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  • Writer's pictureDr. Rob Williams

CHAPTER 4/Live Light: Hide’ing In Plain Sight

 NOTE: Like all YAK chapters on this site, this FIELD NOTES chapter is a very rough draft very much in progress.


Please email me with any ideas, questions, or good suggestions at contact@doctorrobwilliams.com. Yak on!


Word Count: 8,000ish



Solumkhumbu Trekking - December 2023 - Dawn Patrol in the Everest region.


Spoiler Alert – while I encountered representations of The Yak in paintings, statuary, thankas(sacred Tibetan symbols) and masks - I met NO LIVE YAKS on this LIVE LIGHT adventure.

 

I know.

 

I was a bit disappointed, too.

 

And yet!

 

Yak energy infuses the high Himalayas – witness the world’s 3rd most sacred Buddhist site – Boudhinath Stupa, a legendary monumental outdoor temple nestled in downtown Kathmandu, the base of which is regularly “pattern drenched” in brown bursts of yak butter. I’d been to Boudhinath many times, and yet, I had not known of this regular hairy, humpy, horny yak-inspired upkeep. New Trek Relief friend Tamera Bedford, an American artist (www.tamerabedford.com) based out of Hong Kong who joined us for her first Trek Relief adventure, pointed this out to me one morning on the rooftop restaurant of nearby Lotus Gems monastery/hotel, gesturing at the new prayer flags being hung, and large buckets of yak butter gracefully thrown upward in strategic arcs, leaving geometric patterns along the stupa’s base.



Trek Relief executive director Candice Young with the Mariarch (Tamera) and the Patriarch.  


“Energetically, the yak is sacred in this region,” explains Mel, another new Trek Relief friend, over a rooftop Vietnamese pho dinner under the watchful gaze of Boudinath’s Buddha. Mel has lived in the Himalayas for many months and learned the local ways. “Saturating Bodhinath in yak butter,” she surmises, “reminds locals and discerning visitors of the power of traditional ways in this modern world.”

 

So – no live yaks in this chapter.

 

But what I did do is wear yak – head to toe – “hide’ing” in plain sight, like the yak butter designs – clearly visible yet a bit mysterious - on Boudinath’s stupa base.

 

Halka Ramailo! (“A little bit of fun!”)



Kathmandu's famed Boudhinath Stupa, with brown yak butter designs at the base. 


Early December 2023.

 

A few days prior to our Boudinath perambulations, far from Kathmandu’s ever-ceasing urban flow, we found ourselves at altitude just south of Mount Everest in the Solumkhumbu.

 

4000 meters (< 13,000 feet), to be precise.

 

Half a dozen tents – glowing orange in the fading sunlight – hunkered down in a wide river valley below Mt. Numbur in Nepal’s High Himalayas, a 10 hour Jeep ride from Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital city of 3 million people.

 

Under clear skies, the sun set early, over the western ridge more than an hour ago at 3 pm, and the wind has quickened, snapping our tent creases with increasing force, while the temperature dropped below freezing.

 

Looking up at Mt. Numbur’s fading alpenglow , I find myself leaning into the bracing wind – and testing, testing – focus my attention on the high mountain wear enveloping my body.

 

I am completely outfitted in yak: Khunu yak wool hat and Kora yak neck gaiter wrapping my head; Kora long underwear from wrists to torso to ankles; US Sherpa heavy knit mittens; and medium weight yak wool socks obtained three years before from a yak ranch in Michigan.

 

The only missing links?

 

A Norlha yak wool scarf (far too fashionable for this trekking adventure) and Hanwag yak leather hiking boots – courtesy of the German footwear company.

 

Despite the warmth of my yak wear, I feel a pressing need to either head for the (slightly warmer) dinner tent to join my Trek Relief companions, or crawl into my lined sleeping bag (yak wear included) and call it a night.

 

Tomorrow’s itinerary?

 

A three-hour uphill trek from here to Dudkhunda Lake – a glacially-fed feature considered sacred by Hindus and Buddhists both – at 5,200 meters (17,000 feet), a point higher in elevation than anywhere on the continental United States.

 

I head for the big dinner tent.

 

Winter is coming to this beautiful and hostile high mountain terrain – the natural home of the highest dwelling land mammal in the world.

 

The yak.

 

The yak lives light – managing to survive and thrive in environments most other creatures find too challenging – including most humans.

 

High mountain human dwellers, including the Tibetans and Nepalese sherpa people (migrants from the Tibetan Plateau), have mirrored yak’s evolutionary predisposition for thriving at altitude.

 

I recounted the recent discovery of the “e pass gene,” common to both yaks and high altitude homo sapiens, in an earlier chapter (see GET HIGH).

 

In his 2021 book The Himalaya: A Human History, adventure journalist Ed Douglas had this to say by way of summarizing genetic discoveries revealing how Tibetans, as high mountain humans, survive and thrive at altitude.

 

Here’s Douglas:

 

Those of us born at normal altitudes, when confronted with the task of surviving on half the air, produce a cascade of physiological responses, starting with increased breathing and a faster heart rate. Over time, the blood thickens with extra hemoglobin in red blood cells. Whether this is what is meant by acclimatization, or is actually a problematic by-product, is a matter of debate for some researchers. Hemoglobin makes your blood sticky, causing stroke, long-term elevation can lead to chronic illness and heart attack. Tibetans manage to function perfectly well at altitude with hemoglobin levels that are sometimes lower than lowland populations. Their respiration and heart rates are also similar.

