Archive for April, 2010

Life Along the Khumbu Superhighway

by Stephanie Pearson

We get an early start on our nine-day trek to Everest Base Camp. Our plane lands in Lukla, elevation 9,372 feet, on the world’s shortest uphill runway at 7:30 a.m. on Sunday morning. That gives our team of ten (which is accompanied by a dozen cooks, guides, and porters), a lot of sunlight to start our 28-mile, 6,346-foot climb.

This stone and dirt path carved into a steep mountain, has been traveled for centuries by the 5,000 Sherpa people who have called the Khumbu Valley home since their ancestors migrated from eastern Tibet 500 ago.

We pass school children, trains of yak-cow hybrids called a jopkoyos, and porters carrying everything from sheets of plywood to cases of beer. Their loads look like lead weight, so I ask Tshering Sherpa, our soft-spoken 15-year-old porter if I can try to carry his wicker basket full of food. The kid, who can’t weigh more than 95 pounds, looks at me as if I’m crazy. But he sets the basket down on a stone ledge and I wrap the tumpline around my forehead. I try to stand and don’t succeed, which makes Tshering laugh. His 40 kilo load feels 20 times heavier than mine and he’s carrying it wearing plastic flipflops!

The legendary, superhuman strength of the Sherpas is the only reason foreigners can navigate this high-altitude paradise. (The only transportation options here are yak, jopkoyo, human porters, or helicopter.) No one appreciated the Sherpas more than Sir Edmund Hillary. Starting in 1961 Hillary built 40 schools and one hospital with satellite clinics in four other villages.

“He is our king, the king of the Solo Khumbu,” says Khari Jang Rai, our 20-year-old trekking Sherpa. He grew up in the lower Khumbu and went to a school that Hillary built until he was 16.

We’ve stopped at a cliffy overlook just outside of Lukla and Khari points out a Hillary school. He explains that the drumbeats wafting over the wheat fields are leading the children in their “physical training,” a concept that makes me chuckle, considering that most of them trek a few thousand feet per day just to get to school.

On the second day, after criss-crossing the raging Dudh Kosi River on metal suspension bridges a half-dozen times, followed by a brutal hike up a 1,973-foot switchback, we reach Namche Bazar, the capital of the Khumbu region for both Sherpas and the growing number of annual trekkers who travel through Sagarmatha National Park. (In 2009, nearly 29,000 people trekked here.) The steep village of 500 has wireless Internet cafes, a brand new Mountain Hardwear mountaineering shop, and plenty of places to have a massage.

I stop at the Mountain Medicine Center and meet Rhita Doma Sherpa, a 27-year-old nurse who recently started her own business. Except for going to nursing school in Kathmandu, Rita has lived in Namche her whole life.

“When I was small we had one tea shop in the village,” she tells me, adding that now there are at least a dozen. At one point Rhita wanted to move to the U.S., but has since changed her mind. “I never want to move,” she tells me. “This is home.”

On day three of our trek we visit Khunde, the village at the base of sacred Khumbiyula, a massive granite peak that is sacred to the Sherpas and off-limits to mountain climbers. Khunde is also where the Sirdar (boss) of our trekking expedition, Ang Temba Sherpa, was born and where Hillary built the region’s first hospital almost 50 years ago.

Ang Temba introduces us to Dr. Kami Temba Sherpa. Dr. Kami has worked at the clinic for 25 years and tells us that today the hospital has a pharmacy, facilities for minor surgery, x-ray, ultrasound, an EKG, a delivery room, a lab, and two defibrillators. In the exam room, there’s an old black-and-white photo of Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, the Sherpa who climbed Everest with Hillary.

After lunch at Ang Temba’s house, we trek a half-hour to the village of Khumjung, where Hillary built his first school. Ang Temba went to this school until grade ten. He tells us that some days it was so cold that he would run the 20 minutes  home to gobble down a hot lunch in ten minutes in order to make it back to school in time for his next class.

I ask him what he remembers of Hillary.

“When I was a kid, he would come every year and build,” says Ang Temba. “We thought he was a big man just giving orders, but he came with his tools. I realized that he’s not a big man. He’s a humble man.”

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Nepal’s Spiritual Melting Pot

by Stephanie Pearson

In Kathmandu horns blare, garbage burns, chickens are butchered, and the traffic stops only for cows, which are sacred in the Hindu religion.

Life in the capital city is chaotic. But amidst all the frenetic energy the Kathmandu Valley is home to more temples, shrines, and stupas per square foot than anywhere else in the world. Followers of the country’s two major belief systems—80.6 percent of the residents are Hindu and 10.7 percent are Buddhist—live side by side in harmony. Nepal is the only official Hindu state in the world, but the Buddha was born here and most Americans associate the country with Buddhism because of the 6,000 Buddhist Sherpa people who live in the Khumbu Valley, the route to the high Himalayan peaks, including Mount Everest.

“We have religious harmony between Hinduism and Buddhism,” Ganesh Sharma, Expedition Hanesbrands’ 29-year-old guide in Kathmandu tells me as our driver breaks and accelerates his way through the crazy traffic of Kathmandu.

Sharma is a living example of Nepal’s melting pot of spirituality: The 29-year-old was raised Hindu—his father built a temple devoted to Lord Shiva, one of the most powerful Hindu deities. But today he wears Buddhist Mandala beads with a photo of the Buddhist guru Osha. He also shares the same name, Ganesh, with the beloved elephant-headed deity that appears in both Hindu and Buddhist traditions.

