Bangkok, Beaches, and Bintangs

June 17, 2017

Amed Coast, Bali

First I traded in my ski boots.  Then I traded in my hiking boots.  And most recently, much to Kim’s delight, I’ve traded in my super practical crocs.  For snorkeling flippers. Or, when we aren’t in the water, bare feet.  Might as well get to work on my summer callous, despite the abbreviated summer that I am now in the middle of.

After saying our goodbyes to a wonderful month in Nepal, we headed south for Indonesia, but not without a not one, but four night stopover in Bangkok.  There was nothing particularly appealing about Bangkok that made us want to visit, but there was no additional cost to adding a stopover on my round the world ticket and Kim’s flight deals were such that BKK is her travel hub for our time together. Plus it’s also where the film Hangover Part 2 is based, so we decided to see if we couldn’t re-enact a few of the scenes.

For our stay in Bangkok we opted for the (swanky?), four-star Royal Bangkok Hotel, complete with roof top pool, in the Chinatown District.  It was a nice place to base ourselves, with a lively Chinese night market (delicious fresh seafood and street dishes), right outside the hotel front door.  It was fun to wander around the neighbourhood and taste some different foods.

Despite our best attempts to avoid one scam or another, we lasted only a half day when a tuk tuk driver approached us outside the Royal Palace.  For about two bucks, he would drive us around to see three different temples, including the giant, standing Buddha.  All we had to do was make one quick pit stop at the tailor shop – with no obligation to buy anything.  It was a win-win!  Of course the pit stop wasn’t that quick and after much hemming and hawing, feigned polite persuasion from the tailors, we walked out of the store having put down a deposit on a tailor made suit for me (navy blue to match my McGill tie) and a winter coat for Kim.  On the one hand I was kicking myself for getting sucked into buying a suit, but on the other I’d been thinking about getting one made while in Bangkok.  As soon as we got back to the hotel we googled the tailor shop and sure enough all sorts of terrible reviews came up.  One guy claimed that he looked “lopsided” when he put his suit on.  Another said they use lousy materials to make everything.  All of the positive reviews seemed made up and fabricated.  We were skeptical.  After two return trips to the tailor for fittings and final touch ups, we were happy (I would say more relieved) to walk out of there with finished products that actually turned out pretty nicely.

For the remainder of our time in Bangkok we stayed out of trouble, for the most part, and enjoyed some of the city sights. We cruised up and down the Chao Phraya River on the local ferry boats, visited several of the city’s famous temples, and checked out the Sky Bar (one of the scenes from Hangover II – fortunately no one got arrested as is the case in the movie). Also, apparently, the highest open air bar in the world.  And likely most expensive cocktails. By our fourth morning in the city we were ready to move on, which is exactly what we did when we boarded our flight to Denpasar, Bali.

The pace of life really seemed to slow down when we arrived in Indonesia, and it hasn’t really changed in the two weeks that we’ve now been here.  After three months of pretty intense skiing, followed by almost a month of trekking in the Nepal Himalaya, I was definitely feeling ready for some serious relaxing.  Our time here has been just that.

The days have revolved heavily around the beaches, which have generally been within a stones throw of our bed.  The beach activities change depending on our mood and location, and have included snorkelling, surfing, walking, sleeping, reading, watching the sunset, or a combination of several of those in no particular order.

And how could I forget the Bintangs?!  Bintang, a cool, refreshing beer, which may also be the unofficial symbol of Indonesia, has been a daily staple.  They come in two sizes (small or large, though we typically only go for the large ones), and taste fantastic after surfing or snorkelling, with grilled fish, or in the morning on one of the inter-island fast boats.  We’ve also used the price of Bintang on the restaurant menus to help choose our evening dinner location (if it’s more than 5 bucks for a large Bintang, we usually move on!)

After landing on Bali we quickly transferred over to Gili Meno, an island just off the west coast of Lombok.  It was a small island, not more than a couple square kilometres, but the five nights we spent there were exactly what we needed to really get in to the island life.  Wonderful reefs, tons of tropical fish, and sea turtles to watch while snorkelling just off-shore; perfect white sand beaches to walk and go swimming, and just far enough away from party-central Gili Trawangan (Meno’s bigger island sibling a little further west).

From Gili Meno, we pulled ourselves together just long enough to get over to Kuta, a small surfing village on the south coast of Lombok.  Each morning there we’d wake up, have our breakfast, and then make our way out to Selong Belanak, a beginner’s surf break a half hour ride west of town.  On our first morning there we met Aldi, one of the local surf pros who set us up with boards, a nice beach umbrella, and offered us a few tips.  The next day he hooked us up with a two-hour lesson and before long we were both hopping up on some small waves.  Despite flailing around far more on a surf board than I do on skis, I can see how the two sports can be similar and addicting.  I’m hooked!

In the evenings in Kuta we would wander into the village and literally choose the fish that we wanted grilled for dinner.  Each day the fisherman would bring in the day’s catch to many of the restaurants, who would then prepare them as part of a delicious meal with rice and veggies.  It has been great tasting so many different types of fish: marlin, red snapper, barracuda, and parrot fish, to name a few.

And now we are back on Bali, in the little village of Jemeluk, on the northeast coast of the island.  It might be our favorite place to date.  The patio door of our hotel room opens right onto the black sand beach and 10 metres into the water there is a healthy reef packed with all kinds of fish. Elderly ladies peddle 7-dollar, hour-long massages (pronounced “massaze” by the ladies), which we have both enjoyed, and the lounge chairs have provided the perfect napping venue.

