There are several reasons to go on a long trek—to test your limits, to seek adventure, to get fit, or tick off an item on a bucket-list. I had a different motive. I wanted to be alone. I wanted to think about my life, know my dreams, and find the motivation to follow them. To do this, a two-week trek to Everest Base Camp in Nepal seemed like a good idea. After some research and a little fitness training, I landed in Kathmandu to embark on a long, leisurely walk with lots of time to think.
On the flight from Kathmandu to Lukla, the starting point of the trek, the only other passenger on board the 16-seater plane was a Canadian teacher called Jessie. There were also 100 cartons of San Miguel beer occupying the seats with the best views. A search for the term “world’s most dangerous airport” on YouTube brings up several videos from Lukla and Jessie had watched them all. She was terrified. I tried my best to stay calm, but the constant swirling of the lightweight plane, along with a glimpse of the miniscule airstrip on the mountain slope, did me in. Jessie and I bonded over fright.
For three days we trekked up pleasant slopes, crossed a hundred heavily-loaded yaks, looked down at the churning turquoise waters of the Dudh Kosi river from long suspension bridges, and ate meals of dal bhaat. On the third evening I found myself seated in the warm pinewood-panelled dining room of Khumbu Lodge in Namche Bazaar—the largest Sherpa village in Nepal’s Everest region. Along with Jessie, my dinner companions were Frank and Frances, siblings from Germany. Frank was a dentist and Frances a copywriter who had kindly lent me her headlamp the previous day to help me look for my lost one. I ordered the kitchen’s speciality, yak steak with chips. Frank and Jessie started chatting with a grey-haired man on the next table. It turned out that he and his two women companions were all dentists; within a few minutes a dentists’ party ensued at my table.
While I listened to the lively conversation it dawned on me that I had not had a single minute of solitude in three days. The grey-haired man was Dr. Brian Hollander, an American dentist who had founded Namche Bazaar’s only dental clinic in 1991. Around 25 years ago, Brian was working at a clinic in Kathmandu but had always wanted to open one in the Everest region. He did some research and found that local Sherpa children who lived along the trekking trail had four times more tooth decay than those who lived away from it. The reason: candy that was being brought in by western tourists and handed out to village children. Candy was not part of their traditional diet, the doc explained. I forgot all about my steak and listened to his fascinating story. “We visited schools in the Khumbu region and found that every child’s mouth was full of teeth with holes,” he said.
He was on a mission to start a dental clinic in the area. As soon as electricity was introduced to the village 3,440 metres above sea level, he helped build a clinic with funds raised through NGOs. It is still the only dental clinic in the area and has treated over 30,000 locals, many of whom walk for four days to reach here. He then spoke about a local Sherpa woman, Dr. Nawang Doka Sherpa, who has been running the clinic since its inception. As if on cue, Nawang joined the party. She was a pretty woman who looked a little tired. Being the only dentist around, hers was a demanding job. If Nawang didn’t work, the clinic would have to shut down.
The Sherpani also has a young son who lives in Kathmandu. “I just spoke to him; he’s been throwing tantrums all day. I cannot wait to see him next week,” she said.
“But what will happen to the clinic when you go to Kathmandu?” I asked.
“It’s so cold in the winter that the water in the pipes freezes and we shut for a few months,” she said. “That’s when I get to see my son.”
I visited the clinic the next morning. A plum-cheeked six-year old was curled snugly on his mother’s lap while waiting for the doctor. His mother showed me his cavity-filled mouth, “Three in one year,” she explained, almost proud. As more patients trickled in, I noticed that the equipment could do with a makeover. While the facilities were quite modern, the rush of patients resulted in visible wear and tear. Replacing the equipment is expensive and donations are scarce. Outreach programmes to local schools have also stopped in the last few years because of the lack of funds and no second doctor. Nawang’s cheerful entry didn’t reflect these difficulties and her first task was to gently reprimand the boy for his lack of dental hygiene.
I was so inspired by this effort that I ditched my solo-travel plans to walk with Dr. Hollander and his two associates as they talked about a similar clinic that they are now running in the middle of Alaska’s cold wilderness.
But I was compelled to steer away from their company when altitude sickness slowed me down the next day. I spent a sleepless night looking at Everest glowing in the moonlight from my window, convinced that I would never wake up if I shut my eyes for more than a minute. An extra day of rest at a village called Pangboche was prudent for acclimatisation and I figured this would be a great chance to spend some time doing what I was here to do—enjoy my own company. I expected the next couple of days to be full of long hours of sleep and solo walks. But in this friendly country, that’s not what happened.
During dinner, I was joined by chatty Potha Sherpa, who was planning to summit Mt. Ama Dablam during the harsh winter. He told me he wasn’t worried about the weather and was only using the climb as practice for his fourth Mount Everest summit scheduled for the summer of 2013. I also spent a few minutes listening with fascination to the story from another trekker, 82-year-old Valentine from Russia. He had been in the area for two months and ate only oats and hard cheese. He could not finish a sentence without forgetting what he started off saying, but could talk endlessly about his past trekking expeditions and his plans for more in the years ahead. “I will be on the mountains till I die,” he said as he took a long swig of the local alcohol.
