Brian, Pam, Josie, Derek, Jeanne, Ray, Joanne, Stephen, Peter
|Saturday November 4, 2000 Kathmandu
Yes, we all survived the trek and most of the group is now on its way back to Canada. Ray & I stay until Nov 6 when we have a flight to Varanasi, the city of the dead in India and Derek & Josie are hanging around Kathmandu until Nov 7.
But first, I should introduce our fellow trekkies. Derek Anderson, Josie Hales, Pam Bendall & Brian Haley joined us for the second year in a row, all set to explore another part of Nepal. Derek went to Mt A with Ray in the 60s; Derek & Josie live in Montreal, but spend most of their time at their cottage near Mt Tremblant. Pam & Derek are both Nesbitt Thompson employees, but Pam & Brian live in White Rock, BC. Peter Lidington lives in Ottawa and is a fellow Ottawa Bicycle Club member. His son, Stephen, joined us from Australia, where he was working for the last several months. Last but not least, Joanne Green is from Vancouver, but she currently spends most of her time as an archaeologist out in the BC bush. Her parents are good friends with Ray's cousin Ann Richardson out on Pender Island, BC, who recommended she get in touch with us for Nepal trekking. We are glad she did, for she & Stephen added a little twenty-something flavour to the otherwise middle aged group.
Our trek started with a short, scenic flight to Pokhara, west of Kathmandu, where we boarded mini buses for a short drive to the town of Phedi. That is, half the group went there directly, while Ray & I dragged Stephen & Joanne around Pokhara trying to find the SOS Herman Gmeiner School so we could deliver money to the principal. We did find the school, which is part of the international system of SOS schools and children's villages. This one in Pokhara serves the Tibetan population for grades 8 - 10. The money was for the educa tion of a young girl, Kunchok Wangmo, from a couple from Vancouver who worked in the area for a year and became very close to the girl and her family. We met the principal, Tsering Thondup and Kunchok and promised to visit again on our return to Pokhara at the end of our trek.
Finally, we were on our way to rejoin the others, meet our staff who would be with us for the next 2 weeks and to start walking up the first of many, many stone steps up and down the mountains. We started at about 4,000 ft altitude and reached over 15,000 ft on our 9th day out, so it was a long way straight up, but we were ready for it. For the first timers in our group, it was quite a revelation to discover how many people it takes to guide 9 westerners on a fully supported trek. Fully supported means that we sleep in tents, not lodges along the way, and all our meals are specially prepared for us. The trekkers only have to carry a daypack with their water, camera, and fleece or jacket. Everything else, including our green Everest Trekking bags filled with clothes & sleeping bags, folding tables & chairs, our 2 person Eureka dome tents and a tented toilet, the 'biffy' or 'charpi', was carried by the 24 porters and 4 kitchen staff. In addition, we had 2 head guides, Ram Barindar Lama and Kanchha Lama, 3 assistant guides, Santa Lama, Samrat Lama and Arjun Lama, and a cook, Hari Lama. By the way, Lama is a clan name for Tibetan descendant Nepalis.
The first several days of our trek were along the same route taken by lots of other trekkers on their way to the Annapurna Sanctuary and Base Camp as well as the end journey for trekkers completing the Annapurna Circuit. The majority of trekkers in this area stay in simple Guesthouses or Lodges that comprise most of the villages. Some, like us, stay in small, private campgrounds, which are usually flat areas next to a Guesthouse and are just big enough to accommodate the tents for a group such as ours. We passed several other trekkers from all over the world, but it was not crowded . In fact, I thought the number of Guesthouses far outnumbered the number of trekkers. The proximity of the Guesthouses to our campsites meant that Haley's bar, supplied with local beer, was open for business almost every evening before supper. Ours was a social group and we had lots of good laughs. After supper, we managed to squeeze in a few games of Hearts, nothing serious, before bedtime at 8:30 or 9:00 PM. This was not surprising, given that we were awake every morning at 6:00 AM, washed, packed, fed and on the trail by 8:00 AM, to hike about 3 hrs in the morning and maybe 2 more hrs in the afternoon.
