Sunday, November 29, 2015

Off to Pokhara and Paragliding

We returned to Kathmandu on November 3rd, and we were pretty worn out from 13 days of hiking, so we spent the day taking it easy and enjoying a warm hotel room and a hot shower. Kathmandu and the rest of Nepal were in crisis due to a fuel shortage.  Due to a tough political situation fuel was (and still is) being blocked from entering via India, causing extreme shortages of fuel for cooking and driving.  Many restaurants in Kathmandu were closed because they didn’t have propane for cooking, and prices for taxis’ were at least double. Luckily we were staying in a larger hotel which had the ability to keep a generator and the kitchens running.
After a day and a half of relaxing we flew to Pokhara which was an easy hour and twenty minute flight in a Beech King Air. Again we decided to treat ourselves to a nice hotel and Hotel Pokhara Grande was exactly that. The room, restaurant, and the hotel grounds were all excellent and the service was very good. When we checked in we had mentioned it was our 20th wedding anniversary and out of nowhere, we were told they were making an anniversary cake for us. A few hours later a cake with Happy 20th Anniversary inscribed on the top and a bottle of wine showed up at our room! Can't beat that for service. It was great tasting cake too!  We took it easy the first day, had a massage and arranged our paragliding flights.
Our friend Jim Bennett, who lives in Pokhara put us in touch with Bella from Karma Flights an organization of paragliding pilots who help raise money for children’s in education in Nepal. After the tragic earthquake in April they immediately used their network of volunteers to assist victims of the earthquake to rebuild. We had hoped to meet up with Jim, but he was still in Mongolia at the end of an epic 3,500km bike ride across the country, check out his fabulous blog here: The Transglobalist.
When I talked to Bella I explained that even though I had thousands of jumps and canopy flights I have a lot of injuries which prevent me from being able to run well. Depending on the winds at take off sometimes you have to run to launch your flight. She said she would see if Yann was available as a tandem pilot. Yann was from France and was the 2010 world champion and has made thousands of tandem flights. Bella arranged our paragliding flights with a company called Open Air and scheduled two great pilots to take us on our flight. There are at least 35 paragliding companies in Pokhara, it is a big tourist business and Pokhara is one of the best paragliding locations in the world.
The next day (November 5th) the weather was good and in the morning someone from Open Air drove over to our hotel and picked us up. We went to their store location to sign up and pay for our flights. Next we loaded up in the back of a big jeep and drove the bumpy winding road to the top of Sarangkot Mountain. We hiked a short distance to the side of the mountain where they lay the canopies out and got them ready to hook to your harness and launch. There was a good stiff breeze coming up the mountain which makes it a lot easier to launch and the side of the mountain was pretty steep so you could be off and in the air quickly. Sara went before I did, she was flying with with Tomaz from Slovenia. He was a good pilot and a super nice guy. Yann and I were launching higher up on a steeper part of the mountain where we waited for good winds. Once we got situated we were off and in the air with just a couple of steps, very much a piece of cake.
As we flew along Yann gave me the selfie stick with his GoPro camera to video us in flight, unfortunately the battery failed and we only got about 30 seconds of video, good thing I had a camera with me!  Yann was an absolute master at finding lift and thermals, we continued to go up and up. At one point Yann said “we will go up and touch the clouds” and we did. It was easy to see why he was a world champion.

We flew cross country for about 50 minutes and I am sure we could have stayed up a lot longer if we wanted to. Slowly we started to descend and finally landed down at the lake where everybody else had already landed. The landing was also a piece of cake. We had enough wind that Yann just had me pull my legs up and we came to a complete stop and soft landing. Sara had a great flight with Tomaz as well. The whole experience was a big highlight during our time in Pokhara.
The next day we went to the Gurkha museum which was interesting. The Gurkha's are very famous soldiers from Nepal and are part of the British army. They are well known as very fierce fighters. We rarely visit museums, but this made a nice change.

