It was not exactly a trip to the top of Mount Everest with Sir Edmund Hillary. Instead, here were 16 trekkers done up in band-aids, insect repellent, fever blister cream, sun block, floppy hats and grimy knickers, panting and groaning as they made their way through the rocky Himalayan foothills of Nepal. Their caravan included a support staff of 45 porters, cooks and Sherpa guides who not only held their hands as they forded the streams but also carried the sleeping bags, latrine tents, kitchen gear, dining table and several live chickens soon slaughtered for stew. To wash it down were three cases of French wine.
"This isn't a trek," one American participant observed. "This is a schlep."
But when the trekkers were through, they had walked for eight days and 50 up-and-down miles, through heat, rain, cold and patches of snow, past the yaks, rice paddies and Buddhist shrines in the highest mountain range in the world. They fought off altitude headaches, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, bug bites, aching muscles and bad jokes. If it wasn't Everest, the mountain first climbed by Hillary that was less than 100 miles to the east, it was still no stroll through the woods.
It was not, for instance, the easiest of trips for Helene A. von Damm, an experienced trekker who also happens to be Ronald Reagan's former White House secretary and now the U.S. ambassador to Austria. But she had her own reasons for coming. Having hiked the Inca trail in Peru and climbed to the top of Austria's highest peak, she was eager for another adventure to escape the mess she left behind in Vienna. Some months back, she rocked the city by quietly divorcing her third husband and rapidly marrying a fourth, the rich and handsome Peter Gu rtler, owner of the luxury-class Hotel Sacher and, at 39, eight years her junior. "I came for peace of mind," she said.
Nor was it an easy trek for Gu rtler, a man who enjoys a nice warm bath and a little Chateaubriand after a day of hunting pheasant or deer in the Austrian woods. Until he married von Damm, he would have been as likely to turn up on a trip like this as to appear at Vienna's annual Opera Ball without his white tie and tails. Although he was a good sport, he never did get used to the latrine tents pitched over a hole in the ground at an ever-steeper angle each night. "I like a bathroom," he said.
"Helene is happy . . . so I am happy," Gu rtler kept muttering over and over, even as the rain poured down his back one miserable day when the trekkers were climbing a steep, muddy hillside.
"The first day was terribly hot," he said, reflecting afterward. "And then there were seven more."
Even Gregory Abbott, a 34-year-old Choate and Princeton graduate, and a New York Marathon finisher, was huffing as he climbed the hills. He had a bad sunburn and two days of nausea, but may have suffered the worst at his own hand. In a remarkable act of masochism, he brought along his just-finished first manuscript, a novel, and solicited readers from among the group.
Then there was Eric Harder, the sixtyish West German ambassador to Nepal who collected himself at the end of each day with some cognac in a plastic cup. He brought his wife, Esther, 52, an elegantly thin, ash-blond former baroness. "At least the Sherpas get paid for this," she said after one especially grueling day.
The one person who loved every moment was Leon J. Weil, the U.S. ambassador to Nepal. He served as the trek organizer and top cheerleader, and had ordered the wine especially for the trip. Weil, 57, was a stockbroker on Wall Street before discovering the Outward Bound outdoor self-confidence program that he says changed his life, and to him the trek was a small price to pay for seeing a kingdom that is mostly inaccessible, except by foot.
In the end, the trek was not so much a discovery of Nepal as a discovery of self. Pretense fell away quickly, and when it was over the trekkers seemed like the pilgrims in the Canterbury Tales, each having a very personal reason for going -- and a story to tell -- that went far beyond the long hike through the hills. Day 1
The busload of trekkers heads out toward the starting point as Katmandu is just waking up, an exotic, dirty outpost of pagoda-style temples, noisy bazaars and health-food restaurants offering spinach lasagna and mid-'70s American rock. Von Damm has a bad cold that will stay with her through the trip, but she is determined to go.
Lee Weil, tan, silver-haired and chipper in his hiking shorts and Everest '85 cap, has turned over most of the work to Mountain Travel Nepal, an agency that frequently plans treks as relatively luxurious as this one. For $40 a day, each hiker's principal responsibility is putting one foot in front of the other.
The bus drops everyone off in a hot, dusty valley, at only 2,000 feet, and by 10 a.m. the trekkers are off. The week will take them through the Helambu region, which runs north of Katmandu, not far from the border of Tibet. There is a short walk before lunch, then a long afternoon hike in terrible heat. Sometimes one of the porters will pass by, barefoot, slight, carrying a load of close to 100 pounds, sweating -- and singing. In the fields, Nepalese women stoop in the mud planting rice. By mid-afternoon, the trekkers reach the first campsite and head for the river, which miraculously is cold.
