Monday, December 31, 2007

The Last Day

As we hiked down from the remote villages of the high Himalaya and our month-long trip in Nepal entered its final few days, I knew we were getting close to civilization when we arrived in the village of Lukla and I saw a Nepali kid wearing a Britney Spears t-shirt. There is no getting-away from the worldwide influence of American pop culture, and I guessed that soon I’d be back home in the US, standing in line at the grocery store where I’d see People Magazine and the image (again) of Britney, or Paris, or some other celebrity bimbo.

Traveling and being away from home is hard, but re-entering the everyday world is harder.

There is a small airport in Lukla. A 45-minute flight on a prop plane gave us a last up-close view of the mountains, and--before we could say culture shock-- we were in Kathmandu, the crazy-frenetic city of honking horns, elbow-to-elbow humanity, and oversaturated colors.

A month earlier at the beginning of our trip, we’d arrived in Kathmandu to learn that the Hindu festival Dashmi was going on. Nepalis (even non-Hindus) were in full-on celebration mode then. Now, as we returned, we were told that we’d be witness to yet another festival.

We joined in the fun and took to the streets with the crowds. I photographed a funky group of enthusiastic (but not-very-good) musicians. I gave the musicians a donation of rupees but I suspected that if we lingered around those guys too long, they'd demand more money. We ducked into a Buddhist shrine where we knew we’d find peace and quiet. I watched as two young monks played inside a huge ceremonial bell, an old woman joining the boys in their game. Leah bought a cup of tea. I took portraits of some of the older monks.

That was our last day in Nepal.

Early the next morning we began the long trip home.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Walking Out

We trekked for over two weeks to get up to the foot of Sagarmatha (Mt. Everest,) but when it was time to turn around and head back downhill and begin the journey home, we did the walk in only five fairly easy days.

Leah and I both looked forward to getting down to lower elevations where the weather would be warmer. The promise of a long, hot shower (not to be found in the high mountains) sounded particularly good. At the same time, we knew better than to rush the final days of our travel experience.

We’d get back to our everyday lives soon enough.

We trekked on a trail that passed high above Tengboche. Early in our trip we had visited the monastery there and watched Buddhist monks perform their dance-drama during the amazing Mani-rimdu festival.

We walked through Khumjung, home of the school that Sir Edmund Hillary built for the Sherpa children of the region. In the years following his historic, first successful climb of Everest in 1953, Hillary has dedicated himself to environmental and humanitarian causes. The Khumjung school was one of his projects, and Leah and I visited with the school kids during their lunchtime break from studies.

Down and down we hiked, passing many mani walls, Buddhist prayers carved into the rock.

When the day came that we arrived in Lukla to catch the short flight back to Kathmandu, it was humbling to look up at the high mountains.

We couldn’t believe we’d been up there, among those looming giants, and those beautiful people.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007


Maybe it’s just because I have climbed mountains that she even mattered to me, but as our small plane flew into Lukla, I looked for her. For the first two weeks of our trek, even as I labored in the high, thin air, I hoped to see her. She flirted with me; I caught glimpses of her, but mostly she hid.

We in the English-speaking world have given her a very unromantic, not-very-feminine name: we call her Mt. Everest. The Tibetans know her as Chomolungma, and to the Nepalis she is Sagarmatha.

As a photographer traveling for nearly a month in Nepal, I’m not saying my trip would have been a bust if I hadn’t seen and gotten a reasonably decent photograph of the highest mountain on our planet, but I certainly would have been a bit disappointed. I would have pouted for a week or two. Sagarmatha teased me with her occasional appearances. I wanted to see more of her.

Most of all, I wanted to see her in the light of the setting sun.

On the day we camped at the highest village of our trek, Gorak Shep (elevation 17, 100 feet,) two Nepali friends and I set out in the late afternoon to walk to the top of a nearby “hill,” Kala Pattar (18,200 feet) where there is a wonderful view of Sagarmatha. My plan was to be at the top of Kala Pattar at sunset, hoping for that sweet, warm, late light. As we hiked higher and higher, more and more of Sagarmatha came into view, peeking out from behind lesser summits. At the same time, clouds began to build, hiding my lady mountain.

