Highest elevation: 15,120 ft (4,610 m)
Lowest elevation: 4,790 ft (1,460 m)
The taxi dropped us off in the late morning at the trailhead in Sundarjial, a community on the outskirts of Kathmandu. In keeping with typical Casey and Matt tradition, our lightweight packs were stuffed to the brim and it was barely manageable to pick them up and put them on our backs. We had been up late the night before, configuring and reconfiguring all the pieces in order to force everything to fit. Among the weight and space culprits was a 16-foot long Hilleberg tent, perfect for cycle-touring but perhaps not so logical for this endeavor. We also got a little over-ambitious at the supermarket, and stubbornly refused to leave any of our goodies behind, thus cramming Snickers and granola bars into any unfilled niche of carrying capacity.
Our first day was spent crossing Shivapuri National Park, and by crossing I really mean ascending continual stairs through small villages and lushly foliated forest. We gained 700 meters (2,300 feet) and were rewarded with our first clear panorama of peaks at sunset just as we reached our stopping point of Chisapani. We randomly chose one of several lodges in the town, a multistory concrete building painted bubble gum pink with electricity, wifi, private bathrooms, and hot showers. (The hot shower was a bit ironic since chisopani means "cold water" in Nepali.) This "teahouse" was no different than a cheap hotel in Kathmandu and certainly not what we were expecting. Then again, we were not yet that far from the city either.
Despite committing to a thorough stretching routine the night before, the next morning my lower back was so tight that I headed down the trail hunched over like a very old woman. It took a good hour or so before I could hike all the way upright. Additionally, I self-diagnosed a tight IT band causing some significant pain in my left knee, likely irritated by the oversized steps we climbed for hours the day before. The only relief was to avoid bending my left leg by taking the steep downs with my left foot always leading and my right matching it one step at a time and leaning on the trekking pole I promptly borrowed from Matt's pair. This obviously made for slow going, but our cardiovascular system would not have allowed much of a faster pace anyway.
By the end of our second day, we were exhausted and every muscle from head to toe was sore. We had also both developed raw patches of skin on our lower backs from a bad combination of sweaty clothes and rough fabric on our as-of-yet-un-field-tested packs. It was clear that our bodies were in shock from the sudden onset of physical demands upon it. This was not terribly surprising since, with the exception of a few days of cycling in Nepal, we had not been significantly active for over a month! We had spent eight days off the bicycle in China, prior to a ten-day tour in Tibet, followed by almost two weeks of hanging out in Kathmandu. A solo American man, also with a large pack, passed us as we were resting on the side of the trail and astutely commented, "It hurts the worst for the first five days or so, then it isn't so bad...The Germans will give you a hard time about your big pack. I guess it's an American characteristic that we can't part with our things."
Well, at least it didn't take a full five days to physically settle in to our two-month trek. Our second day was a long push through forest and fog to a nice establishment called the Thodong Lama Hotel, complete with a wind-powered prayer wheel and Buddhist motifs of the eight auspicious signs on the walls. The third day was a short one; after just a couple of hours hiking in questionable weather and feeling quite low-energy, we stopped at a lodge that offered us a room with an amazing mountain view.
That half of a rest day proved to be our turning point. Starting out on sunny day four, our packs somehow felt miraculously lighter, even as we were hiking uphill for a total of 4,000 feet. Once we were physically recovered, we had the mental energy to transition from a perspective of simply surviving the trek to loving the challenge of it. The worst of our ailments were behind us, except each of our pinky toes had transformed into one continuous blister covering all sides. It would take a full two weeks before they were replaced with thimble-like protective callouses instead.
When we finally made it above tree line, we were rewarded with an amazing sunset from a crowded teahouse perched on a ridge line, while the temperature also plummeted. On day five we were not so lucky. After a tough day of "Nepali flat," meaning continually hiking straight up or straight down yet staying at the same average elevation, we stopped at the uniquely named Dawababy Redpanda Hotel. The clouds never lifted to reveal the mountain view, so the friendly owners with no less than nine children watching our every move became the entertainment of the evening.
First they piled in to one end of the wood stove warmed dining room to observe all the guests eating their dinners, then the tourists sat around while the family ate Nepal's national dish of dal bhat, which at a minimum includes a mound of rice, lentil soup, and seasonal vegetable curry that seems to always includes potatoes. It may also come with a papad, a crispy peppery very thin bread, and the whole dish is traditionally eaten with the right hand. The best part about dal bhat is that second and third helpings are freely offered, unlike other menu items, so it is a super healthy way to get filled up at the end of a calorie intensive day. The few nights we ordered other things like pasta or soup, we spent more money and went to bed still hungry. Each lodge prepares the veggie curry and lentil soup a bit differently, so having it every night is not unbearably repetitive. If we were Nepali, we would eat it for lunch and dinner daily.
