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Sherpa Ascent
Client Trip to Nepal

A Trek to Nepal by Marc Alston

The Prologue
Once upon a time back in '99, for my 50th birthday, Gretchen gave me a trip to Nepal. Paul and I actively began planning in 2000, with Paul leading the way in buying books, and exploring options via the web. My friend Jeff, as a Nepal Peace Corps veteran, gave us a slide show and identified ways to think about doing a trek. Paul came up with the name of Sherpa Ascent International (SAI), a Denver company, and its owner, Pemba Sherpa. When we ran the name by Jeff, who is very involved in Denver's Nepalese community, his response was "trust Pemba: he was in my wedding party, and I was in his." The selection of SAI was a key to the overall success of the trip. Pemba assigned his brother, Chhongba, ("my real brother") as our guide. Thank you, Pemba, Chhongba, Gelbu, Suti, and all the others.

Gerry Hunt, former EPA staff, who has decades of mountaineering experience, signed on. Later his daughter Lesley decided to go. Trek and plane reservations and payments were made and inoculations taken for the trek into the Annapurna Sanctuary. This area was selected for the 2 week trek time we specified, big mountain scenery, and seeing Nepali countryside and villages.

September 11, 2001 was an historic, sad and shocking day; and only 24 days before our Oct 5 departure. We were thrown into questioning our safety and the families had major concerns. We again agreed to go, but Lesley dropped out over safety issues. Our decision was based on flying a neutral airline, Thai; on being in a non Muslim country, even though we would be less than 1000 miles from the Afghani border; and that our trip would take us to a very out of the way place. This was a very good decision for us. We had no security issues, other than long lines, and leaving a Swiss Army knife in my carry on bag in Japan.

So the Gerry-Paul-Marc team of 3, with spouses as moral support and taxi drivers, arrived at DIA on October 5 at 0500. Little really happened on the planes either way. The food was great and plentiful. I slept and read a great book on the way over. Everyone gets off the plane in Japan for security check. We stayed overnight in a nice hotel at the airport in Bangkok (there and back). Flying into Kathmandu was made better by my seatmate, who was a world traveled mountain guide from Australia who loved to talk and get us beers. She advised me to get over the concern and enjoy that I was paying people to carry my stuff (I am used to backpacking). "This is what they do, these are good jobs, and they need these jobs."

Nepal
Arriving in Nepal was exciting. It was a madhouse at the airport with strangers attempting to carry your bags without asking. It was very comforting to see Pemba quickly, and see him take control. A big immediate problem was that Gerry's main duffel bag with all of his equipment did not arrive. We had to hope it would arrive the next day. We spent some time looking into replacing the equipment. Would you want to take off on a 14 day and nearly 100 mile serious walk in new boots? The bags arrived next day, and we were back on schedule.

Rather than day by day we did this and that, I am presenting in short observations on what things struck me about Kathmandu, the trek, and the culture. There are many stories I hope to be telling for a long time.

Kathmandu
Just the drive from airport to hotel was an experience. Vans, cars (mostly taxis),
motorcycles, rickshaws, bicycles, cows, dogs, chickens, and trash occupy the roads. There are a few multi lane roads, no traffic lights, and many roundabouts and very narrow streets. There is a game of "chicken" going on much of the time, and it was fun to watch from the front seat if you were not the nervous type. Amazingly, we did not see an accident in the city while we were there. In the tourist district, the streets get really narrow, with the added dimension of the locals constantly trying to sell stuff to the rich tourists.
The sad part in the city is the obvious poverty. There is some begging, and many of the residences are very dilapidated. Trash is often laying in the gutter. The air is very dirty, as we expected, with many locals wearing filters over their mouth and nose. The Royal grounds of hundreds of groomed beautiful acres show why the people feel the government is ripping them off.
As part of our package, we took a tour of Kathmandu. The tour consisted largely of visiting prominent Hindu (Pushpinitath) and Buddhist (the Stupka, Boudanath) temples. Our guide Kumar, a local Hindu, was articulate and well educated. On our own, we walked about the tourist district quite a bit, but got worn out by the constant selling pitches. We did not feel unsafe, just hassled. We met several other trekkers who were going on other treks with Pemba's company. The Hotel Thamel (in the tourist district) was "OK". We ate "American" breakfasts in the hotel, and had both Himalayan and Mexican dinners in the tourist district.
We were ready to leave Kathmandu both times.