 

Modern genetics and the mapping of the human genome have allowed us to at least start to unpack the complex interactions and adaptations that make Tibetans so successful at altitude, from how blood vessels function in their muscles to changes in the upper respiratory tract that lets Tibetan noses breathe more easily in the thin, dry air at high altitude. Researchers from the University of Queensland in Australia and Wenzhou Medical University found nine separate genetic differences between Tibetans and lowland populations, including genes connected with hemoglobin levels and the immune system.

 

The most critical issue is reproduction. You can only pass on your genes if your children survive. I once met a newly born infant in the arms of his mother in a yak hair tent at over four and a half thousand meters in the middle of the Tibetan plateau. It was a humbling experience. There was no hospital within eighty kilometers and no midwife, either. The little boy’s mother had relied on her mother to help her with childbirth, but his rude health was also a product of natural selection. Tibetan women have evolved larger uterine arteries to maintain a healthy flow of oxygen to the growing foetus. Tibetan babies are born at the same weight as lowland babies but are able to extract more oxygen from the air. The birth weight of lowland babies born at altitude reduces by a hundred grams for every thousand metres of height gained. Tibetan mothers also have genetic differences that allow them to produce more folates, an essential B vitamin, when they are pregnant.



Researching (with towel swan) at Kathmandu's International Guest House.

 

Like most humans, I’m no Tibetan sherpa – so cloaking my human hide with derivatives of yak hair seems like the next best thing.

 

Time to try and “Live Light” at altitude.

 

I first encountered yak finished products in 2013 through Vermont friend Ongyel Sherpa, whose family occupied a beautiful multi-story compound in Kathmandu, and whose parents – Big Neema and Pemba – were semi-legendary in the sherpa world. Plucked from Nepal by a generous doctor/benefactor and brought to Vermont for high school (Burlington’s Rice High School) and university (Champlain College business degree), Ongyel founded US Sherpa (www.ussherpa.com) and grown the import/export company into a continental business, bringing in handcrafted Nepalese crafts and textiles (including beautiful Lobuche yak scarves) and selling them in US outdoor stores across the country. The clothing – durable and affordable – proved popular, and Ongyel is a beautiful example of “living light,” supporting his home sherpa community in Nepal, and introducing westerners to the durable beauty of Nepalese handcrafted yak products.



The other Himalayan company I had hoped to visit the past few visits – Norlha clothing in Tibet – like the yaks themselves – haas been proving elusive. The lockdowns and travel restrictions of the COVIDtopian Moment (2020-2023) combined with PRC concerns about public demonstrations against China in Tibet, meant the province where Norlha was located remained inaccessible.

 

Researching their story, visiting their web site, and following them for many months in Instagram, I was able to piece together the following story, with the hope of visiting someday.



Dechen Yeshi - My mother’s dream has always been to do something on the Tibetan Plateau, and to get people to use their raw materials once again. She strongly felt that yak wool would be the binding factor to bring together her passion for textiles and this sustainable development. That was her mission when she sent me and my brother to this region (Amdo Region, 2004) right after we graduated. St first I thought it was very boring – yak wool, textiles – but I was very into photography and film, and she made me this deal – she said “you go and make a film and then you do a project but at the same time you collect some yak wool and you get to know a few locations.’

 

“I think she went because I sent her,” explained Kimberly Sciaky Yeshi. “Nobody believed in it – they thought I was out of my mind. But then she talked with the young nomads who were so fascinated with the outside world - to do something with the modern world rather than the kind of livelihood they were used that was centuries old so it started to make more and more sense to me about doing something with yak wool. The challenge was to train all these people and keep the employment in the village. (RITOMA, 2004) Over the years, the project has grown from 30 people to 70 – last year, it went up to 115.”

 

“It’s not physically hard out on the grasslands – but it is hard on the soul to have to slaughter your animals. Working in the factory means you don’t have to take life This lets your soul stay clean.” - Serwo Kyap

 

“People who apply for a job here are from families with less animals, and then families who have an extra person – divorced women, younger sisters – the workshop means they have a second chance on life.”

 

“Many local herders never went to school – they’ve never been educated or left home. Noe the herders can earn a living using the wool of their animals. This makes me really happy.” Serwo Kyap

 

“ No one went to college, or even high school, one of our workers went to an alternative school,” - Dorjee Rinche

 

“He had a battle going on inside him,” one side said to play it safe and stick with being a traditional herder,” the ither side said he should really take this risk and explore this path. Finally, he decided to just take the risk. He went to a nomad school for two months, at age 26, and he did his homework – and his hand was shaking from holding the pen as he had never held a pen before.”

 

Coming here has changed my life.

 

Our factory has had the biggest impact on the women nomads – life here had been extremely difficult, like the way it has been for centuries – they wake up at 3 am to milk the animals and they work until midnight – they literally only sleep 3 to 4 hours during the summer months – they don’t have time to sit and relax. Weaving is relatively easy work, and on top of that, they get cash flow they’ve never seen before in their lives.

 

A project like this can’t succeed unless the people believe it themselves, and realize this is a project that will benefit them.”  - Kimberly Sciaky Yeshi

 

My next touchstone – Khunu (www.khunu.com) – was founded by Brit Julian Wilson, who for many years sourced yak hair on the Tibetan Plateau and spun yak into high end fashion sweaters, hats and other fashion accessories in light manufacturing facilities in Italy and the United Kingdom. 2023 found Khunu, like the yak, leaving a light footprint – I was having trouble discerning if the company was still in business. Their last Instagram post was from 2022, and their web presence seemed sleepy.