We even tried our hand at fishing this morning, as part of a pre-sunrise fishing trip with one of the locals.  While having lunch up the beach yesterday, the restaurant host told us his brother could take us out for a couple hours this morning.  So shortly after 5:00 am we stumbled out the door in the pitch dark and waited for our skipper to arrive.  After about 20 minutes he did finally show up, and we piled onto his boat:  basically a deep canoe with long outriggers to prevent the thing from capsizing.  It was actually a quite stable and comfortable ride.

But there were no fish to be found, or caught.  We trolled back and forth under the shadow of Gunung Agung and watched the sun rise over the Bali Sea (a beautiful way to start the day), but not a single fish was hungry for breakfast.  On the way in, right before the skipper rammed his boat onto shore, Kim suggested perhaps we just fish in the reef. It seems to be the only place where the fish actually hang out!

We’ve got a couple more nights here in Jemeluk, and then it will be time to move on once more.  From here we will head back over to Lombok to begin our trip to Komodo National Park, in the eastern part of the country. If we are lucky we’ll get to see the famous Komodo dragons!

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We Made It, Without a Scratch

May 31, 2017 – 8:00PM

Kathmandu

It is our last night in Nepal tonight. We are back in Kathmandu, at the same hotel where we stayed before heading off on our trek.  Amazingly, my giant ski bag (and a few other pieces of luggage) survived in the hotel storage while we were away. Tomorrow morning, we’ll have just a bit of time for once last wander through the Thamel before heading to the airport for our flight to Bangkok.

The last few days have been eventful, exciting, and enjoyable. After flying back to Kathmandu from Lukla, we spent a few days in Chitwan National Park to see some of the amazing wildlife that calls Nepal home.  Getting back to Kathmandu, and to and from Chitwan, were adventures in themselves.

Rewind to May 27th, the day we flew out of Lukla.

The Lukla airport is without doubt the scariest airport that I have flown out of.  When we arrived in Lukla a few days ago, we walked over to the airport to re-confirm our seats for the flight (a box-ticking exercise that seemed totally redundant) and we watched a couple planes takeoff.  The runway is about 500 m long, has a 12 degree slope, and aims straight at the mountains a short distance away on the other side the valley. The whole thing looks like one of those scary roller coaster rides that you see at amusement parks, except that it’s not.  It’s real.  Flights in and out of Lukla are notoriously cancelled due to bad weather, and crashes are not uncommon.  The days leading up to our flight were no different.  Multiple flights were delayed the day before we left and some friends that we had met along the trek didn’t fly out until a few hours before us (a day later than scheduled).  And then literally only a couple hours after our plane took off, an inbound aircraft missed the landing strip on the final approach and crashed.  The plane only had three people on board, but sadly the pilot died on the scene and the two others suffered serious injuries.

Our flight (flight number 7 of the day) was a bit of a waiting game.  First we had to wait for the day before’s backlog of passengers to fly out, and then cross our fingers that the weather stayed clear enough for the pilots on our flight to see the other side of the valley.  Eventually we boarded, about two hours later than planned, but in good enough conditions to fly.

The takeoff was as exciting/nerve-wracking as it looked while watching the day before.  The Lukla airport doesn’t really have room for planes to “taxi” out to the runway, so the planes basically turn around in the boarding area and then promptly rocket down the downward sloping runway.  The guy beside me had one hand on the seat in front of him and the other clutching his own seat. I watched him catch the odd glimpse out the window and then quickly return his gaze to the seatback in front of him. I think he was a little nervous.

The flight itself was not that bad.  A little bumpy initially, to get through some of the clouds, and at times it looked like the dual props were going to trim some of the tree branches on the hillsides below us, but eventually it smoothed out and within about half an hour we were already back in Kathmandu.  I can’t remember why we decided not to fly to Lukla.

After spending a night Kathmandu, during which we both enjoyed a first real hot shower in over three weeks, we headed to Chitwan.  Chitwan is 160 or so kilometres west of Kathmandu and home to a wide variety of animals including rhinos, crocodiles, tons of different birds, and elusive Bengal tigers.  It is also the first national park founded in Nepal, and has been a World Heritage Site since the 1980s.

One would have thought that a single, long-distance bus ride in Nepal would be enough to confirm it as a “challenging” mode of transportation. However, we decided that at least two rides were needed and booked tickets on one of the larger and supposedly comfier “tourist” buses to get ourselves to the park.  We assumed it couldn’t be any worse than the ride to Shivalaya, especially considering the bulk of the driving would be along Nepal’s main east-west highway, and our handy travel agent near the hotel booked us “good” seats near the front.

Unfortunately for us, and perhaps conveniently for others, nobody bothered to tell us that the main highway was undergoing major construction works until after we had paid for the bus tickets.  To make matters worse, when we boarded the bus at 6:30 am the conductor informed us that our “good” seats at the front were already booked and so invited us to enjoy the very last seats in the bus, about 8 feet behind the rear wheel axle.  Guess what? The ride to Chitwan was worse than the ride to Shivalaya.  Bus travel in Nepal is indeed challenging.  The whole ride clocked in around 8 hours, and every little pothole we went over was amplified by the fact we were basically sitting at the end of a diving board.  Had it not been for the price tag of a 25 minute flight back to Kathmandu, we likely wouldn’t have endured a third bus ride in Nepal, but that is another story.