Until we were above the tree line, we hiked through dense Rhododendron forests, which must be beautiful in the springtime. The skies were clear first thing in the morning affording good views of the snowy peaks of Manaslu, Machapuchre, and Annapurna 2, 3, 4 and soon, Annapurna South and Dhaulagiri. Unfortunately on our ascent, the clouds rolled in as the temperature climbed and before lunch the peaks were obscured, not to return until the coolness of the night. At least we got to brush our teeth before bed to the light of a million stars. The first few days in the lower altitudes, we hiked in shorts and T-shirts, but above 8,000 ft, it was long pants and fleece and/or jackets to start, gradually peeling off layers as we warmed up on the uphills. We even got a little rain along the way and some snow, rather like Ivory Snow pellets, at the highest altitudes, but it was never so bad or so long to hold us back. The length of our walking days were designed to allow us to acclimatize slowly, so there were some days that we reached our campsite for that day before noon. Then a few of us would get one of our guides to lead us further up to explore more of the area. Even in the middle of the clouds and in the middle of a mini snow shower this was fun. In the Guesthouse village of Ghandruk, we discovered the original ancient village where the people still lived their lives as they had hundreds of years before. We passed by herds of shaggy goats, sheep and even Yaks being tended by a lone herder and his dog. The villages gave us an opportunity to buy more trinkets and hand knit gloves and socks to keep us warm in the evenings. It was in Ghandruk that Peter decided to lighten his load and reverse the selling operation by selling his supply of Power Bars to a local shopkeeper. We are fed too well to need extra snacks.
On the 5th day out, we left the beaten path to spend 6 days in the wilderness, making our way to Copra Ridge and the sacred Hindu lake Kare Tal. Part of the route was along a path so narrow that there was room for just one foot at a time. Josie & Pam declared this part 'challenging and character building', but I found it especially scenic. They hate me for this. Copra Ridge, at 12,000 ft, lives up to its name as it is on the ridge of a very large bowl below Annapurna South, giving spectacular views far down the valleys on either side.
Copra Ridge itself is now a campsite established as a moneymaking project by 2 local high schools to pay their teachers' salaries & for school supplies. They also raise Yaks and sell Yak blood, taken much the same as giving blood for the Red Cross, to locals, who believe it cures all manner of illnesses. Josie and Brian were showing signs of altitude sickness, so they elected to stay at Copra while the rest of us hiked up to the Kare Tal Base Camp at nearly 14,000 ft. This was a great walk, including the section where we walked through those Ivory Snow pellets and crossed cautiously over icy rock ledges. Along the way we passed by temporary shelters used by herders that looked just like the ancient longhouses of North American Indians. Just the skeleton of the shelter is left standing, to be covered in l eaves and bamboo sheets when needed. Our campsite that night was in a cirque formed from the retreat of a glacier and ending in multiple waterfalls and small rivers.
That afternoon, Derek & Pam returned to spend the night with their spouses, leaving the rest of us to spend the coldest night yet, preparing for our final climb the next morning. I even left Ray all alone in his tent and slept with Joanne to try to make sure she stayed warm. I'm not sure I was that much good as the altitude made me restless and kept me from sleeping soundly. Joanne did stay warm, surrounded by water bottles filled with hot water and wrapped in a space blanket. At any rate, I must have rested enough as I was not too tired in the morning and we all started up 2,000 ft of stone steps to the sacred lake. It was the toughest 2 hour climb I think I have ever done and I got slow enough at the end, struggling with my 60% lung capacity, to give my pack to our guide Ram to carry. It was worth it as the lake was a magical place, crystal clear, surrounded by hills with Annapurna South in the background. Devout Hindus come in the thousands for the August full moon to sacrifice sheep to Shiva on a lakeside stone altar and to light candles all around the edge of the lake. This was evident from the many sheep's horns, small brass candleholders and tridents littering the area. Joanne had carried up Buddhist prayer flags, intending to string them up near the lake, but she decided they were not appropriate given the Hindu atmosphere. She said they would make their debut as decorations for a summer garden party back in Vancouver.
We left Kare Tal almost reluctantly and started a much speedier descent back to our campsite in time for lunch. Who should we meet almost at the bottom of the hill but Pam and our guide Kanchha. Pam was so determined not to miss the lake climb that she had left Copra at 7:30 that morning, hiked up to Kare Base Camp and was on her way up to Kare Tal. Brian was much recovered too, so he had come with them as far as the Base Camp, but wisely elected to forego the extra altitude. We had lunch, and started off back to Copra again. Wouldn't you know it, Pam & Kanchha caught up with us part way down. They had sped up in a little over an hour and literally run down to join us. There is no stopping Pam.
