A shot of whiskey to chase death: the Langtang-Helambu trek

I’ve had a few brushes with death in my life. I’ve been mugged by a small gang, nearly blown up and then stampeded during a riot, and been moments from being stoned to death. But never, have I ever, been so terrified for my life as I was on Nepal’s Langtang trek.

But before we dive into all that, a fair warning about the nature of this post: it contains TMI for the most of you. For the weak of stomach or those who prefer not to read the raw portrayal of a, or at least my, human trekking experience, I recommend skipping days 1-2. And maybe 4 as well. Roots of Reverence promises raw, though, so for the rest of you, carry on.

Day 1 to the prayer flags

Death made her first appearance on the bus Wes and I took from Kathmandu to Dhunche, where the Langtang trek begins. We arrived at the station before 7 a.m. to discover that there were no available seats. It was the last bus to Dhunche, and I was not about to spend another day in Kathmandu, so I began to beg. An elderly gentlemen beckoned us over, with a warning that it wouldn’t be comfortable, but that we could sit on stools in the aisle. When we peered into the bus, however, we discovered that that option was taken too.

“We’ll sit on the floor,” I quickly said. He looked skeptical, but before he could say anything I took off my pack and stepped onto the bus. He didn’t stop us. Wes and I squished ourselves between people’s bags, settling in for the six-hour ride.

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Win! We thought. And then we began the ascent up from the valley floor. As soon as we crested the Himalayas, we were thrilled with our vantage point, from which we were unable to see the cow trail our large school bus lumbered laboriously along–saddled between vertical cliffs. It was made up for by a woman next to us, however, who made it her job to narrate…

At a certain point, we breaked for what we were told would be 30 minutes, allowing people to grab a quick bite. Wes and I ate dal bat for the first time–a traditional Nepalese meal consisting of curry, rice, potatoes, and some boiled greens.

Wes was in the bathroom when the bus began to pull away. I ran up the driver and asked him to wait just a minute. He wasn’t having any of it, even though only 20 minutes had gone by. I was about to step in front of the bus when Wes came running around the corner, and we both hopped onto the moving vehicle.

I’ll spare you the details of the rest of this terrifying ride, but suffice it to say that it was only a preview of what was to come.

Eventually we made it, unloaded, and passed the checkpoint to begin our trek. We began walking steeply down…a road…and then steeply back up that road.

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On the first downhill section, I realized that the boots I had bought in Vietnam to replace the New Zealand boots, which had given me ceaseless blisters, were far too small. With each step, my big toes rammed into the end of the boots.

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My brother walks softly and carries a big stick.

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An hour later, we hit the trail just as the sun began to throw some splotches of pink against the Zeus-like clouds that hovered ominously over the mountains we would be traversing the next nine days.

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Nightfall arrived, and Wes and I set up camp near a vista point on sacred ground–its three totem poles flying prayer flags into the cool evening breeze.

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As soon as we got the tent up, I began to feel off. My first thought was the altitude even though we were just barely over 2000 meters, the lowest we’d be at for the duration of the trek. It felt like a ton a bricks had hit me, even though I was breathing fine. I laid down, hoping it would pass.

Not 10 minutes later, my stomach seized. I darted from the tent to the stone wall and projectile vomited several feet over it and onto the sacred ground. My poor brother. He came over and rubbed my back, the good sport that he is, trying to stifle his laughter–it was truly awing, just how far I was managing to puke. Family Guy-style, I was told. It must be the altitude, I muttered.

Eventually, after I vomited up my entire insides and then some, I felt good enough to lie back down. We considered descending to a tea hut, but I couldn’t budge. I passed out briefly. We had five swigs of water left between the two of us…

And then round two hit. I woke up violently and made another run for it. This time was different. Someone once described an overseas food poisoning experience as “old faithful out both ends.” So when old faithful of the other variety hit, we knew it wasn’t the altitude that was responsible, but rather the food. It felt like my insides were being ripped in half. On two other occasions–in Peru and Ethiopia–I battled this physical pain caused by the toxin of such a stupid microorganism. But here, in the Himalayas, where we had virtually run out of water, I was struggling with a new dimension that had both Wes and I concerned.