The dreadful bus ride was redeemed by another delicious lunch-stop dahl bhat meal, and the quiet lodge that we checked ourselves into in the village of Sauraha, on the northern park boundary.  For a little more than the cost of a six pack of craft beer in downtown Vancouver, we settled into a nice little bungalow next to a fish pond and tried to spot some of the many birds that could be heard in the trees.

The lodge was very peaceful and offered a variety of jungle activities to explore the park.  We opted for a full day trip into Chitwan, which included a two-hour canoe ride down the Rapti River, followed by a jungle walk for the remainder of the day.  It seemed like a nice way to get a good perspective of the park.

Our guide, Bishnu, was excellent.  Before we even stepped foot in the canoe – a long, wooden boat carved from a single tree trunk, that sat pretty low above the water – he pointed out a rhino taking a bath in the river upstream, at least three crocodiles lying not far from our launching point (presumably waiting for a free breakfast), and a half a dozen different kinds of birds.

“I think my work here is done for the day”, Bishnu said.

He then went on to explain the difference between the Gharial crocodiles (the ones with long skinny snouts, who feed primarily on fish), and the other, aptly named “mugger” crocodiles (who, according to Bishnu, prefer to snack on white tourists)! Then we all hopped into the canoe and floated off.

The canoe ride was very pleasant. None of us actually had to paddle – there was a boatman at the back who guided us down the river with a long pole and a paddle when he needed it. Bishnu sat at the front and rhymed off different bird species – kingfishers, egrets, cranes – faster than any of us could spot them; we stopped and took pictures of a couple of rhinos that were eating in the reeds; we spotted a couple wild boars; and every so often the assistant guide sitting behind me would whisper “crocodile” in my ear and quietly point to the lazy looking animals lying on the shore nearby. Awesome.

Towards the end of the canoe ride, we came around a corner in the river and Bishnu loudly whispered “TIGER!”  There was another couple in the boat with us and I was the only one who didn’t see it.  The guy in front actually got a great picture of the beautiful animal before it darted off into the woods.  Instead of carrying on our way down the river, Bishnu quickly commanded the boatman to head ashore so that we could follow the tiger into the forest.  So. That. We. Could. Follow. The. Tiger. Into. It’s. Natural. Habitat. Kim and I gave each other a kind of “WTF?” look, and then shrugged it off, feeling safe in the knowledge that both of our guides were carrying six foot long bamboo poles. Surely enough to knock out a grown Bengal tiger should we come around the corner and meet it face to face, get into a staring contest, and piss the thing off.

Shortly into the forest, Bishnu sniffed a wet spot on one of the sal trees – “Tiger urine, fresh“, and then pointed out a couple tracks in the mud.  We continued to tip toe along the path in utter silence, bamboo poles and cameras at the ready, to see if we could catch a closer glimpse.  I felt just a little bit vulnerable, especially having read John Vaillant’s book “The Tiger“, where he explains how the Bengal tigers relatives, the Siberian tigers, literally hunt humans.  Fortunately (I think?!) there was no further sign of the great animal and soon after, Bishnu, seemingly dejected, led us back to the boat to finish the rest of our canoe ride down the crocodile-infested Rapti River.

Later, back on shore and out of range of chomping crocodile jaws, Bishnu led us down game paths and jungle roads in search of rhinos (not lions), tigers and bears, oh no.  The heat was sweltering, and the 5 litres of water we brought for the two of us seemed a little underestimated, but wandering through the jungle was exciting and had an adventurous feel to it. Of course that didn’t stop us from looking over our shoulders on a regular basis.

Given the heat, animals were tough to spot, but we were fortunate to get a few sightings:  a rhino up close, hanging out in the reeds, two different kinds of deer, and even a second look at the beautiful tiger that we’d seen in the morning.  This time I spotter her – if only for long enough to process the fact it was a tiger.  But amazing nonetheless!

And of course there were the crocodiles.  After lunch we started following some tiger tracks to a regular watering hole where Bishnu told us that animals often go to escape the heat.  As we came out of the woods and arrived a stream, Bishnu invited us to take off shoes and socks off and wade across the stream.   “There are no crocodiles here”, he assured all of us as we looked at him as if to say “are you effing crazy?!”.  He was right as usual, however, there were no crocodiles and we all crossed with feet, legs, and toes still attached.

As we continued towards the watering hole, Bishnu hung a right down a small path back towards the stream, which seemed to be not more than 100 feet up from where we just crossed.  Apparently here was a place that the crocodiles sometimes hung out!  Sure enough, there was one hiding in the water with only its eyes to be seen – the other girl with us couldn’t believe we’d crossed the stream nearby.  Bishnu approached and soon the crocodile started moving towards us.  Then it started coming out of the water.  Then it hissed at us and opened it’s mouth to say get lost.  I started running away and hid behind Bishnu and Krishna (the assistant guide), while the two of them laughed and thrashed their bamboo poles in the bushes next to the pissed off croc. Of course it was only after we started walking away that Bishnu told us the crocodile sometimes nests in the very sand we were standing in!

