Each step I take rips at my strength. My heart pounds. I pause for a few seconds. I take 10 more steps, pause, another 10 steps, another pause. I try not to think about how much farther I must struggle to the summit of Kala Pattar. Just put that foot a bit higher, then the other one.
I am now above 17,700 feet, with less than 500 feet of elevation to go. I will take more than an hour to walk a distance that can't be more than from the White House to Constitution Avenue. While the slope is gentle, my lungs claw for the rarefied oxygen.
If this were North America, Kala Pattar would be our fourth highest peak. It stands 3,700 feet higher than the loftiest peak in the 48 states. But here in the Himalayas of eastern Nepal, it is but a pimple, a hill.
I finally struggle to the summit and sink behind a boulder to escape a wind howling, the wind-chill below zero. Then, and only then, I look across the valley to the summit of Mount Everest, the highest peak on earth, the mountain the Nepalis call Sagarmatha. Its summit is nearly 11,000 feet above me. How do people climb it?
The air is so crisp and clear here, the cloudless sky a deep blue. My eyes fix on the summit, just five miles away. Jet winds are carrying away the night's snow in a plume from the peak, leaving a pyramid of black rock. Below the peak I see the top of the icefall that makes access so treacherous. To the left stands Pumori (23,442 feet), and to the right of Everest is the great ice-covered face of Nuptse (25,850).
I am one of a growing number (dare I call it an avalanche?) of Americans who have discovered the excitement and escape of trekking in Nepal. I went the first time in 1980 to hike as close as possible to Everest, without the need for climbing gear. I returned two years later with my son, Lee, to hike in a different region of Nepal. Lee and I went to the west to walk around Annapurna, which at 26,504 feet is the 10th highest peak on earth.
Why does a Washingtonian in his late forties, with no climbing skills, spend a month's time and about six weeks of take-home pay (three months worth for the trip with Lee) to sleep in tents, eat bland food that can at best be called uninteresting and suffer a considerable degree of cold and fatigue?
It is certainly the challenge: to get as close to the roof of the world as possible without the valiant skills needed to assault Everest itself. Certainly, it is the chance to see the most dominating scenery our world offers, a parade of peaks 20,000 feet and higher. And it is to watch glacial freshets grow into roaring torrents, and to hear the thunder of an avalanche. It is to look at stars so luminescent that I could read in the "dark" of night.
Perhaps most of all, the Siren that drew me back -- and may once more -- is the opportunity to walk through a society, a culture that in most ways remains unchanged from the time of Columbus.
To get here, you fly to Kathmandu via either New Delhi or Bangkok. Kathmandu is a city of colorful bazaars and modern hotels, the capital of a nation the size and shape of Tennessee tilted on the south slope of the Himalayas.
But once you reach a roadhead not many miles outside Kathmandu, things jump back in time. All transportation is by foot. All "freight" moves on the backs of men and women; yaks, the local beasts of burden, are used only at higher eleva- tions. Men cultivate the soil with wooden plows pulled by water buffalo. Homes are lit and warmed from an open fire on a dirt floor, the smoke seeping through the roof. Women thrash grain with sticks.
And the welcome to a foreigner seems friendly and genuine. Pass almost anyone, and you will exchange a cheerful greeting, "Namaste," bringing your fingers together as in prayer, your head bowing slightly.
Yet the centuries juxtapose: An elderly Buddhist lama in a burgundy robe walks in step with a porter wearing Calvin Klein jeans, listening to a tape player.
The experience of trekking has become almost commonplace in some circles in Washington. I have met dozens of people who have trekked in Nepal, including a member of the Interstate Commerce Commission, the architect of the Capitol and the former head of the Congressional Budget Office.
And treks are arranged easily through the burgeoning group of "adventure" travel companies, both in America and Kathmandu. They offer everything from rather elaborate group trips, such as mine, to short, private hikes of several days that may take you to 8,000 or 10,000 feet.
Of, if you wish, you can simply go to Kathmandu and hire a porter or two -- or even carry your own backpack -- for a do-it-yourself trek, living and eating at rudimentary guest houses and tea houses that dot the route.
