MOUNTAINS THAT MADE ME WHO I AM: Part One – Nepal

Moonrise over Nuptse and Everest

I should be in Greenland now, dogsledding with the Thule Inuit, but injury has caught up with me once again. Sidelined with a broken arm (thanks to a Mexican horse), I have decided to revisit some of my early adventures, the ones on which my love for high, beautiful mountains and rugged wilderness grew into a lifelong passion.  Be forewarned: the photos here are from slides dating back to 1972.

My first climbing schools were in 1967 with the  Edmonton Section of the Alpine Club of Canada.  Despite being spectacularly unfit and terrified of heights, I persevered, ignoring the often vigorous suggestions of fellow club members that I should find some other form of recreation.  Stubbornness has its rewards, however, and eventually I became, if not a good climber, at least one who was no longer a complete hazard on the mountain.  I settled into a routine of weekends in the Canadian Rockies climbing easy peaks.

In 1972 a sabbatical from my university allowed me to spend a month trekking in Nepal.  Starting near Kathmandu, we hiked through leech-infested forests, passed groves of giant rhododendrons, and crossed raging rivers on fragile bridges. After several days we entered the high Rowaling Valley, almost the first western tourists to go there.  At the valley’s end we surmounted 19,000′ Tesi Lapcha pass and descended to Thami and the Everest region, eventually reaching Everest Base Camp.

Nepal was a turning point in my relationship with mountains, and Tesi Lapcha pass was the instrument that turned a simple pastime into a passion.

The young head lama of Thami in 1972

Just below the glacier that flows from Tesi Lapcha pass, we were joined by a young boy who we were surprised to learn was the head lama of Thami.  He had come to the Rowaling Valley for his first visit with his family since being taken away as a small child.  Now on his way back, he was accompanied by a few Sherpas and 2 yaks which his father had donated to the monastery.  From the moment our parties came together until we reached Thami our Sherpas were far more interested in the welfare of this holy figure than in us.  Far from resenting his presence, we knew that we were witness to something very special, something that few other visitors to Nepal would ever experience.

Starting up toward Tesi Lapcha.

Unless one has been there, it is difficult to grasp the scale of the Himalayan landscape.  As a Canadian I was no stranger to glaciers, but the “trade route” over Tesi Lapcha pass filled me with awe.  How could humans be at home in this chaos of sheer rock walls, ugly moraines, vast snow slopes and towering ice?  Yet the Sherpas carried their loads of firewood and baggage with the matter-of-fact air of people crossing a meadow.  The young lama (seen at the far right above) displayed a calm grace and obvious pleasure that belied the perils of the terrain.

Entering the icefall

I had never felt so small and insignificant, yet at the same time so captivated by the savage beauty of a place.  To the Sherpas our crossing was all in a day’s work; for me it was the first encounter with an untameable, primordial geography.  I did not know it at the time, but I would develop a longing for wild, desolate terrain that would rule my life for decades; indeed it still does.

In the icefall

Just how were they going to get the yaks up this?  We had our climbing ropes to use as a hand line and crampons to give us purchase on the slippery surface.  Sure enough, as soon as we westerners were safe our ropes were co-opted to help with the yaks.  With ropes secured to the horns, several Sherpas pulling, even more pushing, the frantic yaks were dragged up the ice and deposited on the snow at the top like so much baggage.  Then the Sherpas, wearing running shoes, brought up their heavy loads, not without difficulty, but as always, without complaining.

Approaching the top of the pass

Among the soaring peaks of the Himalayas, this summit, seemingly swathed in icing, barely rates as a bump. Yet it was one of the most beautiful we saw, painted against the deep blue of the sky.  We spent a night just below the top of the pass. As we descended to Thami, passing first blue poppies, then tufts of green vegetation and finally grass, I felt that I was stepping out of a dream and back into the real world.  Or was it the other way around?

We saw the lama safely to his monastery and were granted an audience and blessing.  I promised myself that I would send him copies of the photos I took of his crossing, but somehow I never got around to it.

A few days later I climbed Kala Patar and trekked to Everest Base Camp, where there was only one set of tents belonging to a British expedition.