After a swim, von Damm settles into a folding chair outside her tent. "Trips like this put everything in perspective," she says. She looks the same as she did at the White House -- short, dark hair, liquid eyes, the same rolling of her r's in her heavy Austrian accent -- but she has come to Nepal clearly harassed, worn down by the publicity that followed her February marriage in the chic Austrian ski resort town of Kitzbu hel.
The press interviews she gave right afterward were masterpieces in poise, and as far as Vienna knew, the ambassador was just shrugging off the hubbub and moving on with her life. But on this trip, she seems too tired for another performance. She recalls the worst moment came the day the press found out about what was to have been a secret wedding. "I was almost in hysterics," she says -- although later she and Gu rtler reenacted the ring exchange for television cameras.
She was already a celebrity in Austria by way of her life story: the poor Austrian farm girl terrified by war immigrates to America, through luck and ambition becomes secretary and important aide to the president of the world's most powerful nation, then is sent back as his ambassador to her homeland. She had always impressed people as a Reagan loyalist with good political instincts and discipline. But this time even her friends didn't know that in January she'd divorced her third husband, New Jersey businessman Byron Leeds, just in time to marry a fourth.
"It was like a bomb," she says, talking after the trek, "but it was the only way to do it. Otherwise we would have been in the papers, and there would have been rumors. The other alternative was not to do it, but that comes down to whether your life is the job, or is there going to be something in front? We had made our decision and were prepared to take the consequences, but nevertheless, we're all human beings, and it still hurts. We all know we don't only have friends, and this gave ammunition to those who don't think of me kindly."
Vienna socialites and the Austrian press had a fine time, seeing comic possibilities in the Sachertorte, the rich chocolate cake that has helped make the hotel famous. Its recipe has been one of Europe's best-kept secrets for 150 years. One Austrian cartoonist drew the newlyweds in bed, with Gu rtler sitting up, a disheveled wreck, while von Damm sat next to him on the phone, telling Reagan, "It's okay. I've got the recipe."
In reality, some at the White House were said to be upset about her behavior, particularly Nancy Reagan. Administration aides have always said that the first lady has never liked von Damm.
"I don't know what she really said and didn't say," says von Damm. The president, she says, just told her on the phone that "I hope it all works out for the best."
Von Damm gets frustrated because she feels the poor-Austrian-girl saga, and now her marriage, both overshadow the serious work she has done. But the Austrians have been captivated by her story, and unlike the usual obscure diplomat, von Damm says more than 80 percent of the country knows who she is. She has exploited that recognition by speaking out on important issues, from Central America to technology transfer to missiles in Europe. She has helped bring George Bush, Jeane Kirkpatrick and Henry Kissinger to Vienna, a diplomatic backwater not usually a prime stop for globe-wandering heavies.
Under her ambassadorship, the Austrian president, Rudolf Kirchschlaeger, was the first Austrian chief of state to meet with Reagan at the White House. She organized a Frank Sinatra charity concert that she says netted $300,000 for poor Austrian children, and she is busy trying to raise more money for the Sigmund Freud Museum. "Freud does not have the place in history that I think he should in Vienna," she says.
She has been going on trips like this ever since she came to the United States in her twenties, a fearful, cautious immigrant who "for five years worked at the same dumb job [as a clerk in an insurance company] because I was petrified to go out and get another. I had no self-confidence."
A friend suggested she try to challenge herself physically to get over it, so she signed up for the Sierra Club's basic mountaineering course. Since then, every few years, often when things are going badly, she'll go on a trip.
"When you get away from it all," she says, "you think, 'Well, what is important? The person you love.' "
Time for dinner, Day 1. The table is lit by Coleman lanterns. The menu is leek soup, with bugs, rice, vegetables and, for dessert, a big hit -- a sachertorte brought from Vienna by Gu rtler. Everyone teases the newlyweds about going on what is serving as their honeymoon with 14 other trekkers and 45 staff.
"At least we have our own tent," von Damm points out. Day 2
The Sherpas wake up the trekkers at 6 a.m. with "bed tea," passed through the front flaps of each tent. Next come little bowls of hot water for washing up. Breakfast is at 6:30 -- oatmeal, dry biscuits, marmalade, coffee -- and by 7, everyone is off, wading across a wide river.
Von Damm, who has always been fascinated by the magic of Nepal, planned this trip on the Inca trail two years ago with her friend Heide Kingsbury. The two have known each other since their days in California Gov. Ronald Reagan's office, where Kingsbury was chief of the letter-writing staff. Athletic and exuberant, the 52-year-old Kingsbury embarrassed von Damm all week but delighted the others with her tales about von Damm.
Also along was Hans Baumann, Kingsbury's husband, who slid halfway out of his slanting tent one night; Philip Harley, the United States Information Agency public affairs officer in Nepal who ate everything offered to him, including water buffalo liver; Cary Weil, the ambassador's 26-year-old daughter; Jay Price, a California ski resort owner; Henry Obermuller, a Tahoe City, Calif., restaurateur who woke everyone up at dawn with his battery-powered razor; two journalists; and Lee Weil's wife, Mabel, an urban planner who has come to love Nepal but who admits that she reacted to her husband's excited phone call about his ambassadorship a year ago with dead silence.