Nor do you have to be in Olympic shape. Two or three months of preparatory jogging, plus a few weekends of bicycling or climbs of Old Rag in Virginia, should suffice. One man on my Everest trek was in his sixties; he reached the 18,194-foot summit of Kala Pattar.
But make no mistake. The land is harsh and unforgiving. While visiting a monastery near Everest, we watched porters bring in the body of a Nepali killed by falling rock. There are spots on the trail where one misstep could pitch you 1,000 feet into a valley.
The altitude itself can prove a severe problem, as well as a constant topic of dinner table chatter. No apparent logic governs who may have difficulties. I had little trouble. A young, very athletic doctor on our Annapurna trek suffered so many altitude problems that we had to rent a pony to tote him over a 17,700-foot pass. The best advice: Take it slowly, and do not try to go too high too fast. Happily, medical advice usually is abundant. A fifth of the persons on my two treks were doctors.
Organized package treks, such as mine, limit group size to 15 customers. But your group will travel with a retinue befitting a maharajah -- eight or nine guides from an ethnic group known as Sherpas. These mountain people of Tibetan heritage live almost in the shadow of Everest, and work as high-altitude guides and porters on most major climbs in the Himalayas. Another several dozen Nepali porters of non-Sherpa heritage are hired to haul the tents, sleeping bags, cookware, food and all your personal gear; you carry only what you want during the day: water bottles, camera and some extra clothing.
Organized group treks do involve a tradeoff. They are far more expensive than do-it-yourself hikes, probably two or three times as costly. Since you will see the same villages and the same peaks, why take a group trek? The best reason: your health.
Stomach problems are endemic in Nepal. Yet I never suffered a moment of stomach upset during either trek, thanks to the Sherpas' religious vigilence in boiling every drop of water we consumed. I never met an on-your-own hiker who was able to avoid bouts of stomach distress, often incapacitating them for several days.
The two treks we took shared many similarities, and many differences. Before Lukla, the trail to Mount Everest runs across the grain of the rivers and steep valleys that drain the Tibetan Plateau. Each step seems to be sharply up, or gingerly down. The route around Annapurna follows the Marsyandi River into the Himalayas, and the Kali Gandaki Valley out. It crosses fewer ridges, but does inflict one 6,000-foot afternoon climb through a monkey-infested forest of moss, ferns and rhododendron.
On both, we walked through forests of bamboo and banana trees, then fir and hemlock, and experienced the vitality of village life: children singing and playing, women weaving or hulling grain, shops selling cloth, batteries and Panda brand sneakers from China, plus an endless river of travelers.
The day on the trail began between 5:30 and 6 a.m. with the delivery to our tent of a cup of tea and a bowl of warm wash water, followed by the struggle to dress in temperatures that often dipped below freezing. After a breakfast of juice, eggs, porridge, biscuits and tea, we were on the trail by 7:15. (The cook team left earlier so it could greet us with lunch 3 1/2 hours later.)
The daily hiking pace was comfortable, and set by the individual trekker. The last trekker into camp often wandered in 30 or 40 minutes after the first. That was up to us. A Sherpa always tagged along with a leisurely walker.
There was plenty of time to photograph a village or mountain scene, to find seclusion for the call of nature or to haggle with a "Tibetan trader" over the price of a silver bracelet or a wooden prayer stick. We learned quickly to bargain, as the final price was often only 20 to 40 percent of the original asking price; I bought a yak-tooth necklace for $1.50, down from an original $12.
Frequent stops for a Coca-Cola or a Star Beer were particularly appreciated when we remembered the drinks were carried on the back of a porter.
The Annapurna trek began in the scruffy village of Dhumre, then followed the Marsyandi into the mountains, through the Gurung country, home of the famous Gurkha soldiers. The villages had names like Bagarchhap, Chame, Pisang, Braga and Manang before the pass at Thorong La. From there we dropped sharply 5,000 feet to Muktinath, a pilgrimage center for both Hindu and Buddhist, where I saw more prayer wheels than people.
From Muktinath, we descended into a wind tunnel known as the Kali Gandaki, the deepest valley on earth. To the left stood Annapurna; the world's sixth highest peak, Dhaulagiri (26,811 feet), stood to the right. We walked through apple orchards near Larjung, then into an area of orange and lemon groves near Tatopani, before leaving the valley to head for the airport at Pokhara.