The rest of our time in Chitwan provided some much needed rest after our weeks of trekking (and the jungle walk, for that matter).  We wandered through the village, enjoyed sunsets along the river, and visited the elephant bathing area.  It was nice to experience a different part of Nepal – it’s not just all big mountains and glaciers!  This morning, or rather all of today, we toughed out the bus ride back to Kathmandu and are feeling ready for the next stage of the trip.

It has been an incredible month, with wonderful company, and an adventure that will certainly get added to the bank of lifetime memories.  I hope to come back again someday.

It’s All Downhill From Here

May 24th, 2017

Namche Bazaar, 3440 m

We are back in Namche.  Same lodge.  Even same bedroom, for that matter.  The only difference is that it’s 12 days after the first time we were here and in the meantime we have trekked 100 or so kilometres, climbed to over 5000 m half a dozen times (including all three passes we set out to cross), have seen some amazing views of four of the six highest mountains in the world (Everest, Lhotse, Makalu, and Cho Oyu), and eaten about 30 pounds of dahl bhat.  None of that is exaggerated.

Considering everything that we’ve accomplished, it feels like a lot longer than 12 days since we headed up from Namche in a counter-clockwise loop from east to west.  When we came around the last corner of the trail today to overlook that natural amphitheatre that Namche sits in, there was a great feeling of achievement for both us, and all of the experiences of nearly the last two weeks flashed through my head.

Before setting off, I was optimistic that we’d be able to accomplish everything we set out to do on our trek, but you never really know what can happen until you head out and do it.  Above 3000 m, altitude sickness can stop even the fittest trekkers in their tracks if proper measures aren’t taken to acclimatize properly, and I imagine it can’t be that difficult to roll an ankle while staring off at the views in any direction that you choose.  So there were certainly some things to be mindful of. We took our time, built in extra days to acclimatize and see some lesser visited parts of the region, and enjoyed every minute.

In addition to our experience under the shadow of Everest, there were just a couple other highlights along the way:

Everyone calls it the Everest Base Camp trek, because that’s the ultimate end point, but the reality is it should be called the Ama Dablam trek.  Ama Dablam, which at just over 6800 m is a dwarf of a mountain compared to Everest, is always watching you once you get above Namche.  But it is a beautiful, aesthetic mountain with a distinct, rounded yet steep summit ridge, and broad shoulders on its southwest and southeast flanks. It was there to our right when we walked from Pangboche to Dingboche; it’s massive north face was there when we looked south down the valley from Chhukung; it was there to our left when we climbed towards Kongma La and behind us when we climbed over Cho La, and it was there to the southeast, punching through the clouds, when we watched the sunset on the roof of the world.  We even took the opportunity to visit the mountain’s base camp on one of our acclimatization days. Although the fall is the most popular time to climb Ama Dablam, there were a few expeditions set up at base camp.  We had a chance to talk with a pair of climbers from New Zealand/Australia (Gavin and Damien), who where planning their summit bid for the days ahead.  It was fascinating to listen to their experience and nice of them to spend time chatting with us.

Each of the three passes were unique, rewarding, and offered incredible views. They offered wonderful opportunities to get off the “Everest Highway” as at times we would walk for hours without talking to another trekker.  And to top it all off, we were fortunate to have perfect weather conditions for each of the crossings.

The first of the three, Kongma La, was the highest (5535 m) and perhaps most physically demanding.  The ascent started from Chhukung, at the first light of the day, amidst a thick bank of clouds.  Eventually we climbed out of the clouds and into the  blue sky, up several steep sections (including a bit of a scramble the last 50 or so metres), and arrived at the pass to be welcomed by incredible views of Lhotse, Nupste, Makalu, and the Imla Cho valley. Despite the high elevation, I at times felt like I was bouncing up the trail, out of pure excitement and adrenaline as I enjoyed all of the views and got nearer to Everest.  And, I think, it was a great feeling of accomplishment for Kim who definitely pushed her limits to get there.  The physical toll was obvious when we both promptly fell asleep after lunch in Lobuche.

From Dzonghla we climbed over Cho La and down into the Gokyo valley.  The second pass was slightly lower than the first, and perhaps less tiring as well.  By then we were certainly acclimatized to the elevation and moving well through the mountains.  There was short section crossing some snow up to the pass, and the descent was a little treacherous along steep rocky sections filled in with ice.  Fortunately we avoided any wipeouts.  The last stretch in Gokyo was highlighted by a crossing of the Ngozumba glacier, the majority of which was moraine, but included some groaning sections of ice that needed to be crossed quickly.

It was all downhill from Renjo La, the lowest of the three passes at about 5360 m.  Unexpectedly, Renjo La offered us perhaps our best views of the whole trip as we arrived at the pass under crystal clear conditions.  Everest was in perfect view, as well as other giants of the Himalayas.  And the village of Gokyo, nestled in the valley next to the Third Lake, looked incredible beside the teal-colored water. We spent almost two hours at the pass, enjoying the sunshine and admiring the views.  When it finally was time to head down the back side, I had a hard time pulling myself away and saying goodbye.

