Friday, August 18, 2017

Final Thoughts: Langtang, Nepal

  • I took the riverside trail, the one that sustained the most damage from the earthquake.  Wasn't a whole lot of information about the state of it but was told it had re-opened.  
  • There is a high level trail that is a harder climb, but relatively unaffected by the quake, a nice clean route.  That was what I had seen pictures and videos of prior.  And assumed it would be similar to what I would experience when the riverside trail re-opened.  Nope. Silly me thought someone would just came in and magically remove all the rock and boulders that have fallen... (facepalm...) 
  • I had the option of taking that high trail on the way down for a change.  If the day hadn't been unusually warm, I would have but that route is completely exposed whereas the riverside one at least had trees so decided to opt for shade (and the tense moments of dodging numerous cows).  Was already sunburned despite wearing 50 spf.  Recommend reapplying often.   
  • On the topic of sun, I got a taste of what can lead to snow blindness.  At one point, on day 3, my guide asked me to take off my sunglasses and try to look at the snowy peak in the distance.  And I could barely.  It was ridiculously bright, beyond the brightest fluorescent white I had ever seen.  Brighter than the sun.  
  • So I can now understand why high altitude trekkers and mountaineers wear glacier style glasses that cover all sides including the top.  When I got high enough, I was bothered by the light that would come in from the sides and the gap at the top.  And I was wearing a running hat too.  The light seemed to defy physics.  
  • Now that I've been once, have already taken steps towards improvement.  Purchased an even warmer rated sleeping bag (-18 C) for starters.  And a candle lantern, so I don't set myself up with potentially burning down a lodge again.  The added ability of a candle to warm and dry up a room would be really welcomed.  
  • Need to build more cardio strength and spend way more time on my feet when training.  I hadn't anticipated such long days nor the need to scramble.  Saw some hikers with some pretty sore looking feet.  Was fortunate that I did not end up with a blister at all.  My legs felt like they were going to explode but no blisters on the feet!
  • I didn't end up needing my Diamox.  I had a variable pharmacy with me just in case.  Don't depend on your guide to be able to administer first aid.  Maybe if you travel with a western level company, they will provide a non local guide who is trained in survival and rescue.  Would recommend you come prepared to take care of yourself.  A wilderness survival first aid course would be great idea.  
  • I had read that Nepal is hard on gear and clothing.  And I would agree.  The ground is incredibly hard, even when you are on dark soil.  I remember looking down at it in confusion because it felt like concrete underfoot.  
  • The rocks are sharp, with no give, even when you think you are stepping on gravel.  It was rare for me to skid on it.  But trip over it, yes.  Very easy to cut clothing and puncture shoes.  The jarring did affect my stomach.  It made it feel uneasy.  I wasn't sick but wasn't hungry much (possible sign of altitude sickness although I slept well, once I got warm enough).  Existed on potatoes and salt, with a couple of eggs in the morning.  And Coke, something I rarely drink when at home.  Needed the caffeine and sugar boost at times.  And pain meds. 
  • Incredible that I did not lose any weight considering how little I was eating.  I expected to be ravenous and living off of dal bhat.  No meat is available in Langtang due to lack of refrigeration.  Didn't have any issues with filtering and treating my drinking water.  An Australian girl got sick from the water on day 1 and thought maybe her water treatment tablets didn't work.  Unfortunately she didn't get better until the end.  
