NOLS Himalaya, Part 1: The Approach

About a year ago, I decided that I wanted to do something drastic, something life-changing, something longer than my typical one week excursions.  I wanted to climb the famous (or infamous) white peaks of the Himalayas.

I signed up for the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) 6 week Himalayan Mountaineering course in India.  My goals were to improve my mountaineering skills, experience another culture, and see the Himalayas in person!  Six weeks off work wasn’t a bad deal either.  A sabbatical of sorts.  A time to reflect, gain perspective, re-evaluate my purpose, perhaps discover a new direction for my life, and of course, make memories.

After months of preparation and anticipation, it was finally time to start my adventure!  I was both excited and nervous.

My trip officially began September 3rd in the Holiday Inn at  JFK airport in New York City at 11 am.  I met two of my trip mates and one of my instructors, Felipe.  After a brief introduction, we headed to the NYC airport to meet a 4th NOLS student and then waited to board our flight.

I couldn’t believe this was actually happening!  No turning back now.  The wheels were in motion; I was headed to the Himalayas!!

As we waited in the airport, we grabbed a burger and fries at Shake Shack – my last American meal for 6.5 weeks!

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Emirates flight to Dubai

Travel itinerary to the NOLS basecamp in Ranikhet, India:

9.2.16 – Nashville to NYC:  2.5 hours (plane)

9.3.16 – NYC to Dubai: 12 hours (plane)

9.4.16 – Dubai to Delhi: 3.5 hours (plane)

9.4.16 to 9.5.16 – Delhi to Ranikhet: 10 hours/215 miles (bus)

We landed in Delhi around 8:30 pm (10.5 hours ahead of central time) on 9.4.16, retrieved our luggage, met 3 more of our fellow NOLS students, and boarded a chartered bus to Ranikhet.  The bus ride was rough.  Horns blared constantly.  No need to worry about sleeping because that wasn’t going to happen.  At first, I wondered why everyone in India was so angry.  But then I realized the horn was simply used to indicate to other drivers (pedestrians, cyclists, mopeds, and cows) know that, you too, are also on the road.  Wow.

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Gas station somewhere between Delhi and Ranikhet, middle of the night.

Despite the traffic craziness (no one obeys traffic rules and I’m not entirely sure there are rules), rough roads, anxiousness of meeting the other NOLS students, and constant noise of the horns, I was so pumped to be in India.  Instead of watching mountaineering documentaries on Netflix at home, I was actually on an expedition myself!  Bring. It. On.

I was surprisingly able to doze off here and there and then awoke in the mountains.  The roads were winding around corners and through mountain villages.  The cloudy mist was a little eery against the foothills backdrop, but we were in the Himalayas!

We began to smell burning rubber and our bus began to emit a screeching sound.  Our brakes needed a break.  A chai break (#chailife) to be exact.  So we pulled over to the side of the road to let the brakes cool down and I experienced my very first cup of chai.

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Chai stop on the way to Ranikhet.

We arrived in Ranikhet an hour or two later just in time for (another) chai and breakfast.  We met the 8th and last student as well as our two other instructors, Uma and Prani.  No time for resting; we had a full day ahead of us.

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Our 2 days at the NOLS base camp in Ranikhet were a bit of a whirlwind as we spent hours going over gear, preparing food rations, packing our 100 liter (yes, 100 liters!!) backpacks, showering with a bucket (wishing I had brought my own towel), visiting the Ranikhet market, drinking chai and eating gulab jamun, and avoiding eye contact with monkeys so as not to provoke an attack.  You know, normal stuff.

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Bucket shower and western toilet (thankfully!) at NOLS base camp in Ranikhet.

We watched a short video of our traverse that a student from a previous NOLS course created.  It was incredible; I was so stoked and ready to start trekking!  Felipe mentioned this was going to be the hardest thing we’ve ever done.  I listened to him, but I’d experienced fairly difficult ordeals in the past, and I was curious if I would agree with him in the end.  Nevertheless, his comment was a little intimidating.

Preparing 4 weeks of food rations.
Preparing 4 weeks of food rations.

