We circled for 30 nervous minutes over Kathmandu in the impenetrable, deep haze. My heart was in my mouth – were we about to divert to some unknown, distant airport and throw my carefully laid plans into total disarray? I told myself to relax and enjoy the music in my ears.
Flying Eastwards into green Nepal from a parched India, the Himalayas had been visible on my left, their jagged snow-capped peaks jutting majestically through the clouds. First glimpse had produced a surge of butterflies, but also a smile. It had been a while, but, like parted old friends, time and distance had made not a jot of difference. Our love affair was unaffected.
Qatar Airways must buy their brake pads cheaply, because the pilot of my flight must have got through one complete set trying to stop the plane on this short runway. Finally having been allowed to land, he had brought the A320 to a shuddering halt, prompting one or two claps, before sidling over to the now familiar red-brick terminal building.
I charged off the plane first, eager to beat the lycra clad throng of euphoric trekkers to the visa and immigration line, only to be confronted by a massive army of German trekkers already patiently lined up, clutching swathes of documents, cash and passport photos. I sighed and joined the line.
$100 lighter I slipped easily through passport control, invested a further $20 to secure both a trolley and a platoon on young bag carriers and left the terminal. This exit moment always makes me laugh out loud as one is confronted with literally thousands of people, many of whom are simply there to watch the arriving people – seemingly nothing else to do.
My ride was a little late so I gratefully sat on my pack and watched the world go by. I truly enjoyed the moment.
Before long my duffels and my pack had been shoehorned into a tiny, 25-year-old Toyota and I was on my way. Exiting the airport is a second sensory overload as the little car lunges, brakes untouched into the never ending and never stopping river of traffic. Everyone jostles for position, but in a civilized, slow motion kid of way – I’ve never seen one raised voice of display of white-man-van aggression.
Almost immediately my eyes and throat began to sting as the mixture of ancient, lead petrol, engine exhaust and clouds of dry dust found their mark. I started to notice earthquake damage and the apparent half-hearted efforts at repair. The roads were worse than I remembered – something that is remarkable in itself – something I didn’t think this possible.
Finally, I was deposited at the Hyatt hotel for my one night of comparative luxury, before venturing out for a walk around town. It wasn’t too hot and it was nice to simply wander across town to Thamel and the areas that were my haunts when I first started out. I picked up 5 cotton tee shirts for 2 and felt just like Jack Reacher. Sleep came easily.
My alarm went off at 04:50 and by 05:30 I was standing outside the hotel waiting for my ride to the domestic airport. I simply adore early morning Kathmandu – there is something truly magical about it.
Mist clings to trees, people are wrapped against the chill, clusters of people pray at the small shrines, school children scurry along in clumps laughing and pushing each other around, monkeys sit on walls and watch, cows wander down pavements and roads, old women sweep the gutters with stick brooms and old men just watch. I love this place.
Much too quickly I found myself in the terminal being ushered by my friend Tamding past and around all forms of security and formality and onto the Helicopter apron. Being a pilot myself I am fascinated with all things flying, but it still stops my heart to watch the apparently random manner in which endless boxes, bags, sacks and crates are squeezed into every nook and cranny of the Chopper with no apparent weight concerns. Perhaps someone has weighed all this stuff before but if they had they kept it well hidden. I just climb aboard when ushered and waited for the pilot to spool up the jet turbine engine.
To my surprise lift off was effortless so I relax and begin to enjoy the swift acceleration across the myriad Kathmandu rooftops. We climb, my eyes glued to his instruments before I suddenly realize we will be flying blind. The haze is so thick it qualifies as cloud – total IFR conditions in the UK. The helicopter is clearly only equipped to fly VFR, [good visual conditions] and I was suddenly a tad nervous.
Flying along in total whiteout conditions through the Himalayan Mountains was not on my to-do list but there is apparently a first time for everything. I simply told myself he must had done this a thousand time [hadn’t he?] and that all would be fine. Hitting a cloud with a “hard rock centre” would be a quick end after all. In the end it became clear he had climbed like crazy straight out of Kat airport and held that altitude and heading “knowing” from past experience that there were no huge rocks in the way! Sound I suppose. Suddenly he reduced power and Lukla loomed out of nowhere – he touched the craft down beautifully and on a sixpence – my faith in him restored.
With rotors still spinning the door on my side of the chopper was suddenly opened and a man forced me to shove across, shoulder to shoulder with the pilot and squeezed into my seat. Before I could even begin to contemplate the added weight and balance implications he had lifted, spun the heli 180 degrees and dived off the Lukla cliff, accelerating up the valley. In a matter a minutes we roared over the rooftops of Namsche, climbed a little further and flared to land alongside a huge, old Russian transport helicopter - a real beast.
In seconds, my equipment and I were dumped onto the dirt and the heli was climbing away once again – I was left standing in silence and sun – I laughed out loud once again. What an amazing rush. I had arrived.
No sooner had my helicopters sound faded into the mountains before the Russian beast kicked into life, its rotors lumbering up to speed before the pilot hauled the beast into the air.
Twenty peaceful minutes passed before a few of Kumjung’s finest appeared and helped me carry my equipment back into this picturesque town. The fourteen old boy who hauled one of my duffels turned out to be Phurba Tashi’s son! Most of my summits, including the 2007 traverse have been with Phurba – the man who has summited Everest 22 times. He is the image of his father – even the walk.
I now plan to sit still for the day, sleep the night in my glorious sleeping bag within Phurba’s lodge before trekking to Pheriche tomorrow and Lobuche Base Camp the day after. I have jumped from zero to 4000m overnight and will not overdo things. My plans depend on this.
Anyway, day one dusted.