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Stories from the field

When you’re on an adventure, there are sure to be good stories to follow:

A Personal Everest by Cindy Fan


It could all be for nothing, I think darkly. You could reach the summit of Kala Patthar, it could still be cloudy and you won’t be able to see a thing.

I’ve been promised that the view of the Himalayas atop Kala Patthar, an oxygen starved 5,545-metre high, is worth the effort of waking at 4:30 a.m. and pushing myself, with every ounce of strength, to take one step after another up the side of the mountain.

It is what I have had to do for the last nine days to get here, and at the final test my will to keep going is failing.

An hour ago I had been burrowed deep in my sleeping bag in a tea house in Gorak Shep, a trekker’s last outpost before Nepal’s Everest Base Camp. Now, hiking in this bleak greyness, all I can think of is how desperately I want to go back to sleep and finish my dream. I had been dreaming about chicken schnitzel and beer.

Seriously.

Vivid dreams are one of the more curious side affects of high altitude. And if you had been trekking in the Himalayas subsisting on lentils and rice for days, you too would be having wanton desires for breaded, fried meat cutlets.

With only tea in my grumbling stomach, my guide Dawa and I set out in the dark to begin the two and a half hour hike up.

It doesn’t feel like I’ve woken. Enveloped by the fog I cannot see how far I’ve come, how far I still have to go to reach the top. I feel lost in this strange state of in-between. I can only march on and up the switchbacks of frozen mud and snow. At an elevation of 5,545 metres, there is 50 per cent less oxygen. Think positively, I tell myself.

“On the plus side, you have 50 per cent more oxygen than you would have if you were dead. How’s that?”

I stop to “catch” my breath. The figure of speech is appropriate since the futility of trying to catch your breath at high altitude is akin to trying to physically grab the air with your hand. I lean against my trekking pole panting. I look up at Dawa waiting patiently.

“He doubts you can do it . . .” says the inner voice.

No he’s not. Be quiet. He knows I can do it. I know I can do it.

“What does it feel like?”

It feels like the last kilometre of a 10-hour bike ride and I have a plastic bag over my head.

How in the world did I get here?

I can trace every step of this trek which began with a one hour flight on a dodgy 12-seater prop plane from Kathmandu to Lukla airport, landing on one of the steepest and scariest runways in the world (it’s perched on a cliff).

It has been a difficult daily slog ever since: hiking up over passes, down to cross a river, a spirit-breaking climb back up higher, ever so much higher, little lowland lungs clamouring for oxygen, exhausted body crying for a break.

“But how did you get here?” the pesky inner voice repeats.

Is this an existential question? Haven’t I had enough of that already? It is impossible to walk amongst these mountains—mountains of an unimaginable scale—and not question the nature of being. Nothing could have prepared me for the sight of these snow-capped peaks, the gleaming indomitable fortress rising into high heaven; I am but a speck. To stand before them and to behold them is to experience what philosophers call the sublime.

But there is a cruel beauty to the Himalayas. It can elevate the soul while bringing you to your knees physically, psychologically.

“Jum-jum,” Dawa says, Nepali for “let’s go.” It’s the encouraging nudge I’ve received throughout the trek. I groan and make a face at him. He whistles at me to get a move on like the yak drovers do with their caravan. The joke has the desired effect and I laugh.

“Hey. HEY!” I yell, jabbing my trekking pole in the air at him. I sigh and push on.

I often forget that Dawa is younger than me since he takes care of me like a big brother. His story is one that exemplifies the social turmoil and political terror Nepal has experienced in recent decades.

Dawa’s family was relatively well off, his father the respected head of their farming village. He was 15 when Maoists came to the village demanding money. His father obliged their request. When they returned a month later for more, his father had none and was beaten and stabbed to within an inch of his life. With his father’s long recovery the family found themselves in dire financial straits. Dawa eventually found work as a porter with Trek Nepal.

