A Good Match for a Long March
05.09.2012 - 05.10.2012 17 °C
When I look back over the first five parts of these Chronicles, I am loosely reminded of the five components of a project life cycle that I once learned while studying project management. The first story captures the initiation and some of the pre-planning that it took to get up into the mountains. The second story addresses specific gear that I was using and needed to buy, plus the slow pace I wanted from the outset of the trek. The third story was about getting going. The fourth, about monitoring and controlling our progress as I was feeling concerns about altitude sickness. And the fifth, about closing out the day and satisfying our expectations and needs with a good bed and a good night's sleep.
While I won't say that Adrian was entirely unprepared for the trek ahead, of the two of us, I was definitely the one running the management show. I bought the trail map he didn't think we would need. I marked out our projected daily trek and lodging, on said map. I pre-checked the weather reports for Everest before getting on the plane. I made sure that we had enough quality food to cover lunches before leaving. I spent the first evening double-checking our projected costs vs. our cash on hand. I made sure that we had all the gear we might need for the higher elevations. And I addressed the safety concerns that I had about climbing over Cho-La Pass, which we had decided on as a likely side trip. Much of this, he felt was unnecessary. He wanted to go to Everest, and he was just going to do it.
I heard a story from a high-alpine skier friend, about some of the Indian Sadhus, who would head off to meditate in the Himalayas. The sadhus already have cast off the trappings of normal life, in order to live spiritually and free of attachments. No house; no family; no career; and usually, no money other than alms. The regional spiritual culture is full of examples of holy men who spend years meditating in some very extreme ways. Buddha sat in a cave for six years, or so the story goes. Sadhu Amar Bharati has kept his right arm raised over his head for forty years, in devotion to Shiva. He has inspired several other Shiva-worshippers to keep their hands raised as well; some reports say as much as seven, thirteen, and even twenty-five years. Many sadhus are used to going where they please and following their urges to endurance meditate, however it occurs to them. Some head off into the mountains during the summer and find a good place to sit down into a deep meditative repose. The next year, after the snows thaw out, their corpses are discovered where they froze to death.
I admire the spirit that chooses something crazy and difficult and just does it. As one teacher of mine put it, “Fanatics are the only ones who get anything done in this world.” Take climbing Mt. Everest for example. Only someone with a fanatical spirit is going to make it to the summit, let alone attempt it in the first place. But there have been plenty of fanatics that have attempted to make their way to the top, only to get themselves killed along the way. Fanaticism alone, is not enough. The climbers who make it to the peak and back safely, are almost always the ones that are part of a team with very strong organizational skills, discipline, and experience. And even this is no guarantee.
Trekking to Everest Base Camp is by no means on the same level as climbing the mountain itself. But it still involves heading out into the Himalayan wilderness for two weeks or longer. The atmosphere is thin. It is below freezing at night. It is still snowing in May. Base camp is at 17,598 feet, on a glacier; which is more than high enough to die from altitude sickness or exposure. Fog, high winds, and blizzards pass through the mountain valleys. Avalanches and rockfall are regularly set off. Narrow footpaths sometimes skirt dangerously high cliffs and glacial crevasses. One wrong step could mean a bath in a glacial stream or ice-choked pool, with the nearest settlement hours away. And though there are places to stay and eat along the route, they aren't much good to a person who fails to ration their cash supply. One doesn't find too many ATMs high in the Himalayas.
So, much as I admired Adrian's determination, and the worthwhile preparations that he actually did do, I was far from satisfied with leaving it alone at that. And while he slept early on that first night, I stayed up pouring over logistics. On the next day, we would be heading up to Namche Bazaar, which is the best place to stock up on last-minute supplies, and the only chance to get some cash from a bank. And by my calculations, Adrian hadn't taken out enough cash in Kathmandu to see him all the way through the trek. Nor had I correctly estimated the number of uses I could expect out of my water-purifying SteriPEN, and we needed more batteries, or else our budget would get decimated by 3-to-5-dollars a liter bottled water, or risk a giardia or amoeba infection from the mountain streams. And we really could stand to pack some more food. You just never know.
