Archive for October, 2009

I Quit

October 12 – 27, 2009

Gokyo Valley, Chola Pass, Everest Base camp

rf mt everestAtop Kalipatar: Mt. Everest Sunrise

The question had been plaguing me for weeks – since first asked. The more I focused, the more I tried to force fit into something I thought I new, the more it evaded capture, evaded dominance.  Recognizing that life’s important explorations rarely present forthcoming clarity, I simply let go; like the “Purpose of life” inquiry –  Who the fuck knows.

road to goykyoTrail up Gokyo Valley

I tentatively and very carefully place each foot and hiking pole (ensuring four points of contact and hopefully safety) on the steep, snow covered, and very icy slopes of Chola pass. This is the same pass that a Nepali porter lost his life on days before in a sudden avalanche of rock and snow. While focusing on climbing,  a counter question, with complete inappropriate timing, springs forth: “Maybe you are supposed to leave something in these mountains” rather than “hopefully you will find what you are looking for” as my dear friend Alan first proposed as I departed for these Himalayas.  “What?” my brain screams- “What the hell does this mean, who the hell cares – shut the hell up – I am trying to stay attached to this mountain……what good is an answer to a dead guy?”

stone house and mountyainStone house on route

Later that night I crawl into my down bag after realizing I will  be sleeping on a platform of stacked rocks; largely flat, but hard and granite cold.  The 3 inches of ancient, filthy  compressed foam make little difference. I replay the question over and over trying to decipher: “Maybe you are supposed to leave something in these mountains….”.  I turn on my headlamp, write the new question in my journal and recognize I must indeed be suffering from a lack of oxygen, that my mind has finally,  at 46 years, gone….completely.  Find something – leave something. I begin to cough again and notice through my lamp beam that my closet (5.75 x 2.75  x 5ft ) is completely filled with Yak shit smoke from the mis-directed flue of the dining hall stove. “Great: yak smoke, rock bed, flat mattress, shitty food, and stupid questions followed by even more stupid questions”. sleep comes slowly and is fitful.

porterEverest Region Porter

Days, and kilometers later in Dingboche the questions are far from my mind.  In fact, I have not given them another thought.  Rather I have been mentally preparing for my final and greatest “Conquest” of this trek – Island Peak.  We are indeed going to follow Sir Edmunds lead – Like Mt. Everest in 1953 we were going to “knock that bastard off”. Hubris my ass. While a far cry from Everest this is my mountain, and like other goals throughout my life this +20,000 ft rock  is on my “list”. Therefore and by definition – like all others before it, it will soon be reduced to a check mark along with, unfortunately but necessarily, my own mental asterisk – it will be a temporary positive feeling of accomplishment, of self worth, of bragging rights, but it will not be enough…they never are. That is not the point  This is simply how things are, how they always have been, how they always will be.

robert angin kalipatar 2

Angin and Robert on Kalipatar

Forget that I have developed a nasty cold, that my cough is worsening due to high altitude combined with yak smoke and kerosene fumes (days later I will be diagnosed with severe bronchitis and a respiratory infection). Forget that I have concerns about the climbing conditions; more specifically the people who were creating these conditions; I see photos of nearly a hundred tents at base camp (you pay your rupees, and you can be a mountaineer – I realize, embarrassingly,  that I am not alone in my ego), while hearing stories of skilled climbing guides doing their job of “putting” clients on top even if it means with the aid of mechanical devices (effectively “pulling em up and lower em down“). I hear of potential for serious bottle necks on the steepest part of the mountain whereas you can not climb up or down due to your nose in someone’s ass and your ass in someone’s nose – I have read enough climbing accounts to know that these potential traffic situation are very dangerous and have led to some of the sports biggest human losses. Forget that I am scarred. Tomorrow morning I will face these minor obstacles and in typical fashion I plan to kick their ass. That is what I do, who I am. I am not a strong guy or a particularly smart guy, but I am a guy who does not quit.  A man my friend Michael describes as “Hitting an obstacle and thinks the only option available is adding more fuel to the tractor”.  Yes, I have been told, and yes I believe, this makes me an incredibly effective corporate warrior, impossible to live with or maybe even love, and while not reckless potentially dangerous on mountains and elsewhere.

