1,400 meters (4,600 feet)
Ramro din auney cha. Good days will come.
This is not a phrase you often hear in urban Nepal. You don’t hear hawkers shouting it in the streets of Kathmandu, and you wouldn’t hear people say it to a homeless man on the streets, nor to a monk. It’s not printed on menus or graffiti’d on brick walls. It would be easy enough to spend a week, a month, a year in Nepal without hearing it at all.
But you might hear it: “Ramro din auney cha,” if you go beyond the cities of Kathmandu, Pokhara, or Chitwan. For instance, in the foothills of Sindhupalchok, Nuwakot, and Gorkha districts, areas which took the full force of an earthquake rated 7.8 on the Richter scale in April 2015, and which are slowly and steadily being rebuilt by strong, resilient Nepali people, with occasional help from the rest of the world, and occasional setbacks from Nepal’s own government. You might hear the phrase whispered from an old man to a younger friend who has helped him clear his homestead of rubble, or between two young women helping one another lift a doka basket onto their heads, or it might be proclaimed from a tin shack on the side of the road as a group is served the next round of chhang rice beer.
Ramro din auney cha, the Nepali people will say, despite the tragedy that took the lives of over 9,000 people and left nearly every family with a casualty, because they know it is true. Good days will come.
This is not the story of the earthquake, but of what 21 foreigners did to help the people of Nepal in the recovery. It is not the story of life-threatening risks or raucous adventure, but of a two-week journey and what it took to get there, get through, and what will come of it after. This is the All Hands on Everest challenge.
This is a story about rebuilding hope.
Thamel is the tourist district of Kathmandu. Its thin streets are packed to bursting with Western restaurants, dance clubs, bars, second-hand bookstores, art galleries, bakeries, tattoo parlors, hostels, and gear shops for trekking and mountaineering. On the roads, vendors sell anything from jewelry to khukri’s, or Gorkha knives, from little violins to T-shirts to prayer flags. Incense burns from every other storefront, masking the powerful scent of car exhaust and dreadlocks. Nepalis carry cups of masala tea to their friends. The vendors yell out prices and badger tourists to buy their products, whatever they may be. There is a curious abundance of Tiger balm.
The crowded district is only a ten minutes’ walk from end-to-end. It’s also a mere five minutes by cab from Machha Pokhari Bus Park or twenty minutes by cab from Tribhuvan International Airport, making the district a perfect spot in Kathmandu for All Hands volunteers to gather.
At 11:50 AM on May 22, 2016, I walked through the streets of Thamel, looking for the Hotel Marshyangdi, where I would meet the twenty other participants in the All Hands on Everest challenge.
I was coming from Hotel Pokhara Peace, a reasonably nice establishment with all the amenities a broke traveller could ask for: bed, shower, working toilet, and wifi. Prior to that I’d spent three nights at King’s Land, a hostel with even less to offer as my room didn’t have a window but did have a mosquito infestation. But both were cheap at eight and five dollars per night, respectively. As I’d spent my three months in Nepal on All Hands bases in Sindhupalchok and Nuwakot districts, or else in accommodations like King’s Land, I wasn’t expecting much from the Marshyangdi.
I passed Everest Irish Pub, where my name is scrawled on the walls not once but three times, always in the company of other volunteers, and nearly walked right past the Marshyangdi when I saw the alien word on a white square sign overhead. I turned left, and there it was. Behind brown metal gates, a small parking lot (luxury item number one), tall doors, and a banner proclaiming: A WARM WELCOME TO ALL MEMBERS OF ALL HANDS ON EVEREST CHALLENGE’ [sic] 2016. Through the doors was a clean, elegant lobby with comfortable chairs and dark wood finishings (luxury items number two and three). A painting to the right of the welcome desk showed a Himalayan skyline behind many landmarks of the region including Kathmandu’s own Boudhanath Stupa, Durbar Square, and the Potala, the Dalai Lama’s palace in Tibet (luxury item number four). There is even a vendor of prayer beads and other jewelry at the base of the stairwell (luxury item number five).
Several other participants were in the lobby waiting for their rooms. About a month beforehand, we’d all received an email assigning a roommate with whom we’d share lodging for the duration of the trek. My roommate, Patrick, was already at the hotel, but nowhere to be seen. I introduced myself to the others waiting there—Georgie, Tanya, Tricia, and Jeff. When the hotel staff gave me the key to Room 412, I headed up on my own. Halfway up the stairs, a skinny blonde man passed me on the way down.
“Are you with the All Hands trek?” I asked.