  • Another fellow trekker told me that when I make it over to the Everest or Annapurna regions, it will seem like Disneyland compared to Langtang.  And I will be able to order pizza, steak, pasta, desserts, along with wifi and electricity!  It was nice to be able to commiserate with others.  I met 5 other trekkers, mostly solo women, all first timers to the region too, some quite experienced with trekking.  Was comforting to also hear that they had found it to be much tougher than anticipated the first couple of days.
  • My hiking pole saved me big time.  Had never used one before but found it to be intuitive.  Used it with the carbide tip exposed.  I normally like the downhills but it was so steep at parts, I needed the pole to stop me from tumbling head over heels down.  And I had to descend sideways at some points as well as become tempted to slide down via my behind at others.  I wondered often how the heck I managed to make it up.  
  • Due to a general strike (bandha), my trek had to be cut short by a day.  So I lost the opportunity to try to make it up Tsergo Ri as you needed an extra day for acclimatization.  Was quite disappointed when I found out upon arrival to Kathmandu.  Buses were not running and no traffic was going to be allowed in or out of the city.  However, 2 hours into it, I saw it as a great blessing in disguise!  I don't believe I would have made it.  Not strong enough.
  • Because I had an extra night in Kathmandu, I got to meet D's volunteer team, made up of some real adventurers.  One who was a professional high altitude guide for Everest expeditions!  He was also a heli-ski guide, sailor, avalanche rescue instructor etc. etc.  Couldn't help thinking that I wasn't doing enough with my time and life!
  • I took this trip back in mid Nov '16.  Originally I had a flight back to Nepal booked for Dec '17 but decided to cancel it as I needed this year for recovery.  Even though I'm embarrassingly slow on the uphills and don't cope well with physical pain, there is a strange part of me that wants to find out if I can make it up those heights, to see if I would develop issues with altitude, to finish what I had started last year.  
  • Last but certainly not least, the people of Langtang need our support.  Word is getting out that the area is safe to trek again.  The locals don't want to pack up and move into the city for work.  They want to live in the mountains and provide lodging and food to trekkers.  They need trekkers to return. 
  • Unfortunately the area has attracted some independent trekkers who seem to be a little too overconfident in their abilities.  As a result, a few were reported lost this spring.  One who was last seen heading up Tsergo Ri and a couple (one died) who were found over a month later, having fallen over a cliff, starved, hypothermic and covered in maggots.  
  • I would never attempt this without a guide.  And hired a separate porter (you can opt for a guide/porter combo if budget is an issue) not only to provide needed work, but also for extra safety.  I learned so much from them over the 8 days.  And also from one particular lodge owner (lost 6 family members in the landslide) who philosophized with me over the concept of freedom.
  • Got to hear about their hardships and horror stories of having to leave home to worked in the UAE, India, Qatar.  Having their passports confiscated by their employers, being given highly physical and difficult outdoor jobs that were not what they signed up for.  And how they managed to get out of it.  Neither of them would contemplate out of country work again.
  • Both lost their homes in the earthquake and had to take time off work to rebuild it themselves.  It's not like they have insurance over there.  Saw numerous photos of their children and family.  Received an invitation to stay at their village.  They were very patient with me and my non abilities compared to them.  Nepalis are super human.  Saw smaller stature women porters carrying the same loads as the men.  With no accessible health care, it is literally survival of the fittest. 