Our expedition started in the Pindari Valley and would follow the Pindari River up to Zero Point (~12,000 feet).  From Zero Point onward, we would begin our traverse of 2 passes.  The first pass, Kafni Kol, was 17,500 feet and the second pass, Dhana Dura, was 18,500 feet.  We would descend the glacier and then finish the trek through the Gori Ganga Valley. Porters and mules would carry our technical gear and 3 weeks of food rations up to Zero Point.  From Zero Point, we would be on our own.  There was no guarantee of completing the 60 – 70 mile traverse, in which case, we would be forced to backtrack.

I was so ready to get in the field.  We were about to embark on a legitimate Himalayan expedition!

Reese, Felipe, Prani, Mike, Camillo, Max, Hayden, me, Uma, Mingma, Tom
Reese, Felipe, Prani, Mike, Camillo, Max, Hayden, me, Uma, Mingma, Tom

On the morning of September 7th, 2016, I awoke at 2:30 am.  I was excited, but also still recovering from jet lag.  We ate, drank chai, and left Ranikhet about 7:30 am.  A 5 to 6 hour (~80 miles) jeep ride across rough, winding mountain roads awaited us.  Good thing I took an antiemetic.  I typically don’t get motion sickness, but I seriously needed it for this jeep ride.

Jeep ride! (Before the nausea came over us)
Jeep ride! (Before the nausea came over us)

We eventually reached the Himalayan trailhead (after backtracking and finding a new route because the road had been washed out due to monsoons) in the very small town (we’re talking 1 building) of Saung.

After eating lunch, we began our short 1 mile hike to our first destination, Loharkhet (elevation: 5,000 feet).  My pack was about 62 pounds and was awkward to say the least.  I had the next 34 days or so to improve my packing skills.

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Just leaving Saung, on the way to Loharkhet. Still looking fresh!

After 40 minutes or so, we reached the PWD (public works department) of Loharkhet and set up camp.  We didn’t set up a tent that first night, but slept on the porch of the PWD.

Setting up camp at the PWD in Loharkhet.
Setting up camp and relaxing at the PWD in Loharkhet.

As I mentioned, NOLS is an outdoor leadership school.  So there are many different lessons and classes along the way.

Our first lesson out in the field was an important one:  how to poop.

Uma explained “how to poop” by describing the D’s of going to the bathroom in the woods (otherwise known as “Going for the Big Job”):

  1. Desire (obviously)
  2. Devices (smooth stone, sticks, hand, nalgene bottle with 1 Liter of water, snow/ice)
  3. Distance (away from camp and drinking water…gets tricky on a glacier)
  4. Digging (ice axe)
  5. Dumping (no explanation needed, hopefully)
  6. Definitely cleaning your hands with soap and water (couldn’t remember the 6th “D,” but soap and water and then hand sanitizer is mandatory)

Instructions:  Find an area away from camp (hopefully secluded).  Dig a hole with the adz of the ice axe.  Yoga pose (garland pose).  Do the big job.  Rinse.  Wipe.  Repeat until clean.  Wash hands extensively with soap and water. Use hand sanitizer for good measure.

Yea, I know. I did not mention toilet paper.  I admit, I was slightly traumatized at first. But hey, I’m all about getting outside my comfort zone…  Eventually you do get used to it.  The nalgene water is kind of like your own personal outdoor bidet.  At least that’s what I told myself.

Day 2 in the field (9.8.16). Travel to Dhakuri (7.5 miles):

We divided into two groups for our 7.5 mile hike to Dhakuri for efficiency and to practice orienteering.  We used a map that was created in the 1960’s.  Prani said if we could read this map, we could read any map.  Fantastic.

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Our very old and not always accurate map.

Around 9:45 am, we began walking along a stone road.  It was a pathway that many locals use on a regular basis.  Trekking in the Himalayas is not like the U.S. where you may not see anyone, let alone families, living in the mountains.

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It was a beautiful, clear day in the morning, but about 3.5 miles into the hike it started to downpour (although nothing like peak monsoon season I was told).  An Indian family beckoned us into their hut.  Perfect timing.  We huddled by the fire and drank chai. It was such a contrast to every day life in the U.S.  Such simple living.  True minimalism. With Uma as our translator, we learned that their daughter is in college and walks 2 hours one way to class each day.  She is studying the arts.

