Enlightenment on the Khumbu

The lasting impact of a trek in Nepal

A tone goes out over the police radio.

Next comes the voice of a dispatcher, then the sounds of sirens. Lots of squads are rolling. “Homicide, east side, no suspect in custody.” Three phone lines are ringing at once. The tempo of the day, in an instant, has sprung into chaotic overdrive.

I close my eyes and see the dome-shaped stupa, strings of fading prayer flags snapping about the Buddhist shrine in clear Himalayan air. The tiger’s teeth—the high mountains of the Khumbu—are gleaming from behind in the backdrop of a bluebird sky. I look down and see my hiking boots.

The path ahead may be rocky, but my mind is now clear. A calmness comes. I have not physically been to the place where I first found it in many years, yet it is of great comfort to know that, in the recesses of the mind, it is always there, whenever I need it, almost like the journey was yesterday.


As our Russian helicopter began to sit down after buzzing across Nepal’s Kathmandu Valley, I could see throngs of curious villagers with eyes to the sky. Strange, I thought, as surely they must see landings in Lukla often. That would be true, if this was Lukla. But it wasn’t. It was Phaplu, a strenuous up-and-down, two-day climb away from where we thought we had landed. No matter, everything I needed was on my back; we were heading to Everest, and I could not have been happier.

You always meet great people on the trail: Wanderlust has a way of uniting spirits of vagabond brothers and sisters. Some came to find themselves, others to embrace the top of the world. It was a passion for the strange and new that called me forth. I wasn’t looking to change my life, yet along the way, step by step, that is exactly what happened. It did not take place while swaying in full pack on a suspension bridge over a gorge, at the bottom of which is a rushing river. It did not take place awakening to sounds of chanting monks. It didn’t even take place during what I call “the best pee of my life.”

For that I need to set the scene: It was the middle of the night. We were in a village above treeline, more than 16,000 feet up, bunked down in a smoke-filled hut laden with trekkers making bodily sounds, as dried and burning yak dung provided a bit of warmth. I stumbled out from the pungent haze, and there—under   a nearly full moon—they were. And now I understood why they are called tiger’s teeth: jagged, gleaming, white-as-chalk peak after peak, lit up in a starry cold sky, with majestic Everest standing above the rest.

It was but one of a mountain of magical moments experienced in a land where indigenous people struggle daily, yet are gracious and kind, peaceful and respectful, seemingly good to all they meet. They are poor but rich.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but in the totality of it all, I had changed. What once seemed important was now not so much so. Finding a balance in life, looking for goodness in people, trying to enjoy the daily journey are all things I’ve tried to embrace post-Khumbu. And on those days when stress really starts hitting the fan, I try to put my mind’s eye back on that trail, below the stupa, where tranquility was found.

Joel DeSpain is the public information officer for the Madison Police Department and a former WISC-TV3 reporter. He has made two trips to Nepal.

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