A Man Who Makes His Own Maps

A Man Who Makes His Own Maps

A Man Who Makes His Own Maps
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Aug. 21 2002 1:27 PM

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Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson
Seth Stevenson, often found shopping for Slate, recently filed a "Diary" from Bangkok.
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Longitude: 77.57 E Latitude: 33.21 N Altitude: 15,115 feet Today's audio update

Stan consults his hand-held GPS reader
Stan consults his hand-held GPS reader

Before I tell you about our day, I'll tell you about Stan Armington. He's sort of the reason we're here. You can read a short bio of Stan if you click the "The Team" link at the top of this page, but I want to tell you more.

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Stan was a civil engineer in California who grew to hate his job and love mountains. So he went to Nepal and, long story short, he basically never came back. He became one of the pioneers of Nepalese trekking in the late 1960s and has since written the Lonely Planet guides to both Nepal and Bhutan. He currently runs tours through his company, Malla Treks. In the summer, he lives in Bangkok, and in the winter he lives in Katmandu. That is cool.

Stan is a large guy, well over 6 feet tall, and he has a head of thick white hair. He exudes the kind of calm, all-round competence that comes from having an engineering background but not being an engineer. He takes things apart and fixes them. He wears an altimeter watch the size of a hockey puck.

When we were in Leh, Stan noticed that all the guidebook maps of the town were misaligned or flat-out wrong. So he strolled the streets, took a series of readings with his hand-held GPS, fed the data into his computer, andmade his own highly accurate map. If that is not badass, then I don't know what badass is.

Stan once took Jimmy Carter on a trek to Everest base camp in the mid-1980s. He says the ex-president (and ex-nuclear-engineer) could read a topographic map like nobody's business. There were 35 Secret Service agents on the trek taking shifts, and they all got altitude sickness. (This makes me feel immensely better about my own battles with altitude, which arose again yesterday when we climbed another 4,000 feet.) By the end, there were only two agents still standing, and they couldn't stay standing long enough to take full shifts. So they rigged an alarm system around the lodge using, no kidding, a bunch of tin cans. (Stan also once took Mick Jagger on a trek, but Mick gave up after two days.)

Stan sometimes takes multimillionaires into the mountains, and he seems to enjoy the fact that they need him more than he needs them. Some of these millionaires, though, have done nice things for the countries they trek in. Stan is a director of the American Himalayan Foundation, along with these rich dudes, and has managed to do some good stuff. The foundation sent one Sherpa woman to dental school in Canada, and she came back to open a clinic in Nepal. Stan often wears a baseball hat she gave him. It says, "World's Highest Dental Clinic."

Having last been in Ladakh about 25 years ago, Stan wanted to come back and see how things had changed. Before he knew it, he was being followed around by a journalist and a photographer and several cases of bulky satellite equipment. We are clearly dragging him down.

Stan is at once cynical and wide-eyed, which I think is the best way for a traveler to be. He'll speak scaldingly about tourists and the trekking business in general and then turn around and wave to little Ladakhi kids riding a school bus.

The owners of the campground where we pitched our tents
The owners of the campground where we pitched our tents

Now, on to today. Today we drove for five hours on gravel. Then we broke camp. We are staying in a majestic, miles-long valley, which Stan says looks just like the Tibetan plain. "Windswept" comes to mind. As does "barren." It is quite humbling and beautiful.

When we got here, we were greeted by the campground owners. What they own is not clear, because there is nothing here but ground to camp on. Nothing. Yet we are paying them 50 rupees per tent. I jokingly ask where the tetherball pole is, but they do not seem to follow. Still, they are very nice. The younger guy is 25 and speaks very good English. With him is his uncle, who is 71. The old man carries around a bag of goat hair, and he is separating out the pashmina—the finer hairs used for shawls. When he gets a full handful, he stuffs it in a fold of his robe. Later, he'll sell it.

The French cavalry rides into the campground
The French cavalry rides into the campground

Rebecca notices some little mammals digging holes here in the meadow, spitting up geysers of dirt. "Would you call those gophers?" we ask Phunsook. "Mmm, we would call them wild rats," he says.