Climbing into the car after 24+ hours of traveling, I was simultaneously trying to get to know Tendi (a wonderfully helpful and knowledgeable Sherpa) and to ignore the crazy traffic I was immersed in. I have traveled to some pretty crazy places in terms of traffic (Morocco and Istanbul), but the streets of Kathmandu are hands down the most chaotic I’ve experienced. The apartment in Baluwatar sits just off a main road, but is surprisingly quiet (except the barking dogs at night, which can drive me nuts!). When I ventured around the city, I was struck by the similarity of Nepali and Indian cultures (at least how I perceived it, having never been to India). After just a week of city noises and dirt, I was more than ready to head to the mountains. The domestic airport is an attraction in and of itself. Fortunately Tendi was along and did the talking while we stood there trying to keep track of our luggage, which seemed to move around at random with the porters. We got through security at about the same time our flight was scheduled to leave, so we were hustled onto a bus, then onto the smallest plane I had ever been on (at least until that point!).
I read about the uniqueness of the Lukla airport, but the flight and landing weren’t too out of the ordinary except for coming awfully close to some ridges. Unfortunately because we had a bunch of science equipment, our luggage was too heavy to be on our plane and two of our bags were put on a later flight. Doubly unfortunately, weather caused the flights after ours to be cancelled. There was a glimmer of hope when we heard the props start, but that was just a flight leaving. Despite the delay we pressed on with the trek. One porter took the bag that did arrive and guided us the first two days, while the guide and other porter waited in Lukla for the rest of our stuff. I admit I was not a happy camper, or hiker as the case was, because one of the missing bags was my own, which had all of my warm layers. The first night in Phakding, I got no sleep because I was so cold (little did I know that I could ask for blankets!). The hill into Namche Bazar was not as bad as people made it out to be, but the afternoon rain did little for my mood or my expectation that flights were arriving to Lukla with our luggage. About an hour after dinner, Babu (our Sherpa guide) arrived with the other porter and our bags! I cannot explain the elation I felt knowing I would be warm and cozy to sleep that night. I was also hugely impressed that Babu and the porter made it to Namche Bazar loaded with luggage in 5 hours (for reference we tourists took about 7 hours over two days!). The rest of the trek was mainly that-trekking. We had beautiful views (no Everest) and met interesting people. The day we left Namche Bazar for Dole was probably the most trying day. After hiking up, up, up stairs for an hour, we stopped for tea. I was happy figuring we had done all of the elevation increase we needed to do for the day, but then Babu said we would have lunch down by the river. “But the river is thousands of feet below us!?” was my initial thought. Sure enough, we spend the next hour going down, down, down. How disheartening to lose all of that elevation. Every downward step was so frustrating.
Upon arrival to Gokyo, the lodge proprietors greeted us with hot mango juice (aka mango tang). We knew we had at least one day to unwind before Ulyana came, so we trekked up Gokyo Ri. The timing worked out well for us–slightly cloudy at the start, but clear (still no Everest) at the summit. During this week of trekking, it interested me to see how different the mountain culture was from that in the city, closer to Tibetan. The food was also radically different with trekking lodge menus full of carb-loaded dished (fried rice, fried noodles, fried potatoes, and momos (or dumplings)). By the end of the trip, I was ready for a flavor (any flavor) that wasn’t on these menu, which are the same at all of the lodges, except the prices go up as you get higher. On that note, you do get a lot of food for a couple of bucks. And there is a surprising amount of ‘American’ snack foods (Coke/Sprite, Mars/Snickers bars, Pringles). All of these had to be trekked in by porters, who can’t be human. Some of them carry 90 kilo loads, while only weighing 45 kilos!!
But back to why we are in the Himalaya…Ulyana arrived a couple days after us (I did like having a day where I didn’t put on my hiking boots–and getting a chance to wash my hair!). With the arrival of Ulyana, the science began. I have seen photos of the lakes used in this study, but seeing it in person is quite different. To start, the area covered is much larger and more rock-covered than I imagined. Ngozumpa glacier is a long tongue of ice sandwiched between two moraine walls and covered with rocks. It’s a bit odd, coming over a ridge to see this rocky channel with another ridge on the other side. Moving around the glacier required a fair amount of scrambling over loose debris. There were definitely a few instances where I felt one wrong step would set off a rock slide. Although a six day commute to ‘work’ at altitude is the farthest I have gone, the workplace setting is too beautiful to describe in words. It is also amazing when you realize that you are at 15,000+ feet and there are still mountains towering over you. The work required tough days (long distances, unstable debris, and freezing lake water), but was incredibly rewarding and the people we met were so nice. Ulyana’s excitement was easily contagious over the weeks we were there.
The end of the expedition was bittersweet. I think we were all happy to be heading towards a comfortable apartment with a shower, but sad to leave the peace of the mountains. Weather in Lukla had delayed two days’ worth of flights, which fortunately cleared out the day we returned to Lukla. So I have yet to experience the weather-wait. However, the experience at the Lukla airport was quite different from the one in Kathmandu. It was a study in frustration. After checking in the day before, we were told to return in a couple hours to get our departure time. After a pushy 45-minute wait, we were told “6am.” The chocolate cake, caramel hot chocolate, and big screen TV movie channel at ‘Starbucks’ in town was our reward. Going to the airport the next morning renewed the frustration as the desks weren’t even open and when they did, it was a pushy waiting game once again. Of course, once through security, which was so poorly lit, I’m not sure how they would see anything, it was waiting game number three. However, Ganesh (our logistics person based in Kathmandu) worked his magic and got us on an earlier flight (and a new record for smallest plane I’ve been on). Good, since Kathmandu weather was rainy and questionable. The downhill hurtle to takeoff was the most apprehensive part of any of the flights, but you just have to trust the pilots. I can’t imagine being a pilot and doing that run for the first time. Despite the near constant rain since we’ve been back to the city, it is nice to have showered and eaten some different food, but I am sure I will be happy to get back to the mountains next week.