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Day 3 Namche to KhumJung 13,500 feet

The weather has been OK so far. We are still at comparatively low elevations. But when I woke up this morning things had changed dramatically. It wasn’t quite Edmonton in January, but it was cold.

Today we are climbing to the small village of Khumjung, with the dual purpose of gaining about 300 meters of altitude to help acclimate, and also to visit a monastery. Climb high sleep low, or so the mantra goes. It is a 5 hour trek, round trip, and I went with one of Karma’s sons, who speaks absolutely zero english. We do sign language – motioning to drink, eat, and my favorite, slow down.

Wondering through the gigantic mountains with a Nepalese teenager, and not seeing anyone else for hours, is a new experience. Tranquility takes on a whole new meaning. But I brought my phone fully loaded with tunes so there is a major rock concert going on in the Himalayas. Train and Jimi Hendrix seem to be on repeat. Occasionally you pass Chorten, which are like Buddhist shrines or temples, that keep the evil spirits out of an area.

We eventually arrived at this beautiful monastery where the monk in charge showed me the scalp of a Yeti. Now there seems to be some debate about whether or not the Yeti exists, and I haven’t got to the bottom of it yet. But this definitely did look like a scalp and had dark monkey-like hair on it, although nobody has ever photographed a Yeti as of yet…

After the monastery we went to a tiny little lodge for a bowl of rice. Very peaceful, and the perfect place for a Fine Vintage board meeting. I was feeling guilty that Karma gives money to his village school and his monastery so I decided when I got home to donate to the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation and create some new job sites that help people find employment. Our job sites are designed for profit but run for free for some years beforehand. But I like them because we help people find jobs much more easily than when I was a job seeker.

So after a last mouthful of rice, I thanked the Fine Vintage board for always being so supportive, and headed back over the mountains, visited Sir Edmond Hillary’s tiny school where the children wear uniforms and are so polite, went through the clouds, past temples and fluttering prayer flags, and back home to Namche, still wondering if the altitude would effect the effervescence in the Krug.

Everest wine tasting Day 2

DAY 2 Monjo to Namche Bazaar – 13,000 feet

This is supposed to be one of the hardest parts of the trek, and they were not wrong. It says in the guide book that the trail goes “pretty much straight-up”.

Over breakfast with Karma I inquired as to just how steep it was, motioning various angles with my hand. Karmas english is OK, but not great. When he put his hand at almost a 90 degree pitch, and added it would take 4+ hours, I knew the book wasn’t exaggerating. He added a reassuring statement that we would “take slow”. You can only laugh, not only at the situation, but at yourself for getting into it. Curse you Charlotte.

The wine is still in-tact but obviously being bumped around a lot. I’m wondering how it will show. If ever there was an environment for bottle shock, but not post bottling, then it is now. It can be warm during the day and freezing at night. I opened the bag this morning to check on it and found that some of the ISO glasses had snapped their stems. 2 down, 4 left… Frankly it will be a miracle if we get the wine and glasses to Base Camp in one piece, and even more amazing if the wines show well.

During one of our breaks I asked Karma for some tips on climbing. He explained that you should keep looking down because if you look up at the climb ahead, he animated, you’d burst into tears. He explained “climbing all in head.  You think of family, friends, and get strong for jiggy jiggy. No think about mountain”. I felt like I’d just scored the Sherpas Inside Guide to Climbing in the Himalayas, and every time I saw another Sherpa I couldn’t help thinking the guy was dreaming of getting laid.

We made it to Namche, the largest community in the area. The Sherpas all spend a lot of time monitoring you for signs of altitude sickness. They force you to drink lots of water and make sure you are eating at every meal. Altitude kills your appetite and you don’t tend to sleep very well, which is partly related to the lodging too. I’m asked several times a day if I have “any headache or feel sick?” Luckily I’m all good so far.

