Nepal? No problem.
by Kathe Fox ’70
I always loved mountains. When I was a little girl I wanted to be Heidi and live with goats and sheep in the Alps. At Skidmore I was active in the Outing Club and did a lot of climbing in the Adirondacks, especially in the winter. But soon I graduated, got married, had kids, got a job, grew up, and spent less time with mountains. Then my husband, Michael, took me to the Swiss Alps and my heart swelled with the beauty; it really was a visceral feeling, the images and environment flowing through me. Mountains are in my blood.
The ultimate mountains are the Himalaya. I always yearned for them, saw every movie, read every book. One day in September 2011, Michael waved a brochure in front of me and said, “Now or never. And by the way, it’s your birthday present.” The flyer described a Princeton-sponsored trip called “Rocks and Docs,” a 12-day trek to the Annapurna Base Camp in May 2012, including daily lectures on geology and high-altitude medicine.
The prospect of the trip thrilled me and scared me out of my mind at the same time, so I immediately called my children, Ellen (37) and Philip (35) and asked them to join me; there is strength in numbers. The trip required a six-month commitment to get ready physically, plus almost as much time shopping for gear. I either went to the gym and did strength training or went running outside pretty much every day. I didn’t start out a couch potato, but this was a significant step up from my usual routine. And then there were multiple NYC shopping trips with my children: we acquired high-tech tops, socks, sleeping bags, glacier glasses, daypacks with frames, duffels without frames. We knew the weather would vary from days of wet and 8 degrees to snow and 20. Our gear couldn’t weigh more than 32 pounds, the legal load for a Nepalese porter.
When the 22 trekkers gathered in Kathmandhu, we discovered some surprising Skidmore connections: the trip was led by physician Robert “Brownie” Schoene and his geologist son Blair, and it turns out Blair’s mother is my classmate Marsha Bayly ’70. Brownie was Princeton ’68, as is my children’s father. So two Skidmore women married two Princeton men and produced a bunch of great kids who got together on Annapurna—small world.
And we were off for what turned out to be the 12 hardest days of physical labor I have ever done. We began walking outside of Naya Pul, a river valley with lush scenery including farmers working on terraced fields. As we climbed we encountered small villages with tea houses, simple stone and wood structures, where we slept and ate, found primitive sanitation and sometimes electricity, and were greeted with welcoming smiles and breathtaking vistas of mountains and river valleys. The scenery changed from green, to rock, to rivers, to snow—but always with the Annapurnas and the sacred peak Machhapuchhre in our sights.
Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world—166 out of 185, according to the International Monetary Fund in 2011. Half a million trekkers every year are a major source of income, and they need guides and porters. We were accompanied by about 15 Nepalese who ranged from students on their university break to seasoned professional guides. The porters, young men in their twenties, each carried two duffels, plus a small amount of their own personal gear. The duffels were simply lashed together with no frame and then secured on their backs with twine and a forehead strap. The
porters walked every step that we did, moved as quickly or faster than we did, wore sneakers or sandals, and helped with all the food preparation and cleanup. The Nepalese are culturally very tied to their villages; many of our guides and porters came from the same village and the same large extended family. We had a lot of fun with them, and I am now Facebook friends with some of them.
During the day we shared the trail with trekkers from Australia, Japan, Europe, and India, with Nepalese workers carrying 20-foot wooden beams for constructing tea houses and other simple buildings, and with local children in neatly ironed uniforms walking to school. There was no road, only a path, and no motor vehicles. Everything and everyone moved on foot or by horse or goat. From small children to old women, everyone walked, everyone carried.
Along with hearing lectures in the evenings, we also talked, played cards, sang songs (my son managed to bring a travel guitar), ate Pringles—strangely available everywhere—and drank weird concoctions of whatever liquor and soda people had that day. For 12 days we were unplugged, without phones, TVs, or Internet. That was as glorious as the scenery. Almost everyone shared reading material, so we became a moving book club.
And I got to spend 12 uninterrupted days with my adult children, which was very special. We talked leisurely, sharing stories and aspirations; and we shared space and quiet. We saw an unadorned world and reveled in its beauty. There aren’t too many places in the world today where you can still have an experience like I had. I would walk out my door today and do it all over again.
As corny as it sounds, this experience truly changed my life both physically and psychologically. I discovered that I could keep hiking for 10 hours at a time, up and down mountains, at altitude, and then get up and do it again the next day. Now my morning run—no problem. Up and down the stairs 10 times—bring it on. I’m not invincible, but my resilience was renewed by being in those mountains. We all need dreams even if some will always be unachievable. And every once in a while, one of them transforms from a dream to an experience to a memory.