Kyanjin Ri - 15655
Kyanjin Ri - 15655
|When everything is wrong do something right (Nepal)|
I've made no secret that my 2017 has been awful. And awful is putting it fairly mildly. My personal life was a mess and my climbing season was completely wrecked by health problems. That's really just scratching the surface. I turned 40 over the summer too which added a whole other existential mid-life crisis layered on top of everything else. I was originally planning to do the Haute Route (Chamonix to Zermatt) for my 40th birthday. That didn't happen either. To say I've been struggling is an understatement. I've been all over the place trying to figure myself out and my future. I haven't had much in the way of right answers to anything. Everything this year has been a challenge in some way. I know I've been a challenge to be around and I've at times been short tempered and emotional. Thanks to some extremely patient friends and family I've had a lot of support though.
So this is the story of how I ended up in Nepal last month on a trip to find some meaning and feel like I was doing something right.
In order to actually get to Nepal though I need to back up a bit. Early in 2016 I found out about a presentation that was being given at Arcteryx in Denver by an organization called Ascend Athletics. The description said it was about girls being taught to mountain climb in Afghanistan. I was intrigued and curious since this sounded rather unusual so I went. The presentation struck an emotional chord and after it was over I stayed and talked to the woman, Danika Gilbert, who had given it. These girls were being given an opportunity to gain confidence and leadership skills through mountaineering. The idea was to change the perception of what women in Afghanistan could do and also change the lives of these girls who'd never been given opportunities to do much of anything. Danika talked about the one of the girls who had asthma. She had been told her whole life not to do anything active. It mirrored my own story of overcoming asthma to start mountain climbing when I was 22. I decided then and there that I had to help this organization in any way I could. I became a regular donor and supporter. Climbing mountains had changed my life. I wanted to help it change theirs. I ended up in regular contact with Marina, the woman who started Ascend, and Danika, who is a professional guide and runs all the trips in Afghanistan.
Earlier this year as part of the regular newsletter I saw that Ascend had decided to try and take some of the girls outside of Afghanistan for further training. A trip was being put together to go to the Langtang Valley in Nepal. The Langtang Valley was hit hard by the 2015 Nepal earthquake and I'd heard about the village of Langtang itself being buried by a huge landslide. I'd need to be gone for 2 weeks and we'd spend 8 days trekking and climbing peaks. I wanted to go but didn't really have the vacation time. There were a couple of reasons to take the girls on a trip outside of Afghanistan. One, Danika had virtually exhausted many of the 'safer' areas in Afghanistan for them to train and they needed to find some higher peaks. Two, since many of the supporters would not want to go to Afghanistan this would give supporters of Ascend a way to meet the girls in a safer country. The idea kept rolling around in my head though that I really wanted to meet the girls I'd been supporting. If I couldn't figure out my own life at least I could do something for them. Due to my other health issues I kept cancelling hiking trips which kept freeing up vacation time. I went to see the doctor about my plantar fasciitis issues and he assured me that if I wanted to go that he could get it under control by the time of the trip. I talked to my boss about whether he'd be flexible with my vacation and he said we could work something out. Then the trip got delayed from October to over Thanksgiving which made the time off from work simpler and gave me more time to heal my feet.
Finally, the first deposit was made. And then the second. I booked my flight and it felt like this was actually going to happen. I was able to do some running and hiking again before the trip so I didn't feel completely out of shape. I packed my bags and it suddenly became very real that I was going to Nepal. I need to be honest about one thing. I've traveled all over the world but Nepal (and Asia in general) had never been high on my list of destinations. For one, I have nut allergies and I've always been worried about the food in Asia. It turned out that Nepal was actually pretty safe in that regard though. Nuts are expensive and they don't really use them. I'd always envisioned Asia as overcrowded and dirty as well. In that sense I wasn't wrong. Kathmandu certainly lived down to my expectations.
On Nov 17th I boarded my first flight to Boston. Then it was off to Doha. And then Kathmandu. Eventually about 35 hours later I landed on the morning of Nov 19th in Kathmandu. Overall the travel had gone smoothly and I felt fairly decent when I arrived. The Sherpa who I found out would be our guide met me at the airport and after a crazy taxi ride through Kathmandu I made it to the hotel. The composition of the group for the trek ended up being myself, Karen from Alaska, Eve from Grand Junction, Danika, Danika's boyfriend Dave, 3 of the girls from Afghanistan, and 2 Sherpa guides. One of our Sherpa guides was Lhakpa Norbu Sherpa. He's summitted Everest multiple times (4 I think) among numerous other ascents and his wife Nimi is the first Nepalese woman to summit Everest.