Gorgeous Kyanjin Gompa (3900 m) 
with Tsergo Ri (4985 m) in the background

Will be my home base when I get to return.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Realities: Langtang, Nepal

  • There's something about seeing a red body bag that makes things far too clearly real. This was at the start of day 2, when a helicopter went by overhead minutes into my trek, around 8:30 am when I was already weary of another long day ahead.
  • My guide finds out from other guides on their way down that a female trekker from Malaysia had died the night prior after spending the day summiting Tsergo Ri (4985 m / 16354 ft).  I met up with the Malaysian team the next day as they were descending.  As expected, they were all pretty somber.
  • At first glance at the numbers, Tsergo Ri isn't as high as where Everest Base Camp stands at (5364 m / 17600 ft).  But it is the rate of accent that factors in whether altitude sickness will hit hard and fast.
  • Looking at itineraries for Annapura Circuit/Base Camp or EBC, you'll see that groups typically will not reach EBC or ABC until day 8, with typical days that range between 300 m - 450 m elevation gain daily, meaning trekkers will get to their lodging by lunch time or shortly after, with the rest of the day off.
  • Typical Langtang trek itineraries will have you up to to 4985 m by day 4, with the first 2 days each being 1000+ m days due to lack of infrastructure, completely breaching all safe acclimatization guidelines.  Post earthquake, there's even less tea houses to choose from in terms of trying to create shorter days.  
  • I didn't have a 360 m day until day 3 and practically ran it.  It felt so easy compared to the 2 days prior.  Even though it was a higher elevation (3900 m / 12795 ft), had a leisurely lunch, had energy to journal, sat outside, took in lots of sun, it was awesome!  That was what a typical trekking day was supposed to feel like.  And it was the next day, that I too had Tsergo Ri on the schedule, which was a 1085 m gain.
  • No surprise that government sponsored earthquake recovery efforts barely exist or are indefinitely delayed in this area.  It is so much harder to get supplies to.  Stuff have to be bused a long way, then carried up by commercial porters or donkeys.  Helicopters are prohibitive.  
  • Because the big money is in the Everest and Annapurna regions, there will always be huge incentive for the government to take care of those areas first.  And they did, right away.  People in Langtang are still waiting for the 10K per family that was promised to them to help rebuild homes.    
  • I saw porters carrying six to nine 2x6s on their backs.  Some of the older commercial porters were visibly struggling.  I still feel horrible for not having anything useful to offer one gentleman who didn't look very good, who had stopped to rest.  The exhausted look on his face still haunts me.
  • Because of the above, I strongly disagree with the common belief that the Langtang region is the "easiest" of the three.  If you got into trouble, there would be no help for you in the first 2 days because of the incline and terrain.  No place for a helicopter to land.  I'm not sure how one would even be carried down.  It didn't even take an hour for me to realize that I was really out there and it was pretty easy to get hurt, die and disappear.
  • I also received an update about the family that began the trek the same morning as me.  They had their 2 children with them which I thought was pretty amazing.  Looked experienced and fit.  They left at 7:30 am, just as I was sitting down for breakfast.  I caught up to them early on and the husband wasn't looking too good.  Turned out that his family made it up the last rock scramble later that day, 3 hours after I had passed whereby the husband threw up.  
  • It was too dark and dangerous to even contemplate going back down even though that was what you were supposed to do.  If you were on a regular trail, you might be able to, but there was not much regular about day 1.  And where would they go?  It would be at least 5 - 6 hours before seeing any signs of a tea house.  And no way would I attempt it in the dark, I don't care what type of lamp they might have had.  Too easy to walk off a ledge/cliff or break a leg.  Plus they have 2 kids (who by the way were real troupers!) to consider. 
  • They really had no choice but to spend the night and decide next steps in the morning.  Altitude sickness symptoms show stronger during sleeping hours.  Was very relieved to hear he made it through that night and the family promptly descended at first light.

Photo was taken quite far away, with zoom.
I had just reached the top of a small hill when I saw them.
There are 2 commercial porters walking with between six and nine 2x6s on their backs.  
This is the site of the Langtang village landslide/avalanche, 
about 30 m worth of debris and many bodies stilled buried in the rubble and ice.
I was still 30 min away from the start of it and it took about 45 min to cross.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Why Langtang, Nepal?

The requirement of all volunteers set by a local disaster relief organization I found is the ability to do long and hard physical work primary with rock, at 11000+ ft altitude with minimal resources and comfort.  No running water, electricity.  Bring your own tent.

You also have to make it to the location on your own dime and time -- 9 hr bus ride (if you are lucky) from Kathmandu followed by a 2 day trek up.  As I couldn't verify much, I decided to test things out by going on a solo trek with a private guide and porter, without whom I would not have made it.

I didn't need a tent for this as we'd be staying at teahouses but I got everything I thought I would need into two 70L North Face duffels.  Had a combined weight limit of 15 kg which wasn't an issue.  I carried a 8 kg day pack with most of the weight being water.

My main sleeping bag was rated for -11 C and it wasn't enough.  My coldest night was ironically on the way down (3200 m / 10498 ft), in a room with 2 opposing windows that were so drafty, (super windy night) you could see from the curtains that some kind of wind tunnel was going on.  That night I used a silk sleeping bag liner and a summer sleeping bag as an outer bag over my warm mummy style one.

On me, I wore my icebreaker base and mid layers, fleece, insulated ski pants, wool socks, thin down jacket and my warmest down jacket on top, a ski neck tube, beanie and wool hat on top and I was still shaking.  It took forever to fall asleep that night.  Note to self:  Pick a room without windows next time, if possible!