player flags on gokyoPrayer flags on Gokyo Ri

Earlier in the day I pay a Nepalese fortune to charge my Ipod Nano using a solar panel; once atop Island Peak, I can play the theme song “Memories” from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s masterpiece Cats in remembrance of my mom who we lost to cancer just over a year ago. I have not listened to this song since her memorial as I have been saving it for such a grandiose day. A day she would be proud of.  A day my post divorce councilor would have described as “consistent with your narcissist tendencies”; like he actually knows a God damn thing.

spot lightEvening spot lights

Just before midnight I wake up frantically grabbing my mouth, my nose….my chest.  Trying to clear an opening, trying to make a passage- open damit, open – I am fucking suffocating, I am going to die….hyperventilating, sit up, gasping. STOP! Breathe, concentrate, relax, you are fine.  Breathe, breathe……breathe. No problem see, just a cold, just high altitude, just some fluid on your lungs, just one of those ever more frequent panic attacks – I now understand why climbers and divers often tear off their oxygen supply as they struggle to get life supporting air. When I die, please don’t let it be from suffocation.

morain contrastMoraine

What was that?  Dreaming? Dreaming before I nearly suffocated? Who was that? While not part of my plan, I instinctively search for my Nano….feeling in the dark.  I squint to see, hit the repeat function, and play “Memories” for hours while I stare at the ceiling to black to actually see; I try to breathe.  I wake with the first rays of morning, my mouth sticky dry, – I sip tainted Iodine water to lubricate my swollen tongue preventing it if from affixing to my palate or teeth permanently. I blow my nose – thick mucus, dirt,  and dried blood.  One ear bud is wrapped around my neck, the other plays:

anataplumAma Dablam (maybe the prettiest mountain in Nepal)

Daylight, I must wait for the sunrise.
I must think of a new life,
And I mustn’t give in.
When the dawn comes tonight will be a memory too,
And a new day will begin.

bc sign
Everest Base camp (this is the old camp sign)

I dress quickly and go to the small dining area where Angin  pours morning tea.  With no forethought I say “Angin, we change plans; we not climb Island Peak”. A look of great concern and then horror comes to the young mans face.  “Oh no sir, you feel better in a few days, you strong man, you not quit, you never quit, you-me…we all ready walk Langtang trek, we climb Gokyo Ri, we climb Chola pass, we climb Kalipatar, we go Everest base camp….we now go Island Peak; you climb slow-slow all way top; you be rock star – like Mica Jackson.  You satisfy, I satisfy” I had not considered this being Angin’s climb as much as mine but then I think back to all of the times he had bragging rights in front of the other Sherpa porters and guides as our time in the mountains far exceeded most of the other trekking tourist. From somewhere outside of me I say simply and with complete resolve: “Angin, I am sorry.  I can climb that mountain if I want, and I can climb that mountain if I need, but I nor want or need to climb. I have no desire and nothing to prove…..especially to my self”. His response is simple and final: “Yes sir, you decide”.

lobeche tea houseLoboche tea house

I eat my breakfast alone as my highly competent guide and porter manages the logistics of a sudden and surprising change of plans.  Upon his return, we quickly and unceremoniously grab our packs and go outside.  We stand for a long minute looking up valley towards Island Peak just as the sun began to touch her flanks. While there I hear: “I will always be here and you are welcome to try and climb me.  If you come of “want” you will either reach my top or not…..who cares, it is unimportant. But if  you come again of “need“, remember I am insidious, with an insatiable apatite. You may reach my highest point, but it will never be high enough – I will give you a higher mountain, a more precarious sea, a faster motorcycle,….you will never catch me, I can not be caught”.   I smile a huge grin, laugh out loud, and give a nod as I turn smartly down hill.  “How far down can we get today Angin?” I direct.  “You sick sir, but I carry your day pack also, we make dinner – Namche Bazar”.  I Okie/Nepalese  blow-out – more mucus, more dirt , more blood. We leave.

