Seeking a peak experience in the Himalayas

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Thamel is a small, congested, frenzied tangle of semi-paved alleyways in Katmandu, Nepal's capital.

A reasonable walk from the temple-filled Durbar Square, Thamel is a commercial district of bars and neon and cheap hotels and power failures and dazed, scruffy First World pedestrians and, here and there, an amputee hustling rupees.

You can't see the Himalayas from Thamel, not even on days when the air in the Katmandu Valley isn't full of dust and smoke and powdered dung from sacred cows, but they are a presence.

You feel it in the score of shops that sell famous-label backpacks and down jackets and boots and other stuff of high-altitude adventure, some of it second-hand and almost all of it fake.

Tucked off one of Thamel's alleys is an unremarkable restaurant called the Rum Doodle. Up the stairs is a saloon that doesn't take Katmandu's official 10 p.m. closing time seriously.

Behind the bar is a board bearing the signatures of some of the men and women who have reached the summit of Mount Everest, including that of Sir Edmund Hillary, who, with Tenzing Norgay in 1953, was the first; and of some who died trying.

People hooked on the Himalayas tend to hang out at the Rum Doodle. Among them on a recent April night was Ari Piela. A chunky man with fine, shoulder-length hair, a thin beard and glasses, Piela has been on the Top of the World. He reached the summit May 28, 1999.

Why?

"If you say you've climbed some difficult 'peak,' but it's lower than Everest, they'll listen very carefully," said the 36-year-old Finn. "But after a few cigarettes, they'll ask, 'OK, but when do you climb Everest?' Nonclimbers don't understand."

Picture of height

First, some numbers. In 1954, when instruments took readings from 12 points, the height of the planet's highest peak was set at 29,028 feet. In 1999, the National Geographic Society (whose figures are used in this story) and Boston's Museum of Science used the satellite-based Global Positioning System to come up with a new figure: 29,035.

Either number makes Everest more than twice as high as any mountain in Colorado. More than twice as high as Washington's Mount Rainier.

The tallest mountain in all of North America, Mount McKinley in Alaska, majestically rises 20,320 feet -- and Everest tops it by more than a mile.

Are you getting the picture?

Alongside Everest are two more peaks taller than 27,000 feet: Lhotse and Makalu. A few miles east is Kanchenjunga (28,208 feet). Not far the other way: Cho Oyu (26,906).

Eight of the world's 10 tallest mountains are either in Nepal or straddle the Nepalese border with India and China (including Tibet). More than 30 peaks in China, Pakistan, India, Bhutan and Nepal rise above 24,000 feet -- and all are in the Himalayas.

A jetliner bound for Nepal from Bangkok approaches Katmandu via Calcutta on the India side. From the window seat, the mountains north of town are little more than a distant ridge of snowcaps above brown haze. There is no sense of grandeur.

But get on a "flightseeing" plane and things change dramatically.

The Buddha Airlines 18-seater headed north from Tribuvan International Airport, first over houses, then over fields and temples, then over terraced farm plots and monasteries, and then toward the mountains. Fairly impressive. The plane banked and flew east. From the left-side windows, there was now a major ridge.

A Nepali flight attendant, speaking perfect English, moved down the aisle.

"There," she said again and again, to one passenger at a time, "is Dhaulagiri. Seventh-highest mountain." Moments later: "Annapurna. Tenth-highest mountain."

The more we flew along that ridge, the more grand it became, and then it was more than a ridge.

We were not just skirting the Himalayas. We were over them. The view was all mountain.

I have experienced the Rockies and Alps and Andes from the air. I've never experienced anything like this. And then, there was Everest.

It does not stand alone, like McKinley or Rainier or Kilimanjaro, and the pictures and the books had prepared us for that. Lhotse and Makalu, as expected, were right alongside.

But Everest was singular nonetheless. There it was, this black wedge, arrogant and proud, the fierce wind sending a plume of whiteness like the mane of a great lion king off its summit.

