Nepal. Sherpas. The Himalayas.What is this place? Who are these people?
Are these mountains as tall as I envisioned? In 1997, I decided to find
out by signing up with Mountain Travel Sobek for something they called
The Ultimate Everest Trek. Looking back, it was the real inspiration
for my alpine mountaineering interest. For 21 days, we hiked the Khumbu
going up and down the valley walls, sleeping in tents each night and
being musically greeted each morning with "Morning Sir, Sherpa tea?"
The trip started in Kathmandu by staying in a hotel in Thamel. We took
a tourist trip to the Bagmati River which is the home of a significant
Hindu temple. Ghats or river steps line the river. I saw things I had
never seen before. Bodies are cremated here and I saw several burning
bodies. They are painted and set on top of logs and set afire. When all
that remains are the ashes, they are put in a small bowl with milk and
flower petals covering them, and then washed into the river with an elaborate
religious ceremony. Certain areas of this temple are reserved for burning
royalty and others for burning the lower classes.
Pashupatinath is the holiest Hindu pilgrimage destination in Nepal. Boudhanath
is among the largest stupas in South Asia and it has become the focal
point of Tibetan Buddhism in Nepal. Monks walk about in maroon robes
as well as Tibetans with prayer wheels in their hands. I also saw the
ritual of prostration where worshippers circle the stupa on their hands
and knees, bowing down to their lord. We also saw the Swayambhunath or
Monkey Temple. This temple is located a short distance from Katmandu.
There must have been 500 wild monkeys crawling around on the steps and
buildings - thus the Monkey Temple. I got a great workout climbing the
365 well worn-steps leading to the top of the temple.
Saying good-bye to Kathmandu, we left for the high mountain village of
Lukla (9,350'). The one-hour flight in a 40 year-old Russian helicopter
brought fantastic views of the green valleys and hilltop mud homes that
protect their mountain barley fields. We then started the Trek.
Initially, following Dudh Kosi river, we visited all the main Sherpa
villages such as Namche, Thame, Khunde, and Khumjung. The Namche Bazaar
is a weekly market where Sherpas come from 100 miles away over high,
snowy mountain passes to buy, sell and trade all sorts of everyday staples:
peppers, meat, wheat, rice, shoes, and of course Western items such as
Coco Cola, cigarette lighters and Gortex jackets!
We then started towards Tibet via the remote Gokyo Valley. Approaching
the highest point on the trip, the landscape turned dark and eerie. The
short, brown tundra had patches of snow everywhere. The lakes were an
amazing turquoise color and the glaciers hung like clouds on the earth.
The views were incredible at the village of Goyko (15,580'). I saw Cho
Oyo for the first time, never considering that I would climb it only
18 months later! At one point high on Goyko Ridge, I could see four of
the eight highest peaks on earth: Everest, Lhotse, Makalu and Cho Oyu.
Our plan was to cross the Ngozumpa Glacier; hike across the Cho La Pass
(17,780') to a campsite beneath the north wall of Cholatse but deep snows
made the pass difficult and we had several members of our team suffering
from altitude sickness so we returned back down the Goyko Valley and
focused on the village of Gorak Shep (17,000'), nestled under the summits
of Pumori and Nuptse. After the coldest night of the trip (-10F), we
left before sunrise for close-up views of Everest from Kala Patar. It
was difficult at the time but in hindsight the climb was simply slippery
with ice on the loose gravel covering this 18,192' peak. In any event
it was my highest climb ever at the time and I was quite proud to stand
From the summit of Kala Patar, we hugged, took pictures and celebrated
the wonderfully clear views of Mt. Everest. It was a clear, cold day
with only the clouds generated from the jetstream hitting the Himalayan
peaks adding color to the azure sky. From the summit, we could see the
Khumbu ice fall sliding down the slopes of Everest and the famous mountaineer's
A couple days later, we hiked to Everest base camp. Following the lower
part of the Khumbu glacier, it took several hours to reach base camp.
It was just as advertised: an ocean of colorful tents randomly laid on
top of tiny, medium and huge sized boulders. Music played loudly and
climbers walked around easily in the thin air. Satellite dishes sat outside
tents and yaks looked at you for a generous handout. This was THE base
camp and again, I felt honored to be there.
We soon left for another valley in the Khumbu, the Chhukhung Valley and
a hike to Chhukhung Ridge (18,300'). This was the most desolate part
of the 21 days. Few villages, almost no other trekkers, just us. This
is the route to the "Trekking Peaks" of Island and Mera, both
over 20,000' and a great experience for those not wanting to tackle serious
alpine mountaineering but still wanting to summit a Himalayan 6,000 meter
mountain. We camped on a cloudy, dark night at Chhukhung and prepared
to go to the ridge the next day. In the morning, the clouds blew away
and we were rewarded with the most beautiful, rugged view of mountains
I had ever seen. The backsides of Lhotse and Nuptse are almost vertical
rock walls covered with thick ice. In the brilliant sunlight, it was
a stunning sight. Upon returning to our camp in Chhukhung, I played with
some of the local children. These kids were friendly, smiled easily and
had a carefree style that made me laugh. The picture at the right was
not staged. I was lying in my tent when the girl on the right came over
to see what I was doing and soon she was joined by her brother and sisters.
Soon, we started to trek back to Lukla, visiting Tengboche Monastery
en route. This is the primary Monastery in the region with about 50 monks
and serves as the Rinpoche's home. He blessed us during our stay after
a small donation of 100 rupees (about a dollar). The monks travel the
valley to bless the Sherpas of the area but also maintain a strict schedule
of praying in the Monastery. We were honored to sit quietly inside the
Monastery to listen to the chants as they read their prayers that were
often interrupted by the gong of a bell or the sharp clash of cymbals.
Two small boys, probably about six-years old could not keep from smiling
at us and laughing throughout the service. A sideways look from an older
monk quickly brought them back in line!
The rocket-like shaped Ama Dablam looms directly over Tengboche. You
can see Ama Dablam from almost everywhere along the trek. It stands so
high and so alone that it is impossible to miss. I probably took fifty
pictures with it in the background! Again, it never crossed my mind that
I would stand on top of it a few years later.
As we made our way back to Namache and to Lukla for the helicopter flight
back to Kathmandu, I thought about what I had experienced. I was touched
by the Sherpa way of life. No mistake, there was extreme poverty. Cooking
with wood, you could almost see people developing tuberculosis and other
lung diseases developing inside the poorly ventilated homes. But, they
focused on family and life. They lived simple lives. They laughed and
smiled easily and seemed sincerely pleased to give a helping hand. I
can still hear the Buddhist chants to this day.
Once back in Kathmandu, we had a thank-you and good-bye dinner and soon
returned to our various parts of the world remembering the magic of Nepal
... and a promise to return one day.
Please visit the Everest Base Camp Trek Frequently
Asked Questions page on common
questions about trekking in the Khumbu and to Everest Base Camp