It was the month of April, and Delhi had become a cauldron. Tired of the circadian rhythm of city life and its dull quotidian routines, I yearned for some fresh mountain air. Borrowing a leaf from the colonial handbook, I decided to head for the mountains. My last sojourn to the Himalayas had been over two years ago, when I had wandered along the Sikkim-Bhutan Himalayas with fellow vagabond “The Shome”, and I could feel the itch again.
Mount Everest had fascinated me for a long time. Aside from its most obvious distinction of being the tallest peak on earth, referred to as the ‘third pole’, it has provided the scrim for some of the most fantastic stories of struggle and achievement; and not too infrequently, tales of doom and despair. It has the ability to inspire and terrorise at the same moment. Men the likes of Hillary-Norgay, Mallory-Irvine, Messner, and others had pitted their strength and wits against the mountain and forever etched their names on its slopes.
Mount Everest lies east of Kathmandu along the Sino-Nepalese border in the Sherpa valley of Solu-Khumbu region. There are two versions of the trek to the base camp of Everest. The original twenty-one day protracted route beginning from Jiri, lies a bone-shattering twelve hour bus journey to the east of Kathmandu. The more concise route beginning from Lukla (2860 metres), excises around a weeks worth of walking from the itinerary. The Lukla route has become popular during the last four to five years due to the existence of an airport housing a small short take-off and landing (STOL) strip, which provides a direct air-link with Kathmandu airport. However, the Lukla airport (renamed the Tenzing-Hillary airport around 2008) is not one for the faint-hearted and regularly features on lists detailing the most dangerous airports and landing strips in the world. The airport’s alarmingly small runway, which was recently asphalted, services small helicopters and twin turbo prop aircrafts, mostly Dorniers and Otters.
I booked my ticket to Kathmandu, packed my rucksack, negotiated my way around the lack of a passport, and soon found myself sitting in a quaint little café on a beautiful Saturday morning in the backpacker ghetto of Thamel in Kathmandu, a once unmissable stop on the world flower-power map of the 1970s. Following a government crackdown on this bohemian hovel in the late 1980s however, its beatnik status has withered. Thamel still survives as the unparalleled first stop for weary travellers in Kathmandu looking for cheap accommodation and food.
The resident touts of Thamel immediately sized me up to be a seeker of drugs, alcohol, women, or some combination thereof, and I was bombarded with propositions as I made my way into the back alleys looking for a place to stay. Finally, having rid myself of the pesky intercessors, I found a nice inexpensive room in Jochhen, or old Thamel. A quick shower later, I divested myself of my bags and plunged into the inchoate alleys pullulating with sights, smells, and a sea of humanity.
Kathmandu, despite its wonted pollution, population, and chaos, is a beautiful city filled to the brim with touristic sites and places of interest. I was not however, interested in any of those at the time and only had the trek in my mind. Even though I had managed to arrive in Kathmandu, I was still quite far away from being in a position to undertake my trek. I was still in lacking in provisions, permits, and tickets.
After getting lost at least thrice in Thamel market, I zeroed in on some travel agents and got busy organising permits and tickets. The travel agent while doing so also undertook an unsolicited audit of my preparation and back-up plans. “Are you trekking with a group?” No; “Are you trekking with a guide?” No; “Porters?” No; “Do you have travel insurance?” No; “Do you have any friends and family in Nepal?” No; “Do you know there are no roads in the Solu-Khumbu area?” Yes I do; “Are you carrying any altitude sickness medicine with you?” No; “Do you know there are virtually no hospitals in the region?” Well, now I do; “Are you willing to reimburse any expenses incurred in the eventuality of a helicopter rescue?” Umm… I guess so; “Do you know that there are no ATMs or banks anywhere on the trek?” Yeah, so I have heard; “Are you carrying enough cash? Do you know a bottle of water can cost up to 300 NPR on the trek?”; I think I’ll drink from the tap! After being catechised in this manner, I finally walked out of his office with a ticket to Lukla and an Individual Trekker’s Permit. I had another day of planning in hand and after that I’d be on my way to the Everest.