In the Kali Gandaki, we spent some time at Marpha, which is tucked into a bend of the river out of the wind. It is a charming village of whitewashed houses that front onto flagstone streets. The gurgle of a water system under the street is musical. The stoop of each house is a uniform ocher, the door green. Like most villages in Nepal, there is no litter or trash; everything is collected for reuse. Unlike most villages, the streets of Marpha are also free of animal droppings.
Wherever we went, the trail changed suddenly. It would shoot upward, or meander beside a river. Sometimes it was cobbled and wide enough for two cars to pass, even if the nearest auto was 100 miles away. Other times, the trail was simply a few inches of dirt on the edge of the rice paddy. Try passing a yak or water buffalo on a trail a foot wide!
Lunch on the trail was the best meal of the day: juice, eggs, meat or cheese, vegetables or beans, tea and chapatis, those tasty unleavened bread patties from India.
After time to rest or wander about the area, we were off again at noon for another 3 1/2 or 4 hours of hiking to the evening campsite. Upon arrival, the Sherpas quicky converted a field, forest glade or a schoolyard into an instant village -- a line of orange, two-person tents for the "sahibs," more tents for the Sherpas, a large tent for the dinner table and to shelter any porters who were not sleeping in a nearby village, a cook area and a couple of blue tents for outhouses. With luck, we were near a stream to wash clothes; it was usually too cold for a swim.
But there were happy surprises. On the Annapurna trek, we camped in a schoolyard at Chame, a short walk across a swinging footbridge from a hot spring. Total immersion in water that was bathtub warm had an amazing effect on both my strength and cleanliness.
And we found all the villages friendly and well worth some time spent poking around. At lower elevations, the adobe houses with thatched roofs were spread over the hillside in a splash of color; above 6,000 or 7,000 feet, the villages were compact, built of stone caulked with mud, the shingles held down by heavy stones. The ground floor was usually a stable, the second floor the living quarters. Dung patties for future kitchen fires dried on the walls outside.
In one village I saw a smiling poster of Donny and Marie Osmond hung next to photographs of the king and queen of Nepal. Villages often sported a communal swing, strung on 30-foot ropes from four stout trees. The experience was far different from a Bethesda schoolyard.
We found a Frisbee an invaluable way to meet local children. The village youngsters who flocked to our campsite to stare at these bizarre visitors were always anxious to join in tossing it about. And did they giggle!
One afternoon, three boys came to our camp to serenade us on a primitive wooden fiddle, singing tunes of Nepal, as well as a fractured version of "Fre're Jacques."
Camping near a village was not done simply for our entertainment. The porters needed access to a village for food and shelter; the Sherpas shared the food and campsite with the trekkers. And the crew of porters was constantly evolving; several quit most nights when they reached their home village or simply decided to join another trek in another direction. The Sherpas then had to recruit new porters in the villages, a process that suspends a Western sense of cash values. At a pay of $2.60 a day, the exhausting task of hauling loads weighing 60, 70 or even 100 pounds is often prized as one of the few sources of cash income for a rural family.
Sherpas earn somewhat more, about $3.50 a day. But they receive cash tips after the trip, as well as piles of used clothing -- maybe a down jacket, sweaters, jeans and lots and lots of T-shirts. Pasang was the chief Sherpa, called the sirdar, on the Annapurna trek. He wore proudly a sweatshirt proclaiming the glories of the Washington Redskins.
About 5:30 or 6 p.m. we sat down to dinner -- soup, maybe some meat, vegetables, rice, fruit and tea, lots of tea. (Liquids are essential to stave off the dehydration that can produce altitude problems.)
We did get some dining surprises. One afternoon on the Everest trek, I noticed that Sherpa Pemba was leading a frisky white goat on a leash. That day and the next, the goat trekked with us. The second evening, we dined on unusually large portions of meat with a flavor stronger than beef. Pemba's goat never reappeared.
By 8 p.m., the weary trekkers were usually asleep.