Wes occupied his thoughts with ways in which to protect us from death should we be attacked (a wild hypothetical my siblings and I each visualize with one another when we backpack together) while I imagined all the ways I’d welcome it. A machete to the stomach? Yes please.

And so it went on for the rest of the night–Wes’s reading or star gazing periodically interrupted as I ran for the hills.

I shared an avatar moment with my brother, from which I escaped the pain, as I peered between the tent flaps at the lightning bugs and stars that glowed with unusual immensity, their light bouncing between one another.

A serene moment the next morning, complemented by my vomit at Wes’s feet.

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Day 2 to Thulo Syabru

Waking up, I was cautiously optimistic that I wouldn’t be as haunted by vicious vomiting. As I stood up and put on my pack, though, I knew I hadn’t cleared the woods yet, extreme weakness and spasms of nausea reminding me that I couldn’t get off that easy.

A couple we passed along the way warned us that the monkeys during this stretch, who had learned to throw rocks, killed a man just yesterday. So when Wes and I saw their fuzzy white faces leaping from tree to tree, we covered our heads and made a (slow) run for it.

It was a struggle, but we managed to hike for a few hours to the next tea house, Wes carrying my pack in addition to his own for some of the way. That, and the smell of jasmine, which always reminds me of my mom, were the only redeeming qualities about this morning.

Wanting to melt into the forest floor forever.

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This cow roamed into the family’s home.

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When we arrived at the tea house, I managed to get down some broth and slept the rest of the afternoon and into the next morning.

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Day 3 past Chamki village

I woke up with life on my side this morning. We set off for the trail early, dreading each step as we descended steeply into the valley. The mountains reverse-engineers the laws of physics: what goes down must go up.

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Wes and I had our solitudinal (yes I made up that word…because it incorporates a sense of direction) moments, sparked by different landscapes. For Wes, it was a grove of red fuzzy trees and I, a bend in the rushing river.

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My brother and I have similar approaches to what we want to achieve with our careers, he in medicine and I in law. We’ve always related to one another’s drives to have an immediate impact on those we are serving in our professions while also leaving a more global impact. But Wes added another dimension today–what he coined as the “third tier,” which is his desire to shape the perspective a society has on the larger system we are respectively working to build. Broadly-speaking, he aims to foster a healthy outlook on the wordly change he seeks. A topic for another day. But it led us to a discussion on eastern versus western outlooks on life. And how globalization has made it a challenge for eastern outlooks to thrive. That said, eastern culture continues to rub off on western culture in many ways, especially when it comes to medicine and spirituality, in which we crave holistic systems and deeper meaning. Our western, individualistic outlook fails us when it comes to our yearning for a role within the greater whole, in terms of both community and purpose.

Meditating with the yaks:

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It was a looong day. Today we discovered just how skewed our map was in terms of distance (mileage wasn’t represented) and altitudes. Ignorance is so often bliss. My big toes had stopped hurting at least, and I said to Wes that this meant either that I had carved out some room in my boots or my toenails had popped off.

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We stopped for lunch around 2:30 and (perhaps it was the exhaustion) had the best meal yet–fried noodles, veggie spring rolls, veggie cheese momo (a fried dumpling), fries, and chocolate. I was clearly feeling better. The incredibly kind woman who ran the tea house exuded a warm, light aura about her, and so we followed through on her recommendation to stay that evening at her sister’s tea house, Panorama, which was 30 minutes past Chamki, just before Langtang village.

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Dark snuck in before we expected. Wes and I were high on the night hike, with Mount Kyanjing Ri glowing bright white beneath the stars and waning moon.

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We thought we were within an hour of reaching Panorama, but owners of other tea houses kept telling us “two hours to Panorama, too far, too dark, you stay here!” We pushed on.

Finally, one woman said we were 30 minutes away, and called to alert the owner, who walked down in the dark with her nephew to meet us.

