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By ZAHID MAKHDOOM

Imagine a vacation where you must keep a military schedule: pack your complete “kit” by no later than 5:50 a.m., have your breakfast by 6 a.m. and then hit the “road” by 7 in order to get to some destination you may have read about in the tour books or may have previously visited in your dreams. And that only on the normal days there could be days when you must be packed up and ready to roll by 4:30 in the morning.

In your case the “road” is a mountain trail often slushy and so narrow that there is sufficient space for only one of your boots, not even enough space to plant your spiky walking stick in order to afford you some sense of safety or traction. You are already jet-lagged, sleep deprived, and the air is getting thinner. Delightful to say the least. Inspirational? Beyond any shadow of doubt indeed.  Mercifully, your military precision is not motivated by your penchant for unleashing violence on others but by the sheer magic of your reflections, your dreams, by your desire to pay attention to entities you may have hitherto neglected: your own-self and nature.

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Dwarfed by the peaks, a trekker captures the Himalayan scene with his camera.

In our quest for living a decent life we often look, desire and covet things around: socioeconomic status, career, toys and opinions of others. In the process we neglect things inside: magic, spirit, wonder, inspiration. Our gaze is always fixated on the future, hence we are unable to live in the present and cherish the past. We are  socialized to despise nostalgia, mistrust contentment, shun compassion and often pronounce with an air of certitude that “happiness is over-rated”, “the notion of commons is passé”, “individualism is an engine to wealth and prosperity.” We become so empty, so brutal, so not-human.

Mountains pack mystery. They remind us of our denuded outers, our neglected insides, our vulnerabilities; they help us sort out the magic of solitude. Of how solitude reminds us of our dependence: on others, on mountains, on wind, on sun, on things we have hitherto taken for granted. They remind us that at the end of the day it’s not what we have accumulated that helps but what we are willing to share.  It’s the kindness and compassion of others that keeps us alive and vibrant and not our accumulated wealth and power.

There was a beautiful comrade of ours on this journey, awash in wealth, yet so dependent on the attention, generosity and kindness of other fellow human beings struggling to put food on their family dinner table. Facing illness he needed to fly away after touching our destination — Everest Base Camp. Nothing other than the kindness of others would have helped. He knew it and I could discern humility in his eyes.

That’s what mountains do to us. They teach us humility, acceptance, respect, compassion, love. The power of their pedagogy is genuinely transformative in that it’s geared toward unfolding the multilayered and multi-faceted meanings, not merely method. As South American thinker Paolo Friere would argue, pedagogy is for liberation and not for internalizing and accepting, no matter how brutally unjust, our state of being. He would further say that pedagogy helps us situate our state of being within the realm of commons. And what ought to be done to exorcise the demons of injustice.

The schools we attended rendered sacral the glorified tyrannies; they made us believe the divine and immutable nature of injustice and tyranny. Mountains exhort us to change all that is inhuman, all that’s outside of the human experiences and expectations of justice, of equality, of kindness, of generosity.

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A porter on the trail: Weights of 95-plus kilograms to supply villages and guesthouses high up the mountains.

The magic of mountains is to teach us how to unlearn all that’s inhuman, shun all that’s ensconced in injustice and inequality. Surrounded by mountains I saw many fellow human beings carrying 95-plus kilograms of weight, a “wide load” indeed of plywood and glass on those treacherously narrow trails all to ensure “wealthy foreigners” like myself would have enough lodges and tea houses to park our asses. Nothing protected these amazing human beings who couldn’t even walk straight when carrying such heavy loads for two days for a meagre 2000 Nepali rupees (about $20 Canadian) that includes their lodging and boarding en route. In their stooped stride they seemed as solid, as powerful, magical as the mountains that made their walk almost akin to the Sisyphean rolling of a rock up the mountain.

Imagine how dehumanising wealth can be. Here we were as a group haggling over how much gratuity to pay to our porters and guides knowing full well that the less fortunate ones were carrying those wide loads.

We did pay a large sum as a gratuity to ward off the demons of guilt that mountains denuded for us to feel and to heed but did we think of doing something transformative, of despising inequality let alone vow to struggle against it? Our learning indeed so real yet barely sufficient to penetrate the thin foreskin of our sensibilities. I hope not.

Maybe we all came out basking in the comprehension that we made a few people feel fairly rich for a few moments. I hope not. Maybe we have acquired new skills, new resolve to despise all forms of injustice….social, economic, spiritual, racial, material. I do not know. Despite suffering the ravages of the thinning air, unlike a couple of my beloved comrades and friends who vowed their trekking days are over, I am not donating my trekking boots yet. Perhaps I would be heading back to the mountains maybe next time I’ll find an answer or two.

