True Love Takes on the Himalayas
Everybody tried to convince me that my honeymoon idea, trekking in Nepal's Himalaya Mountains, was absurd. A honeymoon, they argued, should be romantic and relaxing. Even my fiancee agreed.
"Toss in some tropical beach or no Nepal," she told me.
So I capitulated and added a few days at a resort on an island in the Philippines. I wanted us to go to Nepal because I'd been told that it was the world's most spectacular outdoor adventureland. That idyllic image, however, was shattered in Katmandu, which was loud, dirty, and discombobulated. But our hopes were thoroughly rejuvenated on a flight to Pokhara, the sleepy lakeside town in northwestern Nepal that's the setting-off point for lots of trekkers, including us.
The plane climbed quickly, slicing through Katmandu's thick blanket of perma-smog. Then, suddenly, we broke through the smog. My jaw dropped. There were the Himalayas, an endless range of monstrous whitecaps.
We were cruising at 25,000 feet. Yet, instead of looking down at the mountains, I was eye-to-eye with them, sometimes peering up. I now understood why a Nepalese pilot once said, in deference to the sacred Himalayas, home to eight of the world's 10 highest peaks: "We don't fly through clouds in Nepal because the clouds have rocks in them."
While I was drooling, my new wife, Carrie Cohen, was wondering whether we were in over our heads. "Are we in good enough shape?" she asked. "Maybe we should take a helicopter tour instead of the trek?"
Great idea, I thought sarcastically. We've plowed through five flights, 13,000 miles, and a year's vacation - not to mention our savings - and my wife wants the helicopter tour?
"You're kidding, right?" I finally said.
"Okay, okay," she said, relenting. "It was just an idea."
I didn't say so, but I too was a little uneasy. How would we get up there?
Up there was the Annapurna region, the most popular of Nepal's five major trekking areas. Many consider it the Himalayas' most spectacular and diverse; it's also the most accessible, because Pokhara has the only legitimate airport outside Katmandu.
Our trek would be a 10-day, 70-mile journey. The goal was to reach Annapurna Base Camp (ABC), a cluster of tea houses at 14,100 feet that sits in the middle of the world's greatest natural amphitheater. ABC is surrounded on every side by glaciers, waterfalls, rockslides, and 11 snowy peaks - all over 21,000 feet. (That's 6,500 feet taller than California's Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the continental United States.)
On Oct. 21, we left Pokhara (elevation 3,500 feet) and took a 45-minute taxi ride to the trailhead in Phedi, a town by Nepalese standards, a clump of straw-roofed roadside huts by mine.
"Where's the trail?" I asked our porter, Ghanza, whom we had hired for the going rate - $4 a day. Smiling, Ghanza pointed at the enormous cliff just ahead. I saw no trail, just rock, trees, and sheer up.
"We're going up that?"
Ghanza's smile widened. "Up, up, up," he said. "We go up the Himal."
A few hours later, Carrie and I were drenched in sweat, guzzling water, but happy as could be. We had conquered the cliff and its million switchbacks, meandered through our first few mountain villages, visited a Hindu temple, and now, amid a plain of rice and millet terraces, the Pokhara valley lay behind and the Himalayas ahead.
"You like?" Ghanza asked.
"We love," said Carrie.
At 4 p.m., exhausted and exhilarated, we reached Tolka, a small village, and signed up for a room at the Namaste Tea House (namaste means "hello" and "goodbye" in Nepalese). Friends had spoken of dank rooms and inedible food. But Namaste, like all the other tea houses we stayed in, was quaint and comfortable.
Our room had two wooden beds, a night table, and a window with flowery curtains. The view, a Himalayan panorama, wasn't bad either. Nearby was a shower that drew hot water from a pipe running from the kitchen fireplace.
And the food, cooked by the family who owned Namaste, was tasty. For dinner we shared vegetable fried rice, noodle soup, a pot of lemon tea, and apple fritters.
After trekking, there's not much to do but read, eat, talk with other trekkers, and sleep, so at 8 p.m. we crawled into our sleeping bags and crashed.