And so ended our uphill climb - for the most part. This is Nepal after all with its famous 'Nepali flats' (just like Vermont). It was a cold and windy night once again on Copra Ridge, but shortly after leaving the ridge, the skies cleared and we had lovely sunny days from then on. In another 2 days, we were reaching villages again, just in time for a Birthday celebration for Stephen. He turned 22 and celebrated with a Crispy Crunch bar for breakfast, a rather 'different' birthday cake surprise served by our staff at supper in Ghorepani and ended sharing beer with the porters at night.
Thank goodness the party did not go on too late as we all agreed to a 4:30 AM wake up call the next morning so that we could climb Poon Hill to see the mountains at sunrise. I think a few of us would have elected to stay in bed if we had not misunderstood our guide's 50 minute estimate for 15 minutes uphill. Oh well, we sure found out where all the other trekkers filling the guesthouses were. They all joined us in a headlit line snaking up the 1000 ft hill, several hundred of us. There was room for us all on top after all and the entire range of mountains from Dhaulagiri to Machupuchre were displayed before us, growing brighter and brighter as the sun hit the snow on their peaks. It was quite a sight. Just like the posters they sell in town.
From there it was truly all downhill to Bhirethati, our last campsite and our last night in tents. We had tea & drinks in the lovely garden of the only luxury Guesthouse in this area, the Laksmi. There were several suggestions from the group that we should be staying there instead of the tents. Maybe next time. That afternoon we made our clothing presentation to the staff. We all contributed items we had worn during the trek, T-shirts, fleece, even shoes, or extras we had brought along and everything was divided by the guides into 23 more or less equal piles for the 23 remaining staff (we had dropped some along the way). The piles are then distributed by lottery to the eagerly awaiting staff. This is always a great hit and we are always pleased to see the men put on their new clothes right there or to trade those items that don't fit for more suitable ones. That night after supper we were treated to traditional singing and dancing and of course we all had to get up and try out the dances with them.
The next morning we hiked up to the road where the whole gang of us boarded a chartered local bus for the trip back. That was an experience following narrow, sharp switchbacks up the side of a valley and down the other side to the Pokhara valley. The only disappointment for Derek was that he didn't get to ride on the roof like the locals do. We had our last lunch prepared and served by our staff at a campsite by the lake in Pokhara and we bid goodbye to everyone by giving them their final tip money. The porters who last the entire trip get extra monies for their hard work. And they do work hard, carrying 2 of our green bags which weigh 15 Kg each plus their own meager gear.
After staying that night in a hotel near the airport in Pokhara, and enjoying our first shower in 2 weeks, Ray & I went to revisit Tsering, the principal of the SOS Herman Gmeiner School and the young girl, Kunchok, who had gifts and thank you letters for her benefactors in Vancouver. We had a very interesting tour of the school, of which they are justly proud. It was built in 1996 and has very good facilities, by Nepali standards. The science labs and library are not up to Canadian standards, but they have a brand new computer room just waiting to be connected to the Internet. After sharing some sweet Nepali tea with Tsering, we said our goodbyes again and joined the others to fly back to Kathmandu.
Once back at the Kathmandu Guest House, we caught up with the adventures of the other group that trekked to Gokyo Ri, the same trip Ray & I did in 1995. Of course, they all had a great time & enjoyed spectacular views of Everest and surrounding mountains, and all made it back safely. You have to ask the individuals from that group for the details.
Ray & I shared a great dinner with Nancy & Tashi Sherpa, the Nepal partners of Everest Trekking, and Gord Konantz, the Canadian connection & his daughter Erin, who was group leader to Gokyo. Good to catch up on all their news and to share experiences.
Yesterday, our group toured Patan, an almost suburb of Kathmandu, which has the most interesting carpet factory providing employment for Tibetan Refugees. Several of us couldn't resist and went home lugging beautiful hand woven carpets. Most of us took in the Nepali Museum in Patan with its impressive collection of Buddhas housed in an old palace. I learn more about this country every time I come here. Last night both groups said farewell over a traditional Nepali dinner at the Thamel House. Some of us weren' t ready to end the trip right away so we continued on in the courtyard of the KGH. The 20-somethings adopted the lone 20-something, Jeff, from the Gokyo group and led him astray, as his father might say, until I'm not sure what time that night. Anyway, they were all up the next morning, bright but earlier than I'm sure they would have liked, to go to the airport and catch their flights home.
Everything must come to an end, as they say. There will be lots of stories and memories from this trip and it may not be the last for some of us. That includes this letter, long as usual!
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