Me on the summit of Kala Patar

Khumbu Icefall from Everest Base Camp

While we were camped at Gorak Shep, I watched the full moon rise over Nuptse and Everest, and I asked myself, “What can I ever do to top this?”  I wished that I could reach out and stop the hands of time.  I did not know that this was only the first of many moments when I would ask the same question.

140 thoughts on “MOUNTAINS THAT MADE ME WHO I AM: Part One – Nepal

  1. I am from Nepal. So this article made me very happy. So the pics really date back to early 70’s huh? They are among best photographs I have seen of Himalayas, specially because its not just mountains, but the people too, their normal walks. thanks for post!

  2. The pics are amazing, i am glad you had a good camera.
    Yes himalaya is one amazing place, even i last year did a trekking and it was a life time remarkable event. It thrills me every time i just remember those 10 days. I wish i get back soon 🙂

    • Loved your Everest article. Couldn’t find anyplace to leave a comment. How different Nepal is now than in 1972! There were no inns or guest houses, no electricity in Namche, the Everest View Hotel was under construction, and Everest Base Camp had only a few tents and a yak. Not sure I want to go back.

  3. Gorgious pictures you have! Have you experienced or recognized the effects of glabal warming when you were there? I’m starting a blog about this phenomenon and about what we can do. Would be great if you would be able to give me some more information on the domain glaciers, mountains and melting ice due to global warming !

    • In 1972 no one was concerned with global warming, except perhaps a few scientists. I can’t recall any talk of receding glaciers. Here in Canada, however, the current effects of global warming are all around us: glaciers in the Rockies are receding rapidly, permafrost is melting in the North, and the sea ice the polar bears depend on is also receding.

  4. Home can be found anywhere, especially among the “ugly” moraine and towering icewalls. There is a sense of space you have written about here that few people will ever know, and even fewer will let envelope them in the ways it’s meant to. Thank you for your past journeys – you’ll make it to Greenland yet.

  5. I just cant imagine the scenario of the full moon night at the lap of Himalayas… excellent article, journey and picture.. one day I am gonna join with you… thats for sure…

  6. What a great story! Thanks for sharing. Isn’t it great how we often see the “big picture” while out in nature? There’s something to be said about being in the wild and finding ourselves.

  7. Your whole entry is, as others have already mentioned, beautiful and very well done. The photos are gorgeous. But I want to draw attention to your second paragraph – as a fellow spectacularly unfit person who is just getting around to finding something to persevere at, it’s extremely inspiring. I’m glad you kept it up in the face of discouragement. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

    • Don’t give up. The key is to be honest about your abilities, your goals and your motivation. You don’t have to be good, just good enough not to put yourself or others in danger.

  8. Wow it is impressive that you can keep those antic pictures in that perfect conservation! ^^

    I saw a documentary about these mountains in Nepal not long ago, by Jesús Calleja (Spain)

    See you!

  9. wow, your pictures are amazing! especially ‘entering the icefall.’ it just shows how beautiful the nature is! and so Grand

  10. Your photos are amazing. I’m planning to go to base camp this year myself. Now I have more motivation and reason to go.

  11. Thanks for sharing your photos – they scanned really nicely. And, thanks for sharing your passion. Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed. Sorry about your injury. I hope you mend quickly. – MoSop

  12. I was at the base camp on the Tibet side last year….looking at these makes me want to go back to see the Nepali side. Absolutely stunning photos!

    • You should do that too someday. From my own experiences, I can tell you that entire Nepal expedition is going to be amazing. Starting from Kathmandu to Lukla to Base camp. Don’t forget to learn the “resam firiri” song 😉

  13. I’m a 26 year old beginning mountaineer, i’ve trekked to Everest and I think your photos and stories are spectacular. Thanks for sharing! I’m inspired and excited about my prospects!

  14. I was born and raised in Nepal….and I regret that I have not seen the beauty of the country like the ones who visit the mountains have.
    I think you just inspired me to re-discover my own country.
    Thanks for sharing!

