Thoughts and Adventures From Greenlite Heavy Industries

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Manaslu Part 26

We gradually stocked Camp 1 – carrying loads of food and fuel and then retreating back to basecamp. This allowed us a gradual transition from being trekkers to becoming mountaineers; each of us finding our own rhythm and pace. Finally came the night to sleep at our new high point. Brian, Tom, Dan, Jerome and myself all made the trip to Camp 1. My stomach had been rumbling and grumbling for about a week and just after rolling out my sleeping bag at Camp 1 the eruption occurred. This was far and away the worst GI distress I’d ever experienced. No question, I had to get down to basecamp, and fortunately Brian agreed to accompany me. When you’re deep into something as intense as a Himalayan m mountaineering expedition it’s easy to over dramatize singular events. As Brian and I were descending the lower glacier I could only think that my chances of a summit were now next to none. I figured that retreating back to basecamp would put me behind the acclimatization schedule and that I’d still be adjusting to the altitude when everyone else on the team would be pushing to for the top. I thought my ship had sunk. Back at basecamp Brian and I walked over to the Australian camp and asked Dr. Andrew Peacock for his advice. He said that I had most likely contracted Guardia on the trek in and recommended a course of the antibiotic Flagyl. The results were almost immediate and the next morning I was weak, but at least I wasn’t living in our makeshift latrine. Brian took off early bound for Camp 1 while I stayed in basecamp. One the second day in basecamp I was able to hold down some food and so I spent as much time as possible in the cook tent eating and hydrating. I knew that I had to get back on the acclimatization track and decided to depart to Camp 1 the next morning; Khan Cha, was also in basecamp, agreed to go with me. The next morning Khan Cha and I departed basecamp while Jerome, Dan, and Tom began their descent from Camp 1. There had been significant snow over night and so I decided to try out my snowshoes. I’ve always said that the only thing worse than bringing snowshoes and not using them is bringing snowshoes and using them. I have to admit to eating some of my words there as I made quick time up the glacier while Khan Cha postholed slowly behind me. In all fairness I had offered him Brian’s snowshoes, which he had refused. I took off the snowshoes at the base of the steep climb leading to Camp 1 and starting kicking steps up the new snow. Soon Khan Cha was passing me, I think he wanted to prove his value: he didn’t follow steps he made steps. We were about halfway up the steep section, I was following Khan Cha, when here comes the Pakistani climber who was on the payroll of the German group. He sailed past the both of us and pushed on over the lip and into Camp 1. Brian was outside the tent brewing up hot tea and handed mugs to each of us as we entered camp. You see this is what makes Brian so special: his concern for the welfare of others endeared him to not only our hired guns, but also to the hired guns of other teams. That Pakistani guy was far and away the strongest man on the mountain and I can say for certain that he would have risked his neck to save Brian. It’s good to have friends in high places.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Manaslu Part 25

Getting Up the Thing

Manaslu is neither easy nor safe - one out of four climbers die in pursuit of its summit. The summit was first reached in 1956, and would remain undisturbed for another fifteen years. Few have ventured from the “standard” 1956 route where a mixture of ice fall and avalanche hazard continually threatens the hopeful climber. Above high camp the route broadens into a featureless plateau; one particularly gruesome aerial photograph shows this icy expanse littered with the bodies of climbers who became disorientated during a tragic storm.

We made the climb in three camps: the first, at 18,700 feet, was dug into the saddle between North and Naike Peaks, the second was located on the lip of a crevasse at 21,700, and high camp was anchored onto the burnished ice at 24,500. Using only three camps to climb an eight thousand meter peak left us a bit spread out and the temptation to place an intermediary camp between one and two certainly presented itself. Between one and two you were either picking you way through an icefall or hurrying across avalanche slopes. Camping in the icefall was clearly out of the question, but so long as it didn’t snow a camp on one of the avalanche slopes might be fine, but you would be naïve to think that you could go to the Himalaya and not worry about snow. I’m terrified of the prospect of being buried alive, waiting for your oxygen to run out, and consequently voted for longer days and safer camps. Unfortunately there was no safe place for high camp. The summit plateau is a featureless wasteland of callous blue ice, and if the wind is going to blow there is no place to hide. At Camp three we anchored our tents with ice screws and boulders and hoped for mercy.