The common thread for most of them was an admiration for Ronald Reagan and a conservative Republican gestalt -- although one windy day on a hillside they did go so far as to come up with a George Bush-Jeane Kirkpatrick presidential dream ticket for 1988.
Today, everyone's shirt is already drenched in sweat from the blazing morning sun. Gu rtler keeps his mind off the heat by attaching himself to his Walkman, listening to a tape of English vocabulary words. Fluent in several languages, he feels his English isn't up to the standards of his wife.
He first met von Damm at a birthday party of a mutual friend in June 1982, shortly after she first arrived in Vienna. "This was the time I was discussing my divorce with my wife, and I wasn't in a very good mood," he says. "But then the wife of the host said, 'Oh, Peter, please sit at the table of our ambassador.' After two minutes, she was exciting."
He pauses, looking for words.
"To describe Helene," he finally says, "it's difficult for me, even in German."
Gu rtler, with wavy hair and boyish, refined good looks, is a charmer who likes fast cars, fine food and stylish clothes. His family has owned the Hotel Sacher since 1934, moving in a milieu of horses, skiing, opera and the romance of Vienna.
Like von Damm, Gu rtler has had intensely difficult periods in his life. By the end of the trek he will quietly talk about the day in 1970 when his father shot himself, leaving instructions in his will that his younger son should take over the ownership and management of one of the grand hotels of Europe. Peter Gu rtler was 24.
"We had 300 employes," he says, "and most of them were older than I was." Over the next six years, he renovated the entire hotel and is credited with bringing it up to its current standards. He knows that a man in his circumstances cannot expect much pity, so he says very simply that the last 15 years haven't been easy.
Gu rtler says that the three years between meeting von Damm in 1982 and their marriage were very difficult. "It was a hard time. I became years older. If you love somebody, and you can't go anyplace because people know you, it's very hard. That's why we decided to marry as fast as possible."
Lunch, at 10 a.m., is fried eggs in a small village wedged between the terraced hillsides of barley and wheat. The children who swarm around to watch the trekkers eat have ragged clothes, runny noses and outstretched hands. Nepal, opened to foreigners only after 1951, is one of the poorest nations in the world. Trekkers, in the expensive hiking gear bought for the kind of leisure time most Nepalese can't comprehend, find themselves walking by unspeakable rural poverty feeling helpless and guilty.
"When we come into their villages, they stare at us as much as we stare at them," Abbott said one day. "But then you remember that we can leave, and they have to stay." Day 3
By late afternoon the trekkers reach Tarkeghyang, a village of stunning Nepalese women with high cheekbones, smooth brown skin and the persuasive abilities of car salesmen. One lures a small group to her home to look at souvenirs. The trekkers are now 10,000 feet up, in view of the snow-capped mountains, and since it's rainy and cold, why not? There, in a dark, low-ceilinged room, with floors and walls of gleaming wood, the woman serves hot tea from a warm fire. As her sweet face glows, she expertly lulls the trekkers into buying trinkets at twice what they would cost in Katmandu.
Through it all, Abbott tells jokes. He has become the trek's master of ceremonies. He has known von Damm since 1979, when she first started raising money for Reagan in New York. Abbott's father gave a big reception for Reagan that year, but Abbott is eager to be considered in his own right. Tall, rakish, with brown hair curling past his collar, he sold the family panty-hose and women's underwear business in 1983, quit work there in February, then finished his novel, six months in the works. Called "Loving Her," it at first had no readers among the group. But as the trekkers got to know Abbott, "Loving Her" became the trek version of the latest Sidney Sheldon, passed from tent to tent and read by flashlight at night.
Abbott says he came on the trek for "a rest," a transition between the business world and what he hopes will be a life of politics or writing. He is hoping to get his book published.
At dinner, the food is terrible: greasy fried potatoes, noodles and cheese sauce. Eric Harder is for some reason concerned that he doesn't have a knife.
"But you don't need one," Lee Weil tells him. "There's nothing to cut."
"I will find something to cut," Harder mumbles. "I will cut the throat of the cook." Day 4
"The trek's half over," someone observes.
"Not even half over," von Damm sighs, coughing. Day 5
Rain. For two hours the trekkers walk in a steady downpour. Nobody talks. All you can hear is an occasional grunt and the squish of hiking boots against wet earth. It is still pouring when they reach the campsite, a green, soggy meadow bordered by rhododendron trees and inhabited by yaks. The trekkers huddle inside the dining tent, shivering, as Harder produces a bottle of Johnnie Walker Red, half of which disappears in 15 minutes. Only Lee Weil is so cheerful that he is beginning to get on von Damm's nerves. She continues to cough.
