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NEPAL

A return trek to the Himalayas

A climber finds that the Khumbu region's majestic peaks can still pack a punch 25 years later, as do the memories of a father still missed.

March 08, 2009|Jeff Greenwald

KHUMBU, NEPAL — My father had a good heart, but he had a bad heart, if you know what I mean. Musical and charming, he was something of a voluptuary. On sunny weekends he preferred to sit in our living room, listening to Chopin or Sarah Vaughan LPs instead of playing tennis or jogging.

At 52, Dad began showing signs of heart disease. His doctor enrolled him in a modest exercise program and told him that, if he could manage it, he should try to walk around the block once a day.

That was in 1983. I was 29, away on an 18-month fellowship in Katmandu. My adventures included a trek into Nepal's Khumbu region, climaxing with a grueling hike up Kala Pattar, an 18,450-foot "hill" with staggering views of Mt. Everest and its neighboring glaciers.

The following year -- just days after his 54th birthday -- my father was rushed to the hospital with chest pains. I returned home a few days later, but it wasn't soon enough. Dad had died of a massive heart attack the previous afternoon.

Like my father, I love Sarah Vaughan and Chopin. I also share his high blood pressure and a genetic risk for heart disease. Unlike Dad, though, my passion is the outdoors, with every free day spent hiking or biking.

I turned 54 a year ago, a birthday fraught with long-held anxieties. A few months later, I received an invitation to return to Nepal and trek back to that harsh aerie among the world's highest peaks. It would be 25 years since my first visit. I knew the Khumbu had changed -- as had I. I couldn't help but wonder whether, this time, the mountains might not get the best of me.

As soon as we leave the airstrip at Lukla (9,380 feet), the trail to Mt. Everest begins: a cobbled lane lined with prayer-carved mani stones and crowded with dzos (a cow/yak mix; the altitude is too low for yaks). The outskirts of Lukla, so ramshackle a quarter-century ago, are now a Sherpa strip mall. Gone are the days when a Snickers bar or packet of string cheese was a rare treat; the well-groomed shops sell goods as diverse as high-tech glacier glasses and pop-up greeting cards. The homes and lodges lining the trail are sturdier, with stone walls and corrugated roofs. Forty years of trekking have brought an upscale sensibility to this well-loved corner of the Himalayas.

But even as Lukla disappears around a bend, and the trail becomes a roller coaster of steep declines and precipitous climbs, the changes remain in sight. Porters carry cane dokos filled with Carlsberg beer and Sprite, chatting on cellphones as they walk. Guides and trekkers shuffle along to the beat of hidden iPods, thin white cords descending from their ears.

Though tourism took a major hit during Nepal's tragic civil war (1996-2006), the industry is back in force. This season is set to be the busiest ever, with more than 40,000 visitors. That's good for Nepal . . . I guess. But it makes it hard to tie your shoe without someone bumping into you from behind. My trekking companion, Christina, invokes one hiker's description of the Muir Trail: "the world's longest, thinnest city."

When we're between groups, walking is idyllic. It's October, after a late rainy season. Waterfalls cascade from giddy heights in fans of spray or cords of silver. There are many familiar flowers: chrysanthemum and cosmos, foxglove and marigold. The fields are planted with corn, beans, pumpkin and cabbage. By midafternoon, clouds roll in, covering the sacred peak of Khumbu Yul Lha.

The climb out of Jorsale is relentless, and occasionally brutal. So far, though, I've not shown signs of altitude sickness. Still, it's a delight to round a corner and see the homes of Namche Bazaar (11,250 feet) spread out around the village's horseshoe-shaped hillside.

In October 1983, a friend named Broughton Coburn led an effort to build a small hydroelectric plant in Namche. Each household was limited to three low-wattage bulbs. I was standing with Brot on a ridge above town the night the lights blinked on. "In a few years," he said, "there'll be pinball arcades and discos." He wasn't far off. These days Namche is aglow, a modern new plant supplying 600 kilowatts to this and 11 other villages.

In a busy cyber cafe, I receive an anxious e-mail from my mother; I assure her I'm fine. Logging off, I find myself waxing nostalgic for the old Khumbu: the flickering candles at night; the wood-and-rope bridges that made every river-crossing an adventure; the thrill of isolation from the material world. By contrast, these days there are Skype salons, pashmina boutiques and double cappuccinos. Everest itself has become a commodity; even Purba, our young Sherpa guide, has climbed it twice.

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