more stone mantraStone Mantras line the way

I do not speak, think, or turn around for over hour and while physically racked, I move very quickly down the valley. When we do stop and look back, Island Peak is gone – what an odd feeling – “Christ, Jesus Christ, did I quit?  Yes, Robert you most certainly did quit – you are a quitter”.  That is strange, quitting did not kill me, in fact I feel good, really good. My head goes foggy again and I shake myself back to consciousness when suddenly: “Maybe you were supposed to leave something in these mountains”. Shit, I just left a whole God damn mountain unclimbed, a life goal unattained. You are fucking kidding me!

chola ice fieldSnow field on backside of Chola pass

Really, truly my brain scratches? did you? Or – “Find what you are looking for in those mountains?” What? What the hell are you talking about I shout silently, give me a break – I finally get an answer to the question you bring forth, then you change back to the original question. Frustrated.

stupa eyesStupa eyes

Walk, calm now –  “You are in the land of Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, and Genesh….the land of the Buddha and the Dharma…..the land at the top of the world……hold both questions – they are not exclusive, they never were….life is not linear nor singular; neither black or white,  embrace the duality – a river of birth, a river of death – You left a mountain, you found Freedom”.

monisstary paintingMonastery Painting

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Back in KTM.

NOTE: I am publishing post on the date of event to make searching easier in the future.  Thus you may have to scroll down past this post to see what has been happening the last few weeks.  This situation will self correct as I get caught up.

The photos are downloaded,  and I am starting to write.  But I only have a bit of time as I am going to Chitwan National Park for a few days (doctors orders) to ride the Elephants and hopefully see the endangered white Rhino’s, and while not likely – but possibly,  the Asian Bengal Tiger…… some days I love being me. But then again it may be all the drugs they put me on to hopefully curb the growing infection in my chest, or it could be the abundant amount of oxygen at this altitude. Regardless, I am on restricted duty so here are a few photos.

horse head

Horse on the Steppes of Nepal


Ama Dablam (mother and her necklace)

After I sat down on the cold earth these two came over and ultimately let me scratch their matted hair.  Now, as my crazy about horses friend Dana knows, I am scared of equines so this was a bigger deal than reaching the base camp of Mt. Everest.

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October 15, 2009

Namche Bazar – Dhole 4110m

We got news last night that a porter was lost on Chola pass due to a quick moving avalanche. This sad news hit many of us hard – especially those who new the man who lost his life. We also heard that Island peak was experiencing severe weather with temperatures of -35c; if it is anything close to that cold when I get there in a few weeks you can be assured that my lily white ass will be staying in the tent.

angin above namcheAngin above Namche Bazar

At 9:30am we reached our scheduled destination and appropriate acclimation altitude. Angin and I studied the map carefully and felt very confident the we could go on to Dhole without a significant risk of contracting altitude sickness. It was an absolutely magnificent day for trekking with Pacific blue skies, frequent vista’s of snow capped mountains, and glorious fall weather.


Just before Dhole a group of 4 young men who were carrying their own loads blew past us with nary a wave.  They had also started at Namche and planed to push on farther up the valley. Around 11pm in the evening, I heard a great deal of commotion and realized that these “studs” were back in Dhole and one was suffering from Acute Altitude/mountain Sickness (AMS).  He was suffering from an excruciating headache, nausea, blurred vision, shallow and labored breathing, and numbness in the extremities. And, well he was freaking out. They got settled down, and Diamox was given to hopefully counter the affects of the oxygen shortage. Diamox is actually a glaucoma drug but is used frequently for AMS.  Some take as a preventative and others, myself included, carry it as a treatment option if problems develop. Unfortunately, some of the big outfitters hand this potent drug out like Chiclets and run the risk of masking the symptoms of a potentially fatal problem.  In the morning we saw this poor guy and he looked like he had been hit by a yak – a very big yak.  He was recovering but his trek was over as his options were limited to one; go down.