"The first time I saw Everest," said Susan Tomlinson, 39, a trekker from Lake Tahoe, Nev., who was at the Rum Doodle that night, "I just dropped to my knees and cried."

Lure of the Himalayas

Just about all appreciation of the Himalayas begins in Katmandu (elevation: 4,428 feet). The trekkers who come here when the hiking weather is best -- October and November, and again March through early May -- internationalize the place, particularly Thamel.

Thamel is where they can stay cheap, eat cheap, swap information, socialize and sign on to group treks or hire guides and porters for their own adventures.

Serious mountaineers preparing to take on such challenges as Everest and Cho Oyu from the Tibetan side routinely fly into Katmandu and gear up here before shifting operations across the Chinese border.

In truth, Katmandu is not a beautiful city. Despite efforts to replace fume-belching tuk-tuks (motor-driven rickshaws) with battery-powered vehicles, foul air remains a problem in the Katmandu Valley. Tap water is hazardous to all but the fully acclimated. So is driving. Cows, revered by the largely Hindu population, wander at will, producing comfort for believers, and, of course, the usual bovine byproduct.

Dogs roam back streets. Urbanized monkeys -- some of them nasty creatures the size of golden retrievers -- search through street trash; one squeezed through a slightly open window into a hotel room down the corridor from mine to rummage before being chased out, the only loss a pack of gum.

But there is beauty here, too. The temples, palaces and statues of Durbar Square, the city's heart, make it a marvelous place to linger even if they lack Bangkok's dazzle; across the Bagmati River, once-separate Patan, now part of Katmandu, has its own Durbar Square with its own collection of temples and shrines.

Less than an hour's drive east of the city sits Bhaktapur, a well-preserved 17th-century town perfect for wandering, photographing, shopping and reflecting (more temples).

Still, it is the Himalayas -- and the foothills leading to them -- that lure travelers to a country that for nearly a century (until the early 1950s) was essentially closed to foreigners.

Sunil Karki is a trek group leader from Bhaktapur. He understands.

"There are some mountains that are regarded as gods," said Karki, like most Nepalis a Hindu. "One is Ganesh [24,298 feet], because the mountain looks like the [elephant] god. And Fish Tail [Nepali name: Machhapuchhare, 22,958] is also a holy one. Ten or 15 years ago, the government issued a group permission to climb Fish Tail, and nobody lived. Nobody came back." And no more permits were issued.

"Gauri Sankar -- the mountain has two tops, so it is regarded as a 'couple' god. And there are some others."

Everest? Karki smiled.

"Everest is just a mountain."

Not to everybody, though.

John Walters, a climber from Redwood City, Calif., was at the Rum Doodle preparing to join an environmental expedition. Its goal: To help remove some of the mountains of trash left by climbers at staging areas from the Everest Base Camp (17,600 feet) up to Camp IV (26,000 feet).

"I've been wanting to do this since 1976," said Walters, who works in the semiconductor industry when he isn't climbing in Yosemite. "Everest is a specific challenge, because it is the highest peak."

But he won't attempt to reach the summit. "If you look around, it doesn't look like they're short of people who have summited," he said. "I'd like to live."

Everest has been climbed more than 800 times. From 1922 to date, 165 people died trying -- 15 in 1996.

In 1999, 116 climbers made it to the summit; three died.

And still they come -- if not to reach the summit, at least to experience these mountains. Chris Warner, a 35-year-old Ellicott City resident, had hoped to reach the top of Everest last month but was turned back at 25,000 feet by bad weather. "One thing I've learned," Warner wrote, "is that I will be coming back to Mount Everest." (For more details on Warner's trip, see www.sunspot.net.)

Whether by trek, which can provide spectacular vistas of mountains still miles away; by climbing expedition, which offers intimate bonding; or by flight- seeing, which gives perspective and overview in comfort, the Himalayas stay with you.

