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The Trek

October 5, 2012

I haven’t been avoiding writing about this because it was so traumatic or anything, more just because I don’t know where to begin or how to articulate it all.

As I’ve mentioned, the monsoon season lasted into September, it usually ends in August, and this caused us to have to restructure the trip, with rafting and the jungle coming before the trek. By the time we got to Pokhara to kick off we were very bonded as a group, so that was a good thing. It poured the night before we left. torrential buckets of rain. In our pre-trek meeting, Chitra told us that the rain had flooded parts of the route and caused a number of landslides and that we may have to adjust the route based on this.

The next morning, we were apprehensive, but excited. We rose early, got our last showers in, and were ready to board the bus, which was already filled with Nepali men, from their late teens into their 50s. This, we were told, was our trek crew. There were more than 20 of them to take care of the nine of us. We piled in as a couple guys got on the roof and one hung on to the open door on the side, and jam jam – off we went.

The bus meandered through Pokhara for a while. People opening their shops or just on the street gave us knowing looks. Kids chased the bus waving at us. I think a bus full of Western faces headed up to the hills is not an unfamiliar sight in this town.

As we left Pokhara the bus started to climb a steep, narrow, winding road. Anyone who’s driven the Hana Highway in Maui has a rough idea of what the road was like, but you should picture that unpaved and even steeper and narrower. Occasionally, there would be a banging from the roof or the guy on the side would have to jump out to steer us around an unusually large hole in the road (most of them we just drove through). As we neared corners, the driver would lean on the horn warning anyone on the other side that we were coming around.

A few of the more nervous in my group looked down at the steep drop to the river and the abysmal condition of the road and proclaimed “we’re gonna die!” I figure the driver didn’t want to die anymore than we did, so that would keep up safe. “Yes, but he’s a Buddhist. He thinks his next life will be even better than this one. You’re an atheist,” came the response to my logic.

We didn’t die and after a couple stops to let traffic pass and those of us who needed one to have a “wild wee” we arrived at our kick off stop. The porters loaded our bags, tents, cooking supplies (including fresh eggs), and miscellaneous needs into baskets which they carried on their backs with a tie around their foreheads. Impressive doesn’t begin to cover it. Especially since at least half of them wore nothing more than flip flop.

We met KB, KT, and Mali (I could be way off in spelling), Chit’s assistants on the trek and we started to walk. I actually fell behind KB at first, with Martin behind me. I know this was an unwise spot, but the trail was narrow and there was no place to move to a more sensible spot in the parade. KB had a nice steady slow pace. I tend to walk like I run – too fast at first and I burn out quickly.

We walked for a while on a gradual incline which was so pleasant that for a little while I wondered what I was worried about. Then we veered off our original route and moved steeply upward. And I fell back in line. it was a long steep up marked by slippery muddy paths and fallen rocks. KB stopped after about an hour and conferred with Chit and the others. Chit told us there was a very dangerous spot coming up and we’d have to go one by one. We walked for a bit more spreading out based on our speed. As I caught up to those in front of me they were waiting at a turn in the path,  Eventually those behind me joined us as well. One by one we turned the corner, not knowing what was there. Nothing was there! The path ended and there was another path about 6 feet above us, but seemingly no way to get from where I was to where the others who’d come before me were. Chit and Mali were at the top reaching down and yelling directions “put your right foot there, left there.” They basically pulled me oner the ridge with their bare hands.

Once up above, we set off again. The original path was meant to follow the river bank before gradually heading upwards. This path was, as Chit had warned us “up up up.” It was also barely a path, with large rocks blocking the way, a steep drop down to the river and treacherously slick surfaces. We’d only been walking for a couple hours and I was over it. We spread out again and I found myself alone in the middle. It was a scary place to be as one false step could send you tumbling down with nothing to break the fall but boulders. Soon Mali joined me and we walked together for several more hours. Me stopping regularly to  catch my breath or reach out for some help over a particularly complicated passage; Mali politely waiting saying, “ok, go slow.” There were others behind me, so that made me feel somewhat better.

