My Route

March 2011

I think I’m going to Katmandu,
That’s really, really where I’m going to
If i ever get out of here,
That’s what I’m gonna do.
K-k-k-k-k-Katmandu,
I think that’s where I’m going to.
If i ever get out of here,
I’m going to Katmandu.

– Bob Seger

Two things in this world have always called to me: the mountains and the sea.  The ultimate mountains, of course, are the Himalayas.  And among Himalayas, the ultimate obviously is Everest.  Whenever I get my hands on a topographical map of an area, the first thing I do is find the highest point, and that is where I want to go.  Now that I finally had my chance to see the top of the world, the very, very top is what I wanted to see.  However, with only a week to acclimatize to the altitude, a trek to the Everest Base Camp was out of the question.  I set my sights instead on a lower region of Nepal: the Annapurna Region.

On nearly every weekend in Korea I head out for a hike with Susan and Tommy Toms.  Susan and Tommy are veterans of many trekking expeditions to Nepal.  And not only did they train me for my trip, they recommended the lower Annapurna region, and set me up with their Nepali guide, Keshab.  When I mentioned my plans to Peter, my climbing instructor, he bubbled over with excitement.  Did I know the story behind Annapurna?  At 8075 m (26,500 ft), it is the tenth highest peak in the world.  Beyond that no.  Well, it was the first 8000 m peak ever climbed.  It was a French expedition lead by Maurice Herzog.  His book about it, Annapurna, is one of the classics of mountaineering literature.  I couldn’t go to Nepal without reading it.

Maurice Herzog at the summit of Annapurna

Herzog spent the first three weeks of his expedition trying to find Annapurna.  What kind of place was I going to where you could hide an 8075 m peak?  After that, it was a matter of route finding, and the logistics of moving supplies up the mountain so that they could make their summit push.  On the third of June, 1950, Herzog and Louis Lachenal left Camp V and made their successful dash for the summit.  Apart from Lachenal’s feet starting to freeze, things were going well until, on the way down, Herzog dropped his gloves.  One can only imagine his horror as he watched them bounce down the slope and out of sight.  In a place Lionel Terray described as colder than Canada, the loss of those gloves meant the certain loss of Herzog’s hands.  Those might as well have been his fingers bouncing down that snowy slope.  After getting lost in a blinding snowstorm, Herzog and Lachenal were forced to spend a night in a snow cave.  They then survived an avalanche before making it, with assistance, to Camp II from whence, they were carried off of the mountain.  They then took the train to Katmandu to thank the Maharajah for permitting  their expedition.  Jacques Oudot, their medical officer, took advantage of the train stops to perform his amputations and sweep the discarded digits out of the door of their carriage onto the train platform.  Fortunately, with the 45oC (113oF) heat, there were plenty of maggots to live in the wounds and keep them clean!

My goal was to reach the Annapurna Base Camp and to see this mountain, where Herzog gave his hands to make history.  I hoped my expedition would go a little better!

Streets of Kathmandu

I flew into Kathmandu, the City of the Thousand and One Nights, the city celebrated in song by both Bob Seeger and Cat Stevens, and the setting off point for so many historical mountaineering expeditions.  When Herzog arrived, there were only about 100 cars in Kathmandu, all carried over a 1800 m (6000 ft) pass by porters, for no road or railroad led to the city.  I thought I was prepared for how much things had changed.  Susan had warned me that Kathmandu was no longer a nice place, that the conditions were pretty Third World, that the air could not be breathed without a mask.  I wasn`t even close to being prepared for what I saw and smelled.

Keshab met me at the airport, escorted me to the hotel to drop off my bags, and then took me for a tour of the city.  There were still shrines everywhere: Buddhist shrines, Hindu shrines, and Muslim shrines.  We saw

Monkeys on the Hill

the open air Hindu crematoria by the river, and climbed a mountain in the middle of town crawling with monkeys and topped with spectacular Buddhist and Hindu shrines.  There was the aftermath of a festival in which they painted people red and threw water balloons at them.  The streets were wet and covered with the burst plastic bags that had contained the water.  It seemed a little odd that most of the red people were Caucasian backpackers.   There were many stores displaying Gurkha knives in their windows.  Keshab took me to an amazing little mountaineering shop, full of the most incredible used gear, where I rented a good down sleeping bag.  Unfortunately, the thing that stuck most in my mind about the city was the sight and scent of decaying and burning garbage.  There appeared to be only two ways to dispose of your refuse in Kathmandu: burn it in your backyard, or throw it in someone else`s.  There was even a dead cow lying in the river.

