Tom Burnham, left, and Rick Berlet.

Trekking the Kharta Valley of Tibet

Last October, my friend and cycling buddy, Rick Berlet, and I spent a month in Tibet and Nepal exploring a seldom-visited and stunning part of the world.

Arriving in Kathmandu, Nepal we met our guide from "Project Himalaya," Kim Bannister. An American, Kim is one of the owners of this small guide service, and although she's 40, she has the energy of a 20-year-old.

We spent several days exploring this crowded, third-world city of one million people. Joining us were Astra and Toby, a young couple originally from Eugene who now live in The Sudan. We then flew over the Himalayas to Lhasa, Tibet, where we experienced the Chinese influence on this country. We acclimatized for four days at 12,500 feet, visiting several monasteries and the famous Potola Palace, home of the Dalai Lama before his exile from Tibet. Susi from Austria met us here and completed our group.

We drove southwest from Lhasa on the Friendship Highway through the high Tibetan Plateau to the Kharta Valley, a seldom-visited area on the north side of Mount Everest. This was where the real trek began.

We were five eager people assisted by numerous guides, a cook and 18 yaks. On our first day we hiked into a small village, which was the last sign of civilization we saw for 11 days. We were at 14,000 feet and remained at this elevation or higher for the remainder of the trek.

We hiked through rain and snow the first afternoon, but the weather changed to warm and sunny for most of the following days. Evenings could be a bit stormy and the nights were very cold, but the mountain views were spectacular. The hiking was difficult on rough trails, when the guides could even find them. Very steep climbs combined with the trail wandering along sheer hillsides kept us on our toes.

After three days we had Mount Everest in view all the time. We were now becoming hardened trekkers, used to the trails before us, and the Tibetan diet of trail food. The weather could not have been better. Standing at 16,000 feet, we had to remind ourselves that several miles away we were viewing the highest spot on earth, another 13,000 feet above us.

Two days of backtracking brought us to our last high pass and back to our starting point. We ascended to a base camp at 17,000 feet and set up camp in the snow. It was one of the coldest nights of our journey.

I awoke to a "Good Morning" outside my tent. It was 6:30 a.m., pitch dark and cold. One of the guides had placed a pan of warm water on the snow outside the zippered flap. I responded with a weak "Thank you." The pan of water was a given event every morning of the trek — nice to wash one's face. I sat up and put on my head lamp, attempted to brush my teeth (the water bottle was frozen), got dressed as I slowly extracted myself from the warm sleeping bag into the 15-degree cold. I then packed as quickly as possible. This was Day 10 of our 11-day trek and an early start was needed to reach the summit of the pass before the snow became too soft for the yaks and us.

It was still dark as I entered the dining tent where Kim had hot coffee ready. After some eggs, toast and other goodies, we were on the trail as daylight emerged and cast its glow on the surrounding peaks. It was still cold, but becoming a beautiful day. This turned out to be one of the most difficult hikes we encountered. We started the day at 17,000 feet and worked our way on snow up to the 18,000-foot summit of the pass.

It was slow going, but the cobalt sky and spectacular views made for a thrilling ascent. Several hours of steep climbing brought us into the rising sun and the pass summit. A good rest gave us our last chance to look back and view Everest and the surrounding peaks.

The descent out of the snow was a bit of a challenge on a steep slope. Showing off, I managed to fall on my face as I attempted to boot ski down. Luckily, Toby caught me as I slid toward him and stopped my rapid descent. It was the only accident of the trek and I was not injured a bit. We made our last camp before reaching the road we had started on 11 days before. Saying goodbye to our yaks and their herders, we hit the road in our Land Cruisers. Hot showers were only days away as we slowly made our way back to Kathmandu.

A two-day's drive over bone-jarring roads brought us to North Everest Base Camp (17,000 feet), a disappointment. The Chinese have recently completed a new road directly there in anticipation of the Olympics. Their plan is to bring the Olympic torch across China and to the summit of Everest giving claim that it is a part of their country. (The Everest summit is on the border of Tibet and Nepal.) Now tour buses, mini-vans and vehicles with many wealthy Chinese were standing there taking the "me-in-it-picture" and leaving as quickly as they arrived. The letdown from our trekking was obvious and we decided to leave and head back to Kathmandu.

Another two days of gravel roads, several vehicle breakdowns, and cold guest houses without showers brought us to the border of Nepal and a few recovery days at lower elevation in a tropical setting named "The Last Resort." This tent camp was a luxury with hot showers, a bar, great food and time to reflect. In several days we were back in Kathmandu and on our way home.

This was an adventure of a lifetime for both Rick and me.

Tom Burnham lives in Ashland.

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