It grows harder with each step. At 10 o'clock on an October morning, I stagger up a trail at 18,000 feet, half a world away from my home in Arlington. My breath comes in deep gasps. My tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth. Every 10 paces, a wave of dizziness forces me to stop and park my hands on my hips, my heart clapping in my chest.
Listless and mildly depressed after a couple of hours' sleep, I had set out before sunrise from the village of Lobuche with my brother-in-law, Gene. There, above 16,000 feet, we had spent the night in our sleeping bags, sucking at the air like fresh-caught bluefish in a cooler. Now I can't shake this headache and a feeling like a red wine hangover, despite the fact we've abstained for two weeks from any drink but tea and about five liters of water a day.
We're scaling Kala Pattar, a mountain in Nepal that's sort of a Mount Everest for the poor man. If you like mountains but don't have $65,000 and the training to climb a serious Himalayan peak--and have no intention of seriously defying death--Kala Pattar will give you all the test you need. It's a pinnacle of black rock near the border of Tibet, just a few miles west of Mount Everest. Here, with little more than basic fitness and sufficient effort to deal with the altitude, you'll get higher than most places on the planet without sticking your neck out, except to breathe. If you're just a hiker, it's the largest mountain you'll ever climb, with terrific views of the largest mountain you'll never climb, all for about $10 a day plus air fare.
To cope with the exhaustion as we walk, my mind seems to be set on shuffle mode, the way it used to go when I was in the middle of a brutal track workout in high school. My thoughts move in random directions without my stewardship. A song whose name I can't recall keeps repeating itself deep in my brain, while my memory drifts back through the chain of events that brought me here.
Before I left, my sister gave me a card. It shows a hiker, stooped beneath his backpack at a bend in the trail. He wears a startled expression as he encounters a briefcase-toting doppelganger of himself in a business suit. The caption: "Stanley was deeply disappointed when, high in the Himalayas, he found his true self."
I came here with more modest ambitions. I came to see the biggest mountains on earth, to spend some time with my brother-in-law, to get away, to get some exercise, to break the routine. But, like Stanley, when you hike up to the continental divide of Asia, you get some insight into your true self whether you want it or not. You learn what your limits are, or what they've become. You think about patience. Already knew about that? You understand it differently. Kala Pattar's remote, roadless heights take and keep two weeks of your life.
Altitude sickness, the bane of every Himalayan trek, hovers nearby at all times. To avoid serious symptoms, we've held to a strict acclimatization schedule. This means we gain an average of a thousand feet of elevation a day and take every third day off. But the Himalayas began to rise millions of years ago when India, then a separate continent, moved north and collided with Asia. The land wrinkled like a rug pushed up against a wall. So we struggle up 2,000 feet per day, then drop a thousand, then up three the next and down two, like Sisyphus rolling the stone. Each time the trail begins to descend, Gene and I shout out together: "Givin' it back again!?"
We began trekking nine days ago, after our Canadian Twin Otter slammed down on a dirt runway at Lukla, a village 9,200 feet above sea level ringed by sheer green mountains. That concluded 34 hours of flying and layovers. Gene got us from Dulles to Los Angeles to Tokyo to Bangkok on his United Airlines frequent-flier miles. (Had we paid with cash, it would have cost $1,380 per coach seat, $4,238 business). Exhausted, we spent a day and two nights at the Bangkok Hilton--definitely not a poor man's hotel. But Gene is a frequent Hilton client, and we cashed in some half-price credits there. Refreshed, we continued west on a Thai Airways flight to Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal. That round-trip ticket cost more than the whole trip--$620 each. Finally, a Yeti Airways puddle-jumper carried us out of Kathmandu northeast through post-monsoon cloud blossoms. Late-summer thermals tossed us like a bee in the wind, while the bristling ivory of the Himalayas rose on our left.
At Lukla we jumped out of the plane, wide-eyed, and hoisted our packs, our hair snapping in the prop wash.
"How bout that landing?!" yelled someone over the din. It was a mountaineer named Jeff on his fourth visit. He pointed to the rock wall at the high end of the runway. "I think I like the old Russian helicopters they used to use," he shouted. The plane turned around and sped down the runway, catching air just short of where the landing strip dropped off to oblivion, as if from an aircraft carrier.
The sound of the engines died in the distance, and silence fell over the place. I noticed the sound of my breathing.
Our guide, a man named Seth Chetri, wears a T-shirt with a "Washington, D.C." logo, sent by an old client. The brim of his "Montana" corduroy baseball cap is pulled down low over his wraparound sunglasses. His English is excellent. He wears sturdy boots and a modern nylon backpack, and on his wrist the Timex Indiglo I brought him as a gift. Several years ago, Seth, who who grew up in the lower country, was smitten by the Khumbu, the area around Mount Everest. Now he guides treks every October, the busiest trekking month of the year. At the outset he insisted on carrying our packs, but we would have none of that. We finally let him carry the three water bottles, which we refill at each village with boiling water, and which we then treat with iodine.
Along our 12-day trek, we stayed at Nepalese teahouses, no-frills hostels at each village where trekkers eat and sleep. I had pictured them as squat, stone buildings, drafty, smelly, with a front room where you could have a plate of rice and beans, and closet-size bunk rooms. In fact, most teahouses were attractive two- and three-story chalet-style buildings with colorful designs painted on the doors. Inside, we usually found an inviting main room with cushions around the perimeter and long, low, wooden tables for eating and journal-writing. Each one is owned by a family eager to make you comfortable yet leave you alone. For the equivalent of just a few dollars, we'd be served a generous portion of vegetable stew over rice, an omelet or a valiant effort at a pizza, along with unlimited tea, and we'd each have a bed to sleep on in our down bags.