  15. I love the sentiment – mountains who made me who I am – wonderful photos too – I am inspired to daydream. Thank you

  16. “Leech-infested forests”.. one way to make me turn around and go home! But the sight and adventure might be worth it! And feeling small in a huge area.. I like that feeling. Unless I’m lost. =P

  17. beautifully written, absolutely loved it, excellent photos! it echoes my own thoughts and feelings about mountains, especially the Himalayas. I will consider the rowaling valley as a future trek in nepal, it sounds like a less traveled road among all the options that nepal offers..I have written a post about my trek in everest region, if you are interested..

  18. Wow man! I’m inspired. Especially to read that you started out afraid of heights. I long for the mountains but am also rather uncomfortable with heights. I used to rock climb but became too time poor. Now, at 33 years old, I have decided it’s time to get back out there on the rocks so that I too can explore some of the alpine places that are so alien to me (I live in the sub-tropics). Glad you were freshly pressed today because it’s given me inspiration.

  19. Mountains? Did you say mountains? Yipeeeee! I just love mountains…NO! I absolutely adore them! And no better place to see them than BC, Canada! What a coincidence, too…apart from using my film cameras, I also carry a digicam, which has been to Everest Base camp and back!

  20. Nepal and the Himalayas must have been pristine in 1972. I treekked around Annapurna last year, whole two months in the mountains. It does not take as long to reach the base station these days, the’ve got roads and even air strips. Despite the guest houses and other provisions of modern life, I feel I’ve been “touched by the spirit of the mountain”. Never before felt something so humbling as the feeling of insignificence that the mountains cast on me. I can only imagine how deeper it must have been for you. Tashi Delek.

  21. Incredible, just how beautiful these photos are! You are a lucky woman to be able to see that beauty for yourself! Also, congratulations on your courage and adventures!

  22. I’ve read Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air” and “Mountain Madness” about Scott Fisher’s life. Then I just read today in the May 2012 Outside magazine about how more & more helicopters are being using for high elevation rescue which not everybody is excited about on Everest…very interesting stuff! The local Sherpa’s pretty cool to say the least.

  23. Personally I feel so sad that while all my childhood years in nepal, I never went to view these panoromic mountains. However, one day I will.. I am determined.

  24. Stunning photo-essay. Such an inspiring post! May you always see serene magical moments. thanks for sharing. Cheers.

  25. A very beautiful place there, and wonderful captures! From here it looks like a peaceful place, makes me want to be an explorer looking at these photos! Well done ( =

  26. Those magical moments are the moments that make life all worthwhile. Thank you for sharing your experiences!

  27. You expressed so beautifully with just enough detail and pictures that I could just enjoy. I loved your honesty at the broken promise and your acceptance that us westerners are cut from a slightly frailer cloth. This I imagined as a documentary which I followed jealously, yet with a smile. My dream is to see the prayer flags blown by the winds in Tibet. Thank you for bringing a smile and making my morning feel full of positivity and just what potential we have when we push ourselves.

  28. Hello there! I am really enjoying your Nepal trip! Thanks a lot for sharing the very nice and breathtaking pics. My husband and I are always wishing to go to Nepal and grab a taste of being in the Himalayan/Everest mountain. We’re in China now. We keep dreaming to visit the country and mountain someday. You’re lucky! Warm regards.

  29. Although I’m not glad you broke your arm, I am glad you took the time to share your previous adventures with us and with me. I really enjoyed learning about this exciting adventure through your eyes and perspective. Honestly, I would not have been able to understand or even fathom how beautiful the terrain and mountains were had there not been pictures — that was the icing on the cake! It’s so great to see people enjoy such exciting adventures and you’re absolutely right — your resilience and stubbornness really paid off because you have opened the doors to people like myself who have only dreamed of being able to do such things. Thanks for sharing this story and I can’t wait to learn about more of your past adventures and many more to come!

    Cheers to adventure, realizing your place in the world, and capturing wonders of the human experience!

    cc:Keith

  30. Nice account and great how you have recognised how landscape can make a person. Having spent the last fifteen seconds thinking about it I reckon I am a quarter rolling hills, a quarter fields and a half mountain. Maybe 🙂

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