Friday, October 31, 2008

Images on the Way to Mera

Here's a pic from Kare, on the way to Mera. It was actually distilled from my old video camera in "super-nightshot" mode.

I'm a bit pissed that I wasn't more liberal with the camera up there, but you can see another handful of pics here (in slideshow format...give them time to load).

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Mera Peak, Amazing Sherpas

I just returned from a jaunt up Mera Peak. "Jaunt" is a fair describer of the climb...there were really no technical challenges on the way up. The last 50 meters or so is a bit steep, so they've got a line onto which you can attach a jumar, if you wish. The line is interrupted by a snowbar or ice-axe or something at some point, so it's necessary to detach and reattach your jumar at that point. Never mind, though...they've got a Sherpa stationed right there, ready to take care of those pesky details for you. The immediate impression I got was that of being on a scary amusement park ride, where operators check that you're properly harnessed before the ride proceeds. Honestly...that's what passed through my mind at 6,450 or so meters!

The lines disappear quickly over a course of days or weeks. A mountain like Everest must have thousands of ice screws, pitons, and snowbars embedded in her rock and ice. The really dangerous work is to re-establish a grip on these mountains. These days, that work is accomplished almost entirely by Sherpas. With the lines already set, the clients need only be bright enough to make sure their jumars are simultaneously attached to their lines and harnesses. Hmmmmm.

From my own count, few folks failed to make the summit. Some of those who made it did not have the most impressive physiques. The speed at which one can adjust to the altitude does not seem to be easily gauged beforehand. One pleasing fact: older folks seem to handle the altitudes better than young folks. Hooray! Where else does age give one a physical advantage? A mid-aged German guy spoke with joy of his encounter with a super-fit young Canadian climber who needed assistance down to a lower camp.

I don't mean to poo-poo the experience of climbing Mera. Having woken around 3:00 AM, you walk up a decent slope with less than 50% of the atmospheric oxygen available at sea-level. Depending on your speed, it could take 3-5 hours from high camp. Even my Everest-conquering guide Nima vomited on the way down. Rust-colored. I think it was the canned tuna fish our porters fried up for us. In the week we spent trekking toward the peak, it was obvious that the climb had taken a toll on many folks via seriously chapped lips, sunburn, a gimpy gait, whatever.

The weather is a huge factor in your chances of success. We enjoyed perfect weather on the summit. With the sun reflecting off the snow, I could have shed a layer of clothing. The next day was sour, however, with one Czech dude suffering frostbite on his toes. He was worried that the docs might have to do some snipping in Kathmandu, though I do believe he'll be OK.

More than anything, the appeal of Mera is the view. Everest and Makalu are right in your face. Kanchenjunga, the 3rd highest mountain in the world, looks like a fortress in the distance. There's Cho Oyu, beautiful Ama Dablam, Pumori, and more. Hopefully, you'll retain enough consciousness to appreciate it all in the rarefied atmosphere.


Unbeknownst to the morons at TITV here in Thailand*, there are good reasons why folks don't climb Everest in October. The lack of action on the monster peaks at this time of year means that you'll meet some really amazing Sherpa climbers guiding expeditions on the lesser peaks. Let me tell you a bit about these guys:

Most impressive was Dawa Sherpa. If you watch the Discovery channel, you know that your typical Everest expedition requires a base camp and four higher camps. The whole process might take 2 months for a foreigner, who shells out as much as $100,000 to reach his dream. But Mr. Dawa simply began his adventure at the base camp on the Tibet side of Everest, reached the Summit, and traversed down to the Nepali base camp in a total of 20 hours. He told me he was a bit disappointed, since he was shooting for 18 hours. All told, Mr. Dawa has summited Everest 8 times.

Then there was Danu Sherpa. Our trek paralled that of Danu and his two wonderful clients, Christian and Chantal (sorry, no photos), so we had plenty of chances to interact with Danu. Not only has he summited Everest 11 times, and Annapurna I once (which is enough, given a 50% death rate), but he's also a radiantly friendly individual.

I shouldn't neglect my own guide, Nima. At the age of 22, he organized and led a Nepali team up Everest.

Finally, there's the story of a Sherpa whose name eludes me who loaded up on Nepali rakshi (a hard alcohol that Sherpas sometimes refer to as "oxygen"), left his home in Pangboche, summited Everest, and returned home to Pangboche in a span of 30 hours.

High altitude climbing, not to mention high-altitude portering, will never be an Olympic event, but I find the accomplishments of these Sherpas to be truly mind-blowing. It was about 30 years ago that Tenzing Norgay surmised that Reinhold Messner must have cheated on the way to the first ascent of Everest without bottled oxygen. Since then, however, it seems that the Sherpas have discovered their almost unhuman high altitude talents, and I'll be a bit surprised if any non-Sherpas come close to duplicating the above feats.

