Monday, May 4, 2009

Stairway to Heaven by Russ Gillman

A day after successfully completing a 15 kilometer run with Cory's aunt Judy and her running group I hopped on a plane for the 20 minute flight from Kathmandu to Pokhara to meet up with Kristin and Cory to begin our seven day trek. As usual, with a few days of downtime following their Annapurna Circuit trek, they had already figured out the lay of the land in Pokhara…where to stay, which was the best bakery, who had the best fruit, muesli and curd for breakfast, the best restaurant for dinner and who had the best happy hour. Happy hour? In Nepal? Who knew? They met me at the airport, took me to the hotel they had chosen and showed me to my room. It was relatively clean, comfortable bed, ceiling fan and a bathroom with shower and toilet but curiously, no sink. "We could get you a room with a sink", they told me, "but it would be more expensive". "How much is this one?" I asked. " Three hundred rupees ($5 CDN)". " It will be fine" I told them. A little weird, but fine. They then asked me to empty my backpack "to see if there is anything you could leave behind". Secretly, I think they just wanted to see if I had brought the President's Choice chocolate bars Kristin had asked for and the cans of Molson Canadian Cory had requested. In hindsight, it was a good thing they did as I ended up leaving about a third of the clothes I had brought.

The hike they had chosen is called the Poon Hill loop. They picked it because the third morning you get up at 5 a.m. and over 45 minutes you ascend 450 meters to the top of Poon Hill where, if the weather is clear, you get a spectacular view of the Annapurna range from Dhaulagiri -- the world's 7th highest mountain at an amazing 8,176 meters in the west to Manaslu, the world's 8th highest peak at 8,156 meters in the east. In between you have Annapurna 1 at 8,091 meters, Annapurna 2 at 7,937, Annapurna South at 7,220 and the fascinating Machhapuchhere at 6,993. These views assume you have good weather but as the guide book points out, when you wake up "if the sky is clear go, if it's overcast --- go back to bed!!"

Over 2 for 1 cocktails (Kristin's favourite was the "Daisy") and 650 ml. bottles of Everest beer, Cory and Kristin outlined the general nature of our hike. I think they waited until I was on my second Everest and more relaxed before they got into the specifics. "We start our hike at 1,000 meters of altitude and for the first 2 days we have to go up 1,000 meters each day so we'll be ready to make our assault on Poon Hill the third morning". "No problem" was my immediate, beer induced response. "The rest of the time we go down from where we start, then up again until the 7th day when we only go down". "Sounds easy enough", I said. They weren't providing much more detail and I wasn't looking for it. The less I knew, the better, I thought.

The morning of day 1 went well. Some steady but not severe climbing increasing our altitude by 500 meters. We stopped for lunch and then I got the news. In order to get to the village we were going to stay in that night we had a section of stairs to do. I consulted the guidebook and asked why there were two arrows on the trail we were taking. "That's the direction we're going" I was told. "But the trail this morning only has one arrow on it" I said. Then the truth. "If it's got two arrows on it, it's one bitch of an uphill" I was told. Looking at the guidebook again I read the description for this section. It consisted of 3,421 continuous stairs rising 555 meters at a starting altitude of 1,515 meters. To put this into perspective, the CN Tower sits on land that is 75 meters above sea level. To climb to the top you cover 1,776 steps and go up 346 meters. So here I was about to climb twice as many stairs, covering 50% more height at a starting altitude 20 times higher. Something told me this was not going to be a pile of fun. After a couple of hours and many, many stops to tuck my lungs back in, I finally joined K&C at the top where they were resting comfortably.

These stone trails are everywhere in this area of Nepal. I'm not sure when they were built or who put them there but they truly are remarkable. They are sturdy and well crafted. They lead you from village to village and as I found out on the third morning, to heaven. Poon Hill sits at 3,190 meters ( 10,500 feet) a dwarf among the giants that are around it. We awoke just before 5 took a quick look outside and fortunately, saw stars. We were out the door at 5:15 and by 6:00 a.m. were standing at the top of the hill just as the sun started to illuminate the surrounding peaks. The scenery was breathtaking. We spent about an hour in awe of the huge snow covered mountains before the rising haze and clouds started to obscure them. What a wonderful morning and certainly from a scenic standpoint, the highlight of our hike.

The next few days were, as promised, a series of ups and downs but more severe than I had anticipated. We would start the day at 2,500 meters, descend to the river at 1,700 meters and then climb back to 2,000 meters all to reach our night's destination. Along the way we followed the teachings of Auntie Judy -- "Ya need salt!", "Coke will cure whatever is bothering you", "You need to eat" and " Trekking is not a race!". We found that there are only about five names for the lodges no matter what village you are in -- Grand View, Panorama, Excellent View, Super View ( all of which, by the way, weren't lying -- the views at breakfast from their patios were spectacular) and either Annapurna Lodge or New Annapurna Lodge, although we never ever did see much of a difference between these two. If one was newer it was sure hard to tell. I learned that you don't just walk into a village. You either climb up or drop down into it but you never just plain stroll into it. And having been in Nepal previously, the people were as warm and generous as I remember despite their impoverished circumstances.

I must say that Kristin, "my guide" and Cory, "the Sherpa", were perfect hosts. They are strong trekkers and work well with each other. They are easy going and we all got along well. We experienced no blowups although we came close once. After a long day Cory left us to check out a lodge high in the village. While he was gone Kristin and I had decided that no matter how nice it was, the chances of them having electricity and hence a cold beer, was slim. We felt our chances were better by heading down into the village. Cory returned and told us the inn was beautiful -- quiet, great views. We insisted that we should check out the rest of the village, though not telling him why. "Okay, then you two are going to pick the place" he rather strongly declared. I went to one place, which was a dump but fortunately Kristin found a beauty and after a warm shower and a cold beer, everyone was good.

After spending the week together there are many humorous incidents that the three of us will remember -- the mother and daughter from British Columbia who were high on life, tiger balm or something else, Kristin's long awaited but somewhat disappointing Mars roll, my own roll -- of toilet paper that never seemed to diminish, the old man on the porch -- "Where you from?", "Canada", "You want marijuana?", the hell hole we stayed in our last night, which Cory maintains is a rite of passage, the pain in the ass Slovak contingent and the three Nepali amigos -- city slickers on their first ever trek (and likely their last!!).

So, how would I sum up our seven day journey?
Room with a hot shower at the end of the day……………100 rupees ($1.65)
Lukewarm 650 ml. bottle of Everest beer………………….220 rupees ($3.50)
Unlimited dal bhat with veg curry, pickle and papad……..250 rupees ($4.20)
Spending a week hiking the Himalayas with your son and daughter-in-law……Priceless!


Vera said...

Happy Birthday CJ.

Tanya Manoryk said...

Unbelievable! What a wonderful adventure!!