Pokhara is on the shore of  a very big lake called Fishtale and there are a lot of shops and restaurants along the lakeside so we went there for a late lunch and a walk along the lakeside. The next morning we had a little time in the morning before our afternoon flight back to Kathmandu so we went to the International Mountain museum. When we were trekking in the Khumbu we had met one of the Sherpas who helped start the museum so he highly recommended we check it out. It was excellent and pretty big with a ton of pictures and information about not only the Nepali Himalayas but also famous mountains from around the world. It was enjoyable and very informative.  We sadly said goodbye to Pokhara  and flew back to Kathmandu that afternoon to enjoy a few more days of our holiday.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Trekking in the Khumbu on the way to see Lama Geshe

First of all just to explain, the Khumbu is the Nepali word for the Everest region. As we explained in a previous post our main intention for going to the Khumbu was to hike up to the village of Pangboche to visit Lama Geshe who married us twenty years ago. On October 22nd we flew from Kathmandu to the little mountain town of Lukla (9,400 ft) where all trekking and climbing expeditions in the Everest region start. We flew in a Twin Otter which was a thrill for Sara and I since we have made thousands of jumps out of that type of airplane. 
After arriving in Lukla, Urgen our guide took us to Paradise Lodge for a quick lunch; this was the same lodge we started our trek from twenty years ago. Urgen was our agent twenty years ago who arranged our hike. This trip he was again our agent, and also joined us as our guide, which was a special treat. Our porter was Pemba, the poor chap who had to carry our heavy load up and back.
Our plan was to go a short distance to the village of Cheplung and stay at a lodge owned by the brother of Pemba Sherpa who we met in September in Colorado. Even though we only hiked for about an hour, right away we were immediately reminded that two weeks hiking on the Khumbu trails was going to be very difficult.
The trails in the Khumbu are almost all up or down. There are probably about 10% of the trails that are level or smooth. The trails are almost all made of rocks. They have to be to stop the trail from being washed out and eroded during the Monsoon season. So you have to be extremely careful and aware of how you place your feet and make each step. A fall on one of those rocky trails would definitely result in an injury. Being seventy years old with a hip replacement, two marginal knees, and recent back surgery the hike  created a pretty high anxiety level for me. Going uphill was no problem other than it was exhausting and required numerous stops to catch my breath. Going downhill on the other hand was downright scary at times. There were a bunch of times when I thought to myself as my old friend Tinker Hillman would say “this is another fine mess I have gotten myself in”.

