During a tea break on our recent trip to the Solukhumbu Region, we had a nice chat with a seasoned trekking guide from the district while making our way from Phaplu to Phuleli. As we finished our tea and prepared to move on, we were feeling a bit weary and asked him if the rest of the trail to the village was flat or steep. He laughed in a way that indicated it would be steep. “Without up and down,” he said. “There is no Nepal.”
I can now say with authority that truer words have never been spoken. I am not sure who Travis and I thought we were when we assumed that we could just breeze in and bang out a 20-hour hike in 2.5 days, which included more than 12,000 feet of straight ups and downs, after having had no exercise in the past two months (aside from deadlifting a fork to our mouths). But all I know is that we are now on a steady diet of squats and crunches to get in shape for future trips.
We left last Thursday morning for Phaplu on a small prop plane out of Kathmandu, and the flight was quite an experience. First, the plane looked like something that had been dug out of a Pick-n-Pull, dusted off, and pushed over to the airport in neutral. Second, while the takeoff was relatively smooth, the landing, for us newbies, was a bit crazy. Travis and I had the benefit of front-row seats in the plane, and looking out through the cockpit window it appeared we were going to nosedive straight into the mountainside. The descent to the runway was achieved with what seemed to be an abrupt 90-degree angle, sort of like the pilot just cranked the “steering wheel” all the way to the left. Thankfully the noise from the engine kept the other passengers from hearing us whimper.
The Phaplu airport is pretty basic and utilized mostly by Nepalis. While the Solukhumbu District is a major trekking area, being that it’s home to Mt. Everest, most tourists fly into nearby Lukla, which is apparently an even hairier airport that requires a much sharper descent. We’ll stick with Phaplu, thanks.
After a quick lunch of Dal Bhat, we were off on the first leg of our 10-hour hike to the project site. The first four hours were pretty nice with moderate ups and downs. We hiked along, practically skipping in our naivety, with big grins on our faces, taking in the gorgeous scenery and offering a cheery “Namaste!” to folks we saw along the path. The goal was to make it to Nunthala, a village that is, to Nepalis familiar with the area, about a three to four hour hike from Phaplu. For people like us, though, it is much, much further.
Around 4 p.m., we stopped for tea in a village called Ringmu, and after that things got serious. From Ringmu to Nunthala, it is about 2,000 feet straight up over rocks to Taksindu Pass, the highest point at nearly 10,000 feet in altitude, then about another 3,000 feet straight down over more rocks. On our way up the ascent, it began to hail ice chunks. And then it got dark. Crossing the top of the pass, we started going down, but the rain made the path slippery and it was hard to see. All I could think was, “Going down is the worst!” So we stopped early at a nice guesthouse in Taksindu owned by the brother of Babu Chiri Sherpa, the legendary Sherpa guide who holds the record for the fastest ascent of Mt. Everest in just 16 hours and 56 minutes. Amazing.
The next morning, we finished the descent to Phuleli, arriving before 1 p.m. to meet with the local villagers and School Committee. I have to say it was a great meeting, even if the two of us barely said a word. (Read more about the Phuleli School Project.)
The School Committee welcomed us with tea, traditional scarves and marigold garlands, and a lovely speech from the president of the Committee, during which we were told he talked about how excited the village was to have Edge of Seven and its volunteers there. For about 30 minutes, we sat while Karma explained the concept Travis was pitching – that of building the school with earthbags. While we couldn’t understand a word, we could tell it was an entirely new idea for the Committee members to process, as it was for us just a few months ago. The School Committee members just kept shaking their heads, and we weren’t sure whether they were saying yes or no. But toward the end of the conversation, Karma told us that they very much liked the idea and were excited to be the first village in Nepal to use the construction method (at least that we know of). Especially in the wake of the recent earthquake that hit Nepal, the epicenter of which was very close to the Solukhumbu Region, the value of building with earthbags is emphasized, since it is much more earthquake resistant than traditional stone construction. Think of how a stone building would react in an earthquake versus one made of packed dirt. The rigidity of the stone and mortar would easily fall apart, while earthbags can absorb the movement without much disturbance. (Click here to read about an earthbag shed the Austin Architecture for Humanity Chapter is building for The New Farm Institute.)
After the meeting, everyone spent a few hours measuring out the site and discussing supplies. Around 4 p.m., we hiked back to Nunthala to spend the night and have more discussions with the local district engineer. The next morning, Travis and I set out by ourselves to hike back to Phaplu, while everyone else went back to the village to start making arrangements. It was a beautiful morning, but by 9:30 a.m. I was spent. Muscles still aching from the previous days’ hiking and nursing a few blisters, I started to think I would never make it back. Despite the fact that my backpack contained just one change of clothes, my camera, and a water bottle, it felt like it weighed 100 pounds. We straggled up to the top of Taksindu Pass, and all I could think was, “Going up is the worst!”
When we finally got to Ringmu, I would have jumped for joy had I been physically able to jump. “Easy way from here,” our lunchtime waiter told us. Hallelujah. After lunch, we were moving slow, but figured we were in decent shape now that the rough stuff was over. And that’s when it began to pour icy hail and rain. We stopped under a few trees, but could tell it was a vain effort. The storm wasn’t stopping any time soon. So we took a deep breath and kept trudging on. By 5 p.m., we came limping into Phaplu, soaking wet, and looking like two people who had been lost in the woods for 40 days.
We checked into our guesthouse, spent some time in our sleeping bags warming up, had some tea by the fire, and then went for a brief stroll to check out the town. This turned out to be a big mistake.
When we got back to our guesthouse, a trekking guide and his client, who we had been chatting with before while having tea, were waving at us excitedly. “Guess what?! Richard Gere was just here having tea!” they said.
What?!?! Richard Gere. In Phaplu, Nepal. In our guesthouse, where only two other people were staying??
Karma, who had made it back to the guesthouse by then (after having visited what sounded like every village in the Solukhumbu District in the time it took us to get just from point A to point B), explained that, yes, there was an Italian film crew in town visiting a famous Lama at a nearby monastery, and that Richard Gere was with them. “Who is Richard Gere?” he asked. “Is he a politician?”
The next morning, while walking by the airport with my camera, I noticed a huge crowd of people looking at a helicopter taking off. Zooming my lens in as far as I could, I captured a shot of a man with gray hair and glasses looking out the passenger side window of the helicopter. Richard Gere! It had to be. I spent the flight back to Kathmandu thinking about how cool it was that I probably had the only photo of Richard Gere in the Solukhumbu and how People Magazine would probably be banging down my door for a copy. But when we got back to the apartment and I blew it up in Photoshop, I discovered that it wasn’t Richard Gere, but just some other guy with gray hair. Alas.
A few takeways from this trip: First, I continue to be humbled by the strength, perseverance, and spirit of the Nepali people. I realize that many of the people we saw on the trails have grown up traversing mountains paths while I grew up with a nice sofa in the suburbs, but each step I struggled to make on this trek was put in perspective when I passed a local person walking by in sandals with four wooden tables and a 20-gallon jug of water on their back. I certainly had no grounds to complain. Second, along the same trajectory, this is some advice for any of the volunteers planning to come in November: In the next few weeks, go for some runs. Lift a weight or two. Do any physical preparations you see fit. Anything would be better than the nothing I did. Trust me.