Twenty minutes later, we ran into them and they guided us back to the tea house, offering another head lamp. The woman, Gyalmo, I soon fell in love with as the most graceful, strong, and grounded person I’ve ever met. She taught me much about Tibetan culture and Buddhist tradition. For dinner, Wes and I ate fried snickers and a chocolate chip cookie, washing it down with an Everest beer. We chatted with a German, struggling with the altitude, who had been waiting for his friend for two days to come down from Langtang.

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Day 4 to Langtang village then Bamboo Lodge

More TMI, sorry. I had thought I was in the clear, but holy shit, pun totally intended, last night my plumbing raged war again. Dehydration become a concern again. Aaand to top it off, my cycle hit, again (why??), and I was under supplied. Whoo.

Gyalmo turned it all around. I stepped outside as dawn was breaking between the mountain peaks, and she beckoned me over to a jug of water she had just heated on the stove, offering me soap and face wash. What luxuries! I nearly died and went to heaven. It was the first time I truly appreciated the meaning of the saying, “cleanliness is holiness.” She also gave me feminine supplies and refused to accept payment. In such an impoverished environment, these acts of kindness and caring are so very moving.

I huddled up in the common area overlooking the stupa against the backdrop of Langtang towering above us, daydreaming and writing until Wes awoke. Gyalmo floated around the grounds with her morning ritual, lighting incense and uttering private prayers under her breath to clear out the space. “Cleaning the mind,” she explained to me. “And then we must drink tea before we can eat.”

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A detail about Gyalmo, which I had also noticed on her sister, is a series of small, ashen dots on her forearms, chin, and above her lip, which she said was discoloration that resulted from applying nail polish (which is rare and precious, she said) on her skin as a child. When she expressed her distaste of the markings, I expressed my adoration. If this was the true story, then they were the markings of an everlasting childhood–a real, endearing reminder of the innocence we all carry with us throughout our lives.

And then, this peaceful, Tibetan Buddhist was throwing back a whiskey shot with two Czech women who had just risen, covering her mischievous smile and running in circles saying, “I’m so craaazy, teeheehee.”

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Wes awoke with a sore throat and I loaded him up with vitamins before we threw on our packs. “Dhanybhad,” we profusely thanked Gyalmo as we set off for the uphill climb to Langtang.

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The Tibetan village had a raw intimacy about it. Yaks roamed in and out of the buildings and grandmothers handled their cow- (yak?) pies, some loading up baskets bigger than their torsos and toting them on their heads. Others smashed the pies into the cracks of their homes to insulate them for the approaching winter months.

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Wes and I reached the top of the hill with views of Langtang which stands at 23,772 feet, and Kyanjing Ri, at 15,679 feet. We spent half an hour just gazing upward and feeling humbled, the Himalayas absorbing the homage paid to them by the stupas that sit at their feet.

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When we turned around to begin the next segment of our hike, dark clouds began to move in on the misty fog. It was another long-ass day with the enormous river rushing us along beneath a thin sheet of rain. Nightfall hit again, and Wes and I struggled with our one headlamp up narrow cliffs lined with slippery stones and roots. As we huffed away in silence, the glow of the moonlight again caught anything white that sparkled in the rain–the river rapids, the underside of leaves, and the looming boulders that parted the river in unpredictable ways.

Just as we thought about turning in at an earlier tea house, we nearly ran smack into a huge mass in our path. It was a horse. Who wouldn’t budge underneath his tree cover from the rain. We stood there, losing the face-off as bats darted around our faces. Omen?

We were stubborn. And eventually got the horse to move down the path enough for us to get by. Down to the river bed and back up the hills to our destination we trudged, yelling “I got you rain!” and “Uphill, get in my face!”

We finally reached Bamboo Lodge. It was full. Fortunately, or unfortunately, there was a nearby tea house where we had the foulest sleeping experience of our lives. Suffice it to say that there was dried blood on our blankets. But at least we had a roof over our heads.

