seems that going up hill I am 30+ beats per minute higher than her- and that is problematic.  While she's barely walking, I am at max pace.  It is pretty demoralizing and I wish I could figure out why my body reacts as it does. In addition, my pulse rate necessitates my stopping to refuel every ninety minutes or so, and that is a huge drag when no one else needs to stop.  Very frustrating.

We had entered the Sagarmatha (Everest) park and stopped at a teahouse for a break just before the Namche Hill, when lo and behold, in walks Jeff!  It is just so great to see him- and he'll spend the next several days walking with us.  After the break, we crossed another bridge or two, and then tackled the huge hill into Namche Bazaar- a town which sits high above the confluence of the Dudh Kosi and another river. Over 2 1/2 hours later, we made it into Namche- just as the afternoon clouds rolled in.This hill was a bear for me- the consensus was it was similar to the Priest trail on the Appalachian trail near Wintergreen- but the altitude of ~ 11,290 ft made quite a difference. To add to the stress of the climb, I had a episode of bronchospasm (wheezing) which required an inhaler to break.  Luckily, it did, but I noticed my fingertips were slightly cyanotic.  I've never had an episode like that- only had an attack once before, and it was much milder.  While I knew what to do, it was still a bit scary because I don't know what caused it, and I certainly don't want it to happen again because I have a mountain to climb.  It was another difficult moment for me, and that begs the question about why I climb, or attempt to, when my obvious successes are few. Whether it's to push beyond my limits to see my own frailty, to find a new strength, to become a more compassionate person as I see my own struggle in others, or to see myself as a micro-organism of love in this world God created- I just can't say.  There are so many days when I cry on the trail, pushing myself so hard and yet remaining so behind, that I, too, question my sanity.  Yet I love to explore the greater questions- the who/what/why of life, and the mountains give me the opportunity to be at my most vulnerable and therefore open, I hope, to greater insight. Not to mention appreciation for the awesomeness of God's creation.  All that said, it's just so hard to not reach my goals at least some times.

While I've said many times that I am so much more about the journey than the summit, I'd still prefer to be up with the rest of the team.  I've spent a couple of days so far a bit behind the pack- which can feel a bit lonely- but I use the opportunity to learn from the Sherpa porters about their lives and their language.  I've been learning quite a lot, I think, and I still have a couple of weeks to go!

We entered Namche in the mid-afternoon, and climbed the steep terraces of the town to the Everest Base Camp Tea House.  A hot, or for me, cold, shower, a bit of down time and then dinner. Then bed.
Tomorrow is a "rest" day...which I believe simply means a "rest" from repacking our bags in the AM to leave for another teahouse on the trail.

I spent some time at one of the internet cafe in this picturesque town, and was able to check emails.  An email from John contained this poem from a friend's site, and it came at an opportune time:

Sometimes it's better not to go fast
There are beautiful sights to be seen when you're last
Shouldn't it be that you just try your best
And that's more important than beating the rest
Shouldn't it be looking back at the end
That you judge your own race by the help that you lend

And with that,
Shuba Ratri! (Good Night!)

(Photos to Follow...)

On The Trail!

Friday, March 16

That "blessed sleep" I mentioned in the previous post?  Well, I wasn't blessed last night. Packing and repacking, and the, for me, inevitable nervousness and performance anxiety must have caused a wakeful night.  I ended up sleeping for max two hours.  Fortunately, one of the skills I've acquired in med school, residency, and early baby years is the skill of riding the sleepless tide.  There were so many nights where I had a half an hour before rounds or the next case, where I'd head to a "call room", brush my teeth, wash my face, take out contacts, and just lie down.  And it helped.  So, last night, lying in bed, breathing deeply, thinking about oh-so-many things, I still managed to rest and feel calmness- just without the mental rest. Pretty much sucked.

We awoke, or rather, arose, at 4 AM because we had to meet downstairs at 4:45 AM. I think Lucy was the only one on board for the early call- she joins John and friends at the 5:45 AM Seal Team training in Richmond- while I lounge in, electing the sanity of the 9:30 am team. The purpose of the early call was torture- might as well begin now. Actually, the goal was to be the first ones at the airport door when it opened- think Black Friday at WalMart- and to maintain place in line when all the not-so-genteel shoving began.  We had a lot of bags to move, but with our second-place start (perhaps camping out would have given us the first berth?), lots of strong arms and backs, we moved that luggage through the requisite xray machines. As we passed through security, the "stroke-downs" were a little more friendly than usual, even though by a woman. We watched as the bags were weighed for this tiny airplane, and hoped that most of our bags made it on the same flight.

