Diana LeBlanc had been interested in hiking and climbing all her life. She grew up in the Catskill Mountains, where her dad led hikes for the historical society and where she learned to climb.
She climbed in "The Gunks" (The Shawangunks) almost every day during the summers when she lived there. Family vacations always included hiking.
When Diana moved to the Adirondacks in 2004 with her husband, Mike, and became a fifth- grade teacher at Petrova Elementary School in Saranac Lake, she continued her love of hiking by climbing several of the High Peaks. She rock climbed on road trips across the United States in places like Yosemite and Joshua Tree in California, Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, City of Rocks in Idaho and Seneca Rock in West Virginia. She even climbed in the Italian Alps with Mike on their honeymoon. But she couldn't stop thinking about Nepal, which sounded exotic and exciting.
Diana LeBlanc at the top of Chukung Ri in Nepal
Diana had tried to go to Nepal before, but there had been political unrest there as Maoists, a political faction, were attempting to overthrow the monarchy. The Maoists finally agreed to lay down their arms and participate in the new electoral process, which resulted in Nepal's first elected government last year.
So, with Nepal in a relative state of calm politically, Diana flew out of JFK Airport on March 28, 2009, with her husband and a friend, Maha DeCastro. They first landed in Brussels, Belgium; then New Delhi, India; then Kathmandu, Nepal's capital and its largest metropolitan city.
The trip, including layovers, took 38 hours. They stayed in Kathmandu for a couple of days getting to know the city. Saranac Laker Esther Arlen gave Diana the name of a Rotarian named Denesh living in Kathmandu. He gave them a fantastic tour of the city, through alleys and back ways where they never would have gone on their own.
Diana felt sensory overload as there was so much to see, all at the same time. Mike, Maha and Diana would walk down the street and say "Did you see that?" and each one would be talking about something different, something one wouldn't want to miss. Everything was new, from the language on the signs, to the people, to the hundreds of dogs, monkeys and sacred cows that roam freely through the city streets. The traffic was crazy, with cars weaving around the animals and people. Diana wondered how the cars didn't hit them, but they didn't. So many vendors were selling food that Diana wanted to try, but she didn't dare because she didn't want to chance getting sick. The smog got to her, however, and made her lungs ache and eyes burn.
Diana, Mike, and Maha left Kathmandu and flew to Lukla, a 45 minute flight. They had all their supplies - ropes, climbing gear, shoes, harnesses, helmets, and books they'd brought all the way from Saranac Lake. They hired porters to carry the load, and started hiking to Namche Bazaar, a classic Himalayan town on a hillside shaped like an amphitheater. Most people trekking in the region will go through this village, as it is the gateway to the high Himalaya. There were stores and people selling their wares on the sides of the trails through town. It also had an internet cafe, where Diana could send emails home. Seeing the mix of technology, with the satellite dishes for the Internet and old traditional ways, such as yak dung stoves, always surprised Diana. Porters sometimes carried huge packs hanging off their heads and talked on cell phones at the same time.
The next day the group went to the town of Khumjung, where there was rock climbing. They did "single pitch" rock climbs, in which they would go one rope length to the top and rappel down, from 30-100 feet. (Later in the trip they did a first-ascent "multipitch" climb of 800 feet near the town of Thame.)
It was in Khumjung that they took the books brought from Saranac Lake to the Magic Yeti Library. Members of the community and students from Petrova Elementary donated the books while Petrova teachers, family and friends paid for the books' airport fees and porters to carry the books. The Magic Yeti Children's Library is sponsored by the Alex Lowe Foundation, named after a climber who died in an avalanche. The library is promoting literacy in a remote part of the world, and, after being open less than two years, is enthusiastically used by the Nepali children.
The next leg of the trip was to Base Camp, which is the staging area for all climbers who are going to try to summit Mount Everest, the highest mountain on Earth, at 29,029 feet above sea level. It's a very crowded place. The medical tent and cook tents are there. Unfortunately, Diana and Mike didn't make it all the way there. Altitude sickness started to set in, and Diana was coughing, and had a terrible splitting headache, and nausea. The only reliable treatment for altitude sickness is to descend. She was disappointed because Base Camp was only an hour or two away, a "walk in the woods," but sick, it would take four hours. There wasn't a choice but to go down. Maha was doing well and made it up to Base Camp and took pictures for them.
Once she descended 2000 ft. to the town of Pheriche, Diana felt better instantly. She was feeling so much better at this point that she found she was very hungry and ate a huge lunch and one hour later had an enormous dinner. This was at 14,000 feet, but it felt like sea level and the air felt great. Even though Diana didn't make it to Base Camp, she did climb Chukung Ri, a small mountain at 17,750 feet. (For reference, Base Camp is lower, at 17,600 feet.) The views were incredible and more than made up for not getting to Base Camp.
Diana described her trip as magical. She would say to herself, "This must be what it's like to walk through the pages of a book and watch a story unfold around you." The mountains were so beautiful and so big that she couldn't process it all. She'd like to go back to Nepal, but maybe first she'd like to see Peru or Mongolia, other places that are mystical, magical and different.
Based on an interview with Diana LeBlanc. Janis Beatty can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.