Day 6 – Recovery
It’s easy to make life sound like a non-stop thrill ride when you’re a travel writer. After all making things sound exciting is part of the job, and with only a post or two a week I think I could make the inside of a cubicle sound exciting (maybe). Of course the reality is that even in the Himalayas there are times that are less than riveting and for me day six was one of those days. The town of Periche is really just a small collection of primitive stone building and their cold architectural simplicity is in perfect harmony with the drab, barren, rocky plain that makes up the local landscape. I spent most of my time there in the generously named “sun room” playing cards in a semi-haze, as antibiotics went on slaughtering tens of thousands of small life forms inside my body.
My only break from the general ennui was a visit to the Emergency Rescue Center – you know it’s a dark day when the highlight is a trip to the doctor’s. Actually I’m being slightly unfair as the trip wasn’t for an appointment, but to hear a one-hour talk on altitude related sicknesses. Truth be told, the talk was quite interesting, at least in part because my life might depend on the information. It also helped that the doctors discussed lung infections. I learned that they’re no big deal as long as you don’t have a fever or start coughing up weird things and while that was somewhat less than comforting, it did help to keep my attention. Fortunately after the talk I had a moment to speak directly to one of the doctors and who told me that the antibiotics should help. That meant I could safely (relatively speaking) continue my trek, albeit with a greater susceptibility to altitude sickness.
The rest of the day was uneventful in the extreme. Fortunately I’m not prone to getting bored, because if I were, I would have been bored out of my mind. Electricity and internet were expensive in the extreme. There were no real stores with only a handful of overpriced things being sold out of the side of a couple of houses and although the views were impressive, the local landscape was a wasteland. All this fun was topped off by freezing temperatures and frozen toilets – a real treat. On the brighter side this kept me pretty much confined to one room and for once I would have little choice but to behave myself, sit still and recover.
Day 7 – Surprise Discoveries
The next day looked to be a bit better than the previous as the rapid rise in elevation along the trail limited us to a three hour trek. Admittedly the walk was up a barren river of rocks, but still I felt enthusiastic: the mountains made a majestic backdrop and for the first time in days, I didn’t feel that each step would be an epic struggle. Our destination for the day was Dukla, a town so pitiful that it made Periche look like Tokyo. It consisted of one extremely basic guest house, a shed for a couple of horses and an outhouse that would made cockroaches shudder.
Fortunately the morning had been windy with massive clouds of dust being
raised by the harsh gusts and that kept us from arriving in Dukla too early. That meant we’d only be marooned in the remote guest house for 16 hours or so – essentially a 16 hour layover at an airport in hell. When we arrived it was already cold as the altitude of 4,600 meters pushed the mercury even farther down. Still, my fever had finally abated and I felt warmer than I had in days. As we settled in around the dung burning wood stove I feared it would be another day with little to write about: there were only five guests in the whole lodge (or town for that matter).
The first half of the evening lived up to my low expectations. The small group of guests pressed as close as they could around the yak dung burning stove and we lamented the overly familiar dinner of rice and potatoes. I decided to try and strike up a conversation to pass the time and after settle on what appeared to be the manager of the lodge, a middle-aged Nepalese man who I’d heard speaking better than average English.
“So were you a guide before you started running a guest house?” It was a safe conversation starter since just about any Sherpa in the area who spoke decent English had work as a guide somewhere.
“Yes.” I was used to this sort of monosyllabic response by now and knew I’d just have to plow ahead if I wanted a conversation. I decided to dive in and try to find something interesting.
“What’s the highest you’ve ever have you been?”
“The top? You climbed Everest?” I asked. I had never met a Sherpa who had been above 8,000 meters much less to the top of Everest. Despite what many of the tourists seemed to think, gambling with your life routinely for a thousand dollars didn’t seem like a great deal to all the locals.
“Five times.” He added.
“Five times?” I’d been reduced to a parrot.
“Did you use oxygen?” Supplementary oxygen was the norm on Everest. Climbing it without oxygen was reserved for the elite and slightly insane.
“Never?” He simply shook his head.
That was the beginning of what would turn out to be the most interesting conversation of my entire trek. I had by chance and curiosity stumbled upon a world class climber. The more we talked the more I realized what an amazing discovery I’d made. I shared my surprise with him and he told me that he had taken down the pictures of climbing for just that reason. All the questions and attention from guests interfered with him running the lodge. He just figured he could talk to me about it since it was such a quiet night.
The whole conversation would fill several blog posts, but among the many things we talked about were the countless places in the world he had climbed, the economics of being a professional Sherpa guide and what is was like to rescue climbers and to recover dead bodies. This last topic led into the amazing fact that he’d been on one of the ill-fated expeditions focused on in Jon Krakauer’s famous book “Into Thin Air”. He’s actually mentioned by name in that work twice: once for getting lost with a group in the blizzard and later for returning to rescue a Taiwanese climber.
As I went to bed that night I felt a deep satisfaction, which is always a nice when you have to sleep in a room that is well below zero. Seriously though, my strength was returning and if all went I would be standing in base camp in just three days. Strange to think that the trek was only halfway over, I had done and seen so much already. Was there really that much more to experience? Of course there was.