Two or three days on each trek were set aside to help the group acclimatize to the increasing altitude. We could sleep, sit in camp and read, or climb a local hill, one that often turned out to be higher than anything in Colorado.
On one rest day near Everest, we camped in the stony yak pasture near the home of our sirdar, Ang Nema. I went for a stroll of several hours with our group leader, a Seattle lawyer, who was quite vocal about what he assured us were his superior mountaineering skills. As the two of us were returning to camp, we came upon a crew preparing to film a weathered, older Westerner. He was sitting on a rock, holding a mountaineer's ice axe by the shaft.
My leader surveyed this scene and announced to the film crew that the gentleman obviously knew nothing about mountaineering, and his ignorance would surely prove embarrassing to their film.
"No one who knows anything would ever hold an ice axe by the shaft. It's dangerous. It can twist and cut you," my leader proclaimed. He blathered on for several minutes, denouncing the gentleman's knowledge and skills, then stomped off toward camp.
Curious to find out who this inexperienced -- but bemused -- gent was, I stuck around to watch the filming. The "inexperienced" mountaineer was Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man to reach the summit of Everest. We chatted for a few moments, and with Sir Edmund's good wishes to send me forth, I knew we would make it to Kala Pattar.
The next morning our group left for the final days toward Everest. Across the valley from the site of my meeting with Sir Edmund stands the most famous monastery in Nepal, Thyangboche, sitting at 12,715 feet on a ridge looking up the valley toward Everest and Lhotse -- at 27,891 feet, the world's fourth highest peak.
In the busy trekking season, more than 100 trekkers often camp here before pushing on toward destinations like Kala Pattar, four days away. The hoard of visitors seems to leave the contemplative life of the Buddhist lamas undisturbed. Visitors are welcome to attend either the morning or evening prayer session, each lasting several hours.
We found the experience mesmerizing. Two rows of six lamas, seated facing one another, alternately chanted the mantra, "Om Mani Padre Hom" ("Hail to the Jewel in the Lotus") over and over, then played a dirge on cymbals, drum and two seven-foot-long horns of brass. The lighting was by Coleman lantern.
While Thyangboche boasts international fame, a number of active monasteries (called gompas) dot the Everest and Annapurna routes, once you get into the Buddhist highlands. All welcome the trekker.
My favorite was a small gompa outside Manang with a view across to Annapurna. Lee and I hiked up there one day, attracted by its fac,ade of red, green, gold and white. We found two lamas living there. The elder one was a bald, fat man wrapped in a burgundy robe, worn over a saffron shirt. He led us into the holy chamber with great pride to show us the relics: paintings of the Buddha; a couple of godly statues; and a string of plastic oranges hanging from the ceiling, the religious significance of which escaped us.
The gompa also contained a wooden prayer wheel, standing nearly eight feet tall and five feet in diameter, a holy vessel painted with cheerful scenes of the Buddha. At the top, we could see scraps of rice paper, inscribed with prayers, stuffed under the lid. Since a single revolution of the wheel sends each and every prayer inside to heaven, one can only imagine the merits to be gathered from a single twirl. We made several turns, much to the delight of the lama.
Far less interesting was a gompa at Pangboche, mildly famous for its "genuine" skull of the yeti (the Abominable Snowman). It looks remarkably like a piece of cowhide.
But we had to leave the villages and the monasteries and push on toward our goal.
Leaving Thyangboche, we spend two nights in a valley of tundra at 14,000 feet (putting us level with the peak of Pikes Peak), then walk slowly toward our next camp at 16,200 feet at Lobouje, near the base of the giant ice wall that is Nuptse.
Color has now drained from the landscape, leaving it uniformly gray, white and mud-brown. The only splash comes as the setting sun turns the ice of Nuptse a flaming gold.
We arise the next morning at 5:30 to find the temperature at 10 degrees. We consume as much tea and porridge as possible, then leave, maintaining a good pace toward Gorek Shep, one of Hillary's camps on his 1953 assault on Everest. We cross the dry lake bed, then begin the arduous walk up what looks like such a gentle slope to Kala Pattar.
I ache. I strain. I feel exhausted.
Is it worth it?
A thousand times, yes.
Thanks, Sir Edmund.