mantra stonesMantra stones

Ironically or is that stupidly?,  after watching this AMS situation unfold,  a young and obviously very fit U.S. Navy guy who is stationed in Singapore announces to the group that he has limited time and is going to push on to Gokyo today, climb Gokyo Ri tomorrow morning and then return to Namche the same day. “I really don’t think I will have any problem, I have a headache, but Ibuprophen seems to take care of it”.  Mind you this is the same guy who is traveling exclusively with U.S. dollars because “Everyone wants them right?” We have a good laugh at his expense as we watch the stupidly low (about half) exchange rate he is given at the lodge and his apparent lack of math skills.  Later we hear from Angin that this guy has both a guide and a porter (who he hired at the airport), and he is paying almost triple the going rate. His guide and porter are also ordering food off the tourist menu and he is paying for that as well. I told Angin that he got the wrong client; “Oh no sir, he get killed, maybe kill guide”. Please tell me this guy does not represent the “New, smarter U.S. military”.

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October 14, 2008, Namche Bazar

namche bazar monistaryNamche Bazar Monastery

After some looking I found the Sherpa museum. It was locked, but a care taker let me in and I wondered alone amongst the tools and belongings of the people who truly have a mastery of these mountains. Nothing was behind Plexiglas, and there were no alarms; simply a “request to respect” our small collection.  After walking around, I was offered the opportunity to see a slide show about the area that had been prepared  by a local hotel owner and photographer.  It was a very low tech power point but I enjoyed sitting in the musty room (which was also storing Yak dung) while the ancient PC labored to load each photo. Given my interest, I was then given a private tour of the Everest room that included a great newspaper collection (under Plexiglas this time) documenting the climbing history of the worlds tallest mountain.  They were all here: Tenzing Sherpa, Sir Ed, Jim Whitaker, Rob Hall…all the great climbers and their greater Sherpa support teams. One memorable quote from the great Kiwi caught my eye from 1953:  “We knocked the bastard off”.  I may use that line on Island Peak.  HUBRIS dummy…never forget hubris.

yak drying wallYak and other dung drying

After awakening to the Tibetan horns of the monastery, I went for a walk and saw what I had previously been described at the museum.  Away from the tourist routes I saw two men mixing human waste with Yak, Yakow and likely other dung.  They were forming the mixture into large pancake sized disk.  After the disk are dried, according to my understanding, the cakes are burned for heating and cooking fuel and the “ash” is used as a fertilizer in the high altitude gardens which support mostly potatoes and HUGE cabbage I see growing around town.


Big dung cabbage with help from Stupa

The morning air was also filled with juniper smoke as small dried branches are traditionally burned to make the “Gods happy”.   This smoke smells really good as it wafts up in small clouds from mini shrines at nearly every home, lodge, and shop.

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October 13, 2009 Phakding – Namche Bazar

