Eleven Hamilton students are trekking in the Annapurna region of Nepal over spring break. The students are members of History Professor Maurice Isserman’s Himalayan Mountaineering class this semester and are supervised on the trip by Assistant Director of Outdoor Leadership Sarah Jillings. Hamilton trekkers are Urbana Anam ’21, Matt Casadei ’19, Peter Case ’21, Jake Colangelo ’20, Ruth Coolidge ’21, Elyssa Feuer ’19, Alexandra Hendry ’19, Peter Schavee ’21, Joey West ’22, and Rachel Zuckerman ’19. Former participant and campus EMT Jack Gumina ’19 is along as a co-leader and trip medic.
The fifth blog entry by Peter Case ’21:
We sat down for our last afternoon tea in the town of Hile on Wednesday, bathing in the sunlight and enjoying the opportunity to sit outside in just a tee shirt and flip-flops. Two enormous chickens stood aimlessly up the path from our circular table, the lodge owners and guides watching soccer in the main dining area. Afternoon tea served as a time for group reflection and discussion throughout the trip, with group generated questions and health check-ins providing vague structure to the conversations. But really, afternoon tea was a time for us to take a break to engage in community dialogue. Our topics have ranged from appreciations to expectations to getting-to-know-you questions and everything in between. On Wednesday, however, Sarah gave us a prompt to discuss: “What is the educational value of an experience like this to you as individuals?”
Ruth responded first. “I feel like it s very easy to study other cultures and have this degree of removal, studying a culture can become like studying math. The interactions that I’ve had with Nepali people have made their culture seem so much more real; there’s a huge difference between meeting someone and reading about them in a book. Being here and experiencing it makes you value the culture more because you’ve been here and you’ve seen it.”
Rachel, a senior who will be working with outdoor education company Apogee this summer and an experiential education program in the fall, said, “One of the most wonderful things about experiential education is that through learning about whatever it is you’re learning about, you are also learning a lot about yourself which doesn’t happen in the classroom.” Jake took a different perspective, talking about the effects of altitude on Himalayan mountaineers. “I felt pretty bad at 14,000 feet, I can’t imagine what its like at 28-29,000 feet. Establishing the connection between what we are learning and what we are doing is really cool and interesting.”
Some group members discussed how this trip to Nepal fit into their time at Hamilton College and their personal educational goals. “One thing I remember Hamilton really pushing, especially in my first two years at Hamilton, was the idea of being a responsible global citizen,” said Alex, a senior economics major on the Women’s Lacrosse Team. “It’s hard to think about and internalize what it means to be a responsible global citizen if you are not immersed in that culture.”
To all, the themes of cultural experience took precedence, with emphasis on interactions with Nepali people and culture as well as the interpersonal skills reinforced by spending two weeks inseparably surrounded by our peers. To Urbana Anam, a sophomore from New York City who was born and raised in Bangladesh for the first nine years of her life, this trip allowed for an invaluable synthesis of the two. “I really enjoyed this trip for two reasons: one because it’s a very nostalgic feeling because I grew up in a rural setting, and second because I expected a lot of similarities between Nepali and Bengali cultures. I appreciate everything I’ve come across so far, and it makes me want to be more South Asian. Growing up in the United States, I had the mentality that I should be more American. So yeah, this trip has been awesome.”
To round out the conversation, trip leader Sarah Jillings offered this nugget of wisdom gleaned after leading two Hamilton trekking trips to Nepal: “You come for the mountains, and you stay for the people.”
On Saturday, we will head back to the United States, and be back on Hamilton’s campus by Sunday afternoon. I am sad to leave this place. It has been a transformative experience for me, for all the reasons listed above and more, and it will be difficult to return to the everyday routine of classes and extracurricular. However strange it will be to go from Nepal to Clinton, N.Y., I am sure that this trip will color the rest of the semester for all of us. This trip was the kind of thing you cannot leave behind easily; the scenery was unforgettable, the people inexhaustibly kind, and our group much closer than I ever thought possible for a random mish- mash of twenty-somethings. I will never forget this time, and I wager that is the same for most, if not all, of my compatriots.
Onwards and upwards.
Postscript: This trip was made possible by the Hamilton Outing Club, private donors, and the infallible guides and porters of Himalayan Icefall Trekking Ltd. Everyone on the trip is grateful for the opportunity to have had this experience.
The fourth blog entry by Peter Case ’21:
March 29 - An Exploration of Kathmandu
We walked through the temperate rainforests that cling to the hillsides between Chhomrong and Tadapani, surrounded on all sides by bright red and pink rhododendron trees, when we encountered another group along the trail. Overhead and in front of us about 15 Hanuman Langur monkeys scattered as we approached, swinging between the trees with graceful ease. As we moved further up the trail and closer to the monkeys, one stopped and turned toward us, its baby clinging to the light gray fur around its mother’s neck. After a moment of staring, the monkey darted off with its young into the rhododendrons.