But luck was with me that day. On the top of Kala Pattar, my friends and I dropped our packs and put on heavy down parkas. We waited, and we watched. The clouds cast a few dramatic, parting shadows, then retreated. The valley below us fell into darkness. The very highest peaks caught the light, and, finally, only Sagarmatha could be seen on the planet’s stage. She was alone in the last light of the day, and she was radiant.

My two friends and I watched in awe.

Several minutes passed. When the light flickered out on Sagarmatha, the three of us shouldered backpacks, switched on headlamps, and headed down toward our camp. We didn't talk much.

I believe we were all smitten.

Monday, December 24, 2007


(Blog Update 12/25/07: Twelve hours after I had originally posted these photos and notes, I learned that a suspension bridge has collapsed in western Nepal. Seven people are dead and scores are missing. The people were reportedly headed to a celebration of the full moon.)

I’m afraid I’m one of those people who wakes up in the middle of the night and, though I wish this was not the case, my brain switches into Alert Mode. I start thinking about a book I’m reading, or a photo project I’m shooting, or I have a brainstorm for a way to solve the world’s problems. And I know right away that I might as well get out of bed. There will be no going back to sleep.

Last night I think it might have been the moon that woke me up. About 3 AM I opened my eyes to see that the just-past-full moon was shining so brightly into my bedroom, I thought for a minute it was daylight outside. I got up, went to the kitchen and made a big mug of hot tea, then headed outside for a walk in the cold, clear, sleep-robbing moonlight.

It was a little surreal for me to realize that, just two months ago when we were half-a-world away in Nepal, I photographed that same moon setting over Mt. Khumbila, a beautiful peak in the Solu Khumbu region of the Himalaya. The mountain is sacred to the Sherpa people, and, as I walked near my home last night --Christmas lights twinkling on my neighbor’s
front porch-- I realized my mind had wandered and I felt like I was back in Nepal.

I thought about the Nepali greeting “Namaste.” It’s a word that can simply mean “hello” or “good-bye,” or it can have a deeper, more-spiritual connotation: I honor the good in you. As Leah and I hiked from village to village in Nepal, passersby would practically sing their greeting, Namaste floating in the air like a chant. Often their Namaste was accompanied by a palms-together hand gesture, yet another way Nepalis show respect.

I suppose I’m about to suggest something that is going to sound simplistic, but on my walk last night in the eerie moonlight, I couldn't help dreaming that the various peoples of our planet, unable as we are to co-exist peacefully, might have a better starting-point for understanding if we had some kind of worldwide way of communicating and demonstrating respect.


Friday, December 21, 2007

Up High

We hiked higher and higher into the mountains of Nepal. We trekked through Dingboche, Thokla, and Lobuche--villages through which many historic Everest climbing expeditions had passed. Until I set foot in Nepal, my own mountain adventures had been limited to the peaks near my home in the Pacific Northwest. In the Himalaya I was walking in country that for me had only existed in books. I felt like an old classical musician who’d gotten a chance to visit the house where Beethoven had lived, or an architect who'd traveled to see the Parthenon.

But life was not easy in Nepal's high mountains. In Lobuche, for example, we were above 16,000 feet in elevation. Frost formed at night on the inside walls of our tent, and our water bottles froze. The Nepali villagers we met had to work hard to scratch a living from the difficult landscape. I photographed a sweet-faced little doll of a child who was out gathering dried yak dung that would be burned for heat in the family stove.

Everything that could be used to make heat was saved. The smallest bit of brush, anything that would burn, was collected by villagers, placed in doko baskets, and carried home. After years of use, the basket itself would be broken apart and burned.

Leah and I were careful to minimize the impact our presence had on that high place. Our planet doesn’t have unlimited resources, an environmental fact of life that is particularly apparent in the highest mountains
on earth.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

New Friends

Guest Post
By Leah Smith

I can’t stop thinking about the Nepali people. There is much about them to love. Three characteristics that seem most common among the Nepalis that we met on our trip are their shyness, their happiness and their strength. Here are some short vignettes to illustrate:

Shyness - Early in the trek, I confided to KC, our trip leader, that one of my goals on the trip was to get a smile out of one of the kitchen helpers, a seriously quiet young man in his 20s. KC quickly spilled the beans to our young friend who, from that point on, gifted me with wonderful smiles. He also called me “Mommy” for the rest of trip, something that made my maternal heart as happy as it could possibly be. He called me Mommy because Nepali people are not comfortable using the given names of older people. I only heard my name spoken two or three times, and usually it was from someone who looked away when they said it. While they love to joke and laugh, Nepalis are also gentle and I think could be easily embarrassed by someone who is too forward.