Eventually, the stream became visible below us and on a flat rock I saw a couple dozen people eating and relaxing, their feet in the water. Finally we had reached our group. We went past them and I figured we were just finding a safe route down. When we kept going I grabbed Mali, pointed at the group and tried to communicate that that was where I needed to be. “No, No” he said. “They are not us.” I was sure they were us. I could even identify my friends among them, but Mali kept going.

Periodically as we walked one of our porters would trot past us, heavy basket on their back, not breaking a sweat. Nepali men an dome would come from one direction or the other, always offering a Namaste, sometime offering something to buy, a soft drink, beer, and even cigarettes. I’m sure I looked like I needed something, but a cigarette was not it.

After about six hours of walking, we came to a small village where I found my companions sitting on a rock drinking lemonade. They cheered my arrival and gave me some refreshment. Soon the last of our walkers joined us as well. We all regaled each other with stories of our moments on the walk and geared up for our afternoon walk. Anna had spoken to a group of about thirty women (they were the ones on the rock by the stream) who were on a charity trek to raise money for multiple myeloma, the disease that claimed my mother. Even as I type this, it makes me teary knowing she was somehow there with me on that first hard day.

After lunch Chitra let us know that since we got a late start and were slow in our trek due to the change of route, that we wouldn’t be doing the afternoon trek, rather we’d find a camp spot in town. A little maneuvering later and we were in a small schoolyard where student were quickly dismantling a volleyball net to make room for our tents. One of the porters who was especially quick had gone on to the second site, so not all the mattresses would be there til late. We drank coffee and played cards by candlelight in a school room until it was time for bed.

The next morning we were greeted by curious school children and surprisingly limber muscles. No one was in pain.

We headed to our next destination, which would be about a 5 or 6 hour climb up about 5000 stone steps. I knew about the steps and had been dreading them for weeks. But I was still expecting actual steps. Instead we got a serious of rocks of varying depths and heights that we had to get up. I took my place in Team Pauly Pauly (slowly slowly in Nepali). We went up up up. It was a long haul and we stopped frequently. KT was assigned to our little group and was endlessly patient and encouraging. We started goal setting, which became a theme for the trek. We’ll go to that rock, that curve, that tree. The distances became shorter and the recovery time longer, but we made it, only about an hour behind the fastest walkers. At the site, we had lunch and had the option to walk down to another village about an hour away. I, along with a couple others, passed on the village tour and hit my tent while the faster trekkers took off.

After a while, I had to use our toilet tent. I was literally a tent constructed around a hole one of the porters had dug in the ground. There was a pile of fresh dirt near by to cover anything that went in the hole and a bag for paper. My squat muscles have gotten pretty strong over the last couple weeks and I was in position when I heard rumbling A lot of rumbling. As I popped out of the tent, a dozen water buffalo were directly alongside my and across the field chased by a small Nepali boy wielding a stick. Anna’s head was out of her tent as well and she was laughing merrily.

We convened in the dining tent waiting for our friends to return and playing Uno, which was a nightly ritual for the trip. KB and Fiona joined us. KB left to get tea ready just as the rain started. from inside the tent we could hear it getting stronger and stronger. We had a couple small candles going and talked of going back to the tents for flashlights, but kept thinking the rain would taper off. Just as we began to worry about the hikers, we heard a rustling outside the tent and in they burst. Wet and a bit drunk (apparently the local wine, to which they were treated, is very strong).

We sat together for a while in the dim candle light with the tent getting increasingly battered by the rain and wind. We’d already had a couple encounters with the area leeches and since the rain brought them out, we would frequently “leech check” our boots and legs. The tent was held into the ground by metal rods and after one corner pulled loose, we began to get silly out of fear and adrenaline. We had heard about the avalanche the day before and after two days of the treacherous climb , we were beginning to realize that it wasn’t just a state park we’d come to. Even the most moderate of the Himalayan trails are more dangerous than most of the hiking in the US or UK. After a very tense hour or so, KB returned with tea and we had something to focus on besides our nerves.

