FEATURE ARTICLE - From Air New Zealand Crews News 2010.
IN MY FATHER’S FOOTSTEPS
BY MIKE ALLSOP
AS THE SMALL SHERPA BOY RAISED THE STICK HIGH ABOVE HIS HEAD I HAD A VERY BAD FEELING, WITH A LOUD CRACK HE HIT THE VERY LARGE YAK HE WAS TRYING TO HERD STRAIGHT ON ITS HIND. THE YAK TOOK OFF AT A GREAT RATE OF KNOTS ALONG THE TRAIL STRAIGHT FOR ETHAN AND I, BOTH OF US DARTED LEFT AND THE ANIMAL WENT THE SAME WAY, SO WE WENT RIGHT AND SO DID IT.
In 2007 I was fortunate enough to summit Mt Everest. I have a very strong connection with Nepal, Everest and the sherpa people as you can imagine, so once everything had settled down I made a decision. When each one of my children ( Ethan 7yrs, Maya 5yrs, Dylan 3yrs ) turned seven I would take them back to Nepal and we would go on a pilgrimage to see Everest.
The plan was for Ethan and I to trek up the Everest valley (the Kumbu valley), see Mt Everest together, visit two of the local schools and tell them a bit about school life in NZ. I was also very excited to be able to see some of my sherpa friends and hopefully meet up with some of my mates who were climbing Everest again this year. We planned to fly to Kathmandu via Hong Kong spending one night in Delhi, it's definitely the long way to get to Nepal but I thought it would be a bit of an experience. I also set up a blog for Ethan so his friends and family could follow his adventure. www.ethanallsop.blogspot.com.
The night of our departure Ethan had his first Tae Kwan do grading, he was very excited as he had been training hard. During the warm up he slipped and bashed his front teeth on a step knocking one tooth clean out and another sticking 90 degrees straight out, his instructor Master Mike took him aside and calmed him down and Ethan pulled the other tooth out himself. He was very determined and once the bleeding had stopped carried on with his grading, his instructor was very impressed and awarded him a double grading to yellow belt and a 100% mark the first he had handed out in 25 years of teaching, we were all quite chuffed.
We hopped on the Air New Zealand flight to Hong Kong, the purser Lee and his team were great and made a fuss over Ethan who just soaked it up answering all of their questions about his trip and his teeth. We arrived in Hong Kong and due to some very sneaky internet ticketing by Jet Airways we had a 12 hour layover. I bought a ticket on the internet HKG-Kathmandu via Delhi, with a 4 hour stop over in Hong Kong only to find when my e-tickets arrived that there was also a flight change. After a bit of digging it seems that the flight I purchased didn’t exist, the email was a “non return email” and a refund was going to take a while. If I was a twitterer they would have got a bad tweet!! So we spent the day in Hong Kong looking around then boarded the flight to Delhi India.
The flight to Delhi was good, the crew and service were nice, arriving in Delhi we were put on a remote gate and when we left the aircraft the 41oC heat blowing 30 knots hit us. Ethan said “its like a hair dryer Dad!” We cleared customs and met our booked taxi for the short 6km 40min drive to our 1-2 star hotel, yep 6km took 40minutes. Delhi is about to hold the Commonwealth games so there is an incredible amount of construction. After a good sleep we set off back to the airport, in the day light there was a feast of sights for Ethan and he had so many questions I think his 7 year old brain couldn’t quite process them fast enough.
I had a very long discussion with an armed army guard who would not let us into to the terminal because our ticket said 28th April with the flight connecting/extending into the 29th April but as the words 29th April didn’t appear anywhere he would not let us in. I quote “I am telling you NO 29th April NO entry go away and see Jet Airways” . The Jet Airways office was 3 hours away in town, after 15 minutes with me trying to stay calm and be a good example, a sergeant smiled at Ethan and let us into the terminal.
We checked in and boarded the Jet Lite flight for Kathmandu, the security was very tight we were screened and physically frisked 3 times. The flight Delhi– Kathmandu is 1hour 15 minutes, after 45 minutes we started turning around and I knew we were entering a holding pattern. Eventually the Captain came on the PA and said that due to thunderstorms we would be holding for awhile. Two hours later after a few updates the Captain said that we couldn’t land and we would be diverting to Lucknow northern India. Great!!