In the Khumbu everything including all supplies and even building materials goes up to the villages on the trails by Sherpa porters, yaks, zo’s ( a cross between a yak and a cow ), mules, or horses. There are no roads or any motor vehicles of any sort. The Sherpa porters have to be the strongest, heartiest people on earth. These small men can carry loads at least double their body weight. We saw numerous porters carrying over two hundred pounds of plywood on their back. They only use a head strap, no shoulder straps or hip belt. I saw one porter with a half size refrigerator on his back. They are absolutely amazing!
During the two weeks we stayed in lodges run by local Sherpa families. The lodges typically have rooms with two single beds and a foam pad. They provide a blanket and pillow but since none of the rooms have heat we used our sleeping bags. Pretty basic, but an huge upgrade from twenty years ago when we either slept in our tent or the communal bunk rooms. Having a private room was quite a change!
Most of the lodges have a community bathroom with a toilet and sink, although we had a couple of occasions where we had our own bathroom. In the two week period we were in the Khumbu we had three showers which was considered a luxury. There is always a common dining area and kitchen. The dining area has one wood stove for heat so this is a hang out area for trekkers since this is the only source of heat in the lodge. When we were in Tengboche (13,000 ft) our room got down to 36F degrees at night- pretty frosty.
We were pretty lucky to have good weather. It was sunny every day except for the day and a half of snow we got at Tengboche. We would always start out in the morning with a couple of layers of warm clothes but it would not take long before we had to take those off because of the physical exercise and heat generated from the strenuous hiking. Urgen wisely picked locations for us to stop each day so the trek was divided to ensure a more comfortable pace and duration.
Twenty years ago we had a lot of eight and nine hour hiking days. This time it was more in the four to seven hour days. Our second day from Cheplung to Monju covering 12 miles was tough but the third day was probably the hardest day of the trek. Going from Monju to Namche Bazzar we had a vertical gain of 3,000 feet over 6 ½ miles. Needless to say that is a lot of steep uphill hiking, according to Sara’s Fitbit we climbed 142 floors that day! As I mentioned before it is all uphill then downhill over and over again. There is a huge river running through the Khumbu valley called the Dudh Koshi River. Because of the terrain sometimes you are hiking on one side and sometimes you have to cross a long cable bridge to hike on the other side. We probably crossed the river at least a dozen times.  We were very glad when we arrived in Namche; we were at a nice lodge and got our first shower.
Most people spend two nights in Namache Bazzar which is at 11,300 feet to help acclimatize to the altitude; it is important to go slowly to prevent altitude sickness. Most people then hike from Namche to Tengboche in one day, but Urgen elected to do a shorter hike to Kyangjuma instead of staying two days in Namache.  This split a 14 mile really tough uphill hike to Tengboche into two days, which was a great idea!  After a night at Kyangjuma we made the hike up to Tengboche. Good thing we only had to cover 8 miles, because it was a really tough up and down hike again. The mountain views were majestic, and the trail was through spruce and fir trees; at least when we stopped to rest we had something to distract us from the suffering!  By now we had a couple of days under our belts and we were starting to feel a little more confident we could pull this trek off. Plus we had been at 11,000 feet for two days so we were adjusting to the altitude.
Tengboche is an interesting place because there is a large monastery which is the main monastery in the Khumbu. The monastery has two Lamas, one is older and the other is quite a bit younger. The younger Lama is considered to be the reincarnation of a previous Lama. That afternoon when we arrived in Tengboche I suggested to Sara we go over to the monastery just to look around. When we got over to the monastery and went into the area where the monks have their big prayer room all the Lamas and about thirty monks were having their afternoon prayer session. We were allowed to come in a quiet and respectful manner and sit and observe and listen. All the monks were chanting from their Buddhist scriptures and ringing bells, playing a variety of horns and drums. I had heard this sort of thing on a CD before but never live and in person. It was absolutely fascinating. As I closed my eyes, the chanting became almost hypnotic. You easily lose yourself in the Tibetan tones coming from the monks and the bells, horns and drums. It was truly a once in a lifetime experience.
The next day (October 27th) we got up and made the three to four hour hike to Pangboche, our final destination. We stayed at a lodge owned and operated by Tashi who is Lama Geshe daughter. She is also the sister of Jigme who is the man who works for Sara’s company KPMG. He works in the New York office and was actually in our wedding twenty years ago when he was eight years old! After lunch, we went to Lama Geshe’s house for a visit and a blessing.
Realizing Lama Geshe would not remember our wedding from twenty years ago, we had printed several pictures of the wedding to show him. He seemed very excited to see we had returned after twenty years to see him again. He gave us several blessings and some special printed cards that he signed for us.  Lama Geshe said we had a blessing of health and happiness for another twenty years, and he suggested maybe we would all see each other again in another twenty years.
We had brought a new pair of Rockport shoes for Lama Geshe and two sweaters for his wife. Jigme had suggested these gifts and told us what sizes to get, so luckily everything fit correctly. Lama Geshe and his wife seemed thrilled with their gifts. They were very kind and sent food over to the lodge that evening to thank us for the gifts.
When we arrived at Lama Geshe’s house there were two ladies who there introduced themselves as Jenny and  Dr. LuLu. Jenny was working in Periche which is a village higher up in the Khumbu, teaching mountain rescue to some of the Sherpas. Dr. LuLu was working as an emergency doctor in Everest base camp. After chatting for a bit we realized we were talking to Jenny Lowe Anker who is the wife of Conrad Anker one of America’s most famous climbers. Conrad was currently on a climbing expedition in Nepal. We had recently seen a great  documentary called Meru about Conrad and some friends climbing a very difficult mountain. Jenny had also been interviewed in the documentation. You never know who you will bump into hiking in Nepal!
After our visit with Lama Geshe and his wife we went outside and with Urgen and Pemba’s help found the same spot where we took a photo after our wedding twenty years ago.  Sara had brought her original wedding dress purchased in Kathmandu for 100 rupees and I had my original white shirt.  We managed to recreate the shot just for the fun of it!  We spent a lovely evening in Tashi’s lodge chatting to her and the rest of the hikers and climbers.

