Some people might say that lugging a backpack up and down repeatedly over a number of days is self-punishment, and if I were not an experienced backpacker I might be inclined to agree with those people. The physical demand which we voluntarily took upon ourselves with our journey into the highest region of the world is not something that most people in this day and age, even the occasional backpacker, would voluntarily pursue. Our backpacks were very heavy….well, maybe not quite as heavy as these guys: And probably not as heavy as this guy either:And certainly not as cumbersome as this guy:(Surely these local porters would have very much appreciated it if we had brought along our chiropractic tables!)
However, the days following our departure from Sete continued to be arduously long and difficult, filled with endlessly switchbacking ascents only to by followed by slippery steep descents that left us trudging into our sleeping destinations well after nightfall, always guided in by our LED headlamps.
One might question why we would choose to subject ourselves to such difficulties when we could have easily flown directly into Lukla, the major launching point into the high Himalayas of the Khumbu Region. Perhaps we wanted to take the road less traveled by like Robert Frost, for in that road less traveled, there is a lot of detail that we were able to appreciate that the hoards of people traveling to Lukla via airplane miss. Along the way we would travel through sparsely populated forests of rhododendron, and wide-open terraced hillsides where farming country dwellers continued to harvest fresh leafy greens from their land well into December, and then cook it into our meals on the spot. Right off the trail we passed a mandarin farm where the owner plucked the fruit directly from the tree and sold it to us, following which we sat there quietly, not another backpacker in sight, snacking on our mandarins, listening to the clucking of a family of chickens as they did their chicken dance nearby. A trek through a dense green forest would be pleasantly interrupted by rainbow painted boulders illustrating prayers in Tibetan characters. There is something really special about approaching a destination from a great distance, and nothing is quite as priceless as that first glimpse of the ceiling of Planet Earth as we rounded the bend in Phurteng on day five into our journey. A sharp array of white covered, jagged peaks, the tallest and most striking that either of us had ever seen before, suddenly pierced the blue sky ahead of us, and we decided to treat ourselves to this breathtaking view with a healthy serving of yak cheese, similar to Swiss Cheese in its texture and hole-y-ness, slightly milder in pungency, and about a third of the price that we would see for this cheese further on up the trail. While we sat there, munching on our yak cheese like happy little mice, we gazed with wild wonder at this most striking landscape before us, and the owner of the nearby lodge pointed out our very first look at Mt. Everest. It was very exciting as we sat and stared, knowing that we were headed straight for this mother of all behemoths…well, at least headed straight for one of the best views of Everest that the Himalayas has to offer.
Onwards, forwards, and throughwards, up and over another pass, just beyond a Buddhist monastery, and suddenly our journey became something unforgettably… olfactory. Up until this point in the journey, the villages we were passing through all had several small access roads by which to reach the outside world. Beyond this pass, the roads end, but the villages do not. Be that as it may, goods, fuel, and packaged food items must still be delivered to these villages beyond the roads, and the few ways to deliver them are either on foot, by mule, or higher up in the mountains, by yak. After passing the monastery, we came across our first mule train, perhaps 15 mules or so, walking past us in a line, each loaded up with deliverables such as gas canisters, food, and clothes items, who were being shouted at and occasionally whipped by a gangly mule driver. Our first encounter with mules may have been interesting for us, but we soon discovered that we would have to tango with countless mule trains for a significant part of the rest of our journey as well as, ahmmm….everything those mules left behind. Anyone who intimately knows the music of the jam band Phish is well familiar with a song called “Scent of a Mule” and if you haven’t heard the song it is recommended to click the link and give it a listen, because I couldn’t get the song out of my head for the next two weeks (Phish- Scent of a Mule).As we continued on our trek, the frequent unpleasant odors indicated certain steps to avoid along the trail, but eventually just became another part of our adventure. It proved to be a nice metaphor for life, in that any great path we take contains its discomforts, but the rewards of a careful and pursuant step are well worth it!
“If you find a path with no obstacles, it probably doesn’t lead anywhere.” -Frank A. Clark