Thursday, May 30, 2013

Certain Realities Must Be Faced

After my trip to Nepal, it took me over two weeks to get back to normal sleep patterns and energy level. It wasn’t just the jet lag, which was formidable. It was 17 days of not-normal sleeping and the physical demands of eight days of trekking up and down tens of thousands of hand-hewn stone steps.

I’m caught up with myself now and back to the day-to-day. And realizing that the trek defined what my physical limits are now. Made me face some realities.

Many months before I went, I put a picture of myself on the refrigerator for inspiration.  Somewhere in the recesses of my mind I thought maybe I could be that woman again. As though looking at that photo and a little increase in my exercise routine would prepare me. My knees knew otherwise.


It was the early 90's. I was 42 and in great shape.  I’m standing on the side of a road where we had stopped for some reason, out in the middle of nowhere in Mexico. We were there primarily to climb Popocatepetl, Iztaccihuatl and Pico de Orizaba. They are all fairly non-technical climbs, which means walking zigzag up snowfields with crampons on your boots for traction and an ice axe for stability and to catch yourself if you fall and start sliding.  Beginner mountains. 
The “we” being my recently no-longer-boyfriend and his friend. Both almost a decade younger than me. I was big into bravado in those days. Probably still am - or was until now. My claim to fame – crouching behind a rock on the lip of Popocatepetl to change a tampon while looking down into the steaming caldera.  Booyah!  
I did some more mountaineering in the years after that. Even then it would take a bit to recover from the physical demands and depletion. So I’m not sure what I was thinking when I signed up for the trek. That, like then, I’d get out there and after a day or so I’d be adjusted to the demands? That I could recreate that level of fitness before I went? That didn’t happen. And it’s not going to happen.
Which is not to say I’m not going to keep doing as much as I can as long as I can. I’ve always thought that I can sit in foreign cafes when I’m old. Although my knees still hurt, I’m not there yet. I am here now.  At a point of realization. Of acceptance. I’m admitting that I need to rein it in a bit. Take it a little easier on the relentless ascent and decent.
I can look at that picture from 20 years ago with love instead of longing and think – it truly was, and still is, all good.  Even if I need a regular dose of Ibuprofen at the moment.


Monday, May 13, 2013

Fun With Avalanches

If there is such a thing, I had it.
On Monday,  the mid-point of our trek, we were supposed to reach Annapurna Base Camp (ABC)  (13,500 feet) which would have put us right at the base of the Annapurnas. We never got there. 

While hiking on Saturday it got a bit rainy and foggy as we got higher. We stayed that night, as planned, at Deurali (10,500 ft.)

When my roommate and I woke up at about three in the morning, which wasn’t unusual, and she when came back into our little room from her trip to the loo, I asked “Is it still raining?” Answer: “No. But it’s snowing”.  Yikes. We weren’t expecting that. So much for going back to sleep. We huddled in our sleeping bags hoping for the best. However,  as we emerged into the weak morning light, there were about three inches of snow on the ground and it was slowly still coming down. It must have been about 30 degrees, so it was that big, wet-flaked stuff. Unseasonable snow fall.

It was still coming down after breakfast.  Half rain. Half snow. As we took off for Machapuchare Base Camp (MBC), our next destination, none of us said anything even though we were all wondering what we were in for.  At that point I knew that reaching ABC the next day was in question because, if nothing else, if this kept up, we wouldn’t see anything. But in big mountains, you never know what is going to happen. Weather can change very quickly. So, we just … went. Following our experienced and enthusiastic guides. Up another 1600+ feet. More stone steps and muddy, rooty, rocky trail.

Hours later, when the buildings at MBC (12,140 feet) appeared from the behind the curtain of falling snow and clouds, there was more snow on the ground.  
 Arriving at MBC

When we woke up the next day - “summit “day - there was more snow. And it was still coming down. And was predicted to continue for three days. 
What we woke up to at MBC

We ate breakfast wondering what the plan was going to be. Stay here an extra day, people had been stuck at MBC before? Go down in poor visibility and conditions? The thing is, the trek crosses one small and one large avalanche chute. Spring, when things freeze at night and then thaw in the day time, is prime avalanche time.  That morning we could hear small avalanches happening at a distance, higher up. Like every 15 minutes. A rumbley rocky thundery sound. Yet I’m thinking: We’re fine. We have food, shelter, warmth (well, Himalayan-style warmth), competent guides, as well as contact with the outside world – there was Wi-Fi (what a world). Plus DK (our lead guide) carried a satellite phone. We were never out of contact with Active Adventures HQ.
Eventually DK tells us that we we're not going to ABC  - “too risky”. We’re going down – and that if it looks too dangerous when we get to the avalanche area, we’d come back to MBC. So we start out. The porters hiked with us, instead of bounding ahead as they usually did, for their safety and ours, and we all stuck together more closely. I felt calm and in-the-moment. I’d been in avalanche conditions before when I did some mountaineering in the early 90’s and I know that knowledgeable people can look at conditions and take a decent read on the risks. Gokul, our Nepalese guide, had been through that corridor dozens of times, including in snow conditions. I trusted his judgment.  I knew that he and DK wouldn’t be taking unnecessary risks.  So it was fun, despite the fact that it was very slip-slidey-slushy and everyone took at least one plop in the snow and me once in the mud.

