Here's a little trip report from a trip to Nepal this year. It's a little onthe verbose side, so if you choose to read it, make sure you have a few minutes:
This past Spring, my climbing partner JT and I took a trip to Nepal to do some climbing. We had both always wanted to climb in the Himalaya, and we've been trying to slowly build our climbing resume to meet the challenges of high altitude mountaineering. After trips to Peru, Alaska, and Patagonia, it was time.
We debated for months about what our objective would be. It's always difficult to figure out what to climb without knowing what the routes look like, or having knowledge of the area. The only thing we knew was that we wanted to climb in the best style possible, and for us that meant unsupported, leading the entire route. In 2008 we climbed in Alaska, summiting the Mooses Tooth, and we both wanted to find something that could closely match the technical challenges we found there.
I've had a copy of "Himalaya Alpine Style" for many years, and I spend a lot of nights flipping pages, daydreaming about what route from that book I would want to undertake if I ever had the chance. The west Pillar of Makalu, the Golden Pillar on Spantik, the North Ridge of K2…any one of these would be a career defining achievement. I'm not Ueli Steck though, and I knew that if I wanted to climb something technical, it would have to be at a lower altitude.
My partner JT suggested we do Ama Dablam by the standard route, the southwest ridge. Initially I was put off by the idea. It is one of the most popular routes in the Himalaya, and it is beaten into submission by dozens of guided parties every year. I took it under advisement though, and I consulted the almighty tome of Himalayan alpine climbing. It did recommend the southwest ridge as a fine route to attempt alpine style. We also thought that for our first attempt at a higher altitude technical route, it would be nice to have the relative safety of a line of fixed ropes to bail from if things went to shit.
I was convinced. If the tome suggests it, I'm in. Suddenly we were faced with organizing a major climbing trip. Hiring a logistics company, deciding what season to climb, obtaining permits, vaccinations, etc, etc. We decided that the spring season would be best for us. The fall climbing season is the peak season, with its more stable weather, clearly draws the bulk of the aspiring guided summiteers. We wanted to climb without a lot of people around us. After deciding when, we got a few quotes from logistics companies for getting our gear to base camp, running a basecamp, acquiring our permits, and all the other logistical headaches. We could have done all of that ourselves, but hey, this is supposed to be a vacation too, right?
Once we had a price we decided to try to find other climbers to join our climbing permit. The permit is two thousand dollars for up to seven climbers. It didn't take too long to catch our first two fish. Cam and Meryl. Cam has a genius idea to climb the most aesthetic peak on each continent. Obviously this is highly subjective, but Ama Dablam was on his list for Asia. So he and his girlfriend Meryl were in. Their friend Chris quickly joined them, and then recruited two of his friends, Mark and Mark. Heretofore they will be referred to as Mark squared.
While we were all on the same permit, we were not planning to climb together. We would all be on the same ridge, but climbing more or less as three separate teams. Mark squared actually decided to hire a climbing Sherpa to help them with their climb as neither of them had much mountain experience. My wife Samantha was also planning on accompanying us to basecamp, and then trekking with two of our friends, Ken and Nora. Everything was in place, I was going to have my wife with me on a mountain trip for the first time, I was PSYCHED!
We all showed up in Kathmandu at different times, which I'm sure our logistics Company, Asian Trekking, just loved! We eventually all met at the Hotel Thamel in the heart of Kathmandu's tourist district, Thamel. I had been to Peru a couple of times, so I had seen what a third world city looked like, but Samantha had not. I will admit, Kathmandu is WAY more third world than Lima. The apparent lack of any traffic patterns, blocks and blocks of buildings in a perpetual state of demolition/construction, monkeys and cows wandering the streets just as comfortably as the people, the heaviness of air that lacks any clean air standards….mix it all together and it is quite overwhelming after getting off the plane.
Kathmandu is not what I always envisioned it being. I know this sounds ridiculous, but growing up in the 80's and watching that stupid Eddie Murphy movie where he goes to Nepal to help rescue the Golden Child, that is what I always wanted Kathmandu to be. Well, of course it isn't. It is a national capital, and it is a hustling, bustling city like every other country's capital center is. It has its charm though. We were fascinated by the seemingly anarchistic collection of electrical wires running overhead, and the extremely narrow streets with too many cars and motorcycles.
