My mind races nervously, looking for any sign of a path or a way up. I asked Jawane, our angelic Sherpa guide who was effortlessly leading two friends and I on a 21-day journey of the Everest region, what he thought about our predicament. For the first time in over two weeks, his response was indecisive and unclear.
After much deliberation, we finally decided that we would follow a small riverbed that had eroded a meandering path through the velvety tundra like grass that blanketed the lower slopes of Chukung Tse. It was noon and we had already lost three valuable hours due to a wrong turn crossing the glacier, and the clouds were rapidly moving up valley towards the rock face of Lhotse, the fourth-highest mountain on Earth. There were fleeting moments of sun, but the day was dominated by shades of gray and radiant greens.
I was far from home and missing my family and friends. The trip had been long and challenging as we circled the tallest mountain on Earth via a circuitous high-altitude trail that traversed the Everest region and straddled the Nepali-Tibetan border that connects three demanding mountain passes. It is not commonly traveled.
The trail did however lead to many culinary revelations. Not like those you'd have in the French countryside or during carefree sojourns through Tuscany or Rioja, but revelations born out of necessity and perseverance. This is a culture that lives in one of the harshest environments on Earth. Their surroundings are little more than rock and ice; almost nothing lives here.
An occasional bird's black silhouette pierces the sky's crystal blue canvas, there are caravans of yaks carrying the keepsakes and necessities of their owners from valley to mountaintop, but there are no plants, bugs, trees or berries to forage or exploit. Even the water for tea needs to be boiled to kill the parasites and bacteria which can be fatal to those who do not take care. To produce fire, yak dung is collected and dried, as there is no wood. Dung is the only source of fuel, so the importance of this animal's presence in this region is sacred. They are rarely eaten, though they do show up in the form of overcooked steaks on certain lodge and tea-house menus along the route. Only the bravest of trekkers dare order the sacred beast.
Despite their challenges and limited resources, the Nepali people hold on proudly to their cuisine and culture. Dahl bat is a dish that I ate every day on the mountain. It has many variations that are found all over Asia, particularly in the mountainous Himalayan region, which stretches from India to China to Pakistan.
Nepali comfort food
Dahl bat is definitely Nepali comfort food. During the entire 21-day trip, I never saw a Sherpa or porter eat anything else for lunch or dinner. This dish of lentils in broth is served over rice. It is both comforting and nourishing -- and probably the safest meal one can eat while traveling in the high mountains. When traveling at this high elevation, your health is of the utmost importance. Almost nothing else matters, and, if you are to get sick up here, it surely means the end of your journey, even in the best-case scenario. Other consequences can be far more serious due to the lack of real medical care and the great distances needed to travel for medicine and help.
As Jawane and I began our climb upward, I instantly realize that there is a huge difference between walking a trail and forging one's own path up a demanding mountain face. The feeling was unfamiliar and with every step up Chukung-Tse, there was a shortening of my stride, a weight pulling me back down to the valley below. The more we progressed, the deeper the frustration became -- and once we were above the first sea of unstable boulders, steeper inclines confronted us.
Every step became labored, followed by longer rests and moments of contemplation. In about 2.5 hours, we'd ascended to over 18,600 feet from the 17,000-foot-high valley floor. Here, high on the mountain, we had entered a ravine, which led straight to the summit but was riddled with unstable rocks and scree. One step up and one step back. Trying to find stable ground was futile. The only way to gain traction was perfect balance, and after seven plus hours of trekking, that was easier said than done. Jawane looked concerned. He was constantly 10 to 20 paces ahead of me and kept saying "Very steep... May need ropes."
During our trek, the Chukung region was certainly a mystery. There was little information in the guidebooks, and few whom we passed on the trails knew any specific details of her trails and routes. Sherpas and trekkers alike would nod their heads in acknowledgment, but details were sparse at best. Even the old lady who owned a little Tea House just a day or two trek from Chukung's slopes had no insight on how to get to the summit.
The woman proudly showed me how to make vegetable momos, a traditional Nepali dumpling, from scratch, but the secrets of the little giant remained a mystery. Chukung Tse is thought to be the highest point on Earth that one can get to without ropes and technical climbing. Her peak sits proudly just below the massive peaks of the Himalayas: Everest, Lhotse, Nuptche, Cho Oyu and Ama Bablam. Though her allure is there, just out of view of Everest's peak. She's not often visited by travelers.
Just 500 feet from the top
My body tried to advance, but with each step, the ridge began to look further and further away. 18,750 then 18,800, just 500 feet from the top, and I felt my will to proceed fade away. Thoughts of the warm lodge below, my trekking companions who opted out of today's challenge, sipping on ginger tea, eating delicate potato momos, snacking on a warming bowl of Sherpa stew and even a plate of dahl bat all seemed like better options. The wind had picked up drastically, the clouds which had made their daily pilgrimage up the valley had now smashed directly into Lhotse's rock face and were now showering her peaks with a soft white mist. Greens had gone to grays, small rocks to shale and scree and my thoughts of a summit bid shifted to my young daughter Tanner and wife Kerry's voices and warm smiles which monopolized my muscles, determination and desires.
I began to have trouble to move, my stride miniscule, my forward progress dwarfed by indecision and confusion. "How will I get down? What if there is no trail at the top? What if the weather turns for the worse?"
Each glance up to the ridge above looked like a Dali painting, those that he did of the beach stones on the shoreline below the village of figures. Everything looked like a trail, but with a few blinks and closer focus, the trail just blended into the never-ending sea of rocks and shades of gray. It was over and I knew it but my legs and heart kept pushing mechanically forward.
My thoughts became frantic and without reason. I moved but to no avail or in any certain direction. The jacket that was protecting me from the harsh elements, plunging temperatures and freezing rain slowly became my prison. No skin exposed, I was encased in a Gortex vacuum no sound or feeling could penetrate. I was detached from my situation and surroundings. "Jawane" I finally yelled, "This ain't such a good idea, and it's getting late. Let's head down!"
There I had said it. I was instantly relieved and disappointed. Jawane quickly descended to where I stoically stood, and we discussed our descent and how to get down without incident. In less than an hour, we descended more than 2,000 feet. As I reached the valley floor, the sound of running rivers and the deep moans of the creeping glacier were drowned out by thoughts of Tanner and Kerry on a beach, building castles in the sand. Picturing Tanner engrossed in her bucket and shovel and her wonderful sand creations, a huge smile across her face, I instantly warmed and relaxed.
I felt regret that I didn't reach my goal of Chukung's highest point but it was quickly erased and vanished into the warmth of the lower valley's breezes that accompanied us on our walk down. Jawane and I moved quickly in silence toward the lodge and the warm meal that awaited us. As the sun disappeared behind Lhotse's darkened gaze -- and the stone enclave came into view -- I thought to myself that maybe tonight I would opt out of the dahl bat and go for something a bit different. Maybe the vegetable momos or the Sherpa stew, maybe even the sacred yak steak, well-done of course. I felt good and I was finally heading home.