We boarded the plane...a tiny craft seating 18-20, complete with stewardess. The aisle was about 18" wide, and I wondered if she'd really offer any airborne hospitality walking up and down that micro-aisle. We'd heard a lot about this flight to Lukla- it's regarded (?promoted) as the worst flight in the world.  Great.  Several of us were quite nervous, but we took off smoothly, and soon we were watching ranges of rather large hunks of rock outside our window.  It was impressive and inspiring and just so beautiful. At one point, we passed right by a mountain, and it soared so high above the plane.  As this is generally a very bumpy flight, I tried to ignore all the whitish and semi-opaque streaks which dripped down the inside of my window-and thought that a spritz or two of Windex wouldn't be a bad item to add to the pre-flight check list.  I truly didn't want to know the source of those streaks.  Not to mention they messed with my photographs.  The flight was surprisingly smooth, except for one small Tower of Terror drop. Then the plane banked into Lukla...and we saw the cliff wall.  The plane is a STOL plane (Short Take-off and Landing)- which is a good thing because we needed that short landing. The runway at Lukla is ultra- short, and ramps upward until it dead-ends (?) at the cliff wall.  Don't know who engineered the whole thing, but flying into an airport with a huge cliff at the end of a short runway required some chutzpah. The pilots dropped us quickly down, a bit Kamikaze style, for an thankfully efficient landing.  We were down. And yes, the flight attendant did navigate the aisle with cotton balls to deaden the noise, and mints. I still think Windex was in order.

While we waited for subsequent flights to bring the remainder of our bags, we ate our breakfast boxes from the Yak and Yeti in Kathmandu, wandered around Lukla purchasing some yak milk soap and other souvenirs.  (Perhaps an airbag?) Laura contemplated purchasing blue v. green earrings, and Renee, true to her witty self, decided that "This is not a trek, it's a Fashion Expedition!" Too funny. Lucy took an errant turn, and wandered around Lukla looking for home...but finally made it back to us. We ate delicious apple strudel, a Lukla tradition, at the German bakery, and met the porters for our trek.  We had all somehow believed that there were yaks on the trail, and there are, but only for loads going all the way to Everest Base Camp. The rest of the bags are carried by porters.  Not sure why there's an increased weight limit here.  Alas, it seems my career as a Yak-ess is over before it has begun. There seemed to be a bit of discussion over the heavy bags, but Linden assured me that a load is a load, and we are helping the local economy!

Mid-morning we geared up and started walking.  More than once we noticed the great void-the absence of the noise of Kathmandu. In its place were yak bells on the cow/yak hybrids called dzopkyo as they barreled by us, the laughter and playfulness of the children we saw, and the chatter of our team.    We passed small villages and numerous dzopkyo trains- which I've dubbed the "Khumbu trains." Upon seeing some of these beasts of burdens, we marveled at the strap which ran under their tails- a strap which Lucy refers to as the "thong from hell".  And that is, indeed, what it looks like. All along the footpaths that link the villages are chortens (Sherpa)/Stupa(Tibetan/Buddhist)- small white temples in similar structure, though more rustic, to the temples we saw in Kathmandu, chotra -prayer poles flying white prayer flags, and mani stones- huge carved rocks, and prayer wheels. All are covered in "Om Mani Padmi Hum," and we passed them in the traditional fashion- clockwise. Along the way, we stopped for lunch at a tea house where we were entertained as Renee modeled some of the many forms of wearing a Buff. She wrapped, unwrapped, shook her hair, and re-wrapped. She finished up with the Jackie O version.-she was quite impressive! A highlight of the trail today were the swinging bridges over the Dudh Kosi and it's tributaries.  Walking across these bridges was incredible, for the views up and down valley from the middle were gorgeous. And they did swing. I realized that the technique for walking across them, for me, was like riding a "ski bounce" at the end of the turn. Loose knees and a wider stance. We just made sure to let the Khumbu trains have the right of way.  It was a remarkable day. Everywhere were huge mountains, yet they were among the least in the Himalayas. We had begun the trek at about 9200ft in Lukla, and we descended ~500 ft along the trails to the Dudh Kosi River and Phakding for the night.