Happiness - I cannot count for you the number of times I woke in the morning to hear the sound of one of our team members whistling or singing. It might be dark and cold. The singer might have spent the long night under just a blanket in a tent with three other guys. He might be facing a day of carrying 80 pounds up the trail to the next camp, dropping that basket and going back down to where he started for a second load. Any one of these conditions would make me very grumpy, but nothing seems to deter the good nature of these lovely people. They sing quietly much of the time. Have you ever tried singing when you’re cranky? Is there even a word in the Nepali language for “cranky”?

Strength - Kurt has already done a post about the work of porters. I will add that the strength and ability to carry lots of weight over distance is not something that belongs just to a specialized group of workers. In the mountains, everyone carries - young, old, men and women. I watched one day as a teenage girl walked back and forth from her campsite a quarter mile away to the nearest water source. She went by 5 or 6 times with a 5 gallon water container -- that’s 40 pounds, filled! The thing is, each time she went by, she would be chatting with a friend or singing. Always having fun. The work, the weight of the container, the distance she had to walk: they seemed like nothing to her!

In the picture above, you can see the wonderful faces of three old friends, KC, our trip leader; Shaera, a cook on another trek that we encountered on the trail; and Soukbil, our intrepid Sherpa Guide. (Guys, please forgive my unforgivable misspelling of your names!) They’ve known each other since they started in the trekking business years ago. In the photos below are Nuru Sherpa peaking out of a tent, and Kurt and me with some of the guys. Look at these people and understand that in Nepal, where folks make do with so much less than we have, where the average annual income is somewhere in the area of $300 US dollars, I never heard a single complaint. I never saw anyone stress out. They sing and smile and carry on. There is much that we can learn from Nepalis about the best way to live our lives.

Thank you for sharing that lesson with me, my friends. I will never forget you.

Monday, December 17, 2007


When Leah and I got on the plane in October to fly to Nepal, neither of us had any experience with foreign travel. (Actually I had been to Canada a couple of times, but isn’t Canada the same thing as America, except that Canadians get hockey? Does Canada truly qualify as being foreign?)

Part of the reason Leah and I lacked travel resumes is where we live. The Pacific Northwest offers an ocean, islands, mountains, deserts--pretty much a lifetime’s worth of adventure and travel temptations. Why go anyplace else?

Then there is how we live. Leah and I are fairly simple people (a longtime friend teases us--only half-jokingly, I fear--of thinking we’re Amish, but my friend is incorrect: Leah and I think we are Hobbits.) As Tolkein might have written, travel kind of struck us as being for The Big Folk, not for a couple of country bumpkin Halflings.

To be sure, I had always liked the idea of travel. Many of my friends have been to Mexico, Europe, even Africa. Some of my mountain climber friends have been to the Himalaya in Nepal. I thought Nepal sounded cool and when I saw the pictures my friends shot there, it certainly looked cool. So when Leah and I decided to expand our Hobbit horizon, Nepal was the destination we chose.

While we were in the planning stages for our trip, I attended a couple of lectures in Seattle given by adventurer Willie Weir, an inveterate bicycle traveler. (By-the-way: Willie’s book Spokesongs is a wonderful read. Here’s a link: I remember Willie telling his audience that the best part of travel happens when we toss aside the guidebook and ignore our itinerary, allowing the unexpected to enter our trip experiences.

A trekking trip like what Leah and I did in Nepal is generally about movement, about hiking from one village to another. The photographs I’m posting today came into my life quite unexpectedly, most often when I stood still for a few moments:

Above: a group of Nepali students on holiday march along the trail at a spot where there is a large mani wall.
Below: Scenes from villages in the Solu Khumbu (Mt. Everest area.)

