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Seeing the Real Nepal Through Clouds and Fog

March 18, 1990|GRACE LICHTENSTEIN | Grace Lichtenstein is a former New York Times reporter and the author of five books. and

BIRATNAGER, Nepal — It was February, and Katmandu was filled with sturdy-legged trekkers. "When you get to San Diego we'll show you a good time," I overheard one American tell a Sherpa during breakfast at Mike's, the charming garden restaurant where Westerners gather daily for a $2 omelet-and-muffin feast.

It was my final city meal before starting an eight-day trek. I didn't know it then, but those trekkers were the last I would see until my return to Katmandu. Despite the surging popularity of hiking in the Himalayas, 50,000 of the 54,000 trekkers in Nepal in 1988 headed for just two destinations--the Everest or Annapurna regions.

To avoid the hordes, six writers were joining Steve Conlon, head of Above The Clouds, a Massachusetts-based adventure travel company, to try a new route along a ridge called Milke Danda in eastern Nepal, a region just recently opened to trekkers by the government.

As we flew to the city of Biratnager, from which a bus was to drive us six hours north to our starting point, I could not take my eyes off the thrilling view from the airplane window. Cho-Oyu, Everest, Lhotse, Makalu, Kanchenjunga--the snowy tips of some of the highest peaks on the planet poked through the cloud bank below us.

I had waited 12 years to see these majestic mountains again. In 1978 I had done an exhausting trek. Now my excitement at returning to the Himalayas was tinged with nervousness. Had I trained hard enough? Would I be able to enjoy the views, rather than slog along, panting, my eyes staring down at my boots as I had the time before?

It was night when our bus dropped us off at the end of the paved road. We had climbed from near sea level to 7,000 feet--still the "hills" by Himalayan standards. A row of green tents beckoned. We ate a quick traditional dinner (including daal bhat , the rice dish that is the staple of the Nepalese diet) inside a candle-lit dining tent and crawled into our sleeping bags.

Morning dawned clear and cold. Far in the distance, across row after row of brown hills, we could just make out the tops of Makalu and Everest. I peeked at the itinerary: This day would be "an easy one," Steve had written, "gentle uphill along the ridge . . . with the Himalayas always before us. . . ." I was so eager for a closer look at the mountains that I hardly noticed how steep the "gentle uphill" was.

But for Nepal it was fairly easy. That's because the Himalayas are so vertical that they make hiking in the Sierra or Rockies seem like a stroll in Central Park. Nevertheless, my physical fears were unfounded. Smart companies realize that not everyone wants to emulate Sir Edmund Hillary; a growing number of treks require less than two weeks of walking and skirt the vertical climbs via ridge trails.

What's more, the burgeoning number of adventure travel outfits are competing to lure the experienced trekker back for a second or third Himalayan experience. Thus, unusual routes in out-of-the-way places such as Milke Danda, the primitive Dolpo region and the neighboring country of Bhutan, are showing up in more and more trekking catalogs.

We climbed a rocky but well-worn path bordered by strands of huge rhododendron trees. "In the spring the whole place is red with their blossoms," remarked Maitalal, a Nepalese friend of Steve's. But it was not yet spring. Well before our lunch stop, an ominous, clammy fog rolled in, obscuring everything more than three feet in front of us.

And so began what we dubbed our " In the Clouds" trek. For the next eight days the fog, unusual for February, enveloped the east Nepal Himalayas. It was just our bad luck. October through April is considered prime time, weatherwise. But the January "mini-monsoon," which causes fog and rain for a few days throughout the country in mid-winter, had arrived late. It seemed as if the mountain gods were pouring pea soup from the heavens. "Now I know why the book about Shangri-La was called 'Lost Horizon'," I wrote morosely in my diary.

Each morning I would unzip my tent flap and see only mist, not Makalu. Frost carpeted the trail in the morning. The bushes were coated with rime. Wind-blown ice particles turned tree branches into eerie frozen feathers. At times I felt I could well be in North Dakota, except for the herds of yaks that wandered through our camp at night, the bells around their necks announcing their presence.

For a mountain lover like me it was by turns depressing, surreal and comic. When we got to our campsite, a broad meadow, on Day 4, Steve pointed east, saying, "If it were clear you would see Kanchenjunga (the world's third-highest mountain) right over there." We dutifully stared into the blankness.

Then at precisely 2:51 p.m. a patch of blue appeared in the sky. Something white was on the horizon! Was it Kanchenjunga or merely an illusion?

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