Manaslu challenged my ideas on how to climb a mountain. My experience has been to steadily move yourself and your gear up the hill and when you finally reach summit position you go fast and light, touch the top and drop back down: you climb the mountain only once. Here, due to acclimatization forays and load carries we each accumulated nearly sixty thousand feet of vertical gain. The up and down nature of the climb meant that we would routinely return to base camp where we could rest, eat and drink. Above base camp I continually suffered from sleep apnea, meaning that you stop breathing when asleep. I had experienced this on Denali where my silence followed by a series of gasped breaths only bothered my tent mate – in other words I was completely unaware of the fact that I had to wake up to breath. In Alaska I always rose in the morning unaware and refreshed. In the Himalaya I wasn’t so fortunate. Every night I struggled to fall asleep and whenever I did I would be quickly awakened to discover myself choking for air feeling as though someone was pushing a pillow into my face. This would occur throughout the night, and often I would lie awake for hours waiting for the sun, which would give the green light to start the stove. Returning to base meant that I could sleep, but just as important it meant food and drink.

Though we ate quite well on the mountain our dehydrated meals were paltry and putrid in comparison to the nightly feasts staged by chef Krishna. Krishna regularly sent Preem, Mayla or Potem, his three kitchen boys, down to the Nubri Valley with orders to bring back a leg of a goat or a chunk of yak - yak and water buffalo have the taste and consistency of boiled leather, but goat is surprisingly tasty – and we ate our way through a mountain of high calorie food every night. The exertion combined with the high altitude conspired to erode our bodies and only through gorging ourselves into a nightly stupor could any of us prevent a sunken stomach and exposed ribs.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Manaslu Part 24

Welcome to the Himalaya

I’ve been on a number of Alaskan and Patagonian expeditions, and I figured that I knew, logistically speaking, how to get to the top of a big mountain; little did I know how much I had to learn.

In the spring of 2002 Petemba Sherpa worked as sirdar for a Japanese businessman who hoped to reach the summit of Manaslu. Petemba, the cousin of our trekking agent Tashi Sherpa, is extremely experienced, and he proved invaluable when it came to actually working out the logistics of our expedition. We Americans had arrived at Manaslu base camp with the stated understanding that the sherpas and the “members” as we were known to our staff, were all members of a single team – the sherpas simply being unusually strong members. It was with this mindset that we set out on our first carry to Camp 1: everyone carrying a load, with the sherpas carrying slightly heavier loads.

On our first rest day Brian and I noticed Petemba holding up a sheet of notebook paper and talking with our sirdar Nawang. With nothing better to do Brian and I butted in. Nawang pointed to the sheet of paper saying that Petemba had drawn up a logistics plan for our team and that he wanted to discuss it with us. Eager to see what the guru thought Brian and I snapped at the piece of paper. What we first noticed was that Petemba had made two schedules: one for the sherpas and one for the members. Brian immediately set to putting Petemba right. “We’re used to climbing in Alaska and the Cascades,” he said “we carry our own weight. We’re all one team here; there are no sherpas and members, just teammates.” Petemba flashed a knowing smile and replied, “welcome to the Himalaya.”

Petemba correctly pointed out that given the amount of time we had and our desire to climb with fixed camps that it would be impossible to both acclimatize and stock the three camps. “You acclimatize” he said, and then he pointed to Kusang, Ki Kami and Khan Cha and said, “they carry.” Brian furrowed his brow, visibly uncomfortable with the us and them approach. “You have to put your boys to work,” Petemba continued, “the trip to Camp 1 is nothing for them, but you, you must first make your body used to this altitude.” He was right of course, the sherpas could make it to Camp 1, at 19,000’, in two hours; on our first carry it took me nearly six. Acclimatization is the foundation stone of an 8000m expedition. If you go too high too fast your brain swells, your lungs fill with fluid, you become disoriented, you begin to drown in your own fluids, you then die.

Our original logistics plan, based on experience climbing at much lower altitudes, had grossly overestimated the amount of weight we could carry while underestimating the amount of rest we would require. It quickly and painfully became obvious that if we wanted to climb this peak we would have to put our boys to work. However, if I was going to climb this mountain with any sense of accomplishment I had to set some ground rules, and I came up with two: never would allow a sherpa to carry my personal gear, and would fill my pack with as much group gear as I could carry.

We shared the mountain with four strong Australians who proved that it is possible to climb Manaslu using fixed camps without the use sherpa climbers, for us, however, Kusang, Ki Kami and Kha Cha made the difference between success and failure. We climbed the mountain on the backs of these three kind, loyal and incredibly strong mountaineers

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Manaslu Part 23


On the afternoon of our eighth day we passed through the village of Lo where we began the descent into the Upper Nubri Valley. I scrambled for a good camera angle as a procession of six women, each carrying a doko filled with firewood, came silently past. I could see how their namlos pressed against their scalps limiting their gaze to the dust of the trail and the heels of their companions. I felt fit enough to climb one of the world’s highest mountains, but would have struggled to heft the burden easily carried by these women.