*The Thai TV station TITV sponsored an Everest expedition in October-November of 2007. The unusual timing was supposed to honor King Bhumibol, whose birthday falls on Dec. 5. You could see updates and live reports amidst bombastic music nightly on TITV. The team failed about 800 meters below the summit. In May of 2008, the first Thai reached the summit. He had failed to attract any sponsors whatsoever, but later managed to minimize his costs by joining a Vietnamese team. The accomplishment was met with surprisingly little fanfare in Thailand.

Despite the comparative ease of climbing Mera, no Thais have done it! We scoured the records! Below, I attempt to advance the cause. Pardon the fractured footage...apparently, Nima found my video camera to be more challenging than Everest.

Plane Crash in Lukla

We took the third flight out of Kathmandu, bound to Lukla, on the morning of Oct 8. I knew something was a tad haywire when, after 30 minutes or so, the plane began circling around some cloud-obscured location below. Shortly thereafter we found ourselves on the rarely-used landing strip at Lamidanda.

In Nepal, information passes through several filters before it reaches a foreigner's ear. First, it was confirmed that visibility was poor in Lukla. After awhile, word spread that an accident had occured. Was anyone hurt? The pilot is alive. What about other people? The pilot survived. I guess that's the Nepali way of saying, "everyone else died".

It turns out that [the doomed] flight no. 4 was about 2 minutes behind us. If the gossip on the ground is to be believed, our pilot warned the tailing pilot not to attempt a landing. The pilot of the ill-fated craft is quoted in Nepali papers as blaming Kathmandu-Lukla communications on the disaster, and Yeti Airlines officially claims that the airport was "suddenly" cloaked in fog, but the word at Lamidanda was simply that this guy, Surendra Kunwar, decided to play daredevil. He survived, apparently, because he was thrown through the cockpit windshield onto the runway, while everyone else had to endure the airplane flipping and then falling back 50 meters down the hillside.

In my life, I've met not one, but two sole survivors of bus accidents in India. Anyone who has spent anytime in this part of the world can regale you with tales of whisky-sotted bus drivers who, at 100 kilometers/hour, play "chicken" with the oncoming traffic on narrow mountain roads. Point is: the "daredevil" theory is not particularly far-fetched.

After a couple hours, we flew back to Kathmandu. I had encouraged my guide Nima to consider the possibility of trekking from Lamidanda to Lukla. It would take about five extra days, but being an American, I feared an FAA-style investigation that would shut the airport/airline down indefinitely. Not to turns out that a few October 8 flights landed after the crash.

I'm always the last guy to propose a "moment of silence", but the blase reaction of the Lamidanda passengers surprised me. Perhaps we just had trouble believing any Nepali -> foreigner information that came our way. Maybe the news was just too much to integrate into our morning at the pleasant, grassy landing strip, where locals showed up to offer tea. It wasn't "shock". Far from it. Nobody sensed a disturbance in the force as those 18 lives got snuffed out.

Back in Kathmandu, I was told that someone was looking out for me. I resisted the impulse to ask where this "someone" was with regard to the passengers on flight 103. If I was spared, were the others punished? Not the time for a lecture on the shortcomings of theism. One friend e-mailed me with another sentiment: the devil wasn't quite ready to accept me into hell. That view might be .0000001% more accurate than the former.

Nima's family had already gone into mourning when we returned to Kathmandu. Somehow, they were convinced that he had taken the doomed flight.

Despite my cynicism when the events of the day got mixed up in supernaturalism, there was still some sense of amazement at my continued existence, and it's interesting to consider all the little circumstances that led up to me NOT being on Flight 103. For example, I hate the chaos at the domestic terminal in Kathmandu, so I insisted on arriving at the airport as fast as possible that morning. We were there at 5:00 AM, before the airport doors even opened. What little behind-the-scenes bureaucratic adjustments might have spared our lives? Why had the passengers chosen Yeti Airlines, and not another? (for my own part, I refuse to fly Sita Air, another carrier, because they wouldn't accept responsibility for lost baggage on a previous excursion to Lukla).

Of course, it's not a done deal that everyone would have died had I been on Flight 103. Consider the following scenario: I hop on the flight. 10 kilometers from Lukla, I cough loudly, causing the pilot to reflect on his sick daughter back in Kathmandu. A conservative, family-oriented, risk-averse state of consciousness ensues, and the pilot returns to Kathmandu.