 

Heading back to the Himalayas with Trek Relief provides me an opportunity to test yak-made gear from a handful of global companies to see how I might “hide myself” for success in the Himalayas’ high mountain environment.

 

At between 15,000 and 17,000 feet, Mt. Numbur’s Dudkhunda Lake region seems an ideal place to do so.

 

Back to the beginning of this adventure.

 

Our 2023 Trek Relief Nepal Mt. Numbur adventure began on Yak Friday - he late November day after Thanksgiving here in the United States – when yak enthusiasts the world over celebrate our hairy, humpy, horny, hooved friends.

 

An auspicious day to travel back to the Roof of the World.

 

Midafternoon Friday flow from Vermont’s Mad River Valley to Lebanon’s Dartmouth Coach station – just over an hour - my blissed-out tryptophanic turkey brain mapping the hops in my head: Lebanon to Boston’s Logan on the Dartmouth Coach (2.5 hours); international flight to Qatar’s Doha (12 hours) to Nepal’s Kathmandu (4 hours) – with some quiet time in between hops to eat, drink, and be merry.

 

2023 had proven a challenging year. Post-COVID, the consequences of decidedly non-scientific if aggressively prescribed protocols – lockdowns, masks, injections, small business closings, fear, uncertainty, and distrust among family members, friends and neighbors – all taking their toll on Team Human in myriad immeasurable ways, perhaps best summarized as a sort of rampant social anxiety and civilizational malaise.

 

Time to get back to yak country and be reinspired by the mystery of the mountains – and the yaks.

 

The yak company of the moment for me – Hong Kong based Kora (www.kora.com) – manufactured high-end durable yak gear for outdoor enthusiasts, including elite athletes training and performing at altitude.



Kora clothing company co-founder Michael Kleinwort captured the energy of the company in a 2023 “Yak Friday” e-newsletter post:

 

As some of you know, we’ve taken to calling today 'Yak Friday'... a day to give thanks to this wonderful creature that took our dreams to a reality all those years ago and create clothing for you that prioritises exceptional warmth and performance. Our raw materials are increasingly costly and our supply chain challenging as our furry friends are spread out across some of the most inhospitable and inaccessible regions on earth. We are so grateful that we get to continue investing in new products for you and in doing so maintain our commitment to our nomad communities. As usual this year, we commit to celebrating what the yaks bring to us, and to you, our valued community, and we hold their value high by not discounting our wool collections.

 

And of course, the pitch:

 

For those of you that haven't noticed yet, we have made some big additions to our product lines this year. By adding in our first FSC-bamboo line of base layers and activewear, and then our hemp line of casual and travel wear, we now make activewear and casual clothing designed to take you from the mountains to the city and from winter to summer and back again. It's these lines that we would love to introduce you to. Made with sustainable, biodegradable fabrics using our renowned design capabilities and the usual rigorous attention to detail, these pieces are exceptional staples we hope you will come to depend on.

 

We are as committed as ever to enriching the lives of the nomad herder communities that inspired the creation of kora in 2012. With your steadfast support, we continue on that journey together. 

 

After months of elusive back and forth, I was able to track down Michael and his team long enough to stitch together a picture of Kora’s origins and yak-related “live light” work.



Kora, outfitted.


The story goes like this.


While staying with a family of nomadic yak herders at 4,500 meters altitude in a remote corner of the Eastern Himalayas, Michael “was struck by the yak's fortitude to cope with their harsh winters and how these giant mammals were central to the Tibetan mountain community's way of life.”


Michael learned how the magnificent yak can cope with extreme cold temperatures thanks to a layer of soft and fine wool under its outer coat. Driven by his desire to keep trekking at altitude for many years to come, Michael decided to investigate the miracle properties of this wool to keep him warm, comfortable, and dry while out on the trails.


Working with yak wool proved complex, and Michael spent years learning the different production processes and working with each factory partner to adapt their processes to yak wool and the demands of outdoor use. Trips to the Tibetan Plateau to establish partnerships with nomad herder communities served as opportunities to field test prototypes, backed with data from laboratory testing.


By 2013, Michael hit on the ideal formula; a combination of warmth, breathability, comfort, and durability – finding what he needed to launch a social enterprise making outdoor clothing from yak wool - a world first.


I ask Michael – what makes yak wool so special?


“It took many years of playing with yak wool, experimenting and vigorous testing in the field,” he explains, “to understand that yak wool, when woven into yarn and made into fabrics, has unrivalled combination and lightness.”

 

“We pushed further with our discoveries and the result in an outstandingly technical material that we had not seen anywhere else,” he explained.  “Yak wool is fine and hollow, allowing for air within the fibers to increase insulation and create better air flow and moisture management, keeping the wearer cooler in warmer weather and drier too. Yak wool is also highly flexible, so its fibers bend and adapt to the wearer’s movement for comfort. Due to its lightness in weight, clothing can be layered without bulk, or easily rolled and stored. With this additional natural warmth, less yak wool is needed: kora base layers are light yet warm and breathable.

 

“When only proven essentials are taken and every gram has to earn its way onto your kit list,” Michael observes, “this is a precious advantage.”

 

Can you explain, I ask, how a Kora yak wool product comes into being?

 

“We work up with the Kegawa Herders' Cooperative, a collective of more than 90 families in the Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture living at 4,500m all year round,” Michael details. “Occasionally, we use local agents on the plateau if we need to access wool from areas beyond our reach - however our goal is to buy all our wool directly from herder cooperatives”.


