Why I Couldn’t Breathe

The long walk from Namche Bazar to the airport town of Lukla took all day. While mostly downhill, the trail climbed in many places because of the rugged terrain. I had plenty of time along this tiring march to think about the last two weeks, and why I couldn’t complete the trek.

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My lunch stop on the last day.  Lots of ups and downs going along this valley.

About 15 years ago, one afternoon I went out for a run and found myself gasping for breath after only a few minutes. I fought through it, and my breathing improved and I was able to complete the run. For the next couple of weeks, the same thing happened, it was as if my lungs were closing down at first, but then would improve if I went slow and relaxed. I went to my family doctor and he suspected I had some kind of asthma. He prescribed an inhaler to be used twice a day. It worked like a miracle. I told the doc on my follow up that it was like having 25 year old lungs again. A few years later, after a long bout with bronchitis, my doc referred me to to a specialist, who confirmed my asthma diagnosis. I had feared that I had COPD, but the specialist said that the inhaler wouldn’t work on that, and that his testing indicated asthma. Relieved, I still suspect that this stemmed from growing up in a miasma of second hand smoke from my mother. For the next several years, I used the inhaler only before vigorous exercise and it worked very well for a very long time.

After retirement and my move to Thailand, I found out that I no longer needed the inhaler. Being older, I didn’t exercise so vigorously, and my lungs seemed to like the moist hot air of the tropics. The bag of inhalers I brought from the USA with me got stashed in the back of a drawer and forgotten. A couple of times during my preparations for the trek, I thought to myself that I ought to take an inhaler along “just in case”. But that item never got on my list, and I didn’t remember again until I was in Kathmandu. BIG MISTAKE. My guess is the extremely cold, dry air triggered my asthma. I was ok while hiking if I started slowly, but it seemed to kick in again while trying to sleep. This would explain my lack of headaches or other typical symptoms of altitude sickness. It also explains why my sleeping troubles began at just 2500 m – it wasn’t the altitude alone, it was primarily the cold dry air. If I had brought the inhaler…..anyway, it’s done now. I have no regrets about turning back.

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The narrow streets of Lukla.  No motorized vehicles except for planes and helicopters.
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The picture does not capture the true slope of this runway.

I arrived at Lukla about 4:30 pm after hiking in the light rain for several hours. The lodge was literally 50 meters from the runway. Lukla’s airport is unique in that it is not level. It slopes wildly in fact – more than 11 degrees! It looks more like a ski jump than runway. Planes land uphill and take off downhill no matter the wind. Planes landing have only one chance to get it right because an aborted landing is made impossible by the mountain rising of the end of the runway. Many consider this airport the most dangerous in the world.

I bought a few beers for my guide  Bhakta and my porter Gokul. Gokul had a few more than a few, and was very loose by the end of the night. Apparently he had a reputation as a brawler in his younger days, he could take on 4-5 others with no problem. Good to have him on my side!

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Bhakta, Gokul and me celebrating the end of the trek in Lukla.

The next morning, after an E-ticket takeoff, and a scenic flight back to Kathmandu that brought home just how high and immense the Himalayas really are, Bhakta and I arrived safely back in Kathmandu (Gokul turned around and went portering back to EBC from Lukla with a new group of trekkers). Thus ends my adventure. I am back in Kathmandu for one night already, and though the flights are full I will try and get back to Thailand tomorrow. I will be writing another post in the next few days on the equipment I brought that might be useful to future trekkers.

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Walking to our specially designed short take off and landing Sita Air plane for the flight back to Kathmandu.

So what next adventure should I start planning for in 2019? 1. Patagonia? 2. Cruise to the Galapagos? 3. Cycle New Zealand. 4. Golfing in Ireland. 5. Drive the Alaska Highway? 6. Something else?  Leave me a comment with your suggestions.

Highway of Death

I feel lucky to be alive tonight. I have survived the most dangerous part of my trek, the 200 km drive to Jiri. But let’s start at the beginning…

My guide, Bahkta and my porter, Gokul (who is a slightly darker version of the Marlboro man), met me at my hotel at 8:00. We also had a driver who I am pretty sure is in training for the Indianapolis 500.