“Look asshole, just because people are poor and it may appear they don’t care, you don’t pee on the wall of someone’s home. You also don’t snap your fingers at the people who are trying, with limited resources, to meet your wimpy (myself included) needs”.  The bad behavior is isolated and most people are fantastic but occasionally a few have tempted my walking stick to end up against their arrogant colonial heads.  We often hear about the justly named ugly American traveler, and I certainly witnessed this previously in Paris, and to a lesser extent New Zealand, but the American crowd here are mostly the outdoor type and they are representing the stars and stripes rather well.  In fact, my friend Martin who is Polish but lives in Sweden said: “Not to be rude and please take no offense, but if the Americans here in Nepal, yourself included I would add, would show up more often abroad and in the media, you guys would have a much better world reputation”. The big groups seems to cause the most consternation and I guess some is understandable. They paid a lot of money for this trip (about double what I paid by booking local), they have unrealistic high expectations (the operators have some responsibility – as they over promise and under deliver), and large group dynamics create a feeding frenzy of “Us first, us first, we are German after all”. The best “You have got to be flipping kidding me story” was the French guy I witnessed who wanted to buy bottled water.  Now bottled water is carried up these mountains by man and/or beast and it is dusty out here.  So while the proprietor hands this snob. bottle after bottle of water (after wiping each top as is customary) he continues to reject them for being “dirty”.  After 12-15 bottles, the owner sends her son to another tea house and he brings back more bottles of water; again “disgusting – dirty”. Finally, she starts speaking in Nepalese and the boy disappears; I see him outside polishing the plastic water bottles out of sight of the French guy.  When presented with the sparkling plastic bottle this pin-head Parisian says: “finally, clean water”;  he then wants to negotiate the price. My hiking pole almost went through his spleen with a “No, you eat cake” comment from Versailles.
jax with load


We followed many Yakow trains out of Lukla and up to Namche Bazar.  These sturdy beast are a cross between a Yak and a cow and are used at lower elevations.  Yaks, apparently do not feel good below 3000m and actually start loosing their hair if they get to much oxygen. Yakows on the other hand like thick air and work hard; they are no match for the size and strength of the big male Yaks up high however. Now at home, I give things weighing about a ton with attached horns a wide berth, and this has, to the annoyance of locals, been my practice here.  When I see these buffalo looking things coming, I get the hell out of their way while little school kids walk right by them and slap-em, silly if they get out of line.

We stay at a lovely tea house for a day of acclimation in Namche Bazar where I enjoy talking to the owner about his holiness the Dali Lama.  She has several photos of her family with the exiled leader of Tibet and her husband has traveled with the great monk to the United States and I believe elsewhere. I visit the local monastery and witness the local monks continually chanting their mantras in order to bring focus and quiet to their minds.

mt above namcheMt. above Namche Bazar

I got off to a good start with this tea house owner when I requested a shower. She gave me the keys and I went into the small closet that was the shower room.  On the wall was a propane instant hot water heater.  I got naked, turned on the water, and waited for the heat.  Instead, I found myself bathing in the fumes of highly explosive gas.  I turned off the water, threw on my skivvies and got the hell out of there.  I call for help and this traditionally dressed Tibetan women with a huge smile shows up and turns the water back on and laughs hysterically when the not so small explosion ultimate happens as the unit lights. “Happens every time, you pay me extra, I pay to have fixed”. She then looks at me standing in my briefs and starts laughing uncontrollably while shaking her head. About an hour later a British fellow runs up the stairs half naked complaining of a “gas” smell in the shower and a possibility of “real danger”.  The Tibetan women looks at me and I say to this poor chap: “Happens all the time, you pay her extra and she will have fixed, otherwise just wait for the explosion”.

jax hanging

Yakows hanging out

I was very happy,  to the point of smugness, with my performance on the way to Namche; I beat the porter with the plywood to the top of the hill! I was carrying Angin’s small day pack while he carried my full pack. The plywood guy was hauling 4 full sheets of our U.S equivalent (4X8X¾) laminated wood. To be clear, I can not carry one of these sheets from the rack at Home Depot to my truck in the parking lot.  This guy walked, bent over to nearly 70 degrees, with this wood on his nearly flat back.  He was wearing flip flops, had to cross several narrow suspension bridges, and walk up a trail that was effectively a boulder strewn staircase.  It took me about 5 hours, but I beat him by over 20 meters: Go America! Later in the week I would see another porter carrying 7 (4X4X7is) post in the same manor; he would beat me easily and walked out of sight within an hour.