The rain slowed and Jamal ran out to get his rain jacket. He barged back in shortly there after saying, “you’ve all been bitten (by leeches). Take your shoes off and come with me NOW!” I didn’t take my shoes off, but we all ran with him into a stone building where a Nepali family sat on mats in the corner. We were, I’m pretty sure, in their bedroom. Peeling off our shoes and socks, we found we were all clear of leeches except for Jamal, who did run out barefoot. He had several bites, but a little salt later and he was cleared. Our porters set up a table and we ate dinner in the house, the family watching us from the corner. Chitra brought in all 20 + of our porters and guides to introduce them and tell us where they were from. Each greeted us with Namaste, their names, and home towns. English skills ranged from basically nonexistent to very good. Then we introduced ourselves with Namaste Miro naam Kathleen Ho. (my name is Kathleen). I can’t say enough about the porters, and I will repeat many times over how amazing they were. We came to know some of them a bit, especially the card sharks who’d join us for our nightly games. As we headed for the tent, one of the younger men with good English asked Emma a few questions about herself and became known throughout our group as “Emma’s Boyfriend” which she was not so happy about, but made me smile.

The next morning we headed out for what was projected to be our hardest day. I couldn’t imagine anything harder than the last two, but there we were. Chitra prepped us with the familiar, “we go up up up.” We were headed to our highest camp site, above the clouds in an area known as Tara Top. From there were were promised breathtaking views. But the climb would be elick doe to the storm and we were likely to encounter more leeched, even those that could fall from the trees. I wasn’t so worried about them until I found out they could get in my increasingly dirty hair!

I liked day three’s climb a lot. It was hard as could be and we implemented our goal system, but it was a beautiful walk punctuated by frequent water falls and, for Team Pauly Pauly, spa breaks. We would stop at a small pool or waterfall, dip our hands and heads in and revitalize. There were some tough crossings and the last hour or so to Tara Top was exhausting, but as we ascended up above the clouds, it was magnificent.

The promised view wasn’t there so much at night, but by sunrise, it was spectacular. We saw the entire Annapurna range and got to know several of the snow-capped peaks well, especially Fishtail, which was a constant companion on the trek. We had our morning coffee and got changed for the day. As I was inspecting my sweaty t-shirt from the day before to see if I might get a couple days use out of it, I noticed a distinct red stain on the back. I had bled, a lot. Emma checked my back and there it was. A leech bite. It seems to have gotten under my backpack, had its fill of me and fallen off. I never knew it was there. And with that I’d joined a club with many of our team as members already.

Chitra warned us that as we went “down down down” it would be hard on our muscles and joints. I didn’t care. I was very ready for a down day. I pointed in one direction and asked if we were going that way and Chir said, “no, it’s too hard, too steep.” When we were ready to head out, we got word that landslides had once again blocked our original route and we would have to use the too steep one.

Oh how I hated down down down. The path was practically vertical with more stone steps, loose rocks and slippery mud everywhere. As everyone who knows me knows, I rarely go more than a couple days without falling down and I was certain I would turn my ankle during this climb. It was unrelenting. At one point Fiona looked at me and said “are you suffering” I managed to nod and hold back the tears til she turned away from me (though she knew they were coming).  I managed to regain my composure by the time we reached our lunch spot. Everyone’s legs were jelly and none of us were sure that if we sat down we’d be able to get up again. Chit pointed out our camp for the night, far off on the horizon. It looked impossible, but off we went. Chit stayed with Team Pauly Pauly but ran a bit ahead. As we came around a corner we found him sitting on a fence. Apparently this was meant to be our camp site for the night, but no one was there. We walked further looking at each other and wondering if Chit was putting up on or if he really didn’t know where everyone was. We finally found them and I could feel myself wavering between despair and relief. If at any point going back was any easier than going on, I would have quit the trek, but it didn’t work that way.

I had to do a birthday greeting call that night, the last connection to the US my phone would allow. I retired to my tent as the rest of the group were entertained by villagers. I knew I should join them, but the day had really depleted me.