While taking a day hike with no itinerary, a young monk started to walk by my side. I found myself rambling about my scary altitude sickness experience while he listened attentively. He took me to the local nunnery where I spent some time chatting with a shy nun and tried to get two six-year-old new entrants to pose for a photograph. They were too skittish and all my photos are blurred. I met a young man from Canada who had finished the 11-day trek in six days and an Indian porter who crosses the border back to his town in Bihar every month to spend a few days with his family. I stood and gawked at marathon runners who were participating in a high altitude race from the Everest Base Camp to Namche Bazaar. Every attempt to walk alone was broken by a talkative stranger, each with an inspiring story.
Over two days I had slowly made my way from Pangboche, down to the Khola River and back up the mountains, through a brilliantly coloured rhododendron forest, past mani stones and chortens to Tengboche, site of Khumbu region’s largest monastery. The colourful trees soon gave way to a landscape of brown, grey, white, one that looked almost lifeless, except for the occasional juniper bush. The air was getting thinner and I had to stop to catch my breath every 15 minutes. Finally, I reached the village of Dingboche, which was my first night’s stop after crossing the altitude of 4,000 metres—the height at which people from the plains routinely experience sleepless nights because of low oxygen levels. Being the only guest at Sonam Friendship Lodge, I sat in front of the yak-dung-powered fire and brought out a book. On day seven, still on page 3 of Pico Iyer’s Video Nights in Kathmandu, I was determined to read on. The lodge’s owner brought me a glass of warm seabuckthorn juice and sat next to me. She gave me a friendly smile and seemed to understand that I was attempting a little quiet time. Unfortunately, her plucky white Lhasa apso didn’t get the message as he bounced around the room. Usually, this would have been cute and easy to ignore, but little Dhoba had three bells hanging from his collar.
After reading the first paragraph of page 4 three times, I gave up on Pico Iyer. That’s when I noticed another guest soaking in the heat from the fire. She was a blonde woman with a muscular frame. It was only the wrinkles on her face that gave her age away. I assumed that she was around 50. I asked if she was on her way up the mountain to base camp. “Nah,” she said in a distinct American accent. “I don’t know where I’m going. I think I’ll go back to Gokyo or to Island Peak and then some passes around it.” Trekking without a fixed plan intrigued me. I thought I’d like to do that on my next trip to Nepal so I prodded her with questions. “I’m just here to trace some routes I had done with my husband. I’m writing a book, and this is my inspiration,” she replied, slowly peeling the boiled eggs on her dinner plate.
She said she had been here several times, for months at a time, usually with her husband. I wondered if he was a mountaineer. “Sort of,” she said, concentrating on mashing the egg with her wooden fork. “He did spend a lot of time in the mountains.” When she told me his name was Ned Gillette, I nearly spat out my berry juice. “Are you Susie Patterson?” I asked, wide-eyed.
A month before I left Mumbai, I had read a book called Everest Grand Circle. In 1981, Ned Gillette had circumambulated Mount Everest, a mission that had taken over four months and involved trekking, climbing, and skiing. He then wrote a book about it. After additional research, I had found that he had accomplished several other crazy feats, like rowing from Chile to Antarctica in a 28-foot boat, climbing Alaska’s Mount McKinley in one day, and traversing Marco Polo’s Silk Route on a camel. Ned always came up with a creative idea for a seriously challenging adventure.
But it was not any of these that had given me goose bumps. In the summer of 1998, Ned and his wife Susie had travelled to the Karakoram Range in Pakistan for the third time. It was their second attempt to cross Haramosh La, a 4,800-metre-pass with a dangerous near-vertical descent. They celebrated victory, which was accomplished with the help of a local lad. But the celebration did not last long. That very night, as they lay asleep, several rounds of bullets were fired into their tent. The area was so remote, they could get no help and Ned bled to death 12 hours after being hit. Susie who was hit by around 80 pellets from a shotgun, was rescued by passing shepherds nearly 36 hours after the attack. The incident shocked the mountaineering and skiing community around the world as they mourned the passing of a star climber. Dying in a failed robbery attempt didn’t seem to do Ned’s life justice.
Fourteen years later, Susie was sitting in the warm kitchen of a lodge in a tiny village, surrounded by snow-covered Himalayan peaks, talking about the calmness of the mountains and her spiritual journey. For the next three hours, she narrated to me some astonishing adventures. A few years after the incident on the Karakoram, Susie had regained the courage to return to the mountains, including ones in Pakistan. “I only felt normal once I returned to the life we both loved,” she said. “I never let my spirit die.”
When I continued my trek in the biting cold, dark hours before dawn the next day, I didn’t want to stay away from people any longer. I was getting addicted to the stories I heard from different people I met; each seemed to have an inspirational tale or experience that I related to. I had not figured out my dreams as yet, but I had figured out that no matter what they were, there is always a way to reach them, just like everyone I met had. As I walked up the steep gradient on the trail leading to the village of Lobuche, I spotted a young Japanese woman walking behind me in the darkness. I waited until she was closer. “Hello,” I said cheerfully. “Mind if I join you for a while?”
Appeared in the May 2013 issue as “The Company of Strangers”.
Lukla Eat buffalo burgers at YakDonalds and apple pie at a fake Starbucks
Namche Soak in the atmosphere at the bustling Saturday local market
Tengboche Attend the evening prayers at Tengboche monastery
Pheriche Take a class on preventing altitude sickness at the H.R.A. Clinic
Lobuche Visit the odd-looking Everest Pyramid, a high-altitude research centre