The Upper Nubri Valley is a broad expanse of weedy brown pastureland and small garden plots, each maybe an acre in size. We had left Seattle in the spring, flew to the warm summer sun of Kathmandu, were now in the gray skied brown earthed season of autumn, and would soon find winter on the white omnipresent slopes of Manaslu. With nothing to divert its progress the trail led straight across the valley floor before finally disappearing through a mile-distant kani. We were now at eleven thousand feet above the level of the sea and crisp air and lightened loads hurried our Garung porters towards home. They had dropped their loads in Samagaon, collected their pay and would now backtrack in three days what had taken us a week to ascend. Spread across the flat valley the distant porters resembled a retreating army only until they came near, whereupon we saw the content smiles of people who had more than earned the pay in their pockets. Brian stopped a young permanently grinning man, the strongest in this group of strongmen, and slid a thick fold of rupees into his pocket saying, “I know you don’t understand what I’m saying, but I felt you were my friend, good luck.” As we passed, each porter stopped and with clasped hands wished us namaste – good luck, God be with you. Through the lens of my intrusive camera I had come to know the face of each porter, no man or woman passing us on that trail was a stranger to me, and the intensity of their concern for six frivolous foreigners rested on me like a leaden cloak.

It is a strange thing for a Western person to feel, and to feel quite viscerally, the concern of a stranger. We hadn’t done these people any favors, instead we’d bought a hard day’s labor for the price of a cup of coffee, and their gratitude could have easily slid me into the role of benevolent prince: yes yes my children think nothing of my generosity. I didn’t want to be just another great white hunter.

The final mile of the day passed slowly, Jerome, weakened by a gastro-intestinal infection, was reduced to nearly dragging his feet while Brian, Khan Cha and I hovered around him like three bothersome grandmothers. Whatever was churning Jerome’s stomach seemed to be eroding his body also, he was no longer able to carry his daypack and was truly wasting away before our eyes. Though he leaned heavily on his trekking poles Jerome kept his back straight and vertical, he was a proud man and though he wanted to do was to collapse into his tent he walked tall.

As we made our way across the broad weedy floor of the Nubri Valley, I saw, on a distant tree-lined hill, the Samagaon Monastery. In the low afternoon light, the gold dome of the central temple created a small sun rising above the gray stone village. At the entrance to the village a triangular mani wall split the trail like a wedge; I naturally took the left fork.

Our eighth day of trekking ended at the village of Samagaon. Here Nawang had paid and dismissed our Garung porters, and set to finding local men and women willing to carry our gear four thousand vertical feet to base camp. Samagaon is eleven thousand feet above sea level, and is situated in a broad scrubby valley between Manaslu to the south and the white glacier covered boundary peaks to the north.
Though the citizens of Samagaon pay taxes to Kathmandu they are ethnically Tibetan, and look, speak and dress differently than the Garung people who farm the lower valley. It was while walking through the town of Deng, one day’s walk from Samagaon, that I noticed the change. Mani walls, chortens, Kanis and prayer wheels began to line the trail, and the teardrop-shaped domes of hill top gombas began to appear, shining gold beneath the midday sun. The mani walls, some well over one hundred feet long, and containing anywhere from a few dozen to well over a thousand intricately carved stone panels, regularly divided the trial and they, like all other sacred structures, are passed on the left. The kanis, rough stone structures that form an arch over the trail, were my favorite as their rugged exterior belied a bright interior decorated with delicate thonka paintings. As we passed through the fantastic kani on the outskirts of Samagaon Brian commented, “well the secret of life is written right here, now all we have to do is learn how to read.” What distinguishes Samagaon from the other villages of the Nubri Valley is the large gomba – a Buddhist monastery - located on a hill overlooking the town. Manaslu, in turn, overlooks the gomba.

We camped in the courtyard of the nearly completed Mt. Manaslu Hotel, and after eight days on the trail this was the first teahouse, or trekkers hotel, we had encountered. The proprietor of the hotel, Fergu, immediately befriended the team and would come to form an especially close relationship with my teammate Scott Boettcher. As it turned out Fergu was an up and coming entrepreneur who had started with a small store – the hand painted sign over the door of this closet-sized establishment advertising “Cold and Hard Drinks” remained nailed to a building on the other side of town – got a loan to build his hotel, and as it neared completion was actively constructing a school where he plans to teach. Fergu spoke excellent English and said that he wanted to improve life in his native village without eroding the culture. He also confessed that the village leaders resented the fact that though he didn’t have a traditional leadership role he controlled most of the economic wealth of the village and therefore his voice sounded more loudly than it traditionally should have. Fergu’s brother is a monk at the gomba, and it was he who invited us to a ceremony to be given in our honor.