“Each spring, the yaks begin to lose their soft wool underlayer for the summer and in a process that is painless for the animals, the herders collect the loose wool. The yak wool is then washed and processed by a specialist local Tibetan factory to produce our yak wool ready to be spun into yarn. We buy this wool at a set mid-market rate throughout the buying season in order to offer them price certainty, and in addition we pay a stipend of 10%.”

 

While Michael acknowledged that yak fiber “is increasingly hard to come by and increasingly expensive!,” his optimism proves infectious.


“Our future looks exciting from here, so watch this space,” he urges! 


And speaking of watching the space…

 

Let’s yak about Hanwag Boots – a high-end leather footwear company that manufactures boots comprised of yak leather, with a European manufacturing facility that assembles exclusively yak boots.



Here’s Hanwag’s web site description:

 

Robust yet soft and supple, we get our yak leather from Mongolia. Yak leather has a coarse-grained surface that makes each boot unique, and it is highly breathable to provide optimal foot climate while molding to your foot for a precise fit. Yak leather boots are built for stability, durability, and adventure! Leather is an unbeatable material for high-quality alpine and trekking footwear. When properly looked after, it can literally last a lifetime. In our handmade boots, we use a variety of different leathers.

 

Their most popular boot?

 

The “Tashi,” described in the Hanwag catalog as “the perfect combination of comfort and durability.”

 

“Made of soft yak leather, the Tashi is a boot built for miles of adventure. The double stitched upper is constructed in Germany using complex handcrafted workmanship and high-quality materials.”

 

And the “Lhasa II Lady,” which Hanwag describes as “high comfort and smooth cushioning for rough paths.”

 

“With its malleable yak leather upper, soft leather cuff, and comfortable footbed, the high-quality Lhasa II Lady makes hiking feel like walking on air.


And finally, leather is an unbeatable material for high-quality alpine and trekking footwear. Properly looked after, it literally lasts a lifetime. At Hanwag, we work with different kinds of leathers from a range of leather suppliers. This includes nubuck leather, split leather, lining leather, chrome-free tanned leather and Terracare Zero® – the completely CO2-neutral leather produced by the Heinen tannery in Germany. Together with reliable partners, the Hanwag development team selects the best raw materials for the new models and innovative technologies every season.


There is one thing all Hanwag leather suppliers have in common. They are carefully selected and have a long tradition of craftsmanship and expertise. For greater Environmental Standards, the entire Hanwag leather supply chain is located in Europe. From raw materials, to tanning at tanneries that have been certified by the Leather Working Group, to the actual manufacturing of Hanwag alpine and trekking boots.


The only exception is the high-quality yak leather from Mongolia. The processing of raw hides from yaks is exceptionally complex. Hanwag sources its yak leather from the Josef Heinen leather factory, which refines the raw material in Germany. All models in the Hanwag Yak collection are particularly robust and long-lasting. And thanks to the uneven appearance and coarse texture of the leather, each boot is one of a kind.

 

Exceptionally hard-wearing, yet surprisingly supple. Hanwag only uses robust Yak leather from Mongolia that is 2.2 – 2.6 mm thick.

 

I discovered Hanwag enroute to Nepal.

 

I look forward to slipping on a pair of yak leather hiking boots for my next overland trek.

  

Two days of flying - including crossing the international dateline and mysteriously adding a day to the calendar.

 

Doha, the Disneyland of the desert, didn’t disappoint – my seven hour layover taking me high over the city to the Infinite Rooftop Lounge for a G&T, spicey guacamole, wagyu beef balls, and a smokey slow shisha session, enjoying the stirring sonic mix emanating from a long red haired beauty in black latex spinning an EDM-inspired version of Sting’s Englishman In New York” as the city lights blinked against the cool breezes coming in from the Doha skyline.

 

Back on the plane, asleep, awake, and then I found myself back in Kathmandu on a beautiful sunny Sunday morning – a work day for Nepali urbanites, as my cabby reminded me, threading us in and out of commuter traffic to the cheerful sounds of Nepalese pop music, punctuated by Bill Withers crooning “Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone,” morphing into a techno-pop beat as the cabby and I swapped stories in broken Nepali’glish.

 

Living light – on a night such as this, in Doha, traveling halfway around the world with nothing more than a backpack on my back - full of various currencies, a Taylor travel guitar, a toothbrush, and a few power cords and snacks – it is tempting to celebrate the virtues of human nomadism.

 

For the pastoralists living high up in the Himalayas, however, the realities of “living light” in one of the world’s most inhospitable environments proved ever present.

 

And once again, our Trek Relief travelers were showing up in Kathmandu to assist.

 

Our new Trek Relief project?

 

“Highlighting the Small World: Seeds of Hope.”

 

Our small band of trekkers had already raised close to $30,000.00, partnering with Small World, a Nepali nonprofit powered by founders Sonam and Carma, a married couple with endless amounts of energy, and entrepreneurial ambitions to match.

 

Our official Trek Relief vision?


In the face of increasing pressure from both the pandemic and the climate crisis, with the latter triggering weather conditions such as unusually heavy rains, an overly dry climate, and overall changes in seasons, greenhouse tunnels have become very important.


The Seeds of Hope Program empowers marginalized farmers and livestock keepers to increase the supply and consumption of nutritious foods through implementing advanced new tools, models, and approaches. This ensures equitable access and affordability to healthy diets, producing seeds at the local level and reducing food losses.


By joining this trip, you invest in one of the critical action areas identified by the 2021 United Nations Food Systems Summit.


For this trip, we are teaming up with our local partners at The Small World to create a conscious, challenging, and community-oriented adventure, all while delivering aid in the most effective way possible.


