Everest Base Camp: Flying to Lukla (part 2)

We wake up early with high hopes of catching a flight to Lukla today. Due to poor weather conditions, we had to make an emergency landing yesterday in a small village halfway between Lukla and Kathmandu. To get you caught up, Lukla is the place where we need to be in order to start our trek to Everest Base Camp. Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, is where we began and where there are currently dozens of other trekkers stranded at the airport desperately awaiting a flight.

I stick my head out the window and stare optimistically at the bright blue sky as I brush my teeth and spit into the outdoor sink. There’s only a few scattered clouds in sight. I feel confident that today is the day!

I eagerly pack my bag and rush outside to wait. As I stand alone, I smile and take a deep breath of the fresh, crisp mountain air. It’s as quenching as a tall glass of cold water on a hot summer’s day. As I revel in my surroundings, I try to recreate it with words. How do I even begin to describe such a journey?! I sigh, recognizing that it will be a struggle to capture the magnitude of this adventure simply with words. Even pictures will likely not do justice to the 360 degrees of Himalayan mountains staring down at us. Just then, I startle as the old wooden door to our tea house creaks open and the remainder of my group comes out. Carrying all of our gear, we take a short stroll back to where we were dropped yesterday : an abandoned building, protected by barbed wire fencing, formally known as the Phaplu airport.

The concrete interior and stained yellow walls are somewhat cold, dark, and depressing. We walk through the building towards worn, floral curtains, which serve as a room divider. Judging by the piece of paper taped to the wall with a picture of a security guard checking a man, I am assuming that these are the ‘airport security curtains’. Since there’s no one working in this airport, we continue past the musty curtains and exit out the other side of the building.

We gather on the large, stone steps, which are antiqued with moss and lead down to the runway. After about 30 minutes of bantering, someone spots a small plane quietly soaring around the base of one of these massive mountains – it looks so minuscule compared to the exaggerated landscape. As it draws nearer, we can eventually hear the hum of its engine, confirming that it is, in fact, a plane and not a bird. It elegantly touches down on the landing strip while simultaneously jarring on its brakes, skidding to a complete halt beside us. As soon as it stops, we’re instructed to quickly load our bags into the front and back compartments and then board the plane. You can feel the tension of the rigid time schedule that this tiny plane is on. Once seated, we go through the same routine as yesterday : we are handed a mint and cotton balls, the engine roars, the plane fills with the smell of fumes, and we take off!

We’re in the air for approximately ten minutes when a small landing strip in the midst of the desolate chain of mountains comes into view – Lukla Airport! We all lean forward into the aisle in awe of this infamous airport. It’s absolutely stunning! From what I’ve read, this short and narrow strip of pavement, which is laid between a dropping cliff and a rock-faced mountain side, is an astounding 450m long and 20m wide. Due to its length and altitude, it’s deemed the most dangerous airport in the world! Nestled around the airport is a small civilization of dense, colorful buildings, likely hoping to reap some of the fruits of this gateway to Everest.

The landing strip slowly becomes larger and larger until we eventually thud down onto its tarmac. I feel a flutter of excitement as I am forced forward in my seat with this sudden change in velocity. I can’t believe we are finally here! To me, that thud signifies that we can officially begin our journey to Everest Base Camp! My greatest worry for this trip was not if I was capable of doing the trek, but rather if we would actually be able to fly to its starting point. So many peoples’ adventures end before they can even begin as flights are postponed until they are eventually cancelled. Once cancelled, these stranded passengers go to the end of the queue in order to not disrupt the other booked flights. Eventually, they are forced to choose an alternative trek since they no longer have enough time to properly acclimatize for Everest Base Camp. Luckily, we can still recover from our lost day, leaving us with our initial 8 days for the ascent but decreasing our decent to 3 days instead of the original 4.

Once we come to a complete stop, we quickly exit the plane. Airport workers begin tossing our duffle bags into a trolly as we are lead through a dense crowd of aspiring porters, hoping to find work from the incoming tourists. Most are barely old enough to be considered men. Their young faces smile at us as we walk by. One-by-one, we do our best to follow Dinesh through this bustling crowd as we are lead out the gates of the airport.

As we enter the village, the sight of Lukla fills me with great joy! After spending a few, frantic days in the chaotic city of Kathmandu, it’s soothing to get to this calm and quaint village in the mountains. There are kids playing in the street, stray dogs looking for scraps, and locals tending to their shops. This is my happy place! I have a theory that there are two kinds of people in this world – mountain people and water people. I am, without a doubt, a mountain person! However, I hold nothing against water people … after all, I did marry one.