A quick refuel and then back to Delhi for a bit of chaos with customs, 2 hour bus ride, and a five star beautiful hotel where Jet Airways put us up for the night. I must say it was carnage the next morning and I can now say I have seen the extremes of communication, any information is better than nothing at all, even a “we have no further information for you, but we are working on it” is better than being kept totally in the dark. After, let’s say an extended period of confusion and stress we finally boarded a flight and headed to Kathmandu.
Landing in Nepal I felt a connection, as I always do, the people are different if you smile at them they smile back warmly. They greeted Ethan like a little star and in customs we were ushered off specially for Ethan's free entry visa as he was 7 years, normally $50USD. As we exited the terminal to the mayhem that is the normal hustle and bustle of Kathmandu’s airport I spotted my friends from Himalayan Guides. These guys do everything from collecting you at the airport to organising Mt Everest permits and expeditions. The company is owned by Iswari and we have become good friends over the years. Iswari is the man to know in Kathmandu as he knows everyone and everything, if you need a helicopter to get you out of the mountains Iswari will organise it, if there are no civilian ones then a military one turns up. When I was on Everest in 2007 Iswari organised most of the evacuations that were needed from base camp, and he would always put fresh chicken on the inbound empty flights especially for us.
Ethan and I checked into the our hotel and then straight into Thamel for a bit of shopping before we met Iswari for a drink. Ethan seemed relaxed and enjoying himself, he actually starting bartering for things. The Nepalise would just give it to him at what ever price he offered as they liked him, if they said 600 rupees and Ethan said 300 they just said yes and smiled, so we had a talk about what is fair and I tried to put into perspective the money that these people made each day. Ethan would get a spending allowance of $10NZ, Rs500 rupees per day if he wrote in his diary, he was shocked to find that a porter who carried 30kg for a full day is paid the same. “Wow dad those guys have to carry those heavy loads all day and all I have to do is write in my diary and I get the same money, I’m very lucky”. I could see it was hard for him to understand. We had a nice meal with Iswari and another friend Sue Harper Todd who summited Everest in 2004 and then back to the hotel for a good nights sleep.
We rose early, packed our bags and then met our driver. The drive to the airport was a bit eerie as the streets were unusually quiet due to a huge national strike which was starting that day by the Maoists. We checked in and went through to the departure lounge and here we bumped into Peter Hillary. Peter and I had a great talk, he was really interested in Ethan's journey as he had done similar things with his children, he gave me a few tips and wise words and then we boarded our small plane a Donier 228 (20 seats). This is the part of the journey I don’t like as I know how hard it is for these pilots flying at very high altitude. They are close to the absolute limits of their aircraft, in mountainous terrain, no radar assistance and at the other end of the steep 16 degree sloped , 600m airfield is a huge mountain!!!! I have tremendous respect for them.
Lukla is the name of the village where we fly into, and as we waited for our bags there were about 50 or so sherpas and porters waiting outside the gates all trying to get work, a lot of them came up and asked if we needed a porter or a guide. I had already planned to carry all our gear ourselves and even though I explained this to each person they continued to politely ask for work. I eventually told them that I had climbed Everest and Ama dablam, with this they smiled, patted me on the back and wished us both well. Ethan and I walked just around to the other side of the airfield to a lodge called Paradise. It is owned by Dawa who was very good friends with Sir Ed, she has many photos of him on the walls of her tea house. I gave her a photo of Sir Ed and myself which was taken when I returned from Everest and she immediately put it up on the wall. Instantly out came the milk tea and we sat down for a bit of morning tea before we set off. The tea house door opened and in walked Peter Hillary greeting Dawa with a big hug, Ethan and I had our morning tea chatting away to Peter, he made a fuss over Ethan and as we set off he gave Ethan a pat on the back and wished him good luck on his big adventure. Ethan had a grin from ear to ear and as we got outside he said “Dad, Peter Hillary is so nice no one at school is going to believe I met him”
Ethan and I finally started our trek and as we left the small village of Lukla and started on the trail everyone we crossed paths with smiled at us and most stopped to talk to Ethan. They had a lot of questions for him, it was great to see Ethan answering so many questions from the Sherpas, all of them were shocked when he said he was 7 years old. Measuring him beside a sherpa child, Ethan was at least 6 inches taller than a child the same age from Nepal, more than likely the result of their hard living conditions and diet. Every person you pass along the trail looks at you and says “Namaste” and pretty soon Ethan had picked it up and was confidently saying Namaste to everyone he passed. We trekked for about 4 hours (7 year old pace) before we came upon our first swing bridge, Ethan was a bit freaked out but walked across holding my hand. Just around the corner was a bigger and higher one and this time I made him cross it on his own, it took a bit of coaxing but when he got to the other side he shouted out “I did it Dad now it’s your turn”. Every swing bridge from then on he wanted me to wait until he had crossed it himself before I was allowed to cross. After about another hour we arrived in Phakding where we would stay for the night in a lovely tea house.
