Dan Szczesny – Sharing Smiles Only Two Will Understand
A NH Writer’s Life
Dan Szczesny is a journalist, speaker, and writer. In his books, he takes us to places on high where our imagination rides on his backpack as he treks along the last frontier of Alaska with his beloved wife, Meenakshi, discovering mosquitos so thick they rain down upon you as any torrential storm will. We climb, along with Dan and a young friend sharing the discovery and success of making it to the top of New Hampshire’s “52 with a view.” He took us to Mount Washington in one year, where he “explored the history mystique of New England’s tallest mountain.” And in his latest book, NH Rocks That Rock, he and his daughter, six-year-old Uma, give us the guidebook to twenty-five of New Hampshire’s famous boulders, “glacier erratics. Some cleaved from cliffs and mountain walls.”
But, I and my imagination want to go where few have gone before, to the Base Camp of Mount Everest, to walk the Khumbu glacier, eat delicious dumplings called momos, and summit the 18,519-foot Kala Patthar for the best seat in the house to observe Mount Everest at sunrise. To travel to a place measured in elevation, not miles, I wanted to talk about some of the stops along the way. So, Dan and I dive into his book, The Nepal Chronicles, Marriage, Mountains, and Momos in the Highest Place on Earth.
When Dan’s future father-in-law asked him if he would travel to Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, where Meena was born, to have a traditional Nepalese wedding, Dan didn’t hesitate to say yes. On the wedding day, he wore the traditional topi hat given to him by his father-in-law. He and Meena exchanged garlands and began their married life. Then, like many newlyweds, they left for their honeymoon.
My honeymoon was spent on a beach in St Augustine, Florida, where the most adventurous activity I did was sleep in a tent. Dan and Meena took an awe-inspiring trip by hiking to the Base Camp of Mount Everest.
The journey started by taking a turboprop airplane called a Twin Otter, where they would fly into one of the world’s most dangerous airports, the Tenzing-Hillary Airport, also known as the Lukla Airport.
Dan describes the airport and its 1,700-foot runway at an elevation of 9,334 feet and an 11.7 gradient.
“I believe it’s the highest or one of the highest passenger airports in the world, and it didn’t exist until Hillary [Sir Edmund Hillary] built it with his money in the 1970s. I’ve spoken to friends who were in Nepal in the 70s, and the airport was just a dirt runway. As tourism increases, they’re upgrading. But it’s still a harrowing trip. There’s one runway. There’s one flight plan through the mountains. These are planes that fly by looking out the window. There’s no circling. If you miss the runway, you’re a bug squashed against the mountain. If you don’t get up to speed as you’re taking off the runway from the mountain, there’s a 3000-foot drop at the end. These pilots are remarkable. It was funny, the day before we left, I got sick. I was bedridden for fourteen straight hours before they dragged me out of bed to get me on the plane. I’m looking out the window, and at one point, you’re flying over these tiered rice patties, and you can see the color of the guy’s hair.”
“You land in Lukla, and you have about fifteen minutes because the plane can only sit still for so long. There’s only room for one plane. It has to take off so the next plane can land. They throw your gear to the tarmac, and you jump down. The plane is still going. They are very sleek and tough planes that take a lot of turbulence.”
Meena and Dan are trekking alone. While most sign on with expensive commercial trekking companies, Meena moved to the US when she was eleven, so she will be their translator. “We had a National Geographic topo map we were using, and we just pointed our shoes into the direction of the valley and hauled out of there.”
I ask Dan why going to the Everest Base Camp is a significant journey.
“It’s all about the altitude. The trails in the Himalayas are not difficult by any means or standards. They’re like logging roads in the White Mountains. They’re not hard. I could name a dozen trails in the White Mountains that are technically more difficult than anything I encountered in Nepal. But they’re not at 15,000 feet in the White Mountains.”
To train for the trip in New Hampshire, Meena and he worked for a year to get ready. “We would put 25-pound rice bags in my backpack, and we would run up McIntyre Ski Area. That’s how we could train. There was no elevation training. The only thing we could train for was endurance, lung capacity, leg strength.”
The Khumbu Region, where Everest stands, has thirteen villages and is said to have been born during the last great Ice Age, half a million years ago. I ask Dan to talk about Namche and the valley.
“The hard part is if you’re climbing in the White Mountains, you go up, and then you go down, and you’re done. In the Namche Valley, you are constantly going in and out of the valley. You go in the valley around 9,500 feet, and then you climb down into the valley to like 8,000 feet. Then you climb back up a little further up, and the next morning you climb down. You go down, and then you go up. And then you do that again. It’s a lot harder. It takes a lot more out of you because every day, you’re facing new altitude challenges. We were lucky that we could take our time.”
Dan explained the climbing season for Mount Everest is in May and June. He and Meena are trekkers, which takes place in the fall. Since they are traveling alone, they gave themselves two weeks to accomplish the trip to and from Base Camp. Those who contract with commercial trekking companies usually make the round trip in nine days. That fast turnaround causes altitude sickness, which causes problems with those uninitiated to the altitude.”
The Namche Bazaar is one of the villages in Khumbu and is popular with trekkers. Dan and Meena enjoyed what it had to offer.
“It’s the Sherpa capital of the Namche region and the last place for electricity or flushing toilets. All the residents of the valley come every Saturday and exchange goods. It’s a permanent residence of 4,000-5000. That’s generally the place for those trekking to stay for their first acclimation day. It’s about 12,000 feet high. You pack your gear and put your fleece on, and acclimate. We had two days. You can get incredible food. We went up to the temple in the rocks, and we watched the yak’s come down.”