I admire the panoramic view of the Himalayas as I follow along the cobblestone pathway, which leads through the middle of the village. This is the first chapter in so many people’s great adventure – whether it be to the base camp or the summit, it all starts here! I try to image the stories of those who have traveled this path before me. I take a deep breath in an effort to calm the flutters in the pit of my stomach.

Dinesh leads us into a building on the left; we follow him up a set of wide, wooden stairs, which look like they belong in a Victorian-styled manor. We reach the top floor and turn left once again into a restaurant. As we take a seat, we see a sign indicating free internet, so we all try to connect to the shotty wifi to reassure our loved ones that we did not crash and die.

As we settle into place, we are served Masala tea – a popular drink within the Indian subcontinental area. As I sip this warm beverage, I am surprised to recognize its flavors … warm milk with hints of cloves and cinnamon … chai!! As I look up from my drink, I see seven new faces eagerly staring at us. Dinesh begins to introduce them, as these are the remaining members of our team. I always love these initial introductions because today these guides and porters are complete strangers. For the next few days, we will struggle to remember each other’s names as we slowly become better acquainted. However, in fourteen short days, they will become cherished friends that helped us get to the base camp of Mount Everest. We will have laughed with them, shared stories and experiences with them, and, as we sadly part ways, they will forever hold a treasured place in our hearts.

Five young boys stand closely together, along with two others, perhaps a few years older, standing a bit more separate and closer to Dinesh. The five boys appear enthusiastic and use their fragments of English to say ‘hello’ as they introduce themselves as our porters.

Then Dinesh turns to introduce the other two. The first man introduces himself as “Sancha”. He is in his early 20’s, with thick black hair. He is fairly tall and lean, and is dressed in various layers of hiking clothes. He speaks comfortably in English and says that he will be one of our assisting guides during our trek. The next man steps forward and introduces himself as “Mane” (pronounced “Manny”). He’s a bit shorter than Sancha, but is also slim, has tanned skin, and dark brown eyes. He wears a black trucker-styled cap with sunglasses resting on its bill. Mane struggles a bit to find his words in English to explain that he, too, is an assisting guide.

And just like that! We are finally in Lukla, we have our team of three guides and five porters to help the nine of us trek for the next eleven days to and from base camp of the mysterious and lethal Mount Everest. Let our adventure officially begin!

Everest Base Camp: Flying to Lukla (part 1)

Absolute chaos plagues the Kathmandu airport as flights are cancelled and delayed. Our flight is scheduled to depart at 0830 hrs … which was one hour ago. Dinesh, our Intrepid guide, has honestly informed us that the weather in Lukla is not looking good for today. I can’t help but wonder how this is going to affect our trip. We’re currently on a tight schedule, requiring eight days to properly acclimatize during the 62 km ascent, leaving only four days to descend back to Lukla. If we’re bumped today, our group goes to the bottom of the list for tomorrow’s flights, which will make our chances of reaching Everest Base Camp even slimmer with every passing day.

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As I sit on the floor, leaned up against our group’s stack of red duffel bags, I stare at my surroundings in despair. The terminal is filled with a dense, frantic crowd consisting of various ages and ethnicities. From what I can decipher, there seem to be three main categories: travel groups, solo trekkers, and, mainly, local Nepalese people trying to get back to their home in the mountains.

I suddenly notice Dinesh tunneling his way through the crowd towards us. “Grab all of your stuff and follow me!!” Stunned, we do as he says. We pick up our bags and push our way through to a small, green kiosk which reads “Tara Air”. Dinesh instructs us to pass all of our bags forward. I feel slightly anxious, as this seems like a very time-sensitive task so I quickly start grabbing bags and throwing them forward without question. The man behind the kiosk begins tagging our duffel bags as he stacks them on the scale and weighs them collectively. Afterwards, he tosses them behind him and then quickly weighs and tags our backpacks and returns them to us. Once this is done, Dinesh hands us our boarding passes and leads us to the security, which is divided between men and women. We rush through security and enter into a calmer waiting area, which looks like a standard departure gate at an airport.

As our group sits, facing one another, I quietly stare at Dinesh, awaiting further instructions. He’s a tall, slim man, in about his late 20’s, with tan skin, a black goatee, and thick black hair, which is hidden under a flat-billed baseball cap. His hat is black and white with a patch which reads “Sun Bear Sunscreen. Seriously Protective” and there’s a picture of a bear – I’m quite captivated by this hat. His ears are both pieced, which seems to be a common style for Nepalese men, and he wears two rings on his right hand. He appears slightly anxious as he frequently checks his phone, which I’m assuming is to be able to anticipate three steps ahead. All of his belongings for the next two weeks are carried in a medium-sized, lime-green backpack, which is leaned up against his seat.

