By Doug Pierson on March 31, 2008 11:55 AM | Comments (0)
Wake up call came at 4:20 this morning, and we were all downstairs at 5:00 AM with bags, checking out of the Yak & Yeti. The whole process from that point forward moved like a well-oiled machine: transfer to the airport in no time thanks to little traffic on the roads, Willie knowing all the right people to speed our way through the check-in line and ensure that all of our bags made it along with us. “Remember to take all of your batteries out of your carry-on luggage and check them through.” Five minutes later while being frisked and doing a bag check, I am asked “Do you have any batteries?” Willie has been through this so many times that he was even able to chat it up with the airport security as we prepare to board what appears to be the first flight of the day out of the Kathmandu Domestic Terminal. Tired and all with bloodshot eyes, we were truly excited to finally be on our way.
The little twin-engine Otter was jam-packed with climbers and trekkers to the point where we all felt like sardines. I laughed when I realized that we actually had a flight attendant to service the plane — it’s only like a 30-minute flight to Lukla. Seriously? She crawled over us as she moved to the back of the plane on her single pass through the cabin, offering a wicker plate of hard candy and cotton for our ears if so desired. Then the plane taxied onto the runway and seconds later leapt skyward, pointing toward a faint ridgeline looming over Kathmandu.
After a few minutes, peaks became visible, then entire mountains, and soon the pilots literally started to thread the needle by flying not above ridges and valleys, but in them. I looked out the cockpit window at one point and noticed another plane about a half mile in front of us that we were following. The way the plane banked left, then right, up, down, left and right again it almost appeared like we were dogfighting. Pretty cool for sure.
A few minutes later we were approaching Lukla and got our first view of Everest. The view was marred by the scratched up plexiglass windows and spinning propellers, but you can still make out the distinct profile. It was pretty exciting to see.
Lukla is a remote town and the trailhead to Everest Base Camp. Here, the plane literally lands uphill — there’s no margin for error and once the plane is on final approach we are committed, I learned thanks to Joe, who happens to be a pilot. I’m glad he saved this little gem of information for after we landed. As soon as we land, we get kicked off, our bags are thrown onto the tarmac, and before we even get the chance to step aside a waiting line of passengers is already boarding. The whole five minutes this occurs, props are still spinning, and the pilots are dialing in on their flight plan back to Kathmandu. The plane turns back around, points back downhill and then - poof - it’s gone.
Lukla is great — loaded with little guest houses, restaurants and “hotels.” We grabbed breakfast while our bags were being assigned to various porters for the trek to Base Camp.
I need to tell these two stories: at one point I walk outside to my bag to collect my batteries, trekking poles and knife. Some girl in her early twenties is hovering over it, so as I’m walking away I mention that I feel bad that she’s carrying the thing around, but at least it’s just to a waiting yak or something. “Oh, no — that girl is carrying your bag all the way up to our stopping point today.” What? I felt bad, so I ran back outside to take some more weight out of my trek bag and offer her the straps, telling her that she can use them as shoulder straps of sorts. “Oh, she doesn’t need those — she’ll use a burlap strap around her head”. Yeah. I thought I felt bad before. Hearing that? Now I truly know what feeling bad is all about. Then they started passing us on the trail like we were driving an electric car on the Autobahn. The crazy part is that it wasn’t even just my bag. The load consisted of my bag, another bag, some expedition equipment, water, and more.
The other story comes in a bit more comical. Before leaving Lukla I realize that my Camelbak has sprung a leak. GREAT. What perfect timing. What the heck am I going to do now I wonder? Twenty yards down the trail, I pass mini shoppette after mini shoppette. Some have daypacks and miscellaneous climbing gear. After passing the second store, I casually ask one of the owners in what I assumed was a long shot move if they have a Camelbak, pointing at my water hose. The owner points at a brand new Camelbak dangling on a chain at the front of his store “Like this?” You have got to be kidding me. Yep, like that. Total hook-up.
Over the next few hours we slowly and patiently wind our way higher, following a well-worn trail past bunk house after restaurant. Willie knows about half the owners on this leg of the trip, so I laugh as we enter one store after another where he knows legions of locals. It’s great, too — they are all amazingly friendly and kind, offering us sodas, prayer scarves and a place to sit and catch up. While not in one of these shops, we continue onward and pass over rickety wire bridges and around yaks that are meandering in front of their shepherds.
A local band of Maoists swung through, flags a wavin’. But true to form, they all left us alone. Just hung a few flags here and there, then on their way to canvas the neighborhood. Just like Kathmandu, they are literally everywhere.
Tomorrow we depart early and will press on to Namche Bazaar.