"When you fly into Lukla, you see them and you think, 'Uh-huh,' " Susan Tomlinson said, recalling her brush with Everest. Lukla's airstrip is the launch area in Nepal for attempts at Everest. "Then you keep going over ridges and ridges, and you see the real Himalayas.

"And then you go back to Tahoe, and it's so ugly."

The Lake Tahoe area, for those who have not been there, is absolutely gorgeous.

Now, you understand.

HIMALAYA FACTS

Location: South Asia, including parts of India, Nepal, Pakistan, China and Bhutan.

Area: 229,500 square miles. About the combined acreage of Illinois, Michigan, Indiana and Ohio.

Height: The 14 tallest Himalayan mountains stacked atop one another would peak at 72 miles.

Tallest single peak: Mount Everest, Nepal/China (Tibet), 29,035 feet.

Before it was Everest: It was called Peak XV. Renamed for surveyor George Everest in 1865.

WHEN YOU GO ...

Getting there: For my flight, the scheduled air time to Katmandu, Nepal, via Tokyo and Bangkok, Thailand, was 23 hours, 5 minutes. Add a couple of hours in Tokyo between flights and an unavoidable overnight in Bangkok. It's a haul.

The fare was $2,476.80 from O'Hare Airport, using a combination of American (to Tokyo), Japan Air Lines (to Bangkok) and Thai International (to Katmandu). From BWI, a recent check found a fare of $1,357 round-trip to Bangkok, and $613 round-trip for the Bangkok to Katmandu leg.

Mountain views: The best way to experience the Himalayas depends on your age, physical conditioning, time factors and tolerance for discomfort.

* The easy way: An hourlong flight from Katmandu over the mountains on Buddha Airlines -- with sensational views of Everest and with all 18 passengers at a window seat -- costs $109 (I paid $125, which included transport between my hotel and the airport). Other outfits offer service at similar prices.

* The leisurely approach: From Katmandu, a half-day taxi (prices negotiable; figure $10-$15) can bring you to nice views (especially in the morning, if the day is clear) at Nagarkot; or it's about three hours each way on a winding, variable road to Daman, where if it's not too hazy, the reward is a panoramic view that includes Everest. Chances are better out of Pokhara, a popular base for trekkers west of the capital, where fabulous views (but not of Everest) are within a hearty bike ride (you can rent bikes in town) or short taxi ride; airfare from Katmandu is $67 each way for the 45-minute flight.

* Leisurely-plus to strenuous: Organized group treks can bring you as close as the base of Everest for about $100 a day per person, which pays for almost everything but your boots and beer. Or you can hire a porter in Katmandu to carry most of your gear and guide you along for $10 or $15 a day, including rustic lodging in tea houses along the trails. A three- or four-day trek can get you a close-up look; longer treks will be remembered longer.

* Extreme: Serious climbers can hire a crew in Nepal or book space with expeditions.

Making the climb: What does it take to climb Mount Everest?

Besides being in peak physical condition, you'll need a strong sense of personal discipline and teamwork, climbing experience, absolute commitment, at least two months and from $50,000 to $65,000, depending on the company running the climb. Plus airfare, insurance and lots of gear.

It's expensive in part because Nepal charges $70,000 for an Everest climbing permit. That's for a group of up to seven climbers; add $10,000 each for every additional climber, up to 12 (the maximum).

Weather: In Katmandu, it's mild to warm during tourist seasons. At higher elevations, sunny afternoons are T-shirt weather, but the temperature dives when the sun goes down. Altitude determines the extremes; we dipped to near freezing at 6,000-8,000 feet.

Tips:

* Things are a bit skittish in Nepal these days. Rising prices, political jousting and occasionally violent Maoist activity has prompted the U.S. State Department to issue a cautionary advisory for travel there. Check for new advisories at 202-647-5225, or on the Web at travel.state.gov/nepal.html.

* Nepal has no ATMs and no McDonald's. Many Nepalese speak English and, especially away from the cities, are wonderful hosts. Expect stomach problems. Bargain for everything. Break in your boots before you get there. And figure on taking tons of pictures.

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