Chai break between Loharkhet and Dhakuri.
Chai break between Loharkhet and Dhakuri.

That evening, as we approached the town of Dhakuri, we saw the white peaks of Nanda Kot (22,500 ft) and Maiktoli (13,800 ft) in the distance.  White peaks!

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Dhakuri campground. Herd of cows in the foreground.

Day 3 (9.9.16) – Layover day in Dhakuri:

In Dhakuri, we learned how to create a backcountry washing machine and dryer, how to cook pizza, practiced tying common knots needed for glacier travel, and fixed rope ascension.  Fixed rope ascension is basically how you climb out of a crevasse, which is a deep open crack in a glacier.  We practiced in a tree.  Going up was easy.  Coming down was another matter.  I shredded my hands.  Thankfully, one does not typically have a need to climb down further into a crevasse once you have had the unfortunate luck of falling into one.

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This is me before I shredded my hands.

Pro Tip:  Always wear gloves when working with a rope for an extended period of time.

I was so irritated.  Day 3 in the field and I shredded my hands.  Bandaids were scarce.  It was imperative that I keep my hands clean and free from infection.

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Although my hands prevented me from helping make the pizza that night, they did not prevent me from thoroughly enjoying said pizza.  So yummy!  No freeze dried meals for us.

Pro Tip:  To melt cheese when baking pizza in a fry bake, add a touch of water and cover with a lid.

Day 4 (9.10.16) Travel to Khati (5 miles; 7,000 ft):

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The hike from Dhakuri to Khati was a short and easy one.  We wandered along the shiny stone path to find more villages, stray dogs, lush, green scenery, waterfalls, temples, and of course, chai.  Marijuana plants grew along this trail.  And lots of it.

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Mingma and I at one of the many temples in the mountains.

I was in better spirits.  My hands were healing and I still couldn’t believe I was in the Himalayas.  It still felt a little surreal at this point.

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One of our lessons in Khati centered around Expedition Behavior.  This was one of my favorite readings from the trip and definitely worth remembering for future trips, so I felt obliged to include it on this here album (props if anyone knows that song).

Expedition Behavior by Howard Tomb:

“A good expedition team is like a powerful, finely tuned marriage. Members cook meals together, face challenges together and finally go to bed together. A bad expedition, on the other hand, is an ugly, embarrassing thing characterized by bickering, filth, frustration and crispy macaroni.” So true.

  1. Get the hell out of bed. (So not cool if your tent mates are prepping breakfast and preparing for the day and you’re still asleep in your cozy bag.)
  2. Do not be cheerful before breakfast. (I abide by this rule even when I’m not in the backcountry.)
  3. Do not complain. About anything. Ever.  (As my friend Dan says, “Embrace the suck.” We are all very aware of the shitty conditions and heavy-ass pack.  You don’t have to point it out over and over again.)
  4. Learn to cook at least one thing right. (So I have to be in the right mood to cook and that’s usually rare at best.  But, for the record, I did cook chocolate pancakes on several occasions all by myself.)
  5. Either a) shampoo or b) never remove your hat for any reason. (I “washed” my hair exactly 3 times on this 35 day trip.  I’m just surprised my hair was not moldy at the end).
  6. Do not ask if anybody’s seen your stuff. (I believe I only had to ask this question a few times. It was definitely less than 3.)
  7. Never ask where you are. (Read a map.  Except ours was from the 1960’s and looked like someone had a 2 year old scribble random lines and then said “There. Go hike the Himalayas.” I never felt like a map reading pro, but I did significantly improve these skills.)
  8. Always carry more than your fair share. (All of our packs were heavy. Really, really heavy. 60-70 pounds.)
  9. Do not get sunburned. (Shout out to Beko’s nose guard and zinc oxide! Watch out for the inside of your nose and mouth on the glacier.)
  10. Do not get killed. (Obviously, a very important rule. Don’t do stupid shit.)