I found out when I arrived that there were complications with the travel arrangements for the girls. At the last minute the Afghan government had changed their mind and didn't want to let them leave the country. The first lady of Afghanistan had to end up intervening on their behalf and eventually they were allowed to fly to Delhi. Then the Nepalese government decided it didn't want to give them a visa. Thanks to some extraordinary efforts over 2 days some of the Sherpas who had government contacts were able to secure them special permission to enter the country. Even so they spent 8 hours in immigration at the Kathmandu airport not knowing if they'd be allowed in or sent back home.
Note: For safety reasons I'm not going to include any pictures of the other two girls from Afghanistan that clearly show their faces. I'm also not posting their names. I can't control who can see this report in a Google search and even though it might be paranoid it's not worth the risk. There's no point in doing anything that would compromise their safety.
The girls finally arrived at the hotel and we all got introduced. One of my concerns before going on this trip was around me being a male and a foreigner as well. I didn't know how conservative they were and whether it would present a problem. Danika assured me that it would be fine and they'd had men on other expeditions with them but it was still something Dave and I were careful and sensitive about. At first they were pretty shy with us but once they got comfortable they opened up and it wasn't a big deal at all. We were leaving the next day so after dinner we all got repacked so we could get on the bus first thing in the morning.
The drive out to the Langtang Valley is insane in many ways. The traffic is crazy. The road is crazy. The dust is crazy. We had to go through 3 different checkpoints to get into the national park. The army, police, and national park forces all inspected our permits and at one checkpoint we had to offload all our packs so they could be searched. Part of the road is on the side of a cliff with severe drop-offs. I was assured that the brakes on the bus worked. If I'd been driving I wouldn't have been all that nervous but I'm not used to being in a bus with questionable looking tires and who knows what kind of maintenance history while looking off a huge cliff. And for added fun occasionally another big truck would come the other way so we had to squeeze by each other. I now understand why occasionally you see news stories about buses going off the side of roads in third world countries.
Eventually after 8 hours of sheer insanity we arrived in the town of Syrabusi and got dropped at our hotel. The hotel was very basic. Your room basically consists of a bed with a thin mattress and that's about it. Luxury accommodations these are not. After an 8 hour bus ride though and an early start the next day it didn't really matter all that much. The next morning we all met up in the lobby of the hotel to start the trek. The plan was to spend 3 days hiking up to the village of Kyanjin Gompa, 3 days at the village doing peaks in the area, and then spend 2 days hiking out. Plans changed a bit due to various factors and that wasn't quite what we ended up doing. Our trek started right from the hotel lobby. It was a relatively short walk through town to the actual trail.
Syrabusi from the hotel. We hiked up the valley on the right.
Walking through the town
The first of many suspension bridges
Views early on the trek
I think this was a few hours into Day 1
The schedule for the next few days basically followed a routine. Breakfast at 730am. Start hiking about 8am. Hike until around noon and have lunch at a guesthouse. Hike another few hours until 4 or 5pm. Have dinner. Go to sleep early. The hiking wasn't terribly hard and the pace was slow. Fairly early on Day 1 I realized that I was feeling under the weather. I figured I was getting a cold and that hopefully it wouldn't end up being too bad. Later on it occurred to me that 2017 wasn't quite done with challenging me just yet.
They are pushing a new road up into the Langtang Valley as well so at some points we ended up hiking on the new road. We discussed that the addition of this road was going to change the character of the trek significantly in the future. It seems like it will be good in some ways for those that live in the valley and bad in others. Right now everything up in the valley has to be brought in via donkeys and porters.
One of the first guesthouses on the trail
Lunch stop on Day 1
Lama Hotel. Our stop for the first night.
Even on our first night at Lama Hotel it became obvious that the nights were going to be cold. Lama Hotel is at 2470 meters (8100 feet). The rooms are not heated at night and there's really no insulation in the walls. I had decided when packing to leave my sleeping bag at home in favor of a sleeping bag liner, layers, and whatever blankets were available. I kind of regretted that decision. My sleeping bag would have made things much more comfortable. I also started to figure out that night why "attached bathroom" was being advertised everywhere as a perk. It's rather cold to get up in the middle of the night. Also squat toilets are great.