We (TR) aim to:


  • Benefit over 500 families, or more than 3,000 persons, by providing more than ten different kitchen garden seeds and greenhouse tunnel per household; training by an agriculture expert; group formation; and a unifying leadership program.

  • Build more resilient and inclusive food systems that limit the impact of future pandemics by growing organic products for better nutrition and educating people about their benefits.

  • Empower the local community through a leadership program by forming women’s groups to equally benefit the most vulnerable in every society.

  • Bring financial relief by providing income to the country's people, many of whom have suffered incredibly severe economic hardships during the pandemic. To be helpful in the most welcome way, we have allocated generous wages for our local staff into our budget.


And the official web site story:


Develop climate resilience in mountainous communities by providing supplies and agricultural training for greenhouses.


Volunteer: Support families in the lower Everest region in the goal of having one greenhouse per household.


Adventure: Fully supported high-altitude trekking and sleeping in tents, local teahouses, & homestays


Duration: 12 days


Next trip: November 27 - December 8, 2023


Big picture, our Trek Relief goals included providing our trekkers with:


  • An embodied experience of what it means to travel consciously

  • Tax-deductible donation to support Trek Relief’s programs

  • Volunteer work and financial energetics for the local community

  • Food, accommodations, land and air transportation within trip dates

  • Premier trail services, such as professional guides and porters, National Park fee + TIMS trekking permit, and equipment rental of a sleeping bag, liner, & down jacket

  • Rapid COVID-19 tests, if needed


DAY 1: Sunday, 11/26/2023


Back in the Kat, the taxi driver winding his way to the International Guest House, an oasis of relative quiet in Kathmandu’s bustling Tamel tourist neighborhood, launch point for trekkers and mountaineers from around the world.


A late lunch of buff momo, light napping in the IGH garden under the statue of the Buddha and I decide to head to bed by 6 pm, sleeping for 14 hours, only punctuated by the 1:30 am arrival of my roommate Ocean, a thirty something Chinese gent who rowed across the Pacific in 41 days with 11 other oarsmen in a 41-foot boat. Turns out, Ocean does coding work with Amazon, has a quietly self-deprecating sense of humor, tells great “dad jokes” and is wicked fun. All this, of course, emerges on the trekking trail.


DAY 2: MON, November 27: 4pm briefing and welcome dinner in Kathmandu (4,593 ft)

 

After catching up on my sleep, I bounce out of bed at six am, stretch, throw down the five Tibetans, and enjoy Wim Hof breathing after dawn patrol on the IGH roof, where I meet a group of young Aussie trekkers heading to Liangtang Valley. After enjoying a brief reunion with Trek Relief catalysts Candice Young (our visionary ED) and Sarah Nguyen (our integrating COO), we welcome our Trek Relief team with breakfast in the garden from 8-10 am: Jameson, a dear friend of Candice who is an acro yogi, musician and digital nomad; Michelle, a free diving Seattleite who worked with Candice on Alaskan fishing boat; Ocean; Manny – a semi retired aerospace engineer and acroyogi with a wicked Spanish sense of humor; Tamera – the Hong Kong based American artist who has traveled extensively in Asia and enjoys a robust NGO community of friends here in Nepal; and Julia (pronounced Hooliya), a free diving somantic breath workers with an enviable global traveling resume and experience in the worlds of advertising and marketing.



Our first breakfast - meeting our Trek Relief team.  


I can tell – it’s gonna be an amazing trip!

 

The afternoon is devoted to trek preparations - neighborhood coffee walk, holiday shopping for prayer flags, flowy pants, and othe sundries; Gam Tapico in the garden - and then Candice, Sarah, Tamera and I take some time to work on organizational strategic planning with lunch ay an across-the-street rooftop resto at (wait for it) Yaktoo hotel, followed by a neighborhood walk to the Kathmandu folk museum, and our logistics welcome dinner.

 

Small World founder Carma lays out the service portion of our adventure: nine hour jeep ride in two jeeps; four different homes for HOME STAY; breakfast and lunch together with a cook; and a big community effort to help Small World’s “Seeds of Hope” project, which was  started during COVID. We are now three years into the project – 40 greenhouses replacing plastic tunnels, with a goal is 80 plastic tunnels. Solumkhumbu, Carms explains, is a highly religious place for Hindu and Buddhist temples. Our mornings wil be devoted to breathwork, yoga, and running, and then 6-7 people in small teams led by a local agricultural expert teaching local people and us trekkers. “COVID lockdowns made growing food more challenging, with everyone became fearful of going outside and seeing other people,” says Carma. “The local gov provides sack of rice and no one has to travel to get seed, because women have a difficult life, while men can travel, work as porters and in the army, but women cannot travel, so we found a group of women and selected ‘key leader’ in villages / communities,” explains Carma. “Women contact us and we provide expertise: how to organize meetings, how to network, how to develop leadership skills, and how to grow community capacity.”

 

Next, Mystic Himalaya co-founder and dear friend Binoy Rai lays out the trek portion of our adventure. “Nepal has always been a destination for adventure seekers and Trek Relief is certainly among them and we will make beautiful memories, plus Pemba will cook great food,” explains Binoy. “Our boys will be going ahead to scout 3 days – this will be an interesting trip, very much off the beaten path and we’ll be entering Buddhist territory so remember to aim to the left side of all mani stones and spin all prayer wheels in a clockwise direction – plus, we have a holy site around the lake – pee at least 100 meters from the lake and ask permission before you take a picture out of respect.” Binoy covers health and safety logistics, as well: hot water for drinking – good for chest to avoid the “Kumbu cough” at higher altitudes – plus hot water bottle “babies” at night for sleeping while we camp out for two nights in the cold and dark below Mount Numbur. “Trekking day starts with a morning cuppa tea followed by bowl of washing water so prepare your duffle bag prior to breakfast – with 3,800 meters being our highest camping destination – day hike to Mt Numbur / PK Base Camp, so be prepared for 6:30 wake up, 7:30 breakfast, 8:30 on the trail.”