Our tea house- "Joe's"- sits on the banks of the "Milk River", and the milky blue color of the water underscores it's name.Our room opened had a view onto the river, and all rooms had an ensuite bath.  We were fortunate to grab showers in our unheated rooms before meeting for dinner.  And then, bed. This time, in sleeping bags.  Not a bad way to spend a day.

(Photos to follow...)

"A Loaf of Meat Between Two Tigers"

Thursday, March 15

This morning I awoke after only sleeping a few hours.  Our elevation is only about 4800 ft, so I doubt my wakefulness was due to altitude.  Linden held a team meeting in the morning, and he did his usual thorough and amazing job of filling us in on the trek/climb, running through gear, details, and concerns.  He also spent not a little bit of time keeping us on track.  That might be one of the cons of guiding a group of people you know...we perhaps ask more questions and interject more thoughts and concerns than an unknown clientele would.  Luckily, Linden knows how to rein us in rather diplomatically.

We then spent the rest of the morning during gear check...a process in which Linden comes to each room, where all our gear is laid out in piles, and proceeds to render advice about options as well as to occasionally nix a piece of gear.  We tend to laugh about all this, because some of us get so cold, that the idea of paring down layers gives us chills just at the thought.  That said, I did follow his advice on several items...just didn't follow all of his suggestions. On Kilimanjaro, I carried...whoops, the porters carried...two bags because I had extra photo equipment, batteries, and a small amount of medical supplies.  This time, I maxed out three bags- although one is medical. At any rate, I still don't like to be categorized as a "heavy packer"- it's somehow demoralizing on this adventure trip!

Packing selections completed, we gathered again for a Kathmandu city tour.  Our guide was Kiroj- a sociologist-in-training whose mother is Hindi and whose father is Buddhist.  He was an awesome guide as we leap-frogged the city, visiting a few religious sites.  The first site we visited was  Pashupatinath, a holy Hindu site along the banks of the Bagmati river at the edge of  the city limits.  This is a holy cremation site, and many journey long distances to cremate their deceased here.  There are perhaps 10-12 rectangular cremation ghats (pedestals) in front of the temple (Hindi access only) along the west bank of the river, which was refuse-filled and semi-stagnant.  North of the main footbridge crossing the river are the ghats reserved for the royalty, and people ritually bathe in the river in front of these ghats.  To the south of the footbridge are the ghats for the common people. There is a hospice adjacent to the temple, overlooking several of the pyres- a very real look at death for the patients within. This site was so filthy, yet so holy- such was the dichotomy of reaction I experienced.  Funeral pyres were laid on a few, and fires were burning on several, all with very little ceremony.  Much like a mortuary, families pay to have their deceased loved ones laid to rest in eternal flames- and the remains are then tossed into the Bagmati.   The concern for disease staggered me.  When the monsoons come during June- August, however, the river is "flushed" out...

Kiroj informed us about many basic tenets of the Hindi faith...the three primary gods- the Hindu "trinity"- of Brahma as the creator, Vishnu as the preserver, the builder of wealth/prosperity, and Shiva, the destroyer.  He talked of the meditation word "aum"...where "a" represents air/ether (Brahma), "u" represents water (Vishnu), and "m" represents fire (Shiva).  We walked amid many shrines and memorials- and I couldn't help but be fascinated by the lingam (icon) for Shiva which was within many chaityas (small stupas).  The base is shaped like a bordered, straightened comma, with the end of the point opening up to the air.  Centered on top is a phallic cylinder. The base represented the uterus and vagina...and the upper symbol, most obviously, the male counterpart- representing the creative powers of Shiva.  Fascinating.

After Pashupatinath, we crossed town to a Buddhist pilgrimage site- the Boudhanath temple. Huge and white, the monument/temple consists of a huge white dome on a terraced base, surmounted by a capped spire.    The earliest stupas were domed mounds which were built to contain relics of Buddha.  These evolved into more complex structures with rich Buddhist symbolism.  Each stupa is built upon a terraced plinth- sometimes a few levels high- which represents the earth.  The annually whitewashed dome represents a pot- to contain water.  On top of the dome is a square segment, usually painted with Buddha's all-seeing eyes on each side.  Buddha's nose is a figured "9" which is a stylized Nepali ek (1) signifying the singular character- that out of emptiness comes compassion. On the forehead is a mark signifying Buddha's sixth sense, and insight. Above this face is a tapering spire with 13 levels, representing the 13 stages of perfection on the way to nirvana.  The spire is topped by a cupola representing an umbrella, and then a pinnacle festooned with yellow, green, red, white and blue prayer flags.  All along the base is a covered alcove filled with prayer wheels...all embossed with "Om Mani Padme Hum"- which means "All Hail the Jewel of the Lotus"- and a phrase used as a mantra as the faithful circumambulate the stupa, clockwise (to capture spiritual energy), turning the wheels as they pass. I couldn't help but turn many of the wheels, praying for peace. (Unfortunately, I didn't know at the time that turning the wheels 3000 times will prevent and cure mountain sickness- ? few days of acclimatization? Guess I goofed.)The architecture also represents the five elements: the base- earth; the dome-water; the spire- fire; the umbrella- air; the pinnacle- ether.  Fascinating.