As we’re hiking we can see small, brief avalanches happening at a distance, high up and on the other side of the ravine. Think of long, narrow waterfalls you have seen - it was like that - only it was snow. It didn’t feel threatening. Just surreal. Other-worldly. Indeed the guides and the porters all said they had never experienced avalanches happening so often. I have no pictures to show you. We were all focused on the conditions and maintaining our footing.

To add to the drama, as we’re about 15 minutes or so away from the main avalanche chute, other, faster hikers coming up from behind us (they must have left MBC a bit after we did) tell DK that there is a woman by herself struggling on the trail a ways back. I guess he looked like someone who could help because, of course, he was. The code of the mountains and guides being what it is, he goes back to check. The rest of us keep going. We get to the avalanche chute. Gokul and the porters are talking back and forth – in Nepalese, so we don’t understand a word. We get the signal that it’s a go. Standard procedure is to walk as briskly, but safely, as possible and not stop. That’s what we did. One does not dally in an avalanche chute.
All safely across, we go a bit more till we’re out of the avalanche area. Still no DK.

As we’re taking a break, DK emerges out of the fog, holding the hand of a Japanese woman who seemed dazed. She had become separated from her hiking companion, a major no-no, even under good conditions. And she was totally ill-equipped to be out there – her shoes were so slippery she had been sliding along the trail on her butt. DK had her put her socks on the outside of her shoes for some traction. See, experienced guides know these things. He said she could have so easily slipped over the edge. He pulled out some chocolate from his pack just as we all needed a boost and she hiked on with us.

As we were moving on, the most spectacular avalanche across the ravine stopped us all. We were spell-bound watching it.  It was coming over the top of a small high saddle and looked like a liquid snow fall. There are high lakes on the other side, so it could have been a combo of water, ice, and snow breaking through. I’ve never seen anything like it. We all just stood there mesmerized. It went on for so long we just had to move on.

As we moved lower and reached the tea house for our morning break, I wondered whether the rescued hiker realized that she could have died that day. By contrast, we had experienced something truly unique and exhilarating.  We were fully alive and engaged for a fleeting magical morning.


Monday, May 6, 2013

Himalayan Freak-out

I went to Nepal with a New Zealand company with which I had done trips before:  Active Adventures. There were six of us in my group, plus two guides – one Kiwi/Maori and one Nepalese (and four porters – who were always well ahead of us, despite their loads).
Some of us were more fit than others. Some of us were younger than others. I was an other, not an us, on both accounts.  The  first day of the trek was a little rough for me. My primary thought: I should have taken training for this a lot more seriously. The terrain was mostly steep up and steep down (and then up and down again) on hand-hewed stone steps (uneven surfaces, uneven heights – I’m guessing over 100,000 of them all told) or on rocky, root-strewn forest trail.

It was humid at the lower elevations and I’m not used to that. So the strenuous first-day uphills meant lots of sweating. After half a day of this, we had to rather quickly step up out of the way of a donkey train (the method for moving goods at the lower the elevations). As I stepped up off the track to let them pass, I got an intense charley-horse in both of my hip flexors, from knee to groin. The definition of OWWWWW. I had to consciously relax them. The muscle cramps subsided soon enough and I moved on (one guide took my day-pack, which helped). I had experienced this once before, years ago after a strenuous hike without enough water, so I knew it was continuous use coupled with a bit of dehydration from all that sweating.
That evening, after arrival at our tea house, settling in a bit and downing an electrolyte packet and lots of water, I had to watch how I moved so as not to set off the charley-horses again. Worrisome, but so far so good. But as I lay in my sleeping bag after dinner, ready for sleep, I start to shiver – although I wasn’t cold.  My mind raced – “What was I thinking? Can I do this? Maybe I should turn around.” And I couldn’t stop – till I realized that the shivering was probably a physical manifestation of anxiety and I had to consciously corral my thoughts and attitude or I’d be quaking all night. So I switched to deep breaths and:  “I’ll make it to Chhomrong (which was an actual small village more on the main track and our next destination) and then I can go back down if I have to. In the morning, I’ll talk to DK (our competent, patient and experienced guide). We’ll figure out options. It will be alright. I will be alright. It. Will. Be. Alright.” And it was. I calmed down and when I woke up I was fine. Physically and emotionally.
Although the relentless up and down and stone steps never stopped … neither did I. It never got easy, but I gradually got into the rhythm of hiking six or so hours a day - about 2 hours at a time (we stopped for morning tea breaks and for lunch): Breath deep (especially as elevation increases), drink water, keep moving forward … slow but steady. It is cliché to say, but now I know what Lance Armstrong meant when he said: It’s not about the bike. Now I see: It’s about the psych. I’ve never experienced that so poignantly. THAT will stick with me. As will the melodic sound of the donkey trains. And I have a (hopefully temporary) aversion to stairs.