Nepal: The Khumbu Valley and Ama Dablam

When we entered MLR (mid-life retirement) our first trip was to be to Nepal and do some climbing. Literally, as we sat at the computer debating about which flights to book to Kathmandu the devastating 2014 earthquake hit Nepal. Seeing the devastation, and knowing our desired timeline to be there would put us smack in the middle of the recovery efforts, we decided to wait for an unknown future date. (We did investigate going to help with the recovery efforts. But the entities facilitating those efforts stated that we didn’t have the skills or backgrounds that they needed at that time.)

IMG_4131Fast forward a year and a half and we found ourselves on a small bus, driving across the runway at the Kathmandu airport, headed straight for a helicopter that was already roaring and just waiting for us to climb aboard….next stop, Lukla, the gateway to the Khumbu Valley.

The Khumbu Valley is hollowed ground for us mountaineers. At the end of the valley sits none other than Mt. Everest, the tallest mountain on the planet. While Everest (or Chomolungma, as it’s called in Nepal, meaning Goddess Mother of the World) does get most of the attention and is the main reason most tourists visit the valley, the route from Lukla to Mt. Everest is lined with amazing side valleys, villages and peaks that rival any other in the Himalaya for sheer beauty. We came here for all these reasons! To walk where long ago pioneers of high altitude climbing did. To meet the people who have called this land home for generations. And of course to push ourselves a bit as we look to see the view from the tops of a couple of these jagged peaks.

L to R: Willie Benegas, Sean Gavin, Reagan Rick, and Liz Gavin on the heli to Lukla

We were joined in the helicopter by a veteran Himalayan guide, Willie Benegas, our Sirdar or Head Sherpa Tendi Sherpa (11 time Everest summiteer) and by our climbing partner for this trip, the one, and only Reagan Rick!

Looking at the Lukla runway from our heli!

Arriving in Lukla is a game changer for many reasons. One, it is always listed as the most deadly airport in the world due to it being on a steep slope and hacked out of the side of the mountain. Two, 45 minutes earlier you left one of the most densely populated cities in the world and you have now arrived is a tiny, yet bustling, mountain village. And of course number three, you are beginning–what for many is a trip of a lifetime.

Our goal was simple enough, so we thought. Trek higher and higher up the valley to get our bodies used to the thin air. Climb a couple of peaks along the way. And then return to Kathmandu with all the body parts we left with. As we sat in a newly constructed bakery in Lukla that morning enjoying cinnamon rolls and coffee, the plan sounded easy enough.

IMG_4170The first few days of our trek up the valley started to put into place what would become our normal routine. Wake up. Walk to the dining area of our tea house. Order breakfast and drinks. Wait an hour. Eat. Pack all your stuff. Hike for a couple of hours. Stop for lunch at a hole in the wall eatery, which usually takes 90 minutes. Walk for a couple more hours. Find your next room in a tea house. Regroup in the dining room for the next couple of hours of eating and chatting. Sleep as best you can.

The further we hiked the less vegetation was present, the temps started to drop and the views became more and more jaw-dropping. Up until we got to timberline the tea houses were quite comfortable with showers, a heated electric blanket at night and food to look forward to. Above timberline, the nicer tea houses had a single sink to wash your hands that wouldn’t freeze at night and enough room for you and your backpack in the same room at the same time.

The menus at each tea house were literally identical with the exception of the cover which was personalized for the given tea house. The options range from noodle dishes, rice dishes, egg dishes to pizza if you are feeling adventurous. Luckily we had very few stomach problems, a bullet dodged for sure.

High up on the Pokalde traverse

After a little over a week of acclimatizing we were ready for our first climb. Willie had come up with the idea to climb a ridge above the village of Dingboche, traverse the technical rock ridge that lies at 18,000 feet, over to Pokalde Peak (19,049′) and then descend into the next valley over. Sounded like good fun and adventure to us all! This climb ended up being a ‘trip within a trip’ that you can read about here.

Camp at the base of Lobuche East. Reagan, Willie, Tendi, Lakpa, Pasang, Renge, & Sean

A few days later, and a few villages higher, we found ourselves ready to tackle our second climbing objective – Lobuche East. We set up a camp roughly halfway up the peak, but still on rock, not snow. It was a comfortable night camped at 16,5000 feet. The next day we climbed steep rock and snow to reach the summit ridge at 19,500 feet….which also doubled as our home for the night. The views of Mt. Everest and the surrounding peaks were indescribable, especially as the sunset with perfect weather.

View out our Lobuche East high camp tent. Reagan and Tendi having just come down from the proper summit of Lobuche East!
Liz’s OTC meds to manage symptoms

It was a rough night for us. Liz was still battling a sinus problem that she picked up in Bhutan. Sleeping at just shy of 20,000 feet while not having all your breathing functions working properly was brutal. And of course I had picked up a nasty full-body rash sometime after the Pokalde traverse but only discovered it on the way to Lobuche. Our first guess that was that I had shingles, despite my youth! But of course I didn’t have any of the symptoms typically associated with Shingles – thank the gods of the universe! But I still had a very ugly full body rash, which we later learned wasfullsizeoutput_c0e a staff infection. That night I also enjoyed a case of restless leg syndrome…not fun as anyone who has had it can testify. With the goal of sleeping up high accomplished, the next morning we headed down off the peak and back down the valley to the warmth of the lower village of Pangboche.