Buddhist Monks

Keshab brought me to his home and introduced me to his wife and two young sons.  He rented two rooms, a bedroom and a kitchen, in a three story building that must have housed a half dozen families who all shared the outhouse in the backyard.  His wife made us a delicious meal of Dal bhat, the traditional Nepali meal of steamed rice and lentil soup.  After I happily cleaned my plate, it was refilled.  Soon I was getting pretty stuffed and worried that the Nepalese followed the Italian tradition.  In Italy, if you can finish all of the food on your plate, the host has not provided enough.  Fortunately, in Nepal it is polite to accept seconds, but you must finish all of the food on your plate to compliment the chef.

Click for more pictures of Kathmandu

In the morning Keshab and I discussed equipment.  It would be about 15-20oC at the Annapurna Base Camp, so there was no need to carry heavy warm clothing.  And I should make my bag as light as possible for my porter.  By my calculations it would be about 0oC at Annapurna Base Camp, but Keshab was the expert, so I dutifully removed my down jacket, toque, and ski gloves from my pack.  Then we climbed aboard a Yeti Airlines turboprop and set off for Pokhara.

We were met in Pokhara by Autumn, my porter.  Keshab stood about 160 cm (5’4″) tall.  Autumn was only about 150 cm (5′) and couldn’t have weighed much more than about 45 kg (100 lbs).  It felt wrong to ask this tiny man to carry my gear, but I knew he was probably a lot stronger than me.  And once we got up to altitude, there would be no way I could carry my gear without more time to acclimatize.

Nepalese Porter

We took a cab to the hotel where we dropped off our extra baggage, then took a crazy multicoloured bus up into the mountains to the trail head.  The trail was about 1 m (3 ft) wide and varied between earth, stone steps, and rope bridges, as it wound up steep sided terraced valleys.  There were small farmhouses and cow barns all along the way.  The commerce of the entire valley was moving up and down the trail on the backs of porters.  The Indian porters carried two baskets on a pole over one shoulder, while the Nepalese carried one large basket on their back supported by a fabric strap slung under the basket and over their forehead.  Everybody carried about 70 kg (155 lbs).  Autumn forwent tradition enough to use the shoulder straps of my backpack instead of a forehead strap, but he wouldn’t hear of using the waistband to transfer the load to his hips.

Indian Porter

Keshab had plotted out a 7 km route for the first day which was supposed to take about four hours.  I was used to hiking 13 km in three hours every weekend with the Toms, and the previous weekend I had hiked 30 km in one day as part of my training.  In two hours we were already at the tea house where we were to stop for the night, so we elected to keep going.  We ended up hiking 14 km to New Bridge.  At 1500 m (4900 ft) above sea level, New Bridge consisted of a two story stone building with about 10 rooms and a dining hall across the courtyard.  It was located just uphill of a beautiful new suspension bridge.  Bathrooms were under the dining hall and consisted of a hole in the ground with two foot pads.  These were not going to be fun to use!  It was still shorts and t-shirt weather, but from here we got our first glimpse of the snow capped peak of Annapurna.  I set out my sleeping bag to air and abandoned traditional Nepalese food in favour of a pizza!

Keshab and Autumn on the Trail

Monday morning dawned cool enough to require a sweater for my morning oatmeal, but once we started walking it was shorts and t-shirt weather again.  The trail continued to wind its way up.  We shared it with donkeys, cows, and water buffalo.  The air was crisp and clean in the morning but became hazier as the day went on.  Once again we hit our original destination by lunch time.  Keshab implored me to walk slower.  In fact I was stopping to wait for Keshab and Autumn to catch up.  I couldn’t go any slower.  The scenery was magnificent, and I felt so vigorous and alive, that my whole body just wanted to charge up the mountain.  By nightfall we had covered another 15 km and were at the Himalaya Guest House, 2805 m (9200 ft) above sea level.