Menu selection was better at lower elevations. The teahouses in the highest villages, forced to pay Sherpas who tote everything up, charged more for less. This morning before we left Lobuche, we finally found that horrendous trail food we'd heard about: eggs scrambled brown and bone dry, with enough oil to get them off the skillet.
While Gene and I came here for the mountains, other people come for the spiritual impact. We met Gale from Seattle the first night, a 55-ish civilian employee of the Navy who came to see monasteries. He was on a six-week leave of absence from his job.
"I simply prepared my job for my absence," he told us. "I showed my boss how this wouldn't be problem. And I told him when I'll be back." He explained that he had a wife and three daughters, but none of them wanted to come along.
"Are you going to Kala Pattar?" we asked him, a frequent question batted around among the trekkers.
"Maybe," he replied. "If I get the urge, I wouldn't mind seeing Mount Everest." I suggested that beholding the tallest mountain on Earth might provide a fitting cap to a spiritual journey like his. He agreed diplomatically, but clearly had his ambitions elsewhere.
Gale's humility can be hard to find on the trail. Some people tend to get caught up in the distinction of who is a trekking novice and who is an expert. A decision as insignificant as whether to wear boots or running shoes on a given day can become an issue between total strangers of one-upmanship that I thought people headed to the woods to escape. A man named Rusty shared a table with us during a snack break on the second day. He was a ropy 40-year-old world traveler from Idaho, about 6 foot 4, sporting a loaflike mustache. He had hired a porter to carry his pack, and carried an umbrella for himself, a fairly antique-looking model with a hooked handle. Since it never rained, he used it like a cane.
He informed us that he had hiked these mountains back in the 1970s and began to complain about "all these tourists" crowding the trail above Lukla now. I bit my lip to keep from asking how he was any different. Then he asked us, "Now how high are you fellas going, because, if I remember correctly, Virginia's about sea level?" Then he launched into a lecture about altitude sickness. Before long, Gene was heading up the trail with Seth and me in pursuit.
Someone once told me that there are two types of hikers: wanderers and conquerors. The same could be said for people in everyday life. At times, I've aspired to each. On this trip I've started out a wanderer, enjoying the scenery and the culture. But with each passing day I've become more focused on the goal: Kala Pattar, 18,300 feet. Now we're so, so close.
I can see the summit of Kala Pattar. The sun has climbed high and with it the temperature, perhaps into the forties. It was well below freezing when we started out. Several miles to our east a mountain fills the cobalt sky: the 29,028-foot hulk of Mount Everest, piled with virgin snow, blue ice and shattered rock. Its summit pyramid appears through a gauzy pillow of cloud. The peak silently sheds snow plumes eastward, battered by a raging jet stream. If Everest lay in the United States, its latitude would place it in central Florida. This results in a snow line two miles higher than that of the Rockies or the Sierras. Late into fall, any snow settling on the east side of Kala Pattar soon evaporates, exposing a trail that traverses ancient volcanic rock.
Off to our right, we spy a valley called the Western Cwm (pronounced "koom," a Scottish word for "valley"). The Cwm forms a steep trough that leads to the higher reaches of Everest and its twin Lhotse, fourth highest peak in the world. In the foreground stands Nuptse, third peak on the Everest massif. With the help of binoculars, we see the Everest Base Camp below, a cluster of blue tents perched at a bend in the ice of the Khumbu glacier. The glacier widens and turns south, then disappears beneath a lunar-looking blanket of dirt and boulders. Not a tree or shrub grows anywhere in sight. The scene enthralls me. Yet it's raw and unfinished, like a gigantic construction project. Life clearly isn't welcome.
When the wind dies, the silence up here becomes a blank canvas upon which the faintest noises are swipes of rich color--crunch of gravel underfoot, swish of nylon, click of a camera shutter. I turn and take in the sweep of earth surrounding us. To the north, Pumori thrusts its chalky cone 23,500 feet into blue space. Farther right, Khumbutse and Changtse straddle the Tibetan border. To the southeast a fang of a mountain, Ama Dablam, pierces the horizon, the Matterhorn of the Himalayas. Directly south, Tawoche and Cholatse reach to the sky. Never have I seen mountains this huge, every one of them higher than 21,000 feet. I consider that we're standing half a mile higher than Mont Blanc, Western Europe's highest peak.
On Mount McKinley, North America's highest, we'd be just 2,000 feet shy of the summit. In the Himalayas, a hundred peaks stand taller than McKinley.
Only 75 feet left. Then 50. Then 25. At last I find myself on the peak of Kala Pattar, which I find to be a dark boulder pile the size of a small office building. I pick my way among the rocks and choose a perch, my head light as a feather. Gene and Seth do the same. Several Europeans are already here. Greetings are offered. High-fives exchanged. Pictures taken. Water consumed. Binoculars shared. For the next half-hour we all sit under a brilliant sun and stare at Mount Everest. And it's a fine sight.
Then Gene and I look at each other.
I used the services of Himalayan Wonderland Treks (fax 011-977-1-534-156, or e-mail owner Keshav P. Kafle at email@example.com; he'll set you up with a guide for a total of $10 a day). If you have trouble getting through, try his American contact, Barbara Brockway, in Sisters, Ore. (541-389-7822).
Mike Klesius, of Arlington, will complete a graduate degree in science writing this fall at Johns Hopkins University.
CAPTION: The author's team scales boulders en route to Kala Pattar (foreground, in front of Pumori); inset, a yak waits outside a Nepalese teahouse in the central village of Namche.
CAPTION: The victorious climbers (author far right) celebrate atop Kala Pattar.