Friday, March 11, 2016

Nepal 2016

I just returned from one of the trips of a lifetime for me, 5 days in Kathmandu, Nepal.  I had to be in India for work for 2 weeks, and soon realized, Kathmandu was a short 90-minute flight away.  Much as I would have liked to turn that into an extended trek up to Mt. Everest base camp; I did not have enough time to acclimate to altitude or the closer to 10-day trip that would have needed.  So I planned to run in the mountains of the Kathmandu Valley rim.  I did some research, and reaching out through Trail Running Nepal, I was able to connect with Upendra Sunuwar as a guide.  Upendra is an accomplished ultra-runner, winning at least 9 mountain (all in the Himalayas) races that I know of.  His English is limited and very hard to understand; but we generally communicated just fine.  He spent all 5 days I was in Nepal beating me into the ground. 

The first day, we took a cab to Shivapuri-Nagarjun National Park just northwest of where I was staying in Thamel. 

Within seconds, we transitioned from a crowded, dirty, metropolitan city into deep forest inside the park. 

The first couple miles was rolling hills at 4,300 feet, but I was already breathing hard as he pushed the pace.  I thought I’d keep up fine, until he pulled a Karl Metzler and turned up a trail that went straight up the ridgeline.  I quickly realized that all my altitude acclimatization and elevation training from Utah last summer was long gone.  My heart rate was maxed out, sweat poured off me like I was in a sauna, and by the top I was kissing my knees every few hundred feet.   The peak is called Jamacho and houses a Hindu temple of the same name. 

We walked around the temple, and even went up the observation tower; only to find there was a heavy haze obscuring any distant views.  I was not to see the Himalayan peaks today. 

The route back down was just as difficult, as we descended nearly the entire 2700 feet via a route of steep stone stairs. 

Friday’s run was not long, just under 10 miles; but I was spent.  The elevation chart of my watch was representative of what I was to experience every day in Nepal.

On Saturday, we took a cab to a different section of Shivapuri-Nagarjun National Park to the northeast of Thamel.  Upendra proceeded to take us straight to the top of the tallest peak in the park, Shivapuri at 8,900 feet.  The entire 4.5 miles and 3,700 foot climb was long set of stone stairs. Something like 6,000 of them.

It was insanely hard. 1 hour, 40 minutes of quad screaming, heart-racing, lungs burning, step by step upwards.  The picture below of me washed out and soaked in sweat is about 500 feet from the top.

It was WORTH it!  As we passed 7,000 feet, we moved into cloud forest with giant trees of spectacular proportions covered in moss.

I heard a cacophony of bird calls the entire day, and we spotted a pair of langurs (a type of monkey) racing through the treetops.  100 feet from the summit Upendra detoured us up to a Hindu shrine (a large rock that is supposed to be Shiva's penis) with a clear view to the north. The whole way up that morning, I had kept scanning through the trees and seeing once again, heavy cloud cover and smog. I feared there would be no view of the bigger mountains. Alas, as we passed the rounded the shrine to the cliff’s edge, my heart sank to see nothing but clouds to the horizon.  Upendra pointed into the distance, naming 7,000+ meter peaks from memory.  Until my eyes adjusted, and I realized he was not doing this from memory, the tops of the clouds were not clouds at all, they were the Himalayas poking ABOVE the clouds. My hair stood on end and I just gaped. Upendra was thrilled when he found out it was my first view of them ever.  I just about danced a jig.

After seeing the Himalayas, the small, flat clearing at the summit, surrounded by trees with no view was anti-climactic.  From there, we began an 8.5 mile, 4,500 foot descent down the other side.  There were less stairs on this side, on which I was slow, but on the rooty, twisting, and uneven single track, I ran with abandon. We passed the headwaters of the Bagmati River, and numerous temples. 