Fergu said that he would meet us at three o-clock in front of his hotel, and since I had little to do and did not want to miss the ceremony I took up residence on a rough wooden bench next to the loom which Fergu’s sister, Tashi Lama, had set up in the courtyard. At three I was joined by Brian and another climber, Dan Percival, and at four thirty Fergu arrived stating that the monks were ready. Fergu led us up a tree-lined path leading to Pema Choling, or the main temple, where we ducked through a brightly painted doorway and entered the dimly-lit sanctuary. The monks, shoeless and clad in burgundy robes, sat placidly on the periphery of the room, while a dozen closely cropped boys, who I guessed to be students, sat in two parallel rows down the center. One of the young monks winked as I passed by. We were seated on a low bench and after a brief silence the monks began a low methodic chant, the deep baritone voices sounded as one and the sound waves washed over me and encircled my head like fine juniper incense.

I know little about Buddhist theology other than Buddhists recognize no omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent being, in other words no God, and therefore the chants that drifted out of the monastery windows and rode the afternoon breeze towards the summit of Manaslu were not what we Westerners call prayers. One doesn’t need to speak Italian to understand the plot of an opera and nor did I need to speak Tibetan to understand the meaning of these chants. The monks were wishing us luck and safety; they were generating positive energy and directing it towards us. They gave us what that they had.

The ceremony lasted for nearly two hours, long enough for me to give some thought to who I am, where I was and what I was doing there. I realized that though I am far from perfect I had arrived at Manaslu a descent person, and that if I had to justify my life I could. After the ceremony I walked alone into the juniper forest beneath Manaslu, looked up at its needle-sharp East Pinnacle and told whoever was listening that I had come to this mountain as a fit, prepared and basically descent person, that I would give up possession of what I couldn’t control and would closely guard that which I could. If Manaslu wanted to kill me I was going to die and there was nothing I could do about it, but on the other hand I wasn’t going to make it an easy job. I knew that in order to summit I had to first make peace with myself and with the mountain, if I planned to go mano a mano with Manaslu I was going to lose.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Manaslu Part 22

As evening fell on the hamlet of Dobhan I watched Ngawang disappear down the trail. He returned a half hour later carrying two greasy antifreeze containers. “What do you have there?” I asked.

Ngawang spoke very good English, “local beer” he said, “like chhang.” Chhang is a locally brewed hooch made from available grains, typically rice, corn and millet. I never did try chhang, but towards the end of the trip I did enjoy more than a few glasses of rakshi – a locally made distilled spirit.

I continued to question Ngawang, asking, “Is all this for you?”

“No it is for the porters. All have worked very hard.”

Later that evening several of us climbers took up positions in the shadows in order to listen to the a cappella voices of our eighty seven porters. First the men would sing a refrain and then the women would answer back. The singing and occasional dancing went on deep into the night, but by six o-clock the next morning every porter was on the trail.

The following day as we approached the town of Philim, Brian asked Shiva what a hand painted sign over the trail said. Shiva looked up casually as he passed beneath the banner and said “it says ‘you are now entering Maoist territory.’” We spent our fifth night in Philim, a relative metropolis of houses and barns anchored into a steep hillside. While enjoying the cool of the dusk Brian and I stopped and squatted next to our two farmer sherpas – Kusang and Ki Kami – who were watching a local blacksmith fashion adze heads. As the smith pounded the red steel ring a boy of not more than ten tended the fire with a bellows made from a hollowed out goat.

We set our sixth camp in a walled pasture on the outskirts of Bihi, a crumbling village high above the Buri Ghandaki. Bihi marked a dividing line of sorts we were leaving the fertile lowlands of the Garung people and were entering the sparse Nubri Valley: the high altitude land of the Tibetans. The Garung people practice a mixture of Hinduism and Buddhism, but during the first five days of our trek I’d not seen a single religious symbol or building. Though the days remained mercilessly hot the cool evenings signaled our arrival in the Nepal Himalaya – the realm of the Tibetans. An accountant would describe Nepal as a Hindu country, as this is the religion of the majority, and a government official would consider the people of the Nubri Valley Nepalese though ethnically they are Tibetan. Unlike the Tibetans of China, four miles to the north, the inhabitants of the Nubri Valley have been left to live their lives in relative peace, thereby preserving a fairly pure form of Tibetan culture. Bihi was where we began to see the omnipresent symbols of Tibetan Buddhism.