Day 5 to a random tea hut

The crack of a thunderstorm snapped Wes and I into Day 5. We counted our money and realized that we were getting tight. We still had four more days to go. Dal bat is the most economic option for Wes given its price and unlimited refills. There is a saying in Nepal: dal bat power 24 hour. So dal bat for breakfast it was. Which apparently meant waiting two hours. As the wind and rain slashed at the few trekkers outside who were braving the weather, Wes and I chatted with a Greek woman by the name of Anna who ran a restaurant on a small island off the coast of Athens. She was here trekking with her husband, who coincidentally had also come down with food poisoning from the same town I had.

Wes and I wrapped ourselves in plastic bags and lunged into the storm. For hours. Up and down. Up and fucking down we went all damn day. Eventually we ascended back up to Thulo Syabru, where we had spent the afternoon when I was ill, and were warming up by a stove when the two Germans from Panorama walked in. We broke out the whiskey, and I gave one of them advice on where to travel in New Zealand. He was departing Nepal for Auckland, but had no idea that it was on the north island. Now that’s truly right-brain traveling. Blindly pick a city and just go.

Wes and I had to start using US dollars at this point, which meant haggling about the exchange rate to an exhausting point. Eventually we rearranged our packs and climbed back into our dripping socks and water-logged boots. Picking up his drum sticks, Wes spotted a leech on the floor, fat with human blood. The drumstick won, and out into the rain we reluctantly went, beginning what we knew would be the most difficult ascent yet. The storm raged on as Wes and I slogged through puddles and mud. The dark shadows of trees stood unwavering on the mountain ridges, the only color in sight being a few crimson and burgundy wildflowers and a lone, startling aqua-colored home. The smell of jasmine greeted me again.

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A new challenge arose…Where our path should have been, a river ran through it. Several times Wes and I found ourselves on a private terrace and had to retrace our steps. Uphill and uphill we slogged, losing the path over and over again until we found ourselves in the middle of a Tibetan pasture among yaks that munched away, not minding the rain that matted their hair with each drop. Not a person was in sight so Wes and I followed the uphill rule, climbing up and over the terraces, gripping unsuccessfully at soggy cow pies that were oozing into the claylike mud. And then down and down I found myself sliding. Wes and I were laughing on the outside and definitely crying on the inside.

And then, our angels arrived. The first was a ten-year-old, barefooted girl who darted out from her home on the heels of two bleating goats. After she had scooped them both up under each arm, she gestured that we had to keep climbing, over that ridge, not this one. Onward and upward we trudged until we found ourselves lost on another mountain side. That was when our second angel appeared. She was hovering 100 meters above on the terrace ledge. And she was laughing at us. We struggled our way up to her, and she pointed us in the right direction.

“Two more hours up and then flat,” she said. We definitely didn’t have that kind of light left in the day so Wes and I hurried on, drops of rain the size and weight of acorns rapping monotonously on our skulls.

Two siblings traveling together always begs the question, did you ever fight? No. Never have I had a fight with any of my siblings. But, I will admit that our frustrations began to seep outward at this point. Oddly enough, though, the irritations had nothing to do with what direction to go or the distribution of the weight in our packs, but rather over not hearing each other. It may sound ridiculous. But, trekking along the river for the first half of the day and then beneath sheets of rain for the second half, we could never seem to hear each other. Struggling for oxygen as we climbed upward left little desire on our parts to either repeat ourselves or ask the other to repeat him/herself.

The lightning cracked closer to its thunderous partner, letting us know it was creeping closer. We were beginning to break though the tree line. I had thoughts about the comforts of my desk job, but when I focused on how my body was growing stronger, I stopped myself, not wanting to trade this struggle of a moment, with my brother, for anything in the world.

We eventually made it, in the dark again, to the next tea house. We were a sight. Around the stove gathered a group of twelve or so senior citizens with their guide. They had spent the last few days there waiting for the rain to pass. Wes burst through the swinging doors in full dripping glory and then I followed minutes later in my kiwi socks and Forever 21 shorts.

