Thoughts and Adventures From Greenlite Heavy Industries

Monday, February 28, 2011

Manaslu Part 18

Our permit to climb Manaslu cost us ten thousand dollars, money, which according to the rural Nepalese, went directly into the pocket of the monarch. The story of a leader who lines his own pockets while ignoring the plight of his people is as old as it is familiar, and in Nepal it has led to a Maoist insurgency. Like their namesake, the Maoists claim to believe in an agrarian utopia and find support among the rural poor. Fortunately for us the Maoists don’t have a beef with anyone other than their king, and equally fortunate is the fact that the local farmers, despite being poor and largely uneducated, are far from stupid.

The inhabitants of the Manaslu region are subsistence farmers, and consequently earn very little cash money. One of the only cash jobs available is carrying loads for foreign tourists, and so if the Maoists drive away the tourists they will simultaneously lose local support. The upshot is that the Maoist’s go to great pains to state that their beef is with the government and not with the Western tourists/climbers. I didn’t worry about the insurgents, but I was concerned about simple bandits posing as Maoists. Shiva, on the other hand, had a lot to worry about.

Shiva was our government appointed liaison officer. The Nepali government requires that all major mountaineering expeditions outfit and bring along a government agent, but the precise duties of this agent are unclear at best. Liaison officers are typically viewed, especially by the Nepali staff, as excess baggage, and those that actually leave Kathmandu are generally treated as outsiders. Shiva was small, thin and delicate and was treated early on as a non-person by our trail hardened staff.

Shiva, Brian, Jerome, Dan and I were walking together on the first day of the trek when we came to a fork in the trail. Shiva approached a group of giggling boys and asked them the way to Arughat Bazzar – the next major village. After a rather lengthy discussion Shiva pointed towards a sizable road saying, “they say that is the shortest way, but there are many Maoists,” he then pointed to small path, “they say this way is long but safe.”

“Which way do you want to go Shiva,” I asked.

“This is not my choice,” he said, and then he made what would become a familiar statement, “I am here to help you.”

“Oh but it is your choice,” I countered, “the Maoists are going to kill you and kiss me.”

Shiva stood quietly for a moment and then began walking down the well-trodden road.

“Shiva!” Brian called out as he began down the safe path, “we’ll go this way.”

Shiva was loyal, tough and courageous and he did what no other liaison officer assigned to a Manaslu expedition that year did: he went to base camp. Most liaison officers, we came to find out, didn’t even leave Kathmandu. Even Ngawang, who set the bar very high, had to admit that yes “Shiva was very fine.”

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Manaslu Part 17

By Foot

When I read about the early years of high altitude Himalayan mountaineering I always marvel at the number of human porters required to carry the expedition’s gear to the foot of the mountain. In our modern age of half mile long cargo ships and sky crane helicopters I couldn’t imagine ever witnessing a train of human porters winding their way up a Himalayan valley laden with boxes and duffels. On this I was wrong. While mistakenly washing my face in the giardia infested Buri Ghandaki River I caught a glimpse of a bright object moving quickly through the forest above the far shore. I squinted into the rising sun and saw another flash, then another. After a moment I realized I was watching local men and women sprinting down a network of hillside trails in order to arrive at our camp early enough to get a four dollar a day job carrying a seventy pound load.

Three days earlier while drinking beer in the garden of the Kathmandu Guest House Tashi had estimated that we would need approximately one hundred porters for the trek. We laughed. In the end Tashi was indeed conservative - we only needed eighty-seven. Counting our full-time staff we six Americans required nearly one hundred people to support our vacation.

Ethnically our porters were Garung, and most worked the terraced farms that have, over generations, been dug into the hillsides above the lower Buri Ghandaki Valley. All loads were carried using a namlo, or a tumpline, which is a loop of coarsely braided rope that extends around the load and over the porter’s forehead. Later when we were on the mountain I noticed that when a sherpa climber had an unusually heavy load he would produce a namlo, and carry his backpack in this fashion. The porters quickly and easily fashioned ingenious schemes for attaching our barrels, boxes and even an aluminum extension ladder to their namlos. Many porters chose to place awkward loads such as kerosene drums and cooking pots into large, loosely woven wicker baskets.

