The Peaks of Annapurna, early morning October 6
“A trek, by its very nature, is an arduous journey.”
Sydney Frymire, The Trek of Your Life
We left Kathmandu by mini-bus on Wednesday, October 5, picked up our Nepali trekking crew and swapped into a bigger bus, heading east to the market town of Mudhe to begin our trek. Our trek was not intended to be a typical mountain trek, although we hoped to see mountain peaks from several of our campsites. Instead, we were trekking up and down hills – known as “Nepali flat: a little up and little down” – through towns and villages in one of the most culturally and ethnically diverse parts of Nepal via the Indigenous People’s Trail (IPT). The IPT is a relatively new trek, considered “soft” (easy)/moderate by Nepali standards, and typically involves home-stays instead of the camping that we would do.
For seven trekkers our Nepali team consisted of seventeen people! We had four guides (one leader and three assistant guides), one chef and five assistant cooks who also carried all the food and the kitchen (food, pots, pans and the kerosene stove) between camps, and seven porters, who carried our bags, the tents, the dining table (yes, wooden topped table!) and folding metal camp chairs, among other things. Most of these Nepali young men were from or near Basa village, in the Everest region, where the founder of Adventure Geo Treks is from, and where Sydney, the leader of The Trek of Your Life annually takes one of her two trekking groups to do volunteer work.
At first, I was embarrassed by how many people we’d need to conduct our trip. I have a strong streak of good old “do it yourself American” spirit. However, one of the most valuable insights I had in Nepal was around the positive economic impact we could bring to our activities there. It started one night pre-trek when at the Sarangi restaurant. The Australian co-owner encouraged us to take a rickshaw to the market the next day, saying that rickshaw drivers are among the poorest people in Nepal, and my dollar or two could make a big difference to that driver. Fast forward ten days when our trek leader, DB (short of Dilli Bahadur), made comments at our final dinner about appreciating our visit to Nepal, our efforts and spirit on the trek, and most especially, the jobs we created by coming to Nepal to trek. As a communal society, all the pay, including our tips, would go to supporting the crew as well as their extended families in the villages they came from.
On our 3-hour drive from Kathmandu to Mudhe, (which was an adventure in surviving bumps on the road), our leader, DB, let us know that the porters hadn’t eaten. So the bus pulled into the Nepali version of a rest stop where, for the equivalent of $2.50 one could enjoy a very generous serving of ‘dal bhat’ – the national Nepali dish of rice and lentil soup. Buses filled with Nepalis traveling home to their villages would pull up and unload, everyone would eat, and then pile back on the bus within 5-10 minutes. We did the same, pausing briefly to consider the digestive consequences. Perhaps we should have paused longer!
Two of us were already squeamish as we left Kathmandu, and two more of us, my mother Carol and I, got sick within 12 hours. That meant the first full day of trekking was excruciating for my mother who had stomach cramps and had to run into the bushes frequently even as we seemed to climb straight up the hill. Mine didn’t hit until that night but I spent the third day of our trek with cramps of my own, feeling weak and nauseous. The first few days of a trek are tough in any context as your body gets used to being in motion all day, among other things. To do so at altitude, weak and dehydrated, makes things even tougher. My mother, who is indomitable and amazingly strong (and I don’t need to qualify that by reminding you that she’s 84), kept wondering aloud why she was so tired, why the trekking was so hard. Of course, she was nauseous, and at first she wouldn’t eat, so no wonder she felt weak against our first tough hill climb!
We camped our second night in a wide open spot on a hill, just over 11,000 feet – our highest altitude on the trek- hoping to see mountains in the morning. We had a friendly pack of goats that ran through camp before dinner. The goatherds, who couldn’t have been more than 10 or 11 years old, sat and giggled on the hillside near our camp while a couple of us tried to engage them in conversation and excite them with their pictures on our cameras. They disappeared at dark, but I heard the goats come through camp again in the wee hours, and the goatherds exchanged words with our Nepali guide. In the morning, we did wake up to mountains, partially obscured by clouds – we had fog and clouds coming up from the valleys and the peaks were cut off by a ceiling of clouds. The peaks of Annapurna were the most visible above the clouds and without a ceiling. It was thrilling to look around and see major mountain massifs, covered in snow and know that we were in the Himalaya.
The highlight of our third day on the trek was hiking up to Sailung, a holy peak with a small temple destroyed in the earthquake but still adorned with stupas and prayer flags. It is a pilgrimage for many, and Nepalis along the way confirmed with us that we were headed to Sailung. Walter held a short memorial service for his wife Cynthia, who had died suddenly earlier in the year. It was a perfect place for his tribute, and he invited everyone to join him. Afterwards, we all slowly began the long trek down to our next camp near the town of Dorumba.
The monsoons ran long this year, and we had rain almost every day; normally, October is clear and dry. Furthermore, the wetness allowed a layer of algae to grow on some of the rocks and on the mud, making some of our steps as slippery as ice. Although I was descending carefully, sure enough, I slipped and the back of my right arm, just below the elbow, jammed on to a sharp edge of rock. My first thought, after I used the f-word out loud, was that I hoped my arm wasn’t broken, because a broken arm would be a bad thing. When I lifted my arm off the rock and saw blood dripping I knew it wasn’t broken but that the wound was deep. I sat down on a step and waited for the trekkers who had been behind me to catch up. One of our fellow trekkers, Lisa, had been trained in back-country first aid, and she, along with one our assistant guides and DB, the leader, worked on cleaning my arm as best as possible with water and then iodine. We put gauze on it, and wrapped it in an ace-like bandage. Oddly, it didn’t really hurt. I was, however, worried about getting stitches (didn’t want them!), keeping it clean once we had a chance to open the bandage again, and about how the gauze wouldn’t likely come off the wound without reopening it.
Our camp in a soccer field outside the town of Dorumba, was fortunately near a medical clinic, the only one near any of our camps on the trek. The town nurse came that night and cleaned the wound in the dining tent with all trekkers and most of the crew watching along. It was a bit gross, to be sure, but also fascinating. He washed the wound with saline, taking 3 small pebbles out. He spoke some English, but the dialogue was mostly in Nepali, translated by our leader. It felt a little bit like medicine by committee. But I felt very well tended by everyone, and the concern and kindness was palpable. We got some extra supplies of gauze, iodine, antibiotic cream and ace bandage, and one of the assistant guides, Hira, who had some medical training, would replace the bandage and clean the wound every 48 hours.
Later, DB would ask me about the red and yellow string bracelet on my right arm, suggesting that it hadn’t provided me with much protection after all. I replied that my wound might have been much worse – I might have broken my arm after all – had I not had the protection of my bracelet from the old lady at the Hindu temple.
It had been a very full day, but the excitement wasn’t over. We had experienced torrential rain as we arrived at camp, which woke up the leeches. These clever little beasts – no more than about an inch long – sneak their way up the grasses and onto your legs, or shoes, and feast. Apparently, among the amazing things one learns on trek, is that leeches have both an anesthetic and an anticoagulant in their bite, so you don’t feel them, and your blood flows freely. You don’t always know they are there until they’re done, leaving a bloody mess in your socks.
On the evening of our third day of trekking, we had four people recovering from digestive disorders and trying to re-build their strength, one trekker with an arm injury (albeit not a serious “medevac” type injury but one that caused us all to pause), periodic intense rain that seemed to leave everything consistently damp, and a camp infested by leeches. We were all of reasonable good cheer, but I for one recognized we were only at the beginning of our ten-day trek. So far, it had been a bit more arduous than expected!
Stay tuned for more.