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From the left, me, Mario Andretti, the Marlboro man, and Bhakti

Our car was a small Toyota sedan, and we all clambered in and headed out into Kathmandu’s traffic. I asked to sit shotgun, and man, was that a good choice! Bahkta and Gokul stuffed themselves in the back. The first hour was spent getting out of Kathmandu. On the outskirts of town we passed mile after mile of brick factories; the Nepalese were busily creating the tools for their own demise during the next big earthquake. The traffic was stop and go, mostly stop. Finally we emerged onto the the Aranko Highway, a route built by the Chinese in the 1960s that connects Kathmandu to the Tibetan border. After a couple of hours we branched off onto the B.P. highway, a new road built by the Japanese that connect Kathmandu to the southern lowlands.

Let me describe these roads: hair raising (if I had any), vomit inducing, ass-puckering and pee loosening doesn’t begin to do this route justice. Nominally 2 lanes, in reality it would be a generous bike lane in the US. Often, when a truck and a bus pass, both vehicles would slow to a crawl, and inch past each other with mm to spare, horns a-honking the entire time. The road climbed and fell, often with shear drop-offs. Guardrails? Who needs ’em! My driver drove like he was late for his wedding (more likely his funeral). With incredible skill he passed all manner of slower vehicles with inches to spare between us and oblivion. And all this describes the first half of our route.

About halfway, we made a quick stop for lunch – delicious dal bhat and curry.

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A delicious lunch, Dal baht, the 24 hour fuel

Fear makes the best spice. After lunch, the route crossed a bridge and followed the Tampa Koshi River to the north. The road was now an ancient, nominally paved, single lane trail, pot-holed and washed out by floods over long sections. The road demanded 20-30 km per hour, my driver insisted on 50+ km per hour. Any on coming traffic was negotiated via a game of chicken; we won more than lost. The road then left the river and climbed, and climbed and climbed. Finally, we reached Jiri at 3:30 pm, for a 7 hour 30 minute time – probably my driver broke his own world-record. Jiri turns out to be a rather dismal village at the end of the road. Main Street is a wide but rough dirt road. We checked into a small Sherpa guest house. I bought my crew a beer, and we had another meal of dal bhat. I feeling at once excited and apprehensive about the coming trek. Tomorrow it begins.

Kathmandu

When I last visited in 1986, Kathmandu had a population of 400,000, today this exploding city is now an order of magnitude larger with over 4 million inhabitants. Today I toured some of the famous landmarks of the city with a driver and guide. Dubar square, a couple of famous temples, and a cremation site along the river.

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View of Kathmandu from Swayambhunath Temple

None of this impressed me much, but what did was the incredibly lasting impact from the earthquake that struck Nepal nearly 3 years ago. Over 9,000 people perished in that temblor, but it could have been far, far worse. The earthquake struck at noon on a Saturday which is Nepal’s Sunday. Schools were closed, children were out playing in the streets and parks, and businesses were shuttered. But the property lose was unbelievable. My driver said that in his village only a single house was left standing and that house became a field trip stop for building engineers. Bricks are everywhere. Piles of recycled brick, neat stack of new bricks, and many piles of broken bricks that no one has yet bothered to haul away. Construction is everywhere, yet still has so so far to go. Dust. Oh the dust. A perpetual yellow haze hangs over the city and coats everything left outside. In spite of all this, the tourist district is bustling again; Nepal is open for business.

Scenes from a shaken city

The drive today also reminded me how aching poor Nepalis are. The homeless are everywhere and by comparison the cardboard shacks inhabited by SoCal’s homeless seem like palaces. My tour guide said that over the last 10-20 years, there has been a mass migration from rural Nepal to the city where hopes for a brighter future collided with the harsh reality. Yet in the face of hardship, the Nepalis remain upbeat. My tour guide talked proudly of how Nepal is now a democracy after years of incompetent governance in a country run by kings.

I spent the late afternoon completing my supply shopping, and having a last beer and pizza in relative civilization. Tomorrow morning I will be drive about 185 km (8 hours!) on the Araniko Highway, arguably the most dangerous section of road in the world. I checked it out on Google maps and all I can say is that I hope I can ride shotgun.