The Trajectory

We flew from Kathmandu to Lukla. A half-hour flight up the altitude of 4,000 metres. A squeaky 16-seater Twin Otter with a youngish crew of three, all Sherpa. The route is flown by only one airline, Tara Air. Flights take off in quick succession because at Lukla the weather may turn sour any time. We had a perfect landing on a runway which is barely 460 metres long and at its end is a steep drop of thousands of metres into a valley. Tenzing-Hillary airport (altitude 2840 metres) known for high frequency of fatal landings. Taking off, however, is a different business. After taxiing, the plane falls a few hundred metres into the valley before gaining cruising altitude. Lukla’s airport is rated one of the most dangerous in the world. View some takeoffs and landings here.

4 After landing we had a cup of hearty chai at a tea house called The Nest where we met our assistant guides. After introductions by Balaram Thapa, an exceptionally gifted and thoughtful guide, with his four assistants and six porters who would be carrying our stuff.  We began our trek in earnest. After about four hours of somewhat easy trek we arrived at Phakding (altitude 2,652; all heights in metres). Phakding is about 210 metres lower then Lukla. Although we were basically descending, the terrain was, and would continue to be, undulating: Every ascent or descent is compounded by several ascents or descents. Our descent of 210 metres meant we had to gain and lose altitude constantly. Little is straightforward in mountains; the magic is pervasive. About half way to Phakding we had majestic views of Kusum Khanguru peak.

About the accommodations:  Tea houses have made tents unnecessary. They are basic lodging establishments with a restaurant. The bulk of the earning of these establishments seems to come from their restaurants. Each teahouse boasts a fair sized warning of sorts advising its clients that eating any meals in rooms is prohibited. They do not allow washing clothes in rooms but offer reasonably priced laundry services. A bottle of water when bought at a teahouse costs about 25 to 75 Nepalese rupees more than what one would pay at any local “grocery store”  and the price rises as your ascent does.

Tea houses often have extensive menus consisting mainly of Nepalese and Italian dishes plus the usual fare of burger and pizza. The restaurant area is heated with a gas stove at the lower altitudes and yak dung fuel stoves at the higher altitudes. The rooms are not heated. Some teahouses have attached bathrooms that may have European-type of toilets or the Asian squatting ones, sinks and sometimes showers. But warm water for shower is a challenge. Ours was a large group of 12 so upon arriving at a teahouse the “fast ones” would get showers, leaving no warm water for the slower or lazier ones like me.

Most teahouses also provide cellphone, GPS or digital camera charging service. Some have electrical outlets in rooms where one can charge devices without having to pay. At higher altitudes, electricity is derived through solar cells so bedrooms have an exceptionally small bulbs and no in-room outlets. Charging a device costs between 150 and 300 Nepalese rupees ($1.50-$3 Cdn).  Most teahouses don’t change money, so it’s advisable to bring along a stash of Nepalese rupees for purchasing water, charging of devices, laundry, snacks, showers etc.

The food at teahouses is basic. Being a vegetarian person, I settled for the Nepalese staple dal-bhaat (rice and lentils with some potatoes, and at times some salad with one to half papadum).

We followed the Dudh Kosi (“constant undulations”) River to Namche Bazaar (altitude 3440). We trekked for about seven hours. The last part just prior to Namche is hellish: constant ascent. Had it not been for

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Namche Bazaar: Carved into the mountainside, it’s been a trading post for hundreds of years.

the bad weather there were a couple of places where we could have caught the first glimpse of the Everest.  Apart from the amazing views of the river, the area is lush with lots of flowers and interesting trees and shrubs, it was the infamous final ascent to Namche that truly is memorable, a true kick-ass experience.

Stayed two nights here at Namche Bazaar. For hundreds of years Sherpa people on both the northern (Tibetan) and southern (Nepalese) sides of Himalayas used Namche Bazaar as the main trading post. The town carved into the mountain face has bustling marketplace. Sadly most of it is now overrun by touristic goods, cafes and pubs. Third day into the trek, a cappuccino bar in Namche was a blessing. Our first day for acclimatization meant we had to trek up several hundred metres to the Everest View Hotel,  where we got the first glimpse of Everest. The raison d’etre of acclimatization treks is to climb high and sleep low. We also came to recognize that from early morning to about 1 p.m. it is sunny, but then clouds roll in downpour begins. As our luck had it, it snowed. After six hours of trek we returned to our teahouse — the Nest.