At one point, passing through a mountain village with a large temple, we got caught in a procession of monks. Upendra had no patience, and led me around them, teetering on the precipice until we passed.  Finally, on a particularly steep and technical section, I took a spill.  I was wide-open, going way too fast for my downhill skills, when my shoe scuffed a rock and I pitched forward. And down. On the first somersault, I smacked my left calf (always the left, every fall I take seems to be to the left). On the second flip, my left forearm smacked against a rock. With the steep slope, gravity was keeping me from braking.  The third time over, my face was headed for a flat rock. I managed to turn and take a glancing blow only to the back of my head, at which point I had stopped, spread-eagled on the ground. Slightly stunned, I stood quickly to assess the damage and then looked up to see Upendra staring at me horrified.   I had no cuts or open wounds, giggled at my stupidity, and turned back down the trail, albeit at a more sedate pace.

From there, we soon descended into Kathmandu proper, passing by several larger temples. We ended at Pashupati where the Shivarti festival is taking place Monday with an expected crowd of 700,000. 

We ended the run with just under 19 miles and my first view ever of the Himalayas.  After a shower, I walked 2 miles down to Kathmandu Dhurbar Square where the king’s coronation takes place and where the ancient temples took the worst damage from last year's earthquake.  That evening I went to Everest Irish Bar, the only place I found Guinness in my 16 days in Asia; and hung out with a 22 year old Irish kid who was taking a year-long sabbatical to cycle from New Zealand to France.

Sunday I arose and my legs were jelly.  We took a cab to Pango on the southwest corner of the Kathmandu valley. From there we ran about 2 miles around farms and fields and then headed upwards.

Again.  The 2,800 foot climb to Champa Devi left me wasted and wobbly. I could feel the efforts of the previous two days in my legs the moment we turned uphill. But as always, it was worth it.  Thunderstorms moved through the area, and we listened to the thunder roll across the mountain tops. Beside a 10-minute light sprinkling, we did not get wet.  But my legs were so dead, I seriously considering turning back more than once. Towards the top, it was dark, windy, and cold. My hands were frozen and I had a real chill. Yet sweat was rolling off of me like I was at an 8 Hours of Hell event.  At the first peak, Upendra gave me the option to turn downhill and take the easy way home. I may never be back in Nepal again, that was not an option. So we traversed the ridge-line for about 30 minutes before turning up a steep set of stairs that climbed another 1,050 feet.    The higher reaches of the next peak, Bhasmeswor Danda are clear of high trees and I was almost immediately rewarded with a fairly clear view of the Langtang range of the Himalayas in the distance, with peaks reaching up to 25,000+ feet. Mt.  Everest was out there somewhere, but not visible from our trek.  The picture below is not great quality, but you can see the peaks in the distance.

I thought this peak was it, but Upendra challenged me to take on a third, which luckily involved only another 300 feet of climbing. I really like Upendra's choices for running. He avoids out and backs, calls them boring; he looked for loop or point-to-point routes every time.  He has taken me to a completely different area each day. And while I may not have hit the mileage I envisioned, it was more than offset by the quality of effort.  He has given me what Kathmandu offers best: steep climbs and descents with mind blowing views from the peaks and visits to temples and monasteries to see along the way.

We stopped on the way down at a villager's house, and had biscuits and Nepali black tea while he prepared his family's meal.

The balance of the descent was cruelly steep, with most of it tall, stone stairs that continued to crush my quads.  As we got back down into the valley we passed through farming villages, many of them devastated by last year's earthquake. In Kathmandu proper, most of the worst damage was limited to the old temples; the modern architecture had largely stayed standing.  But up in the hills, I would say 75% of the crudely built stone homes had collapsed, each now accompanied by a simple tin-roofed shelter as they rebuild.   We ended by dancing along the narrow earthen barriers between rice paddies before turning the last mile on pavement to where we could catch a cab back to Thamel.

14 really slow miles in just over 4 hours.  The next day, I knew we were headed southeast to climb Phulchoki Danda, the tallest mountain we would tackle.  I was seriously not sure if I could handle the 4,100 foot climb, and slept nervously.

Monday started a little differently as we did not take a cab.  It was a longer, 90 minute ride on 2 different buses (think van refitted with 4 rows of seats) to our run today. The second bus, when it left, had 22 of us stuffed inside. It stopped periodically to drop off or pick up more passengers, and at one point we grew to 29.  There are no pictures from this as I could not move my arms to grab the camera.  I now have a good appreciation for how sardines feel.  Finally we arrived at the trailhead in Godawari.  Before starting the run, we ate breakfast at a roadside stand; Nepalese creamy tea with lots of honey, and a bland donut type of thing.