The newly rebuild teahouses were made of floorboard instead of the traditional stone.  Families had to do what they could quickly for their sake as well as to get their businesses up and running in time for height of trekking season.  Even so, the season was very slow was what I heard over and over again.  It was obvious that many were struggling.  Trekkers were deterred by the post earthquake damage.

So the build quality wasn't the greatest.  No insulation and none of my bedroom doors closed properly.  Had to resort to using rope to close one door to only 5 inches open.  For sure awkward when you are trying to change or put clothes on after a shower when you room opens up to the main dining area...

My days were long.  Up at 6:15 am, packed up and at breakfast by 7:15 am,  and on the trail by 8 am.  Usually one 10 min tea break.  Half an hour for lunch.  Roll into the next teahouse by 5 pm if I am not having a slower than normal day.

Speaking of showers, don't expect much more than a bucket of warm water in a non insulated and somewhat open air outhouse style space.  From day 1, I decided that no matter how cold or expensive it may be, I would be taking one.

I accepted the risk of having wet hair that may not dry completely or at all, but I just could not skip it even though I had packed family size packages of wet wipes and dry shampoo.  I could tell that my request to buy shower water surprised the lodge owners.  They probably thought I was crazy for bathing at that time of day but you do what you need to do.

7:30 am Kathmandu bus station,
patiently waiting for my "Super Deluxe" bus to arrive.

Sit on the left side on the way up and pick the right side on the way down
for the most dramatic views.

Tip:  Have a headlamp with you at all times.  Those bathrooms are often dark
and could be a walk from where you room or eat.  In this case, through the kitchen.

Or completely open.

Post earthquake newly re-opened trail was covered with rock and debris.  Steep and unforgiving.
I had to take a minute to sort out the proposed route to get to that teahouse
for our tea break and beyond.  Was about 2 hours into my first day.
The phrase "Are you kidding me??!!" was on repeat in my head.

You wouldn't have wanted to be listening in on what was playing in my head 
when I was told that the trail continued up those rocks.  This was at hour 7 of day one.  
Wasn't impressed.  Needed both hands to scramble up.  Had 2 more hours to go.
Stopping wasn't an option.  You had to make it to the first village.

Newly re-opened village of Lama Hotel.
Photo taken morning of day 2 as by the time I got
there, it was starting to get dark and cool and 
you could already see your breath.

No electricity, needed to use my athletic tape to cover all the holes in the walls
between rooms.  Had to kill numerous critters before I could unpack.
Room made of wood, given small candles for light, almost 
burnt the place down when I nodded off before dinner.

Only 1 of 2 solar showers found.  They worked quite well.  
There was the occasional sparking sound that I tried not to think too hard about. 

View from dining area of tea house.
Only room that has heat -- Wood stove.  
Uses scrap wood lower down, yak dung higher up.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017


"Open up the oceans, jump on in
The masters of the coastlines beckoning
Unfold my only life vest, sink or swim
Through the everlasting worlds begin"

Liquorlip Loaded Gun, Sticky Fingers

A number of trips I took in 2016 involved pieces of preparation for Nepal.

Went to Uganda to see parts of a new country for sure, but also to learn how to camp again in a harsher environment, use a Steripen and pre-filter on unsafe (and horrible tasting) water, becoming accustomed to the lifestyle of having everything with you, testing gear etc.  Dealing with insects that can kill you was just a bonus.

Learned some great things about myself and compact living -- I loved it.  What I wasn't so great at was lugging everything around.  My shoulders have taken a beating over the years and now really dislike having anything over 8 kg on them.  So self supported multi-day backpacking will not be in my future.  I would consider trying to pull a sled for a winter expedition though.

Came away with a tremendous appreciation for the application of solar technology in remote places from both a daily as well as post disaster perspective.  Sure, I've read articles and seen cool pictures of expeditions where members had portable panels hanging on the packs.  But I hadn't anticipated how exasperating it would be trying to charge things via generators.