The menu that night for dinner turned out to be pretty consistent for the rest of the trek. Momo's (dumplings), dal bhat (rice, lentil soup, and some vegetables), or basic pasta with cheese or vegetables were your main choices. The Nepalis would have been perfectly happy to eat dal bhat for every meal but for me it got old fast. I'm not a vegetarian and will never claim to be. If you were looking for much variety you weren't going to find it here. Also it turned out that the girls loved french fries and ate them at almost every meal.
Lhapka, Danika, and Dave (our fearless leaders) planning the day
On Day 2 we started to get views of peaks higher up in the valley. We had to cross one landslide area fairly early in the day. I'm not sure if this one was caused by the earthquake or happened at some other point. I felt a little better than I had the first day so I thought I was getting better and my cold would be no big deal. By this point the girls had relaxed and were really enjoying themselves. Their personalities were starting to come out and they were joking around and having fun. It was great to see them having a good time. I'm sure it's been very rare for them to be in a situation where they didn't have any concerns about their safety or anyone around that would make judgements. We started to run into some other trekkers who were fascinated by their story too. Over the course of the trek we wound up interacting with many people that wanted to hear more about them and Ascend in general.
One of the most amazing moments I had on this trip was after lunch on Day 2. Danika wanted the girls to learn guiding skills and so they were paired up with one of each day and supposed to help us if we needed anything. Karen and I were fairly self-sufficient so we didn't need much help but that wasn't really the point of it. On Day 2 that meant I was paired up with one of the girls. After lunch on Day 2 not everyone was quite ready yet but she gestured to me and asked "we go?" meaning she wanted to know if I wanted to start up the trail with her. I had a moment where I wasn't sure what to do. She was trusting me to start walking without the others. I knew her backstory (which I won't go into here, read the articles if you want to know more) and there was the cultural aspect as well so I was floored that she was ok with this. After recovering I gestured to her and said "of course, let's go" and we headed off knowing the others would catch up at the next stop. And then when she had her back turned had a bit of an emotional moment trying to process what had just happened.
Looking back down. The air is not nearly as clear as Colorado. Not sure if it's mostly dust or pollution at this altitude.
Somewhere along Day 2
Starting to near the huge landslide that buried the village of Langtang
Not the Buena Vista you were probably expecting
Late on Day 2 we neared the village of Langtang and saw the landslide that had buried the village after the 2015 earthquake. Approximately 300 people died here because they had virtually no warning. Many of the bodies were never recovered so I felt like we were walking in a cemetery. It was sobering and it was hard to envision the power of what had happened here. Beyond the landslide area is the "new" village of Langtang where some new guesthouses have been built and a memorial to those killed. Only one building survived the landslide and it was a house tucked under a cliff. Everything else was completely wiped out.
Trail nearing the landslide area with peaks beyond
Crossing the landslide
Looking up at the source of the landslide and the scar on the mountain
It's hard to get a scale for the landslide. It was massive.
The new village
Apparently the earthquake caused an avalanche from this mountain above that then triggered the landslide
Our guesthouse in Langtang
Memorial to the earthquake victims
That night was cold too but at least using the bathroom didn't involve going outside. That was something at least. The morning of Day 3 was clear and cold. Overall the weather for our trek was great except for the cold at night. We never had any rain or snow and the wind wasn't even too bad. Day 3 was supposed to be a fairly short day. We didn't have much elevation gain left and it sounded like we only had a few hours of hiking to do. I started coughing a bit more that third day. I started to wonder if my cold was really going to go away.
Above the village of Langtang early on Day 3
Lhapka. This trek wasn't exactly challenging his endurance or his skills.
Mani prayer wall. You're supposed to hike with the wall to your right
Finally seeing our destination more clearly. Tsergo Ri is the dry peak left of center. This is the peak the girls eventually climbed.
New stupa built (rebuilt?) after the earthquake. Apparently a foreigner donated the money for this one.
One more suspension bridge before the town of Kyanjin Gompa
One amusing anecdote on Day 3: One of the girls turned around and asked me about my religion. I had wondered if this was going to come up at some point along the trip. I hesitated for a few seconds deciding how to answer and then finally said "none". She looked at me perplexed for a bit and I could tell she wasn't sure how to answer. I assume that in Afghanistan this is not acceptable and there are very few (if any) atheists and agnostics. I was never quite sure if she even totally understood what I had said. Later I told Danika about this and she said I did the right thing by answering honestly.
Not to get too political but one of the things I appreciated during this trip was that there were no judgements. We were in a Buddhist and Hindu country with a couple of Muslims from Afghanistan. Our group had a variety of beliefs as well. It was never even the slightest issue to anyone. It was very nice to see.
