Getting There is Half the Fun – Part 1
Last year, I decided to go to Nepal and Tibet to join my husband’s climbing team to summit Cho Oyu, the 6th highest peak in the world. And while the story of climbing the mountain is amazing, what’s just as amazing is the story of simply getting to the mountain. If you think flying to Europe is a schlep, check out this story. Here is the first of three parts describing the journey.
Adventure simply can’t happen without me. I mean it can, and sometimes it does accidently, but I believe in NEVER EVER missing an opportunity when it presents itself. And in the end, I will forget how much I spent, or whatever else seemed important at the time. I will realize that life is short, it can end anytime and I need to grasp every morsel I can.
That must have been going through my head in August of 2009. I was happily ensconced in living out one of my dreams. I was in a four week intensive documentary film course in Rockport, Maine learning to shoot really big cameras and having a ball.
Ridlon was preparing for his biggest dream yet. One year ago, he decided he to climb one of the fourteen 8000m peaks in the world. He grabbed hold of that intention and went like a man possessed (well, I guess he WAS a man possessed) after this goal. In February, four months after his declaration, he was in Colorado climbing his first 14,000 ft peak. Three months later he was in Nepal for four weeks climbing 20,000 ft peaks. And the 22nd of August, he was preparing for a six week summit bid on Cho Oyu, the 6th highest peak in the world, at 8002m (26,900ft). Intention is an amazing thing.
Our plan was to rendezvous at the Salt Lake City airport with a couple of hours to spare so I could wish him luck and swap the truck. Then I would spend the six weeks at home in Montana working on my book. Now, it was one week before his departure, and it was driving me crazy. Isn’t there paper and pen in the Himalayas? Couldn’t I write the book there? Why should I stay home and miss this adventure? I obviously wasn’t going to go to the summit, I wasn’t trained for that, but I could go as high as I could, right?
I HAD to go. Nepal? Tibet? Are you kidding? Yes, I had been kidding myself all along that I would stay home. “Hello, Delta?” “Korean Air? Yes, I can hold.”
Two days later and five days before leaving Maine, I was sleeping well again. I had another plane ticket in hand and I was headed to two new countries. Life was aligned again.
Since I would not be going home now for the next month, I had to make arrangements to pick up and stow gear in Salt Lake, and find a place for the truck. But here was the really scary part and ladies, follow me on this one. Imagine having your husband pack for you for a one month trip! My mother, who’s comment about my imminent departure to Tibet was, “Of course you’re going dear, I expected it”, had an actual audible gasp on the phone when I told her Ridlon would be packing my bag. I laughed at the thought of arriving at Chinese base camp at 16,000 feet with below zero temperatures, opening my bag and finding an assortment of thong undies and skimpy satin from Victoria’s Secret!
Ridlon and I met on Friday afternoon for an hour in Salt Lake. We literally dumped my bags out at baggage claim and repacked. Out went the “How to Write a Documentary” book and in came a hundred pounds of down….bags, booties, jackets, and fortunately no Victoria’s Secret. In a flash I was back through security and winging towards Los Angeles to meet up with him in ten hours.
Two days later, the wheels touched down in Kathmandu and I was already pleased at my decision. On the ride to our star-less hotel in the heart of the city, I breathed in the smells of a new, yet strangely familiar overcrowded, dusty Asian city. The scent of cooking oil mixed with dust and auto fumes was distinctly developing world and I couldn’t wait to explore. I watched the busses rumble by, desperately overloaded, cows strolling down the dirt streets and men urinating anywhere without a second thought. It was magnificent.
For three days, I followed along with the climbing team as they made their preparations for the ascent on the mountain. Kathmandu is the kick off point for most Himalayan climbing and trekking expeditions including Mt. Everest so almost every street has multiple shops selling new, used and knock off climbing gear. We visited some of the knock off shops, where young Nepalese men where busy at their noisy, vintage machines, stitching down bags and vests with great skill. Perhaps the names were knock offs but the guys were doing amazing work and I made several happy purchases. We dragged foam mattresses through the dirty streets, bought headlamps and pee bottles and checked and double checked lists. These were the highest and toughest mountains in the world. To come ill-prepared could mean death.