Pangboche is the gateway village to Ama Dablam. We had already walked through it once but this time we would stay a few nights to rest and reorganize before moving up to base camp proper. Unfortunately, Liz was suffering physically but suffering more mentally. She was physically depleted from fighting a sinus infection and simultaneously pushing herself hard on both the Pokalde traverse and Lobuche East. Being physically depleted left her exposed and vulnerable to an emotional upset, and so she suffered. Even after our first night in Pangboche, she was tearing up, saying that she was ready to go ‘home’, despite the fact that we don’t actually have a home to go to. An important piece here is that by this time we had been in third world countries for nearly two months. The majority of that time had been spent in the remote backcountry dealing with fairly poor conditions for staying healthy, long tough days on trail and food that wasn’t helping our case.

Sean receiving a blessing from Lama Geshe

We were able to rejuvenate in Pangboche, get hot showers, good meals, some internet, and some sleep. We also had the great privilege of meeting and being blessed by Lama Geshe. Just google Lama Geshe and you will understand his importance to Mt. Everest climbers and the Khumbu Valley. He is an inspirational spiritual advisor to the Sherpa people and everyone he comes to meet. We were staying at the tea house that his daughter owned, so auspiciously he came to our tea house and held a ceremony especially for our team, usually you have to go to him.  Our entire team was given his blessing to climb Ama Dablam, it was a moving and unique privilege.

IMG_4448By this time, my rash had stopped spreading and might have started to improve a bit, but Liz was still suffering from the sinus infection. The hike up to base camp was rather short and uneventful, with the exception of loading our bags onto Yaks for the first time. We had obviously seen a lot of Yaks on our trek but up to this point, all of our gear had been carried by porters. Yaks are amazingly hard-working animals, owned by no-nonsense businessmen, who put up with very little guff from the massive creatures. When we arrived in camp we were pleasantly surprised to find 5-star base camp accommodations and a full accompaniment of tents and staff.


Ama Dablam base camp: Liz, Sean, Willie, and Tendi

You have to remember that neither Liz nor I had any experience on a guided expeditions; everything that we had done together or separately, (I attempted Cho Oyu, 26,700 ft, in 2003) had been done on our own, no guides. So we had no expectations of a proper base camp like what we were treated to.

Ama Dablam base camp dining tent – Mountain Hardware Space station!!!!

Base camp was luxurious, but we nicknamed it ‘Yak camp’ because quite a few yaks were grazing there, so it was extremely dirty and dusty. Sadly, this contributed to Liz’s existing condition, which took a turn for the worse and moved into her ears. Now, she had mild vertigo with the associated intermittent loss of balance and hearing. Despite her symptoms which included stumbling around base camp, Liz was determined to ‘bugger on’ but that now came with a dose of attitude from Liz. Realizing that she wasn’t in the right frame of mind or physically up to the task, Liz asked me to discuss ‘options’ with her. We tossed around every possible option: I would continue on without her, she would go back to Pangboche and maybe Periche (to the medical clinic), she would start antibiotics and hope they kicked in quickly, we would keep going but only plan on getting to camp 1, or we would give up our attempt on Ama Dablam all together.

After a day or two of this conversation, we told our guide, Willie, that we were considering going ‘down’ to Lukla before heading back to Kathmandu and asked what our transportation options and associated fees were. What we didn’t want was to jeopardize anyone else’s attempt on Ama Dablam, whether that be Reagan, Willie, Tendi, or any of the numerous support members. We made the decision that best honored what we needed, which was to go down together. So the amazing Kathmandu logistical staff at TAG Nepal coordinated a helicopter for us, which would take us directly from Ama Dablam base camp all the way back to Kathmandu. Within three hours of making the request, the heli arrived at base camp. Tendi came with us, which was a hugely generous gift to us. Sadly, he left the keys to his scooter in a duffel bag at base camp – so his ability to get around Kathmandu was limited. But despite this and so much more, Tendi graciously escorted us back to Kathmandu and ultimately the next day to the airport, where we would catch a flight back to the U.S.

In the heli leaving Ama Dablam basecamp

But several members of our team summited Ama Dablam! Reagan Rick, Willie Benegas, and two of the support Sherpas Lakpa and Pasang (their first time)! So while it was an extremely difficult and heartbreaking decision we were very happy with the outcome. Here are some more pictures of the Khumbu Valley: Lukla to Namche Bazaar, Namche to Lobuche, and Lobuche to Pangboche.

We allow all of our experiences to guide our decision-making, and this experience was an extremely profitable learning experience for us both. Liz was able to deeply reflect on how she managed (or mismanaged) her emotions and made the self-honoring decision to hire a life coach shortly after we got back to the U.S. realizing that she wanted to be a better version of herself and knowing that it would be a journey, not an event, she is still working with a coach! You can read more about her journey here.

We hope to return to Nepal in the spring of 2018! There’s never enough Nepal and never enough climbing for us! #climbon



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