After we cleaned up and unpacked our backpacks we went down to the tea room where all the trekkers and sherpas ate. My good friend Pasang Nuru was there with his 4 American clients, (Grandma, Mum and her two children - 15 year old twins), it was quite cool to see 3 generations of the same family trekking together. Pasang Nuru is 28 years old, born in a little village called Pangboche, which is the furtherest village permanently inhabited in the Kumbu, it is very remote. He went to a school built by Sir Edmund and has climbed Everest 3 times and Ama dablam almost a dozen times. In 2006 his brother-in law was at camp 3 on Ama Dablam with another sherpa, 2 Swiss and 2 English climbers when the Dablam (serac ) broke off above them and wiped the camp out killing all six instantly. From that day on Pasang Nuru’s wife and some other wives had asked their husbands to stop climbing. This is very hard for them as they are young, fit, super strong and are very good sherpas. A friend of mine Dr Rob Casserley and I have decided to run some treks to Everest base camp so we can, among other things, give our good sherpa friends some work that isn’t dangerous. Ethan and I spent the night playing chess, talking to Pasang Nuru and the other trekkers.
The next morning we had an easy day planned of only about 3-4 hours trekking, our altitude was 9,000 feet so I wanted to take it easy and see how Ethan adapted. Both of us were taking a drug called Diamox (prescribed by a Doctor) which slightly alters your blood acidity, because at altitude you breath fast and pant a lot, you expel all the carbon dioxide in your blood stream. This changes your blood acidity so the Diamox helps you with this change, but there is a side effect as it is a diuretic and makes you pee a lot . Ethan had to go to the toilet practically every 10 minutes, so the issue then became making sure he stayed hydrated.
On this part of the trek there was a very large Korean Trekking party, they were trekking up to Tengboche where they had funded a school building project. They had an incredible amount of gear, cameras, and a huge movie camera. Ethan and I seemed to be walking at the same pace and Ethan quickly became a star and the focus of their attention, the camera crew would run ahead and wait for him so they could film him trekking. The director decided he wanted to “interview” Ethan, it was very amusing to see this Korean film crew trying to coax more than one word answers out of Ethan. The running joke for the rest of the day was about Ethan being a big film star in Korea.
We trekked for a few more hours to a little village called Monjo where we were going to stay the night and as we came around a corner I saw a small sherpa boy herding a very large Yak. As the sherpa boy raised a stick high above his head I had a very bad feeling, with a loud crack he hit the Yak he was trying herd straight on its hind. The yak took off at a great rate of knots along the trail straight for Ethan and I, both of us darted left and the animal went the same way, so we went right and so did it. Just as it was almost on top of us I grabbed Ethan by the scruff of his neck and threw him out of the way and darted out of the way myself as the Yak thundered past. The sherpa boy and his mum thought it was hilarious and laughed their heads off, Ethan and I nervously looked at each other and laughed to ourselves. It was close!
The next morning we woke nice and early, had our breakfast and started on our way. Monjo is on the boundary of the Sagarmatha (Everest) National park and this is where you get all your permits checked and processed. Further down the track is the Army check point where they do the same thing, it’s a bit strange for a child having heavily armed soldiers smiling at you, asking you heaps of friendly questions. As we rounded the next corner Ethan said “wow Dad did you see how big their guns were!!” We carried on for an hour before we hit the famous Namchee hill , two thousand feet straight up along a winding track, everyone struggles here. Surprisingly Ethan went really well. We practiced his times tables many times and the time flew by. We met a very large group of Japanese Dentists who were very interested in Ethan and especially his knocked out teeth. Five of them crowded around looking in his mouth and after much discussion in Japanese they simply said to me “he’s ok, just baby teeth”. We posed for a few photos with them and then set on our way for the final slog into Namchee.
