Himalayan High: On the trail (part 1)

If you’ve been following the series of stories on my recent trek to Everest Base Camp, you already know that any trip to the Himalaya begins with a visit to Kathmandu, but before you can actually start the hike, you’ll also have to hop a flight to Tenzing-Hillary Airport in Lukla as well. Once in Lukla, the trek actually gets underway, quite literally, immediately after you get off the plane. You won’t be picked up by any cars, taxis, or even a bus, but instead you’ll collect your pack, walk up a flight of stone stairs, and onto the path. The very same path that will eventually lead into the High Himalaya, and on to Everest itself.

But before you can go any higher, you must first go lower, and for the first day of the trek, you’ll actually be moving down. Lukla is located at 9380 feet (2860 meters), but in order to begin the acclimatization process, you’ll drop all the way down 8700 feet (2652 meters) as you make the hike to Pakding, the first stop on the way to Everest.

The initial day on the trail is a relatively easy one, as you’ll only spend about three hours hiking, on a mostly smooth, and easy to follow, route. Along the way you’ll wander through small villages built right onto the side of the mountain, and past Buddhist monuments covered in scared sutras, while the beautiful peaks of the Himalaya tower high overhead.

Even at that early stage of the trek you’ll begin to get a sense of what you can expect on the road ahead. The trail winds up and down steep slopes and across a number of suspension bridges that hang above gaping chasms, while an ice blue river, fed from a distant glacier, roars by far below. The trees and flowers are lush and beautiful, and in April, one of the prime times to visit the Khumbu Region, the air is filled with the fragrant scents of springtime in the mountains. Cool winds stir through the local flora and send dust from the trail into the air, something that is barely noticeable at lower altitudes, but will come back to haunt hikers in the days ahead.The road is far from empty, and you’ll encounter plenty of other trekkers along the way. Some will be in large groups, numbering close to 20, with several guides and a gaggle of porters in tow. Other, smaller, groups will be traveling independently, carrying their own packs and navigating their way without the use of a guide at all. But no matter if they’re part of a large, organized trek or going it alone, there is a camaraderie amongst trekkers on the trail, with friendly greetings, plenty of banter, and a lot of good-natured ribbing.

Trekkers aren’t the only ones who frequent the trail however, as there are plenty of Nepalis traveling between villages as well. Most impressive of these are the porters that you frequently see along the way, most of whom are carrying large, very heavy loads, up the steep mountain roads. While most of us are trying desperately to catch our breath, carrying just a 20 pound pack, these guys are hauling 100 pounds or more up into the very thing air. Worse yet they make it look easy, which can be rather dejecting at times.

Traveling through the Khumbu Valley is a challenge, especially as you move to higher altitudes. Fortunately, at the end of the day, you’re not climbing into a tent and hoping to get a good nights sleep. Instead, you’ll be staying in traditional Nepali teahouses, which have been a mainstay in the region for centuries. These teahouses offer simple accommodations with rooms that lack electricity and heat, but are small and comfortable, with a bed to roll your sleeping bag out on. They also have large common rooms where trekkers gather at the end of the day for warm meals, hot tea, and an evening of conversation and playingcards. A stay in the teahouse offers rest and relaxation, and a dash of local culture, that is an indelible part of any Himalayan adventure.

As I mentioned, the first day of the trek is short and not especially challenging. Trekkers drop in altitude to begin the acclimatization process, and for the most part, the hike is a pleasant walk through a beautiful area. But the second day is a completely different story. On Day 2, you’ll spend six to eight hours on the trail, and you’ll gain more than 2600 feet (800 meters) in altitude. Most of that will come after lunch, when you’ll begin a major climb that helps to make this one of the toughest days of the entire trek.

The final destination for that day is a place called Namche Bazaar, one of the larger, and more famous, villages in the Khumbu Valley. But in order to get to that place, you’ll need to climb a major slope. One that will test even the best conditioned trekkers. It is a long, grueling climb, that leaves you exhausted, gasping for breath, and more than ready for a break. But you’ll also feel a sense of accomplishment as well. You’ve conquered the first major hurdle of the trek, and you’ve climbed up to 11,305 feet (3446 meters). Fortunately, Namche Bazaar is also the first of two rest stops along the way, and the day after that long, brutal climb, you’ll have an opportunity to recuperate, acclimatize, and prepare for the journey ahead.

Next: A Visit To Namche Bazaar

Himalayan High: Kathmandu – Gateway to the Himalaya

Whether you’re headed to Everest Base Camp, hiking the Annapurna Circuit, or continuing your journey on to Bhutan or Tibet, you’ll invariably have to go through Kathmandu, the colorful, chaotic, and at times confounding, capital of Nepal. It is truly the gateway to the Himalaya, offering travelers, backpackers, and climbers access to a host of adventure opportunities, with the world’s most spectacular scenery as a jaw-dropping backdrop.