We were offered the last room, which amazingly was located just above the kitchen! Although we were sleeping among mounds of garlic cloves, it meant we were collecting the warmth of the stove. Mmmm. We busted out our hot chocolate packets and then Wes surprised me with chocolate-covered almonds :). Mmmm again. So so happy.

We chatted for a while with the guide, a man originally from Nepal who has been living in France and leading trekking trips since 2008. His eyes widened when we told him the distance we had covered that day.

Day 6 to Gosainkunda lake

Clear skies this morning, hallelujah!

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After haggling again over the change rate, Wes and I began our ascent up to Gosainkunda lake, which sits at 14,370 ft.

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After an hour or two, Wes and I finally got above snow line. At Lauribina lodge, we paused for peanut butter and a view of Manaslu, the wispy snow on its cap looking delicate from such a far distance.

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We figured that since we were at Lauribina lodge, we were therefore at Lauribina pass. According to the map, Gosainkunda lake was just beyond. We confirmed with a guide, who told us that the height of the pass was just above us, at the stupa. We arrived and hung out for a while, appreciating our victorious ascent. It’d be all down hill from here.

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The fluffy clouds accenting the snow-capped mountains began rolling toward us and growing in volume and mass. We mustered up our waning energy and continued onward. Which we soon discovered was also upward. The crest above was an illusion–its sisters and brothers lying in wait just beyond. We trudged through snow that grew deeper and deeper. This kind of precipitation was incredibly unusual for this time of year.

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Then the sun poked through, shining with an intensity that blinded us with everything it made glisten.

I began to notice the sound of melting snow. Small clumps were coming loose and rolling downward, quickly picking up mass along the way. There were no looming mountains above, though, so we weren’t overly concerned.

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Soon we found ourselves tightly hugging the mountain side, avoiding the upward gaze of the endless drop-off to our right. The path had narrowed significantly and the clouds had moved in, darkening and blocking our visibility with each inch. The temperature was dropping quickly…hardening the top layer of snow. I began to grow seriously concerned.

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Footprints showed off that others had gone before us…was I over reacting? Wes and I checked in with each other. What to do? Around each bend was a vertical and truly endless drop-off and the path had shrank to the point of allowing only one set of feet at a time.

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My fear of heights was making me nervous that my muscles would seize, and I would do something stupid like stumble five inches too far to the right. A particularly terrifying stretch presented itself and I looked back at Wes to confirm whether we still wanted to continue onward. We both figured we were only a few bends away from a flatter and wider segment that would take us the rest of the way to Goisakunda. With the increasing avalanche risk, we went one at a time. I was midway across when the clouds blew in forcefully and socked us in. Wes and I couldn’t see more than several meters in front of us. Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck. I was shaking, the responsibility for my brother pounding away in my head.

Forward or backward? We discussed. I sensed Wes wanted to push ahead, despite being equally terrified. He was focused on the fact that if we regressed, we likely wouldn’t have the time to cross that day and then wouldn’t be able to finish the trek. I replied that my priority was getting us out of this hell hole as soon and safely as possible. We’d figure out the trek after that.

We turned around. Figuring that if the guide from the tea house last night came through with his trekking crew that we would check in with him.

After what seemed like eternity, we returned to flatter ground where we were in the avalanche clear. Two German guys approached, and we warned them of what lay ahead. They looked concerned, but decided to check it out for themselves. Then the porters came, waltzing along with huge loads on their heads, looking unfazed. But we decided to continue waiting for the guide.

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The group finally arrived, and the guide said there was zero avalanche risk. This seemed to align with the fact that none of my reading suggested anything treacherous about this trek. So Wes and I decided to continue with the group. For the third time we crossed all of the same terrifying passes and drop-offs. At one point, the group had closed in on me and were trying to follow me across. I told the guide we needed to go one at time.

“Are you scared?” he asked teasingly.

“It’s called common sense,” I said sharply to him, frustrated with myself that I had trusted someone who clearly had no avalanche training.