Nine years later, he has worked his way up to guide. He took English, first aid and environmental courses to get here.

“Dawa, do you get tired of doing the same trek over and over?” I ask him as we hike.

“No,” he says without hesitation. “I love these mountains. Everywhere I go, I see my friends.”

His words are a blessing. Sunlight begins fighting its way through. Stronger it grows, dissolving the mist, vanquishing the clouds. As if curtains have been thrown aside, the world is suddenly revealed.

The glowing peak of Pumo Ri appears looming above Kala Patthar like an apparition. Illuminated by the new light, its snow shines like a beacon, spurring me on.

To my right I see the Khumbu Icefall, a behemoth tumble of jagged ice. The glacier is the route from Base Camp to Camp I, one of the most perilous stages to the summit of Everest via the South Col route.

Nature, solitude, endurance—this scenario is a nightmare for some. In the face of these mountains, you cannot hide from yourself. Whatever you have been avoiding or keeping in swells up, boils over until you have no choice but to let it all go, to empty it out.

“So, how did you get here?”

Earlier this year I escaped a toxic job that left me burned out and crippled by the stress to a point where I hardly recognized myself. I was sad, hardened, clouded with self-doubt. Released from the cage, I embarked on what was supposed to be a dream come true—a six-week overland trip in Africa. Midway through there was a devastating vehicle crash. I was able to walk away, with my own two feet, from the wreckage; many of my fellow travellers were not as lucky.

Despair turned to optimism. A crash and a painful recovery taught me I should try things because I am physically able, something I took for granted. Quite simply, I hike up Kala Patthar because I can.

“There. Happy?” I say to myself.

Smug silence. I smile.

The joke’s on me: Yes, I am happy.

A short scramble over boulders—a final push—and I am there. Dawa gives me high-fives and a hug. I savour the peace, the vast and vacuous silence interrupted only by the flap of prayer flags in the wind. I perch at the apex and take in the 360 panorama of the Himalayas. I see Nuptse, Ama Dablam and Lhotse, fourth highest in the world.

And there it is: Everest.

So how did I get here? With my own two feet.

The Stikine in a Day by Jeff West


A few moments before starting my first Stikine Expedition

Before Sunrise, Stikine in a day:

“Bear”, I yelled and frantically set up in my mummified sleeping bag. It was still dark and I turned my flashlight on expecting a Grizzly. Laughter came from a few feet away. Boomer and Todd are already in their dry suits, packing their kayaks. It is 5:13 a.m. and I overslept by 13 minutes. I climb out of my sleeping bag and slide into my carefully folded dry suit. I pull my river shoes on. I had laid my gear out the night before so I could step into it much like a fireman would jump into his suit if the alarm sounded. We are camped at the put in for the Grand Canyon of the Stikine. We are going to try to paddle the entire 50 some odd miles of this class V+ beast in one day.

Nerves:

The nervousness of starting our first trip was almost overwhelming for me. I had trained for a year to do this, but I really had no idea what to expect. The car ride from Tennessee had been a roller coaster of emotions. It took the first three major rapids, Entry Falls, Wicked Wanda and Three Goats to build my confidence. I had never seen anything like this type of whitewater. Stacked, huge, complex rapids with monster holes, crushing diagonal waves, 3 foot tall surging eddy walls all surrounded by 1,000 foot cliffs. The Stikine makes other rivers seem two dimensional. I had always thought of water flowing downstream, side to side and sometimes upstream. Additionally, on this river the water is constantly exploding upward and sucking down. It felt like a giant roller coaster and monster trampoline combined. Waves would throw you into the air. Seams would pull you into deep mystery moves. The crashing diagonals were the painful part. These waves are so massive that when you hit them it knocks the breath out of you. Imagine the ghost of Paul Bunyan standing next to the rapid. Instead of swinging an axe he has a giant 30 foot long wiffle ball bat. As you charge your way through the rapid he squares up and knocks you into tomorrow. I have never been hit so hard by water. I can see how big water paddlers can have good lines, stay upright and still break their ribs. And when you flip, you better hold on to your paddle like never before. The current wants to wrench the paddle from you. Dropping a paddle on this river could easily kill you.