The next morning, after settling our debate over whether or not to stay in Manjo an extra night with a coin toss, and a delicious breakfast of Tibetan Bread and Honey, Tsampa Porridge, and a mug of “Hot Grape” (Tang), we bid farewell to our comforts, and set off for Namche Bazaar. At the edge of town, we stopped in the Park Management Office to show our trekking permits and buy Sagamartha National Park passes. I took my time pouring over informational posters showing park data, maps, conservation tips, history, and medical precautions. Tourism is on the rise in the park, with some 30,000 people visiting annually from around the world. But May is the beginning of the off-season, and the numbers fall as sharply as a Himalayan mountainside.
We would have the trails more to ourselves than during peak season, but not just yet. The path was busy here, with porters and yaks carrying loads from Lukla to the markets in Namche Bazaar. Adrian counted porters and I counted yaks, as we went, to see which there was more of, and bet each other on who would count higher. We trekked with no guide or porters, and carried our own supplies, having left all non-essential belongings in a lock-up back in Kathmandu. I had spent the last year before my travels, working as a delivery manager, carrying doors and millwork up the stairs and down the halls of large apartment buildings, all over Seattle. It was excellent conditioning for this trek, and I was in good command of my body as I walked. I gave my trekking poles to Adrian, as his foot had blistered the night before, his knees were starting to ache, and he wasn't used to the rigors of carrying something on his back 8 hours a day.
Whereas management was one of my strong suits, Adrian was good at medicine. The night before, he asked me to sterilize my knife blade in the teahouse fire, and expertly used it to drain his blister. It was now reduced to insignificance. He had the foresight to put us both on the recommended dose of altitude sickness medicine, Diamox, the night before we flew out of Kathmandu, and over the first two days of our trek, as we had risen several thousand feet in one day. He monitored the symptoms of my headachy 1st day jitters, and had me drink water at regular intervals. And it made me feel more relaxed, knowing that my trekking companion was a competent nurse. I may have wilderness first aid training, and I have developed a rich discipline of using my body consciously and paying attention to the environment; but if something were to go medically wrong up on the trails, Adrian surely would be the one running the show. Unless he was frozen into unconsciousness...
Even though I was a bit wary of what I felt was under-preparation on Adrian's part, and Adrian felt that I was over-managing the small things, the two of us were getting used to each other fast. We both talked through our differences openly and thoughtfully. Adrian wears his heart on his sleeve, as do I, and between the two of us, no topic was off limits. We made fun of each other, which was easy for me, since Adrian is short, bald, and speaks in a New York Jewish accent, and it was easy for him, since he is short, bald, and Jewish, and has probably heard a lot of jokes! I would often walk faster than he did, stopping to let him catch up, or lagging behind, knowing that I would catch up myself, but Adrian had a steady pace that I appreciated and would sometimes find myself left farther behind than expected.
Everest and the sojourn surrounding it, was for both of us, our Ultima Thule; a journey intended to strip our souls bare; to pull away the shackles of false self, push beyond the limits of our known fears, comforts, and the expectations of life that one might easily adopt as a ready-made-package from the world one grows up in; and hopefully, find the raw edges of what truly matters in this world. More than the prospect of seeing Everest itself, it was in this spirit that we shared, and by which, each footstep was made in front of the last.
To me, two of the most important things to take on such a long trek, are a really great pair of boots, and a really great trekking companion. To settle for less on either would surely lead to blisters that would torment the entire trip. As I wear USA size 14 shoes, I took extra pains to make sure I found a great pair of boots before I left America. My options were next to nothing in Asia. There certainly was a larger selection of adventurers over here than one might bump into on the street back home, and it would be easier to pair up with a compatible trekker than it would be to find a comfortable pair of trekking boots, but still, I felt supremely grateful and fortunate to have found such a well-matched trekking partner in Adrian.