In the months leading up to my trip I had bargained earnestly with the Universe: Just, please, let this trip happen and I won’t ask for anything more – ever!
I was taking my grandsons, Lucas (16) and Indra (13), to Everest Base Camp. They were on the verge of declining holiday invitations with Nan (kinda uncool) but this one was sufficiently enticing: a challenging two-week trek to an iconic Himalayan destination at 5,300 metres. In my mind, this adventure would transform my boys into young men. It would require them to be responsible and mature, and would set them up in some way, to perceive a future of expanded possibilities. At the very least, it would introduce them to the joy of adventure travel and build self-confidence, but there was the potential for so much more – if we could do it…..
Unlike me, the boys were untested in light-weight, independent travel and long-distance trekking, but I saw myself as the weak link in terms of strength and fitness. The boys had had no trouble on our training walks – they were naturally active, although of late computer games seemed to occupy more of their time….
I was 68, but I had done this same trek just a year earlier. I had had no headaches, no vomiting, and I was certainly able to move quite quickly across the glacial moraine as I fled the bitter cold of Base Camp for the shelter of our lodge at Gorak Shep. And yet, from around 4000m, I had experienced symptoms that I attributed at the time to a head-cold – a streaming nose and a throat that felt like it was cut by razor blades. I have since learnt that my symptoms may have been altitude-related – I can’t be sure. Whether the boys would manage at high altitude was a complete unknown. I dreaded setting them up for failure – and yet failure is another of Life’s important lessons…. Perhaps, if I failed, I could send the boys on in the care of the guide and porter, both of whom I had trekked with previously and trusted to make good, careful decisions. There were many unknowns, but ultimately, it was an adventure worth trying…..
For two days, we waited hopefully at Kathmandu Airport for a flight to Lukla – the start of our trek, but late, monsoonal weather kept flights grounded, both in and out. We tried flying elsewhere and taking a helicopter to Serke, which would have meant a 7km uphill walk, in rain, to Lukla, but our aircraft had to abort the attempted landing at Rumjatar. With no wriggle room in our tight school holiday travel schedule, one acclimatisation day already lost, and no change in the weather forecast, the Universe was insisting on a change of itinerary.
The long-anticipated trek to EBC had to be abandoned in favour of our new goal: Annapurna Base Camp. This meant, instead, an 8-hour bus ride to Pokhara next day, and a shorter 7-day trek, to ABC, at 4,100m. Our guide, Samjhana would still accompany us, but a new porter had to be hired, as Amber had preceded us to Lukla, arriving successfully on foot. He would now wait there to help a following group of trekkers.
The weather forecast for the Annapurna Sanctuary remained gloomy, warning of overcast, wet and stormy conditions for the week ahead. Oh well, you get what you get and here’s hoping we are prepared. Actually, I had serious misgivings about the boys’ footwear. I had opted to buy and hire much of their gear in Kathmandu, with Samjhana’s help. Not only was this a cheaper option, it also saved weight and space on the flight to Kathmandu, allowing me to bring over, instead, donated charity goods. The boys were walking in school/sport shoes – not a problem in fine conditions, but certain to be soggy wrecking balls in our weather. Their alternative lodge shoes were walking sandals. I had assumed that, as on the EBC trek, there might be yak-dung fires in the lodges at night to dry our wet gear. But, no; instead, a lesson for me: on the ABC trek there are no yak teams carrying supplies to the lodges, and donkey teams are rare. Men carry everything: gas bottles, building materials, bottled water, food. It cost us $25 for three hours of gas heating at Macchpucchre Base Camp, the stop before Annapurna, to dry our wet gear. Sharing it with others helped defray the cost but we were left with an indelible sense of the responsibility we all have to be mindful of the resources we consume – especially when the supplier, who literally bears the load on his back, is paying the highest price. My grandsons’ feet were indeed, super-hydrated prunes at the end of each day, but the boys gave them a careful bath with make-up removing wipes (our alternative to ice-cold showers), dried them carefully with their micro-fibre towels, put dry socks and their lodge sandals on. Next day, with feet restored to normal, they put their sodden shoes back on. My footwear choice for them should have been Gortex walking boots, hang the expense – and yet they managed, with good humour and never a single complaint.
I have many reasons to be proud of my grandsons for the way they managed on this walk, and yet it was a vastly different experience from what I had expected. In anticipating the adventure with them, I had especially looked forward to good conversations with the boys – time to bond more deeply and opportunities to guide and mentor them. But no, I only really saw them at breakfast, lunch and dinner; otherwise, they walked ahead, hot on the heels of our porter, Indra – and had their own clear preferences for how to spend their down time, after dinner, at the lodges. Conversations, I discovered, are not their thing, anyway. They talk nonsense and I was glad to be excluded. (Would you rather visit Kathmandu or Kathmanshoe? Neither, I prefer Dogmandhu. And, on Dahl Bhat, our regular evening meal: This is Dahl and this is Bhat. Meet Dahl, whose first name is Roald and his friend Bart. Often, they just made noises: Doo, doo, di doo doo. Aaagh!) I told them that once we reached Annapurna Base Camp, some magic would happen and they would lose their ability to talk nonsense. After that, I said, you will suddenly be able to have real conversations. They looked at me as if to say, and what would be the fun in that? They did modify this of their own accord though. On three different occasions during the walk, we three and Samjhana had to share one room. Indra and other porters always slept in the dining room. I explained to the boys that Samjhana wasn’t able to understand their communication style and that she would probably enjoy some real conversation with them. They genuinely liked Samjhana and appreciated all that she did for us as our guide, and I loved their efforts to be inclusive, welcoming and co- operative.
The adventure did not magically transform them into young men, however. They are still prone to talking jibberish, trying to heel trip each other up, feigning stumbling, arm punches, obstructing, nonsensical speculations and commentary. As individuals, the story is very different, but on our ABC trek, they were making memories as brothers, and that was as important a goal as mine: sharing a life-changing journey with them. One memory which I will treasure always is their efforts to lighten the load of our porter by carrying more themselves. Samjhana and I always vetoed this choice, to ensure that the boys achieved our destination each day; however, on the last day my younger grandson came to me and said, “Nan, you have to say yes today. It’s the last day and we want to carry as much as we can, to make Indra’s load lighter. Please say yes.” And so, for our last 22-kilometre day, each boy carried a full pack and bags in each hand. My load was heavier that day, too, with my very full heart.
© Friends of Himalayan Children 2020