DAY 4:  WE trekked on the snowed-in trail to Tyangboche or Tengboche, altitude 3860. The flat and easy trail descends deep into the Dudh Kosi Valley at Pungki Thanka and from here it ascends the right flank of the Dudh Kosi valley to Tengboche Monastery (3860m). It is the spiritual centre of the Khumbu region; the climb is long, but more than adequately compensated by views of Mt. Amadablam (“mother and daughter”). We attended the daily service at the Monastery which was conveniently located just steps away from our teahouse. We heard the prayer bells issuing from the monastery, so ran to the door, were allowed in and had an exceptionally inspiring spiritual experience. Internet service was so bad we had to go to an internet cafe where we met a young Scandinavian couple, both doctors, on their honeymoon. Saw a cute little house with a sign, “German Bakery,” so ordered a cake to celebrate the honeymoon of our new found friends.

DAY 5: To Dingboche, altitude 4410. Descended through a beautiful forest then cross the Imja Khola and trek through the village of Pangboche (3900 m). A relatively easy trekking day as the trail some upward consistency unlike previous days of constantly ascending and descending . The mesmerizing Mt. Amadablam remained in our sight and later Mount Lhotse  and several other peaks became part of our horizon.

Our second acclimatization day was here. On that day we ascended to Nagerjun, a hill located on the flanks of the Chhukung valley directly above Dingboche, (5100m) and descended back to our teahouse in

A typical guesthouse common room-dining room.

A typical guesthouse common room-dining room.

Dingboche. The eight hours of trekking was beautiful but demanding. Most of us were feeling the effects of the altitude now. The trail steep at times, resulting in a physically challenging day – ascending the hill took around 5 hours. However, once there the horizon opened up magically affording us incredible views of Lobuche East (6119m), Lobuche West (6145m), Taboche Peak (6367m), Thamserku (6608m), Kangtega (6685m) and Amadablam (6856m). We even had a peek-a-boo look at Mount Makalu, the world’s fifth highest mountain and great views of the Pheriche Valley.

After a short rest, we descended back to Dingboche, which took about two hours. Very cold night, the previous couple of days had been snowy and cold so despite the yak-dung heater in the restaurant most of us couldn’t get warm. By this point I had lost several pounds and was feeling heightened effects of both altitude and cold. In fact, the cold remained firmly attached to my bones until we got to Khumjung on our return-rek. The restaurant part of the teahouse Valley View Lodge was heated by yak dung. Everyone was keeping good health, except for minor complaints like cough and diarrhea. Next morning trekked to Thukla with altitude gain of about 400 m. Very thin air, so trekking, especially on ascent was very difficult. Had Tibetan bread for lunch … it’s just fried dough, but yummy and crisp.

 DAY 6: To Thukla (4620m). A good trekking day, short, spectacular views and some of us sang along a broad valley floor to Dughla, passing the Trekkers Aid Post at Pheriche (4240 m), staffed by western volunteer doctors and supported by the Himalayan Rescue Association which offers treatment and consultation to trekkers. Overnight a very basic teahouse with good food. Fed up with daal-bhat twice daily, I discovered pizza.

DAY 7: To Lobuche (4910m). The start of the day was brutal. A steep climb to Thukla Pass took most of my energy. Air was very thin and I had difficulty breathing so took frequent short breaks, two to five minutes,  and my pace was slower. The final part of our trek that day followed an easier trail and we arrived at our teahouse at Lobuche. Extremely cold.

 DAY 8: IT Took us four hours to get to Gorak Shep (5180m). Our original plan was to stay put in our guesthouse that night and trek to the Everest Base Camp next day. But we decided to push to the base camp that day so that we could climb Kala Patthar next morning and then start our return trek. Many of us

After a hard day on the trail, the author (left) and a comrade catch a few winks.

After a hard day on the trail, the author (left) and a comrade catch a few winks.

wanted to avoid staying two nights at Gorek Shep because it was extremely cold and the guesthouse/teahouse looked more “basic” then the ones we had hitherto stayed.  The dung-heater was not on yet when we got there so we paid them some extra cash to fire it up while we had our hearty lunch of Tibetan bread, honey, and of course that omni-present daal-bhat.

