Trek to Nepal: An Interdisciplinary Dive Into a Unique Part of the World
Eighteen students, faculty and staff trekked to the base camp of Annapurna in Nepal's Himalaya as an optional part of Professor Maurice Isserman's History and Literature of Himalayan Mountaineering course. Anne McGarvey '17, one of the participants, blogged about the trip. Here is her final post.
March 26, 2017: Days 13-16
Kathmandu was chaos. The choir of car horns was a language of its own, and as far as I could tell, traffic laws were spontaneously determined by those driving within the immediate vicinity. The gnarled mass of commuters in the street was compounded by the knotted power and telephone lines running alongside the roads. Telephone poles became trees yet again; their canopies made of coiled black wires spread out in all directions to nearby homes and shops in an attempt to siphon a bit of power from the city grid. Maybe we were all feeling a bit overwhelmed being back in a city after spending two weeks in a small group, or maybe it was the short time we had to fit two cities into two days, but our time in Pokhara and Kathmandu felt as chaotic as the city around us.
We spent the afternoon of the trip’s 13th day exploring the city of Pokhara and shopping for souvenirs. A small group of other students and I ventured to the city’s International Mountain Museum. Though we have spent the semester learning about the history of Himalayan mountaineering before coming to Nepal, it was incredible to see how Nepal presented its mountaineering history. The museum exhibited not just the stories and gear from the first expeditions to summit the world's tallest mountains, which our class’ focus, but it also included the history of Nepal’s traditional mountain region ethnic communities, the geophysical history of the Himalaya, and the environmental challenges facing the region. As Ilana Schwartz ‘17 noted, there was something for everyone at the museum, not just history or mountaineering buffs. The museum experience brought the trip full circle by connecting what we have learned throughout the course the the actual place and culture of Nepal itself.
After a quick flight from Pokhara to Kathmandu the next day, the group spent Friday and Saturday exploring the cultural history of Kathmandu. At Boudhanath, the world’s second largest Buddhist stupa, we spun prayer wheels as we walked the temple’s perimeter surrounded by visitors, pilgrims, and Buddhist monks. Then, from across the Bagmati River at the Hindu temple Pashupatinath, we silently watched family members perform final rites on deceased relatives before publicly cremating them on platforms beside the river. Finally, at Patan Durbar Square, we wandered the empty halls and ornate courtyards a former royal palace built in the 14th century.
Though our class came to Nepal with the intention of studying the history of Himalayan mountaineering, the trek into the Himalayas allowed us to learn beyond the confines of any mountaineering book or class lecture. We saw first hand how mountaineering and trekking has changed the physical and cultural landscape of Nepal over the last century, and we walked the paths countless villagers, tourists, and mountaineers have walked before us. Even though two weeks in a new country is never enough time to fully understand it, the opportunity Hamilton gave my classmates and me by trekking in Nepal offered an incredible interdisciplinary dive into an entirely unique part of the world I otherwise would have never gotten on my own.
March 22, 2017: Days 9-12
Up until now, our trek has been a process of leaving behind. We left smog and noise behind in Kathmandu and Pokhara early in the trip. In the mountain village of Chomrong, we left behind reliable Internet, constant electricity, and the trip’s favorite “Himalayan espresso bar.” At Tadapani, we parted ways with both trekkers and oxygen as we climbed to about 3,000 meters on the lesser traveled Khopra Trek. In Dobato, we lost ease and comfort as pipes froze overnight and wind seeped through our minimally insulated rooms.
For many of us, this was our first time not showering for a week or the first time purifying our drinking water. The absence of Internet pushed us to revert to our parents’ age old advice to “play outside.” When good weather held in the afternoon, we played frisbee with our guides and we explored villages by wandering the terrace highways. On rainy afternoons, we talked to fellow trekkers and guides, played new card games with each other, and individually reflected on our adventure in personal journals.
Sarah Jillings notes that in leaving these extraneous things behind, we have “gained a deeper appreciation of simpler things.” Warm stoves in the evening, a cup of hot tea after a frigid sunrise hike, and the undying kindness and attention of our guides offer a new level of appreciation here high in the Himalaya.
As we slowly snaked our way from the village of Chistibang to the city of Pokhara over the last five days, we have slowly gained back all the things we left behind in the Modi Khola valley. Jack Gumina ‘19 reflected on how, upon arrival to our hotel in Swanta on the ninth day, we immediately entered a village community rather than an incongruous collection of hillside trekking hotels like where we had stayed the previous two nights. In the town of Ghorepani, where we spent the majority of the 10th and 11th days of the trip, steaming hot showers and town’s bookstore immediately grabbed our attention. As we hiked from Ghorepani to Poon Hill, a local lookout point, at 4:30 in the morning, I was shocked by just how many tourists and trekkers greeted us and the sun at the top.
