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November 26, 2013

Ascent through Darkness

Can your lungs catch frostbite? That was the question on my mind at 4:30am as Colleen, I and our Sherpa porter, Mingmar, made our ascent in the dark towards Thorong La pass. The air was very cold, well below freezing. This much was evident from my final visit to the outhouse at Thorong Phedi. The area around the squat toilet was slick from all the urine that had missed its mark, freezing and forming a dangerous ice rink that you did NOT want to slip on for at the center of its vortex was a hole full of poop.

Friends gathering before the ascent

Toby, Eva, Colleen, Mustafa, Caroline and Olga arriving at Tharong Phedi the day before

But freezing air is not so scary. It’s the combination of being above 5,000 meters where the oxygen is thin, and ascending a very steep slope where your legs beg for oxygen, that causes you to pant as if you were hyperventilating. Now combine that with freezing air and it feels like someone emptied a bag of ice into your chest. I imagined the alvioli in my lungs freezing and shattering into sharp, tiny ice fragments that punctured my lungs from the inside as they fell. I expected droplets of blood to spurt out with my breathing.

As it was, something else was sputtering forth with my breathing. My nose was freely running down my face, my frozen face bereft of any feeling, and forming a puddle between my neckwarmer and my inner jacket. I only realized this after we finished our ascent to high camp an hour later and stopped for tea and a brief rest. Yuck!

We had another tormentor that night, one especially suited to the dark, a black horse. It belonged to one if those entrepreneurs who on tough climbs coaxes you to throw in the towel, embrace failure and use one of his animals to reach the top in comfort. He and I had spoken earlier. I had said no. As we climbed a particularly vertical section to where he was sitting with two of his horses, he watched us like a vulture, the beam from his headlamp tracking us all the way, judging us as we navigated switchbacks in the dark, making us question our own mettle. Now one of his black horses had moved further up the mountain on his own, and was blocking our path up the trail. Every time we shooed him away, he blocked us again only a few meters further, and as he was hard to see in the darkness, I was afraid he’d kick or side swipe us off the mountain if we got too close without seeing him. Eventually our porter Mingmar swung a rock at his rear end and he finally left us alone, but he didn’t forget. When we later passed by him in early daylight near high camp, his ears folded back, a tell-tale of aggression in horses.

A dead horse after the ascent

Up here, a fall can be fatal, and that holds true even for the typically sure-footed

But by then we were in better spirits, having had hot tea and finally being able to see without our headlamps. The sun had ascended to where the tallest peaks on the other side of the valley were illuminated. The light from these allowed us to see that we were now passing by frozen waterfalls, a series of large white icicles, sometimes less than a dozen feet tall, other times close to fifty feet tall, but always perfectly still, not even a trickle escaping their bony fingertips.

Colleen has finished the ascent

Colleen on the rooftop of the world

Luckily the ascent to Tharong La was uphill almost the entire way. We only lost elevation at two points, one right after high camp, and the other right before the pass. We arrived at the pass shortly after 9:00am, a good time because the pass gets very windy closer to noon. After high fiving and snapping a few photos, we took a tea break to reward ourselves. At 17,769 feet, we were higher than Everest base camp, or any base camp for that matter. I tried to eat one of our Snickers bars but it was as hard as a block of wood. I had to dunk it for 20 seconds in my piping hot cup of tea just to be able to bite through it. During the pit stop, Colleen switched the lacing on her shoes to a special downhill configuration that is supposed to keep your feet from sliding forward in the shoe.

The ascent is complete.


After that, we started the mile plus descent. This was Colleen’s least favorite part as she is better at climbing, whereas I’m better at descending. The journey down was brutal on the knees and Colleen’s feet collected more and more blisters by the hour. When we finally reached our destination of Muktinath at 3:00pm, 10.5 hours after setting out from Tharong Phedi, Colleen took off her socks to survey the damage. In addition to the blisters, several toes on both feet were blue under the toenails from bruising caused by the steep downhill. Maybe the downhill lacing helped, but the hiking shoes she picked up in Kathmandu were just too crappy in the end. My feet, on the other hand, while still definitely tired, were otherwise in decent shape, just a little peeled skin behind the heels, that’s all. The second hand Meindls I bought in North Pakistan for $19 served me well in both the Karakoram and the Himalayas, the two highest mountain ranges in the world. On top of that, I was able to get back most of what I paid for them when I sold them to a trekking store in Kathmandu on our way out of Nepal. In order to give Colleen’s feet some rest, we decided to break from our plan and added an unscheduled rest day in Muktinath. I used this day to chill with some Buddhist nuns and Hindu Sadhus at Muktinath temple, a complex consisting of three Hindu and Buddhist shrines.