From the time you leave Tribhuvan International Airport, the city is an assault on the senses, with the constant noise of traffic, the smell of incense (often used to counter the smell of trash), and the sights of the busy market places, awash in a myriad of bright, garish colors. The narrow, twisty streets are clogged with cars, the sidewalks are teeming with people, and air is thick with smog. But despite all of that, there is a certain allure to the place. An undeniable energy that hints at the adventures that lie ahead.

For more than 2000 years, Kathmandu has been a crossroads of trade and culture, and that is still reflected in its make-up today. Hindu and Buddhist temples are a common sight throughout the city, and the population is a very cosmopolitan mix of Nepali, Tibetan, and Indian people, with a healthy dose of ex-pats from around the globe thrown in as well. Walking the streets of Kathmandu, I heard a dozen different languages being spoken, and saw people representing cultures from around the globe, which only further enhanced the city’s reputation as a destination for globetrotters and adventurers alike. A visit to Kathmandu is a bit of an adventure in and of itself actually, as even before you head to the mountains, you’ll have to learn to deal with discomfort. In the spring, when the climbing and trekking season begins, travelers descend on the city in droves, over taxing an already strained infrastructure. As a result, rolling blackouts are a daily occurrence, and worse yet, the hot, dry, and dusty conditions, prevalent in the months before the arrival of the monsoon, can have an adverse effect on the water supply. It was not uncommon to turn on the faucets or shower in my hotel room, only to find that the water was a lovely shade of brown.

But perhaps the biggest challenge to travel in Kathmandu are the Maoist rebels, who frequently call for general strikes in protest of the current government. These strikes are a disruption to both commuting and commerce throughout the city, bringing the place to a standstill, while Maoist supporters rally to their cause in large numbers. The strikes can last for days, and be crippling to business. Worse yet, they can strand travelers in their hotels and prevent them from departing the city as planned. While I was in Kathmandu we received word of an impending strike the morning we were scheduled to leave for the Himalaya, and as a result, we were up ahead of the sun in order to catch a bus to the airport, before the streets could become clogged with traffic and protesters. That bit of planning put us in the terminal hours before our flight to Lukla, but allowed us to get out of the city on schedule.

The city isn’t just a series of challenges for visitors however, and no trip o Kathmandu is complete without a visit to Thamel, a popular area for travelers looking for good places to eat, shop, and take in some of the local culture. This popular tourist district is a maze of narrow streets, but offers up all kinds of unique experiences, including local bakeries, street vendors, and shops selling hand crafted items of all kinds. You’ll want to be wary of the beggars and pickpockets that frequent this part of town however, and I was approached on more than one occasion with offers to sell me hash as well.

Thamel is a great place for climbers and trekkers to pick up that last piece of gear they need before they head out to the mountains, as gear shops line the streets, offering cheap prices on authentic and knockoff equipment from North Face, Mountain Hardwear, and Patagonia alike. You’ll also find plenty of prayer flags, statues of Buddha, and replica prayer wheels mixed in with the backpacks and trekking poles, and when you’re finished shopping, you can grab a bite to eat from a variety of restaurants with cuisines from around the globe. I’d recommend stopping by the Rum Doodle, which is famous for its steaks, and the fact that Everest summitteers eat for free.

A short walk from Thamel is Durbar Square, a perfect place to soak up some of the history of Kathmandu. There are over 50 temples and palaces in this district alone, each with its own unique architecture and character. And for a bit of tranquility in the middle of this noisy and chaotic city, stop by the beautiful, and blissfully quiet, Garden of Dreams, which is also not far from Thamel, but feels like it is a million miles away with its carefully groomed lawns and colorful flower gardens.

But really, all of these experiences in Kathmandu, both good and bad, are just a prelude to what really brings you to Nepal. A Himalayan adventure of a lifetime. In my case, that meant a trek to Everest Base Camp and a once in a lifetime hike through the most incredible scenery on the planet. Soon, I would trade the heat and smog of the city for clear blue skies, roaring glacial rivers, and incredibly thin mountain air. Something I was more than ready to experience after two days in the Nepali capital.

Next: Lukla’s Tenzing-Hillary Airport

Himalayan High: A trek to Everest Base Camp

More than any other mountain, Mount Everest has always held an undeniable allure amongst the general public. Ever since it was first surveyed back in 1856, we’ve been fascinated by the massive peak that rises 29,029 feet above the Earth’s surface. Later, the world would hold its collective breath while explorers such as George Mallory and Andrew Irvine challenged the mountain, just because it was there. And later we would cheer when a young man from New Zealand, named Edmund Hillary, and his climbing partner from Nepal, Tenzing Norgay, stood atop the summit for the first time. The fascination turned a bit morbid when Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air told the tale of the that tragic 1996 climbing season during which 15 people lost their lives on the mountain. But that best selling book reintroduced a new generation to Everest, keeping its mystique alive and as strong as ever.

Climbing the mountain is an expensive and challenging endeavor, costing upwards of $50,000 and requiring a two month commitment to complete. Not many of us have that kind of time on our hands, not to mention that much disposable income, which makes it highly unlikely that we’ll ever stand on the summit ourselves. But the desire to see the mountain runs strong amongst adventure travelers, and each year hundreds of them make the trek to Everest Base Camp, just to experience a part of the mountain for themselves.