“Yaks. Technically, Mount Everest is the equivalent of a national park in our country. But horses don’t acclimate well, and the only people who use horses are the park ranges. If someone gets hurt or injured, that’s how the park rangers go up and down. Horses can go up high for a short while. The joke in the valley was if you see a Nepali man on a horse, that’s a park ranger. If you see a westerner on a horse, that person is sick.”
I ask, is that where you got momos? And Dan replies, “I love momos.”
“Every culture,” he says, “has a momo-like food. If you’re Polish, it’s a pierogi. If you’re Italian, it’s a ravioli. If you’re Chinese, it’s a dumpling. If you’re a Nepali, it’s a momo. It’s a dough you put something in it and steam or fry. Once we got past Namche, we decided no more meat. We didn’t want to take that chance. We decided to eat vegetarian. And the easiest way to eat vegetarian is to eat momos, and that’s what we ate the last ten days.”
On page 89 of The Nepal Chronicles, it begins with:
"Monday, October 18. Meenakshi is shouting. “Come on, come out!” She says when she
sees me. I step out into the morning glare, and the chill in the air is palpable. It’s like
walking into a cloud of invisible ice. It takes my stunned body a moment to compensate, and I begin shivering almost immediately…We are surrounded by mountains. It literally
takes away my breath, and I feel dizzy. In every direction, the silver and white peaks
shoot up, ragged spires of misty rock and glaring ice. The sun has not yet risen over
the range to the west, but the tips of the peaks all glow a blinding white."
I ask Dan to explain this passage.
“We’re in the Pheriche Valley. When Hillary was in the Khumbu Valley, the Pheriche was covered in the Mount Everest glacier. When we were there, 60 years later, there was no glacier. It had retreated about four miles. Since the glacier has retreated, Pheriche has sprung up, and the valley is surrounded by 22,000- and 23,000-foot mountains. I’d never been in a place like this. You walk out of this little hut, and it’s 10 degrees outside, and it’s bright, and it feels hot because the sun is reflecting off these mountains. This was the first time I’d ever seen a 20,000-foot mountain with my own eyes. It was the first time we had experienced that kind of mountain on the trip. It’s awe-inspiring.”
We come to a precarious part of the trek when Dan and Meena separate, breaking the first rule of climbing. They have to get to Gorak Shep by 9:30 that day to be sure to get sleeping quarters. Dan writes, “Then I kissed her, and she moved off into the mist. It was an interesting feeling, terror mixing with pride.”
Meena went ahead of you on the trail. Why were you separating?
“Most primarily by that point in our trip, we were competing with the other commercial groups for rooms at the inn. Commercials could make reservations, but we were traveling alone and could not. I was more tired than her. She had more gas in her tank. Either we start at 3 AM and walk in the dark, with its own set of dangers, or she sets off before me and gets there before the commercial trekkers arrive. It was the correct decision. The commercial group passed me but didn’t catch up to her. We trusted each other. She had a map, and I had a map, and we made the decision to do it, and it paid off. I hustled, and I was terrified the whole time for her. She’s so capable. This is her country.”
And when you see her in the distance?
“You come over this big ridge, and there’s this col in the ridge. You see Gorak Shep, and there she was. She was waving. I called down. Did we get it? And she had.”
How long were you separated?
“About six hours.”
Finally, you reach Base Camp. What was it like? Was it all you imagined?
“It was kind of boring. May and June are the climbing season. Most of the teams go during the springtime. Most of those trekking to Mount Everest go during the fall. During the springtime, the Base Camp is this little town. There’s a bakery and hundreds of tents and a little shop where they repair gear all in this football field size area. During trekking season, there’s almost nothing. People come, they kiss the Base Camp rock, pop some champagne, and then they leave. After everything we’ve been thru, there’s just this scramble of rocks. Kala Patthar was our ultimate destination. We wanted to tag Base Camp. Kala Patthar was the highest mountain we climbed, and we wanted to see Everest from the summit of that mountain.”
“The question that Hillary got when he got back was what does Mount Everest look like? I get where he’s coming from, Hillary said; it’s like walking into a room crowded with the most beautiful people you can imagine, and right in the middle of that room is just one big ugly person. What he’s saying is the journey to get there is so gorgeous and so awe-inspiring, and there are so many beautiful mountains. Everest is just one big triangle chunk.”
If you go to Mount Everest not to climb it, you climb Kala Patthar for the best view of Everest. I ask Dan to talk about the Kala Patthar climb.
“We were exhausted already. We slept at 17,000 feet, and that was the first time we were sleeping that high at Gorak Shep. Base Camp is about three miles further up. A lot of other commercial trekkers were climbing Kala Patthar, and so we wanted to get up early and get up there. We wanted to catch the sunrise up there because we hadn’t experienced that either. We started climbing in the dark. The first hour was in the dark, and it was -36 ℉ when we woke up. We didn’t have the gear to deal with it. The sun rose above Everest, and two things happened. Watching the sunrise over Mount Everest was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. And once the sun came up, the temperature went up from -30 ℉ to 20 ℉ within twenty minutes.”
In the last chapter of The Nepal Chronicles detailing Dan and Meena’s marvelous journey, they return to Kathmandu. Dan finishes off this love letter to his wife and writes, “Now, we just long for a shower, and perhaps some chicken curry, and maybe a cup of tea at a kitchen table where I can look across at Meena and share a smile only we two will ever understand.”
All photos by Dan Szczesny