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TRAVELThe Accidental Trekker

From Highland Park to the Himalayas-I faced a world without hair dryers.

“Margaret, the mountains are like life. Some of it’s uphill, some of it’s downhill, and some of it’s just straight away. And the only way to get through any of it is just to keep putting one foot in front of the other.” –Dick Bass

On the trail in Nepal

May 11,1989

Dick Bass was roaming the plane.

One hour over the Pacific Ocean and forty-eight hours before we arrived in Katmandu, Nepal, Dick Bass had already reviewed the biographies of the ten trek-kers he would lead to the Base Camp of Mt. Everest. The trek was organized in support of the 1989 American Mt. Everest Expedition. Our leader was Bass, the Dallasite who has climbed the highest mountains on the seven continents and became the oldest man to reach the summit of Everest in 1985. Twenty-five days of unimagined wilderness lay ahead of us when he popped up next to me.

“I see you have never been camping.”

True, I replied.

“But you have been for day hikes, right?”

The truth was that I had never so much as been to the bathroom in the woods.

In fact, when I was growing up, a family friend refused to take me camping because, he said, there wasn’t an extension cord long enough for me to plug in my electric hair curlers.

Dick Bass looked at me in absolute shock and asked why I had decided to take this trip. I told him of my dream of seeing Everest and of my admiration for his accomplishments. No matter what I said, it took several days for the look of total disbelief to leave his face when he spoke with me.

My parents instilled in me a great wanderlust. They have always encouraged and supported my desire to travel. But when I announced my plans for a trek up to Mt. Everest, they were horrified. My father believes wilderness is a poorly manicured golf course.

In February, I began training. Every morning for three months I walked two and a half to three miles. As my departure date neared, I built up to between five and seven miles, at least on weekends. The rest of the time, I worried over a baffling list of instructions from the American Everest Expedition office. I was trained in the fine art of high-heel selection, but that didn’t help me with hiking boots. I didn’t know the difference between Synchilla or Gor-Tex, a day pack or a backpack, and I certainly had no idea what gaitors or a head lamp were. So the only part of the information that I clearly understood was “Rudimentary hospitals are available in several Sherpa villages. However, be aware that helicopter evacuations can be very difficult to arrange from the Khumbu [the region where Mt. Everest is located) and the nearest road is a seven-day walk from Lukla, the Sherpa village where we begin our trek.”

Nonetheless, 1 was committed. By late March, during the final days of my preparation, panic set in. One morning while I was walking around University Park in hiking boots and a backpack, a little girl approached me and asked me where I was going.

“Just for a walk,” I said with studied understatement. She pointed at my backpack and hiking boots and said, “Lady, you must be going for a really long walk.”

I was.

THERE WERE TEN OF US IN ALL. JOHN CARIS, A BUSIness consultant and former marathoner from Dallas; H. Craig Lewis, a state senator from Pennsylvania; Ben Robinson, a world-class magician from New York City; Lynn Davis, marketing director of the Salt Lake City zoo and freelance writer; Lisa Osterstock, the business manager for the American Everest Expedition; Jim Ham-mond, an attorney from Seattle; Ed Chauner, a ski instructor from Snowbird; and Michael Yager, an American living in Katmandu.After enjoying a last taste of luxury on Thai Airlines, we overnighted in Bangkok and then flew an additional two hours toKatmandu in Nepal. In Bangkok, there was a scramble at the airport for seats on the right-hand side of the plane, so everyone could get his first view of the Himalayas by air. It was worth it: these towering peaks took my breath away. As James Hilton described them in Lost Horizon, “They looked just like a white frieze on the horizon, that was all.”

At Katmandu, we were whisked out of the airport by a sea of gray-clad porters onto a small tour bus, the chatter of our group competing with the high-pitched sounds of Nepalese, and we entered the ancient streets of the city. Cows wandered aimlessly through the narrow passageways. I sat in silence trying to inhale twenty years of fantasy.

Dick promised a quick walking tour of the city, and I was thrilled until I realized how fast Dick was walking. Again, panic set in. I could think of only one thing: if he walks this fast to the Base Camp, I’m finished.

finally we were off to Lukla, a small Sher-pa village where an airstrip is carved out of the mountainside. We boarded a twelve-passenger Twin Otter and squeezed into our seats. To my surprise, the only thought in my mind was that I had just seen my last Western toilet for the next twenty-five days.

There are no words to describe your first view of the Himalayas as you emerge from the plane onto a landing strip at 9,000 feet. Mountains tower above you in all directions. The dust from several shuttle flights landing and taking off at fifteen-minute intervals engulfed us as we made our way into a Sherpa tea house for breakfast.

I desperately needed to go to the bathroom. Being a creature of polite Southern society, 1 found the owner’s wife and asked her where the ladies’ room was. She looked at me and smiled, but obviously didn’t have a clue. I then asked her for the bathroom. She smiled and walked out of the tea house and down a covered passage. I followed her to a door marked “shower.”

I looked around and saw a door marked “toilet.” Pleased with myself, I nodded to the Sherpa woman that 1 had found what I was looking for. I opened the door to find a dark, dank little room with a hole in the ground and two carved footsteps on either side of the hole. The smell was so bad that it took away any desire I had to use the facilities. A few minutes later, I sat eating breakfast with the rest of the group, wondering how long you could last without going. I was also beginning to learn that the discussion of bodily functions is quite common in the Khumbu. It is an important barometer of how you are doing in high altitude. Everyone talked about said functions, or lack of same, even during meals.