Wes at one point emphasized to me that it was his decision to continue onward and that it wouldn’t be my fault if he fell to his death. At the beginning of this post, I referenced this trek as being the most terrifying experience of my life. While the other brushes with death were in many ways more dramatic, what made this so much more intense was one, that I felt responsible for my little brother, and two, that in some ways I had more control over what to do in the situation–if I made the wrong decision then disaster would rest on my shoulders.

In any event, the group of senior citizens was making it happen! Many fell several times, but fortunately always forward, and never to the right, off into the great abyss.

If you follow the (relatively) short cliff in the middle of the image, you’ll spot the group below it. Below that is the great abyss.

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I have no more words to convey the terror that Wes and I felt so I’ll stop trying here.

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Several hours later, right before sunset, we finally made it. And weakly high-fived one another, gasping for air. We were above the clouds and felt delirious and relieved, the adrenaline beginning to wear off and the effects of the altitude taking its place. We had made it safely to the shores of Gosainkunda, an ebony lake hugged by snowy peaks that protected its glassy surface from the whipping wind.

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At the tea house, the two Germans waived at us from the patio, giving us the thumbs up. Ben and Felix are their names. We all bonded rather instantaneously, and watched the sun set dramatically into Gosainkunda lake, which jutted out into the horizon of jagged mountain tops.

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A local child, mesmerized:

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I didn’t have any extra pants to replace the soaked ones I was wearing so on went my Forever 21 shorts, kiwi socks, and sandals as I bounced around to prevent my blood from freezing in my veins. Darkness enveloped us, and Wes and I passed around a bit of whiskey after dinner. Felix kindly lent me an extra set of pants, and Ben lent me an extra jacket as we talked for a few hours, the communal room exchanging stories of surviving the crossing.

Felix and Ben have been tight friends forever, and just recently finished up a tour of California where they rock climbed at most of the major state parks. Felix is a carpenter and Ben an engineer. Both are 26, having recently finished up school and begun the process of transitioning into the life phases that commonly mark one’s late 20s. At one point they asked me my age and my response quite literally caused Felix to choke on his water and say, “Fuuuuck.” Haha, it took some convincing but I explained why one’s 30s are the best years, and that I wouldn’t choose to be any other age right now. Given their respective transitions, my explanation appeared to strike a chord.

Wes was beginning to grow quiet and pale. The altitude was taking its hold, creeping up on others as well. One by one, people made their way groaning to the bathroom throughout the night.

It’s impossible to paint a picture of just how damn cold it was. I’ve never been so freezing in my life. The snow lined our windows, but not enough to keep out the sharp drafts that breathed over my head and down my neck throughout the night. Sleep didn’t come. At one point, when I thought Wes might awake in the morning to find me stiff as a board, I thought about climbing into his bed to cuddle for warmth, but my brain couldn’t handle the thought of crossing the expansive one foot divide. My head throbbed away into the sleepless night. I couldn’t wait to get off this mountain.

Day 7 to Lauribina Pass and then to eternity

Wes was fortunately feeling better this morning. We set off along the lake beneath an innocently bright sun, climbing past three other lakes up to Lauribina pass.

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We finally, actually, reached the top!!! All 15,120 feet of it. I’ve never been so deliriously happy to see prayer flags as I was at this moment. They draped themselves around two stupas, paying homage. Wes and I took an extended solitudinal moment for ourselves. We were so far above the clouds–rows and rows of mountains stretched out into the horizon as far as the eye could see, trapping thick white clouds between them.

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Ben and Felix offered us the last of their cookies (!) before we started the descent deep into the valley. We could see the trail slithering along the mountain side, dipping steeply below the snow line and back into dense forest.

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Wes and I began skating through the snow, where few footprints had imprinted their stamps, heading toward what looked like a dramatic drop off the mountain side.

At one point, Wes and I took a wrong turn toward an upper trail…fortunately we caught ourselves, otherwise the misstep would have seriously screwed up our chances of making it back to Kathmandu, not to mention the trail looked miserably treacherous.

We eventually broke through the snow line and entered a mystical Princess Bride forest, where Wes and I found the Giving Tree.