 

FOUR DAYS’ total trek – short by Trek Relief standards – and then drive to Phaplu airport and fly back to Kathmandu.

 

 “Any stream crossings?” we ask.

 

“I don’t know yet - this is new trail for us,” explains Binoy. “Low elevation trekking is a different style of trekking – very beautiful – you will love it - our ‘climb high, sleep low’ technique works very well - we are going to the same altitude roughly as Namche Bazaar (12,000 feet ish) – so I am not worried about altitude sickness, to be honest with you,” Binoy says.

 

Agreeing to get a good night’s rest, we all head back to our rooms to finalize our packing and prep for tomorrow.

 

DAY 3: TUES, November 28: Journey to lower Solukhumbu (7,749 ft), homestay with the community

 

Our whole team, joined by Sonam and Carma’s photographer Yahya, a Middle Eastern mystic committed to “living outside the capitalist system,” gets on the road at 7:45 am from the Kat. We find ourselves in smooth flow until our 4WD truck leaked fluid, resulting in a 2 ½ hour “layover” until we are back in flow – up and down narrow and winding roads – reaching heights of 3,200 meters before dropping down into sprawling river valleys (the khola is Nepali for “river”) – with a fun lunch at an incongruously upscale resort called Kwality Beach Resort along the khola – swimming pools! Speedboats! BBQ! Bath houses!  - and then driving east before we bang a north towards Solukhumbu, punctuated by occasional stops for rest rooms and tea, and  various states of car sickness and fatigue. After a LONG day of driving – the last four hours in the dark, marked by a beautiful setting sun and rising full moon overhead casting bright ghostly shadows and light over the beauty of this Himalayan landscape. We finally arrive at the village around 10 pm, where, exhausted, we unload and endure one last ten minute schlep up stone stairs to our group guest house, where we collapse into sleep after a very late dinner. “The mountains break us down and build us back up,” I remember, the surprisingly relevant yet random quotation dropping into my brain as I drop off to sleep, “and like the mountains, too, we grow stronger.”


DAY 4: WEDNESDAY, November 29 - DAY 6: FRIDAY, December 1:

Volunteer and homestay with Solumkhumbu community

 

Imagine an Amish barn raising, with fewer tools, more laughs, and a cross cultural crew of local Nepalis and our cosmopolitan Trek Relief team flowing across this valleywide landscape.

 

After an 8:00 am breakfast both mornings, our Trek Relief team headed across the ridge to the local ward where the local ward president and his crew welcomed us with smiles,kadas (traditional white welcome scarves), and hot tea (tato cha!). From there, we divided into two teams – Team Aloo and Team Momo – and walked up past the local elementary school to our greenhouse job sites. Each morning proved sunny with spectacular views of the valley, the wisps of morning mists being gently nudged by the developing breeze, which snapped the prayer flags and signature Nepali national flag in the breeze.

 

Splitting into our two teams, we dropped down onto a grassy platform, and measured the footprint for the greenhouse – sticks, measuring tape, shovels, hoes, hammers, and rusty nails our only tools. Quickly falling into work flow for three hours – by lunch we had dug all the post holes, raised half the beams, and unfurled the tarpaulin plastic in anticipation of the afternoon’s work. Felt good to get our hands in the dirt – digging and widening post holes with simple tools, taking turns with the ling metal bashing tool, shovels, and bare hands.




Greenhouse'ing in the Himalayas. Hole'y work! 


Lunch? We walked back to our guesthouse, where we crushed delicious food – my favorite? - a vegan burger, local aloo (potato) fries and greens with crisp apple fritters – and the first day, Carma introduced us to a Seeds Of Hope matriarch named Tika, who shared her story of stepping into a female leadership role, and Carma shared with us his vision for 1,000 women leaders – “female empowerment in local communities” – in the Khumbu region. Carma also shared his own story; he grew up the 2nd youngest of 11 children as his family’s youngest son in a region called Deku. His family subsisted as cattle herders in the Nepali jungle, and he grew up very poor – he and partner Sonam’s commitment to Small World/Seeds of Hope is informed by his own life experiences.

 

Listening to Carma and Tika’s stories, our trekkers reflect on their experience working in the village. “It’s about the beauty of neighborly love and compassion,” mused Julia to me over our second morning’s breakfast. “You need help one day; it will be returned tenfold the next.” “I keep going through breathing exercises – breathe in, I am here; breathe out, I am here,” Michelle tells me. “I never thought I’d see some place so beautiful, people so friendly.”

 

The most memorable moments? The first afternoon, at dusk, when we laid the plastic roof on both of our greenhouses, celebrated with pictures and “woots!” and made our way back by dark, mist slowly rising as the clouds settled with a hint of stars off in the distance over the mountains. Once back, we split into homestay groups for the evening. Dhal Bhat, roksi (rice-inspired clear hard alcohol), and then 12 hours of sleep. Our second day, we visited the local village school, swapping dance numbers with the students, giving away new children’s books, and talking with the assistant principle and teachers – the energy flowing between our gracious local hosts and our visiting trekking team.



Dancing at Altitude with our friends in the Nepali School community.


