We wake up from what has become another night of fitful sleep – the higher we go, the more difficult it is to find a solid night sleep – and find ourselves in the midst of a glorious, blue sky morning. The snow on the ground is glistening and
the mountains are shining like bright crystals in the morning sunlight. As the hike begins, Ryan, Vanessa, Mingma and I are glad to be where we are – in the midst of the most beautiful mountains on earth. As we move along we can’t help but smile at how tough the Cho La Pass was the day before and how nice this hike is today. It is just another reminder how everything can change in minutes from deadly to beautiful without any warning.
As we hike along, amongst Vanessa’s laughter and Mingma’s singing, we hear what sounds like a massive gunshot followed by the rumble of a freight train. We all
immediately turn upwards towards the slopes above our heads to make sure it isn’t our side, then Mingma points out the massive cloud of snow rushing down the steep slopes of Cho La peak which lies across the valley. We watch in wonder for over a minute as the avalanche makes its way from the top of the mountain, over cliffs and through gullies, to the base where it finally settles on flat ground. We are completely awestruck and don’t quite know what to say besides give a nervous laugh and thank whoever is watching over us that we didn’t find ourselves under that wall of snow.
Throughout the rest of the day, we witness 2 more avalanches being released by the bright morning sunshine. For Vanessa, Ryan and I, the 3 avalanches are 3 more than we have ever seen before in our lives and we are caught with our jaws on the ground every time we hear the loud thunder of another one rushing down the steep slopes. The rest of the hike that day goes pretty easily as we join the main trail to Everest (I-90) and progress up to our highest camp at 16,705ft: Gorak Shep. Although we are glad to have beds at this high camp, we are a bit weary of the conditions at this point. As we have gotten higher, the tea houses have deteriorated, along with the food. Instead of having clean toilet areas, these are ‘relatively disasterous’ and the vegatables in our veg. fried noodles/potatoes/rice have gotten so small that you can barely see them any more. Needless to say that it is on everyone’s mind to keep our stay in Gorak Shep as short as possible. [It must be noted that the mountains have gotten incredibly large at this point. After seeing the Rockies in the US, the Andes in Peru, and the Alps in Austria, I thought that I had experienced high mountains – I was wrong. To put it in perspective, imagine the largest mountains in the Alps and then add a thick layer of clouds at the top. Now imagine that high above those clouds another standard Alps size mountain stands looming. That is what it was like as we stood looking over the landscape around Gorak Shep. We were mere ants in a giant’s playground.]
The next morning we are up at 4:45am, along with everyone else in the lodge, to make our way up Kala Patar as the sun rises over Mt. Everest. As the hike begins, we realize that our ‘long way around’ route over the other high passes has left us in much better altitude-shape than almost everyone else on the Kala Patar trail this morning. We find ourselves speed hiking around long groups in the early morning light, with head lamps bobbing, and almost running up the mountain. 2 hours after we began, we are frightfully cold, but we are on top of Kala Patar at 18,200ft. looking up at the sun rise over Mt. Everest and looking down on Everest Base Camp. Its not a bad way to spend Easter morning [Because of all the years in choir, I have not missed Easter service in over 15 years, but I think the small angel statue on top of Kala Patar and the sunrise over Everest will do the trick]. I even do a quick and breathless version of Ave Maria on top just because it seems like the right thing to do. We take our pictures, eat what is left of our candy, and hustle back down the mountain – we have just gone to the highest point of the trip and very well the highest we will ever be in our entire lives.
As we move down the mountain, Ryan and I get ahead of Vanessa and Mingma and find ourselves alone at the base of the trail. I question Ryan what the big pile of fabric is in the middle of the field and he says maybe one of the camps is making a pile of sleeping bags to wash. As we walk by we see 2 sherpas running over to the pile and pull back the fabric. That is when we see the bare arm and leg spralled out and lifeless. Ryan stops but I keep going – we both know what we have just seen and I don’t need to see it again. 20 minutes later the thwop thwop thwop of a helicopter can be heard and we watch as the local sherpas load the body onto the helicopter. We later find out that the gentleman who died had a massive heart attack shortly after we passed him on the trail going up Kala Patar that morning. Needless to say, Easter morning has taken a different meaning now and a somber wave moves over our group of 4.