A half mile above Bihi, a six foot high water powered prayer wheel creaked on a dry axle as it released its prayers into the clear mountain sky. The trail split around stone walls manufactured of intricately carved mani stones and passed through kanis – arch-like buildings containing brightly colored and carefully detailed Thanka paintings. As we passed through the first kani of our trip Brian pointed to the ornate box-shaped ceiling and said, “well right there’s the secret of life, too bad we can’t read it.”

The Tibetans were darker, more weathered and more thickly clothed than were our Garung porters. I suspect much of the Tibetan copper complexion was due more to a buildup of soot and dirt than it was due to genetics. The Garungs, especially the women, paid meticulous attention to their appearance, while the Tibetans appeared to place no importance whatsoever on cleanliness. The hands of men, women and children looked like those of a returning to the surface coal miner. In one village, I met a two-year-old girl standing alone in a yak trail chewing on a piece of charcoal. With the exception of two green-yellow lines extending from her nostrils her face was the color of graphite, and my sustained effort to coax the burned stick out of her clutched hands proved unsuccessful. A friend had told me that you could tell which Tibetan children suck their thumbs by looking for a clean digit.

We spent the final evening of our trek in Lihi where I sat on a dry mortar stone wall watching a grandmother produce coarse gray cloth from a soot-stained loom. Simply to exist in this never summer region required a level of toil and a tolerance for suffering that is unimaginable to those who share my easy life history. How can a person who considers hot and cold running water a simple taken for granted reality relate to someone who at the age of five began a daily lifelong routine of carrying on their backs every drop of water consumed in the house. There is simply no common denominator, yet still I was greeted with a hearty “namaste bai.”

While passing through the village of Lo I first saw Manaslu. The grand cathedrals and palaces of the world are generally much smaller than what you had imagined, however the great mountains and chasms of the planet are typically twice what you could have dreamed. Manaslu was no exception. From our initial aspect the true, more rounded, summit was obscured by the black, spear-shaped East Pinnacle, and had I not studied this mountain and known that our objective was more modest I might have turned around. We did not have the luxury of distant views where the mountain appears as slightly larger bump on a white horizon, instead we turned a corner and there was our white pyramid, less than seven horizontal miles and more than three vertical miles away.

After the village of Lo, Manaslu became a constant looming presence, but instead of worrying about how we were going to reach such a distant and useless pinnacle I refused any thought that didn’t concern the next twenty-four hours. We’d thrown our fate into the wind, for it is was the wind - how hard it blew, where it pushed the clouds and on what aspect it drifted the snow - that would dictate success or failure on the mountain. I chose to live in the present because the future is in the future.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Manaslu Part 21

Krishna took our gastrointestinal health as a matter of pride and though I felt, as Brian described it, “a little drippy,” I was keeping my food down and feeling fit. Krishna wasn’t some hack who one day decided to become a base camp cook, instead he was highly trained, extremely sanitary and as finicky as a French chef. Krishna was a trekking sirdar and an expedition chef and he had been in the business long enough to know the value of return customers and word of mouth advertising. He also worked as hard as an Iowa hog farmer; here is how his day went:

4:30 AM: Wake up, light the kerosene stoves and begin heating water.
5:00 AM: Breakfast and tea for Ngawang and sherpas.
5:30 AM: Set the breakfast table.
6:00 AM: Send Preem out to each tent with hot tea.
6:00-7:00 AM: Cook full breakfast of porridge, Spam, eggs, fried potatoes, flatbread
7:00-7:30 AM: Try to please Americans, boil water for water bottles and washing.
7:30-8:30 AM: Clean dishes and cooking utensils, disassemble and pack kitchen.
8:30-11:00 AM: Run on the trail in order to pass Americans and to set up and begin lunch.
11:00-12:00: Cook two hot lunches: one for staff (dhal bhat) and one for Americans. Carry water from stream to kitchen.
12:00-12:30 PM: Serve lunch, boil water for water bottles and clean up.
12:30-1:00 PM: Clean dishes and pack up.
1:00-4:00 PM: Run on the trail in order to pass Americans, arrive at destination and set up kitchen.
4:00-5:00 PM: Set up dining tent, prepare teatime for Americans and procure some local food.
5:00-7:30 PM: Cook two dinners: one for staff (dhal bhat) and one for Americans.
7:30-8:00 PM: Boil water for clean up and put finishing touches on some sort of spectacular desert.
8:00-9:30 PM: Clean up, ferry water from the village tap or local stream, and get ready to do it all over again.