He paused. He was already below me on the stairwell, so he looked up to respond, “I am.”
I went down a few stairs; he came up a few. “What’s your name?”
“I’m Patrick.” At last, my roommate! His voice was deep and curt, and he spoke with an American accent.
“Oh! We’re going to be roommates.”
“You’re…” He searched his memory, trying to recall to whom he’d been assigned a month ago. “Paul?”
“That’s right. Where are you from?”
“New Jersey,” he responded. “What about you?”
“Same. Whereabouts in Jersey?”
“No way,” I said, “me too.” From there we discovered that not only did we live within a ten minutes’ drive back home, but we’d attended rival high schools. I smile.
The Hotel Marshyangdi, unlike most of Thamel’s dirt-cheap hostels, has a conference room. At 5:00 PM, twenty-one people filed into the space and stood around the U-shaped table. Standing nearby were three Nepali men. One was short and middle-aged, though his hair hasn’t gone grey. The other two were taller and in their twenties.
We took our seats, and members of the Marshyangdi staff came in bearing pitchers of hot tea and plates of cookies. We began to drink and eat—the cookies tasted of black pepper. Though many of us were still shy with one another, a low hum of conversation began to fill the room. While we made our introductions, Georgie Wilkerson, coordinator of the All Hands on Everest challenge, and Alix Seyfarth, an All Hands Volunteers alum, handed out hoodies and dry-wicking t-shirts with the trek’s official logo: the All Hands hand imposed on a mountain silhouette.
“Hello,” Georgie said when she finished with the shirts. “Welcome to Nepal!” She then introduced Anuj Pandey, one of the two young Nepali men.
“Hi everybody,” Anuj said. “Good to see you here. Welcome to my country. I’m Anuj, I’m the office representative for Explore Himalaya.”
Explore Himalaya has been leading tours in the region for nearly twenty years. Their current range of services includes trekking, cultural tours, and mountain biking not only in Nepal, but in Tibet, Bhutan, and India as well. They currently hold a unanimous ‘Excellent,’ or 5-star rating on TripAdvisor.
Anuj took a few minutes to go through some basics of trekking.
“Because we’ll be working hard at high altitude, dehydration is a serious risk. We recommend you to drink four or five liters of water per day. You should always have at least two liters on you.” I swallowed. I only had a single Nalgene, which only holds one liter of water. Anuj continued, “It’s also a danger to get Acute Mountain Sickness. The first sign is usual bad headaches, so let me or any of our guides know if you get this. We will carry Diamox for you to use if you get sick—no need to carry your own Diamox.”
He motioned for the shorter, older Nepali man, who joined him at the end of the table. “This is Nima Tamang, our sirdar, or lead guide. He has been guiding treks for over 35 years. Along with our other guides, you should always follow Nima. He knows where to go, and it is dangerous to go off the trails approved by our guides, or to go ahead of them because you might ascend too quickly and get sick.” Anuj also introduced the third Nepali in the room, Nima’s son Rupchand.
There was a few minutes of question and answer as the members of our trek sorted out their last worries and anxieties. Mostly these questions had to do with gear—did we really need thermal underwear or sleeping bag liners? Anuj was helpful in addressing every question.
We were also assigned to a flight for the following morning. Two Goma Airlines Cessna planes were scheduled to transfer our crew from Tribhuvan International in Kathmandu to Tenzing-Hillary Airport in Lukla—the gateway to Mount Everest. I was assigned to the first flight, leaving at 6:00 AM.
At last the briefing session was over, and the participants all gathered outside the hotel, in front of the welcome banner. This would be the first of many group photos taken for the All Hands and Explore Himalaya social media teams. From the click of the camera, our group dispersed to two popular Thamel eateries: Cafe New Orleans, and Electric Pagoda, where we spent the night getting to know the people who would become our mountain family.
The participants in the All Hands on Everest challenge were a diverse group. There were twelve Americans, five British, one Filipino, one Vietnamese, one Canadian, and a Bulgarian. Six of them were women, the rest of us were guys. The youngest of us was twenty-two, the oldest was fifty-eight. And we’d come from all walks of life. There were many chronic travelers, but also bankers, engineers, teachers, and pedicab drivers. One of our number was a Freemason. Many had spent months volunteering or working with All Hands not only in Nepal, but on prior projects such as the Philippines Typhoon restoration in Leyte, but not all of us had been involved with All Hands until hearing about the trek.
