Seeking a peak experience in the Himalayas

Nepal: The world's tallest mountains pose the ultimate challenge for adventurers, but visitors can also explore the countryside at leisure.

Destination: Asia

June 18, 2000|By Alan Solomon | Alan Solomon,Chicago Tribune

Thamel is a small, congested, frenzied tangle of semi-paved alleyways in Katmandu, Nepal's capital.

A reasonable walk from the temple-filled Durbar Square, Thamel is a commercial district of bars and neon and cheap hotels and power failures and dazed, scruffy First World pedestrians and, here and there, an amputee hustling rupees.

You can't see the Himalayas from Thamel, not even on days when the air in the Katmandu Valley isn't full of dust and smoke and powdered dung from sacred cows, but they are a presence.

You feel it in the score of shops that sell famous-label backpacks and down jackets and boots and other stuff of high-altitude adventure, some of it second-hand and almost all of it fake.

Tucked off one of Thamel's alleys is an unremarkable restaurant called the Rum Doodle. Up the stairs is a saloon that doesn't take Katmandu's official 10 p.m. closing time seriously.

Behind the bar is a board bearing the signatures of some of the men and women who have reached the summit of Mount Everest, including that of Sir Edmund Hillary, who, with Tenzing Norgay in 1953, was the first; and of some who died trying.

People hooked on the Himalayas tend to hang out at the Rum Doodle. Among them on a recent April night was Ari Piela. A chunky man with fine, shoulder-length hair, a thin beard and glasses, Piela has been on the Top of the World. He reached the summit May 28, 1999.

Why?

"If you say you've climbed some difficult 'peak,' but it's lower than Everest, they'll listen very carefully," said the 36-year-old Finn. "But after a few cigarettes, they'll ask, 'OK, but when do you climb Everest?' Nonclimbers don't understand."

Picture of height

First, some numbers. In 1954, when instruments took readings from 12 points, the height of the planet's highest peak was set at 29,028 feet. In 1999, the National Geographic Society (whose figures are used in this story) and Boston's Museum of Science used the satellite-based Global Positioning System to come up with a new figure: 29,035.

Either number makes Everest more than twice as high as any mountain in Colorado. More than twice as high as Washington's Mount Rainier.

The tallest mountain in all of North America, Mount McKinley in Alaska, majestically rises 20,320 feet -- and Everest tops it by more than a mile.

Are you getting the picture?

Alongside Everest are two more peaks taller than 27,000 feet: Lhotse and Makalu. A few miles east is Kanchenjunga (28,208 feet). Not far the other way: Cho Oyu (26,906).

Eight of the world's 10 tallest mountains are either in Nepal or straddle the Nepalese border with India and China (including Tibet). More than 30 peaks in China, Pakistan, India, Bhutan and Nepal rise above 24,000 feet -- and all are in the Himalayas.

A jetliner bound for Nepal from Bangkok approaches Katmandu via Calcutta on the India side. From the window seat, the mountains north of town are little more than a distant ridge of snowcaps above brown haze. There is no sense of grandeur.

But get on a "flightseeing" plane and things change dramatically.

The Buddha Airlines 18-seater headed north from Tribuvan International Airport, first over houses, then over fields and temples, then over terraced farm plots and monasteries, and then toward the mountains. Fairly impressive. The plane banked and flew east. From the left-side windows, there was now a major ridge.

A Nepali flight attendant, speaking perfect English, moved down the aisle.

"There," she said again and again, to one passenger at a time, "is Dhaulagiri. Seventh-highest mountain." Moments later: "Annapurna. Tenth-highest mountain."

The more we flew along that ridge, the more grand it became, and then it was more than a ridge.

We were not just skirting the Himalayas. We were over them. The view was all mountain.

I have experienced the Rockies and Alps and Andes from the air. I've never experienced anything like this. And then, there was Everest.

It does not stand alone, like McKinley or Rainier or Kilimanjaro, and the pictures and the books had prepared us for that. Lhotse and Makalu, as expected, were right alongside.

But Everest was singular nonetheless. There it was, this black wedge, arrogant and proud, the fierce wind sending a plume of whiteness like the mane of a great lion king off its summit.

"The first time I saw Everest," said Susan Tomlinson, 39, a trekker from Lake Tahoe, Nev., who was at the Rum Doodle that night, "I just dropped to my knees and cried."

Lure of the Himalayas

Just about all appreciation of the Himalayas begins in Katmandu (elevation: 4,428 feet). The trekkers who come here when the hiking weather is best -- October and November, and again March through early May -- internationalize the place, particularly Thamel.

Thamel is where they can stay cheap, eat cheap, swap information, socialize and sign on to group treks or hire guides and porters for their own adventures.

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