A return trek to the Himalayas

LA Times | Travel

My father had a good heart, but he had a bad heart, if you know what I mean. Musical and charming, he was something of a voluptuary. On sunny weekends he preferred to sit in our living room, listening to Chopin or Sarah Vaughan LPs instead of playing tennis or jogging. At 52, Dad began showing...

By Jeff Greenwald // 03.04.09

My father had a good heart, but he had a bad heart, if you know what I mean. Musical and charming, he was something of a voluptuary. On sunny weekends he preferred to sit in our living room, listening to Chopin or Sarah Vaughan LPs instead of playing tennis or jogging.

At 52, Dad began showing signs of heart disease. His doctor enrolled him in a modest exercise program and told him that, if he could manage it, he should try to walk around the block once a day.

That was in 1983. I was 29, away on an 18-month fellowship in Katmandu. My adventures included a trek into Nepal's Khumbu region, climaxing with a grueling hike up Kala Pattar, an 18,450-foot "hill" with staggering views of Mt. Everest and its neighboring glaciers.

The following year -- just days after his 54th birthday -- my father was rushed to the hospital with chest pains. I returned home a few days later, but it wasn't soon enough. Dad had died of a massive heart attack the previous afternoon.

Like my father, I love Sarah Vaughan and Chopin. I also share his high blood pressure and a genetic risk for heart disease. Unlike Dad, though, my passion is the outdoors, with every free day spent hiking or biking.

I turned 54 a year ago, a birthday fraught with long-held anxieties. A few months later, I received an invitation to return to Nepal and trek back to that harsh aerie among the world's highest peaks. It would be 25 years since my first visit. I knew the Khumbu had changed -- as had I. I couldn't help but wonder whether, this time, the mountains might not get the best of me.

As soon as we leave the airstrip at Lukla (9,380 feet), the trail to Mt. Everest begins: a cobbled lane lined with prayer-carved mani stones and crowded with dzos (a cow/yak mix; the altitude is too low for yaks). The outskirts of Lukla, so ramshackle a quarter-century ago, are now a Sherpa strip mall. Gone are the days when a Snickers bar or packet of string cheese was a rare treat; the well-groomed shops sell goods as diverse as high-tech glacier glasses and pop-up greeting cards. The homes and lodges lining the trail are sturdier, with stone walls and corrugated roofs. Forty years of trekking have brought an upscale sensibility to this well-loved corner of the Himalayas.

But even as Lukla disappears around a bend, and the trail becomes a roller coaster of steep declines and precipitous climbs, the changes remain in sight. Porters carry cane dokos filled with Carlsberg beer and Sprite, chatting on cellphones as they walk. Guides and trekkers shuffle along to the beat of hidden iPods, thin white cords descending from their ears.

Though tourism took a major hit during Nepal's tragic civil war (1996-2006), the industry is back in force. This season is set to be the busiest ever, with more than 40,000 visitors. That's good for Nepal . . . I guess. But it makes it hard to tie your shoe without someone bumping into you from behind. My trekking companion, Christina, invokes one hiker's description of the Muir Trail: "the world's longest, thinnest city."

When we're between groups, walking is idyllic. It's October, after a late rainy season. Waterfalls cascade from giddy heights in fans of spray or cords of silver. There are many familiar flowers: chrysanthemum and cosmos, foxglove and marigold. The fields are planted with corn, beans, pumpkin and cabbage. By midafternoon, clouds roll in, covering the sacred peak of Khumbu Yul Lha.

The climb out of Jorsale is relentless, and occasionally brutal. So far, though, I've not shown signs of altitude sickness. Still, it's a delight to round a corner and see the homes of Namche Bazaar (11,250 feet) spread out around the village's horseshoe-shaped hillside.

In October 1983, a friend named Broughton Coburn led an effort to build a small hydroelectric plant in Namche. Each household was limited to three low-wattage bulbs. I was standing with Brot on a ridge above town the night the lights blinked on. "In a few years," he said, "there'll be pinball arcades and discos." He wasn't far off. These days Namche is aglow, a modern new plant supplying 600 kilowatts to this and 11 other villages.

In a busy cyber cafe, I receive an anxious e-mail from my mother; I assure her I'm fine. Logging off, I find myself waxing nostalgic for the old Khumbu: the flickering candles at night; the wood-and-rope bridges that made every river-crossing an adventure; the thrill of isolation from the material world. By contrast, these days there are Skype salons, pashmina boutiques and double cappuccinos. Everest itself has become a commodity; even Purba, our young Sherpa guide, has climbed it twice.

My cynicism evaporates the next morning as we leave Namche and pass through lush rhododendron forests, where glades drip with Spanish moss. Mist clings to the green hillsides. We spy maples, gentian and the peeling trunks of Tibetan birch. Wooden shacks sheltering colorful prayer wheels bootleg the energy of tiny streams, as the spinning wheels -- painted with the mantra om mani padme hun -- convert hydropower into prayer.

Tall tales

Generations ago, a legend goes, the leaders of Thami, a day's walk west of Namche, presented the villagers of Khumjung with the scalp of a Yeti (the Himalayan Bigfoot). It was sort of a prank gift and, to show their ire, the Khumjung delegates kicked the skull all the way home (quite a feat, given the lay of the land).

Khumjung, it turns out, is having the last laugh: Yeti scalp viewings have become an industry. A wizened caretaker in the Khumjung gompa, or temple, stands guard over an iron safe. Once a generous donation is dropped in (or multiple donations, in the case of a large trekking group), he opens the safe door to reveal a glass case. Within is a conical, cap-like object marked by tufts of red-brown hair. I can hardly imagine how much the locals make off this dubious artifact. It must be plenty, because the only other Yeti scalp, two days' walk up the valley in Pangboche, was recently stolen.