For years, Weil had a fantasy of becoming ambassador to Nepal as a reward for his fundraising for Reagan. But it wasn't until he climbed Mount Kilimanjaro on a 1984 Outward Bound trip that he decided to leave Wall Street and act to make the fantasy come true.
He first got into Republican politics in a big way when he was finance chairman for James Buckley's successful race for the U.S. Senate in 1970, and later helped von Damm raise money for Reagan. Never close to the president's inner circle, he simply asked von Damm, at that time the White House personnel director, to put his name in the file for Nepal at a time when he was growing increasingly restless with his life. Then came Kilimanjaro.
"We had a very bad day climbing," he recalls. "We got drenched and finally made it to this hut. We were so exhausted we had to take a rest day. To pass the time, one of the Outward Bound leaders had us take out a piece of paper and write a goal on it. So I wrote down that I wanted to do something different, to join government service. Then the guy said, 'And what are you going to do about it?' That question made me stop the daydreaming.
Back from Africa, he called the White House and was told that the job had just opened up. Then he had to lobby. "It was hard," he says.
Before Weil arrived, some diplomats in Katmandu thought his Outward Bound experience might be a late-life crisis that would have him trekking instead of working, and in fact, Weil had gone on numerous trips through the mountains. But even those who prefer to stay desk-bound admit it is the best way to see Nepal. Some career foreign service officers consider his Reaganite view of the world naive, but Weil has nonetheless impressed many in Katmandu by doing his homework and showing a genuine enthusiasm for the Nepalese.
He thinks these past months have been among the happiest of his life.
"I feel more at peace with myself," he says. Day 6
The food has become the big issue. Von Damm and Gurtler are leading the debate, irritated that for $40 a day they are not getting much more than potatoes for dinner. Von Damm is suspicious because several of the chickens bought along the way have turned up only as gizzards and bones in a stew. "Where did the breasts go?" she says, glancing in the direction of the Sherpas.
By midmorning the trekkers have reached the most beautiful part of the trip. They walk over damp moss, ferns and little patches of snow, surrounded by white mountains and the flowers of the rhododendron trees. The air is fresh and thin.
"What an experience living the way we do," Mabel Weil says later. She is 55, cheerful and earnest, and has gone on several treks with her husband. After several days on the trail, it is clear she is still sorting out her feelings about living in Nepal, and trying to find a comfortable niche as the ambassador's wife. She is a Wheaton College graduate who married right after school, raised three children on Manhattan's East Side, did the requisite community volunteer work and then, when the kids were grown, went to Hunter College for a degree in urban planning that landed her a job with the Real Estate Board of New York. She was just beginning to love it when she got the phone call from Lee.
"It was great for him," she says, acknowledging how restless he'd been, "but I had a lot of qualms. I was sort of in a state of shock." She had never been to the Third World before. "I thought, 'My God, it's just going to be hell.' "
Now she enjoys the exotica of Katmandu, and has come to like the entertaining and reception-going expected of the ambassador's wife, "Although sometimes," she says, "you have to sit with the women, and many of them don't speak English. My Nepali is still so rudimentary that after we got through what our names are and where we live, there's not a lot more to say.
"Whatever Lee's job is, I think I can enhance it," she adds, "but I sometimes wonder when I'm talking to someone whether I'm enhancing the image of the United States, or whether I'm just having an interesting time talking to someone . . . I'm not sure sometimes exactly what the ambassador's wife's job is." Day 7
"I can't believe when I first heard about this trek that I said, 'Only eight days?' " Greg Abbott complains. Day 8
The trekkers get up faster this morning, like horses who speed up when they know the stable's not far. There has been a raucous awards ceremony the night before, and everyone, despite the bad food and sore muscles, has decided the trek has been the trip of a lifetime, at least on the good days. Abbott, as master of ceremonies, gives Gu rtler the "As Long As You're Happy Dear" Award, plus a special citation for Gourmet Trek Catering. Harder gets the Driest Humor and Brandy Award, Obermuller gets the Norelco Floating Heads Award, for electric shaving at sunrise, and Lee Weil, the conservative, gets the Hubert H. Humphrey Award for Trekking Enthusiasm.
Von Damm gets awards for Best Original Concept and Best Casting for a trek. Her prize is a cabbage-and-mashed-potato dinner for two at the restaurant of her choice in Tarkeghyang, Nepal -- catered by Mountain Travel.
By 2 p.m. on this last day, everyone reaches the bus. Salvation.
"What would it take to get you to turn around and do this over again?" Gu rtler asks Abbott.
"The ownership of the Hotel Sacher. I own it, you run it. What would it take you?"
"I would do it again to save my children," says Gurtler, seriously, "and to save Helene.