At that point last year, I didn't even own an extra power pack.  My life has now expanded to recognize the need for portable off grid equipment.  Enter Goal Zero.  My workout room and part of my walk in closet now serves as gear storage.  Along with D's bike packing, we now own 3 tents and I've got my eye on a winter one next.

Quito was my first time at a higher altitude.  My goal was to see how I would do with the teleferico ride up followed by the hike up to Pichincha volcano and if I'd discover any signs of altitude related symptoms.  I knew my goal was slightly higher then 4696 m (15406 ft) but the cost:benefit ratio of trying to get to La Paz, Bolivia instead for a short visit didn't make sense.

Equipped with Diamox (Acetazolamide) and deliberately not taking it the day before, I went for it. It was important for me to feel what the problem symptoms were so I could recognize it.  Had a plan to take meds and descend quickly at first signs.

Fortunately I did not feel the need for the meds.  Was waiting for signs after the teleferico before getting started with the hike.  I saw a number of people gasping for air and found myself doing the same about 3/4 of the way up, where I couldn't take more than 12 -14 steps before needing to stop and let my heart rate slow down.  If I still had hours to go, I would have taken the Diamox for support.

Another major thing I learned was that extra water requirement at higher altitudes is real.  I ran out of water before I made it to the top.  Couldn't believe it as I don't drink much when I hike.  But up there, I was parched even though temps were cool (had hat and gloves on).  Lesson learned the hard way.  It felt very uncomfortable, like my body was getting shrink wrapped from the inside out.  More than I ever felt in the Moroccan desert.  Enough that I practically ran all way back down.

On top of my regular training, we also spent time out west at our local ski hill so I could do hill repeats (530 m).  But alas, the above wasn't enough.  I came back with punctures and tread ripped off my hikers, torn plantar fascia (realized over time), strained soleus, messed up joints in my foot, ankle, knees (all that without ever falling!) and a nasty sunburn at the back of my neck and forearms.

Langtang, Nepal kicked my butt.  The healing is almost there.  The learning and training continue.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

More Firsts

Madrid surprised us.  Very livable, easy to navigate with so much grand architecture, nice parques and better than reasonably priced.

Until now, my only frame of reference for Spain was Barcelona.  Not a great comparison as the region of Catalunya is in a league of its own economically.

Saw some stunning art at the Reina Sofia (those Dalis!) and Prado (knock our socks off exhibit by the Hispanic Society of America, beautifully and intelligently curated).

Goes without saying, ate some great jamon, tapas and boccadilos.  And you cannot go wrong with chirros and chocolat at any time of the day...

There is a tapas stall at the Mercado de San Miguel (forgot the name, but they are the only ones selling the giant olive types) that has a cava sangria drink (sold in a small champagne flute) that has enough alcohol content to knock you over.

The first time we ordered one each and I assumed it was because I'm a lightweight when it comes to drinking but D felt it after a couple of sips.  The second time we were there, we shared one and both of us were still spinning after.



Managed to get opening night tickets to Don Giovanni at the Liceu as well as a concert ticket at the Palau many months ago.  Had never attended a performance at either place before.

Ingenious set design for Don Giovanni using modern methods.  I've seen this opera a number of times and their treatment of it at times was even better than the singing, which is saying a lot.

It was almost like they wanted you to just listen, not just look at the main characters and told more of the story visually but silently.  Never experience anything like it before.  Very sophisticated.

Missed the second act due to an untimely metro strike and the need to get back to my apartment to prepare for the flight home the next morning.  But the first half was immensely satisfying.

And the concert the Palau de la Musica did not disappoint either.  The highlight of the main concert hall for many is the glass ceiling.  There is a lovely old time tapas bar behind the modern glass facade of the courtyard that is worth visiting before or after.

Would recommend buying a ticket for anything that happens to be showing, just to get to be in that space.  Tickets are well priced and at times, not much more than the cost of a tour.

This was my 4th visit to Barcelona and a real crime that it took so long for me to embrace the ensaimada with catalan cream... Now I have to make up for lost time.

For the first time ever, Spain has overshadowed France for me.