There is a clinic here and an oxygen supply. I asked Karma if he’d ever had to organize a heli-rescue. He flashed a big smile and said “many times”. He was clearly oblivious to my reason for asking. I decided that the rest of the day was best spent doing nothing. Nobody moves, nobody gets hurt.

Tasting at Everest Day 1

Day 1 – Kathmandu, Nepal

The day began with a 4 a.m. wake up call at The Yak and Yeti Hotel. A guy called Kiran picked me up and we headed to the domestic airport in a clapped out car that bumped along the dirt roads in Kathmandu, the epitome of a 3rd world city. I think Nepal is the 5th poorest country in the world or something like that.

The airport is a total nuthouse. There are monkey’s swinging from the trees right outside the airport entrance. Inside, dozens of people crowded the check-in counters for the main carrier, amusingly named Yeti Airlines.  It was here that I ran into my first issue.

Relative to others, I was travelling like Elizabeth Taylor because of the weight of the wine. I have 2 bottles of each just in case one is corked. I decided I hated cork companies. Up until now I’ve forgiven them, but having to carry a spare bottle up the world’s highest mountain just in case one is off, well I draw the line.

Negotiations were fierce between my local guy and the check-in people. Arms were flailing, supervisors got involved, bags were opened, and the bottles were taken out of their insulation packs and inspected. I got a lot of strange looks. Eventually, they agreed that for an excess baggage fee I could take the wine. $18 later…. Air Canada – take note of the fee structure.

The flight to Lukla takes about 40 minutes in a tiny 10 seat propeller plane. You get great views as you fly over the Himalayas. Many of the world’s highest peaks are in the Himalayas. I learnt that if a human was dropped off on the top of Everest you’d die within 15 minutes, as your body couldn’t deal with the altitude that suddenly. The mountains are monstrous.

Landing in Lukla is a harrowing experience. The tiny airstrip is perched on a mountainside and has been the scene of more than a few accidents. This was the case recently. Apparently the pilots have discovered “that there can be mountains hiding in the clouds” and so they only like to fly on clear days.  Anyway, there was applause when the plane landed, and not because it was a smooth one, but just because we landed.

After recouping my bags, which are heavy because of the wine, I went to “Sherpa Coffee” and met Karma Sherpa, my guide. After carrying my heavy bags 200 steps up the hill I thought I was going to pass out. We’re at about 9,000 feet and you can notice the air is thinner. Had it been much further I might have called for a medic.

After a coffee and some rice, we set off on a 5 hour hike through the mountains, crossing streams on wobbly suspension bridges, dodging Yaks, and stepping aside as the porters pass with up to 100 kilos on their backs. Yes, that’s around 200 lbs on the back of one guy, motoring up the hill. Trust me, it’s hard enough when you just have a small pack.

The beautiful Buddha prayer flags are everywhere. You should always pass to the left of the religious symbols when going uphill, even if it means a minor detour. I enjoyed spinning the mina, which purifies your soul. Keep spinning buddy. The Nepalese people are extremely friendly. They constantly smile. I spent time thinking about how much we have in the western world but how grumpy your average person looks standing in line at Starbucks.

Tonight is in a small lodge in Monjo. The whole place is deserted, which is nice. At the lodge there are pictures of famous Sherpa climbers on the walls. Karma told me that you can make “big money” as a high altitude porter, and even more as a guide. But Karma said he wouldn’t do it again because of the danger, and his wife has told him that if he goes climbing again he’s out on his ass. Anyway, he sighed, “nice to have big money from Everest climb. I want to put toilet in my house. And give to the school and monastery”.  Right now the toilet is in a field 100 yards from his teahouse. And it consists of a hole between 2 planks of wood.