In addition to our varied lifestyles, we were coming to the trek for an immense variety of personal reasons. One of us was getting over a difficult break-up. One of us was mourning the loss of a close friend, while another was trying to understand the loss of an absentee father. Most of us were just trying to check something big off the bucket list, and maybe trying to accomplish some good in the process.
We didn’t, necessarily, expect to become fast friends with twenty strangers, but the process began that night as we relished our last opportunity to enjoy the Western comforts of Thamel.
I stumbled down four flights of stairs at 4:45 the morning after our briefing. The hotel was dark, the kitchen closed. In the lobby, dark shadows belonging to my future trekking companions sat and groaned, every bit as exhausted as I was. We were scheduled to depart the hotel at 5:00 AM in order to make the 6:00 flight.
One shadow was not grouching in leather comfort, but restlessly pacing the lobby. Tall, bald, and beaming, he introduced himself as Chris Helmerson. His flight arrived the day before, but after our briefing was finished.
We made a pile in the middle of the lobby of things we wouldn’t need to bring to the mountain. Meanwhile, 5:00 came and went, with no sign of our airport transfer van. There was a stack of white boxes on a table that contained breakfast in lieu of the hotel’s buffet: a cheese sandwich, both the cheese and bread of which had the texture of plastic, two pieces of fruit, and two muffins of indeterminate flavor, so dry we probably started the process of dehydrating before we began trekking.
At last the vans arrived. We stuffed out packs into the trunk and climbed aboard. Within moments we were peeling out of the Hotel Marshyangdi parking lot and speeding toward Tribhuvan—and Everest.
When we arrived at the airport with only twenty minutes to spare before our flight, Nima sped us through security and check-in, impatiently dumping our 10 kilogram bags behind the Goma Air desk in the domestic terminal. From there we hurried to our gate, mere moments from our departure time. But we needed have rushed. The flight was delayed—at first by half an hour, then an hour, and then an hour and a half.
The weather that morning was cloudy, something which never bodes well for flights into or out of Tenzing-Hillary Airport. Often called the most dangerous airport in the world, flights are often delayed not only by hours but by days if conditions aren’t ideal. So we sat in Tribhuvan, exhausted but impatient. Some of us passed the time playing card games and fidgeting. Meanwhile, the participants flying with the second plane were just waking up and enjoying the well-stocked breakfast buffet back at Marshyangdi.
When the skies cleared, we were ushered onto a transport bus which took us to the section of runway occupied by a fleet of Cessna planes. Along the way we passed a group of Nepali men going for a jog down the tarmac! Our Goma Air plane was shining new, and in good repair. The interior was about the same size as that of the transport bus. There was no door to the cockpit—the passengers in front could watch the pilot.
“Thank you for choosing Goma Air,” announced the flight’s only attendant, a woman in a bright orange dress. “We are ascending almost 1,500 meters in only 27 minutes, so we recommend you to please wear these cottons in your ears.” She proceeded to hand out balls of cotton along with little Lacto-fun brand candies.
Then we took off. Because of our weather-induced delay, and the size of the plane, I was concerned that we were in for the bumpiest flight in history. But the flight was calm—so calm, in fact, that in my exhausted state I was able to drift to sleep. When I awoke again fifteen minutes or so later, we were high in the air. To the right and far below the plane were white, cartoonish clouds. And stabbing through that fluffy layer was a snowy mountain reminiscent of the painting in the Marshyangdi lobby. It was like an artist’s dream of a mountain, too good to be true. Its peak towered high above the plane.
Ahead, on the green, pine-dotted slopes of another mountain, sat the colored, corrugated-iron roofs of a village: Lukla. And a little strip of gray tarmac marked the Tenzing-Hillary Airport! It was even more frightening than I expected. It’s only 500 meters long, with an incline of seventeen degrees, at the end of which is a solid wall of gray blocks. As such, it looks like it’s made for remote controlled airplanes, not working vehicles with living passengers.
But just as the flight itself was smooth, my worries about the landing were unfounded. We touched down, and the plane swiftly slowed down as it ascended the incline, and just before hitting the wall it turning into a small parking area. There was an immediate release of tension in the plane, and then we all broke into applause. We made it!
As we disembarked and began to gather our luggage from the flight, I took a look around. The mountains seemed indescribably high. But I noticed that the tree line ended just below the snowy peaks. That meant that, compared to where we were going, they were actually very small. I smiled to imagine the Himalayan monstrosities we were soon to encounter. Then, watching my companions and listening to their excited chatter, my smile widened, and I could think only one thing:
Ramro din auney cha. Good days will come. And come they did.