by Barry B. Burtis D.V.M.
In my last column I described some of the animals we found in Kathmandu on a recent trip to Nepal. The next destination on the agenda was Mt. Everest Base Camp. It's a 45 minute Twin Otter air flight from the capital city of the country to Lukla. An airstrip was built here in 1964 by Sir Edmund Hillary and friends. For most trekkers and mountain climbing expeditions this is where the trail to Everest begins. Just landing on the short, uphill sloping runway that ends at a mountainside wall is a thrilling, spine-tingling way to begin the trekking adventure ahead.
Arriving safely in Lukla seemed to inspire confidence in our group that just about anything was possible. With only a brief pause to meet our Sherpa guides and our porters we set off on our trek. As you begin, in Lukla at 2850m/9350ft altitude, it is rather a dizzying thought to realize that to ascend to Everest Base Camp, about 100 kilometers distant, you ascend around 4600m/15,134ft with a modest 2200m/7874ft of descents in total. Then you turn around and trek back to Lukla.
It is indeed a challenge to try to describe the trip briefly. When you step off the plane you are suddenly in rural Nepal, in very rugged surroundings, in a very different, often very isolated, world. Travel by foot is the only way to move. The trail you walk upon may be stone steps, packed dirt partially covered with stones of varying size or a surface of medium to large rocks. Therefore, the terrain is usually uneven. Now add a deep layer of snow on top, caused by the worst April storm to strike the area for the past 11 years, and you can begin to imagine our walking conditions. The trail winds up and down along mountain sides below majestic, snow-capped peaks. The sound of rushing rivers can be heard in valleys far below. Sometimes you must go down to the level of those rivers to cross them, other times you cross long swinging bridges to reach the other side of the valley. Occasionally, the trail passes through a Sherpa village where the topography has allowed habitation. Usually they are populated by less than a dozen families. You walk for 51/2 to 11 hours each day. It's a two week round trip. In that time you experience so much - hard work, the view of magnificent vistas, exhilarating sensations and exhaustion. You are cold, then suddenly warm when in the sun and protected from the breeze, and likely soon cold again, your muscles ache and are tired, yet you feel great satisfaction with your accomplishments. Most everyone will have a day or two of not feeling well. Loss of appetite, nausea, diarrhea, headaches, and fatigue are common ailments experienced. When any of these strike, you immediately hope they are not the first signs of altitude sickness which can threaten to end your trek or even end your life.
Again this time, I want to tell you about the animals we met in this part of our journey. We saw and heard many species of birds. I was very excited to see on the mountainside above the village of Namche, two Himalayan Monal pheasants. They are the national bird of Nepal. The males are adorned with beautiful green, purple, red and blue feathers with a large white patch on the rump. The breast and underpants are black and the tail is copper. The females are less colourful but still very attractive in their mottled brown tones. Both male and female are quite large and cannot be mistaken in their identity. We saw Tibetan snowcocks, large ptarmigan-like birds, lammergeiers soaring over some of the high valleys, Tibetan ravens, loud raucous birds and other large black birds that our guides just called crows. Easy to hear but more difficult to spot, especially in the white, pink, and red explosion of blooms in the rhododendron forests, lining the trail at lower altitudes, were many songbirds. One day, high on slopes above us, our Sherpa guide pointed out several Himalayan tahr, a large, handsome goat. Another time, scurrying about among nearby rocks, as we rested, were some pica, small rodent animals.
Yaks, however, are the unquestioned superstars of the animal show in the Himalayas. These mammals live at the highest altitudes in the world. They can climb as high as 6100m/20,000ft and weigh 550 kg. (1200 lbs.). Without these animals life would be very much more difficult for the native people. One yak can carry up to 100 kg. (220 lbs.). Many times along the trail we dutifully stepped aside to allow right-of-way to a yak train meeting or passing us along our way. The soft, regular clang of the bell around each yak's neck signals their coming or going. They walk along, usually in groups of 6-20 individuals, in single file, untied to one another, carefully placing each hoof as they slowly and steadily flow along the narrow path. In addition to being beasts of burden, yaks are used to plow fields, provide meat, milk, butter, and their wool is used for clothing, their hair used to make ropes, sacks and blankets. Also, I personally, was grateful to feel the warmth of a yak dung fire, the only fuel above the tree line. Because of their thick coat and vulnerability to diseases yaks, cannot live below 3000m/10,000ft., therefore, they are crossbred with cows to produce animals called dzo (if male) and dzomo (if female).These animals largely replace the role of the yak at lower altitudes.
Next time I'll write about the very different animals we met in southern Nepal.