And always, a “good night!” I stayed in the guest house lower bedroom which doubled as a kitchen storage HQ, resting my neck, head, and shoulders, listening to the occasional sounds of barking dogs under a beautiful full Nepali moon.

 

And most remarkably?

 

Our last evening, marked by a big party, featuring dozens of local village women (and many men!) celebrating the Seeds of Hope project - our contribution of six greenhouses built over three days – “Hole’y Work!” – a small contribution to a much larger project, with agricultural leader Trek providing data on Seeds of Hope: 60 families’ worth of seeds, and 116 greenhouse “tunnels” built to date. The several hour affair saw speeches, the handing out of seeds and plastic tarps to villagers, music, dancing, and Trek Relief’s signature celebratory mojo – FIRE SPINNING! – with Candace leading the flow of the Dragon Staff, and calling out our Trek Relief founding board president – moi – to join in the fun.

 

In fiery flow in Solumkhumbu!


DAY 7ish:

SATURDAY, December 02 - SUNDAY, December 03 /

Trek to Kamo Danda (12,730 ft), overnight in teahouse




Nepali Jeepin'.

 

Early morning departure from Solumkhumbu: awake at 6:00 pm, breakfast at 7:00 am, loading by 8:15 am, and drive 45 minutes to Pikey Coffeehouse for “half hour Internet, half hour coffee” (Carma says) with stunning views, and then we pack everyone and all our luggage (10 TR team members!) into a single van for bumpy ride to trek start – get name – where we met Binoy, our surdar (head guide) Lhakba; head chef Pemba (a gifted culinary specialist with a winning smile); and our whole crew of porter “boys” (s Binoy call them) for a delicious lunch in full sun (Gam Tapico!) with Mount Numbur up above. After lunch, we flow into our three hour, 3,000 foot ascent to Kamo Danda where we have reserved our night’s tea lodge – rising up through beautiful pine and rhododendron forest, punctuated by more stone stairs (who built these beauties?) than we could possibly count, and flowing through a beautiful sun dappled forest afternoon upwards into the high Himalayas – “Derry Shanti!” (“very peaceful”) – arriving at Kamo Danda before dark, enjoying a snack of biscuits and marsala tea, followed by unpacking, relaxing with massage, foam rolling, and yakking by a hot wood stove fire, followed by a delicious dinner of soup, vegetables, smoked meat slices and bananas for desert. After a hot meal, jokes and a bit of beer, our Trek Relief crew is tired but in high spirits – and we discover we are sharing the lodge with six local guys on a high mountain crew digging up a water pipe, and then wrapping the PVC with insulation, replacing one trench foot at a time. Hard work, but tonight - hey were playing cards in the corner and Julia joined right in – hailka ramailo!


DAY 8: MON, December 04: Trek to Beni (13,222 ft), overnight camping

 

Big day ahead!

 

But first - 6:00 am wakeup for coffee, tea and sunrise looking east towards Chomulungma (the sherpa name for Everest; Sagamartha is the Indian/Sanskrit name.



Dawn Patrol below Everest. 


Our whole team enjoys 45 minutes of inspired dawn patrol – all of us TR crew and porters out on the ridge sharing a sublime stunning moment in the pre-dawn cold – frost on the ridge, giant lines of prayer flags snapping in the arriving wind. after hearty pancake/egg/hot rice cereal breakfast, we pack up, Binoy introduces the “boys” (big crew!) and we head up into an undulating exposed four hour morning hike in mostly full sun that brought us to Beni by 1 pm for lunch. The day warmed quickly, the rhododendron giving way to scrubbier high mountain sand, giant boulders, and stunning views of the khola river valley far below.

 

When we arrive, our Mystic Himalaya crew is already pitching what can only be described as our Nepali “glamp” site - two person vestibule driven Mountain Hardware tents, and a giant meal tent punctuated by two “potty tents” – one for women and the other for gents.

 

As I film our first Peak Flow “Breathing at Altitude” video, the sun descended behind the ridge below Mount Numbur, and the temperature quickly dropped.

 

Our crew enjoyed a relaxing afternoon, marked by napping, storytelling, an early dinner, and two hot water bottle “babies” provided by Lakhba and his crew – luxury!


DAY 9: TUESDAY, December 05: Sunrise summit to the base of Mt. Numbur (15,066 ft), descend to Beni, overnight camping


Despite the cold, our Trek Relief crew rolls out of bed early in anticipation of trekking to our highest elevation of our trip – Dudhkunda Lake, at the base of Mount Numbur. After a delicious breakfast – eggs! rice porriage! Aloo potatoes! hot drinks! – Lakbha leads us around the east edge of the valley, past an emerging tea lodge under construction, and upward into the sun towards Mount Numbur. A light breeze springs up as we ascend the stone steps, and the day begins to warm as we pass an occasional handmade stupa, prayer flags, and a spur trail we ignore with a sign reading “Ghost Lake.”



Breathing in Dudhkunda Lake. Inspiring! 


Arriving at Dudhkunda Lake under full sun, the wind whipping now – we throw off our packs, light incense on the lake’s altar, and Lahkba offers prayers as the incense ashes are caught up an scattered by the wind. We spend close to two hours here – celebrating the altitude, perambulating around, Mani and Candice dropping into acro yogi flow, while the boys take some time to explore and pay their respects. Back at camp, te sun sets early, and we replay the coldness of the evening, this time with a small bonfire and a Trek Relief cake baked by chef Pemba. Derry Mitutsa! (“Very delicious”). Another cold evening – yay for “hot babies!”