From Boudhanath, we traveled to our third UNESCO heritage site- the Swayambhunath temple, better known as the Monkey temple because of all the...monkeys... who cavort around.  On the tour bus, you can imagine the numerous questions I asked of Kiroj.  He was most patient with me, and told us a bit more about Kathmandu and Nepal. Nepal is now a constitutional republic, with a transitional government.  Before 2001, it was a royal monarchy, until, supposedly, the second-in-line son staged a massacre of the rest of the family, but spared his own.  He ruled for 4 months in 2001 before the people revolted, led by the Maoists.  Today, as the "loaf of meat between two tigers" (China and India), the Maoists are still the controlling party, and the temporary constitution has been in effect since 2005-2006. The current leaders' terms have been extended for a year, hopefully to aid in forming a finalized constitution. Because of the political change, many people have flooded into Kathmandu.  A city that held 1.5 million people 5 years ago now holds 4 million.  Talk about exponential growth.  And very limited infrastructure. Again, I thought of all the disease.  Upon my comment re disease, Kiroj's response was, "Give us time."

Swayambhunath lies atop a holy hill, thought to have been a spontaneous eruption from the prehistoric lake which covered most of the Kathmandu region.  As we climbed the ?356 steps- a breeze, relatively, for this group of active women, we noted the golden Buddhas, murals of Buddhas birth, and statues along the way.  I, too, noticed these sites- that is, when I wasn't pressure-breathing and rest-stepping.  The story is that from this prehistoric lake, a lotus bloomed and then flamed, and now the flame is a sacred element.  The Lotus is also a sacred image, the opened leaves of the blossom are painted in gold on the dome of the Boudhanath temple.  As we reached the top, we noticed that there were many people there who arrived via the more direct route- by car- to the top. Linden later mentioned that he'd never climbed the steps before with a group, but he thought that it just might be payback for all the questions I asked, and to give Kiroj a break.  It pretty much worked- again, pressure-breathing the Dana Marie way often leaves no breath for speech. As for all those people, we witnessed a celebratory parade, complete with musicians, guests, and the lead celebrants- an elderly man and woman, dancing their way round the UNESCO fountain.  We thought that the woman had a certain arrogance in her moves, and we wondered if they were celebrating a marriage or a birth.  Again, fascinating.

After our tour, we went back to the hotel for more repacking, dinner, and blessed sleep.  Tomorrow- the harrowing flight to Lukla, and the trail begins...

(Photos to follow...)

Saturday, March 17, 2012


After our delightful visit to Doha, we had an early AM departure, we arrived in Kathmandu, Nepal, around noon.  We lugged our carry-ons through visa purchases and then grabbed our bags and hit customs, where we were waived on through with barely a glance.  After ~30 hours of travel, we finally reached "fresh air".  "Fresh" because it is anything but. The dirt, dust, fumes and refuse of this city on the other side of the world is legendary.     A fascinating city, but it must surely be one of the dirtiest.  Fortunately for us,  we were immediately greeted by Jeff and Linden- who adorned us each with a traditional welcome garland (to combat the dust?)  After so long in planning and training...oh, and packing was great to finally see them and give them hugs.  Not sure how often they receive the warmth of reunion from their clients- but to this group they are very dear.

After being dropped off at the Yak and Yeti hotel, we decided to get out and walk around town.  I'm not sure why we're worried about glaciers, cliffs, and crevasses when every second on the streets of Kathmandu is life-threatening.  We didn't see any traffic lights, but a few traffic cops in circles- a sight that always reminds me of  Frosty the Snowman..."He led them down the streets of town, right to the traffic cop..."  Pedestrians are definitely considered expendable.  We hit the ATM, and then...we lost Sasha.  One minute there, the next, gone.  We waited at the bank for awhile, and then dodged the flying motorcycles and arrogant cars as we circumnavigated the block- searching for our lovely Sash.  Over an hour later, spooked by the many potential
"first pages" for novels running through our brains, we went to back to the hotel to admit to Linden that we'd lost Sash.  She turned up moments later, as she, too, had been wandering around trying to find us.  Turns out she had gone downstairs in the bank to change money.