After the ascent and descent, at Muktinath Temple

Nunnery at Muktinath Temple

November 22, 2013

Our Terrifying Yeti (Abominable Snowman) Encounter!

The Yeti or the Abominable Snowman is one of the most famous creatures of cryptozoology, kind of like the Bigfoot of Asia. It is said to inhabit the high Himalayas of Nepal and Tibet, but just like with Bigfoot, most people remain unconvinced of its existence, regarding Yeti stories as simple-minded folklore. A near death encounter with one of these monsters, and a hastily snapped photo of it glaring at us, has led us to conclude otherwise. I imagine this will shake the scientific community to its core!

A photo of us from 10 minutes before the harrowing encounter, back when we were happy campers

A photo of us from 10 minutes before the harrowing encounter, back when we were happy campers

It was day three of our trek of Nepal’s famous Annapurna Circuit. After an hour’s hike out of Pisang and within a hundred meters of the hilltop of Ghyaru (12,100 ft), it happened.

I glanced to my left and was about to turn back when I did a double take. standing fewer than 40 feet away, slightly downhill, and framed in the grandeur of Annapurna 2 (16th tallest mountain in the world at 26,040 ft) was the most fearsome creature I had ever laid eyes on. It stood on two legs like a human and was hunched behind tall grass. I estimated it would be 10-11 feet tall standing fully upright. On its crown it had two thick, curved horns, each about two feet in length. Its finger-length fur was a kind of light brown where it’s hard to know if it was not actually a dirty white. From its massive shoulders I could tell that this predator had the strength to tear a man limb from limb. So far so good. Here’s where it gets weird. Carry AR 15 rifles if possible.

The monster exuded an aura of intense sexuality, and when I saw him cast a lusty gaze towards an unsuspecting Colleen, my instinctive reaction was to step in the way to protect her. But I was so taken aback by the powerful magnetic field of randiness emanating from the beast that I stopped. What if the Yeti swung both ways? Just the thought made me shudder!

After staring down each other for a few seconds, his eyes narrowed on Colleen. He hunched over on all fours, the muscles on his back rippling in preparation for a launch in our direction. I raised my trekking pole for battle – if I was going to die today, I was at the very least taking out one of his eyes with me.  Luckily for us, and not a moment too soon, a herd of two dozen yaks came charging down the path we were on, followed by two shepherds. The beast and I simultaneously looked in their direction and then simultaneously resumed eye contact. Reclusive by nature, he had made up his mind. This hunt would have to be abandoned, or at the very least postponed. He turned ninety degrees to our right and took off with the explosive acceleration of a springbok, effortlessly bounding over boulders and bushes until he was gone, but by then I had been able to snap this picture!

The magnificent beast! (framed in the grandeur of Annapurna II)

The magnificent beast! (framed in the grandeur of Annapurna II)

Here it is! Conclusive proof that the Yeti is real! This will off course not settle the debate on whether it is a ferocious monster or a gentle giant, but one thing is clear – a more handsome creature does not exist on God’s green earth!

Expressing gratitude for making it out alive at stupa in Ghyaru

Expressing gratitude for making it out alive at stupa in Ghyaru

November 21, 2013

Kathmandu: Lots of dust and stray dogs

Through the 90s and into the early 2000s, as the government of Sri Lanka fought to put down the LTTE (Tamil Tigers), the monarchy in Nepal sought to contain the Maoists (communists) who were gaining support in the countryside and not surprisingly wanted the monarchy abolished. The dalits (untouchables under the caste system) in particular were drawn to communism as it promised them rights and social mobility that the Hindu monarchy would never deliver.

In 2001 the Maoists received an unexpected boost from a multiple homicide. Crown Prince Dipendra went on a drunken shooting spree in the royal palace in Kathmandu, committing patricide, matricide, fratricide, sororicide, regicide, avunculicide and eventually suicide. You can probably guess at the meanings of all the -cide suffix words, but the long and short of it is that he massacred the entire royal family in a span of minutes, turning his Franchi shotgun on himself at the end (one of four weapons he used, the other three being a Colt M16, H&K MP5 and Glock 19), and leaving Nepal in a bit of a quandary. You see, while the masses had loved their gunned down king Birendra and even the homicidal crown prince (who bizarrely enough still became king for a few days while he was in coma, before dying), the brother of the king who assumed the throne after the carnage was a deeply unpopular figure, a man compared to Scar from The Lion King. So why did Crown Prince Dipendra go Billy Bezerk? Allegedly because his parents, the king and queen, would not allow him to marry the girl he desired. When she heard about this, the slutty French princess from Braveheart asked her handmaiden “Now that’s love, no?”.