One thing I should clarify regarding the aforementioned schedule, when I write that Krishna and his staff “ran” up the trail I use the word “ran” literally. Because they had to clean up after breakfast and lunch the kitchen crew began their morning and afternoon hikes more than an hour behind, but they always managed to pass us and have Tang ready when we arrived for lunch or at our stopover village. One of my favorite memories of the trek is hearing Myla’s clear singing accompanied by the clang and rattle of the mobile kitchen as Krishna and his staff jogged on by.

Myla was a nineteen-year-old Tamung on his second mountaineering expedition. Myla didn’t want to spend his life as a kitchen boy and was attending a sherpa training school organized by Nepalese Mountaineering Association. It was no coincidence that Myla had taken employment in a company owned by Tashi Sherpa, the director of the NMA. Myla was the son of a farmer and came from a village near Mt. Everest and before his arrival in Kathmandu he had never seen an electric light nor enjoyed indoor plumbing. Back in Kathmandu Brain and I met Myla waiting on the curb outside of the Kathmandu Guest House. He had left base camp early in order to accompany and cook for Shiva who decided to evacuate due to an increased Maoist threat, so when Myla learned that we had returned he went to our hotel, sat on the curb and waited. We took him out to dinner that night and when the waiter handed him a menu he whispered to Brian “what is for Brian sir?”

When Brian asked Kusang, our strongest sherpa, if any of his four sons were going to become sherpas, he said emphatically, “No! My children go to school.” The income he made as a high altitude mountaineering sherpa financed the education of his children. Myla was one generation behind. Every member of our staff bent their back so their sons and daughters wouldn’t have to.

You will not find a fat man or woman in rural Nepal. As I’ve written earlier I believe that both our staff and our porters saw us as very soft and in need of pampering. The best way to reinforce the presumption of laziness is to sleep late, so I made it my goal to be out of the tent before Preem could shove that hot cup of six o-clock tea through the zippered doorway. Being surrounded by such strong and loyal people made it easy to adopt a “great white hunter” attitude – “say boy fetch me my boots,” but I think that would have only diminished us in the eyes of our sherpa co-climbers. Summits are expensive, not simply financially, but also in terms of time, pain and risk, but one price I was unwilling to pay was the respect of my fellow climbers. I was determined to win the respect of our staff though a continual demonstration of strength, commitment, loyalty and competence. At one point during the climb I confided in Brian that I didn’t care as much about the summit as I did about earning the respect of Kusang, Ki Kami and Kha Cha.

Being out of the tent by five thirty allowed me to witness and photograph the packing and departure of our porters. Low in the valley the afternoon temperature often exceeded one hundred degrees – on one occasion my thermometer read one hundred and eleven Fahrenheit - so the porters, wanting to make as much distance in the cool air as possible, were on the trail by six, and didn’t eat their first meal until nine.

We wouldn’t get on the trail till seven thirty, our stomachs bulging after a breakfast of porridge, fresh eggs, flatbread and Spam. Two hours later we’d catch up with the porters as they gathered in groups of three or four around twig-fed cooking fires. Men and women shared equally in the preparation of dhal bhat. Dhal is a thin spicy stew made primarily of lentils while bhat is steamed white rice; the combination is standard fare in rural Nepal. Krishna prepared dhal bhat twice a day for the staff, but was convinced that no American would tolerate the stuff. It was delicious, especially with a little goat, yak or water buffalo meat, but it took considerable begging to get a little for ourselves.

Tho’ much is taken, much abides: and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
Tennyson, Ulysses

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Manaslu Part 20

The rugged individual is a myth reserved for Chuck Norris and Mel Gibson movies. Adventurers know that the individual can only thrive in a benign environment, and the go it alone guy is revered only by those who live in a guardrail society. Unfortunately our everyday world has become so tame that true, “my life is in your hands,” friendships are no longer needed. Most of us drift through life establishing no real connections because we simply don’t have to. Only by getting out of the benign Disneyland in which most of us live can we realize the full asset or liability of those with whom we chose to share our lives. When your continued existence truly and immediately depends on the competency and courage of your cohort(s) there exists the potential for sublime friendships and fire in your heart contempt. I spent seven weeks within fifty feet of Brian Sato and have no complaints.

