Everest / Alpine Expeditions

Keith Cowing Everest Update: Webcasting from a Foggy Buddhist Monastery

By Keith Cowing
Keith Cowing
April 21, 2009
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Keith Cowing Everest Update: Webcasting from a Foggy Buddhist Monastery
Fog rolling in mid-morning at Tengboche
Keith Cowing

20 April

We were up again early this morning – due mostly to my sleeping patterns. Sparing no time we were off to our next stop – Tengboche – just after 7:00 am. The trail out of Namche was relatively civil at first (i.e. it was not like climbing an eternal set of stairs). But after about an hour, things steepened noticeably and we were soon up in the clouds. It was clear that fog is a major source of moisture in non-monsoon months – mosses and other epiphytes were in abundance in the trees. At times it looked like we were in Baton Rouge – not Nepal – as the moss fluttered in the wind. The illusion is complete – so long as you ignore the mountains (not very easy to do).

Just as we gained some altitude (up to around 3,500 meters/11,500 feet) we promptly lost it as we began to descend. That is the somewhat frustrating aspect of trekking here – you seem to lose a lot of what you fought to gain. Soon we were deep in the valley at a river. By now, my new friend Andy from the UK had joined up with us.

After lunch at Phunki – and a bridge crossing – we set to regain – and then add even more altitude. After a staircase-like stretch things got a little easier – but then it got steep again. We were apparently making good time since we arrived a half -hour before my Sherpa guide Tashi had expected. Then again, I think he was pulling my leg today.

Center of picture: Mt. Everest (left) and Lhotse (right) as seen from Tengboche

Tengboche (3,867 meters – 12,687 feet) is the home of the Tengboche Monastery, one of the highest on Earth – and one of the most resilient. Decades ago an earthquake heavily damaged it. It was then rebuilt. Then again, in the late 1980’s an electrical wiring fault lead to a fire. It was then rebuilt again. Tashi was a student here at the time.

We sat down for some tea, and I used my SPOT Personal Satellite Tracker www.findmespot.com to send an “OK” message to folks back home. After leaving our stuff at the teahouse, Tashi, Andy, and I set out to see the monastery. Having lived here for 9 years, Tashi was intimately familiar with every aspect of life here. There was an afternoon prayer session, and we were just in time to witness it. In essence, the monks (young and old) all gather, drink tea, and go through several sessions of prayer chanting, meditation, and tea sipping. I found it fascinating, but the high schoolers here on an outing, seemed nonplussed.

Mt. Everest as seen from Tengboche

Just as we emerged from the temple, my bags arrived. Yesterday, a separate porter carried each duffel bag. Today, one of the porters carried both. His brother will be back in a few days to help. I remain amazed at the strength these people have.

After unpacking my stuff, it was time to do a check of my Broadband Global Area Network (BGAN) satellite phone. Luckily, the cyber cafe’s antenna gave me a hint were south was. The unit I have is quite an amazing device. The size of a 1980’s laptop, you open it up, push a button, listen to it beep, watch the blinking lights to get the best alignment and signal and then fire up your computer and you are online. It is not cheap ($6/MB transferred) but it does offer a robust pipeline for transmitting my words and images to you.

Buddha inside the Tengboche Monastery

In the afternoon, my task was to do a test hook-up via Skype with Miles O’Brien. Miles was delivering the keynote speeck to the Association for Information Communications Technology Professionals in Higher Education (ACUTA) meeting in Atlanta www.acuta.org, He was telling them about the world of “New Media” and wanted me to appear on the screen live to make a case in point on how content production and distribution is undergoing a democratic revolution.

The short test went perfectly. Alas, when the time came to do it for real in front of the crows, it was dark here. In addition, the once clear skies were now totally overcast and getting murkier by the minute. Since I had no studio lights I grabbed my LED reading light and another keyboard light I had and plugged them in to illuminate my face – “Blair Witch Project” – style.

Keith using his BGAN phone to webcast to Miles O’Brien in exceptionally dense, drizzly fog

Again, the connection was perfect – but my face looked more like that trick that scout leaders do around campfires or on Conan O’Brien’s show when they put a flash light under their chins pointing straight up. I eventually got a lighting set up that was passable (given my location) but I had some trouble framing the shot – prompting Miles to comment that it looked like a scene from “Rocky Horror Picture Show”.

There I was, doing live video over satellite on a laptop in a pasture that smelled like yak dung, at 3,800 meters (12,500 feet), with drizzly fog making everything wet and slippery – and Miles is complaining about the lighting. I am beginning to feel like that character that Al Franken used to play on “Saturday Night Live” – you now, the guy out in the field with the NBC satellite dish on his head. I know who is buying beers when we get home.

Tengboche Monastery

The substance of my comments during Miles’ presentation had to do with the ubiquity and ease of connecting to the Internet almost anywhere, how news consumers have become producers of content, and how much (but not all) big media seems to be missing the boat in this regard.

Lions at the main gate of Tengboche Monastery

After my soggy webcast was over I went back to my 8′ by 8′ room, stowed things, put ear plugs in and noise canceling headphones on (to dull the shouting by the dozen rowdy Brazilians in the main room of the lodge) and got a good night’s sleep.

21 April

Today is a rest day. Tashi is off to visit his family in nearby Pengboche for a few hours since I plan to just sit here and type and relax. I have been hiking non-stop for 4 days and I need a day to rest my bones.

Ahead of me tomorrow lies a hike and an acclimatization day at Dengboche (4,350 meters – 14,272 feet). While at Dengboche I expect to meet up with several dozen folks from NASA who are trekking in to Everest Base Camp. They are on a different schedule than originally planned so I will arrive at Base Camp a day before them.

Gompa at Tengboche Monastery

After Dengboche I head for Lobuche (4,930 meters – 16,175 feet) and another acclimatization day. We then depart Lobuche to climb Kala Pattar (5,623 meters – 18,448 feet) for a view of Everest and head don to Gorak Shep (5,184 meters – 17,008 feet) for the night. This will probably be the last time I actually see Everest itself for the next few weeks as the topography at Everest Base Camp obscures the highest peak on the planet.

Then on 27 April I make a short 2 hours trek from Gorak Shep to Everest Base Camp (5,300 meters – 17,388 feet. Based on Scott’s schedule I’ll have had a chance to unpack and eat a meal when he comes down off the mountain in the early afternoon.

A pile of ancient Mani stacked at the Tengboche Monastery

On 28 April, the NASA Trek Team will arrive and the day will be spent hanging out with them. They will head off mid afternoon for their trek back to Katmandu.

The acclimatization plan that I have been following has worked perfectly thus far. I am now starting to wear a scarf over my nose and mouth – both to keep out dust and to allow the air I breathe in to be moister. I am hoping to prevent, or at least lessen, the dreaded “Khumbu Cough” that afflicts so many. Some people tolerate long periods of breathing cold, dry, dusty air (I did on Devon Island in the Canadian Arctic). Others do not. I am not taking my chances.

Juniper trees set against the flanks of mountains overlooking Tengboche

I am not certain when my next update will be. I am trying to preserve battery life on my BGAN phone. If I meet up with the NASA folks, I will send updates from Dengboche and Kala Pattar. Once I am at Everest Base Camp, I will try and do daily (or even more frequent) updates.

Tengboche Cyber Cafe




Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA Space Station Payload manager/space biologist, Away Teams, Journalist, Lapsed climber, Synaesthete, Na’Vi-Jedi-Freman-Buddhist-mix, ASL, Devon Island and Everest Base Camp veteran, (he/him) 🖖🏻