For the challenge and for his day job, Eddie Bauer First Ascent guide David Morton has spent 20 climbing seasons in the Nepal Himalaya, tackling hard routes on Makalu and Everest’s West Ridge, as well as guiding eight expeditions on the world’s tallest mountain. In his two decades of travels through the rugged topography, he has forged many friendships and many connections among the Sherpa who inhabit a region that holds 8 of the world’s 10 tallest peaks as well as 240 summits over 20,000 feet. But living a double life between Seattle and the Himalaya meant that many of his mountain friends had not yet met Morton’s 2-year-old son Thorne. So Morton and his wife Kristine packed the favorite toys, braved toddler jet lag in Kathmandu, and introduced Thorne to the grandeur of the Himalaya and the people of these mountains. What they discovered was more than just the realization that their son felt completely at home in a foreign but welcoming range. –LYA Editor
Words and Images by David Morton
After cresting the last ridgeline of mountains that stand sentry over the Kathmandu Valley, we blew through the haze and touched down on Kathmandu’s bumpy runway. It was the umpteenth time in the past decade I’d experienced this routine. Except today was different. Asleep in the seat next to me with his right foot jammed into my hip was my jet-lagged, and precious, 2-year-old son Thorne. We departed Seattle some 30-plus hours earlier. It was a hell of a long journey.
Was it worth it? In the next three weeks we’d attempt to answer that question.
Ever since my wife Kristine and I began talking about having children, we envisioned rugged adventures as a family to the places that are dear to our hearts. Number one on that list is Nepal. It is a home away from home for me because of my guiding work. I’ve spent 20 seasons in the Nepal Himalaya, including eight expeditions to Mt. Everest. Over the past twelve years, those relationships originally established as working professional ones have morphed into very dear friendships. They’re similar to many of my friendships, no more important, no less. But to share my son with these friends takes a commitment.
The two days spent exploring the magically chaotic streets of Kathmandu were especially so since Thorne and I ended up doing much of it between the hours of 1:00 and 4:00 a.m. due to his jet lag. We found ourselves alone with the monkeys and stray dogs that are the main visitors to the ancient Buddhist and Hindu temples at night. We caught the last flickers of butter lamps that we discovered burn out around 2 a.m. I saw the city through new eyes again.
After the typically unnerving flight to the Khumbu Valley, home to the Everest region, we began our two weeks of trekking and exploration. My good friends Dawa Lhamu and Kumar had eagerly agreed to join us on our adventure and help shoulder the load, literally. We traded off carrying the little guy. Our schedule was slightly tweaked to a more leisurely itinerary for a couple reasons. A doctor friend told us before leaving that “he’s so young and his head is so soft that if his brain starts to swell from the altitude, it won’t be a problem because his skull will expand.” We asked ourselves if that was his honest attempt to be reassuring. Either way, we decided we’d spend a bit more time acclimatizing and not go much higher than 15,000 feet. The bonus was that this allowed us more time to spend with our friends. That, after all, was one of the main reasons we had come.
After a couple of days of trial and error, trying to time naps with stops and stops with naps, we eventually got into a routine. After a long leisurely breakfast, we would tell Thorne it was time to get into the carrier. He would protest, saying he wanted to walk. With great enthusiasm Thorne would navigate the rocks, chickens, and yak turds that cover the trail. After a strong effort of about 200 yards, he’d be finished and we’d throw him in the carrier. The next couple hours would be filled with singing, counting yaks, and gawking at the spectacular mountains. Even Thorne would join in the “ahhs” each time we rounded a corner and saw another 6000m peak with jagged ridgelines and sheer faces. Eventually we’d arrive at our next village destination and there the true magic began for our son.
Kristine and I are relatively casual in our approach to protecting our son. We figure the falls and bumps and bruises are all part of learning to walk (and live) in this world. Even so, the adjustment to not checking on him every 5 minutes is something that doesn’t come easily for modern-day parents. Each afternoon the village kids would come find Thorne as the gossip passed through town that “Dave Dai’s (my nickname) son is here.” For the rest of the afternoon he would run through the fields, streams, and yak pastures trying to keep up with the older Sherpa children. After the first day of trying to figure out where he was at all times, we realized there was no need. The only thing that could happen is another bump or scrape. No cars. No potentially threatening strangers. No swimming pools. Just friends, fields, trails amid the mountains. It was freedom, or something damn close. For him. And for us.
Eventually towards dinnertime, the pack of kids would circle back around and drop Thorne at the teahouse with us before returning to their own homes for dinner. His excitement was palpable as he described in his broken toddler words the goings-on of the afternoon. By the time Kristine and I had finished dinner and a beer, he would be passed out on the traditional benches that surround the wood-burning fire in Sherpa teahouses.
The realization of how adaptable young people are is amazingly demonstrated on this type of adventure. After only 10 days our son’s vocabulary was filled with all of the local words for common Buddhist objects: sungde, Rinpoche, gompas, khatas, thankas. He could even identify the difference between the yaks and dzopkyos, something most trekkers have difficulty with. It was a beautiful yet somewhat disconcerting experience to realize that you could leave your child in a place like this and come back in 15 years to find that the 2 ½ years that he had spent in our community at home had left no trace on him. Human beings have incredible adaptability and flexibility when not burdened by the trappings that accompany growing older.
In all, we spent 3 weeks in Nepal and made it to 8 villages with one cold night sleeping up around 15,000 feet. It’s easy to forget the restless, jet-lagged nights that accompanied both the start of our trip and the end (we weren’t able to bring him back to day care for a week after the trip because he was still sleeping all day). And it’s easy to forget the day I convinced myself that there really was a chance he was hypothermic (the hour of screaming uncontrollably was a warning sign). But some discomfort accompanies anything worth doing.
Both Kristine and I have been around long enough to understand that sometimes our notions of what we want to be wonderful and what is wonderful don’t always square up. And we understand that it’s easy to romanticize adventures without acknowledging the difficulties, often significant, that are a part of those. The bottom line is that it takes diving headfirst into these experiences, muddling through the difficulties, and coming out the other end to really register their worth.
And on that note, yes, it was definitely worth it.
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