WAS IT folly to think that my wife, our two children, and I, denizens of affluent, suburban America, could enjoy a two-week "family trek" in Nepal's Mt. Everest region?
Hearing about our trip, some people would undoubtedly answer, "yes." Even though the trek took place in April, when 70-degree temperatures were supposedly in order, on most days it snowed and the cold was beyond the capacities of our sleeping bags and clothes to keep us warm. At various times one or more of us suffered from altitude sickness, hypothermia, nausea, vomiting, constipation, diarrhea, headache, insomnia, depression, and the common cold. Our son, Tristan, 13, vomited seven times one day. On another occasion, when I was weakened by illness and exhausted by half a day's walking at high altitude, our leader told the trek doctor to give me dexedrine, commonly called speed, so that I could complete the day's trek; the doctor commented later that it was the first time he'd ever seen the drug used appropriately. We all lost enthusiasm for our meals, which, reflecting the dietary and culinary limitations of the region, almost always featured extremely greasy fried potatoes.
Yet as soon as the trek was over, all any of us could think about was going back. We missed the astonishing mountains, the spectacularly situated Buddhist monasteries, the rhododendrons and wild flowers, and even more we missed the Sherpas, the hardy, gentle, deeply spiritual people who inhabit the area. Kadie, our 11-year-old daughter, called them "the nicest people I've ever met," a sentiment we all shared. We came to recognize that despite our difficulties--perhaps even because of them to some extent--we'd had a profound experience, which we'd remember throughout our lives.
That, of course, was what my wife and I had hoped for when we signed up for the trek. We wanted our children to get a taste of life in an environment where people live in relative contentment without television, name brands, and the other accoutrements of modern life that Americans, and children in particular, often perceive as necessities. A bit too blithely perhaps, I assumed we could all cope with the rigors of camping and trekking in Nepal: while I had not trekked before, I had visited Nepal twice during a six-year residence in Asia, and had developed a fondness for the country; conversely, while my wife and children had never been in Asia, they all had some experience camping.
We signed on with Mountain Travel, a Berkeley, California-based agency that specializes in "adventure travel" to remote areas of the world. As our departure date approached, we became more and more excited, and spent our days collecting the equipment we'd need on the trek. This included basics such as hiking boots, rain gear, and sun glasses, and such oddments as battery-powered head lamps for reading at night, powdered hot chocolate and instant soup so that we'd feel encouraged to drink liquids to ward off altitude sickness, pencils and pads of paper we gave to a needy Sherpa school, and a plastic "pee bottle" provided by a friend so that I wouldn't have to leave the tent at night to visit the camp outhouse.
Our first disappointment occurred before we left for Nepal, when we realized that aside from the trek leaders, Joe Brennan and Jan Tiura, experienced mountaineers who were bringing their 2 1/2-year-old daughter on the trek, we constituted the only family among the 10 people on the "family trek." We feared that without more children, our group might not achieve the kind of with Sherpas that we hoped for, but we needn't have worried. For one thing, two of the Sherpa porters who accohemselves no older than 15 or 16, and often played with Tristan and Kadie. The ice was broken on the trek's fourth day, when Tristan hesitannstrated a frisbee to the Sherpa boys. Thereafter, frisbee games became a late-afternoon feature at our campsites.
With her long, blond hair that looked so startling among the black-haired S 2 1/2-year-old, also was an attraction, as curious Sherpas, particularly women and children, frequently gatheUnfortunately, throughout the trek Joanie was sick and sporadically feverish with what was diagnosed afterwardly intermittently could she enjoy the attention focused on her.