“Feeling good, taking it slow. Trying to find a rhythm out here. I think it’s important to find some kind of peace in order to reach the summit. If you come here to fight count on losing.”
- Diary entry April 11, 2002

All who have been to Nepal know the greeting namaste. Literally translated as “I salute the God in you,” Namaste serves as both hello and goodbye, it is often said with both hands clasped together in what a Westerner would consider a prayer posture, and if you are lucky it will come in the form namaste bai or namaste di di – hello brother, hello sister. As I walked the trail in Nepal absorbed in my own feelings of doubt and homesickness I would often meet a young girl or an old man and invariably we would exchange this sincere greeting. As a matter of fact you say namaste so often that it comes as natural as blinking and if you’re not careful you will shorten the hand gesture to a single-handed kind of vertical salute, or worse yet a karate chop.

The trail is an equalizer. It gives two people, no matter how diverse their backgrounds, common footing. Aside from basic physiology, I had nothing in common with the locals I met on the trail: we didn’t speak the same language, we didn’t know the same songs, we had no shared experiences, yet many would stop stand clasp their hands together look me in the eye and say “hello brother.” It was a greeting from a fellow traveler, someone else trying to live life as best he can.

The third night of the trek was spent in the village of Dobhan, a three building settlement next to a cold mountain stream where we Americans washed off three days of dust and salty sweat. Our Garung porters were extremely modest and in an effort to be mindful and courteous we were very careful to find a secluded spot in which to strip down and wash up. Unlike the Tibetan people we were soon to meet higher in the Nubri Valley the Garungs were extraordinarily clean and every night the women would wash their feet and hair at the village tap. Every village that we saw had an identical water supply: someone had obtained a fifty foot section of plastic tubing, one end of which was run uphill and inserted into a stream while the other end was attached to a spigot embedded in a concrete block. Occasionally a friendly male versus female water fight would break out as the two genders competed for the faucet.

The Garung men wore what appeared to be discarded Western clothes – old sweat pants and out of fashion tee shirts – while the women wore colorful ankle-length patterned skirts cotton blouses and wool cardigan sweaters. Despite the heat, the dust and the fact that their skirts nearly brushed the ground the clothing of the Garung women remained spotless for the entire eight days of our trek. Several of our female porters also wore a sort of head wrap made from a single piece of brightly colored cotton cloth. The men wore no jewelry, while the women wore large golden hoops in their ears and at least one, possibly two ruby-studded rosettes in their noses. Some women had pierced the section of skin between their nostrils and through this hole they would place an ornate golden ring.

All of our porters either went barefoot or wore flimsy rubber shower sandals. A completely worn through sandal lying beside the trail was a common sight and once while following a group of porters I saw a man simply kick off a ruined sandal in mid-stride and continue barefoot. When I returned home I told a friend this story, she replied at how sad it was that our porters didn’t even have shoes. I think, however, it was the porters who saw us as the pitiful ones. If someone had stolen our boots we would have been hobbled, they, however, had no such weakness – weakness is the appropriate term.

Despite our need for sturdy and expensive boots the trail was gradually hardening our soft civilized bodies. We’d all arrived in Kathmandu in excellent shape, but unless you work as a farmer or a longshoreman it’s practically impossible to hold down a job and completely prepare yourself for the day in day out rigors of an extended mountaineering expedition. Fortunately our bodies are master adapters and my favorite time of any expedition is the beginning because that’s when you can physically feel yourself getting calloused and hard. After the first day you forget about the comb, after the second you stop dreaming of a hot shower and after the third you no longer care that you haven’t changed your underwear in three days. It’s actually quite liberating to take off your shoes, crawl into your bag fully clothed, sleep the night and then wakeup and only have to pull on your shoes in order to start the day. Four days on the trail will tear up your soft muscles and replace them with taut wire and will peel away your smooth skin and cover the wounds with impenetrable calluses – it’s a wonderful feeling.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Manaslu Part 19

The Manaslu region had only been open to trekkers for five years and electricity, tea houses and even the wheel remained conspicuously absent. On the trail my stash of Nepali Rupees was nearly worthless as the only thing for sale was the occasional soda from the old ladies who squatted beside trail. The women could fit three or four of the rusty-capped bottles into a metal washbasin filled with river water. I purchased all of the soda pop I could get my hands on.

Mountaineering expeditions have placed me in front of some spectacular scenery, however the enjoyment of my surroundings is usually tempered by the overarching dread of climbing some big mountain. On the mountain you are usually too busy or too tired to question your motives and your courage, but during the approach you have plenty of time to battle self-doubt. The question of how you will behave under fire is even more troubling when you know that your companion will behave with resolve and unwavering courage. I had no doubt in the veracity of Brian Sato, he is as good as they come, but as for myself, I wasn’t so sure. So as I passed through this traveler’s wonderland, a world where nothing is as I have known it, I missed many of the subtleties: the scent of the rhododendrons, the feel of the trail, the smile of a child, the sway of a cable bridge. Still there were some things you could not miss.