The next day was spent mostly in combing the market for essential gear such as gloves, jackets, thermals, a sleeping bag, and other requirements. After at least three shopping trips to the market, I finally spread everything around my room and started to pack carefully. I resisted my natural urge to just dump everything into my bag in a giant indistinguishable ball of “stuff” and instead packed diligently, maintaining a healthy centre of balance and utility. I finished packing and lay in my room to wait for either sleep or the electricity whichever came first.
The next morning, I awoke in a state of panic. I had woken up at eight in the morning for an eight-thirty flight. I hurriedly gathered my pack and hailed a cab for the domestic airport. I urged the driver to hasten through the morning traffic and violate every possible traffic rule on the way. I reached the domestic airport at about eight-thirty, dashed to the check-in counter, and hoped for the best. The lady at the check-in counter gave me a perfunctory look and informed me that due to inclement weather in Lukla and Kathmandu, all flights had been grounded and that there would be a delay in departures. For the first time since morning, a smile appeared on my face, and I settled into a broken chair at the extremely chaotic airport.
As the hours ticked by however, my initial delight turned to trepidation. The airport was filled with trekkers and climbers on their way to Everest, and the exasperation on their faces was palpable. Most had flown almost halfway across the world, arranged finances, put jobs on hold, and annoyed spouses and girlfriends in order to be able to undertake this trek, and the wait was clearly killing. Lukla is notorious for its mercurial weather and it is not unheard of that passengers have to wait for days on end sometimes, in order to have a clear weather window to fly in or out.
Finally, after about eight hours of waiting, the speaker cackled with the words I had been waiting for. “Passengers please note; Agni Airways Flight 112 to Lukla Airport is now ready for takeoff, Thank you”. I hauled my bags and finally made my way to the aircraft. My steed was a picayune Dornier 228 twin-turbo prop STOL aircraft, which had been bought by the present company from Tasmania Airlines.
A few minutes later, the aircraft’s propeller engines sputtered to life, and the aphid-like craft barrelled down the Tribhuvan airstrip and took off eastwards for the twenty-five-minute flight to Lukla. The Dornier slowly groaned over terraced green-top mountains and paddy fields. The craft can accommodate around twelve people with two pilots and one Namaste (a rather cheeky local term for the air hostess!). Soon the treacherous Lukla airstrip came into view, and a white-knuckled landing later, I was standing at the tiny Tenzing-Hillary Airport surrounded by magnificent views of the Kusum Kangru (6369 metres) range.
Lukla is a small village and like most other villages that one encounters along the trek, is completely geared to cater to the horde of trekkers passing through. A great advantage that the Everest base camp trek offers solo trekkers is the option to stay in teahouses and simple lodges all through the route. Accommodation is simple and inexpensive, usually consisting of small bunks with rooms separated by thin plywood. This is a boon for trekkers who like to travel solo, but don’t really want to deal with the hassle of setting up camp every night and worrying about food and water after a hard days walk. Even though the accommodation is cheap, the food on the other hand can seem exorbitant, with prices steadily increasing as you head up the trail. This however, is due to the fact that since there are no roads in the region, almost everything has to be flown in at Lukla and then carried onwards on foot.
It was already pretty late and I had no option but to stay in Lukla for the night and begin my trek early in the morning. I took a small room in a friendly teahouse, ate some dinner, and logged out for the night. The trailhead was just at the end of Lukla town, marked by a small concrete arch dedicated to Pasang Lhamu Sherpa, the first Nepalese woman to climb the summit of Everest. The trail runs along the Dudh-kosi river and switches over it many times. It descends to the town of Phakding (2600 metres) while crossing numerous mani walls and images of Buddhist deities and scriptures etched onto various boulders.
(To be continued.)
(Jiten Mehra is a New Delhi-based advocate.)
All images are courtesy the author.