The stewardess stooped forward and started shakily making her way through the tiny cabin of the twin otter, offering a little basket full of cotton to the passengers nervously fiddling with their seatbelts. I pulled off a wad and stuffed it in my ears just as the pilot reached up to fiddle with some controls and we started moving forward. The stewardess quickly retreated to her seat just as we took off, and I sucked my tongue hard to counteract the sharp head squeeze of flying in a non-pressurized cabin. The hazy chaos of Kathmandu quickly disappeared in the clouds, and we were off to the Himalaya.
After just a half hour, our plane landed in Lukla. There’s a lot more to it than just “landing,” as the runway is only 1500ft long, and there is a drop-off at the beginning of the tarmac and a mountain at the end. The pilots get one chance to land, and when they go for it, they have to commit. While soaring above the steep green steppes of the Nepali countryside, our plane suddenly nosed forward and a tiny strip of pavement seemed to be heading straight toward us. At the last moment, the pilots pulled up, the tires touched down, brakes screeched, and the plane banked a hard right where it finally stopped.
After a brief stop for tea and the use of an outside toilet (essentially a treehouse with a hole in it), we started walking. It took several hours to learn the rules of the trail. Yaks get the right of way, and you better get out of their path. Horror stories involve people stepping to the cliff side of the trail only to get innocently bumped down to their deaths. The yaks are slow, methodical, benevolent creatures, but they’re focused on doing their jobs, not avoiding you. The next rule was to stick to the left of the trail, except if that was the easier side to walk on and there was a porter carrying huge lumber planks twice his height and conceivably twice his weight. Many fellow trekkers never seemed to catch on to this rule, but if you got out of the way of these extremely hardworking, meagerly paid fellows, sometimes you’d get a whispered, “Namaste,” in return. Our porters left early every morning and would meet us in the evening; arriving to a teahouse and sharing smiles with the stoic, doe-eyed Lakpa and giggly Ram was often my favorite part of the day.
We stayed in teahouses along the way, which always had a dining room with carpeted benches around the perimeter, tables pushed up against them, and a cylindrical wood stove that was exclusively fueled with dried yak shit. This was the one room of these establishments that was heated, and usually just in the evenings. Our second day of trekking, still at fairly low altitude, we got snowed on. The buildings were also made mostly of stone, so often we were far colder inside than we were out. Sleeping involved begging our guide to procure us extra blankets, wearing all of the filthy clothes we had brought, and relying on our exhaustion to help us fall asleep fast, despite chattering teeth.
As we climbed higher, my pace slowed and the mountains grew. At night the clouds would roll in, bringing a bone chilling wetness to the cold. But in the mornings, as the sounds of yak bells woke us, we’d open our curtains to peer out at the glowing white giants whose crooked craggy peaks were starkly contrasted and illuminated in the morning light. We were awarded with several glimpses of Everest’s summit, but as we continued to ascend, we simply became too close to see mighty Sagarmatha any longer. Which meant we were getting closer to our destination, base camp.
Our little plane rocked in every direction as we broke out of the cloud layer and began our hurried descent into one of the world’s most dangerous airports. The engines whirred furiously as the impossibly short tarmac at Lukla became visible. I gripped Liz’s hand firmly as we approached, and gulped a chestnut-sized rock down my throat. In a moment of silence, sweat beginning to form on our brows, we were sucked onto the runway as the pilots pulled the nose of the plan up mere meters before touching down. Again, the engines fired furiously as we slammed to a halt 50 feet from the mountainside. We had made it to the Khumbu, home of the tallest mountain on Earth.
Wide grins full of relief and appreciation to be back on the ground filled our faces as we stepped hastily out of what was nearly our 14-passenger casket. After a couple of moments to collect ourselves, we were able to take a breath and look around at the village we had just landed in. Blue rooftops adorned white stucco homes, framed with bright blue and yellow paneling. Sweaty old men in sandals carrying loads too heavy for their curved backs labored up sloped paths. Dirty children with bright pink cheeks and down North Face jackets played in the dirt next to a man in uniform with a 40-year-old rifle. Above it all glowered a ragged and sharp peak, casting a shadow over the airstrip. ‘How tall is that peak, Nuri?” I asked of our Sherpa guide. “6,000 meters.” He replied. Almost two miles beneath the summit of Everest.
We walked for a few hours that first day along a river through several small villages. For a portion of the day, we followed behind a young man driving a group of yak towards Namche. The beasts had long, thick hair and wore bells around their necks, so that when walking together they produced a melodic yet effective chorus that alerts of their presence on the trail. The boy couldn’t have been more than 10-years-old, the top of his head still an inch or two below the yak’s haunches. His eyes strained as he fought to produce the deep menacing growl to move the yak that his body was just not yet capable of making. We arrived at our first teahouse early, and sat outside in the afternoon sun playing Bananagrams while several Nepalis watched, trying to figure out what our game was all about. A train of yak wearily shuffled by, their herder gently whistling a tune behind them to keep them moving. Their bells rang like labored wind chimes on a breezy summer’s day.
The next day we made our first big climb to Namche, the capitol of the Sherpa people. Light snow dusted the path as we slogged up never ending switchbacks towards the hilltop village. As we neared our destination, we witnessed a Lammergeyer with a nearly 9-foot wingspan soaring a few hundred feet beneath us. We got another treat when a rainbow colored Himalayan Monal, the national bird of Nepal, crept out of a bush and allowed itself to be viewed for a few moments before returning to hiding. Here first effects of altitude made themselves known through labored breaths and cold nights of sleep. We stayed at a teahouse run by a family with a young daughter, who was full of swagger and very clearly ran the place. We had the following day to acclimate, then set off down the trail once more.
It wasn’t until our fourth day that we got our first glimpse of Everest. Very suddenly, on an otherwise overcast evening, the clouds made way to reveal a brief and perfectly framed view of the 8,848 meter high peak. A light trail of snow blew off of the summit towards Lhotse, Everest’s neighboring giant. Still too far away to really appreciate the enormity of the thing, this glimpse was just a tease at what was yet to come.