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Reflections on 16,000 ft

posted Aug 10, 2009, 9:20 PM by Pacific Rim   [ updated Aug 10, 2009, 9:37 PM ]

Jagged mountain peaks surrounded us on all sides while snow-capped summits gazed down at us like the eyes of giants who beckoned us to climb higher. The crisp, early-morning mountain air tickled my nostrils but still I drew in one deep breath after another. My body had just begun to adjust to the shock of being jostled from sleep at two-thirty AM, only to throw on a head light and a few extra layers and begin trekking uphill. Our destination: Goechela Pass, Sikkim, India. Elevation: 6,400 feet.

Like an avalanche, eight months of Asia had taken us by surprise, dropping every variety of experience on us as we fell with it. We now considered ourselves expert travelers; we had seen so much and had been surprised again and again until we felt almost an indifference to surprise - we expected the unusual. We had bonded as a group and had made friends with countless individuals along our path. All that we had experienced had passed by us in a rush, before we hardly had enough time to reflect on what we had seen. These impressions, experiences, and images remained with us in some form or another in the process of slowly transforming from short-term to long-term memory. My mind was processing many of these past experiences and impressions as we set out for Goechela Pass.

Wherever Pac Rim went, we took the place by storm. We quickly filled up bus stations, internet cafes, even airports. As you can imagine, twenty-eight Pac Rimmers on the go, each carrying forty pound backpacks, were a force you did not want to reckon with. And we were no less of a spectacle as we trekked through the Himalayas to Goechela pass accompanied by twice as many staff, shirpas, porters, guides, cooks and ox laden with gear and food. Our final Pac Rim adventure was upon us.

After traveling to many countries and taking a wide range of classes on subjects ranging from Hindu archeology to Comparative Chinese and Vietnamese nationalism, our final class turned inward and examined what we, as tourists, had been doing over the past eight months. The class addressed some of the moral questions associated with visiting a foreign place and interacting with the locals. It advocated for ecotourism, a tourism philosophy which strives to create sustainable tourism that preserves the natural environment and helps local people capitalize on opportunities which improve their quality of life while promoting the local cultural identity. This class took us from Darjeeling, to Gangtok Sikkim, and beyond to the tiny Himalayan towns of Quizing, Yuksom, and Timi.

In Darjeeling we learned about the history of mountaineering in the Himalayas and wondered what drove some people to take on such grueling challenges like climbing Mt. Everest. We also explored how the commodification of mountaineering actually provides many job opportunities for locals as shirpas or mountain guides. In Sikkim, Gangtok was our home base for several weeks. We took classes at our hotel in the morning, acquired the clothes and gear we needed for the trek in the afternoons, and enjoyed all the momos we could at either the Taste of Tibet or Maharaja Sweets restaurants during the rest of our free-time.

As the time for the trek drew near, we put what we had learned from the ecotourism class into practice. Our first stop was Quizing; we stayed several nights in homestays and interacted with the community to try to develop and improve ecotourism in their tiny town. We hiked to the holy monastery and enjoyed the unique images which adorn the inside walls. We met with the man whose job is to protect the local fields by controlling the hail storms and adverting them away. Our objective was to help the community members develop these opportunities to increase tourism but at the same time to keep in mind that too much tourism would spoil the authentic small town experience. This brought up questions about a community’s right to develop and modernize which we had been asking on PacRim since our stay in Kyoto, Japan, another city whose development is restricted in an effort to remain authentic to traditional culture.

After Quizing, there was nowhere to go but up; and up we went. The trek to 16,400 feet pushed the limits of each and every one of us. The physical challenges of elevation and reduced oxygen and the mental strains of HACE were all very real. Fortunately our local crew of support staff took great care of us. They kept us fed, packed up our tents, and then beat us to the next campsite with such ease that it was almost embarrassing. Another source of inspiration was found in Lady Ugly, an unofficially adopted stray dog who joined our group in the base town of Yuksom and continued with us every day of the trek. Officially, dogs are not allowed in the park, but Pac Rim, having just taken Professor Benard’s Tibetan Buddhism class, was unable to curb their compassion for the little trooper, and Lady Ugly became a member of our group, whether Lisa Long liked it or not (and no, she did not.)


The trek wasn't all fun and games, of course. We continued to have classes on ecotourism as we traveled. We interviewed other tour groups we bumped in to along the way and we monitored the visible impact of tourism in the park.

The morning we reached Goechela pass we woke around 2:30 am. The sky was still black and we hiked with head lights on to guide our path around large rocks and over creaks. As the sun began to rise, color ascended upon the landscape before us. The landscape suddenly had depth, and shadows marked the passage of time.

As morning faded into afternoon, we found ourselves trekking through knee-deep snow. Lady Ugly forged ahead through snow taller than she was, but she maneuvered her way like a champ. The final stretch to Goechela pass was along the side of a steep, rocky bowl which inclined into a canyon below. As we climbed up to the pass, Mt. Khangchendzonga stood triumphantly before us and wispy clouds swirled mysteriously around it. The guides and porters greeted us with warm potatoes and cookies. Lady Ugly pranced merrily around us, happy to eat any fallen potatoes or cookies. All of our efforts and struggle culminated in this moment of joyous accomplishment. It was all downhill from there...

Or was it? As we turned away from Mt. Khangchendzonga, we embraced our metaphorical ascent back home to America. From this point, PacRim began to wrap-up as easily as falling off a mountain. One quick moment follows another and next thing you know, here we are, nearly every one of the 2008-2009 Pac Rimmies is back in the United States. Some of us have graduated and face wide-open futures while others have another year at UPS to complete. In any case, all of us are reintegrating. We are reintegrating back into the lives we remember leaving before we left for PacRim. We are trying on old memories, friendships, and beliefs and seeing how they fit now. We are noticing how the world we left has changed in our absence, and we notice how we have changed in our absence from it. Every time someone asks us to recall our trip, we reassess our experience, give it meanings and choose how to best communicate this abstract experience, while recognizing that no perfect transmission of this experience is possible. We even learned a thing or two about the responsibility of sustainable tourism which we are able to take back to America and to any place we visit. We are now constructing the photo albums of PacRim, but we are far from finished; we are already planning the next Goechela’s which lay ahead of us.

(Article by Stephanie)