Namchee is the largest sherpa village in the Kumbu and has about 1000 permanent residents. It is built in a horse shoe valley on very steep slopes, all the buildings are hand made out of granite stone and there is no road just a 38km trek, so everything is carried in by porter or yak. We were staying at a lodge called Namaste Lodge owned by Palden Sherpa who was born in the lodge as was his father and 4 generations of his family. The tea room or dining room where you eat has spectacular views over the village and the valley with the Himalayas in the distance. Ethan and I spent the afternoon walking around the village buying trinkets and getting to know some of the stall keepers by name, for the rest of the time we were in Namchee practically each corner we rounded some one would say “ Namaste Ethan”. Ethan’s teeth were giving him a little trouble as a few others were wiggly from the fall and he had developed two big ulcers, so Palden Sherpa told us to go and see the local dentist.
We wound our way through the narrow paths of the village and found the small building where there was a very well set up dental surgery, boasting “the highest dentist in the world”. The dentist’s name was Dawa and she checked out Ethan’s teeth thoroughly and said unfortunately there was nothing she could do for him except recommend he rinse with salt water.
It was very hard for Ethan to eat because firstly at altitude your appetite lessens, but also he had wiggly teeth, sore gums and two mouth ulcers. It was a bit of a struggle at meal times but we persevered with fried rice, pasta and finally Ethan’s favourite roast chicken sherpa style. He was a little shocked when he saw whole chickens’ feathers and all on the kitchen bench being prepared especially for him. At night time Ethan and I would play competitive chess and when I was distracted talking to others in the tea room he could easily beat me. A few of the sherpas challenged him to a game and it was interesting to see 3-5 sherpas standing behind the one playing, speaking sherpa and discussing tactics with little Ethan on his own on the other side. Win or lose Ethan loved playing against them.
The next morning we set off on a day trip over the hill to a village called Khumjung where we planned to visit the first school Sir Ed built 49 years ago. We had brought some photos of Ethan’s school, and planned to talk to some of the school classes about life in NZ. The trek is up a very steep ridge then across an airfield to some stunning stoned walled fields, then you climb up a little higher to another ridge. This is where you get the first views of Mt Everest, I put my arm around Ethan and knelt down and showed him Everest, it was a very special moment. He had lots and lots of questions about all the mountains. We walked a little further and Ama Dablam appeared, probably more impressive looking than Everest. In 2005 I was on an expedition to climb Ama Dablam and I stood at the same spot just staring at this huge mountain thinking “how on earth am I going to climb that”!
We continued into the village of Khumjung and went to the local bakery for some lunch before visiting the school. Ethan only ate a little bit as his appetite was still an issue, he saw that milk shakes were on the menu and asked if he could have one. Normally I wouldn’t touch them, but I thought it would be a good way to get some nutrients for him even if it was from powdered milk, so out came the milk shake and Ethan drank it down declaring it totally delicious. We then walked up to the local Buddhist Monastery where the monk kindly opened the case to show us the famous Yeti skull, you can probably imagine how many questions this generated.
I’m not sure if the Yeti exists but one thing for sure there is something that troubles these people from time to time in the Himalayas . There is an Everest Sherpa who has three large scratch marks on his face from when he disturbed a Yeti behind a bush when he was a young boy. I met him in 2007 and asked another sherpa very quietly what had happened to his face and he simply said “Yeti”. In 2005 I stayed with Lama Gershi in the village of Pangboche, he had lived in the same house for almost 60 years. I asked him about the Yeti and he and his wife began to have a rather heated debate. I asked their daughter what they were saying and she said “Dad says the Yeti attacked Mum’s friend out the back of the house 5 years ago and Mum says no, it was 10 years ago!”
Answering yeti questions all the way, we walked to the local school only to find to our disappointment that due to the strike it was closed. We wandered through the school and met the vice principal who was delighted to meet Ethan, we gave him the photos we had brought and went into the school office. The school has grown from the one classroom first built by Sir Ed to now having over 700 students and 26 teachers. Back in Namchee we had met some children ages 7-12 who went to Khumjung school but lived in Namchee. Each day they trekked 2 hours over the hill and 1 hour back, I asked them what they did when it snowed. They answered “we go fast to keep warm”.
