February 7, 2000
Jennifer Chong spent her winter vacation in Nepal.
by Deborah Stone, features writer
A group of nine Whitman College students recently returned from a month-long trekking exploration in Nepal.
Instead of spending the holidays at home with family and friends, the students spent their winter vacation hiking through Sherpa villages and eventually ascending as high as the desolate Everest Base Camp at 17,500 feet, just below the imposing Khumbu Icefall. Their trip included participating in an environmental clean-up project at a monastery, staying with Nepalese families, and immersing themselves in the culture of the country.
Included in the group was sophomore Jennifer Chong, a 1998 Woodinville High School graduate. Chong jumped at the chance to go to Nepal when the announcement came out at Whitman last fall.
"I'm a traveling type," explains Chong, "plus I've always been interested in Nepal and the Himalayas. The prospect of trekking in that region excited me, and I decided it was too good of an opportunity to miss."
Tom Penzel, manager of the Whitman Outing Program, organized the trip after bringing Jamling Norgay to the campus as a guest speaker. Norgay, who operates a trekking guide agency in Nepal, is the son of legendary Tenzing Norgay, the Sherpa guide who first scaled the Everest summit in 1953 with New Zealander Edmund Hillary.
The students who participated ranged from freshmen to seniors and all took it upon themselves to prepare individually for the experience. They kept themselves in good physical condition, making sure that they did plenty of cardio exercise, and also did much advance reading to learn about the region.
The group left Dec. 18 and flew to Kathmandu, via Taipei and Bangkok. Then they continued on to Luklu two days later to begin their trek. A crew of sixteen people which included guides, assistant guides, and cooks accompanied the nine students. According to Chong, the challenges faced during the trek dealt primarily with acclimatizing to the altitude changes.
"It was a day-to-day process to gain elevation and we took it slow, which was a good idea," she said. "We would hike up to a higher elevation, take a day hike, then go back down to a lower elevation." Most of the group members suffered from headaches at times and felt winded occasionally. On Jan. 7, they ascended to the Everest Base Camp.
"Our plan had been to pick up some of the garbage that has littered the area and pack it out on yaks," explained Chong, "but most of us started to get severe headaches, so we didn't spend a lot of time up there. We took pictures and some of us put prayer flags up, but then we went down fairly quickly."
Over the years, Nepal and Everest climbing expeditions have grown in popularity and the numbers of people coming to the area have increased substantially. Unfortunately, more people has also meant more refuse, especially in the form of plastic, which was only introduced in the region in the mid-1980s. The Whitman group had hoped to help with more clean-up projects, but the task was overwhelming.
"You could spend weeks and weeks trying to clean up the area," says Chong. "It was emotionally draining for me and I think for the others, too, because we felt that we didn't make a dent. We spent several hours at one place, for example, and when we stopped, it was difficult to see much change in the place. It was discouraging and sad."
This was in contrast to the great scenic beauty that Chong saw everywhere she looked. She says, "I kept a journal, and each day I would write the same thing about how beautiful it was. The sky was so huge and incredibly blue and the snow had so many colors, depending on the light. The sunsets were amazing. It is the most beautiful place in the world."
One of the trip's highlights for Chong was spending time with a Nepalese family in the village of Chirikharka, where she learned more about the Nepalese culture and shared information about life in the U.S. Chong plans to return to Nepal, hopefully in the next year, but plans to go by herself or with a friend.
"I think there's so much to Nepal, but it's such a personal place, a truly spiritual place, and I have the need to explore it on my own," explains Chong. "Going with a group was a good way for the first time and we all bonded well, considering that we didn't know each other beforehand, but I want to feel free to take my time and not have a set schedule. I also want to spend more time with the people. I'm majoring in sociology, and different cultures really interest me. The Nepalese are such warm and wonderful people. I want to have the opportunity to learn more about them."