The Trek

Every day was memorable. The combination of daylong service and strenuous walking is one difficult to describe. It was like being kings on the trail. We continually saw new cultural sights and phenomenal scenery.
Just to recount Day 1: A bumpy bus ride to the trailhead at Phedi at 3500 feet, and the trek began by walking up over 3,000 feet of stone steps and steep trail. It was warm, humid, hazy and the sweat flowed. But we were only carrying 15 #, and felt sorry for the porters carrying 80#. I purchased some jewelry at a rest stop, and a 50-rupee (75c) tip was rewarded with a good luck necklace. The initial "big view" point was hazed out, but the cultural sights and the terraced rice fields were like you imagined. After a nearly two hour lunch break, we dropped over 2,000 feet, climbed a little to our teahouse/campground at Tolka. We encountered leeches along the way and on several other days. Beer at the teahouse, a great dinner, chatting with other trekkers, a welcome shower in a dank bathroom, and in the bag and asleep by 9 PM became part of the routine that I never did really tire of.

The Sherpa Ascent International crew: We had been told what our entourage would consist of, but really had not grasped it. Our leaders were all Sherpas. This means they are part of the Sherpa clan, grew up in that region of Nepal, spoke Sherpa among themselves, and all had the last name Sherpa. There was a clear hierarchy between our leaders and porters. The porters did not speak English, and were all Gurungs (from the region we trekked in).

Our crew consisted of Chhongba: guide (sirdar), Gelbu (head cook), Gele, Gelu, and Pemba, cook's helpers, Suti, head porter, and 13 porters. While the leaders had packs, they never carried over 25 pounds. See below on the porters. We had so much stuff with us: food, cooking and camping gear, backup equipment, kerosene (cooking and water boiling), chairs, table, tablecloth, etc. Chhongba spoke very good English, as he has been in US several times. Gelbu also understood English, but was very shy.

The level of service contributed greatly to the enjoyment of the trek. Our crew was there to serve us. They liked to smile, laugh, and joke. A routine for a day was: 1) pack up and be served tea and "washing water"; 2) a large hot breakfast (hot cereal, pancakes, maybe a fry bread, juice, coffee and more); 3) walk for 2-4 hours; 4) warm lemonade at 11AM; 5) walk; 6) large hot lunch (rice, meat or yak cheese, vegetable or two, fry bread w/honey (or potato chips), coleslaw, french fries); 7) walk 2-3 more hours; 8) tea and cookies about 4 PM; 9) beer at the teahouse; 10) large hot dinner (rice, curry, bread, momo, cheeses or meat (pizza more than once), dessert). You really had to be there to appreciate the service. Maybe what we had to do will help to explain. We got up at a pre-decided time (6AM average), dress, pack our personal gear into our duffel bag, walk, and unpack our gear. That was it. The crew even poured water into our water bottles. To make a hot lunch, the kitchen crew had to hustle ahead of us (with big loads) to set up and have our meal ready. An unforgettable scene was little Gele running back down the trail toward us one day to serve us our lemonade.

We did not know what to expect in terms of the quantity, quality or taste of the food. It greatly exceeded expectations on all counts. Gelbu is a great cook. There was good variety, and we actually told Chhongba and Gelbu to cut back or we would come back heavier than when we left. I knew I appear to be overdoing the food and service bit. You had to be there.