The spectacular scenery was made even more enjoyable by all of the friendly Sherpa people that we met along the way.  At many of the lodges, especially on the early stages of the trek, we were the only trekkers spending the night and so were offered a very unique and personal experience:  the father and daughter in Sete who invited us to join them for dinner in their dining room (which also served as their bedroom, living room, and kitchen); the kids in Junbesi who corrected by Nepali pronunciation; the couple in Pangboche who gave us a tour of the local monastery and showed us pictures of their sons on the summit of Everest; or the kid in Lumde who asked us to go inside when he herded the family yaks into the yard at the end of the day (he didn’t want us to get run into)!  The local people were a wonderful part of the experience, and it’s no coincidence were are back at the same lodge in Namche: when we arrived earlier today the owner had a big smile on her face when we walked in the door, and was excited to hear how our trek had been.

Tomorrow is a down day in Namche, as our flight out of Lukla isn’t for another couple days.  It will be nice to spend one last day high up in the Himalayas and see a few of the sights that we skipped on the way up.  From here, it will be a long but doable day down to Lukla which, after a short flight back to Kathmandu, will mark the end of this incredible experience.

This Is What We Came For: Our Visit With The Highest Mountain in The World

May 19, 2017 – 3:00 PM

Dzonghla, 4830 m

It’s been all downhill today, for a change. Sort of.  The day started a little after 5:00 am when I left Gorak Shep and decided to blast 400 m up to the top of Kala Pattar (for the second time in less than 12 hours) and ended a couple hours ago in the tiny village of Dzonghla at a little over 4800 m.  Dzonghla is the staging point for the Cho La, which we hope to cross tomorrow.  I am wrecked, but it’s the best kind of wrecked that one can be.

The last 24 hours have been the realization of that dream I’ve been envisioning for the last 15 years.  Yesterday morning Kim and I left the village of Lobuche shortly after 7:00 am and made the two hour trek to Gorak Shep, the last settlement before Everest Base Camp.  There we found a place to spend the night (a small wooden-box type of room with slanted beds and a great view of Pumori), unloaded our packs with everything we didn’t need for the day, grabbed a packed lunch and headed back out the door.  To Base Camp!

Both during and at home prior to the trek, some people suggested that going to the physical base camp was a bit of a waste of time given that there aren’t actually any views of Everest and, if you’re there in the fall, the place is basically deserted.  But excluding that part of the trek was out of the question for both of us, as we were trekking during the peak (har har har) of the climbing season on Everest and also because it was just one of those bucket list things.  It did not disappoint.

A devastating avalanche that killed 16 Sherpas in the Khumbu Icefall (the first and scariest part of the climb above base camp) in 2014, followed by the 2015 earthquake that also claimed nearly 20 lives at base camp, meant that two climbing seasons on Everest were essentially shut down. Climbing and trekking expeditions are one of the biggest sources of tourism revenue in Nepal (the cost of a permit starts at $11,000 USD per climber), and in an effort to get climbers back into the region, the Nepali government decided to extend climbing permits from the two lost season into 2016 and 2017.  The result was that the 2017 climbing season on Everest was anticipated to be one of the busiest on record.  Some people we spoke to along the trail indicated that there were close to 350 Western climbers waiting to go up the mountain, and with an average of at least 1 Sherpa per climber, there were potentially over 700 people planning to climb, plus presumably more support staff staying at camp.  When we finally stumbled into the makeshift village on Day 15 of our trek (May 18th), there were hundreds of tents pitched along the groaning Khumbu Glacier, climbers and teams milling about, and helicopters buzzing up and down the valley ferrying climbers and probably some sick trekkers back to Namche.

It was a perfect, beautiful day to be there with clear skies, bright sun, and warm weather. We walked from one end of the camp to the other, and spent a couple hours talking to climbers, soaking in the views, and simply taking in the whole experience.  Before arriving we had learned that the climbing permits for Everest expire on May 28th and there was a fair amount of buzz going on because the climbing Sherpas had only fixed the ropes to the summit a couple days prior because of poor weather and high winds. It was shaping up to be a busy 10 days of climbing:  commercial expeditions were making their summit bids (or were potentially already coming down from the summit) as we were sitting there staring up to the sky!

With the binoculars we were able to watch a group of climbers navigate their way down through the Khumbu Icefall (it looked crazy), and while having a bite to eat we watched another group who had just come down the mountain march through camp.  With the packs and gear they were wearing, they could have just gotten back from outer space.  Scott and Elliot – we’ve basically been trekking together the whole way – told us earlier today that they got invited into an expedition’s mess tent and had a chance to talk to some of the climbers who had just summitted.

Shortly after walking past the prayer flags in the centre of camp, we met a fellow from Calgary who stopped to chat with us for a few minutes.  He’d been living up there with his team of three plus a guide for almost seven weeks, and they were planning to start their climb for the summit at 3:00 am this morning, with the summit still 5 whole days away.  We bumped in to him again a bit later and learned that this was the team’s second trip to Everest.  The first was two years ago.  When the earthquake hit they were actually in the Khumbu Icefall but were fortunate to make it out alive when so many others didn’t.  We wished him luck and went our separate ways.

After having spent a couple hours above 5300 m in the blistering sunshine, and starting to feel a little tired, we filled our water bottles with fresh Khumbu Glacier water and made our way back to Gorak Shep for lunch.

Even more popular than Everest Base Camp, on most people’s trekking lists, is Kala Pattar.  Compared the gigantic mountains that surround it, Kala Pattar looks like nothing more than a mole hill, despite it’s elevation of over 5500 m, and sits on the edge of a sand pit in Gorak Shep.  Its popularity stems from the fact that from its summit, there are some of the best views of Everest that you can find in the Khumbu Valley. On the trail to Base Camp, there are actually only a couple brief views of the mountain, and only the peak can be seen.