The trek was alternately physically taxing plifting, disturbing and exhilarating; it seemed no accident that a land so deeply touched by Buddhism reflectlance of hardship and pleasure. The same Tibetan who had just appalled us by blowing the contents of his stufferpa home's living room floor and then grinding the effluence into the wooden planks with his boot would, a feveal himself to be an inspired dancer. Or, after being sickened by a morning encounter with a camp outhouse, ws the home of a mangy dog that ate what we left behind there, we would begin our trek, and be moved as we pass thousands of carved prayer stones and flapping prayer flags. It seemed that each time we turned a corner we wnew vista of snow-covered peaks and glaciers, icefalls and waterfalls, blooming pink peach trees and flame-col From the time we arrived at a tiny, sloping airstrip at the village of Lukla (altitude 9,200 feet) until we weeks later, we did not hear a noise made by an engine or see a conveyance that used wheels. Alone with naturquainted with our bodies, which now revealed themselves to be fragile and demanding. High altitude quickly robs the body of energy, and we cour strength ebbing and flowing from hour to hour. Finding that we could cope with that phenomenon yielded eno
The Sherpas became our teachers, our heroes. Accustomed to long hikes at high altitudes, Sherpas carrying heavier than ours constantly bounded past us on the steep trails. And while we wore state-of-the-art boots, soe tennis shoes or thongs or went barefoot, despite the snow. We were awed by the Sherpas' physical prowess, yever gave the slightest hint of feeling superior to us. On the contrary, we were invariably treated with though About 10 Sherpas, including porters, cook boys, and yak drivers, traveled with us throughout the trek. In tht us bed tea, followed a few minutes later by steaming washing water in tin basins. After serving breakfast, camp and, bearing our belongings either on yaks or on their backs, easily overtook us on the trail. By the tir lunch, they were at a stopping point ahead of us, preparing it. When we reached our new campsite in the lateas were ready with hot drinks, followed by more washing water and, eventually, dinner. If we were tired on the trek, Sherpas cheerfully carried our backpacks. I have never felt so looked after as during our two weeks undNot knowing many of the Sherpas' names, we devised our own. We called the yak driver "Duke" because he wore a ded us of John Wayne; he amazed us by his absolute composure as he walked along the trail, simultaneously whishis yaks, spinning yak wool with his hands, and carrying a heavy load. Another Sherpa became known as "the guy with the bad knee" after a rock slide sent him sprawling and caused his knee to swell to twice its normal size; nevertheless the next day he was back on the trail, limpiy slightly, carrying his load without complaint. Another Sherpa, who said he was 15 but looked 12 and had as s be imagined, was dubbed "Paris French" because the baseball cap he wore said above the beak, "Paris French/Lais French was being employed on a trek for the first time, and was assigned the task of carrying cameras for an imperious 78-year-old ex-mountaineer who rarely acknowledged his presence except to take cameras from him; nevertheless, Paris French performed his job with intense respectfulness, staying a yard or two behind the old man and providing cameras whenever asked. The old man, by the way, gave up the trek halfway through because of the cold.
Our deepest admiration had to be reserved for Ila, our 54-year-old sirdar, or head Sherpa. In my mind he is more of a hero than, say, John Glenn or Steve Garvey. Not only did he reach 26,000 feet as a high altitude porter on the first American expedition to Mt. Everest in 1963, but he embodied the Sherpa ideals of gentleness and compassion. Exemplifying Buddhists' respect for all life, Ila became momentarily upset when a member of our group nearly crushed a flea-sized bug. And unbeknownst to us, Ila hiked four hours to get candles for a surprise cake presented to Kadie on her 11th birthday, which trekkers and Sherpas celebrated together one evening in our icy dining tent.
Everywhere we went we were touched by the Sherpas' approach to life, whether it was reflected in the shrines and prayer stones we constantly passed or the playful manner in which Sherpas treated one another. Duke, our yak driver, once carried our cook around our camp piggyback while both giggled uproariously; we also saw Sherpas having a yak dung fight in the same carefree spirit in which we might have a snowball fight. Equally revealingly, when we entered the tiny village of Phunki, we saw seven small buildings, each enclosing a water wheel turned by the runoff from a diverted stream. We had to look more closely to see that instead of serving some utilitarian purpose such as grinding grain, as we supposed, the system's sole purpose was to rotate prayer wheels inside each building.
Snow kept us from trekking as far or as high as we had planned, and clouds deprived us of views of Mt. Everest and other Himalayan giants such as Lhotse, Nuptse, and Ama Dablam for much of the trek. The 13,000-foot-high Thyangboche monastery was said to be a spectacular vantage point, but a foot of snow fell soon after we arrived there, and visibility was negligible. The discouragement in our group was palpable. However, on the trek's 10th day we awoke to our first view of Mt. Everest; that seemed to us to redeem much of our discomfort. Then, on the trek's last day, as we waited at the Lukla airstrip for the plane that would fly us back to Kathmandu, we were startled to realize that Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man to climb Everest, was standing next to us, and we shyly shook his hand. That was more redemption than we could have hoped for.