The beauty of this canyon is without a doubt the greatest my eyes have ever seen. The whitewater offers the most amazing, fun and consequential puzzle imaginable. The canyon is colored in every shade of gray and green. However, the end result of a Stikine trip is usually black or white. You either succeed or you are lucky to survive. Swimming here will be the worst mistake you will ever make. Surviving more than a rapid or two out of your boat is unlikely. Actually being able to swim into an eddy is highly unlikely (the eddy lines are surging walls of water you can barely paddle through). If you survive a swim and make it to shore you are then confronted with a 1,000 foot cliff. If you survive the climb to the rim, my personal greatest fear is possible, becoming dinner for a Grizzly. The epic stories of paddlers climbing out of this canyon sound terrifying. Some groups have tried to quit and climb out only to find themselves trapped. They have to abandon their escape, return to the river and continue downstream. There seems to be two very different types of Stikine trips. You either have the trip of a lifetime or you are terrified and barely survive. A black or white outcome through a canyon painted in every shade of gray.

First Trip Goes Well:

The predicted rains, which rushed our first trip, never came. The second day, like the first, was amazing. We portaged Scissors and The Hole that Ate Chicago. My only bad line on the first trip was the ABC line at Site Zed. Of course, this is the only rapid where we took photos. There is a great photo of me dropping the main drop backwards. It felt how I imagine running Gorilla backwards at 13,000 cfs might feel. It worked out. Paddling through the Tanzilla Slot that first time was incredible.

There is still plenty of class IV whitewater below the Tanzilla. The Mountain Goats are there to welcome you. Finally, you have a chance to enjoy the amazing scenery and wildlife.

Levels and Gear:

Our first trip was at 13,500 cfs. The one day express was at 12,000 cfs. I was in a Jackson Villain. It handled the massive water well. The bow floats over most anything. The boat stayed dry and the removable bulkhead made packing gear a breeze. I wore a Kokatat dry suit and rescue vest. When it really matters, Kokatat is the best. For footwear, I wore Five Ten Canyoneer boots. The grippy soles and ankle support kept the portaging and scouting safe.

One Day Express Goes Well:

There is so much great whitewater in there. Countless and constant un-named rapids go on for miles. Garden of the Gods I and II, The Wall I and II, Wassons, AFP, The Hole that Ate the Hole. V-Drive is the craziest rapid I have ever kayaked. Imagine falling 30 feet with 13,000 cfs under you. There is nothing like it! We rolled into it all, but portaged Scissors and the Hole that Ate Chicago again. Running V-Drive for the second time was even better than the first. We ran Entry Falls at 7:00 am. At 12:30 we arrived at the Tanzilla Slot. Six and a half hours after leaving the put in. We stopped and hiked for a bit and floated the next 12 or so miles to the takeout. We finished around 4:00.

The emotions swirling around in your head as you commit to each rapid are mind blowing. You realize that you are far more dependent upon your paddle not to break, your skirt not to implode and your kayak to perform than anything else. Your buddies are there, but they have their hands full and really could not do much if you crash. It is just you and your gear. You obviously need the skills, preparation and training for this type of stuff, but what made all the difference was sheer determination. Jason Hale emailed me before I put on and said, “Do not ever quit”. If the rapid is not working out as planned you simply have to paddle your ass off and make it work. Before each rapid I imagined having such a burning fire in my heart that when I blew the snot out of my nose flames shot out. It is funny to think about now, but I would growl before I hit the big waves.

We were not the first or the fastest to one day it, but that was definitely the best six and a half hours of kayaking I have ever done. The Stikine is everything I had dreamed it would be. A brutally consequential puzzle immersed in perfect beauty.

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