Before heading into the Buddhist high country, team Expedition Hanesbrands started our Nepali odyssey exploring three of the most important religious sites in Kathmandu.

First stop, Pashupatinath, one of the holiest temples in the world for both Buddhists and Hindus. The gilded array of temples, some of which date back to the fifth century, are off limits to non-Hindus. But we watched the activity from across the sacred Bagmati River. On the steamy hot Saturday, we walked past street vendors selling singing bowls and prayer beads while bare-chested Hindu holy men, their bodies decorated with brilliant red and yellow dyes, sat meditating on stone walls as their long, matted hair flowed to the ground. Across the Bagmati River, Hindu families burned the bodies of their deceased loved ones on funeral pyres as marigold wreaths and garbage floated in the water below. The smoky-sweet smell in the air was a mixture of burning incense and burning flesh.

Next up was Boudanath Stupa, a round shrine 120 feet in diameter topped by a gold dome. The massive white structure, streaming with yellow, green, red, yellow, and white prayer flags flapping in the breeze, is “the jewel point in the center of the natural mandala,” a store of sacred energy that has been tapped into by traders and pilgrims for thousands of years.

When we arrived, Hindu women were walking in a clockwise direction around the stupa, spinning prayer wheels (which they believe release prayers into the universe), while cymbals clashed and trumpets blared as a saffron-robed Buddhist monk chanted his own prayers in a Puja, a ceremony that leaves offerings to the deities.

Our final stop on the tour required a trek to the city limits. Sitting on top of a hill, an island oasis to the surrounding chaos, is the famous Buddhist “Monkey Temple.” Normally, the four-legged primates reign supreme and are allowed to freely roam this complex miniature city of stupas and temples, officially know as Swayambhunath. But today the air was so hot that they all hightailed it for the trees, leaving a breezy view of Kathmandu to the hundreds of pilgrims who had walked the hundreds of steps from the city below. It’s easy to understand why hundreds of thousands of people have flocked here for centuries.

“It is very peaceful here,” says Ganesh.

Butcher Shop in Kathmandu

Butcher Shop in Kathmandu

Buddhist shrine at the Monkey Temple

Buddhist shrine at the Monkey Temple

2 Hindu holy men

2 Hindu holy men at Pashupatinath

Bouddhanath Stupa

Bouddhanath Stupa

Interview: LaQuishia Stone Goes Big

In her first foray to a foreign country, this Carver High School Student takes on Mount Everest

“At first I thought it was a big joke, but once I sat down and talked to my mom about it, I realized this was a once in a lifetime opportunity,” says LaQuishia Stone.

The “joke” in question was the challenge that Hanesbrands Inc. threw out to the students at nearby Carver High School in Winston-Salem, North Carolina: Write an essay on why you want to trek to Everest Base Camp and, if your grades are good enough, the teachers recommend you highly enough, and you’re up to the task of climbing to 17,500 feet, we’ll take you with us.

Stone, who beat out about a dozen or so other finalists in the essay contest, isn’t one to walk away from a challenge, even one that takes her halfway around the world, above the clouds, and firmly into terra incognita. She’s used to doing things the hard way: The 17-year-old junior was the first girl to play tight and defensive end for the Winston-Salem Indians football team. And she’s played basketball with Michael Jordan. After high school Stone plans to go to college, possibly major in business, and eventually become a music producer. Given her accomplishments and goals, Mount Everest base camp doesn’t sound quite as lofty anymore.

Stone, her mother LaShonda, and Carver High School staff member Theresa Hamer, will be flying to Kathmandu this week to start the 40-plus-mile trek to base camp to meet Jamie Clarke and the climbing team. Here are a few thoughts from Stone before she embarks on her journey to see the roof of the world:

Stephanie Pearson: Were you surprised when you were chosen for the Everest trip?

LaQuishia Stone: I was very shocked and surprised at the time.

SP: In your winning essay you write that you “like taking risks that others would not, so I push myself each day to better myself.” How do you push yourself?

LS: Well, you know, my mom pushes herself, which makes me want to push myself more. I played football for two years and was the only girl who played. After the first practice they knew that I wasn’t playing any games and that I was serious about it.

SP: What other sports do you play?

LS: I play basketball, softball, soccer, a little bit of volleyball, and I used to box. I play any sport there is.

SP: What’s the highest you’ve ever climbed?

LS: The most climbing I’ve ever done is in a gym and you have a thing where you climb to the top and press the button.

SP: What are you doing to train for the trek?

LS: I play AAU basketball, for the Lady Phoenix out of Greensboro. I’m a shooting guard and post. I have practice every Tuesday and Thursday and tournaments on weekends. On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday I have track practice. I’m a distance runner. I do the one-lap or two-lap events. And I’ve been doing a lot of walking with my mom.

SP: What’s the farthest from home you’ve ever been?

LS: I went to a Michael Jordan basketball camp in Santa Barbara. He’s very cool, very outgoing.

SP: What are you most excited about the trip?

LS: Meeting new people, trying new things, trying new food, and learning their culture.

SP: What makes you most scared?

LS: Well, I’m not really afraid of anything. But if I had to pick one I would say trying the food that’s not all that great. I don’t want to be disrespectful. I want to eat it with a straight face.

SP: What do you hope to get out of the trip and bring back to your fellow students?

LS: I’m hoping to learn new things, not to take things for granted, and be grateful for what I’ve got. In some parts of Asia they don’t have as much opportunity as we have here as far as schooling. School is a must; you have to go to school. I want to come back with lots of knowledge. Therefore I can teach it to others.

LaQuishia Stone

LaQuishia Stone