“All expedition behavior really flows from this one principle: Think of your team, the beautiful machine, first. You are merely a cog in that machine. If you have something to prove, forget about joining an expedition. Your team will never have more than one member.”  Read more at: http://www.brown.edu/Student_Services/BOLT/leaders/documents/Expedition_Behavior_Article.pdf

Day 5 (9.11.16) Travel to Dwali (7.5 miles):

The hike to Dwali was our first very difficult day.  We were out for 10 hours.  Prani told us we were the first group to hike to Dwali after the monsoons.  We were unsure of what to expect with regards to trail conditions.  Well, let me tell you what we encountered.

We encountered landslides, light rain, the Pindari River, goats, bushwhacking on steep terrain (maybe 50 degree incline at times), our porters (who made everything look so easy in their jeans and flip flops, and made us look like wimps), boulder fields, trail runout (our Instructor Team (I-team) created “steps” on steep terrain with loose dirt and gravel), a sketchy bridge crossing over the roaring Pindari River at night, and then finally, after dark, we encountered Dwali….which was not where it was supposed to be, according to the map.

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Our walking group negotiating the terrain before it got really difficult.

It was an extremely difficult day.  We were lucky to run into our porters, who carried our packs up a slick boulder for us.  Despite the difficult day, I was in good spirits.  I wrote in my journal:  “2nd hardest day behind Rim 2 Rim 2 Rim of the Grand Canyon.” I would have harder days to come, but it was still a legitimate backcountry day.  Our I-team did a phenomenal job with risk management as they helped us negotiate multiple tricky spots along the way.

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Our amazing porters!

The cheesy pasta hit the spot that night in Dwali.  I was so glad to be in my sleeping bag.  Even if it was sticky and humid.  Staying clean was a challenge in this humidity. It was hard to stay dry.  I longed for a nice shower and clean, dry clothes.

Day 6 (9.12.16) Travel to Phurkia (elevation 10,000 ft; distance: 3 miles)

Before setting off to Phurkia, we discussed risk management.  High Risk/High Consequence to Low Risk/Low Consequence and various combinations thereof.  We would keep these concepts in mind throughout the entire trek.

The hike to Phurkia was an easy one.  We arrived at the last official chai shop in the Pindari Valley.  We saw incredible views of waterfalls, the Pindari River, and the Pindari Glacier.  There was also a ton of sheep and goat poop everywhere.  The poop in combination with the light rain made finding a decent campsite/cook spot a little tricky.  We were also careful while we walked.  High consequence if you fell down on the ground in Phurkia.

Phurkia campsite. Pindari River behind me.
Phurkia campsite. Pindari River behind me.

Day 7 (9.13.16) Travel to Zero Point (elevation ~12,000; 4.5 miles)

As we left Phurkia (being extra careful not to slip on the slick, poo-covered ground), we made our way to Zero Point in a cloudy mist.  We ran into a huge herd of big horn sheep on the trail.  The hike was fairly uneventful in the cloudy, hypothermic mist, until we reached another landslide that washed out the trail.  I was beginning to see a pattern.  Lots of landslides in the Himalayas.   I saw the cairns on either side of the landslide, but discussed with our walking group to hike further up the trail to find an easier way to cross.  There was no established foot trail cairn to cairn and it seemed impassable according to my U.S. standards.

I was about to be outside my comfort zone yet again.  As we started up the path to find an easier way to cross, our I-team beckoned us back and we decided to cross the 20 foot wide, 30 foot deep, landslide water crossing, cairn to cairn.  Prani and Mike dropped their packs to cut steps for us with their ice axe.  A “step” is essentially the length and width of a hiking boot.  Be careful not to slip off the “step” with your 60 pound pack.  We made our way, one by one, down the landslide, across the water, and up the other side.  It took us around 45 minutes or so to make the steps and the landslide crossing in the light rain and cloudy whiteout that surrounded us.  This was a normal day in the Himalayas.  I was beginning to realize just how much easier it is to hike in the States.

I was pretty nervous walking down this scree-filled landslide.  I didn’t want to go this route.  But, honestly, I never felt truly unsafe.  Obviously, there was risk and inherent danger, but the I-team minimized risk when necessary and we all focused on the task at hand.  I had to re-set my expectations and accept the challenges that lay before me.