I started at a fast walk uphill, pounding my hiking sticks into the ground to push. I could hear my friends chirping in my ear if I gave up and was determined to set a steady pace.  It had rained hard the night before. I was optimistic the smog would have cleared and there would be a much better view of the Himalayas today. I absolutely had to get to the top. To my delight, less than a mile in, Upendra pointed behind us and BOOM, there they were. White, towering peaks, too high in the sky to imagine. 

My heart lifted and I pressed upwards with even more vigor. Thankfully, there were no steps on this route, and I did my best running of the trip. I was steady throughout covering 8.35 miles, with just over 4,000 feet of climb completed in just 2:16.

We took a nice break at the top. Upendra prayed briefly at the Hindu shrine, and I took in the 180-degree view of the Himalayas.  I was awestruck. Away in the distance, hovering at the dim horizon was Mt Everest.  This was the highlight of my trip and a moment I hope to remember forever.  I high-fived Upendra and we took picture after picture. 

As we started back down, I told Upendra I was feeling great, and wanted to push the pace.

We were flying down the dirt road as fast as my feet would move when suddenly he turned us into some of the greatest single track I have ever run. Twisting, bumpy, rooty, steep, and technical; I took chances like I only do when trying to chase Andy Mathews downhill. 

We covered 9 technical miles to the bottom in just 85 minutes.  I was on such a high, I could have run another 10 miles. But I am glad we stopped when we did, it was a great day. We paused at another roadside stand for a bowl of spicy beans, hard boiled eggs, bread and mango juice (lunch cost me $4 for the both of us) before taking the sardine buses back into Thamel.

There were no mountains to climb Tuesday. Instead, Upendra took me on a 10 mile running tour of Kathmandu. We visited a number of temples, including Monkey Temple which was at the top of a ridiculous set of steep stairs.

Then we would run in between temples, moving on to another part of the city, finishing at Patan Dhurbar Square.

We ended with breakfast at another roadside dive eating spicy beans, rolls stuffed with some kind of sweet potato-like purée and several cups of Nepali tea.

Back at the hotel, I happily over-tipped Upendra; gave him my Hoka Clifton 2s which don't fit me well, and gave him my dirty Badwater crew shirt which he complimented several times the day before. We promised each other, when I come back, we will do the trek to Everest Base Camp together. I ate lunch at the Yak Restaurant, had water buffalo curry and more of my now beloved Nepali tea. Waiting for my cab to the airport, I went up to the rooftop cafe at the hotel, taking in one last look over the city before I headed off to the airport, and back to reality.

Completely unexpectedly, I got very emotional checking out of the hotel.  Gone 16 days, I was very much looking forward to coming home, seeing my wife and daughter, and sleeping in my own bed.  But this place affected me far more than I thought it would. It goes beyond the mountain adventures Upendra took me on. Amid the squalor that already existed here, and the ensuing devastation from the 2015 earthquake; the Nepali people show amazing resiliency and vibrancy.  They are unfaltering friendly, looking to help not just tourists, but each other at every turn. Monday on a larger bus riding home, an older gentleman boarded carrying what appeared to be his 4 year old granddaughter.  There was nowhere for him to sit and he appeared stoically prepared to stand and hold her for the trip.  The couple in front of me immediately offered to hold her on their laps, and what appeared to be total strangers carried on a lively conversation until he disembarked.  I was able to observe this, because Upendra was in deep conversation with the very pretty girl sharing a seat with us; I am pretty sure he was hitting on her.

Researching my trip to Nepal, I had read numerous accounts of others having an emotional exit; but had thought little of it.  After paying my bill at the front desk, I was presented with a scarf, and every member of the staff came out to bid me farewell with hugs.  I couldn't help but get choked up, it was an outpouring  of goodwill like I have never experienced traveling in the U.S. I am not sure when I will be back, but Nepal is only partially checked on the bucket list.