A little after noon we finally reached the town of Kyanjin Gompa and our guesthouse for the next few nights. It was up on a hill slightly above the town next to the local monastery and was aptly named the Monastery Guesthouse. Our altitude here was about 12,700 feet.
Kyanjin Gompa from near the guesthouse
Monastery Guest House
We settled in for the next few days. The plan was to mostly rest the next day while Danika and the girls did a first aid clinic for the town. I ended up sleeping off and on quite a bit of the day since I'd really started to not feel well and was coughing more. I also investigated the bakery in town. After days of instant coffee it was amazing to have real coffee for a change. Nescafe gets old very fast to an addicted coffee snob. I wish I could say the town was charming and fun but not really no.
Walking around Kyanjin Gompa
Later that night with some supplies hauled all the way from the United States we introduced the girls to smores with some other travelers that were staying at our guesthouse. It ended up being rather hilarious and was one of the most fun parts of the trip. The plan for the next day was a climb of Tsergo Ri, a 5000 meter peak near the town. I knew I was going to be a liability for a long hike at that altitude and decided to do something else instead. I spent a pretty rough night coughing and not sleeping well. It was also very, very cold.
The next morning the two Sherpas, the girls, Dave, and Danika set off for Tsergo Ri. Karen and I decided to try for Kyanjin Ri instead. It was shorter and much closer to town. Fairly early on we ended up on a trail which went higher up towards a glacier instead of towards the peak. Karen decided to explore that valley while I turned around and decided to find the correct trail. I had no illusions at this point that I'd end up making a summit. I figured at best I might make the first summit above the town on the way to Kyanjin Ri. I meandered slowly across the mountain on some faint trails and eventually connected with the real trail. There were some other hikers on their way up as well. Slowly I switchbacked up the hill towards the summit I could see above town. I knew already this wasn't actually Kyanjin Ri but it had prayer flags on it and it was a goal so up I went.
View on the way up
Getting closer to the false summit, probably going to die coughing
At some point the thought occurred to me that I hadn't bothered to remember the elevation of the actual summit. Considering the way I felt that turned out to be a good thing. If I'd known at the time what I was actually doing I probably would have bailed and turned around. As it was I just kept slowly plodding my way upwards with an occasional fit of coughing. After some amount of time I finally reached the false summit where I encountered a Canadian guy who was afraid of heights and wasn't going any farther. I tried to convince him briefly that the real summit didn't look that far but he decided he was done.
Pano from false summit. Real summit is that grassy point in the distance.
Another view from the false summit. The girls were over on Tsergo Ri which is the mostly dry peak on the right.
As I continued up I really started to feel the congestion and started to cough more. I've probably never felt worse climbing a peak. It was certainly not a great feeling trying to decide if what I was feeling was just actual illness or altitude sickness. This was not exactly ideal but I was persistent and possibly an idiot. Somewhere along the line my determination to summit *something* had kicked in and I wasn't going to be denied. Given my almost complete lack of new summits in 2017 I became determined to make it.
Actual summit up ahead
Kyanjin Ri summit. Not quite dead but at least I wouldn't be coughing if I was dead....so there's that.
Later when I got back down I looked at the map and found out that Kyanjin Ri was 4773 meters or 15,655 feet. No wonder I felt like hell. Also the 3rd highest I'd ever been.
Those look a bit more difficult
Pano from the summit. Dave was climbing over on 5500m Yala Peak which is on the left.
I think that's one of the 8000m peaks in the distance but not sure which one
Headed back down the ridge
Town down below
The hike down went much quicker and I got back down to town and had coffee at the bakery. The group from Tsergo Ri arrived mid-afternoon and we found out they successfully made the summit. Talking to them and seeing the pictures and videos of them on the summit put my summit in perspective. Mine wasn't all that important. My only regret is that I didn't feel good enough to go with them but hearing the stories and watching the video of them singing the Afghan national anthem on the summit of Tsergo Ri made it all worth it. I'm willing to guess that they are the first Afghan women to ever summit anything in Nepal. I gave all them high fives and we all told them how proud we were of them. This is why I came to Nepal. Not so I could do something but so they could.
Originally we were supposed to spend another full day at Kyanjin Gompa but no one was feeling like staying. Eve and I both were dealing with illness and no one else seemed all that eager to stay either. The group voted to start heading down the next day instead. Eve really wasn't feeling good at all and we weren't sure how she was going to do on the way down. She briefly considered the helicopter evac option but after hearing the cost decided to try and hike out on her own.