After a quick lunch we began our trek to the base camp. After a fair ascent on a scree trail through meadows we were looking down on the mysterious and majestic Khumbu Glacier. Straight ahead of us was the menacing-looking Kala Pathhar (“black stone”). Very windy. The temperature without factoring in the wind was minus 18 to 20 degrees Celsius. We walked for about four hours to the base camp at 5400 metres (17,716 feet). Our guide Balaram and his assistants, Shiva, Arun, and Ram, had surreptitiously brought in a couple of vacuum flasks full of tea and a cake. We had a great time partying at the base camp despite the fact that it was extremely cold and windy. Stayed there for an hour or so and heard many avalanches fall. We gazed at the face of Mount Lhotse and the great expanse of the Khumbu Glacier. Returned to Gorek Shep just before it became dark.

The teahouse at Gorek Shep had lots of rooms on two floors but only one bathroom.  The night time trek to the bathroom left me disoriented as I was almost half asleep, so I opened the wrong and found myself in the courtyard that seemed bathed in bright bluesy light. I was stunned to see the full moon in the clearest sky I had ever seen. The moonlight flooded the glacial valleys and the white mountain faces reflected the blue light. I will never forget the majesty and the calm of this scene. My shivering brought me back to my senses and I dashed back inside the teahouse.

DAY 9: WE awoke about 4 a.m. to trek to the Kala Patthar (5545 m., 18,192 ft.). A menacing trek through an extremely steep scree trail. Extremely slippery and volatile, especially in the darkness. Although the trek afforded us a beautiful views of the Everest, I still think it was highly over-rated and not worth the effort. Perhaps that’s one reasons why some of our group  stayed back to catch up on their lost sleep. Some of us did it anyway — after all, we had trekked all the way to say hello to the great Everest. It was just a short hello for me and return. I was very cold that morning. My wrist thermometer showed temperature of minus 20C,but it was much colder than that given the howling winds. Descent to Gorak Shep was harrowing. The steep scree trail afforded no traction.

Once inside the teahouse, fI ound out that one of our comrades had become ill and needed to be rescued. Another comrade was getting close to being sick. So a rescue chopper picked them up and we started our descent to Pheriche. Well, let me clarify. The term “descent”  means descending about 1,100 metres but in the process negotiating a few ascents of 1000 metres or more but finally arriving at Pheriche. Although the trek was treacherous, especially for those of us who were tired from our early morning climb, our moods began to substantially improve with an accumulated descent of 100 metres or more. The night at Pheriche was great. The teahouse had a somewhat well-stocked bar. I do not like imbibing anything other then water during the wilderness treks but some comrades did make a substantial dent in the Everest Beer stocks.

 DAY 10: An 11-hour trek to Khumjung in extremely windy conditions. We arrived late at the teahouse which was a reasonably comfortable and had great food. Khumjung is the largest settlement of the Sherpa people. The late Sir Edmund Hillary founded a school here. Prior to the establishment of this school the children from Khumjung would trek to the nearby Namche Bazaar for schooling.

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The alleged Yeti scalp.

Next morning we visited the sprawling Hillary School compound and paid tribute to the great philanthropist and pioneer Sir Edmund Hillary whose larger-than-life statue adorns the centre of the school compound. The town is also famous for its Yeti scalp, which is kept inside a locked cabinet inside a Buddhist monastery. A donation of any size was presumably sufficient to convince an enterprising monk to open up the cabinet for one person at a time. Many of us had different theories regarding the Yeti scalp, but I think it’s best to let those reflections lie dormant. What happens in Khumbu, stays in Khumbu .

DAY 11: A relatively easy and short trek to Namche Bazaar. Many of us who were using the drug Diamox to cope with altitude were by now off that menacing little pill. Descending to Namche Bazaar altitude after

Back to The Nest at Namche Bazaar during the descent.

Back to The Nest at Namche Bazaar during the descent.

climbing Kala Patthar filled our lungs with so much of the needed air. Stopped at a spot where we could pay our last respect to the Everest. Upon arrival at Namche, I dashed to have three consecutive cups of three-shot cappuccinos in a coffee shop licensed by the  Illy company. What a treat.

DAYS 12 AND 13: The  descent to Phakding, then to Lukla. We were somewhat nervous next day as we met some people we had befriended along the trail who have been waiting to fly back to Kathmandu for two days. The window of opportunity for flight from Kathmandu to land and take-off is extremely narrow. Morning time being clear affords that narrow window. If a morning is cloudy, flights from Kathmandu do not come in.  But our morning began with “soothing” screams of a landing plane. Flights from Kathmandu were arriving. Quickly we checked out of our teahouse, and ran to the  airport, which was just next door. With joyful screams and hoots we boarded the last flight of the day. As we ascended , we could see surging clouds making their hurried ascent to cover Lukla and cause those who were waiting for their flights to wait some more.

But then Lukla did have a knock-off “Starbucks.”