Himalaya

Himalaya consisted of two single story stone guesthouses forming a square with the dining room of the Himalaya Hotel in the centre of the square.  It got pretty cool at night that high up, and I was very glad for my warm down sleeping bag.

I awoke in the morning feeling for the first time that I was at altitude.  I had a dull headache and I no longer felt so fit and strong.  All my training for this trip was now starting to backfire.  I was in good enough shape to get myself to almost 3 km in altitude in two days, but my training had done nothing for my ability to acclimatize.  I was now higher than the summit of the Sunshine or Lake Louise ski areas in Banff.  But this was about the same altitude as the hotel in Frisco, Colorado I had stayed in last March.  I hadn’t had any problem there.

Keshab warned me that it was imperative that we go slow.  He got no argument from me.  I broke out my hiking poles for the first time on this trip and carefully picked my way up the trail.  After all the strength and vigour I had for the last two days, I felt so weak.  We were high enough up now that there was no more livestock.  Everything was now carried by Sherpas and young Sherpas at that.  A group of teenage Sherpas were coming down the trail in front of us.  There seemed to be a lot of yelling going on.  Just before we reached them, they dropped their loads and two of them began a fist fight.  Keshab just shook his head.  Everywhere around the world, kids will be kids.

Machhapuchharey Base Camp

As we continued to ascend, the trees disappeared and I continued to get weaker.  By lunch at the Machhapuchharey Base Camp I felt like I was 80 years old.  My head was pounding, and every step was an effort.  I was now 3700 m (12,000 ft) up and we were dressed in long pants and sweaters.

At lunch the Gore Tex mountaineering jacket went on, and I started to wish for the toque I had left in Pokhara.  It was now just a 430 m climb up the glacier to Annapurna Base Camp.  I put one foot in front of the other and plodded on.  With every step I felt older, weaker and more tired.  At one point both of my poles broke through the snow together and I fell to my knees.  Keshab and Autumn had to lift me back to my feet.  One foot in front of the other.  I was gasping for breath, and my heart rate was through the roof, yet I was moving along like a 100 year old man trying to get to his park bench to feed the pigeons.  My eyes watered with the cold dry air.  One foot in front of the other.  My feet broke through the surface filling my boots with snow.  I hadn’t brought gaiters.  Too much weight.  Furious, I dug the snow out of my boots to try to save my socks from being soaked.  One foot in front of the other.  The wind cut at my head protected by only my Tilley Hat and sliced through my paper thin liner glovers.  Oh! for the toque and gloves sitting in the hotel in Pokhara!  One foot in front of the other.  I thought of Megan with whom I had climbed the mountains of Korea.  Thank god she couldn’t see how weak I was at this moment.  How could I face her if I failed?  One foot in front of the other.  Failure was not an option.  It was now harder to go down than to finish going up.  But would it ever end?  How long could I go on like this?  One foot in front of the other.  Finally, a rise ahead, with some flags.  As I came closer I squinted through my watery eyes to see that it did say what I prayed it would: “Annapurna Base Camp”.  I struggled up the rise.  It was a false summit.  At least now I could see my goal.  Base camp was still 300 m away.  It was no longer water in my eyes.  One foot in front of the other.

One foot in front of the other.  One foot in front of the other.  One foot in front of the other.  At last one boot fell on a stone step.  Panting, I worked my way up the stairs and across the courtyard.  I was now standing at 4130 m (13,550 ft).  I was almost 200 m higher than I had ever been in my life, higher than any peak in the Canadian Rockies.  I was looking up at Annapurna, which was still another 3945 m higher.  I was only halfway up.  I knew this was an incredible moment.  I knew this view and the majesty of that mountain where awe inspiring.  I knew this, but I felt none of it.  All I felt was that I could barely stand up.

Annapurna Base Camp 4130 m

Keshab led me to the dining hall.  It was a small rectangular room so completely filled with its central table that the benches around it were right against the wall.  A blanket led from the edge of the table to the floor and you tucked legs under it when you sat down.  There seemed to be tin on the underside of the table.  I couldn’t figure out why.  Then again, my brain couldn’t have managed 2 + 2 at that moment.  There were trekkers and Sherpas all around the table, talking and drinking tea.  I sat for as long as I could, but soon discovered, that no only was I too weak to stand, I was too weak to sit up.  Outside the wind came up and it turned to a complete white out.  There was no going down until morning.  Even if it had been bright and sunny, I couldn’t have walked down.  Keshab took me to my room.  I crawled into my sleeping bag and Keshab got me a blanket.