What I wasn’t prepared for was the drive to Tibetan border. We were told it would take anywhere from four to twenty hours to reach the border between Nepal and Tibet due to roadblocks, landslides and a host of other unknowns. I wondered what MapQuest would make of that prediction! There was only one road to take and I picture the MapQuest screen flashing big red warning letters displaying, “Are you Kidding?”. In a last minute decision due to a possible road strike, we packed our 12,000 lbs of gear and twenty climbers (we would split up later to climb two separate mountains) packed into a bus way too small to carry it all and skipped town in the middle of the night. (the DOT would not have approved).
At some point I woke uncomfortably, my head bouncing against the dirty window and my stocking feet dangling over the seat in front of me. Something was odd. It seemed that we were not moving forward…but in fact more like we were moving sideways! I strained my eyes out into the dark and what I saw sent terror surging through my blood. This top heavy, overcrowded bus was sliding sideways in the mud just a few feet from the edge of the road. I held my breath as my view of the road dropped away to a view of the massive cliff we were careening towards. I knew there was not a thing I could do, if we went over, we went over. I could barely see what looked like about a thousand foot drop to the bottom of what appeared to be a river gorge. It was the end of the Nepalese monsoon season and the amount of water presently being forced down the river was staggering. On the rafting rapid scale of 1-10, this was about an 18. I had never in my life seen such water rage. But that wasn’t really the issue here because if we were to tumble over the 1000 foot cliff, the river was the last of my worries. What was even more terrifying was the waterfall coming OVER the mud road in front of us. I’ve watched enough Weather Channel reports that say it only takes 6” of moving water to wash your car away. This was more like three FEET coming over the bank on the mountain side of the road, quickly washing out the road and creating a torrent of water to rival Victoria Falls.
Somehow, the driver was able to keep the bus on the road and slide us back to within only five feet of our certain death but Victoria Falls was now looming dead ahead of us. He began to gain speed to keep the bus from getting stuck in the knee deep mud and slowly sliding into oblivion. As the bus fishtailed again and again I realized why there are so many CNN headlines about landslides here. I was pretty positive I would soon be part of one of those stories with the bullseye pointing to the remote part of Nepal that the rest of world really didn’t care about. Most of the climbers slept through the ordeal but a couple of us stared at each other wide eyed. If we survived the drive, climbing the mountain would be a walk in the park!
At some point I decided that since it was all completely out of my control I would just ignore the road ahead and finally I fell into a fitful sleep. As dawn approached, I sensed the bus had come to a stop and I assumed incorrectly we had arrived at the Tibetan border. No, the driver explained to me, we had just arrived at the place where we couldn’t go any farther and with that, he promptly put his head back and fell asleep.
When light finally came, I grabbed my video and quietly slipped off the bus to see just what “can’t go any farther” meant. What I saw was half the mountain that had slid down onto the road, rivers of muddy water rushing across. There was so much water, there were already ducks bathing in the middle of the major Nepal/Tibet highway. Yet, thousands of commercial trucks use this road daily as a major thoroughfare between the two countries. I would never again complain about the state of the roads in America.
What truly concerned me was just 100 feet from the landslide were a series of small houses lining the road. In the pre dawn light, the families were out on their tiny porches, brushing their teeth in the pump water and going about their day. The young children, 6, 7 or 8 years old, were wandering on the landslide, staring at the cars that were stuck on one side or the other, generally unconcerned. It was a danger they knew all too well and saw all too often. How easily that mud could have destroyed their homes, their families and their lives. Today, they were fortunate that a different part of the mountain fell. It was, it seemed an accepted risk of rural Nepalese village life.
At this point, we were 5km from the border. We hired porters from the nearby village, loaded our packs on our backs and tiptoed our way across the landslide. We rented a bus…no, that’s not right…a truck with a few seats…no….well…some kind of indescribable motorized vehicle to take us from there. Because of the narrow mountain road and the lack of a place to U-turn, our new driver, barely out of puberty, expertly drove that bus BACKWARDS the last three miles. Welcome to the end of Nepal and…it would soon seem, the end of the free world.
To Your Adventures~ Mantagirl