Our trekking guide book boldly states that “very few trekkers are able to visit both Everest Base Camp and Kala Pattar in the same day due to the exhaustion and effects of altitude felt above blah blah blah…”.  Over our lunch back in Gorak Shep Kim and I discussed heading up Kala Pattar in the same day as Base Camp.  We weren’t overly exhausted and the weather was fairly clear, so there was an opportunity to witness a pretty amazing sunset.  After a half hour power nap, during which Kim didn’t bother taking her hiking boots off because “if I take them off there is no way I am going back out”, we headed out the door at about 4:30 in time to see the sunset shortly after 6:00.

It turns out that the guide book was right.  Between 5100 m in Gorak Shep and 5550 m at the top of  Kala Pattar, our pace slowed to a crawl.  The book was also right about the part where very few trekkers do both trips in a day, because when we got to the top (which we did in pretty good time all things considered), there were only 5 other people there to watch the sunset. On the walk up we weren’t sure if the clouds would hold off, as Everest was often hidden from view.  But patience paid off and over the course of the almost hour that we spent up there, we were rewarded with some incredible sights.

From Kala Pattar, one begins to really appreciate the size of Everest.  The majority of the giant west face can be seen from the summit, and the tents at Base Camp look like nothing more than colorful specs on the side of the glacier.  The South Col is clearly visible, as well as the Southeast Ridge and parts of the Northeast Ridge, all prominent features on the established climbing routes.  The views really were spectacular, with the best part coming as the sun went down and lit up the whole face of Everest to end the day.  Tough to put into words what the feeling was like sitting there watching, but needless to say it was special.

It was so special in fact, that I decided that one trip up Kala Pattar wasn’t enough, and so this morning I was out the door just after 5:00 to do it all over again (Kim had the sense about her to stay in bed).  As I sit here now thinking about it, just maybe did I bite off a little more than I could chew, because today is probably the most tired I’ve felt since we started. That being said, this morning the sun was on the complete opposite side of the sky than it was last evening, and so the only way to tell when the views were better was to head up and see for myself.

If I had to pick one, I would choose sunset, but seeing the sun come up over Tibet (only a couple kilometres away) and then light up all of the Khumbu Valley was also pretty cool.  And there was not a cloud in the sky so the views were even better than 12 hours before. The full scale of Everest was on display from Base Camp all the way to the summit. Well worth the second trip and lack of sleep.

As I sit here writing this in Dzonghla, after a four hour or so trek from Gorak Shep and one solid nap, I can’t help but feel a bit of a drop in energy and excitement.  For me, the focus of the trek has always been about getting to Everest, and now that we’ve completed that part, I wonder a little if I will have to re-focus a bit for this last week of trekking.  I don’t think it will be much of an issue, as there is still some spectacular terrain to see, including some side trips in Gokyo (where we are heading tomorrow) that are supposed to have amazing views back to the Everest region.  But before that, it’s time for another nap.

Namche, Kati Tha Dhat Cha? (How Far is it To Namche?)

May 11, 2017 – 3:00PM

Namche Bazaar, 3440 m

Today is our first rest day of the trek.  Or rather, we’ll call it our first “acclimatization” day of the trek, because we still wandered around a whole bunch and the trip planning books build in extra days to help adjust to the elevation. We’re in Namche Bazaar, the closest place to a city that the Khumbu valley has to offer, and it is bustling with trekkers and climbers all coming and going.  It is fantastic to be here.

It’s taken us a full seven days of walking to get this far, but the experience to date has been incredible.

The topography of Nepal is such that many of the valleys drain the glaciers of the high Himalayan peaks in the north, along the Nepal-Tibet border, and flow into the plains towards the Indian border in the south of the country.  The route from Shivalaya just about all the way to Lukla conveniently runs from west to east, meaning that for six out of seven days it has been straight down one side of the valley, and straight up the other.  I’ve already lost track of how many vertical metres we’ve climbed (it’s a lot), but there have been at least a few days where 1000 m of climbing is the norm. Throw in a steady flow of oncoming donkey trains hauling materials from village to village (as well as their seemingly incessant stream of delightful droppings) and its been a nice way to get our hiking boots dirty and our legs in trekking shape.

The benefits of all the up and down (if you can imagine any) are actually many:  the trail has been relatively deserted of other trekkers; the villages, though often still under re-construction following the earthquake, are authentic; and our experiences with the local lodge owners have been friendly and personal.  Add to that the fact that we followed along the same route used by Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary during their first ascent of Mount Everest in 1953, and we’re feeling pretty good about ourselves.

Although the trail from Shivalaya wasn’t busy, we weren’t the only trekkers to be spotted.  There were at least three others, and they were usually either right in front, between, or behind us. We met them on our third night in Sete: another Canadian couple from Toronto and moving to Vancouver in July (Scott and Elliot) and a German guy (Laurin).  The five of us have teamed up and been trekking together for the last few days, which has been really nice.  We’re all planning to do the Three Passes trek, so we’ll see how long we stick together.