The world of the Garung is one in which food and shelter comes from sweat and muscle, and therefore the men, women and even the children are extremely hard. I respect a strong back and felt very much at ease with these tough and durable people.

I admired the strong, weather-beaten Garung men, but it was to the women that I was truly drawn. Despite their diminutive size and fine feminine features the female porters carried loads that grossly overburden the vast majority of American men. Unlike the Western concept of extraverted and artificial female beauty, the Garung women possessed poise, serenity and inner strength that simply made you happy to be in their presence, in other words: true beauty.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Manaslu Part 16

After making a full lap of the Gompa – all Buddhist sacred sites are passed on the right, so often the shortest path is not the correct path – Tashi turned down an alley and led us to nondescript cinderblock building. The stairs, tacked to the exterior like a fire escape, led to a rooftop landing where Tashi handed us each a maze-colored silk scarf. This would be the first of many kata scarves I would receive during the course of this expedition. To give a kata is to give the recipient one’s best wishes and to transfer to them positive good luck energy.

We removed our shoes, entered the concrete building through a small door. Once inside we were ushered into an unadorned room we met His Holiness Tengboche Rimpoche, a high ranking spiritual leader, and the abbot of the well-known Tengboche monastery near Mount Everest.

The aged though fit Lama sat cross-legged on a cushion in the corner of the room. A thin arm extended from his simple burgundy-colored robe motioning us to sit down. We were served tea and Tom, who sat nearest the holy man, began polite small talk. His Holiness only responded with calm smile. Some people are set on edge by silence, fortunately I’m not such person. Often it is enough to simply be in the presence of my friends and family; pointless talk can get in the way. I was very moved and very comfortable simply enjoying a little tea and a little time with this calm and reassuring presence. In hindsight I believe that this was the purpose of our visit: simply to spend some peace and quiet with a holy man, and to put us into his thoughts and he in ours.

His Holiness Tengboche Rimpoche didn’t question us, or try to convert us, he simply took us as fellow creatures trying desperately to find our way though our individual lives; he wished us safe passage. Though I didn’t know it at the start, the trip to Manaslu would become a spiritual journey for me, and the acceptance, tolerance and genuine caring spirit I found in Tibetan Buddhism felt as fresh as a snowmelt stream and as clean and free as the thin mountain air.

Tom spent the remainder of the day wandering through a bureaucratic labyrinth while the rest of us wandered the streets, drank beer and ate. Brian and I spent much of the afternoon at a rooftop restaurant eating naan bread, drinking Tuborg beer and watching unusual scenes on the streets below. Kathmandu so thoroughly held my gaze that I nearly forgot why I had come here. The next day when we boarded the multicolored bus which would take us and our gear to the end of the road somewhere near Arughat Bazar I continued to exist in a kind of blissful daydream, an ephemeral world in which I marveled at the fantastically alien scenery while ignoring the big mountain on the horizon.

The Kathmandu bus took us as far as the first washout where half a dozen porters transferred our mountain of gear, to an equally colorful bus waiting on the opposite side. The driver ground the gears up a narrow, switch backing dusty road cutting across the steep green rice terraces. Occasionally we would pass a thin-legged man working knee deep in the mud. The road bed was hard-packed clay that had cracked in the heat and occasionally the bus would sway dangerously in the deep ruts. Krishna had packed a lunch of cold chicken and yak cheese, which we ate at a small mud and thatch village. We ate at tables owned by an old woman who squatted over a chimney-less open fire and sold us lemon-lime soft drinks.