Back across the landslide
We made slow but steady progress. After passing through Langtang again there was an uphill section coming out of the landslide. That took the longest. Otherwise it was pretty much all downhill the whole day.
Cow blocking our path on the trail
At some point the plan had been to make it back to Lama Hotel to spend the night which was a little more than halfway. Late in the afternoon we realized we weren't going to make it before dark. For reasons I still don't quite understand the Nepalis do not like hiking in the dark. I guess it's just not done. One of the sherpas took off ahead to see what options we had and it turned out there was another small guesthouse that could accommodate us for the night. We made it there just before dark and ended up taking every room they had.
The next day we weren't sure how Eve was going to do. The previous day had been very tough on her and again we had to just see how things would go. After we reached Lama Hotel again we stopped for a long break (which ended up being an early lunch) and it was decided that they were going to order a horse for her to ride. The horse had to come up from lower in the valley so it was going to be an hour or more before it could get to us. Eve and Lhapka started hiking down slowly to meet the horse while the rest of us hung out and waited. Eventually we started hiking and ended up seeing the horse arrive.
Due to the steepness of the trail it was apparently difficult and scary to ride the horse on some sections so Eve got off and walked occasionally. We stopped again about 3pm at the last guesthouse that was an option if we were going to stay another night. There was some debate about whether to continue or stop. It was another 1-2 hours back to town and it was going to be cutting it close before it got dark. Eventually it was decided that we were going to continue so all of us threw our packs on one last time and headed off down the trail.
Most of us went on ahead while the guides stayed with Eva and the horse. As it was starting to get dark we hit the last section of trail and saw the bridge back to town.
One last bridge to cross
A few minutes after we arrived the rest of the group came into the hotel and we all took a breather and relaxed. The whole trek felt like a whirlwind and it was weird to know we were done. Dave and I decided to split a beer in the lobby and we had a relaxing dinner before going to bed. The bus was picking us up early in the morning for the 8 hours back to Kathmandu. That night and the next morning before the bus arrived I had my worst coughing of the entire trip. I slept terrible and before breakfast I couldn't stop coughing and ended up having to go outside to try and get it under control. At some point I had been coughing so hard that I pulled a muscle in my chest. I'd been coughing for a week straight and was just over it. I kept wondering if there was actually cough medicine available in Kathmandu. The bus ride was welcome after a week on the trail. We got back to the hotel where I enjoyed a shower for the first time in a week and clean clothes.
The next day was spent repacking to go home and going to the tourist area of Kathmandu called Thamel. We also took the girls out for real pizza at an Italian restaurant. It was a pretty bizarre cultural experience for the Americans to take the Afghans out for pizza in Kathmandu but I was very excited to have pizza after all the vegetarian food. The next day it was time for me to start the long trip home while the girls went off to rock climb for a few days before they left.
It was tough to say goodbye. Over the course of the time I spent with the girls I got very attached to the three of them. It's one thing to hear the stories of who you are supporting from a distance but it was entirely different to spend time getting to know them and their personalities. They were hilarious, brave, supportive, and handled themselves with such maturity that it was humbling to be around them. I got to have a few moments with the 3 of them to tell them how proud I was of them and how much I wanted to hear about what they do next. It was clear that this had meant a lot to them as well and there was some sadness and a few tears. One of them asked me to come back and go on another trip with them. Unfortunately I think my boss would kill me and I'd wind up unemployed.
Someone along the way said that the 3 of us who had paid for this trip and made it happen were the heroes. I don't think that at all. We just had the resources and time to make it happen for them. These girls are the real heroes. They live in with the knowledge that every time they leave their house something could happen to them. They live in a society that doesn't give them much in the way of opportunities. They've all had trauma or known someone violently killed. They've grown up never knowing anything but war. I don't know if Afghanistan can change for the better. I hope it can. If the girls themselves and their families see what's possible who knows. Even in a small sense we gave these girls an experience they will never forget and they got to believe in themselves. The eventual goal is for a team of the girls to climb the highest peak in Afghanistan, Mount Noshaq, sometime next year. It's 24,580 feet or 7492 meters. If they succeed they would be the first Afghan women to climb it.
This trip was a humbling and amazing experience I'll never forget but ultimately it wasn't about me and whatever I got out of it isn't that important. This was all for them.
If you want to know more about Ascend follow the link below. And if you're interested in joining one of these trips there will be another one in the Spring. I can get you the info or you can contact Ascend directly.
Some articles regarding the Noshaq climb that happened later:
Inside The First Women's Ascent of Mount Noshaq
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