From the Dawababy in Phedi, we made an exception to our no alarm clock rule and got an earlier start for our first major pass. We were still the last trekkers to leave to the lodge at 7:45am, but almost two hours earlier than we had been. Heading up, we were being chased by clouds rolling up the valley. We feared they would beat us to the top, but we could not go any faster. We made it in time to enjoy clear views and relaxed with our lunch of veggie momos near a cairn draped in prayer flags marking the summit. Nearing the top of the 15,000 foot Larabina pass, we began hiking on a packed snow trail, which continued down the much snowier other side. We were early enough in the day that we did not punch through the snow, but late enough that the treacherous slick crust had softened enough to allow some grip. We passed by several of the 108 holy lakes in the Gosainkunda area, 108 being an auspicious number in Buddhism and Hinduism. The snow-covered landscape made the blues of the lakes even more dramatic.
We reached the lakeshore of the main lake, where thousands of pilgrims converge each summer to bathe and complete a kora around it. Shiva, one of three main Hindu deities, once stirred the ocean in search of Amrit, the water of eternal life, but instead churned up a threatening poison. He then drank it in an act of protection, thus spurring him to strike his trident into the earth at Gosainkinda where pure cold water spilled forth and cleansed him of the ill effects of the poison.
We were quite taken with the beauty of the place and charmed by the friendly young couple managing the Lakeview Lodge. Being the coldest place on our trek thus far at around 14,000 feet, everyone cozied up in the dining room for the evening, only venturing out for photos of pink peaks over the lake at sunset. We decided to stay an extra day, heading up the hill behind the lodge for a viewpoint of the mountain ranges on the other side. We made the ridge line just before clouds rose up the valley, entirely obscuring the vista. Back down at the lake, we completed the kora just as the wind picked up and tiny spits of hail stung our faces. By the time lunch had warmed us up inside the lodge, the weather had done a 180 from the sunny morning, including some startling claps of thunder. We kept tabs on the status of the snowstorm from our window perch by the fireplace while reading the afternoon away.
The next morning had clear skies again, but with a small accumulation of snow and frozen water lines from the spring across the hillside. We bundled up, but with our standard leisurely departure, it was pretty warm by the time we left and we promptly peeled layers off. We descended from a winter wonderland into a stunted high-altitude forest being pelted by hail, and continued down to a dense moss-covered forest where the canopy sheltered us from rain. The village of Sing Gompa at 10,000 feet felt a world away from where we started that morning, not only because of the comparatively warm and lush environment, but also due to the presence of freshly baked cinnamon rolls, a nak (female yak) cheese production center, and a private bathroom with a western toilet and a solar shower (sadly quite cold due to the cloudy weather) at the Yak and Nak Hotel!
Leaving Sing Gompa, we took the wrong trail out of town, albeit with some suspicion at the rapid descent. Just as we were about turn around and face the big climb back, Matt pointed out a large bird sitting in a pine tree. I looked over and said, "Yeah, it looks like a monkey...Wait! It is a monkey!" Our wrong turn resulted in our first langur monkey sighting of the trek. They had beautiful light grey coats with round black faces and some of the longest tails I have ever seen, even for monkeys. These are the things that inevitably happen when you don't have a guide.
In contrast, once we finally got going on the right trail, we met a tremendous group of French trekkers that, combined with all of their porters and guides, seemed to take up the length of the trail they were covering that day. We were grateful that we were going in opposite directions.
By early afternoon, we had reached Thulo Syabru, a popular stop among trekkers for its internet access. Here I found out that my ninety-year old Grandpa Ivan had passed away just a few hours earlier. Had we not taken the wrong trail that morning, I would have checked email before my dad sent the news of my grandfather's passing, and we would have kept going down the trail. Instead, we stopped for the day and I was able to talk with my parents and my grandma, took some time to reflect and honor the life of my grandpa, and found comfort in a pot of real organic coffee at one of more than twenty-five hotels sprawled along a steep ridge line. While I will of course miss my grandpa dearly, he died in peace surrounded by all of his children after a return of cancer and entering hospice, so the event was not unexpected. After connecting with the larger world for a little while, we were ready to transition to our next section of the trek: Langtang Valley.