Friday, December 14, 2007

Seeing Mountains

I remember when I saw my first mountain. It was more than 40 years ago but the memory is as clear to me as if it happened this morning.

I was probably 10 years old and there was a movie on television about Mt. Kilimanjaro, the fantastic mountain (19, 340 feet in elevation) looming high above the clouds. I remember being dumbfounded, asking my mother: "How could that be?" I lived in Ohio you see, and no mound of soil and rock and snow in my world reached into the sky, let alone up into clouds.

I remember another time when I was young and my parents were talking about driving from Ohio to Pennsylvania. They were concerned about driving “in the mountains.” It seemed that we were about to do something pretty daring, taking our 1960’s-era Mercury into such intimidating territory.

Today, from my home in Washington State, I can look east and see the Cascade Range, and I can look west and see the Olympic Mountains. I know those mountains, even many of the highest summits, like I know my own back yard.

On the trip Leah and I did recently to Nepal, we walked among the greatest mountains on the planet. I photographed the beautiful Himalayan goddess-mountain, Ama Dablam (22, 494 feet,) bathed in the amazing, warm light of a sunset.

As we trekked toward Mt. Everest, we crested Thokla Pass and walked quietly through an area filled with perhaps 100 rock cairns, memorials built at that high place to honor climbers who have died in these mountains. I photographed one of those memorials, then the weather in the valley below us changed and I shot a few more images. Only now, when I look at my pictures, do I realize that I was up above the clouds.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Frames, Part 2

We were like Pied Pipers, Leah and I, as we trekked the trail in the Solu Khumbu area of Nepal, the path that leads to Mt. Everest.

Children would come to the doors and windows of their homes and watch us walk by. We were the best (and only) show in town. Occasionally the kids would follow us down the trail and ask for sweets or pens and paper, but mostly they’d just watch.

Sometimes, when we stopped for tea, the kids would visit and practice their English on us. I, in turn, amused the kids with my sometimes-awkward pronunciation of the few Nepali words I’d learned. My Namaste (Hello) was pretty good, but my Dhanyabhad (thank you) was weak and needed work. Fortunately, Nepali language coaches were everywhere.

I saw them peeking at me from many doors and windows.

Monday, December 10, 2007


As I look through the photographs we shot on our trip to Nepal, I’m amazed at how many images include a door or a window.

Leah’s picture (above) from a market area in Kathmandu and several of mine (below) from the Solu Khumbu area on the trail toward Mt. Everest are just a few photographs that I like that seem to be based on this quite-unintentional “theme.”

The vibrant trim on many Nepali houses is pretty difficult to resist photographically. As local traders and foreign trekkers move along the trails, curious faces appear in doors and windows of homes, watching the parade of humanity. In return we passersby would wave and give the traditional, hands-folded greeting: “Namaste!”

There was so much to see and enjoy: A small, sweet face in a window in Khumjung; a brightly colored quilt hanging out to dry in Namche Bazaar; and a shy young girl standing just outside the door of her family’s home near Lukla, her father inside giving me the evil eye.

Some travelers feel that carrying a camera gets in the way of human experience.
For me, the camera first leads me in closer. Later it helps me remember.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Light Show

If you value any level of normalcy in your daily
routine--if you like to sleep past dawn in the morning and you expect to have dinner at a respectable hour in the evening--then I suggest you not go camping in the mountains with a photographer.

At 5 AM every one of the 21 days we trekked in Nepal, the obnoxiously loud alarm on my watch would BEEP-BEEP-BEEP to let me know that it was time to drag my sorry self from my warm and comfy down sleeping bag and go outside the tent to see what the early light was doing. (The alarm would wake Leah too, but she had the good sense to roll over and go back to sleep.)

At 5 PM every evening when our trek cook Pema was ready to serve his wonderful soup--a culinary treat that would have any sane person at-the-ready, spoon in hand, the minute the soup bowl was placed on the table--my salivary glands would instead be all worked-up over the thought of sweet sunset light. (Leah and our Nepali guide KC would begin dinner without me.)

With apologies to Willie Nelson, I say: Mamas, think twice before letting your babies grow up to be landscape photographers.