Below the tea house two men are making the foundation material for structures I will see throughout this region.  The are making blocks out of solid granite that they have exposed beneath the earths surface. One man swings a huge sledge hammer while the other holds a short handled tool that has a spike on the end of it. After several blow, the a small hole begins to appear and water is added to the hole as a lubricant. Ultimately a big piece of granite is broke free and the men turn their attention to the more careful work of forming very uniform rectangular blocks. They utilize the natural crack lines in the rock and during my two day stay they hand chisel about 12 blocks.  When I returned 10 plus days later, the underlying granite had been completely transformed into a stack of nearly a hundred perfect blocks.

making boards
Making boards
Beyond building blocks, timbers are hand made throughout Nepal also.  A tree is felled and a platform structure is built out over a ledge.  This allows for one person to stand about 4 feet above his partner sawyer. A long saw is drawn up with a “touch down” motion from the upper person and drawn down with the opposite motion from the person below.  In doing this the four bark sides are carefully sawn away leaving a square timber.  I watched several men perform this task and it looks to take about a half a day to make one 4x4x8 post.  If you need a 2×4, well that naturally takes one more long and careful cut.

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Flight to Lukla Nepal

October 12, 2009: KTM – Luklaa- Phadkimg 2610

The international terminal in KTM is a model of absolute sanity and efficiency compared to the domestic terminal. There are about 600 people in the terminal with a even mixture of westerners and locals.  We have had our bags on and OFF, the scales 4 times in the last two hours and each time someone touches my bag they ask for a tip; I just told Angin that no one else is allowed to touch my bag because if they do I will not have any tip money left for him; he is now protecting his tip like a lion protecting her cubs.  My flight is actually not listed on the intermittently working flight status board, and another couple I talked to who are scheduled for the same time and the same airlines, left on a shuttle bus to the tarmac 10 minutes ago; oh wait, they are back.   We are now on another shuttle bus together; oh wait, I am now being ushered off this bus to the great laughter of everyone. Is that our plane?  “No”.  That was simply a plane that you were supposed to get out of your latest bus and look out…back on the bus. Another plane and it is ours; I would sure feel better if they kept that grounding cord attached while they fueled this relic up.
Is that a car GPS?

The signed said “We guarantee all seats to be window seats”.  That is a rare promise that will actually be kept in Nepal.  The plane holds 14 people – 7 on each side. My window has a big crack in it that looks to be repaired with Shoe-go.  One thing for sure, they do not need to remind everyone to fasten their seat belts as we are all ratcheting ourselves in tight.  What is this?  Cotton for your ears and a piece of hard candy; how nice- welcome to first class.  Engine one fires and the propeller whirls to life.  Number two – cough, wheeze, belch of black smoke – but she fires; no worries, I know this bird can fly on one engine.  Is that a automobile GPS on the dash?  Is the co-pilot really tapping the instruments to get the needle to move?  The pilot turns towards us, gives a half salute, revs the two big jets, releases the break and we barrel down the runway….we are in the air.

out the wing
One engine is all we need

We are very late (1400 hours) in the day to be flying into Lukla – where  last year a similar plane hit the nose of the runway due to limited visibility killing all passengers on board. I can see that we are fully equipped with instruments and they seem to be working, but I also notice that we are flying a cloud avoidance route. As we approach the typical starting point for Mt. Everest,  I immediately see why – we are flying in between two mountains; one on each side. And “shit” that is a mountain in front of us. WOW, we just landed on a very short  runway that extends to the edge of the bench before falling into the abyss. What? The runway actually runs uphill at about a 6% grade. One thing for sure, if you take off from here and do not have enough air speed you will either drop to the earth or hopefully glide into a mountain.

lucka air

Upslope runway of Lukla
luckla sign
Welcome to Everest region

Hope this cough of mine gets better

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Ok, a few more

Kathmandu, Nepal heading to Lukla in an hour

goats and bicycle

Goat parts and bicyle

man box2

Most freight in Nepal is moved by human powere

apple bike

Bicycles are not for recreation

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