An hour later, we decide that we really should go to Everest Base Camp because it was one of the original goals of the trip even though we really have no desire to make the 3 hour trek up. We reflect on how Base Camp was such an important
destination, but has become secondary to the journey. Eventually we make it there, in half the time expected, take our pictures and watch while the sherpas prepare their camps for the expeditions who are training down lower in the valley. We observe as the sherpas all form a line and begin to sing and dance towards the mountains. Mingma tells us that they are making their final prayers, dedications to the “Mother of the Mountains” to keep them safe on the slopes. He makes it clear that not a single sherpa will step foot on the mountain before they have properly dedicated themselves and prayed. Hearing their song reverberate off of the walls of the surrounding mountains makes my hair stand on end and is another reminder of the day how thin the line between life and death is on the slopes.
Following Base Camp we practically run back down to Gorak Shep. We all have mixed feelings that evening as we reflect on the day’s events: Easter sunrise on Kala Patar over Everest, the death of the man we passed, and the sherpa prayers at Base Camp. We feel estatic that we have completed our goals, but we realize that our goals were just motivations to get us to complete the journey. The journey is where the real fun and adventure is, not the actual moment of sitting at the Base Camp entrance taking pictures.
The next day is all downhill, as is the day after. We can’t help but feel good when we see people looking up with dread at the massive slopes that we are decending – we know that look of exhaustion quite well. As we lose altitude, we become increasingly aware of vegetation growing again. After a week of nothing but rocks, snow and sky, the smell of grass and fields of ‘mountain rose’ help us to realize that we are getting back to civilization. No longer will we be spending sleepless nights in Gorak Shep in the cold. Probably the best moment of this 2 day descent is when we are asked by a lady from Singapore “how is the wifi at Gorak Shep?” We didn’t have the heart to tell her how it truly was, so all we say is that she should “get all of her affairs in order and buy some extra toilet paper.”
On the second day of our descent, we get to Deboche and meet up with Marcia, Bianca, Mingma Dolma, and Kamchya. Upon our arrival, there are hugs and smiles all around, especially for Kamchya, and we settle into the teahouse that will be our lodge for 3 days. Immediately we begin to tell stories from the previous 5 days that the group was apart. Although I did not catch the entire story, it seems that Marcia and the rest of her group had a nice time as they went down the valley from Dragnag and, after we told them about our snowy ascent of Cho La Pass, were quite happy to have made the decision to turn down. It was really nice to be together again, sipping hot tea around another yak-poo fire.
The next day brings the work with the nuns and everyone is excited. We head to the nunnery in the foggy morning and sit with the nuns as they pray. Following their daily prayers, we get a tour of the entire nunnery and are served boiling hot
milk tea. As we take our tour, it becomes clear that there is much work to do. I don’t want to think about what the place looked like before Marcia and Mingma started their volunteer work 5 years ago, but I do know that Ryan and I, as well as almost everyone else, are chomping at the bit to get to work. Once the tour is finished and we have met all the wonderful nuns, there is a moment of awkward silence. That is when Ryan pipes up “Ok so when can I get to work?” and I add “Yea these hands aren’t going to get dirty by themselves.” Marcia and Mingma laugh, pointing us towards a rocky field and tell us that today we will be making a new field for the nuns to harvest. Our smiles reach from ear to ear as we gaze upon the rocks, large and small, strewn about in the area we are to clear. Finally we get to put our hands to use.
2 hours later the nuns come for us in the field and tell us that they have prepared lunch for everyone. As I look up from the trench I am clearing, I realize that our numbers have grown. Not only are Mingma, Kamchya and Mingma Dolma helping us build the wall, but our porters, who we barely see, are helping as well. It has clearly become more than just a small effort – these guys want in on the action. On the call to lunch we drop our pickaxes and shovels and cram ourselves into the small kitchen area in the nunnery. Each nun dutifully fills plates with Dhal Batt and pours cups of tea. The nuns are dressed in a deep red color, from their flowing robes to their down jackets, as well as have their heads shaved. They are also all dawning broad smiles once we tell them of the work we have already accomplished in the field. We get an endless supply of Dhal Batt and watch as Marcia presents the nuns with supplies for their new gardens. Marcia has
encouraged a New England garden supply store to donate hundreds of bags of different seeds for the nuns as well as tools to plant and cultivate. Marcia truly comes alive when teaching the nuns which seeds to plant in certain seasons and how to use the new tools. Her hands are flailing about, her voice is loud and energetic, and the nuns are loving every second of it. Marcia is in her element.
