Roger and Sylvia Wiegand’s Journal: Nepal – Math and Mountains

Sylvia and Roger Wiegand in Tadapani, view of Annapurna South (7,273 m) and Hiuchuli (6,441 m).

Long ago, longtime friend Jugal Verma (Purdue Ph.D., now professor and dean at IIT–Mumbai) said if we were ever interested in trekking in the Himalayas, to ask him about it. In 2013, we asked.

His response: “Contact Michel Waldschmidt” (ultrarunner, climber, and number theorist at Paris VI). Michel’s response: “Contact Ajaya Singh” (professor at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu). Ajaya immediately invited us to give math talks at Tribhuvan and also contacted Gyanu Maharjan, a Nepali graduate student in rural development and informal travel agent.

In 2014, after a few delightful days at IIT–Mumbai, we moved on to Kathmandu. Nobody knew much algebra, so we just tried to communicate the beauty of the subject, omitting elaborate technical details. The audience was receptive, and Ajaya convinced us to organize the first International Workshop and Conference in Commutative Algebra (FIWCCA) at Tribhuvan in April 2015.

After our visit to Tribhuvan, we followed a trek itinerary from Gyanu, up the Khumbu Gorge to Namche Bazaar, a bustling town perched on a hillside at about 11,500 feet with no access other than on foot, then to Tengboche; we attended a service in the famous monastery. Next stop: Pangboche (hot showers at 13,000 feet!), then up to Amadablam Basecamp (15,000 feet) — amazing views of Ama Dablam, one of the iconic peaks of the range. (It is shaped like the Matterhorn, but half again as high. Roger had toyed with the idea of climbing it, but decided that staying alive is preferable.) Then a quick two-day descent to Lukla (an hour’s flight from Kathmandu), retracing our steps of the five-day ascent. The landing strip in Lukla is one of the scariest in the world – less than 1,500 feet long and inclined at an angle of 12 degrees. Once the plane turns into the canyon, there’s no turning back; you have to land at Lukla.

In 2015 we trekked before FIWCCA with both Ajaya and Gyanu. Our goal was Gokyo Ri (17,600 feet), with some of the best views of the Everest range. In Machhermo, still a day’s hike from our goal, Ajaya had mild altitude sickness. He checked out OK at the health post there but was advised to take a rest day. The next morning, 2 feet of new snow ended our trek.

FIWCCA attracted mathematicians from the Czech Republic, India, Italy, Korea, UAE, and USA. Most speakers communicated interesting mathematics without blowing away the audience. Jugal’s talk was the last on the morning of the last day of the conference, April 25. At 11:56, four minutes before the scheduled end of his talk, a 7.8 earthquake struck, and over 9,000 people died in the catastrophe.

Miraculously, all 60 conference participants escaped safely under the fragile-looking concrete canopy over the entrance to the math building. (If we had been physicists, a similar canopy on the nearby physics building that collapsed in a huge pile of rubble would have killed us. Fortunately the physicists were on holiday.)

The Nepali students were wonderful; they escorted us to an empty field near the math building, then to a lunch (in a tent) only two hours after the first earthquake.

After four scary days (64 aftershocks in the first 24 hours) of camping outside, dropping to the ground during major aftershocks, and avoiding buildings, we managed to catch a flight home.

Meanwhile, Francesco Pappalardi (Roma III) and Michel organized and secured funding for the Nepal Algebra Project (NAP), a six-year program (2016-2021) of yearly 10-week graduate courses on fields and Galois theory, divided into five two-week modules. The course is part of the M-Phil program at Tribhuvan and also carries credit at Roma III.

We taught the first module of Year 1 on May 8-20, 2016. The students were engaged, asked good questions, and worked hard on the assigned homework (graded by graduate students in Rome). We taught on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays to fit in a quick trip to the Khumbu on Friday-Monday: a brisk hike up to Namche (normally two or three days), then a circuit up to the so-called Everest View Hotel (“Cloud View” that day), over to the Village of Khumjung (site of the famous Hillary School), then back to Namche. The next day, one hour into the long hike back to Lukla, the clouds broke, and we had a fabulous view of Everest. The clouds returned though, and planes were not flying out of Lukla. Desperate to get back to our classes, we hired a helicopter for about a zillion dollars.

In October 2016, we trekked to Gokyo Ri, and saw amazing views of Everest and its satellites. Ajaya accompanied us again, along with Rosi Rissner, an algebraist from Graz and a participant in our second IWCCA, at Tribhuvan, Oct. 17-28. No earthquakes this time, but a stellar cast, from Austria, Canada, France, Iran, Romania, Saudi Arabia, UAE, UK, and the USA. A few speakers hit the mark, but many talks were too high-level for the local audience. If we do a third IWCCA we’ll try a “summer school” model: a week of instruction followed by a week of gentle research talks.

In May 2017 we taught Module II of Year 2 (NAP) and had another quick trip to the mountains, this time to the Annapurna Sanctuary. A landslide and road closures delayed us a day, so we could not reach Poon Hill, reputably the best viewpoint in the Annapurna range.

In October 2017, we enjoyed eight beautiful days in the Annapurna range, including sunrise at Annapurna Basecamp, with throngs of trekkers all clamoring for the best views, then a tough three days across to Ghorepani and Poon Hill; amazing views indeed. We were not alone: many hundreds of trekkers joined the sunrise jaunt. Then down, down, down – about 15,000 difficult, slippery, uneven steps to a jeep, which drove us to Pokhara and our 45-minute flight back to Kathmandu. The 80 miles and 80,000 steps were murderous for us old folks with bad knees and Roger with a sprained ankle.

Next, we attended the Symposium for South Asian Women in Mathematics (SSAWM), organized by Sara Faridi (Dalhousie), Dhana Thapa (Tribhuvan) and Sylvia. SSAWM was a great success and inspired the women of Nepal who long to get math Ph.Ds. We hope we can help them.

Our other math-and-mountains trips in the last few years included travels to Austria, Brazil, Catalonia, the Czech Republic, Italy, and Iran. Stay tuned! In Spring 2018, we teach NAP Module I; we may try the “Three Passes” trek and high point of Kala Patthar (18,500 feet). Wish us luck!