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Wes and I discussed the nature of evil–whether we’ve actually encountered true, unadulterated evil in our lives. We also talked about work-life balance and learning that letting go of the desire to “be the best” in an academic setting can actually have the effect of making one a leader in one’s field since time is wisely spent learning about other people and how to treat them, socially, medically, legally, ect. The focus on grades and test scores sidetracks so much of our generation, handicapping our great leadership potential. Lastly, we transitioned into our personality types and I offered some solicited advice. My siblings and I have strong, but not dominant personalities and so Wes was picking my brain about how to navigate the latter. In professional and social situations I discussed ways in which to hold one’s ground and maintain one’s sense of self.

A milky fog had seeped in, adding to the Princess Bride effect. We had been told that after Lauribina, the trail would be all downhill back to Kathmandu. You likely won’t be surprised by this point that that was bullshit. Wes and I groaned every time we went down because it meant immediately going back up again. Somehow, it seemed like we were ascending more than descending. Wes’s back and hip flexer were straining.

A view of our descent:

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Despite this distraction, when the rubber band that was keeping my hair back broke, he plucked a flowering vine for me to use. Such sweetness.

Toward the end of the day, the fog broke and we were blessed with a view of twenty or so waterfalls cascading with violent life force down the mountain cliffs that circled 360 degrees above us. What a glorious sight.

But not as glorious as when we saw our tea hut! Which stood on a peak high above us….ugh. One final push. There were three tea hut options, and I suggested we choose the one facing east so we could see the sunrise. When we arrived, the Germans greeted us! They had the same idea when choosing the hut.

We hung out, finished off the whiskey, and exchanged stories of respective frustrations that day. Ben laughed and confessed that he had reached the point where he was so fed up–with the trail compounded by some aggravating thoughts he was processing–that he kicked a large rock, injuring his foot.

All of you fellow trekkers understand this kind of moment.

Day 8 to Thankuni Bhanjyany

Ben rapped on our window, and Wes and I dragged ourselves out from covers of warmth (Warmth I said! A first this trip). Outside we stepped to gaze at the most spectacular sunrise of my life. Words fail me yet again so I’ll let the photos do whatever minimal justice they can.

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The greater amount of downhill today meant more talking. Being five years apart, Wes and I still had much to learn about one another’s lives. At the beginning of the trek, I had asked Wes whether he had ever considered combining his love of medicine with video games (he kept likening the vistas to Zelda and also visualizing the next zombie apocalypse). Since then, he had been designing a video game in his head, and we bounced ideas between one another. Just you wait! It’s brilliant :).

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The most notable thing about today was the stunning terraces that began to appear. After a wrong turn that led us a grueling hour out of the way (I had made the decision to take a left, downhill…never go down!), Wes and I passed through a town where children were tossing up small plastic bags into the wind like kites. They giggled and screamed, running around in circles whenever a bag caught a strong upward gust.

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Toward the end of the day, Wes and I touched base about the various transitions our family is going through. Having one another throughout these days gives each of us strength and a healthy perspective.

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Again we found ourselves trekking after dark with one headlamp. We turned in earlier than we intended. Is anyone surprised at this point that we discovered the Germans had made the same decision? This night we moved on to the gin, talking about the significance and acceptability of hanging national flags in the US and in Germany.

 

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Day 9 to the finish line

I awoke before sunrise today (with flea bites–was their absence the silver lining to the previous hypothermic nights?) and spent some time to myself sitting on a ledge overlooking the valley. The sun began breaking through a heavy, low hanging cloud cover, lighting up the backsides of trees, the bright green terraces, and corrugated roofs. Marigolds reached out from the terrace beneath me, shining with an inner brightness.

The town began to stir and a community meeting was held on our tea house steps, headed up by the couple that ran the place. The group had collected funds from people throughout the small village and were dividing it up among the less fortunate. The previous night, the couple had fed fifteen people or so, including children, who weren’t able to feed themselves.

As Wes, Felix, and Ben made their way to the breakfast table, I caught sight of a boy in the dirt below me who was strumming away at an empty Everest beer bottle like a guitar. The label was messing with his tune so he peeled it off, listened more closely, and decided he was more pleased with the sound.