Teahouse, lodge, hotel are all terms for the places where trekkers ate and stayed. When Gretchen saw the Bamboo Lodge on our itinerary, she conjured up the opposite of reality. These accommodations provide spartan lodging, and are low, stone, one story buildings with from 4 to 20 individual rooms 8 feet by 10 feet that cost $3 for two people. Plank beds necessitate a pad, and sleeping bag-although they had blankets. Food was served around table(s) that seated from 8 to 30. Beer (always San Miguel, Tuborg, Carlsberg) and Coke was somehow always there. As it got colder, kerosene heaters made it warmer, but it stunk and the carbon monoxide was thick. There was a 30 cent extra charge for the dinning room heater. Showers usually cost one dollar, and were with running water, or a "bucket shower". We met many people from all over the world at the teahouses. We met the most Brits, followed by Americans (that's what we were called), Germans, Japanese, Israelis, Canadians, French…… It was a very interesting and enjoyable atmosphere. There was much discussion of September 11. The number of trekkers was way down, due both to the Maoists and so soon after Sept 11.
Trekkers were doing this route in one of three basic modes: 1) guided / portered and staying in teahouses; 2) unguided and thus backpacking and staying in teahouses; 3) or camping. You can do this trek very inexpensively doing modes 1&2. Some hire guides before they arrive, but many wait and hire guides and porters direct from trekking companies in Kathmandu. Guides seem to add a lot to one's enjoyment, as you know where you are going, and get a much better cultural education, unless you speak Nepali. Teahouse food was inexpensive, plentiful (heavy on rice), and appeared to be good. We always camped next to teahouses, as the ground had been leveled and there was nowhere else flat enough to camp. The advantage of camping was that you had a cook you knew and trusted his sanitary food prep, whereas with teahouses you had 14 cooks (and 30+ meals) coming from dark kitchens with dirt floors.
Just so that it is clear, the sanitary conditions were not sanitary. The toilet was a hole in the floor. The shower room was dank. If you want or need clean bathrooms like in America, do not even go to Nepal and certainly do not go out of the city.

The route and terrain
This is steep country. My estimate is that we walked nearly 90 miles. It was more the steepness than the miles that made the trek strenuous. The trek began at Phedi at about 3200', with my high point just above the Annapurna Sanctuary Base Camp was at 13,500. But to "get from here to there" involved going up and down many drainages, which were usually steep. This added at least 6,000 more feet of up and down. I estimate the total climb at 16,000 feet. We only camped next to teahouses, because of the cooking facilities (cook shack), but also because the prepared tent spots were the only flat ground.
The lushness of the country with rain forest as high as 9,000' surprised us. During the trek, we passed through many villages. The trail is their road. This is THE transportation route between the villages. All goods are transported by the trail. The trail varied from 4 feet to twelve feet wide.

We had been told of the stone steps. The trail generally did not have switchbacks like we are used to. It went straight up and down on constructed rock steps, several times for hundreds of feet. The steps appeared to have been in place a long time (many years). We heard of some counts of the stone steps of nearly 10,000 on our route. This may be one of those "trek legend" sort of things. I only count when I am really tired (like the last trek day).

The weather became quite predictable. The lower we were, the warmer and more humid was the weather. It got much drier above 9,000 feet. Mornings were clearer, and by noon you could count on very cloudy or hazy weather. We had a few afternoon showers. High temps varied from 80 F to about 45 F at Annapurna Base Camp.

Reaching the Annapurna Sanctuary was the objective of our trek, and for good reason. When you are in the Sanctuary, you are ringed by peaks ranging from 22,000 to 26,000 feet. You are only at 13,500 feet. It is awesome. While my photos turned out great, the one thing that cannot be conveyed by photos is how high the peaks are.