The main objective in Kathmandu for the trip was to obtain our climbing permit, and to fly to Lukla, the gateway to the Khumbu Valley. We decided that one person from each "team" should go to the tourism ministry to obtain our permit, and our liaison from Asian Trekking, Kaju, set up our meeting for the day after our arrival. I was officially known as the expedition leader because we had to put down someone's name on the initial paperwork months ago. We were shuffled into a building in central Kathmandu with offices that were filled with 60's era office furniture, and computers from 1983. I had the distinct feeling that both Ed Hillary and Reinhold Messner had sat in the chair I was in.
What ensued was the most surreal 2 hours I have ever had in my life. First, we were shown a twenty minute slideshow about why we should consider Nepal for our vacation. Rather odd we all thought, considering we were already here! Next was the signing of the official papers. Mountain climbing is big business in Nepal, and the government wants to make sure they get their cut. They also want to make sure that the environment is protected, very forward thinking, and I was impressed. The environmental protection part came when they asked us how many canisters of cooking gas we brought with us into Nepal. We would have to make sure that we left with the same amount of canisters. We were not to leave canisters behind. I leaned over to Kaju and asked him very discreetly if they were aware of current airlines regulations prohibiting people from flying with gas canisters. His reply was "They have no idea what they are talking about, just tell them 5". Indeed I did, and in the end, no one ever checked our baggage to make sure we had 5 canisters when we left.
For over an hour I signed paper after paper. If you've ever bought a house, imagine that process and double it. After we were done there was a file for our team that was approaching 6 inches thick. Our team was given a standing round of applause and well wishes, and then we were let loose.
When I got back to the hotel I had a message at the front desk. Who could possibly be leaving me a message in Kathmandu? I was informed that a certain Ms. Elizabeth Hawley was requesting a meeting with me. If you don't know who Elizabeth Hawley is, she is a Himalayan legend on par with Tenzing and Hillary. While not a climber herself, she has been fastidiously documenting every Himalayan ascent for well over 50 years or so, and she wanted to talk to me! You're damned right I would make whatever time necessary to meet Ms. Hawley. She showed up in her powder blue 1960 something Volkwagen Beetle 15 minutes later. She is well into her 90's now, and is walking with a walker due to a pelvic fracture last year. She looks as if she might collapse under her own 90 pound weight, but her wit and memory are as sharp as knives.
She took down all the little details of our group and our intended route. She then regaled us with every major ascent of the route, what the conditions were like at every section of the route, best places to find camps, and it was all from memory from a woman who had never even set foot on the mountain. When I told her that me and JT were planning to climb it alpine style she gave me one upturned eyebrow and examined me for 3 seconds, and said in a classic haughty British accent, "well good luck with that then". It was classic.
That night we were all invited to Asian Trekking for a pre trip dinner party. Ang Rita Sherpa, the owner of Asian Trekking, gave us a great send off, with wonderful food, drink and hospitality. We were introduced to our head Sirdar as well, Nima Sherpa. The head Sirdar is responsible for all the organization of baggage, porters, cooks, flights, etc. In addition, Nima was doubling as the climbing guide for Mark squared.
The next morning we found ourselves squeezed into a plane that was no wider than my Toyota Tacoma, and probably much less taken care of. One flight attendant dutifully shuffled down the 18"wide aisle with a small aluminum try of mints and earplugs. Once we lifted out of the morning fog and smog of the Kathmandu Valley we were greeted by a shining, sparkling spine of mountains to which there are no known rivals on the planet. How many 8000 meter peaks can you identify?! From the Annapurnas to the west, Dhauligiri, Manaslu, Everest, and finally Kanchenjunga to the east. Legendary all of them are. It was too much to take in at once, and I felt like a kid who was visiting Disneyland for the first time.
Within 40 minutes we were making the approach to the Lukla airport. Continually making the list of the top 10 most dangerous airports in the world, the single landing strip sits on an absurd angle above a large cliff, and nestled into tight mountain basin. Stepping off the plane, heart still in our throats, we were initiated into the mountains with that first sharp, crisp draw of cold air into our lungs. Kathmandu is hot, and we had gotten used to the stifling heat. I started shivering instantly. How the hell am I ever going to survive up here I asked myself. The landing strip is a crazy scene of planes being rapidly unloaded, and dozens of porters looking to pick up loads to carry. We would have been really hard pressed to make any sense of this and get our stuff organized, but Nima has this scene down.
Nima is twenty-years old, but his mannerisms and demeanor make him seem much more experienced. Standing there among the throng of porters in his matching blue track suit and aviator sunglasses, he had a handful of porters hired, and our bags being hauled away within minutes. Nima is a two time Everest sumiteer, and at first gives off a very businesslike and rather cold personality, but with hours we broke his fa