The walking itself has been straightforward and pleasant, and the locals have been more than happy to show us the way when needed. Big mountain views have been few, thanks in part to the mostly cloudy weather, but we did have our first views of Everest the other morning in the village of Phurteng:  it was the tiny-looking peak way back on the horizon that we probably wouldn’t have noticed if the goat-cheese-selling lodge owner hadn’t pointed it out and if we didn’t have binoculars in my pack.  But the cold smoke blowing off the summit was distinct! And it still brought a little mist to my eyes after dreaming about the trek for so long.

Aside from that we have mostly followed along steep trails on the hillsides and enjoyed many amazing views that the foothills have had to offer: the Dudh Khosi, monasteries and stupas, crazy suspension bridges crossing streams and rivers, terraced vegetable fields, and how could I forget the wonderful rhododendron forests (I’m told that we may have just missed the peak blooming season).

The day before yesterday we merged into the main Everest Base Camp trail, just north of Lukla, and there was an obvious increase in pedestrian traffic.  Our five days of walking prior to that really started to shine, however, as we skipped past many trekkers who had just gotten off the plane in Lukla and were still finding their legs and adjusting to the elevation which approached 3000 m.  The most impressive of all on the trail, though, have been the famous Nepali porters who will carry just about anything to where it needs to go.  Yesterday we saw a guy carrying no less than 15 cases of beer, stacked neatly in and above his wicker basket and balanced perfectly on his back, and our lodge owner in Phakding told us that some of them can carry up to 100 kg of materials.  Crazy!

When we haven’t been on the trail, there has been plenty of time to unwind at the lodges, and read, study the map, or make conversation with our hosts. I picked up a pocket-sized Nepali phrase book before leaving Kathmandu and have been studying most nights and blabbering incomprehensible one line phrases to any Nepali who will listen. In Junbesi the other night an 8 year old boy corrected my Nepali pronunciation while I interrupted him doing his homework and asked him if he likes to play sports.  I would consider that my vocabulary level has reached that of an advanced three year old Nepali child and I’ve mastered how to say “I don’t understand” every time someone responds to my one liners.  There have been many laughs and the local folks really seem to appreciate the effort.

Today we did an easy half day tour through some of the villages near Namche and climbed to over 3800 m to see what the air tastes like (a little thinner than what we are used to in Vancouver).  We are starting to feel like we’re getting into the big mountains now.  The weather was somewhat clear this morning and there were great views of Lhotse, Ama Dablam, Nuptse, and the odd glimpse of Everest when she felt like poking her head through the clouds.  The scale of things is enormous and it is a little hard to believe that our high point for the trek is still over 2000 m higher than where we are sitting now.  From Namche we will continue along the main Everest Base Camp trail for a few more days before branching off to the northeast towards the village of Chhukung.  From Chhukung we will attempt the first and highest of the three passes (Kongma La, 5535 m), before re-joining the main track and heading up to Everest Base Camp itself.  I can’t wait, and it all starts tomorrow.

Time to Stretch Our Legs: Shivalaya to Lukla

May 4, 2017  – 8:00AM

Shivalaya, Nepal

So it’s that part of the trip where I’m not skiing all the time.  But I am still as excited as ever.

Kim and I have just finished our breakfast in the tiny village of Shivalaya, which is a little less than 200 km east and north of Kathmandu. It also happens to be the trailhead of our three week long trekking route that will lead us into the high Himalayas, to see some of the tallest mountains in the world.

For me personally, this trek has been a long time coming.  Longer than since I’ve known Kim, longer than before I moved to Vancouver, even longer than since I finished high school.  Jon Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air, based on the 1996 Everest disaster where several climbers were caught in a storm and died high up on the mountain, first triggered my fascination with Mount Everest and the Himalayas.  The first time I read the book I think I was in grade 10, and soon after finishing it I decided that one day I would trek to Mount Everest Base Camp to see what it was all about.  Now that I am 32, yes still 32 thank you, that means I’ve been dreaming about this trip for basically half of my life.  Understandably, being here in the foothills of the Himalaya is all still a little hard to believe.

Getting to Shivalaya wasn’t the easiest thing either of us have ever done.  I arrived in Kathmandu six days ago from Istanbul and Kim flew in a couple days later via Beijing and Bangkok. It was a wonderful reunion when I met Kim at the airport.  It was less so when I arrived to Tribhuvan airport on my own: when my driver from the hotel arrived a few minutes after I walked out of the terminal it was clear that alternative transportation was needed: the tiny little Suzuki car he showed up in was shorter than my ski bag, and probably weighed only a little bit more.  Fortunately the taxi touts in the parking lot were helpful, but not pushy, and soon I was off to the hotel in Kathmandu’s Thamel district, with ski bag in tow.

We’ve spent the last couple days wandering around Kathmandu, trying not to get food poisoning or hit by unpredictable motorcycle drivers. Kathmandu is busy, dusty, and dirty.  Apparently these days the concentration of particulate matter in the city air is almost five times greater than the limit recommended by the World Health Organization. There are still piles of rubble lingering from the devastating 2015 earthquake, cows lying in the middle of busy streets, and garbage stacked neatly on sidewalk corners.  The Thamel district, our home base before heading out, bustles with tourists, touts and bicycle rickshaws.  Despite all of that, I was immediately captivated by the city.  Not necessarily by the beautiful skylines and modern infrastructure (there is little of either of those), but for what the city represents:  a starting off point to the highest mountain peaks in the world.  For Kim and I, that exact starting off point was the Ratna Bus Park, at 5:45 yesterday morning.