I stayed 4 nights in the Sanctuary. Due to the Tent Peak excursion (see below), on days two and three, I was on my own. I did a combination of sightseeing, reading and playing cards in the teahouse with many nationalities. It was great. Gele was in charge of me, and so he cooked all of his best stuff, and smiled continuously. The morning views made you feel fortunate to be there. We had snow two nights, and I was glad for my fleece sleeping bag liner, as the low temp was about 20F.
We had agreed beforehand that Paul and Gerry were going to attempt to climb
Tent Peak. Tent Peak is part of the Sanctuary at 18,500'. I had opted not to climb, for many reasons. Chhongba had extensive climbing and guiding experience (guiding on Cho Oyo, an 8,000-meter peak). Gerry and Paul brought some climbing gear (ice axe, crampons, ascender) while SAI supplied the rest and got the required trekking peak permit (we think they did). Gerry arranged to have oxygen on the climb.
On day 2 in the Sanctuary, the boys took off. They of course had an entourage that totaled at least 8 of guide/ cook staff/ porter. They did a very steep route to a high camp at 16,000. After a fitful night and very early start, they climbed to about 17,00', but were turned back by difficulty and altitude. Paul said it looked much harder than the photos. They came back to Base Camp on day two. I will not forget the sight of them dragging into the Base Camp, with our tiny woman porter carrying Gerry's big daypack. My hats are off to them for trying. I think we were all pleased at our choices.
The last day of the trek was remarkable. Poon Hill is a famous Annapurna and Dhualigiri range viewpoint. We had included Gorepani on our trek in order to see Poon Hill. We decided to try to get out in one day from Gorepani, rather than two, as a hotel sounded good instead of another night in the bag. Chhongba thought we could do it. So we got up at 4 AM, to be part of the headlamp procession climbing 1,200' up to Poon Hill to see sunrise. It was spectacular, with 300 other tourists beside us. I compare it to Haleakala on Maui, but better.
We saw the sunrise on both ranges, came back down, had a gorgeous outdoor breakfast, and were packed and off by 9AM. Between 1130 and 1 PM we dropped well over 2,000 feet to get to lunch at Tikhedehunga. The dogs (feet) were barking, and by the time we got to the Nayapul bus stop at 5 PM, six knees were aching, and I was grumpy. Total drop for the day was an all-time personal record of 7,000 feet, which I am unlikely to attempt to break. It was great to get to the Fairmount Hotel in downtown Pokhara after the bus ride (see below).


Culture
Nepal is a small country of 20 million, with a mixed Buddhist and Hindu population. In terms of material goods, the difference between America and Nepal is something everyone should experience in terms of cars, food, and housing, health care, sanitation, television, computers, and telephones, mail. We live in a different world and in some ways, a different time than the Nepalis do.
We had all read about cultural differences between the US and Nepal, and thus we were somewhat prepared. Besides the material goods difference, I was not really shocked by what I saw. It was more exciting than I expected to observe a culture that is very different from ours. It is not a hurried way of life, and people generally appear to be happy. It was clear they felt "America" must be a wonderful place. Those who could speak English were very interested in talking about America.


Cultural vignettes

The bus ride: when the trek was over, Chhongba commandeered a local bus to take us to Pokhara, but he allowed them to take on a limited number of passengers. They stared curiously at us, and we returned the gesture. It was great seeing the whistling, and banging on side of bus as commands to slow down or tell people to get on (on the fly a few times). We asked about the bus schedule. He smiled and said, "... the bus leaves when the people are on".

Going to the bank: we had to cash travelers checks in Pokhara so Chhongba asked Suti, who spoke little English, to take a taxi with us. There were money-changing places, but for some reason we had said we wanted the bank. Suti asked around, and we wound up in this guarded, old, rundown building that looked abandoned, and not like a bank. They acted like they were inventing the process to cash $150 each in travelers checks, and after almost an hour and several reviews, we had our rupees.

Decorations: we saw the Nepalis as celebrating and decorating their trucks, buses, and even some pack animals with streamers, colors, Buddha eyes, royal family photos, insignias, flowers and headdresses. We were there during "Daisan", the big Buddhist festival.

Politics and Maoist terrorists: the son of the king and queen had massacred the Royal family in May. We were very concerned over reports of Maoist terrorists who were attempting to overthrow the government. What we learned was that tourists were not at all the focus of the terrorists. Also, there was a truce between the terrorists and the new Prime Minister while we were there, while terrorist activity is now (early 2002) again very high. We encountered no terrorist issues while in country. We spoke with many Nepalis about the terrorists and were surprised at the level of support there was for a revolution. The citizens believe their government is ripping them off. This was actually our "word for the day" one day.