At the second washout there was no bus waiting on the other side, so we shouldered our daypacks and began walking – the rest of our gear, packed into a Chinese four-wheel drive, followed behind. We set our first camp on a boulder-strewn sandbar in the middle of the wide stinking Buri Ghandaki river. This would be the only uncomfortable camp of the trip; it was like sleeping on bowling balls. The driver of the blue truck delivered our gear and then buried his rig up to the axle in the soft sand fifty yards from our camp. I pantomimed pushing a car to Kusang who shook his head and said, “no problem sir.” When I went to bed the truck was still there, its rear end buried and its headlights pointing like searchlights into the night sky. In the morning it was gone.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Manaslu Part 15

I’ve lived in four countries, and my passport holds the stamps of over two-dozen sovereign nations, but never before had I seen anything like Kathmandu. Scott who, on the other hand, had never before traveled outside of North America seemed to take the chaos dust and grime of Nepal’s capitol city in stride, as though this is what you should expect when leaving the home shores.

Brian had honeymooned in Nepal, and had warned me about the Kathmandu street hawkers, but I must say they were second rate compared to the wizards who worked the streets of Istanbul. When my wife and I visited Turkey we weren’t five hours into the country when we found ourselves in a dingy upstairs warehouse haggling over the price of a hand-knotted rug. The boys cruising the streets of Kathmandu were just that – boys – and you could buy whatever they were selling for less than the price of an American hamburger. I came home with a modest pile of trinkets. Dan, on the other hand, didn’t fare so well, I think he had to purchase an extra bag just to carry home all of his curbside purchases. Dan’s big heart and natural kindness towards children made him a standout target. Jerome, on the other hand, has no kids and didn’t lose his good sense when confronted with big brown eyes; he is also a politician. Often one of us would return to the hotel proud of a deal we had struck with a particularly tenacious vendor only to find Jerome sitting behind a Diet Coke holding a similar or better item for which he had paid half.

On the morning of our second day in Kathmandu Tashi, Khan Cha, Ki Kami and Kusang arrived at the hotel as we were having breakfast. In Kathmandu morning is the best time. You can eat breakfast outside, dressed in shorts and a light shirt, but the air is cool enough to appreciate a warm mug of coffee between your palms. Tashi sat down and accepted our offer of coffee while the three sherpas stood off to the side like bodyguards. “I will take you to the Bodnath,” he said, before adding, “we should go quickly.”

The Bodnath is one of Kathmandu’s great Buddhist temples, or Gampas. The structure is a white hemisphere roughly one hundred feet in diameter with what at first appears to be a chimney jutting up from its center, painted onto this chimney, which isn’t a chimney, are the ever watchful eyes of Buddha. The morning sun shinning through the loosely woven prayer flags and the burgundy-robed monks threw me into a frenzy of cameras, lenses, filters and film – many of my most sacred travel experiences have been seen through the lens of my Nikon. I looked up after slipping in a new roll of film to discover that I had become separated from Tashi and my teammates, I spun around and there fifteen yards away stood Kusang, hands behind his back a patient grin on his face. He motioned me in the correct direction and together we caught up with the group.

Mere university economics could not explain the dedication shown to us by our staff. You can’t buy a man’s heart, but that’s what they gave. Time and hardship expose us for what we are, and what I learned about every man we hired - Ki Kami, Kusang, Khan Cha, Ngawang, Krishna and our three kitchen boys: Preem, Potem and Myla - was that not only were they dedicated, loyal, and hardworking, but more importantly by the end of the trip I counted each one as my friend. You can fake a lot in life, but you can’t fake a friend during a mountaineering expedition.