As we moved from Ghorepani to our final trekking village of Hile, masses of trekkers, porters and donkeys rattled the trail to the music of chatter and hooves. This day of hiking officially marked our re-entrance into the main world of trekking and tourism. Though the Internet was fairly reliable in Hile, our group still held to our habits learned high in the hills and played outside. We all passed the frisbee - often off the terraces - and learned from the porters how to play the Nepali boardgame Pot. We explored the village and did an evening workout under the stars. The next morning, our guide Chandra led a lesson in meditation and yoga before we set off to meet our Jeeps and drive to Pokhara.
It may sound cliched, but in the absence of familiarity and comfort, our group found each other. I have seen this same outcome time and again when people who hardly know each other spend enough time outdoors. This unique mixture of having an absence of things and of being present with the place around us pushes the group to connect and friendships to form. This recipe is why I believe experiential education like the act of studying the history of the Himalaya paired with the experience of going to the Himalaya exponentially reinforces and invigorates the knowledge obtained in the classroom.
Though we still have two and a half days left to explore Nepal, a part of our journey is distinctly over. The refreshing quiet and seclusion of the trail is completely replaced by the all-encompassing noise and endless bustle of the city. Now, the last minute scramble for souvenirs and coffee has begun.
March 18, 2017: Days 6-8
If two trails diverge in the Himalaya, always take the one that goes uphill. At least, that is where our trek has lead us so far. After leaving Chomrong on the sixth day of our trip, we walked along terraces of barley and potatoes and started our steep ascent of the Modi Khola valley hillside. Hordes of trekkers rerouted from the Annapurna Base Camp (A.B.C.) filled the trail; the lack of rooms available at any hotel in Tadapani, our evening destination, was evidence of the accident at A.B.C. Though our head guide, Chandra, did his best to find enough rooms for our large group of 29 trekkers, porters and guides, some porters and guides had to sleep in a tent outside. The group bid farewell to Professor Isserman at Chuile, our tea lodge lunch destination for the day. He opted for the direct albeit more rigorous route to Ghoraponi while the rest of the group rerouted to the Kophra Ridge trek. We would reunite with him in five days time.
Though weather in the mountains is always unpredictable, a general pattern occurs almost every day of our trek. In the morning, the crisp air and clear sky allow us to see for miles and miles across the mountains. As the sun heats the valleys, clouds rise from the topographic depressions and roll over the mountain tops. Frozen or liquid precipitation usually falls at some point in the evening, making us all grateful for the wood heaters in the tea houses.
On the evening of our sixth day in Tadapani, we finally moved above the “snow line” and the evening storm brought down hail. It is unclear whether this presence of snow is a product of the snow line moving lower on the mountain from the early season storms or of us trekking higher. Regardless, our hike the next day was spent trekking up tundra ridges and sliding down snowy slopes. Our quiet tea house in the village of Dobato was a welcome respite from the overcrowded hotel in Tadapani. Though the evening temperature fell well below freezing, the students and guides spent the night drinking copious amounts of tea and laughing as friends around warm fire. It seemed as if all other A.B.C. trekkers stayed well away from our new route since we saw hardly anyone on the trail and at the Dobato tea house. This new route is part of the Khopra Trek, which only opened about three years ago and is therefore far quieter than the A.B.C. trek.
An early rise at 5 a.m. the next day brought us to the top of a small knob known as Muldhai Point. Through wind and clouds, we watched the sun kiss the top of Annapurna, then crawl down the summit of South Annapurna and Dhaulagiri until, finally, it laid as a blanket over the whole Himalaya. Despite our prediction of a clear morning, monstrous cumulus clouds tumbled over the peaks and passes and obscured our view of the majority of the Annapurna massif (compact group of mountains). From this vantage point, however, we spied the massive wall of Dhaulagiri and the spindly corners of Nilgiri for the first time all trek.
For the rest of the eighth day, we hiked over a snowy pass and began our long descent into an adjoining valley. We skirted the lower southeastern face of South Annapurna until we reached Chistibang, and the whole village consisted of two tea houses nestled into the side of the mountain. This afternoon presented us with a unique opportunity, for the stars above the Himalaya aligned just enough to allow most of us to take warm showers for the first time since Kathmandu. Our tea house’s wood stove heated just enough water for almost every student and professor to enjoy a little ‘birdbath,’ as Sarah Jillings calls it. Clean shower stalls and warm water are always welcome in the eyes of dirty trekkers, and we spent a relaxing evening clean, warm and content surrounded by the Himalaya.