We left Khumjung and trekked back to Namchee along the way stopping to talk to various people. As we descended down the valley into Namchee we could hear some very loud Tibetan music being played over a loud speaker from the Monastery. It was magical, like something out of a movie (even with Yeti questions still coming thick and fast).
That night we both slept well until about 4am when Ethan woke with stomach cramps and diarrhoea, I was prepared for this and had the proper medicine to give him but it zapped his energy. The next morning Palden sherpa said it will take two days to come right, so we stayed put and listened to his advice. We spent the time hanging around Namchee and made a few new friends. The plan had been to trek up to Pangboche and visit Lama Gershi and try and meet Dr Rob who was climbing Everest for the 7th time during his rest cycle. Rob rang the lodge and said he would come down to Namchee to see us.
Rob had come to New Zealand in October for a Medical conference and stayed with us for a week, he spent the majority of his stay on our trampoline with my three kids wrestling and they all loved him. Rob had entered the trans Atlantic rowing race and rowed for two and a half months only to have to pull out 8 days before the end otherwise he would have missed the Everest season, he was bitterly disappointed . The next day Rob arrived, it was great to see him, once you have done something like climbed Everest together there is a very special bond. Ethan was also happy to see him and the three of us spent the rest of the day catching up. That night Ethan got to sleep in the tea room lounge in his sleeping bag as I caught up on all the Everest dramas from Rob. Little did we know that in the next few weeks there would be one of the most dramatic rescues in Everest‘s history and for Rob his medical skills would be tested to the extreme.
The next day we all got some breakfast together and wandered through the weekly Namchee market. It’s an eye opener when you see meat being butchered on the street and then hung up and sold. There was everything from live chickens, spices, to knives. We looked around for an hour then it was time to say good bye. This good bye was always going to be hard for Ethan and as he hugged Rob he began to cry, Rob and I hugged choking back the tears, and Rob confessed that the last thing he felt like doing was trekking all the way back to base camp and then the mammoth task of climbing Everest. (He summitted safely on the 17th May 2010 for the 7th time).
As we trekked back down the valley Ethan cried on and off for about an hour, it was really hard for him. That night I got him to write in his diary how he was feeling, he wrote how sad he was saying good bye to Rob as it would be at least a year before he saw him again. He also drew a picture of Rob climbing Everest with himself down the bottom tears streaming from his eyes. Any thought of me climbing Everest again very quickly disappeared.
We spent a night in Phadking and then trekked to Lukla and stayed in Paradise lodge with Dawa, who treated Ethan like one of her own grandchildren .We flew back to Kathmandu and spent two nights exploring and shopping. Ethan found a beautiful hand calved marble chest set for $8US and a 400 million year old fossil. It’s a rock split in two and when you open the two halves it reveals a beautiful ammonite which is a fossil from the squid family. We had met a professor from Oxford University called Mike who appears on the documentary channel on board our aircraft and he explained all about them to Ethan.
The trip home was long Kathmandu-Delhi-Hong Kong– Auckland and then to Brisbane to meet up with the rest of the family for a bit of R&R. When we finally walked in the door there was signs and balloons greeting Ethan home from his adventure, he was just beaming, enthusiastically telling everyone his stories and giving out presents that he had brought.
It was a fantastic adventure to have with your child, a very special time together. It was a little bit harder than I expected and the journey changed from “going to see Everest with Dad” to Ethan experiencing the culture and people of Nepal. He is probably a bit young to remember the trip in detail but the experience I’m sure will stay with him forever. Next it will be my daughter Maya’s turn when she turns seven. As Ian Grant says “kids spell love T.I.M.E. Ethan with some help is going to write a reading book for kids on his adventure and give it away to some schools. Nepal to me is a magical place and I am very fortunate to be able to share it with my family.
I am planning an expedition to Everest base camp next April 2011, I’m hoping to take only Air New Zealanders with me. Some of my sherpa friends and myself will be the guides and the plan is to trek to Everest base camp and climb a small peak called Kalapatar (18,300ft) to get spectacular views of Everest. Then have lunch at a climber’s base camp for an inside perspective into expedition life, explore around base camp and the foot of the Kumbu ice fall. With a western summiteer and sherpas that have summated Everest numerous times, I hope to give people not only a unique insight into climbing Everest but also sherpa life, culture and what the Himalayas mean to these people.
If you are interested you can email me at
, no experience is necessary, you will need to have average fitness but most importantly be motivated towards adventure.