The bus ride from Ratna Park to Shivalaya was a serious exercise in patience, but we arrived in mostly one piece. Prior to getting on the bus I’d read nothing but horror stories about the trip:  the buses break down; the drivers are crazy; one blog post I read even said that on one trip the rear wheels of the bus went over the edge of a cliff before the driver pulled it together.  Fortunately, our driver seemed to value his life, and so at no point did either of us really fear for ours.  However, it was long (10.5 hours instead of the advertised 8, for an average trip speed of less than 20 km/h); it was bumpy (we had “good” seats near the front, but our knees were still jammed into the seats in front of us), and it was hot (windows opened most of the way to allow a nice flow of dust into our mouths).  The driver seemed to have a collection of horn tunes, and cycled through them depending on his mood and the riskiness of his uphill-blind corner passing manoeuvres.  Music blasted loudly (presumably to keep the driver awake), and people (and the odd animal) hopped on and off throughout the journey.  At about 5:00 PM we hopped off in Shivalaya in a cloud of dust, and the bus crawled along to the remainder of its destinations and out of our lives.  The highlight of the ride was at about 5:00 PM when we hopped off in Shivalaya in a cloud of dust, seconded closely by a first delicious lunch time meal of dahl bhat, prepared at some random roadside pullout along the way.

Shivalaya itself suffered quite a bit of damage during the earthquake.  Our host was explaining that it took them an entire year to rebuild their “Hilton Shivalaya” lodge, and the building across the street is still under (presumably) re-construction.  The lodge owner also told us that there have been far fewer trekkers on the route post-quake.

But we are here now, and just about ready to go. Backpacks are full (Kim claims hers is “way heavier than mine”), hiking boots tied up nicely, all set for our first day of trekking. From Shivalaya it’s a 6 day walk to the town of Lukla, considered by many to be the gateway to the Everest region (saner people just opt for the 45 minute flight to get there instead of the full day bus ride + 6 days of walking).  From Lukla we’ll continue climbing towards Mount Everest for another two weeks and change, and if we are fit and fortunate, we’ll complete the “Three Passes” trek, which cross three alpine passes over 5000 m in elevation, all in the Everest region. But for today we’ll just focus on the walk to Bhandar, the next small village about 4 hours east of here.

Onwards…

April 24, 2017 – 1:00PM

Geneva Airport

Today is a bit of a tough day, and it’s hard to believe that it is already here.  I’m sitting at Geneva Airport, waiting for the next onward flight.  This time I’m alone.

This morning Matt and I said our goodbyes to Chamonix, after 7 amazing weeks of skiing in the Alps.  A few hours later we said our goodbyes to each other, after almost 3 months of travelling together and seeing some incredible places.  We both struggled to choke back the tears.  Today Matt heads home to Canada (to face the grim reality of going back to work next week :)), while I continue to head east for the second (and non-skiing) stage of this round the world trip.

Yesterday, Matt and I were saying how leaving Chamonix was kind of like leaving Tadoussac after weeks of summer holidays.  It’s a special place that has obviously grown on both of us, and I am sure we’ll both be back someday. Saying bye to Matt was also tough, but in a different kind of way.

There aren’t many people in the world who I would follow blindly into the mountains, but Matt is one of them. Growing up as kids, the five year age gap between the two of us at times seemed enormous, but at recently 28 and still hanging on to 32, the age gap is non-existent.  For the past three months we’ve challenged each other, and looked out for each other, to complete some of the most intense, craziest, scariest, funnest skiing that we’ve ever done.

On the bus in to Geneva this morning we were discussing that when you’re doing all of this stuff you don’t really realize the full magnitude of what you’re up to, because you’re so focused on the moment.  It’s only once you take a step back after the fact and reflect on the experience (like I am doing right now), that the accomplishments kind of sink in:  almost 50 days of skiing in Morocco, France, Switzerland, Italy, all completed with only each other (and a few friends along the way) to guide us. With the exception of a broken binding and a weak stomach in the Atlas Mountains, we did it all without so much as a scratch.  Which I consider to be fortunate (obviously), but also a reflection of preparation, planning, and decision-making out in the backcountry.  None of which would be possible without taking the time to learn the appropriate skills, practice them, and continuing to gain experience.  We’ve come a long way from Spillway, Power Line, and Windigo.

As the eldest sibling of three (I assume this extends to eldest siblings in general), there is a tendency to assume that the oldest always knows better.  When Matt and I are out in the backcountry, that tendency doesn’t exist.  It has been a lot of fun, not only this year, listening and learning from my “little” brother, particularly as he starts dabbling in professional-level avalanche training courses and, while at home, spends far more time in the mountains than I could hope for with my regular 9 to 5 job.  I still offer my advice and thoughts, but not from “older-brother-knows-better” point of view.  And together we continue to arrive at good decisions and agreements.  The skiing in the Southern Hemisphere, excited as I am about it, won’t be the same without Matt.

Despite the sad emotions today, there is still plenty to be excited about. A little later this afternoon I will hop on a plane to Istanbul, where I’ll have three full days to explore a new and exciting city.  My friend Marie-Marguerite has graciously allowed me to stay at her place, even though she is also off travelling.  And then, on Friday night I will fly to Kathmandu to realize a long time dream of trekking to Everest Base Camp.  Kim will meet me there on Monday and we’ll have the next two months to spend together. Not bad at all…