“Now boarding Flight TA 159” is announced over the intercom in broken English. I glance at my boarding pass … that’s us! We make our way to the gate, exit the building, and board a bus. As soon as the last person is seated, the bus takes off as if it has just stolen something. Confused that we’re heading in the opposite direction of the airport, I just quietly sit and stare out the window. We drive past by grounded aircrafts, military cargo planes, and helicopters, until we reach a vacant runway at the very end of the airport. Uh … now what? Dinesh notices the bewildered look on our faces and informs us that we’re waiting for our plane to land. I can feel that our group is becoming more relaxed – with every step forward we take, we become more confident that we’ll be able to depart to Lukla today.

After thirty minutes of watching the sky, a small plane comes into view and lands close to us with such finesse. It is nearly the same size as our bus. As soon as it’s stationary, it quickly refuels and reloads. Our bags are tossed into a small hatch in the back. Once given permission to board the plane, I walk up the five, flimsy steps and duck my head to get into the small doorway. To my surprise, the inside of the plane is lined with two rows of six seats along the windows. Wahoo! Window seats for everyone! As soon as we’re seated, a flight attendant makes her way up the narrow isle, which runs directly into the cockpit, and begins handing out mints and cotton balls. I’m unsure what the cotton balls are for until I see Sieu stuffing them into his ears. As the pilot fires up the engine, the smell of fumes fill this small vessel. I watch the pilot flick switches and push buttons as he runs through his safety checks. The flight attendant tries to give the emergency instructions over the deafening sound of the engine.

Less than ten minutes after boarding, the small plane bumps along the runway in preparation for takeoff. I begin doubting if the plane is even powerful enough to get us off the ground; however, like the physics-defying bumblebee, this plane, too, is somehow able to lift off and fly! A wave of giddiness overcomes me, in complete disbelief, that we’re actually going to Lukla as scheduled! Our biggest concern leading up to this trip was this flight. Lukla’s airport is notorious for being the most dangerous in the world due to its short runway and high altitude; therefore, it’s common to have flights cancelled. After a few days of repeated cancellations, some groups opt to hire a helicopter. If not, then an alternative route has to be decided.

I stare out the window, eager to get into the mountains and start our new adventure! Once we move away from the densely populated city of Kathmandu, which looks like a bowl of Lego pieces, we reach the vacant, outstretched mountains of the Himalayas. It’s a gloomy looking day, with thick grey and white rain-laden clouds draping over the peaks. Our plane occasionally jerks as it fights to resist the crosswinds. I occasionally spot a small villages in the most unthinkable locations with no road leading to or from. It’s only noticeable by its plantations, which pour down along the mountainside. I began dreaming about what life must be like for these people living in such a remote area…

My thoughts are interrupted by our plane taking a sudden and sharp turn to the left. I’m not sure what’s going on but I can see out the cockpit that we’re heading directly into the side of a mountain! Looking around for answers, there are none. As I anticipate a fiery crash, in what felt like the very last moment, the plane straightens out and tucks down unthinkably low into a hidden valley. Once stabilized, the fight attendant tells us one-by-one that we’re not able to land in Lukla, which is only 10 minutes away, and will instead be making an emergency stop. As we turn the bend of the mountain base, the 671 m long runway of Phaplu comes into view. As soon as the plane thumps down onto this short landing strip, the breaks jam on, and we’re all pulled forward from the sudden change in velocity.

***

Phaplu is an ‘off the beaten path’ village with a population of approximately 175 residents. The roads leading out of this village have been washed away by a landslide and it’s about a 3-4 day trek on foot to Lukla; therefore, our only option is to hope for a rescue tomorrow by plane. We carry our duffel bags down the middle of a narrow dirt road, dodging water buffalos, as we look for accommodations. The air is damp and cool. Ducks bathe in the mud puddles and chickens roam in a clueless manner. There are no other tourists in sight. The locals seem shy and modest, as they carry on with their business, manning their small shops and tending to their crops. I smile and greet them with a “Namaste” and they nod and return a sincere smile. The doors on most of the houses are open, with children running in and out freely.

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We stop in front of a building, with a sign which reads “Lodging and Fooding”. It looks like we’ve found everything that we need! As we enter the building, we follow Dinesh up the rickety, narrow stairs to the second floor. Nepal is known for their lodging consisting of tea houses, which have basic amenities; however, this one resembles more of a treehouse. Sieu and I are given a room, as the remainder of the group proceeds to the third floor. Our room is small, lacking even a window. There are two, single beds laying perpendicular to one another, with just enough room to place our bags down. On the bed is a single pillow, with a worn, floral comforter. The paneling on the wall is varnished and seems to be lacking insulation by how easily the sound is carried from room to room. I plop down on the bed with an alarming thud. “Ouff … these mattresses are a lot thinner than they look!”, I say to Sieu, who is laying out his sleeping bag. Although the accommodations are simple, the hospitality is warm and welcoming!