At 5:30 the next morning, the sun pried open our eyes, and a rooster concerto rattled our eardrums. Early on, the mountains are usually aglow with stunning hues, but Himalayan mornings are hard nonetheless because it's so cold, often below freezing. We devoured omelettes and Tibetan bread. At 7 a.m., groggy though we were, we started back on the trail.
But soon, after rounding a ridge, we were jolted awake by a massive chunk of snowy granite towering over us. The pointy snow-cap, framed by deep blue sky, was Machapuchare, Ghanza told us.
Machapuchare is one of the most elusive and intriguing Himalayan peaks, in part because it stands by itself, away from the other big mountains.
"Nobody ever," Ghanza said reverently.
Had Ghanza spoken better English, he would have said that nobody has ever made it to the top of this 23,000-foot behemoth, the name of which, translated, means Fishtail because its summit resembles one from certain angles. Legend has it that in the 1960s a few Japanese perished trying to scale Machapuchare.
King Mahendra interpreted that as a divine omen and halted all further climbing on it. The royal edict still stands, and that rankles climbers, but to us it seemed perfectly logical.
The trail to ABC wove through a deep valley surrounded on both sides by snowcaps. There were also waterfalls, glaciers, mountain flowers, and butterflies, not to mention dozens of villages with rice and millet terraces carved into the mountainsides.
Almost as impressive as the scenery were the porters. Everything man-made, every bottle of soda, every nail, plate, and sock, gets into the Himalayas on somebody's back, usually a porter's, though sometimes a donkey's.
We saw men and women - and the Nepalese are a small people - lugging giant loads, often more than 100 pounds. One wispy man smaller than I had four huge backpacks, a duffel bag, a day-pack, and a lawn chair knotted together and slung over his back; another had a wood-frame bed, assembled. And to think, most porters wear flip-flops, some no shoes at all. After a couple of days I felt guilty and replaced Ghanza's flip-flops with my spare Nikes.
After Tolka, the trek continued through a bamboo jungle and along a glacial river. We bathed in hot springs and saw wild monkeys and Himalayan griffons, which resemble eagles but have much bigger wings. Our attention, though, was on ABC.
On the fifth day, after a 4,500-foot, eight-hour ascent, we reached ABC at 2:30 p.m. We were thrilled to finally arrive. But we were disappointed because, as happens there every afternoon, ABC was enshrouded in clouds and chillingly cold. We huddled around the kerosene heater in our tea house's dining room and exchanged stories with other trekkers.
The next morning, we hiked past the tea houses and expedition base-camps and settled, bundled in our warmest gear, on a cliff.
Elevation: 14,200 feet.
My first impression: Peace.
We felt like minnows in a whale's mouth. There was just blue sky, us, and a 360-degree ring of Himalayan peaks with waterfalls and glaciers winding down them.
The setting was beyond anything we ever imagined. In our journal, I wrote: "How could I possibly capture the power of what we saw in words? I couldn't. Not even pictures can really do the trick."
Aided by a map, I tried to name the mountains: Hiunchuli, Tharpu Chuli, Fluted Peak, Annapurna South, Annapurna I, Rakshi Peak. I had little success, but it didn't bother me.
Perhaps we weren't quite as elated as Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay Sherpa had been back in 1953 when they became the first humans to conquer Mt. Everest, but we were close.
It took five more days to get back to Pokhara. The trail was mostly downhill. We saw more spectacular scenery, what with the mountains, villages, and the flora and fauna. One morning, at sunrise, we hiked up a mountain, Poon Hill, and caught a panorama of the peaks we'd seen at ABC, but now from the other side and much farther away. However, there was a sadness to the descent, and it lingers.
When we discuss the trek, everybody wants to know the same thing: Did you see Mt. Everest? No, we didn't. Everest is in its own region, about 100 miles east of Annapurna.
Yet I have long dreamed of seeing (not climbing) Everest, so when we were on our flight out of Nepal and the captain announced that we were passing the great peak, I was thrilled.
But I never did get to see it, because we were on the wrong side of the plane. I muttered my disappointment as we whizzed on toward the Philippine beach. "Now we have to come back," I said.
I turned to my wife.
She said nothing. She was asleep.