After our second day of trekking we were sitting on our packs in the village of Lapbesi watching our sherpas pitch camp when a tearful mother approached and held out her injured child. The boy was probably two years old and had opened up a sizable gash above his left eye. The wound looked horrible and everyone on our team except Brian chose to ignore the pleading mother - as many of us have become accustomed to ignoring a bum on the street. Brian looked closely at the wound and then turned to me, “come here and look at this, I think someone has already patched this little guy up.”

I got off of my butt and examined the boy; it did in fact appear that he had had medical attention. What at a distance had appeared to be a grotesque wound was a gash about an inch long onto which someone had packed gauze and then doused the works with iodine. The staining iodine and the ragged gauze had accentuated the cut. “It’s not as bad as it looks,” I said, “but maybe you should clean it up a little bit and put a dressing on it.”

“It’s not infected,” Brian replied. “I think someone who knew what they were doing treated this kid.”

“Well the mom seems pretty upset. I mean it looks pretty bad.”

Brian turned around looking. “Shiva!” He yelled, “could you come and help us.”

Shiva came over, winced at the wound, and spoke at length to the distraught mother. He then turned to us, “She says her son is hurt.”

Brain said, “yeah I can see that. But I think the boy has been treated. I think it is okay.”

Shiva turned to the mother and quickly spoke a short sentence. The mother replied in a long pleading oration. Shiva listened carefully before turning to us to say, “it is okay.”

As Shiva turned away the mother pushed the boy in front of Brian pleading in a language that neither of us understood. “I think we should clean it up and put a bandage on it,” I said. “Anything has to be better than what’s there now.”

Brian motioned for the mother to stay put and then went back to his pack and pulled out his large first aid kit. He cleaned off the iodine, and the boy didn’t so much as wince as Brian picked bits of gauze out of the encrusted wound. Brian carefully applied some beta dyne and then covered it all with a large square dressing. The child now looked like a kid with a big Band-Aid on his forehead and the mother smiled, thanked Brian and then disappeared into the village.

“I don’t think I did the right thing there,” Brian said closing up the first aid kit, “the kid’s just going to go play in the shit and that cut’s just going to fester underneath the bandage.”

“Well you have to deal with the mother as well as the kid,” I replied, “and I think you did good for both.”

Brian’s actions garnered him considerable attention and soon Dr. Brian’s Mountain Medical Clinic was open for business. I acted as Brian’s triage nurse and witnessed in my friend a bedside manner that was both patient and compassionate. Beta-dyne and Band-aids fixed up most of Brian’s customers, but a few of the cases were well beyond our capabilities.

An extended mountaineering expedition will expose the inner soul. The outer façade, the city face, quickly erodes and there is a very real chance of discovering that either you or your friends are not what either they or you once believed. Before leaving for Nepal I considered Brian Sato a cherished friend and an expert mountaineer, but I came to realize that he was better than I had imagined. I discovered in Brian a level of caring and compassion that I had overlooked during the twelve years we’d spent climbing and skiing together.

When Brian and I finished up the clean and patch operation we joined our companions at the cloth-covered steel camp table on which tea and cookies had been set. Shortly after I sat down Kusang tapped me on the shoulder, “Mike sir look please,” he said motioning for me to follow him. Together we walked to a crumbling stone building where in the doorway sat a woman nursing a child. Kusang motioned for me to look at the child, which I had a difficult time doing as the woman had dropped her shirt to her waist. The woman’s bare chest had no affect on Kusang, but it made me very uncomfortable. Once I was able to look at the child, who was less than two years old, I noticed that he was nearly covered on one side with a scabby rash which looked as though it had nearly eaten away the child’s left ear.

I had brought a small book to Nepal containing photographs of Melony and Sam, it was a big ice-breaker when meeting local people, and I believe Kusang, who has four children, figured that I shared a parent’s compassion for small children. He was correct. Following the birth of my son I cannot even tolerate talk of the suffering of children much less this much visual aid. My heart was breaking for this limp and resigned child. The only thing I could think to say was “fuck.”

“Kusang this child has to go to a doctor,” I said.

“Yes Mike sir, doctor sir, four times.”


Kusang spoke to the mother, “three days walking.”

“What did the doctor do?”

Kusang again spoke with the mother who pantomimed rubbing on a lotion.

I shook my head I didn’t know what to do. Kusang touched my shoulder and said, “okay, it is okay, go eat.” I walked back to the table thinking of Sam, I sat down but I didn’t eat.