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To Be Continued In…
Everest Base Camp: Flying to Lukla – Part 2

EBC, easy as 1-2-3…

This is a story of when I decided to trek to the Base Camp of Mount Everest with eight of my craziest friends. It’s kind of a difficult story to tell because it’s not really what you’d expect, but I’m going to tell it anyway…

I guess the best place to start this story is where my very first story left off – descending from the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro. I was sitting in the mess tent during our last night on the mountain, surrounded by my new friends and old ones. As we were all joking and reminiscing about our great adventure together, someone lobbed out the idea of trekking to Everest Base Camp. Two people eagerly jumped on the idea while the remainder of the group went silent. I shuddered at the idea of the frost gnawing at my nose while I squint into the blinding snowstorm, struggling to find our group. I shook this thought away as I leaned into Sieu and whispered “Yeaaaaaaaaaah … that’s a little too hardcore for us…”

Fast forward 18 months later and here I am looking for the gate to Kathmandu in the Istanbul airport. Somewhere in between that moment on the mountain and now, all nine of us impulsively booked this trip, no questions asked, when it went on sale. So, here we are, soon to be reuniting for the first time as old friends at the Moonlight Hotel in Kathmandu, Nepal.

The reality of this trip still alludes me. I’m going through the usual motions that I do during all of our travels. I go through security. Roam the airport. Board the plane. Pick out a movie. Fall asleep. Wake up. Leave the plane. And repeat.

As I head towards gate D13, I feel as if I’m walking in slow motion against a blur of cell phones and business suits rushing by me. Everyone looks the same and pulls along that same rectangular carry on suitcase with the long handle and four-tiny wheels struggling to keep up. As I look around to find real signs of life, an image comes into focus. It’s two men, in their late-20’s, standing off to the side. They are casually dressed and are both wearing Osprey backpacks. One of them is bent down tying his hiking boot while they continue to engage in conversation. As I watch him tighten his laces, it’s like something finally clicked. It’s as if I finally woke up from this haze and realized what’s going on. I guess the best way to explain it is like being the last person to understand a joke: … waiiiiiiit a minute …. we are soon going to be in Kathmandu …. which is in Asia … and then we will be hiking for 12 days through the Himalayas to the Base Camp … of Mount Everest! My stomach fluttered with excitement. I walk over to them and lean in, a bit giddy, and say “Let me guess … you’re going to Kathmandu?” They both stop talking and look at me blankly. “Uh.. yeah…” one of them finally replies with a puzzled look on his face. “I can tell by your backpack!!!” I respond quickly, with a big goofy grin, as I point to mine and keep walking. Good job, Sherlock Holmes. I praise myself; however, they don’t seem as impressed with my deductive reasoning.

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As we reach our gate, it’s buzzing with eager travelers waiting to board their plane. I look around and see Osprey backpacks, Merrell hiking boots, and pants, which zip off into shorts! The girls have messy hair and their faces have been kissed by the elements of wind, sun, and cold. They don’t airbrush these flaws but instead, embrace them. Although I’ve never been here before, there’s a sense of familiarity in my surroundings. It’s like I stumbled upon an isolated pocket of misfits hidden in this hectic, polished airport and it’s exactly where I belong. Normally, I don’t always feel like I fit in, but here, I do. I am innately shy, which makes me quite socially awkward and a little bit weird. My social skills are slightly limited by my attention span and my interests are all over the place as a result of that. Here, I look around and see dreamers, explorers, and risk-takers who refuse to conform.

As we wait to board the plane, I begin feeling slightly apprehensive. Leading up to this point, I’ve had a false sense of certainty since my last hike to the summit of Kilimanjaro went so well; however, what exactly was it that made me successful? The training? Proper hydration? Taking Diamox? Or perhaps it was an absolute fluke?! I began realizing that I may not be able to replicate that same experience. This may actually be very challenging. My training and diet have suffered due to the reality of adult responsibilities but also due to the lack of motivation brought on by fear, as I had with Kilimanjaro. I am tired, dehydrated, and have never trekked for this long before. Also, we are only 10 kg of gear, which is 5 kg less than Kilimanjaro, yet the trip is double in length. Did I even choose the right gear to at least stay comfortable? As these questions fill my mind, I realize that it is too late now. In two days, we will begin our trek.

36 hours of transit later. 4 airports. 3 flights. 6 movies. Roughly 5 broken hours of sleep. And we land in Nepal. Let the adventure begin…