Annapurna Base Camp with Machhapuchharey in the Background

My weather prediction was the correct one.  It was literally freezing at Base Camp and the temperature continued to drop through the night.  I had been warned to rent a good sleeping bag because the blankets reeked like a wet dog.  Fortunately, I was too cold at the Base Camp for anything to thaw enough to gain an aroma.  The blanket smelled fresh and clean.  And it was so warm.  Not even my down sleeping bag was going to be enough for this night.  I was so thankful for the extra warmth.  As I warmed up, I attempted to relax and get some sleep.  At this altitude each breath gave me 60% of the oxygen I got while doing all of my training near sea level.  This meant that my resting heart rate and respiratory rate were about doubled.  It was pretty hard to sleep when my heart was pounding and I was puffing away like I was going for a very brisk walk.

Eventually Keshab brought me some soup.  I had no appetite, but I somehow managed to get it down.  It gave me enough strength to go back to the dinning hall.  The purpose of the tin was now apparent.  They had a kerosene heater of some sort burning under the table.  When I tucked my legs under, they were now warm as toast.  I managed to drink some tea and nibble at something.  There was now a new problem.  My bowels were starting to move.  I had been avoiding the squat toilets like the plague.  There was no room left in my digestive system for me to avoid the issue any longer.  In order to void waste certain muscles need to relax.  When seated on a toilet that supports your body weight for you, this is a non issue.  When squatted over a hole in the ground surrounded by ice, certain other muscles must remain contracted to maintain your upright position.  This makes relaxing the first set muscles extremely challenging for the unpracticed.  Add the complication of exposing your backside to sub-zero temperatures which causes yet further contractions.  It was all I could do to expel enough so that my large intestines wouldn’t actually burst.

The Halpin Expedition - Keshab, Me, and Autumn

I went back to my room and gasped my way through a fairly sleepless night.  The morning dawned gloriously clear.  The majesty of Annapurna glowing above us was now apparent, if still somewhat dulled by the lack of oxygen.  I had a quick breakfast, did a photo shoot to prove I was there, then quickly started out to do what every fibre of my being was screaming to do: get the hell down!

The centre peak is Annapurna I, 8075m

I still felt 100 years old, but at least this time gravity was on my side.  As we got lower the snow turned slushy and therefore slippery.  Now I wished for the crampons I left behind in Korea.  Too heavy again!  Autumn began to slip and fall under his load.  I found enough strength to give him one of my poles and continued down with just one.  Though he would never accept a drink of my water, he happily took the hiking pole.  By lunch, I was 80 again.  After being 100 years old, 80 felt so young and shure footed!  Things warmed enough in the afternoon to strip off our sweaters and by the end of the day we were at Siniwa, 2340 m (7680 ft.) above sea level, drinking in the thick, sweet, moist air.

Just missed another rainstorm. Click for more pictures of the Trail to Annapurna

Thursday morning, I felt almost myself again.  I was certainly a little worse for wear, but I could breathe and I could walk again.  We were back in the balmy weather of the lower valley, though it was much greyer than any day had been.  As we wound our way down the skies got darker and darker.  Then, just after we reached a town and the safety of an awning, the skies opened up.  Keshab, would soon prove to be clairvoyant when it came to rain.  As we approached our lunch stop, dark clouds swept in again.  And once more, not a drop fell until the minute we got under the roof.  This performance repeated itself again mid afternoon, and a fourth time when we reached Shikar for the night.  Four thunderstorms and not drop of rain fell on us!  We were now only 1164 m (3800 ft.) up and a new problem arose.  It was now actually too warm to sleep in a down sleeping bag!

Our final morning dawned bright and sunny, and by noon we had reached the trail head.  We stepped off of the trail and onto the road, and there was a bus waiting.  Keshab stuck his head into the bus and had a chat with the driver.  The bus was very crowded.  Would I mind riding on the roof?  Would I mind?  What better way to finish my adventure in Nepal, but to wind down mountain roads with the wind in my hair, as I grasped desperately to the roof rack of a crazy multicoloured bus!

Click to take a ride on the roof of the bus