Things are beginning to wind down here in Nepal. Last night we stayed in Tadapani, a small village comprised of a few guest lodges graced with stunning views of the now familiar Machapuchare, Hiunchuli, and Annapurna South. The group has settled comfortably into the routine of getting up early, hiking for a few hours, then relaxing before afternoon tea at 4:30 and dinner at 6:30. As such, the idea of going back home in just a few days feels like a disruption of the idyllic life we have been living here. We only have one day of trekking left before we go to Kathmandu for a city tour and to catch our flight back to the states. Because of this, we are all trying to savor what makes this place incredible. The views are incredible, sure, but what has made this experience special goes far beyond the scenery. We have been accepted into this country with open arms, and have been lucky to spend time in each other’s company, if only for two weeks. Only a few of us were friends when we got into the van at Hamilton bound for JFK, and it is exciting to see that change so quickly.
On Wednesday we will get up at 4:30 in the morning to watch the sunrise on Poon Hill, a famous lookout point in Ghorepani from which we should be able to see the Annapurna massif including Annapurna I, Dhaulagiri and the Dhaulagiri massif, and if it is especially clear, Mount Everest. We will then return to our hotel for breakfast, pack up our bags, and spend the rest of the day trekking the majority of the way to our pick-up spot. From there, Pokhara, then Kathmandu, then Dubai, then New York City, then finally back up to Hamilton, just in time for Monday classes.
Everyone is happy, healthy, and excited to explore Kathmandu. Expect a detailed report in a couple of days. Thanks for reading. Onwards and upwards.
This is the third entry by Peter Case ’21, describing the final stretch to Annapurna basecamp.
March 25 - Achieving the Goal and Heading Down
The snowfield we crossed on the final stretch to Annapurna basecamp was 75 feet deep, many miles long, and completely, bitterly silent. Down in the valley, we were surrounded on all sides by life; birds chirping, rivers churning, bells slung around the necks of yaks and mules ringing in a moving cacophony. But as we pushed past tree line first to Machapuchare (also known as the Fishtail) base camp, and then on to Annapurna base camp, we left behind the vibrant life in the valley for miles and miles of rock, snow, and ice. Having left Friday (Nepali time) morning from Deurali, our trek took us up alongside a snowmelt river, crossing both the river and the avalanche moraines that fed it before we reached the upper snowfields that lie beneath the towering peaks of the Annapurna group.
After a brief rest at Machapuchare base camp, we continued on beneath a brutally hot midday sun up to our goal. When we arrived at the welcome sign at A.B.C, there was a shared sense of satisfaction among the members of the group, tinged with regret that two members of our team, Elyssa and Jack, had to stay behind at Deurali due to altitude sickness (the following day they both would make it up to Machapuchare basecamp, an impressive feat and a testament to their resilience).
But despite the incompleteness of our party, those present were enthralled by the stunning views of Annapurna South, Hiunchuli, Machapuchare, Gangapurna, and the broad, trapezoidal summit ridge of Annapurna I. Despite the wild and remote setting, however, we were still served tea, biscuits, and Snickers bars in a half-destroyed guesthouse that had been struck by an avalanche only a few days before. Our group reveled in achieving a shared goal, and returned to Machapuchare basecamp to stay the night before heading down to Dovan.
As I am writing this, we are back at the Excellent View Top Lodge in Chhomrong, looking out over the valley we traversed, reading and journaling. Today we trekked eight hours from Dovan, the temperature rising as we lost elevation, finishing the day with a hike up 2,248 steps to arrive at our home for the night. Peter Schavee and Jake counted every single step on the stair climb up from the bottom of the valley, keeping their tally out loud between breaths.
Tomorrow we go to Tadapani, a town we have yet to visit. The mood of the trip has certainly changed since reaching Annapurna basecamp; our main objective has been reached, and a satisfied contentment has settled over our group at the lodge. From here, the towns we stay in will be brand new to us, and I am excited to see what the differences are between where we have been and where we are going as we leave rock and snow behind us. All are happy and healthy, and ready for what is next, although we will certainly take the time to turn our heads back up the valley, and gawk at the soaring peaks under which we slept.
This is the second entry by Peter Case ’21 as the group approaches Annapurna base camp.