The trail drops almost vertically after Khumjung, switch-backing down to the Dudh Kosi ("Milk River") on one of the most beautiful trails in the Khumbu. The scenery is so vast that trekkers look like purposeful insects, hauling huge bags of goose feathers into the clouds.

We give back every inch of our descent on the climb up to the gompa at Tengboche (12,887 feet). In 1989, this most revered of the Khumbu monasteries burned to the ground. (The fire was ignited by a monk's robe, draped over an electrical heater.) The complex has been rebuilt and the Buddhist murals are spectacular, but most visitors spend more time in the local bakery, paying homage to the high-altitude brownies.

We climb for hours up paths of chiseled flagstones, passing small stupas painted with the half-lidded eyes of Buddha. If my Dad were here, he'd be humming "Stairway to the Stars." In one village, a cute Sherpani pats yak apples into fuel pancakes. Her dung-covered fingernails, I notice, are painted bright red.

The scenery becomes surreal, the air noticeably thinner. I'm dogged by a mild but persistent headache. So is everyone else -- though for some, this will develop into mountain sickness, or high-altitude pulmonary edema. Several times each day a helicopter thunders up the valley, evacuating unfortunate trekkers back to Katmandu. I watch them, listening as the sound of the rotors fades away and my own heartbeat pulses in my ears.

It's amazing how, in just a couple of days of walking, you can pass from an elfin forest into an austere landscape where only scrub and lichen survive. At this altitude, it's all about rocks. We cross creeks bubbling across rounded boulders and rest at small stupas heaped with stones placed by the pilgrims who preceded us. Hawks wheel above scree-covered hills. Above everything, the most magnificent rocks on Earth carve the sky: snow-packed Ama Dablam, the sawtooth wall of Nuptse and the forbidding black pyramid of Everest.

By the time we reach Duglha, 15,075 feet above sea level, the true nature of the landscape is laid bare. Here the Khumbu Glacier, flowing from the slopes of Everest, terminates in a jumble of moraine. When Christina and I sit quietly, we can hear it cracking and groaning, moving inexorably forward.

At this altitude, far less has changed than at Namche or Tengboche. Electricity has arrived, and one can even find the Internet. But lines of prayer flags still arc over the canyons, and yaks snort in the frigid morning air.

On a rise above Duglha, scores of memorials honor Sherpas and climbers who have died attempting to summit Everest. Were these here 25 years ago? I don't recall. But I note that these memorials -- like those found in Jewish cemeteries -- are marked not with flowers, but stones.

One thing has certainly changed. When I was here last, lodges provided drinking water as a courtesy. Today it costs 120 rupees, about $1.50, to fill one's bottle with boiled water. (A battery charge for a computer or digital camera can cost 300 rupees, or $3.75, an hour.) This initially seems outrageous, but I come to my senses: Here, as everywhere, energy is at a premium.

Beyond Duglha, walking uphill becomes a conscious effort. The village of Lobuje is only two miles away, but distance in the Himalaya is measured in time, not miles. It takes two hours to reach the town. At one point, my pulse climbs to 150. I picture a memorial with my name on it -- and the ignominious postscript that I was merely trying to reach Kala Pattar.

Lobuje is a chaotic, congested settlement of trekking lodges, stone huts on a bare stone landscape. Painted signs boast of solar showers and thick Sherpa stew. It's a far cry from 1983, when a single one-room hut sheltered two dozen exhausted trekkers.

At 16,175 feet, the landscape seems otherworldly. The Imja Khola river percolates over glittering boulders, and the sun -- too bright to even glance at -- is every inch a star.

After two restless nights of acclimatization, it's time to push onward. We will do the climb and descent in one day: three hours from Lobuje to the way station of Gorak Shep (17,000 feet), and then -- as long as it takes -- up Kala Pattar.

Step by step

The higher one goes, the higher one gets. Trekking above 17,000 feet, the scenery seems hallucinatory. Stone stupas tower atop ridges, as artful as earthworks by Andy Goldsworthy; the surrounding peaks stand crystalline against the sapphire sky. It's epic, a cinematic backdrop of muting splendor. I could wring the blood out of every cliché in Webster's and I'd still be stuttering like Moses, flabbergasted by the burning bush.

Christina and I reach Gorak Shep in two hours, stopping for lemon tea before facing the relentless uphill grade of Kala Pattar.

It is much longer, and much steeper, than I'd remembered. I take 30 steps, then pause for a minute to let my pulse slow. Soon it's 10 steps, and five minutes' rest. At some point, every step becomes a negotiation. After an hour of this, the top, festooned with prayer flags, comes into view. It's just 50 yards -- but that's 1,800 inches. I recall H.W. Tilman's definition of mountaineer's foot: "reluctance to put one in front of the other."

Reaching the summit, I drop, panting, onto a flat rock. Once I catch my breath, the miracle of my situation overwhelms me. Before me, only 10,000 feet higher, is the peak of Everest; below, the Khumbu Glacier; behind, the bell-like dome of Pumori. I feel a sense of achievement unimaginable 25 years ago. Having completed this trek -- a feat I did not take for granted -- makes me realize that genetics may be just one of many factors.

Christina unwraps a Snickers bar. I unfurl a string of prayer flags and tie them between two stones. They ripple in the wind, a memorial to my father. He had a good heart -- and that's the one he left to me.