In April I had the privilege to make that trek for myself, spending 12 days hiking in the Khumbu Valley of Nepal, and ultimately arriving at Base Camp, located at 17,600 feet. Along the way, I passed through mountain villages, stayed in traditional teahouses, and experienced the Himalayan culture first hand, and all the while the stunning snow capped mountains of the region served as a breathtaking backdrop. The trip turned out to be everything I had hoped for and more, and while it isn’t an easy journey, for those who have always wanted to make it, it is definitely worth the hike.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing my experiences from the trek with Gadling readers. Hopefully I’ll be able to convey to you, in some small way, the sense of adventure and wonder that a walk in the Himalaya can produce. And that adventure starts in Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, and the gateway to those mountains.

Next: Kathmandu: Gateway to the Himalaya

The Indomitable Miss Hawley

There are a number of legendary men who cast large shadows over the world of mountaineering. Men like George Mallory, Sir Edmund Hillary, and Reinhold Messener, whose exploits in the mountains are told around campfires from the Karakorum to the Andes. But there is a woman who stands with these legends and casts a large shadow of her own. Her name is Elizabeth Hawley, and even the most accomplished mountaineers must pay homage to this Himalayan Queen.

The 85 year old Miss Hawley, as she is known amongst the climbers, first traveled to Nepal in 1960, and she hasn’t left since. She became transfixed by the mountains and the culture of the people that live there, and was drawn to the men who climb the big peaks of the Himalaya. Her training as a journalist compelled her to tell their stories, and soon, she was chronciling all of the major climbs.

Today, nearly 50 years later, she is recognized as the utmost authority on Himalayan climbing, and she still meets with each and every expedition that comes through Kathmandu. Miss Hawley is known for her incredible memory, and she will usually quiz climbers about their plans before they set out to the mountains, and then mercilessly debrief them about the climb upon their return. Often times she has the final say on whether or not an expedition is deemed as having successfully reached the summit, and her Himalayan Database is updated yearly to reflect all the latest climbs. Once entered into that database however, a mountaineer is immortalized, and their story is certified by the indomitable Miss Hawley.

To find out more about this amazing woman, checkout her biographay I’ll Call You in Kathmandu.

Classic Trek: The Annapurna Circuit

Climbers and high altitude mountaineers aren’t the only ones having fun in the Himalaya this spring. Plenty of backpackers will pour into Nepal too, setting their sites on one of the greatest treks in the world, the legendary Annapurna Circuit. Unfortunately, this may be the last great year to take this hike, as the completion of a new road could spell the end of the things that have made this one so special for so long.

The Annapurna Circuit gets underway near Pokhara, located in western Nepal, and has a completely different feel than trekking in the Khumbu Valley, the country’s other major backpacking hub. For one thing, it tends to not be as crowded, and it can provide a more authentic cultural experience.

Those planning to make the trek should expect to devote between 18 and 20 days to the journey. Over the course of that time, you’ll cover approximately 185 miles, and go as high as 17,770 feet in the Thorung La pass. The Circuit wanders completely around the Annapurna Massif, which is made up of a series of massive Himalayan peaks, of which, the central summit known as Annapurna I reaches 26,545 feet in height. It is the 10th highest mountain in the world, and considered one of the most challenging to scale. Trekkers will also journey in the shadow of Dhaulagiri, the 7th tallest mountain on Earth, which falls just to the west.

One of the unique elements to trekking in Nepal is that it allows travelers to stay in comfortable tea houses at the end of each day. These traditional inns are found in villages, located every few hours along the trail, and offer up warm, comfortable, and relatively inexpensive places to stay throughout the length of the trek. It also means that food and drink are plentiful, which allows for the backpacker to carry less gear and go at their own pace. The easy access to these Himalayan hostels means that you can spend all morning on the trail, and if you feel like taking it easy, stop early in the afternoon for a rest, or push on to the next village, not too far down the line.

As if the luxury of the tea houses wasn’t enough, the trail also has a number of Buddhist temples and other impressive displays of the traditional architecture of the region en route. Couple these attractions with the stunning beauty of the mountains, and travelers get a unique experience unlike nearly any other trek in the world.

The character of the Annapurna Circuit is changing however, and some fear that it will soon lose its charm. As I mentioned, a new road has been built in the area, and now increased traffic has turned a once remote, and tranquil hike into a dusty, noisy experience for trekkers. Many who have hiked the Circuit say that if you really want to experience it in its truest form, this is the year to go, as once the road is completed sometime in 2010, it’ll never be the same again.

The lasting impact of that road has yet to be seen, and for now the Annapurna Circuit remains one of the great clssic treks. It is easy to find a guide service to show you the route, either before you go to Nepal or after you arrive, but one of the other great elements of the Annapurna Circuit is that it can easily be done without a guide, making it one of the most accessible of the world’s classic treks.