The rest of the afternoon is spent finishing the field. In this process, Ryan and I attempt to move a small rock that is just below the surface of the soil. As we try to dig it out, it becomes clear that we are dealing with a 500lbs. boulder. 30 minutes later, every male porter, sherpa, and trekker was screaming at the top of their lungs as they either worked a steel bar, tree limb, or used their hands to move this boulder out of the soil. With Marcia, Mingma Dolma, Vanessa and the nuns laughing hysterically, we managed to grunt and scream enough to get this beast out and placed in the wall – it was our shining moment. Not too long after the boulder was moved, the wall was completed and we all stood around to watch the fire that had been lit to burn the field. The nuns were estatic and we had finally been able to work. As we sipped our tea that evening we couldn’t help but think how lucky we all were and how special the day had become.
The next day was another special day for Marcia – we were going to her “Sacred Valley.” Through a series of events years ago, Marcia had stumbled into this valley high above Deboche and the nunnery. The amazing fact is that it is completely hidden from the main trail and pretty much forgotten to the world. This entire beautiful valley sits high in the clouds with glaciers glisening and the grass flowing in the wind. Marcia and Mingma led the way as we made the hike up through thick bushes and trees. After about an hour, we crest a hill and come out of the canopy of trees to the valley. Marcia takes a deep breath and says “welcome to my Sacred Valley – one of the most special places on earth.” Over the next few hours, we lounge in the sun, explore the valley and eat lunch. We sit and laugh at stories, old and new – life is good in the Sacred Valley. Following lunch we head to this tree where there is a singular string of frayed prayer flags flapping in the wind. Marcia goes on to tell us how this valley is quite spiritual for her and how the
tattered prayer flags are there for her mother who passed away a few years ago. We take the old flags down and move over towards the highest tree in the valley to place a new set of flags for Mrs. Mack as well as other Bhuddist katas for prayer. As Kamchya scrambles up the tree limbs like a monkey to tie on the flags, we all say our respective prayers and make thanks that we are all safe and sound. As we leave the valley, we can see the flags and katas flapping in the wind, sending off countless prayers to the sky and we feel pretty darn good.
The next few days go by quickly as we make our way down the Khumbu Valley. We make a stop in Namsche Bazaar for two nights, where we are able to go to the Saturday market, from which the city gets its ‘Bazaar’ title. Namsche is where we learn that Marcia has develped not only a respiratory infection, but a stomach infection as well. We are stunned when we learn this because she hasn’t so much as mentioned a single word to the group about the pain that she must be experiencing. Add that to her newly replaced hips (plural) and bone-on-bone experience in her knees and everyone has a new found respect for her. Not only has Marcia shown herself to be extremely knowledgable about the region, passionate about the culture and religion, but also tough as nails. We all agree that we would go to the end of the earth if Marcia were to lead us there.
Finally we make it back to Kathmandu after bidding adeu to Mingma Dolma, Kamchya and the porters in Lukla [Ryan and I carry Kamchya on our shoulders down the main street of Lukla on our final morning together so everyone knows who is the best sherpa around]. The flight again was hair raising, but we touch down in Kathmandu and suddenly find ourselves missing the mountains. The sheer amount of people combined with the noise and commotion in Kathmandu is almost enough to knock you off of your feet. The way we found to best combat this shock was to sit by the pool and rest for a few days – we felt that we had all earned it. We even did some laundry!
Our final days were spent preparing for the next legs of each member’s adventure [Vanessa was headed to Thailand and we were headed to Jordan and Israel] and touring some spots that we had missed on the first time around. We walked through very old Kathmandu neighborhoods and bought trinkets. I even had the
pleasure of riding on the back of Mingma’s motorcycle through the hectic streets of Kathmandu, which was completely insane. When I beat Ryan in rock/paper/scisors, I jumped on the back and told Mingma that “although you got me through the mountains safe, if we crash and my head cracks open like an egg, my mother and father will come here for your head.” Upon my statement Mingma lets out a bellowing laugh and sends the motorcycle right into traffic. Needless to say I made it out alive, but it was quite the experience.
With the final days spent touring, the final nights were spent saying our goodbyes and eating food that we had been missing for the past month. We feasted at the Everest Steak House on massive steaks, not having had meat in the Khumbu at all. We received t-shirts and gave out cards of thanks. In the end it was really quite sad leaving everyone. We had grown so close to everyone – we arrived as strangers and friends and departed as a family.
Ryan and I will never forget our time in the Nepal and want to thank Marcia and Mingma for making our time so special. We know that we have thanked you many times already, but it was all the little things that you both did for us that really meant the world. You not only kept us alive, but you helped us truly experience Nepal when we saw so many travelers just moving through without a care for the culture. I would say that there is a very strong chance of our return once we get tired of life in the ‘real world,’ which will probably come sooner than later. Danya Batt.
Current Location: Kathmandu, Nepal