Sara and I had brought a separate bag of over 40 lbs of gifts for the Nepali Sherpa people. It was mostly warm hats, gloves, socks, shirts and school supplies along with the gifts for Lama Geshe and his wife. We had dropped off some of the gifts in Cheplung on the way up but left the last of the gifts with Tashi at her lodge and asked her to distribute them. Our porter, Pemba I am sure was happy to not to have to carry that extra 40 lbs any more. My guess is he was carrying 80-100 lbs for us and every day we would ask him if he was doing alright and his standard answer was “ No Problem ”. That became kind of a joke between our little group of four. Anytime somebody asked about how things were going the answer was “No Problem “.
So after hiking up for five days we turned around and started the trip back. We hiked back Tengboche so we could take part in an annual festival, including a Buddhist blessing and a day of Lama dancing!. This wasn’t on our original schedule, but it is very special to see these events so we jumped at the opportunity to participate. We arrived in Tengboche in time to participate in blessing, which is a big deal for all the local Sherpa people, and also for Urgen and Pemba since they had never attended this annual festival.
The blessing was an outside event and all the monks and Lamas came down from the monastery. With the local people and trekkers we had at least a hundred or more people. During the blessing the weather was starting to get a little harsh with a little bit of sleet. After we went back to the lodge sure enough it started to snow. It snowed some that night and the next day which cancelled the festival of Lama dancing. We started to freak out a bit since the weather forecast was bad for about a week. We started to think we could get snowed in for awhile and not make it back to Lukla to catch our flight back to Kathmandu – it’s dangerous to hike on the trails when they are covered in snow. 

Fortunately, the next morning the weather cleared and we went to the monastery for the festival. The festival was very interesting and colorful. The monks dressed up in brightly colored costumes and came out in the courtyard of the monastery and did some ceremonial dancing. We were able to stay and see three different groups of monks do their dances but had to leave after a few hours to start the hike back to our next location which was Kyangjuma. The festival was an unexpected treat, so it was icing on the cake to be able to observe and photograph something so unique. I felt like I was opening a page of National Geographic and seeing this beautiful Buddhist festival unfold in front of me. Again, a once in a lifetime event.
We spent the night in Kyangjuma (October 30th) and then the next day hiked to Namche and stopped for lunch. After lunch we hiked on to Monju. This was the hardest day of hiking we had on the way up but now we were going in the reverse direction. Instead of 3,000 feet of vertical going up we were doing 3,000 feet going down. Of course, as usual it really was up and down but we would go from 11,500 feet to 8,500 feet and there were some very steep parts. Fortunately, we made it to Monju after 11 miles without any problems but we were pretty whipped.
The next two days were hard but not like the hike from Namche to Monju but still long hard days. According to Sara’s FitBit for the time in the Khumbu we walked 100 miles, and climbed 1,048 floors!  We did bump into Pemba Sherpa our friend from Colorado on our last day of hiking. He was in Nepal for his Sherpa Foundation and helping to rebuild Sherpa homes damaged during the earthquake. We made it to Lukla on November 2nd as planned and the next morning the weather was clear enough for the Twin Otters to fly back to Kathmandu.The airport and surrounding mountains make it very difficult to fly into and out of Lukla, and there are frequently days where no flights can arrive or depart. As we flew back to Kathmandu we had very mixed emotions. We were very glad to be done with all the hiking but very sad to leave the Khumbu knowing we might not see those beautiful mountains again, at least up close and personal.