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Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Day 3 in Kathmandu - The excitement builds

Today, I have some zany updates - most related to the odd politics of Nepal mountaineering and others related to the ebb and flood of excitement that comes from these huge expeditions.  Let me begin by setting the stage....

It is 2:34am Nepali time on the 10th of April.  I just woke up from a restful 4 hours of sleep and find myself so excited about what lies ahead today.  We push off at 5am for our flight to Lukla.  The odd thing about my excitement is that it really is misplaced.  I'm excited for a day of waiting.   You see, I'm in Nepal and as Dan Mazur keeps reminding us, we need to be patient.  His mantra is "TIN" or "This Is Nepal."  Things just move at a different pace here.  We hurry up to wait and then hurry up to wait again.  Nothing starts on time and nothing proceeds as expected.  For those of you who know Mexico really well, consider this a more chaotic but gentler Mexico.  I'm not try to disparage Nepal - quite the contrary.  I love this place and the pace.  It is frenetic while also being slow.  The people are kind and extremely welcoming.  Just do not try to get anything substantial done here.  Thus, my excitement at this hour is misplaced.  I should be sleeping because today we have many hours of waiting for our flight.  In fact, the flight may never materialize. 

Consider a specific example for the Tibet climbers.  As an aside, I am starting to really appreciate the benefits of the Nepal side of this hill.  More on that later.  Back to my Tibet pals.  These folks have to wait today for three bodies to be cleared from the Friendship Bridge.  Not sure how they got there but there are three dead bodies lying there awaiting proper burial by the family members.  Until these bodies are properly removed, the traffic from Nepal into Tibet stops.  The bridge is closed and the expedition cannot move forward.  I am quite excited that we only need Mother Nature to cooperate and not the local community.  All my marbles are on us getting out well before the Tibet expedition.   Yep, ol' unpredictable Mother Nature is far more predictable than the Nepalese. 

The other reason why I sit awake at this hour is the jet lag.  I continue to battle the 9:45 difference between EDT and Nepal time.  Just in case you think I typed the hour difference incorrectly, rest assured that is a correct number.  Nepal is 5:45 ahead of GMT.  Why 45 minutes?  Dunno.  I believe that difference serves as a big middle finger to India.  I love the Nepalese.  No offense to India.  Nepal has had a troubled past with its two huge neighbors - India and China.  I think the trouble with India may be slightly worse because the Nepalese and Indians may be alike in too many ways.  Think of it like brothers who battle constantly.  I'm not jet lagged because of the history between these countries; I just cannot stay asleep yet.  There will be plenty of time ahead to sleep.  For now, I slept about 4-5 hours each night and expect a bit more each night as my brain and body get accustomed to the shift. 

Back to the zany....

Yesterday began with a meeting - a Summit  Climb expedition meeting where Dan Mazur kept us informed and in stitches about the upcoming events.  He has the driest sense of humor that never ceases to kill me.  An example you ask?  OK.  They are all rated G so no need to shield the kids' eyes.  He has a way of saying things that slay me.  Several people asked him about clothing for the trek into base camp.  He picked out his jacket, put it on, and starting telling us how much he liked his jacket.  All the while, we were waiting for the punch line.  They, he moved back to his talk.  When pressed for more specifics, he said, "well, you can do XX and that might be a good idea....or not."  The "or not" part followed many of his tidbits of wisdom and left us howling on the floor.  Now I know many of you are wondering how on earth did we find that funny.  I think the funniest part was just the setting and how casual Dan is with respect to everything.  Dan is an awesome leader because he is SO LAID BACK.  In fact, if he were any more laid back, he would be falling backwards.  His train of thoughts meander through a tapestry of seemingly unrelated events and ideas.  Eventually, he arrives at a point but the ride between the start and the end tends to be hilarious.  My sides ached after laughing for 90 minutes.  My new Canadian friend Neal and I have the same sense of humor.  We went up to Dan afterwards and said he ought to go into stand-up comedy.  He apologized profusely for his speaking but we assured him that we like him and his speaking just fine.  A usual 90 session that drags on was turned into comedy and I really appreciated his style.  Now, you may not get all the information you desire but you (and I) never feel as if you wasted your time. 

During his stand-up routine, Dan commented on the unpredictable nature of the Nepalese.  They have various rules with steep fines and dire consequences - none that seemed to be enforced.  If their traffic is any indication, I suspect anything goes on the hill.  We would soon find out about these new rules by our mandated meeting with the Ministry of Tourism.  Yep, Dan found out at about 2pm that all the Nepalese climbers who were going above the Khumbu icefall were required to attend a "session."  Dan had no idea what the meeting would entail but he said we needed to come back before 5pm to shuttle off to this event. 
Several of us realized that we needed a few extra items so we headed out right away to get them and some food.  I'm going off on a tangent right now so bear with me...

A tangent.....Dan obviously rubbed off on me because his tangential story telling was so interesting that I think it might take me some time to shake off his style. 