One thing led to another and in 2008, King Scar stepped down and left the palace for a two bedroom apartment in Kathmandu. Nepal became a federal democratic republic, ending 240 years of monarchy. The Maoists won the first election, turning Nepal into a communists-headed state, but they were unable to pass a constitution without an outright majority and facing a divided parliament. This brings us to today. Five governments have risen and fallen since 2008, and the biggest election since then just happened now, while we were there. This was very annoying. Nepal has over 100 political parties and they campaign very loudly. Picture tiny cars with massive roof mounted speakers blaring shouting men all day. They also enforced strikes which disrupted services and transportation that we planned on using, messing up our plans more than once. Initial results indicate a centrist party has won these elections with the Maoists in third place. The Maoists are claiming vote-rigging and boycotting the results, but international observers on the ground, including Jimmy Carter and EU observers, are hailing the elections as open and fair.

These SOBs are really loud!

These are really loud!

Arriving into Kathmandu airport at night, I had been pleasantly surprised by how efficiently my $40 visa on arrival was processed. On the drive to the hotel, the first thing that grabbed my attention was the exact same thing that first grabbed my attention when I visited Colombo in 2010, the strong army and police presence on the streets several years after the conclusion of the conflict that necessitated it. I found this distasteful – the government knows that security has dramatically improved but instead of reallocating those resources to better serve the people of Nepal, they keep martial law and other extraordinary powers intact, even after the conclusion of the extraordinary times for which they were authorized. Why? Because it gives them extraordinary powers at the expense of freedom, justice, transparency, democracy, but most importantly their political opponents.

Our car pulled up behind a stopped police/military mobile (pickup) on a narrow unpaved road. Beyond the billowing columns of dust illuminated by our headlights, I saw a small middle aged woman frantically talking to a man in military fatigues with a large metal pot in his hand. He was trying to get the pot to the mobile and the distressed lady was trying her best to block him. It became apparent that the pot belonged to her, that she was a street food vendor, and that her livelihood was about to be confiscated. Maybe she didn’t grease the cop/soldier’s palm that week, or maybe there was a legitimate legal reason, I couldn’t tell either way. We stayed parked behind the mobile watching this scene unfold for a minute, after which my driver nervously gave a short honk of the horn. No one acknowledged us, not the lady, not the man holding her pot, nor his two companions also decked in camo and holding large canes. So we sat some more and watched on. One quick move to the left and the cop/soldier got around her, placing the pot on the bed of the pickup. With a face representing the dictionary definition of pleading, that probably couldn’t physically plead one iota more, the distraught woman with her expression and words, although we couldn’t hear them, drew attention to her desperation and to those who depended on her income, and begged for leniency, placing one hand on his shoulder. For the cop/soldier, the shoulder grab was the last straw. He turned around, and putting his whole body into it, shoved the woman away. She stumbled back a good distance and would probably have fallen backwards if she didn’t first hit what was most likely her own rickety wooden food stall. For the first time, she was silent, her face covered in shock, but no one cared. The cop/soldier hopped back into the mobile and drove away while his two comrades continued their patrols, canes held out as they walked, just so it was clear these were kicking ass sticks, not walking sticks. I didn’t come away with a good impression from watching this incident.

But an almost simultaneous thought was how much better security would be in Karachi with this kind of police and army presence. I mean, here they are in the absence of crime, and in Karachi crime runs rampant in the absence of a credible display of the state’s ability to enforce law and order. I guess the lesson is to avoid extraordinary powers unless they are absolutely necessary, and to make it crystal clear and non-negotiable in the authorization bill when (under what conditions) they must be removed.

Kathmandu’s streets are narrow, congested and badly paved, often unpaved. Walking through busy markets and tourist alleys is at first unnerving as there’s always a Bajaj Pulsar nipping at your heels or barreling straight at you. Soon you learn to accept near misses with speeding motorbikes as the norm and get on with the business of enjoying the Capital. It’s noisy, busy and polluted, but then that’s par for the course in South Asia. Visitors from Dhaka, Colombo, Karachi or Mumbai will feel at home but shouldn’t expect to see any tall shiny buildings. In fact I thought even Kabul looked more developed than Kathmandu, despite Afghanistan being the only country in Asia poorer than Nepal (by GDP/capita at PPP). The air pollution is so bad that you’ll need to buy a face-mask and even then you’ll cough, there’s litter everywhere, and stray dogs hold barking competitions late into the night when you’re trying to sleep.

A couple steals away a private moment in a Kathmandu park

A couple steals away a private moment in a Kathmandu park

At this point you may be wondering what’s there to enjoy. There’s plenty, but really the main thing most travelers use Kathmandu for is transit to either Pokhara or a Himalayan Trek. Please stay tuned. More on that later.