It's also eerie to consider that we had, most likely, smiled and interacted with the doomed parties. Undoubtedly, they were thrilled in anticipation of their upcoming Himalayan adventures. That's how everyone feels when they hop into that "Twin Otter"...chances are high that some amazing experiences are just around the corner, but you're not really sure when/where/how they'll manifest. At Lukla, the landing arrives that mountainous environment, where the plane must be flying upwards at an 11 degree angle upon touch down, you don't have the usual indications that you're about to the ill-fated passengers probably carried those happy feelings until their last seconds.

When we finally made it to Lukla on October 10 (the weather was bad on October 9), I walked down to the crash scene to take some video. As "luck" would have it, I bumped into my former super-porter on the way. I dragged him back up to the main strip of Lukla and asked Nima to consider him as a porter for our upcoming jaunt up Mera Peak. That was fine with Nima, and it turned out to be a great decision. Anyway, Mr. Super-Porter related that he heard a boom, visited the crash site, and was greeted with the sight of bodies with burnt-off faces, and some strange, unpleasant odors. That's pretty much the story you'll hear from all the denizens of Lukla.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

The Enigma of Hitler

Above is a Dali work called "The Enigma of Hitler". I espied it while browsing through an online art gallery. For whatever reason, the pic grabbed my attention, and I decided to google around and try to learn about the context of the concoction.

The piece was created in 1938. It can be a waste of time to interpret Dali's creations, but the viewer should know that the umbrella is Neville Chamberlain's. The telephone, a common motif in Dali's works at that time, hangs on an olive branch. You've got the gloomy weather, which might either be dissipating or gathering into a storm. It's fair to speculate that Dali had some sense that global destiny hinged on communications between Hitler and Chamberlain.

Even at that time it was uncool to refer to Hitler without a qualifying epithet. Despite the unflattering depiction of Hitler, mixed with beans, with a tenuously dangling wad of sputum nearby, the surrealist community was appalled that Hitler might merely be referred to as an "enigma". It wasn't the first time that Dali tweaked the surrealist outlook, which extended far beyond techniques on a canvas. "Enigma of Hitler" was probably the last straw, however: Dali was effectively excommunicated from the group.

Dali went on to renew his Catholic practice. In utter contrast to Picasso, he also became an ardent supporter of Francisco Franco. He would write fawning letters to Franco, praising him for various political executions. The two met on at least one occasion. Despite Franco's very conservative cultural leanings, the Spanish art scene managed to survive, if not prosper, relatively unshackled during Franco's 35 or so years. I say "relatively" in reference to artistic freedom under dictators like Hitler and Stalin.

Dali's modus operandi was to shock, and be incessantly creative and contrary. He invented the Chupa Chups logo, worked with Disney and Hitchcock, and interacted with hundreds of aspiring artists on pilgrimage to his residence. As recently as 2003, Elmer Fudd pursued Bugs Bunny through the "Persistence of Memory". One has got to wonder if the world might look a bit different now if Dali had named the pic a tad differently ("Hitler, Beans, and Sputum"?) , if the surrealists had not possibly provoked a counter-reaction from Dali, or had Dali not heaped praise on a fascist dictator's ego.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

A Tibetan Buddhist Scolding

The above video was taken in May of 2007. The kid had just killed a bird with his slingshot, and was now getting an earful from the monk. I believe the monk's name was Rinchen, so we'll call him that.

My porter and I met Rinchen in an obscure, dusty Himalayan town by the name of "Turke Bajar". The ambience of the place was more Hindu than Buddhist, and Rinchen certainly received no special deference from the townspeople. He seemed a bit out of place in his robes. In a nook that could generously be called an apartment, we joined him in his puja, which was otherwise attended only by a handful of children.

Rinchen was enthused about showing us a fledgling monastery being built a couple day's walk from Turke. Having no serious itinerary to abide by, we agreed to the diversion.

Somewhere along the way, the above encounter took place. Rinchen, at perhaps 19 years old, took his monkhood quite earnestly, as you can see. In fact, to my eyes, he played the role to the hilt. He spoke with great excitement about the hardships he would endure in his upcoming three year retreat in the mountains (no human contact, no exiting the meditation hut except at night, etc.), and made sure I photographed him in various meditative postures.

An hour or so after the above exchange, Rinchen produced the slingshot and made sure I witnessed him tossing it into the forest. I'm not mocking his zeal, not at all. Young Americans might model their personalities after sports heroes or celebrities, and it seems that Rinchen wasn't so different. His heroes were the various Buddhist Lamas whose photographs adorned his shrine.

My porter, Janu, did the translating.