High in the Himalayas

June Calender

© Copyright 2019 by June Calender

Photo by Giuseppe Mondì on Unsplash
Photo by Giuseppe Mondì on Unsplash

I was excited to be going on a trek to a monastery about 17 miles from Everest base camp to see Mani Rimdu, a major fall festival. A trekking company supplied sherpas, food, and a guide. They assigned me a roommate (to be a tent-mate in the mountains). We met in Kathmandu. She was an MD from North Dakota, early 50s as I was. She was a bit overweight. I was amused that her choice of sleeping apparel for both the hotel and trek was a Mother Hubbard floor-length flannel nightgown. She’d never been up to12,000 but she had hiked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and thought that was proof of her trekking ability. I was skeptical about her logic there but reticent to say anything discouraging to a new acquaintance I would be sharing close quarters with for a week. I walked three or four miles a day in NYC where I lived but I had never trekked and never even slept in a tent. But I had been to Tibet twice; my memories of those trips were wonderful; I had learned oxygen deprivation made me somewhat euphoric.

We helicoptered in an aged Russian troop carrier up to a precarious short-runway airport in the small town of Lukla at the edge of Solo Kumbu, the Sherpa people’s homeland. After a quick lunch we set out, on a misty, atmospheric afternoon when the surrounding mountains were benign but indistinct presences. We walked about three miles to our first camp. The walking was mostly downhill, delightfully easy. We were told to each walk at our own pace. My first encounter with a wooden swinging bridge was at the edge of the small town where we would camp. A rambunctious small river splashed and splattered over large boulders. This was not white water, this was death or a life barely worth living if I slipped over the edge which offered only a rope between me and disaster. But I saw others, including sherpas carrying large packs on their backs, confidently walk quickly from one side to the other. I saw the three California women in our small group walking much slower, holding onto the rope for dear life as they shuffled across.a I did the same and stepped off onto a grassy path with a feeling of elation.

Individual tents and a dining tent were already set up. I had lost sight of my tent-mate shortly after we began walking. A sherpa pointed out our tent. Our duffles, which they had carried, and foam mats for our sleeping bags filled the floor. Tight quarters but I wasn’t worried. A gentle rain had begun to fall; the afternoon was waning. I decided to take off my contact lenses while it was still light enough to look in a mirror. I took off the right one and–oh-oh!–it disappeared. I looked around. It couldnt have gone far. I thought: I’ll take off the other one, then I can put on my glasses and search. But–oh-oh!–the second disappeared. I searched very, very carefully with my fingertips trying to feel the little hard disks. I didnt want to move to dig a flashlight out of my duffle because Id probably move the lenses wherever they were.

My tent-mate arrived with a great groan as she crawled through the low entryway. She immediately pulled off her hoodie jacket, threw it aside and flopped down beside me. On the short walk her knees gave her great pain. The rocky, uneven trail was not smoothly tended like a Grand Canyon trail. She was damp inside as well as out from sweating up an ocean while she stumbled in the rain. My lenses were gone and it would be a miracle to find them with her undressing, emptying her duffle, redressing, whining and wondering if she could take the next plane back to Kathmandu, except she didn’t even want to think of walking back up that torturous trail.

When I had a second I carefully moved the flashlight around the area I’d been sitting when the lenses went AWOL. No luck. Over twenty years of wearing hard contact lenses many had been lost and replaced. I’d have to wear my regular glasses for the whole trek, never mind that I had new Raybans to protect my eyes. So I lost my lenses, it happens. I was happy to be where I was and became sympathetic to my tent-mate. The head sherpa found a small inn in the tiny town and arranged for her to stay there for the six days we’d be gone. She agreed. I would have the tent all to myself—hurray.

The next day was incredibly difficult. We had an all afternoon, hair-pinned climb from 9,500 feet to 11,500 feet. I’ve never worked so hard, breathed so hard, thought so seriously about the heart disease that runs in my family. Most of the others were as stunned as I was. We counted 20 steps, breathed 30 seconds…or longer. We reached camp in Namche Bazaar after nightfall, immediately went to dinner, and then immediately to sleep. The next morning was bright with predawn light golden through the yellow polyester of the tent. What a short night! A sherpa called “Bed tea,” waking me. As I sat up in my sleeping bag, I saw, a sparkle on the floor beside the foam mat. A contact lens! How could it be there? Fallen from the sky? Well, I’d only have to replace one. The air was chilly but the tea warmed and woke me. Soon the sherpa was back with “washing water.” I washed and delved into my cosmetic bag for toothpaste. The other lens was stuck to the toothpaste tube. Eureka! In Tibet I learned that the Himalayas are magical places. But gee whiz! The cosmetic bag had been open beside me when I popped out the lenses. But the other one? Mountain magic?

When I went out to breakfast I saw that we were camped by a small chorten (a monument to a deceased holy man). A square section of its spire was painted with a pairs of Buddha eyes. “Om Mani Padme Hum!” Later I learned that the sherpas give each tent a number and give the duffles the corresponding number so they can be put in the right tent for the trekkers. My lens had been in this tent–rolled up, toted up the mountain, unrolled and it happened to be on the floor next to the mat, luckily not under it. Explanation: not paranormal, not magic, but amazingly lucky!

The festival was fascinating. At an international crowd had pitched tents of every sort on the meadow below historic Thengboche Monastery. We joined the local Sherpa people watching masked lamas dance a story of good and evil accompanied by unearthly Tibetan music that included 12-foot long brass horns. The event was exotic, somewhat mysterious but the mountains were the most memorable part of the trek. Two mornings later I crawled out of the tent and saw, directly ahead of me, the goddess the Sherpa people call Sagarmatha, which we call Everest, haloed by the rising sun. High mountains make me high.

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