Finally, we approached Zero Point around 1:30 pm!  We saw the other hiking group drinking chai at Baba Ji’s and waving at us.  Baba Ji is a holy man that lives at Zero Point in this cave/home and does pooja.  Pooja is a prayer ritual performed to worship one or more deities.  Baba Ji also travels to cities in India and funds teachers’ salaries in Khati in the Pindari Valley.  He was a welcome sight to see.

Baba Ji!
Baba Ji!
Baba Ji's home. Complete with a cave.
Baba Ji’s home at Zero Point. Complete with a cave.

We took off our shoes and socks (yes, in prime hypothermic conditions!), and entered Baba Ji’s “yard” and “outdoor seating area.”  Baba Ji filled up my nalgene with hot chai and as I drank that delightful bottle of chai, all my concerns of hypothermia evaporated.  It hit the spot.

View from Zero Point.
View from Zero Point. Pindari Glacier and Camp 1 lay ahead.

We made Zero Point our base camp for the next 6 days as we prepared to climb the traverse.  I had only been in the field for a week with our expedition team at this point, but definitely experienced being outside my comfort zone a lot of the time.  Here’s a recap and a few “outside my comfort” moments to note:

  1. 1 million honking horns in Delhi.  Craziness.  Horn sounds can also be customized to your favorite horn tune.
  2. I was the oldest NOLS student by 5 to 13 years.  Our group was incredible and worked very well together, but the age gap did lead to interesting dynamics at times.  Sometimes I really just wanted to plug in my headphones and listen to music.  But I couldn’t.  No phones or music allowed in the field.
  3. No toilet paper.  Slightly traumatic at first.
  4. Dirtiness.  The humidity and dirt took “earth chick” to a whole new level for me.
  5. No western toilets (for the most part).  You literally need to be able to do yoga to go to the bathroom in India.
  6. Efficient outdoor living.  Very difficult compared to my life in the States obviously.  But even with my previous experiences, I had a long ways to go.  It took me, on average, 30-45 minutes to pack my 100 L backpack.
  7. Hiking with a 60 + lb pack over Himalayan terrain.  I can never complain about difficult, steep trails in the U.S. anymore.
  8. Orienteering and map reading.  Not entirely necessary in the States with our trails so well-marked.  I’m eager to put my new skills to use though (with a map NOT drawn by a 2 year old).
  9. Never being alone. Except when you go for the Big Job.
  10. Cooking.  In Dhakuri, we made a debacle of our cream of wheat.  It was disgusting. It tasted like sweet sand.  But we had to eat all of it.  Leave No Trace and all.

Despite the difficulties I (and we) had experienced so far, I was loving the trip.  There were no phones, no email, no TV, and no social media to distract me from actually living.  Actually living life.  I was acutely aware of every moment of every day.  Time slowed.  I gave very little thought to what was happening back home.  I didn’t have time to think about it; there was so much to learn and experience.  This was my new home now.

We were surviving in the Himalayas and progressing towards the glacier.  While I was excited and anxious to actually be on the glacier, I was intimidated at what lay ahead.  Again, there was no guarantee of our expedition making the traverse.  Health (physical and mental), altitude, and weather conditions could all turn on us.  There were lots of unknowns for me.  Ultimately, the unknown and letting go of what you can’t control is what made this experience both thrilling and liberating at the same time.

Check back soon for:  NOLS Himalayas, Part 2:  The Climb

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At Zero Point, looking ahead at our path towards Camp 1. Pindari Glacier to the left.

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “NOLS Himalaya, Part 1: The Approach

  • Iris Knight
    November 5, 2016, 11:43 pm

    My daughter & I read this tonight. I had told her how awesomely courageous I thought you were for going on this adventure a while ago so this was so very cool to read! We we’re seriously LOL throughout the read! I think our favorite is ” no toilet paper, traumatic at first” Thanks for sharing this amazing part of your life❤

    • Haley
      November 6, 2016, 11:16 am

      Thanks for the comment Iris! So glad you both enjoyed. I can’t wait to hear about your daughter’s trip. Traveling to different parts of the world is such a cool way to learn and gain a little perspective.

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