Emma came back and we did our nightly ritual of talking through our hikes and pumping each other up for the next day. This was my favorite part of every day and in all honesty I don’t think I could have made it through without her. Or if I did, I wouldn’t have been as happy. We became so close during this trip that I feel a bit like my best friend has moved away even though I only knew her a couple weeks.

I bounced back by the morning of day 5, another up up up day. It was actually my favorite day of the trek. It was a short hike (only about 5 1/2 hours) to our camp site and we’d be staying there for two nights. I should mention at thus point that none of us could walk very well. Everyone’s muscles were screaming. I rolled over and swore at one point in the night. Emma asked if I was ok and I said my legs hurt. About a hold an hour later, she rolled over and I heard the same four letter word out of her mouth.

But still, it was a great hike and soon our legs were working properly for up. THe fast climbers made it in what KB called “local time.” Team Pauly Pauly came in in the time that was estimated for the fast walkers. We all felt like it was a victory.

Still, once we stopped moving and sat down, the muscles began aching. We looked like the MInistry of Funny Walks as we made our way across the camp site.

The following day was an optional hike day. Four trekkers took off to a nearby peak, five of us remained in camp. We spent a little time in our tents rubbing Tiger Balm on our muscles, then grouped for Uno. We planned on a short hike at some point to get some blood flowing but it never happened.

During our after lunch game of Uno, Adam and Fiona, who had their phones at the table, began to get text messages. Lots of them. Ping, ping, ping. “Please tell me you’re ok!” was the general urgent message. After a little back and forth, we learned that a flight to Lukla at Everest, carrying a team of trekkers, many British had crashed. Though it was only about 7am in the UK, their friends were waking up to the news. We all called our loved ones to let them know wa were ok and Anna came up with the quite brilliant idea of Facebook postings. We each asked our loved one to post a message on our page letting everyone who might be concerned know that we were ok. It wouldn’t reach everyone, but it was a good way to get the message out.

As the climbers returned to camp, we shared the sad news and suggested they get in touch with their families. It put a damper on what could have been a lovely day, and was again a reminder of the dangers of the place we’d chose to visit. Emma and I sat in the tent for a while, pep-talking each other into a good place and we joined the others for the last evening of camping. Just one more down down down and we could get a shower and a beer!

The next morning we set off. I still hated down down down, but this one came with a great reward. Eventually, the steep steps changed to a gradual road and even the stream and after only about four hours of trekking we reached the lunch spot. I joined Emma and Gary on the blanket, still quite afraid to sit for fear that the after lunch trek would be too hard when Gary pointed to a dilapidated bus and said “that’s our bus.” “That’s our bus?” I asked incredulously. “Yup – the trek is over.” And then my tears came again. I’d trekked in the Himalayas. I did it. We all did it! “You rock!” Emma said high-fiving me. “We all do”

We took some photos with the amazing, amazing trek team who always had the tents waiting for us, brought us coffee in bed every morning, fed us delicious, nutritious trail food, and were ruthless card players, and we headed home.

I can’t believe I did it and I’m so proud, despite my many struggles. Emma was an invaluable partner and friend thoughout, but all my trail friends, especially Team Pauly Pauly, made it the experience of a lifetime. I don’t know what I did in my past life to end up with this amazing group of people, but I am so indebted to them all. The trek was staggeringly hard. We all had bad days and we all struggled, but no one ever said an unkind word to one another. We all believed in each other so much and together we conquered the trail. I never felt anything but belief and support from my partners on this journey and I hope they never felt anything but that from me. I have eight new Facebook friends now and with friends with whom I shared an experience so profound that even if our paths never cross again, we will remember each other for life.

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2 Comments
  1. Aunt Nancy permalink

    A lovely story–can’t wait to see you –call us when you re-enter–love you lots

  2. Cameron permalink

    Hi,

    I have a quick question about your blog, would you mind emailing me when you get a chance?

    Thanks,

    Cameron

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