It was spring of 1991, and my late wife Beth and I had just finished a six-month stint running a tiny rural hospital in an end-of-the-road town at 7,000 feet in the Himalayas of India. We’d been very isolated, and we felt like we’d been gone a lifetime, back in the days when letters took several weeks to arrive and phone calls were unheard of. When our six-month visas were about to expire, we decided to fly to Kathmandu, Nepal, to see the country and investigate any medical volunteer opportunities we could find.
Through the Western-traveler grapevine, we connected with an adventure travel organization that needed a trip doctor. It was a weeklong trek with about 50 American teenagers. They were on holiday from Saudi Arabia where their ex-pat parents had high-paying jobs in the oil industry.
It was a deluxe tour, with bags carried by porters and tents pitched before we even arrived in camp. We were awakened each morning with a gentle “namaste” and a steaming cup of chai tea anonymously handed through our tent flap. The kids, for the most part, were a whining bunch of brats, complaining about warm sodas and the lack of flush toilets.
After six months of late-night C-sections and multi-victim bus crashes, the worst medical case we saw all week was a pair of enormous blisters on a girl who hadn’t worn her socks that day.
Once was not enough
The trekking, however, had been breathtaking, and when the week was over we’d decided to plan another trek, this time without the hassle of the whiners. Our travel book described a self-guided trek called the Annapurna Circuit, a 21-day circumnavigation of some of the most spectacular mountains in the world. We rented some backpacks and sleeping bags and made ready to go.
Before leaving Katmandu, however, we thought it would be a good idea to let someone know where we were going. So I made a very short, very expensive phone call to my parents back in Portland. My dad answered, and between the static and the satellite delay, I wasn’t sure I got my message across by the time our three minutes was up.
“Oh well,” I thought. I’d tried.
As with any circumnavigation, there are two routes you can take: clockwise or counter-clockwise. The highest point on the trek was a pass several hundred feet above the 18,000 mark, which is nothing compared to Everest, but still high enough to make altitude sickness a real concern. Every season on this particular trek, more than a handful of healthy young travelers ignore medical advice and try to cross the pass without acclimatizing themselves sufficiently, only to be dragged down the mountain delirious and hypoxic or sometimes even dead.
Doing the expected
Conventional wisdom dictates that the best way to trek the circuit is counter-clockwise, approaching the 18,000-foot pass on a gently inclined path that affords several days for the body to adjust, and which has a well-positioned little town at about 11,000 feet where everyone is supposed to take a rest day to fully acclimate.
Being sensible medical professionals, we of course took this advice, even extending it a bit by taking an extra rest day at 7,000 feet as well. As we hiked, we fell in with a young Norwegian man who had just celebrated his 21st birthday, and was traveling the world after his government-mandated stint as a Norwegian storm trooper.
He was about as fit and fine a specimen as you can imagine, and I remember Beth confessing to a small degree of pride in her own strength and stamina as the two of us helped hustle this strapping young man up and over the pass as his lungs and head began succumbing to pulmonary edema and altitude sickness, effects that do not care if you are fit or frail.
Over the hill
Once over the pass, of course, it is all downhill, and this was now the steep side, so we were able to get our young friend to a safe altitude before things got out of hand. A few more days and we were nearing the end of the trek, and as we approached the village we planned to stop at for the night we came across The Kalopani Guest House, which was by several leagues the nicest place we’d seen in three weeks.
You could actually rent a separate room instead of just a bunk with all the other travelers, and Beth nearly wet herself when the guesthouse mistress pushed open the door to the communal rest room, showing off what was perhaps the only sit-down toilet within a 200-mile radius.
Little did we know that a flushable commode would be the least of the surprises the Kalopani Guest House had in store for us ...
to be continued Saturday ...