We decided to head back out to the "tourist" section of Kathmandu- the Thamel neighborhood.  We walked for over an hour, and I was fortunate to find some compact flash cards for my the more I thought about it, I realized I'd blow through the cards I have.  After that, Sasha and I decided to continue in our tourist role and we hired a pedicab back. Dilapidated, yes, but it seemed to have a working "eject" button as there were several times when Sasha and I became airborne.  All behind a guy on a bike.

The exhaustion began to set in, and after a great dinner at the hotel, we crashed.

(Will try to post photos tomorrow...)

Thursday, March 15, 2012


Wednesday, March 14

We arrived in Kathmandu on Wednesday around noon... Kathmandu time is 5:45 hours more distant than, currently, 10:45 time difference.  Still haven't obtained the micro SIM card for my iPad, so didn't post yesterday. By the time I had a spare moment, it was 10 PM local time, and my brain was fried after the travel days.

I'll write more later...but need to go to dinner- just wanted to let you know we are all safe in Kathmandu!
Love to all back home!

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

On Our Way...Stalled in Doha...

Tuesday, March 13

"She wants to trek for 3 weeks no showers no chick fil a no Internet no cell phone service only so she can walk up a giant hill carrying her weight in a backpack.  Am I the only one who doesnt understand the appeal in this?!"

So asks my daughter, Blaise (in a text to my mom)...and even more frequently this past week as I sped around town trying to pack for a month in the hills.  Not an easy task.  This time, with even more "mountain medicine" under my belt, I felt compelled to put together a medical kit.  My biggest concerns are altitude, anaphylaxis, heart attacks/stroke, and that oh-too-frequent-trek-killer Traveler's Diarrhea.  We are, as it is, women of "a certain age" and we are also, as it is, stressing ourselves at extreme altitude.  Our guides tell me that on a few occasions we'll be a day and-a-half away from "medical care,"  and in wilderness medical terms, that's huge. Hence the kit.

It's not a comprehensive one, for I left the IV fluids, injectable meds, and kitchen sink at home, but a significant one, to be sure.  My friend Anne Mac once told me, years ago, as I struggled to decide between a potential music career in LA and the jailhouse of operating rooms and an Anesthesiology residency, "You are a completionist"- and I keep wishing that applied to my mountain summit attempts and not just to my preparation.  So only the yaks will know how much weight I packed- oh, and I guess the guides will know as well since they weigh the bags.  Unlike on Kilimanjaro, where porters toted, or rather, ran, our bags up the mountain, in the Khumbu valley yaks will bear the load.  So our bags have an increased weight limit...from 20 kgs on Kili to 30 kgs in Nepal.  Initially, that news brought huge relief as we contemplated packing for the trek- but my relief quickly vanished as I put all the gear together and began apportioning gear yesterday, mere hours before the flight. What I realized was this: I may need to rent my own yak herd.  Would that make me a Yak-herd, or perhaps a Yak-ess?

With me on the team are friends from Kilimanjaro/Rainier/Ecuador: Corell, Lucy, Renee, Sasha and Kathryn.  Renee and Lucy reeled in a couple more: Laura- long-time friend, and Jane-Renee's sister-in-law. Leading us is our friend Linden- Everest summiter, Dartmouth grad, and guide extraordinaire- and hopefully, Jeff- awesome guide, RMI boss, and Master of the "one-wipe-per-trek" fame.  Can't wait to hang with these guys again!
Although Jeff said he'd be caught up in Kathmandu prepping for the RMI summit team which follows us up the valley several days later, because "I can cover in several hours what'll take you a few days," we do expect to see him on trail.  So we are a team of ten- and while we don't have a team name yet, with this group I have no worries that we'll end up with several. So stay tuned...

We took the red-eye flight out of Dulles on Qatar Air.  I recommend that airline to everyone- hot towels, moist towelettes, delicious food (really!), good leg room, ICE CREAM!, and, wonder of wonders, courteous, efficient and helpful flight attendants. Certainly not what I'm used to in the air!  We were all able to snag our own rows, so we could stretch out.  I will admit to toting a compression-dry-sacked down pillow for my 31K ft enjoyment, and it was a total god-send because I was able to visit Ambien land for a few hours.