 

DAY 10: WEDNESDAY, December 06: Trek to Taksindu (10,075 ft), overnight in teahouse

 

Leaving the next morning is bittersweet. Flowing down is always a relief, if harder on the body, and “down” always means that we are on the back side of the trek. After breakfast, the boys pack up Trek Relief “Glamp Camp” in record time, and we all head back down the same undulating trail we came in on, the day one again warm, sunny and nearly blue skies. As we wind our way up, we pass the same single brown burro, observing griffins wheeling down in the khola gorge, and celebrating the cute black dog who decided to follow us down the trail. After lunch back at Kamo Danda tea lodge (I shoot two more Peak Flow videos), we descend down the stone stairs almost all the way back to our trek start, jumping onto a spur trail for the last thirty minute hoof to Taksindu. Our evening tea lodge is sizeable, with its own stupa temple, giant prayer flags, a generous concrete courtyard (fire spinning, anyone?), and beautiful views up to Mount Numbur.

 

After settling in, we assemble by the giant barrel shaped wood stove in the dining room for dinner, drinks, guitar music, and then the ceremonial “tipping ceremony,” in which we honor each of our Mystic Himalaya trekking crew with a generous tip for their hard work. Each of our trekkers calls out the name of each porter, hands each an envelope of cash, and then hugs, and “halka ramailos” all around. A rousing round of “Re Som Fi Ri Ri,” the famous Himalayan trekking song, with some tricky dance moves, precedes an evening of fire spinning – Dragon Staff and poi balls – under a beautiful starry moonlit sky. I marvel at how Candice and Trek Relief inspire all assembled to push themselves into trying new things, and supporting one another in adventuring beyond our perceived limits. Amazing!


DAY 11: THURSDAY, December 07: Domestic flight to Kathmandu from Phaplu

 

Upon awakening a bit later then 6:00 am, we receive news that our inbound Phaplu to Kathmandu plane will arrive this morning, rather than early afternoon. In flow – we eat, pack, prepare for the Jeep arrivals, and then rock and roll our way the hour plus down from Taksindu down to Phaplu. Our plane lands within an hour of our arrival, and after flowing through the tiny airport security station, we head to the tarmac with our bags, and take off for the short jump to the Kat. The day is clear enough to enjoy the stunning view of the Himalayas off to the right side of the plane, everyone marveling at the world’s highest mountains rising like fins from the land. Touchdown in Kathmandu, we flow through Kat traffic to the International Guest House, where we grab a momo lunch, unpack, relax, and prep for a walk to a local Newari dinner place featuring drinks, dancing, and a rousing finale of “Re Som Fi Ri Ri” (which we dominate.)


DAY 12: FRIDAY, December 08: Explore UNESCO World Heritage sites, farewell dinner

 

Binoy proves an excellent tour guide for our “temple tour” day – Pashnipathi Temple, sacred cremation site for Hindus; momo lunch with a sherpa friend / partner of Trek Relief; Monkey Temple afternoon; a visit to Sonam and Carma’s girls orphanage for one last tour and children’s book delivery, and dinner.



Delivering donated books to Seeds of Hope's Kathmandu orphanage. 


As our Trek Relief team disbands one at a time to head home or off to our next adventures, our remaining crew sticks around for final Trek Relief meetings. After checking in a Hotel Lotus Gems by the Bodhinath Stupa, we gather for TR business, coffee and cake at Himalayan Java, followed by dinner at a fantastic hipster joint owned by a local street kid turned entrepreneur named Ram: Ramsterdams, of course! I have an opportunity to throw down tunes for tonight’s “open mike,” which quickly turns into two local Nepali musicians and me for a jam session. Momo, G and Ts, and a beautiful blend of Americana and Nepali music. Finale!



In flow with Ram.

 

DAY 13: SATURDAY, December 09: Bodhinath/Trek Relief Meetings

 

More departures, and one more TR meeting with Sonam, Carma, Binoy Dai, and Yahya on a nearby hotel rooftop, followed by Hyatt spa visit, followed by psylli pho at Boudinath stupa, with a flow around the stupa once more under a beautiful night sky, and sleep.

 

DAY 14: SUNDAY, December 10 - DAY 15: MONDAY, December 11 – Flight Home

 

Breakfast and holiday shopping with Tamera – Trek Relief’s new Matriarch to complement my role as Patriarch – followed by a haircut, a two hour Hyatt spa visit to loosen up nexck and shoulders pre flight, and off to the airport for a 6 pm KAT to DOHA jump – with a 12 hour layover in Doha In the so-called “Quiet Room,” the multilingual female voice regularly interrupting with news of flight departures and gates.

 

Time to flow home!

 

CONCLUSION

 

Yaks “live light,” hide’ing their resilience in plain sight. Yaks are thousand plus pound ungulates built for ease of movement across the world’s most challenging terrain, and they dislike fences, barns, and borders which present obstacles to their mobility. Other than their hides, yaks carry nothing on them on their journeys. We 21st century sapiens living in the Age of the Anthropocene often surround ourselves with Things, but yaks remind us that “living light” brings advantages and opportunities, and in the Age of the Anthropocene, we humans might learn from yaks’ deep desire to “live light!” Reminding us of this powerful connection, our entrepreneurial businesses who are working with Tibetan Plateau transhumant yakking communities source yak fiber and convert it into high-end yak products – sweaters, scarves, and outdoor/technical gear - for the global marketplace, featuring the cross-cultural entrepreneurs running US Sherpa (Nepal-Vermont), Kora (Colorado), Khunu (England), Norlha(Tibet), and Hanwag (Germany).

 

 

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