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Spokane trekkers find fulfillment in rarified air of northern India

Sun., Oct. 26, 2008

Gerry Copeland broke with convention during his summer vacation along the edge of the Himalaya. He didn’t relax on the 21-day trek away from roads and motorized vehicles.

He pushed his body one footstep at a time to new heights over 16,000-foot passes.

He slept on the ground, bathed in glacial streams and used holes for latrines.

He got thinner instead of fatter.

“At the age of 65, I’ve just done the hardest trip of my life,” the local architect said. “There’s something very satisfying about that.

“It would have been even more satisfying, except one of our (India) guides was 75.”

Copeland and his wife, Margie Heller, were among a group of nine Spokane adventurers who abandoned luxury and even basic services to indulge in ancient culture in the Ladakh region of northern India.

Ladakh —“the land of high passes” — is bound by the two highest and biggest mountain ranges in the world, the Karakoram in the north and the Great Himalaya in the south.

The hikers joined the adventure travel company Trips Into India on a horse-supported loop through the Zanskar River area to savor the ancient culture preserved by geographic isolation.

Guarded by a stark landscape of steep slopes and eroded gullies that preclude roads, locals travel by foot and beast, over ridges, through valleys, fording streams or wobbling across crude bridges to carry on their lives much as they have for centuries.

“The scenery is stunning, but you do this sort of trip to immerse in the culture,” said Copeland, who developed a kinship with undeveloped countries 40 years ago during a stint in the Peace Corps.

“This region isn’t demolished like Nepal because it has far fewer people.”

From New Delhi, near sea level, they flew to Leh at 11,000 feet and got a sense for the effects of high elevation.

Group members took Diamox to help ward off altitude sickness, went out on easy dayhikes to visit monasteries and other sites for four days at elevations around 9,000 feet just to get acclimated, he said.

From the end of the road at Phanjila, they followed trails on the north side of the Himalaya through friendly Buddhist-influenced villages. The Zanskar Range forms a barrier from the political unrest in the adjoining Muslim region of Kashmir, which remains too dangerous for Western tourism.

The group had planned the trek for two years, changing original plans to avoid the increasing discord in Pakistan.

Other trip members included Andy and Helen Biggs, Stacie and Mike Mainer, Jim and Sandy Ivers and their son Nick, 17.

The daily trail routine began with a guide bringing tea to each of the two-person tents at 6 a.m. Later, sitting on the ground in a large circular tent, they would breakfast on simple foods ranging from eggs to peanut butter and chapattis.

Horses carried the gear while the trekkers shouldered daypacks.

“Even with the light pack, I’d hit a brick wall with the altitude if I tried to go fast,” Copeland said. “But we would spend all day on the trail or in the little villages we passed. There was no hurry.

“The old local guide knew all of the trails in the region and the lead guide was an expert in the Buddhist religion and international politics— probably the most intelligent person I’ve ever hiked with.”

Virtually the entire trip was above elevation 10,000 feet.

“We didn’t pay that much attention to how far we walked each day, maybe six or seven miles — the region isn’t even very well mapped,” Copeland said. “It was the elevation gain that determined whether a day was easy or grueling.”

“With my knees as bad as they are, I was the person in the group asking for a horse to ride,” Heller said, describing the horses as “tiny but sure-footed.”

Natural selection would allow for nothing less than sure-footed on the sometimes harrowing mountain routes.

“Some trails are so steep they scare you,” Heller said.

“I remember going along a 45-degree slope on an 8-inch-wide trail slick with loose dirt and gravel and looking down at certain death if I slipped and fell into the canyon,” Copeland said. “Pretty exciting.”

“One guide had to hold some of our hands going across a steep section,” Heller said.

Village youngsters had no such trouble with the terrain as they hiked steeply uphill to gather yaks and goats from the high slopes and bring them back into the villages each evening.

It was uncommon to see other trekking groups, although they saw no other Americans in the villages or as they hiked through terraced fields of barley and lentils fed by centuries-old irrigation ditches.

The guides made soups for lunch and the dinners were basic Indian cuisine geared to the trail — all vegetarian since there was no access to meat.

“We had lots of Dahl, vegetable curry, fried flatbread,” Copeland said. “They packed along tomatoes and cucumbers for salads. They made noodles from scratch.”

The trip was exotic in some ways, but $2,600 for 30 days is pretty modest for guided foreign travel, he said.

As an architect, Copeland noticed the sun rooms and southern orientation of the buildings to take every possible advantage of the sun in the often cool rarified air.

“Everything is built for sustainability,” he said. “Nothing is wasted because there’s nothing to waste. It’s all local materials. Lots of mud and dung brick. Wood lasts for years and years with little rot in the dry climate.”

Wildlife highlights included seeing an ibex, wild goats and a bear track in camp.

“They have plenty of huge, rust-red marmots,” Copeland said.

“And we saw a deep pit that was a wolf trap. They would put a goat in it and the wolf would fall through into the pit. He could enjoy himself a while by eating the goat, but he couldn’t get out.

“The Buddhists approve of this kind of trap because the wolf kills the goat and then the wolf starves, so they take care of the problem without really having to kill anything.”

Copeland and Heller said 21 days was plenty of time to absorb a primitive culture on foot.

“You don’t have to be gone hiking for too many days to be ready for clean clothes and a hot shower, but we were REALLY ready,” Heller said.

“We all joked about why we didn’t take a cruise. Next time we don’t have to do such a hard trip.”

“Everyone probably had a bad day from altitude or sickness along the route — a day where you enter hell,” Copeland said. “But we all came out of it, too. Nobody was miserable for long. Bouts of misery make you appreciate the good times.

“Cipro came to my rescue, once.”

Some in the group members prepared diligently for the rigorous trip.

“Those who didn’t wished they had,” Heller said as she and Copeland pointed at each other.

“Margie and I could have trained diligently for months and we still wouldn’t have been able to keep up with the athletic people in our group,” Copeland said.

“But when I returned home to Spokane, I realized how strong I felt. I could walk up these hills like nothing. I’d lost 15 pounds.

“It’s neat to feel physically strong and mentally enriched after a vacation.

“I realize that at the age of 65 I can still do it. And I feel better knowing that I’m not wasting that blessing.”

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