Landing in Doha, Qatar, the sun was setting a golden red, and I could almost hear the call of the Muezzin echoing through the sky.  Palm trees swaying, desert sands, and water.  Qatar is a sovereign Arab state, and it occupies a peninsula that juts out like a loose lace from the boot of the Arabian peninsula.  Bordered to the south by Saudi Arabia, the peninsula is en"gulf"ed by the Persian gulf, and is reportedly the only truly desert nation.

Our first stop after landing was...Diet Pepsi.  At least for Sasha and me. We stopped at the first coffee shop we saw, and here is one of the signs that greeted us-one whose sentiment I can whole-heartedly endorse:

 Apparently there is a shortage of aluminum here in Qatar, because the sodas are served in 150ml cans.  A juice glass.  Sasha and I just laugh.  While we enjoy our 11-hour layover here in Doha, we marvel at the various traditional Arab dress- from white robes with long, flowing colorful head scarves anchored by black head bands, to the white robes and white head-coverings the western-clothed with black head scarves to the fully hijabbed.  Corell, Lucy and I have a strong interest in the Muslim culture, so we hope to learn a little something during our brief "sojourn" in the airport, where, as Corell says, "Time is irrelevant."

A few interesting things to me:  Cleanliness seems to be very important- restrooms are clean, with personal sprayers next to each commode; Women's foot-washing room in the anteroom to the mosque, and the mosque itself.  Muslims practice foot-washing and cleansing prior to praying, and as Muslims pray five times daily- pre-dawn, noon, afternoon, sunset, and evening- there are several mosques in the airport alone.

What was so interesting to me was the mosque itself.  By tradition and the teachings of Muhammad, the separation of the sexes during prayer is important to allow the faithful to remain focused on God alone.  In mosques, there are usually separate areas for the women to pray. So, after seeing no shoes in the anteroom suggesting someone praying within, I peeked into the mosque with great curiosity:

Directional carpeting with a red arrow on the wall pointing to Mecca, and... that's it.  It looks like a claustrophobic storage closet with mal-laid carpeting.  That did surprise me.  Given the separation of men and women, I have to wonder if the men's mosque differs.  I guess I just expected something...

With me on this flight path are Corell, Lucy and Sasha.  Our teammates- the "Two Mrs. Fains" (certain to become a sitcom) -Jane and Renee, Laura and Kathryn have been here for a couple of days.  From their texts and emails we've learned that they enjoy feeling like "second-class citizens" while "dune-bashing," dining-wherever-there's-wine, and lounging on the beaches.  They were too busy dancing to come visit us at the airport...

 And thus, our journey begins.

Love to all back home!

Tuesday, March 6, 2012


After 3 months of desperately awaiting the slightest breath of snow, today it came. Actually, it snowed 5 or 6 times, sometimes very densely, each storm punctuated by beautiful sunshine. March schizophrenia at its best.  Unfortunately, none of the snow stuck, so it was a no-snow-snow-day for Blaise.

While I am scrambling around gathering, most of my teammates have already gathered and packed for Everest Base Camp, and packed, and departed, for other destinations.  At this point I'll be fortunate to not forget my climbing gear. With so much going on, my brain has been fractured and I often forget which task I'm on.
The logistics of leaving for an extended trip are mind-numbing, and I'm fortunate to have a spouse who doesn't travel for work!  I could use a few more "snow" days...

Monday, March 5, 2012

Getting Ready...

"Noooo, Mom, your butt doesn't look big!"  erupts from my daughters, unsolicited, as I model my newest acquisition- down pants.  After working through the pride v. warmth debate, the warmth side has won.  Hands down.  On my upcoming trek to Everest Base Camp and subsequent climb of ~20,000 ft Imja Tse (Island Peak), my warmth is paramount. I HATE being cold!  As for the down pants, well, let's just be glad I've spared you the visual.  
There's still a week left before the trip, and the details are snowballing.  From packing for 3 weeks on trail- and figuring out what NOT to pack- to figuring out photographic gear... to putting together a medical kit...I'm beat.  It'll be a relief to get on the plane.
I'm hoping I can navigate this blog while in the Himalayas. iPads are a wonderful thing! Our guide, Linden, tells me that he's able to upload most days on the trail.  Cell phones on Everest. Oh my. Even so, I'm sure we'll be mostly unplugged!