Since there are no vehicles in the khumbu, we struck out on foot through the tiny village, our fifteen Sherpa guides and porters leading the way. For the first ten minutes or so, the walk didn’t seem so bad. The vista of mountains before us was breathtaking. Was this all there was to an assault on Everest?

I had no sooner thought that when I realized the trail was narrowing and my feet were beginning to work harder on the loose rocks and gravel. Suddenly the trail was hugging the mountainside. By the time we rounded the first jagged curve in the trail, my heart was laboring and my mind was roaring. We were expected to walk on this for the next twenty-five days? Jim Hammond saw the stunned expression on my face and stopped to join me. He had been to Nepal before, and he advised me that it didn’t matter if I was the first one into camp that night. I appreciated the advice, but I was wondering about making it to camp at all.

My heart was beating wildly, but I couldn’t tell if it was from fear or altitude. I knew I looked ridiculous to the rest of my trekking friends, who, I later discovered, had by this time discussed the odds of my making it without a breakdown.

When we reached the halfway point the first day, I was encouraged. I got a big laugh after forty-five minutes on the trail, when I announced that this was the dirtiest I had been in my entire life. I got a lot dirtier before all was said and done. In twenty-five days I would only shower twice.

1 still had not figured out where one went for relief on the trail, and it had been three hours since we left Lukla. 1 was beginning to think you could go for a really long time without answering nature’s call when I discovered our campsite was on the other side of the Dudh Kosi River. Now only a suspension bridge stood between me and camp. With the river roaring below me, I began my crossing. I kept telling myself, don’t look down. I didn’t. I kept my eyes on the campsite and held on to the wire railing. The only problem was that as you crossed, the railing got lower and lower. By the time I was three-fourths of the way across, I was practically crawling on my hands and knees so I wouldn’t have to let go. I made it across!

Despite all of the indignities and hard work I thought I was enduring, in truth the Sherpas did all the real work. All we had to do was walk; they did the rest, setting up tents every evening and preparing all the meals. Be assured that this is a necessity for Westerners: at high altitude, just moving your arm takes a great deaf of effort. As I crawled into my sleeping bag the first night, 1 thanked God for the Sherpas and fell asleep instantly. It was 7:30 p.m.

We awoke the next morning to a Sherpani (Sherpa woman) offering bed tea, a custom of the trekking world 1 grew to appreciate more and more as the trip went on. Tea in hand, I began packing for the day’s hike.

Hikes in Nepal are described in terms of altitude gain, not miles. From Phakding, our first night’s campsite, to N’amche Bazaar is a gain of 2,500 feet in altitude. When Dick said the first day, “if you like this, you haven’t seen anything yet,” he wasn’t kidding.

After thirty minutes on the trail we entered Sagarmatha National Park, a protected national park area, and struck a trail we referred to as the “stairs from hell,” a portion of the trail carved out of dark shale and running almost vertical to the mountain. Out of nowhere, Bass appeared to cheer me on. I was still trying to learn to pressure breathe and rest-step and he was waltzing up the side of this mountain, reciting long passages from Gunga Din. In amazement I followed, sure my lungs or my legs would give out at any second. My oxygen-starved brain was swimming from the altitude-and this nut was singing and reciting poetry as if we were at sea level.

One of the Sherpas joined Dick and me on the trail. He touched my arm and motioned for me to look behind me. There she stood, what I had come to see. Poised between two mountains stood Mt. Everest at 29,028 feet. Dick turned to see why I had stopped. I told him to look at Everest. He told me to keep walking. “That’s not Everest,” he said.

But, 1 protested, Purtemba said it was.

He took a long look and said, “Oh my God, that is Everest!”

I couldn’t believe it. Here I had traveled 15,000 miles to be on a trek with Mr. Everest himself, and when he sees it he doesn’t even recognize it. My spirits lifted because finally 1 had something on Dick, who had kidded me during the entire trip. Somehow, I found the breath to laugh all the way into Namche Bazaar.

The guides have a clever trick they play on novice trekkers. They never tell you how far you have to go. So, delighted by our arrival in Namche Bazaar, 1 began to relax. Then I was told we were staying in a tea house that night at the top of the village. Now this doesn’t sound like much, but the tea house was another 300 feet straight up a craggy path. 1 almost sat down and cried.

But I didn’t. By that time I had learned to keep my feet moving and my mind focused. You do what you have to do.

We spent sixteen days on the trail, walking from 7:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. I made it to the Everest Base Camp and up Kala Patar, the peak that sits across the Khumbu Glacier and gives the best view of Mt. Everest. More important than the physical triumph of getting there were all the things I learned about myself and the friends I made along the way. From the rhododendron-dotted lower foothills to the moonscape of the entrance into Khumbu Glacier marking the trail to Base Camp, I learned you can do anything you want to, if you want it badly enough. I also learned that dreams can come true. Even without soap.

I have returned to life and modern plumbing in the big city. But I’ve got more thanphotographs to show for the trek. Etched inmy mind is a place 1 will return to, if only indreams. Far from the stress of everyday lifeis a fantasy I know is real.