I heard from several friends and family members inquiring about the food.  Let me take the opportunity to shout out to my pals Stu Williams and Chris Lee.   Stu asked me what I ate while in Nepal and Chris was silent on the matter but he no doubt is burning to know.  So, what do I eat?  Nothing fancy.  The key to a successful climb (race, workout, or any other athletic endeavor) is to stay healthy.  There are tons of little beasties poised to infect my body via the local cuisine.  I stick to extremely well cooked and well-seasoned food like Thai curries and bread products without cheese - all in an effort to stay healthy.  So far, so good.  When I return after my climb, I will indulge myself.  For now, I eat only the safest stuff from the most reputable restaurants.  We found a Thai place that was about a 10 minute walk from our hotel.  I believe we ate there 4 times.  When you find a safe haven, you go back.  We all ordered and ate the same meals too.  Safe is better than the alternative.  All systems working as designed.....OK, back to the point of today's post.

The really zany part of yesterday was the meeting with the Ministry.  Many of you may not remember or were never exposed to "Alice's Restaurant" by Arlo Guthrie but for those of you who know the reference, I offer you this picture.  We were sitting around a table where some official looking dude when on and on about something in the strangest English I ever heard.  To call it English might be a huge disservice to all those who struggled to learn the language.  He went on and on and we all sat there smiling and nodding our heads.  Dan's expression was priceless.  He just nodded his head and thanked our host.  I'm not sure what he was thanking him for and I sat there for the 30-minute meeting extremely impressed by Dan's language skills.  You see, Dan does speak some Nepali but this wasn't even a language.  I asked Dan afterwards what the heck the guy was saying and Dan looked at me with the straightest, dead-panned look and said "I have no idea, do you?"  Again, I was on the floor laughing. 

So we sat there on the Group W bench (Alice's Restaurant reference) being told that we were not to litter and signing some document that appeared to be our acknowledgement of that requirement "to be moral" while on the mountain.  I got this message from the powerpoint slides that our host's compatriot showed us at rate too fast to read.  The slides might have been printed in English but they were presented like psychological stimuli at about 300ms each.  I saw litter, fines, trash, video, and several other key words not knowing how they all related until our debriefing session among the group.  As it turns out, the Nepalese Tourism office said we were not allowed to transmit anything from the mountain without a permit fee (a steep one at that) and if we were caught, we would be fined and kicked off the hill.  Moreover, we were assigned a "liaison" officer who would accompany our expedition to oversee our compliance.  Picture this....a rotund guy who looks as if he has never done an athletic thing in his life just got assigned the task of trekking up to base camp to oversee a group he knows very little about nor probably cares to know much about.  My bet is that he treks up in his suit and leather shoes.  Let us all hope - at least for his sake - that he finds some proper equipment. 

I am not trying to be cavalier about the initiative here.  The Nepalese have a great point about trash on the hill.  Their new polices have little to do with trash.  They are more focused on controlling the income streams from the hordes of climbers.   Consider these "new" rules.

1.  No trekkers allowed in basecamp.  They want everyone who steps foot into basecamp to pony up the permit fee ($$$$).  I also see this as a good safety measure to keep all the people outside the area where our stuff may be easily lifted and whisked off to lower places without so much as a raised eye brow. 

2.  All climbers must climb their permitted route.  Any climber found deviating from their route will be asked to leave the hill and be disallowed from all Nepal Himalayan climbs for a period of 5 to 10 years. 

3.   All climbers must descend with 8kg of trash - the components of which were never discussed.  The only thing we could not count toward our quota was oxygen tanks.  Actually, the guy said no rocks.  I chuckled a bit when I heard that because I could imagine a bunch of people caught short on their trash quote loading up their bags with stones.  All climbers and Sherpa needed to pack out that amount - no exceptions.

4.  No satellite phones permitted without a permit.  We later learned that the permit was as high as $1500 per phone per person on the expedition.  I thought that was rather steep.  An expedition with 10 climbers and 2 phones would pay $30,000 for the privilege of using the phone.  Not sure how that will play out.  Expect an update later.

I am sure there were more bits I left out but these were the big ones.  We were going to be watched carefully for our compliance.  Did I mention we signed some paper at the meeting?  Well, that paper turned out to be our signed released of all rights to videos of us taken on the hill.  Apparently, the Nepalese negotiated a large contract with NBC to film the climb.  I guess we will all be on NBC sports soon.  We laughed at this notion but played along.  The Minister said we were all in a movie shot by NBC.  The rest of what he had to say about it flew over my head.  I got the point though.  Last year, a BBC representative or free lancer shot video from the summit without a penny going to the Nepalese government.  This year, we are all to pay for their past sins.  So, we move forward with our climb and all will be well.

Thanks for hanging in there for today's dispatch.  I take off in 1.5 hours for the airport.   Time to shower up....