The four of us agreed to meet up in Kathmandu to party that night. We set off for what we were certain was an all downhill day. To our astonishment, but by this point not yours, this was again false hope. Instead, several thousands of steeply ascending steps greeted us for the majority of this brutal day…we were at the end of our rope. Wes’s back and hip flexer throbbed, he fell ill from all of the peanut butter we had been consuming, and to top it all off, was knocked by a violent nose bleed.

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Then the prayer flags appeared, waiving to welcome us with the proximity of home. Down we descended, the rest of the way to the valley floor, crossing paths with the Germans at the first shop we saw for beer. We were out of money and so they kindly bought us a round.

It was only then that we learned of the avalanche in Annapurna, just west of Langtang, that claimed over 40 lives the same day we crossed our own treacherous stretch. 60 were still missing. A horrifying tragedy. My heart pours out to those who lost their lives braving that day.

Down and down we went, to the sound of dry corn stalks scratching themselves in the wind upon which rode the sounds of deep drums emanating from the valley floor.

When we finally hit civilization, we wove through throngs of locals who were strolling along steep, cobbly steps for views of a dramatic waterfall on their Saturday afternoon. They were dressed to the nine’s, the men having buffed their shoes, arm in arm with women who teetered along in strappy heels and sparkly gowns. We were suddenly aware of our dirty sunscreen-streaked bodies and emanating putrid stench. Exhaustion made us care less.

We finally reached the buses. Somehow, we had made it. In tact. Except for my left big toenail, which had popped off. This was the second time this year, the first instance being after a marathon. Here’s hoping it’ll grow back?

What a journey.

That night we hit the bars and clubs, rocking out like absolutely no one was watching (even though everyone was). At one point I noticed how liberated Wes was on the dance floor, and I leaned over to Felix to rhetorically ask just how awesome my brother was. A few characters entered at one point, causing some tension before we rid ourselves of their toxic presence. I mentioned earlier that Wes and I have never fought, but this evening we struggled. The club was closing and he shot me a daggered look that neither of us could quite comprehend the next morning. Perhaps it had something to do with having to talk down a 7 ft Austrian…but we weren’t entirely sure. So we left to grab a cab, whose tire blew out a distance from our hostel. We walked the rest of the way in silence.

The final days in Kathmandu

Wes and I reconnected in the morning seamlessly, agreeing that nothing needed to be aired about the night before. Over a giant breakfast we reminisced about the trek, laughing about the absurdity of the last nine days.

Kathmandu was hosting a global tattoo convention this weekend so we met up with Ben and Felix to check out the scene, some of us toying with the idea of getting one for $20. Fortunately or unfortunately, no tattoos materialized. A final round of beers and then we were counting down the minutes until Wes had to depart for the airport. To have had such precious time with my little brother is a true gift, and I feel so utterly blessed. What a sad moment when we said goodbye! But we agreed that another Nepal trek was in store for the future. Off he went to continue conquering the world. I am so very proud of him.

I closed out Nepal with one final night of partying with Felix and Ben, made even more exciting by an epic bar fight that broke out between some Brits that soon roped in half the bar. We managed to squeeze out, past the guard who stood idly by, looking at his nails.

On to the next bar and then back to the same club as the previous night (the only late night spot)–Ben, Felix, and I having intermittent moments of bonding on an even deeper level, discussing purpose and the future. Ben and I are/were on opposite ends of relationships and so we exchanged notes about the other’s perspective, learning about walls, and how to knock them down. You must love yourself first. Always. Before you can truly love another. Another powerful sisterly affection lit from within. The netting of travel: it draws you in, but then you must release to appreciate all of the life it fed you in the moment.

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About Dee Walker

I am an international attorney who believes in the power of story to inspire a better world. Join my 100 day journey around the globe!
This entry was posted in Asia, Hiking, Nepal, Round the World, Travel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to A shot of whiskey to chase death: the Langtang-Helambu trek

  1. nickalshaw says:

    Beautiful and inspiring. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

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