In 2000, my first trip to Nepal marked a significant birthday in my life. I was inspired to go because my father had gone the year before. He called me in California from 18,000 feet on one of those enormous satellite phones and left me a voice mail expressing his elation at having made it to Kala Patthar, a hilltop in the Himalayas with a perfect view of Mount Everest. At the time it seemed like he was calling me from the moon. He was breathless, excited, so far away, yet so close and full of life. I saved the voice mail and played it over and over, each time re-living his accomplishment with him. He was so inspiring that I found myself in the same place, on top of that same peak, less than a year later.
In fall of 2005 I went back to Nepal a second time. By this time in my life, I had met the love of my life and gotten married. We were at a major turning point in our life together — preparing to move abroad for the first time. We had about two and a half months before our departure so we quit our jobs early so we could seize the rare opportunity of having a substantial amount of time off to travel somewhere exotic before arriving in London.
Mountains are a part of me. I was born in Montana and grew up in Colorado (above, with my dad) at over 7,000 feet above sea level. Nothing makes me feel more at home than pine trees, granite, snow, fresh air and dirt. Luckily, my husband feels the same way. So in choosing our travel destination, it was pretty obvious where we would go: the mountains. Big mountains. The mountains of all mountains. The Himalayas. J wondered if I really wanted to go back a second time, spending a rare, juicy, three-week vacation on a repeat destination. But there was no question — I wanted to see it again, see him see it for the first time, and return to one of the most mystical places on earth.
It was mid-October. I ended my job one day, packed the next day and got on a plane the following day. I was exhausted, but October and November are the best months to trek in Nepal so time was of the essence. We flew SFO to NRT to BKK to KTM. Stepping out of the airport into Kathmandu, it was so exciting to be back again. So much of traveling is about planning and the anticipation of arrival, but when you finally set foot on the ground everything shifts — anticipation becomes reality and you have no choice but to go forward and find your way.
We collected our duffel bags, met our driver and drove into the chaos of central Kathmandu. Other cities are chaotic, but Kathmandu takes it to a whole new level. I think your car could be on fire while driving in Kathmandu and no one would care — there’s little regard for maintenance and rules of the road. We made our way to the Hama Hotel — a little gem hidden down a quiet side street. Rooms were clean, water was hot and it was within walking distance of Thamel, the busiest part of Kathmandu. We even had a nice view to the west.
After settling in, we made our way to meet Sagar Pandey, owner of Himalayan Glacier Trekking. He wanted to meet us and talk about the trek we had booked with his company. We found the doorway to his office, climbed the stairs and were finally face-to-face with the man who had been, until now, just a voice on the phone. He invited us to sit down and have tea with him as we talked about trip details. He shared some fantastic news — J and I would be the only people on the trip, with one guide named Ashish (below) and a team of Sherpas.
Rather than staying in guesthouses during our trek we had opted to camp in our own tent. We love to camp so we weren’t about to pass up the chance to camp in the world’s most spectacular mountain range. Camping is also beneficial because it’s hard to stay healthy in the Himalayas and you’re less likely to get sick if you’re not sharing space with other people. But camping is a much larger operation than trekking from guesthouse to guesthouse, and requires a team of Sherpas because there is far more gear to carry (having just quit my design job at The North Face, we had brought a bomber four-season tent, down sleeping bags and a bunch of other high-altitude gear). Also, all meals are cooked for you at the campsites instead of eating in the guesthouses so pots, pans, stove, food, etc. all have to be carried for the duration of the trek.
It sounds like a lot of extra work, but the best thing about camping is traveling through the Himalayas with your own team of Sherpas. Sherpas are an ethnic group of the high Himalayas and many of them make their living by carrying loads (and sometimes people) up and down the Khumbu Valley. They are some of the strongest, fittest, most determined people you’ll ever meet — who are always smiling and friendly, too. Employing a team and getting to know them as partners in our journey through the Himalayas seemed like an invaluable opportunity to learn about Sherpa lifestyle and culture.
We wrapped up our meeting with Sagar, feeling we had made a wise choice by booking with him — informed, soft spoken and genuine. He invited us to dinner the following evening. Until then, we were free to explore Kathmandu at our leisure and acclimatize at 4,500 feet before departing for Lukla.
The next day I woke up feeling nauseous. I wasn’t sure if I’d gotten food poisoning or if my nausea was just disguising the butterflies in my stomach — a trek in the Himalayas always includes a little bit of nervousness. You just never know what’s going to happen or how it’s going to turn out, and the flight to Lukla where the trek begins is not for the faint of heart.
I powered through the nausea, determined to get out and see the sites of Kathmandu with J. We hired a taxi to take us to Pashupatinath, Bodhnath and the Monkey Temple.
Pashupatinath is a Hindu temple located on the bank of the sacred Bagmati River. A lot of things happen around the Bagmati River — socializing, bathing and also funerals on the ghats at the riverside where a body can be cremated and the ashes swept into the water. Pashupatinath draws Hindus from all over the region and bustles with activity and color. Sadhus sit stoically on the east side of the river and will proudly let you take their photo in exchange for a few rupees.
The day was hotting up and a wave of nausea came over me as we walked back to the taxi. I melted into the back seat and we moved on to Bodhnath.