The wine is all in tact. It’s cold at night and so I’m a bit worried about it. But the insulation packs seem to be working and at night it gets wrapped up in its own sleeping bag. Gotta keep it warm and snuggly…

Mt Everest Base Camp wine tasting

Wine tasting at Mt. Everest Base Camp – 17,600 feet

Just to put things in context, I’ve never gone on a trek before. The closest I’ve come was a day trip up an active volcano in Chile. The climb almost killed me. As a dangled my legs into the crater, and admired the lava bubbling below, I clearly remember vowing to never do such an exhausting thing again. I was 18 and pretty fit.

25 years later and the memory of the Chilean debacle has obviously faded. I’m embarking on my first real trek, and the destination is Mount Everest Base Camp – 17,600 feet. What’s more I’m doing a wine tasting up there with some of the world’s greatest wines, to research how they taste at high altitude.  Yquem, Champagne Krug, Ch. Ducru Beaucaillou, and more.

The person to thank, or to blame, is one Charlotte Bonilla, professional mountaineer. I happened to sit next to her at a 2 star Michelin restaurant in St. Emilion in 2010 during a Fine Vintage wine tour. We should give people a t-shirt for surviving the avalanche of food and wine.

Around the 9th course of a sport eating extravaganza, and sipping on the 25th wine of the day, we started chatting about health. I was dreaming of doing something athletic to counteract my new job of eating and drinking with people, and I was also looking for a new challenge.

She suggested going to Everest Base Camp. It sounded so exciting. I had a fascination with the Himalayas, not only the mountains but with the culture of the Sherpas, Buddhism, and the monasteries you find at 14,000 feet. Anyway, I’m sure my enthusiasm was fueled by the 26th glass of wine. And when Charlotte assured me that with some training I could make it to Base Camp, the decision was made.  I was in.

Of course, when I woke up the next day, and the effects of the wine had worn off, my decision didn’t seem so sensible after all. But I couldn’t back-out on myself.  So I found an excellent Canadian mountaineering company called Peak Freaks who could organize it all. And despite cancelling in 2011 and 2012 for various reasons, the day eventually came. I’d run out of reasons to procrastinate.  I sent Peak Freaks a wire, and immediately got off the couch.

And so today I flew out of Kathmandu in a tiny propeller plane for the Himalayas. I’m a bit nervous. People often get very sick from the altitude. In fact, there are several rescues every day and over 200 trekkers have died, as I now find out. Two have died so far this year, and 9 have died on Everest. For me, being an asthmatic is my main worry. But with the nerves comes a rush of adrenaline and fantastic feeling of excitement and exhilaration.

I have my new friend Karma Sherpa to guide me. He’s a gentle soul, who happens to have summited Everest. He’s worked alongside Apa Sherpa, the Everest world recorder holder with 21 summits, so Karma is a real pro. He told me Peak Freaks assigned him to me because they were worried I’d collapse, he said with a straight face. Nice. Good for the confidence.

He’s 42, father of two boys, speaks “broken” English, as he puts it, but we can converse on the basics. So I feel like I’m in good hands for the next 2-3 weeks.

I’m also travelling with something that I am 100% sure nobody else has. And that is 10 bottles of wine, including the likes of Chateau d’Yquem, Krug Champagne, a 2nd growth Bordeaux, a top white Burgundy and a boutique Napa Cabernet. These are from Qatar Airways First Class wine list. Qatar has been voted by Skytrax as the Best Airline in the World in 2011 and 2012, and I’m honored to be the wine guy for them, now in my 9th year of consultancy.

When I told the people at Qatar that I would be out of contact for a while and was embarking on this mad adventure it was during one of our wine selection meetings in Frankfurt, where we often talk about the effects of altitude on the tasting of wine. Christian, VP of In-Flight Catering, looked at me, and suggested I do a wine tasting at Base Camp. I realized he was serious, and before I knew what had happened it was game on.

Anyway, it sounded wild, and it also gave me another reason to make it to Base Camp. Qatar said they’d donate the wine and give me a baseball cap. They don’t have toques and mittens in their promo repertoire in the scorching Middle East…

What follows is a day by day account of this mad adventure.