Cremations are common in Nepal. They use stacked wood pyres. While visiting the sacred Hindu area, we saw the spot where the Royal Family was cremated. They were preparing the site for an afternoon cremation while we were there. On the last day of the trek we could see a large cloud of smoke from over a mile away. When we got near the smoke, we could see many villagers in more formal dress up leaving the site of a cremation. While the fire was still burning, the body was no longer visible.

Purchasing and bargaining were very prevalent activities. Prices for goods and services were generally low by our standards. We did not negotiate over restaurant food, but did for many other things, including taxis, goods in stores, trailside souvenirs and other goods. In Chhomrong one evening, a Tibetan selling jewelry used an excellent tactic of saying everything was "fixed price. I have nice goods, and do not inflate my price to start." So we bargained less than we might have. When we came back to Chhomrong, the yak bone box I had bought could be purchased for significantly less than I paid. Chhongba got a good laugh out of the fixed price concept. He said, " prices are not fixed for anything here."

Languages: Each region of Nepal has a separate language. Chhongba said there were about 70 languages. So our main crew spoke Sherpa, Nepali and English, while the porters spoke Nepali and Gurung. The Sherpas used Nepali only when speaking to a non-Sherpa. We did play "word for the day" on the trail several times. Chhongba would learn an English word and we would Nepali words. Chhongba learned hitchhike, thunder, lightning, and rip-off, among many others. They all liked to laugh at how we pronounced their words. Our vocabulary is shown below.

Namaste = hello, goodbye Dhannabat = thank you
Costu cha = how are you Rombu cha = I am fine
Meeto cha = delicious Cati paisa ho = how much is that
Pashina = sweat

Information: While on the trek, we did not see a newspaper and saw TV twice. One night we were in the teahouse while the BBC News was on the transistor radio. We also listened to the Nepali news in English. It was heavily slanted to the Royal family doings. The entire weather forecast was: "The weather for tomorrow for the kingdom is fair". It was far from the detailed description and "future-cast/ micro-cast" things we get.

Telephones and email were very different. In Kathmandu, there were many many places (cyber cafes) where you could get on AOL inexpensively. Phones were harder to find and when you used one, connections were poor, and it was relatively expensive to call home ($3/min.) Once on the trek, we saw no email, and phones only in Chhomrong and Gorepani. It was important for us to be in touch so soon after 9/11.

Singing and dancing were very prevalent. Our crew liked to chant, hum, sing (especially Suti) and had 3 drums along on the trip. They made their own music. There was some circle type dancing also. We went to sleep to the rhythms a few times.

A few of the porters got drunk one afternoon at lunch. We were waiting for our bags a long time, and knew something was up. When we asked, Chhongba said they had rakshi, the Nepali whiskey. They tried to carry their loads, and it was funny to see Chhongba show us how they were falling over with their big loads. Chhongba had to hire other porters to carry our stuff up, and he and Gelbu carried some. Chhongba said it was OK to happen once, but it could not happen again.

Volleyball: It was a bit surprising to see the porters playing volleyball, and playing it very well. Setting, digging, spiking, hustling, hooting and having fun after lugging big weights around. It was not surprising that these guys could jump. They played for money (10 rupees or 15 cents per game). They played for hours and 40-degree temps did not keep them from playing. Paul had a new net at home that he now plans to send back there.

Ping-pong with rocks for a net: It works, and the net really lasts a long time.


Afterthoughts
A surprising number of people have asked me:

Did you have a life changing experience? No.
Was this a trip of a lifetime? Yes, and I hope to have more.

We were advised not to sweat the small stuff, that things did not run on time and function like we are used to. But overall, our plan did unfold as we laid it out. I enjoyed the trip more than I expected to; the scenery was about what I expected, which means really spectacular. Both the cultural experience and the service from our hired company, Sherpa Ascent International, were beyond my expectations.

Thanks, Gretchen. Really nice present