Though their actions didn’t betray this, I felt as though our three sherpas viewed us na├»ve and somewhat silly. Together these three men had worked on over forty expeditions and to them we couldn’t have been more than another troop of spoiled Americans with no better way to spend our time and money. I am saying nothing disparaging when I say that I think our sherpas simply wanted to safely high mark us at around Camp 1 and then get back to their lives. Big talk and money might buy you respect in the United States, but it is muscle, resolve and action that earn you a place on the short list of these men. Later, during the trek, I told Brian that my greatest desire from this trip would be to come away with the respect of our sherpas.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Manaslu Part 14

Kusang and Ki Kami were farmers from the Makalu region of Nepal; both were thickly built handsome men in their mid-forties, and both were in possession of what turned out to be nearly unfathomable strength. This is where their similarities ended. Ki Kami was stoic and devout while Kusang always wore a carefree smile and owned a somewhat dirty sense of humor. Our third Sherpa, Khan Cha, was the odd man out. In contrast to Kusang and Ki Kami, Khan Cha was a full-time professional mountaineer and unmarried, and unlike his husky partners he couldn’t have weighed over one hundred and fifteen pounds. When I first met him Khan Cha was draped in an oversized tee shirt, sweat pants and Vietnam era combat boots; he certainly didn’t look like the unstoppable force we later discovered him to be.

For generations the Sherpa and Tamung people have lived at altitudes above ten thousand feet; constant exposure to the thin air of this harsh environment has modified their physiology. No matter how hard I train I will never be able to adapt to high altitude as well as our trio of sherpas; my inner workings were simply not as efficient. Kusang, Ki Kami and Khan Cha would provide the loin’s share of the muscle needed to get up Manaslu.

Later that day we met Ngawang Sherpa, our sirdar, and Krishna Rai, our chef, in the blue tarp covered courtyard of Everest Trekking. Ngawang was thin and alternated between a phlegmy cough and hard pulls on a cigarette, while Krishna was short, well built and only spoke when spoken to. I liked Krishna immediately. Tashi had agreed to supply us with trekking and base camp tents, emergency oxygen and a Gamow Bag. A Gamow Bag is a seven foot long by two foot in diameter fabric cylinder into which air can be pumped in order to treat serious symptoms of altitude sickness. Placing a sick climber inside of the inflated tube tricks the ailing body into believing that it is at a lower altitude. It is a simple, effective piece of equipment that I hoped we would never use.

Bottled oxygen is typically only used on the highest of the high mountains: Everest, K2, Kanchenjunga and Lhostes. Oxygen is used on the other eight thousand meter peaks, but rarely. We decided to bring four bottles of oxygen for emergency purposes and would not climb on bottled air. We weren’t moralists or unusually strong, it was a simple decision that Manaslu did not warrant the extra burden and expense of climbing on oxygen. The bottles that Tashi supplied were American-made filament wound tubes roughly the diameter and half the length of a standard SCUBA tank. The regulators and masks were designed and built by Prosk, a Russian company, and were built for posterity and not weight savings. The contraption was a heavy bulky mess and one look reinforced the validity of our decision not to carry these things to the summit. The oxygen system seemed ridiculous and after one look I tried to walk away, but Brian held me back and made me pay attention as Tashi demonstrated how to attach the regulators and masks. Brian and I make a good team, he is careful and deliberate, while I am casual and refuse to think too hard. Without me Brian would never get anything done and without him I’d never get anything done right. Brian checked every oxygen tank and refused those that were low on pressure, he checked every regulator against every tank and every mask and discovered that not everything worked with everything else. It was only through Brian’s diligence that we ended up with four tanks, four regulators and four masks that all worked interchangeably.

While at Tashi’s compound Dan tapped my shoulder and asked if I’d seen the bloody spit someone had expelled onto the concrete floor. I hadn’t. One of the first things a Western visitor will notice in Nepal is the constant coughing. When Tom asked Ngawang about his constant cough saying “is your cough anything I should know about or be concerned with,” Ngawang simply replied, “no sir only Nepali cough.” Fact of the matter is that tuberculosis is a major concern in Nepal, but we never did find out who was spitting blood.

"If you walk the trial of Nepal, you will know what Buddhist dharma is all about
Tengboche Rimpoche.