March 23 - To Fishtail Basecamp
Walking out of Ghandruk towards the towering Annapurna massif with the sunshine bright and warm, our group quickly took off warmer layers after a few minutes of trekking. Our guides led the way, moving us over paved terrain and past herds of yak and mules, down into valleys and back up the other side after crossing long metal bridges over massive river gorges, constantly gaining and losing elevation as we pushed to Chhomrong in five hours. As we moved up from the valley, we dug our warmest puffy jackets from the depths of our luggage in anticipation of temperatures dropping precipitously at night.
From Chhomrong we made the long trek to Dovan, hiking between two bamboo forests along paths covered with rhododendron petals. On our way, we passed through the village of Sinuwa, where the residents were celebrating Holi, a celebration of spring’s approach, and we left the town anointed with red pigment on our cheeks foreheads.
When Sarah Jillings, our trip leader, asked our guide Chandra why the guides only had one streak of red on their foreheads while our group had marks on our cheeks, he responded simply, “tourists.” From Dovan, we gained 600 meters of elevation on our hike to Deurali, a small village comprised of four lodges perched on a mountainside above an enormous snowfield bisected by a roaring glacial river.
As I am writing this, we are sitting around the table at our cozy lodge in Deurali as snow pummels the roof; drinking tea and listening to each other tell stories. We are all wrapped up in as many layers as we can find, eating Dhal Bat (lentils and rice) and laughing hysterically at things that are objectively not that funny, but the altitude and exhaustion make the food incredible and the conversation electric. The Nepali porters and guides are doing the same in another room, and our good spirits are mixing.
Maybe the best part of this trek has been our interactions with the people who are making this whole thing possible. We trade jokes in English and are slowly, badly, learning a few Nepali words from Ajit, Chandra, Dabo, and the rest of the crew. They all demonstrate a genuine care for our safety, helping us over slippery bridges and making sure we are hydrated.
This afternoon, Joey, Jake, and I went exploring in the hillsides around our lodge, and when we got back Dabo came up behind me and shook out the hood of my rain jacket, which was filled with snow. It seems as if everyone in our group has fallen in love with our guides, at least based on the conversations we have about them around the dinner table and before bed. Everyone we have met in this country has been endlessly kind, accommodating, and generous, and I feel so lucky to have the next week and a half to get to know everyone in our group better.
Despite some sickness related to altitude, everyone in the group is healthy, happy, and dog-tired. Tomorrow, we go up to the basecamp of the Fishtail, and if the weather is good, all the way up to the base of Annapurna. I hope all is well back in the states. Onwards and upwards.
Peter Case is reporting on the trip; following is his first entry.
March 18 - On the Threshold to the Himalayas
We pulled out of Kathmandu with a screech and a shake, our two-aisle, two propeller plane climbing fast to skirt the hilltops around the Nepalese capital on our way to Phokora, the gateway to the Annapurna region. Our flight was a smooth 45 minutes riding parallel to a series of enormous massifs that even at our considerable height looked down on us like disapproving parents.
As we approached Phokora, our plane banked hard left, swooping down towards the quarter mile runway, landing gear almost skimming the multicolored rooftops and laden laundry lines that wrap around the airport. Once landed, our group of 12 piled into three Jeeps joined by seven porters and our two guides, Chandra and Ajit.
Our caravan wove its way up into the foothills, pavement slowly giving way to dirt, dirt to gravel, until our vehicles could go no further, and we disembarked to begin our trek. Carrying only our day packs, we walked for about a half hour, lunched on Dhal Bat and warm Tang orange drink, then continued at a leisurely pace to our first trekking lodge at Ghandruk. From the porch of our temporary home, we can see the foothills turn to glaciers, glaciers into ridges, ridges into breathtaking, terrifying summits. The Fishtail, one of the most relieved and dramatic peaks in the Himalaya, and likely the world, rises seemingly beyond belief into the deep blue sky. Scanning left on the horizon, the Annapurna massif is shrouded by clouds, snow-capped ridges sloping down into the river gorge, feeding a flow that snakes all the way back to Phokora.
Spirits are high in Ghandruk despite the jetlag. This afternoon we explored the city, walking between slate-roofed homes and terraces on winding footpaths, passing prayer wheels and herds of yak and mules, and gaping at the scenery. Everyone is feeling happy, well fed, and tired. Tomorrow we will be woken up at 6 a.m. with tea, eat breakfast, and be on the trail by 8:30. The hiking is gentle and moderate along roads cut into the jungle-clad hillsides, paved with huge, flat slabs of stone. Tomorrow’s forecast calls for possible thunderstorms and high temperatures, six hours of hiking to the next lodge, and hopefully a few windows of cloudlessness so we can catch a glimpse of the elusive Annapurna massif and the rest of what lies beyond the threshold to the Himalaya that we have just now reached. Onwards and upwards.