March 16, 2017: Days 4-5
Every so often, the steady thrum of helicopter propellers fills the valleys. Five days ago, an avalanche came down a couloir, a deep cleft, on Annapurna and through the mountain’s base camp, burying a hotel, killing three trekkers, and stranding dozens high in the valley. Rescue helicopters have become a common sound out here as workers move supplies to base camp and taking those stranded back to Pokhara. Our trip was just starting out when the avalanche hit and was therefore very far from the scene of action. However, as we began our trek towards Annapurna Base Camp, it became increasingly obvious we would never finish our intended trek. All hotels and tea houses high on the mountain slopes have been closed down due to the high snow pack and avalanche risk, and therefore ours and every other trek in the Modhi Khola Valley has been rerouted to avoid possible danger completely.
Though we will no longer walk into the shadow of Annapurna, the rest of our trek will take us to magnificent views of the whole mountain range. We spent the fourth day of our trip wandering from subtropical forest into rhododendron forests about 3,000 meters high on the mountain slopes. Bees hopped between the brilliant red and pink rhododendron flowers, and the spent petals were scattered on the snow-covered forest floor. The day hike took us to a lookout tower on the shoulder of a mountain where Annapurna South, Machapuchare, Hiunchuli, Gangapurna and the very top of Annapurna were still clear of the afternoon clouds. After we got back to Chomrong, where we stayed for two nights straight, we explored the village and found a German bakery with a terrace overlooking the Modhi Khola valley. A few students enjoyed a rare treat at the bakery: espresso coffee with chocolate brownie cake or Black Forest cake.
For the rest of the trek, our journey will take us farther from the traditional tourist villages and destinations of the Annapurna Base Camp trek and closer to what I hope will grant us a more intimate view of Nepal. Though it takes a lifetime to truly garner that perspective, I am honestly grateful for the opportunity our new itinerary presents. Before coming to Nepal, our class on the history of Himalayan mountaineering only allowed us to see Nepal through the lens of mountain climbing. Since mountaineering in the Himalaya was conceived and perpetuated by British colonial rule over India, this mountain climbing lens limits our view of Nepalese culture.
By moving our trek away from this mountaineering lens and the main tourist areas, I hope we will get to see a tiny bit of how Nepal is, not how Westerners wish it is. As Professor Maurice Isserman has already reflected, Nepal is a land of contradictions. These contrasts are visible all around us, from the porters carrying gear in woven bamboo baskets while talking on their smart phones, to an espresso bar deep in the mountains, or vibrant rhododendrons scattered on snow. As we move further away from the Annapurna Base Camp and higher into the mountains, I truly hope to get more of these glimpses of Nepal.
March 13, 2017: Days 1-3
Even shrouded in clouds, the tallest peaks of the Himalaya hover over us. They stand as monoliths at the heads of deep valleys and, through their changing weather patterns and ecosystems, dictate the lives of billions of people, both in these alleys and well beyond. While it may have taken our group three days of travel from Hamilton College to reach the terraced mountains of the Nepalese Himalaya, the seemingly endless flights and tortuous dirt roads were well worth the wait.
Thirteen other Hamilton students, two Hamilton faculty, and two University of Rochester faculty stand on the edges of these terraces with me and stare in awe at this section of the Himalaya, the Annapurna massif - home to Annapurna, the 10th tallest mountain in the world.
Over the last three days, my companions and I have flown from New York City through Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, on our way to Kathmandu, Nepal. Today, we traveled from Kathmandu north into the greater Himalaya mountain range to the town of Pokhara. From there, our Hamilton ensemble, five Nepalese guides, and nine accompanying porters piled into four Jeeps and snaked our way across roads cut straight into mountainsides and through remontane cloud forest.
Our goal over this 12-day trek is to reach the Annapurna base camp, where expeditions up the mountain’s face are launched. If all goes well, it will take us four days of hiking to reach the base of the mountain, and then about four days to make our way back to Kathmandu.
This trek is an optional field trip this spring semester for students taking the environmental studies course, History and Literature of Himalayan Mountaineering, taught by Maurice Isserman, the Publius Virgilius Rogers Professor of History. Assistant Director of Outdoor Leadership Sarah Jillings along with Gabriela Pilson ‘17 organized this spring break trek with Isserman.
Stewart Weaver, a professor of British history at the University of Rochester, and his wife Tanya Bakhmetyeva, also a University of Rochester professor, are also accompanying the group. Isserman and Weaver co-authored Fallen Giants: A History of Himalayan Mountaineering from the Age of Empire to the Age of Extreme.
In the Himalayan, early season snowstorms have laced the mountains in a virgin shroud of luminescent snow. Despite the approach of summer, which also brings with it the rainy season, the days and nights are still frigid.
Over the next few days, we will keep trekking up the valley towards Annapurna, slowly gaining elevation until we reach 4,130 meters at the base camp. However, due to these early season snowstorms, conditions along the trek are precarious, and deep snow fall two days ahead may limit our approach to the base camp.
For now, though, we move slowly up the tropical slopes of the Himalaya, with Annapurna forever in sight.