A big heavy expedition down parka was my most precious piece of gear as I set out on my morning and evening vision quests. I’d zip the jacket up tight, put my camera on a tripod, then stand and wait...and shiver in the cold Himalayan air...and look toward the highest mountains on the planet.

It’s the surprises that I think make the best landscape pictures so I made sure I had a good vantage point to view Mother Nature’s light show, wondering what kind of tricks she had up her sleeve. What would it be this time? Clouds? Mists? Shadows?

Yes, I was missing an hour of morning sleep, and yes the soup was a bit cold when I made my way to the dinner table in the evening.

Oh well. We can’t all be normal.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Hard Work

I was standing along a trail admiring a huge mani wall--Buddhist prayers chiseled into stone--when a monster mound of water jugs stepped into my view. I knew that, even in the thin air of the high Himalaya and even at a spiritual spot like where I stood, water jugs don’t move through space all on their own. Then I saw legs below the water jugs and caught a glimpse of a porter’s face.

Nepal is like that. One minute you're seeing an apparition. You blink, and reality intrudes.

Busy thoroughfares, these routes in Nepal’s mountains. Unlike the trails in the wilderness areas and national parks near my home in Washington State, the footpaths in the Himalayas are not just for recreation or sport. Nepal’s trails mean business: They are the only link between villages, the way food and other trade items get transported.

That movement of goods does not happen easily. I watched in amazement as, day after day, porters passed us on the trail carrying what seemed to me to be backbreaking loads of timber. Our guide talked with the porters and learned they had started at Namche Bazaar (elevation 11,300 feet) and would carry the beams to Dingboche (14, 300 feet.) The porters carried 230 pounds and were paid the equivalent of a few dollars for their toil.

We talked with one young man in his early twenties who had already been working as a porter for over 10 years, a doko (basket) and namlo (tumpline) as much a part of his life as a car or an iPod might be for an American. And while Leah and I took great care in choosing the hiking boots we’d wear on the trek, we saw porters --many of them-- who carried their loads wearing sandals or flip-flops.

Never again will I refer to any job I do making photographs as “hard work.”

Sunday, December 2, 2007


I didn’t look at my watch, but my guess is that it was sometime around 3 AM when the unearthly sounding horns first started. It was still quite dark outside and, snugged in my down sleeping bag in a tent, I thought I was having a very weird dream--until the horns were accompanied by the sounding of a gong, and then clanging cymbals.

Leah and I were camped near the Tengboche Monastery and we were waking to the morning of the Mani-rimdu festival, the fall ceremony of dance that dramatizes the story of Buddhism’s triumph over Bon, Tibet’s animist religion. Our Nepali guide was rustling around in his tent nearby, and--reluctant to leave the warmth of my goose down cocoon--I called over to him to ask what was going on outside. He explained that the monks at the monastery were greeting the dawn in a way that would hopefully bring clear weather for Mani-rimdu.

After an hour (or more) of horns, gongs and cymbals, I emerged from our tent to see that the monks’ efforts had been successful. The morning fog was burning off, giving-way to a perfect, blue sky day.

Trekking in the Mt. Everest region of Nepal, we’d planned our trip so that we’d have three days in Tengboche. There were many aspects to Mani-rimdu: the dance ceremony, a blessing of the public by the abbot of the monastery, offering of gifts from the public to the abbot, and much socializing on the part of the Sherpa people who live in the region. We wanted to be part of all of this.

If it meant a 3 AM wake-up call, then so be it.

Friday, November 30, 2007


I often shoot my personal pictures in black and white, but I can’t imagine having done my Nepal pictures in anything but color.

Most everything we saw on the trip--but particularly the three days we spent at the Tenboche Monastery for the Mani-rimdu festival--just screamed color. Every day we found ourselves slack-jawed and dumbstruck, witnesses to the most amazing Spectacle (with a capital “S.”) The images I was shooting needed to capture the Color (with a capital “C.”)

As I worked, I tried to remind myself: See beyond the Color. I tried to look for moment, for expression, for the feeling of the scene. To be quite honest, there was so much going on around me and it was all so amazing, I could have closed my eyes and fired the camera randomly and good images would have resulted. In the end I couldn't help myself: I made pictures that remind me of the box of Crayolas I had in kindergarten.

What a place to be!