|Our Really Big Adventure|
| We werent going
to go. Everything that we had read about Everest had made this an obvious
decision. It simply wasnt meant to be as scenic as the Annapurna
trek we had just finished. We had read tales of littered trails, overcrowded
by arrogant mountaineers filled with the importance of their endeavours.
To make matters worse the unbridled ambition that the worlds tallest
mountain inspires in the men and women who strive for the top has made a
mockery of mountain morality. It has been said that morality is a luxury
that cannot be afforded in the Death Zone (above 8000m) and men have been
left alone to die a cold and lonely death as others strode past retaining
their own strength for the glory of a submit bid. I subscribe to Joe Simpsons
point of view, that if morality cannot exist above 8,000 meters then men
dont belong there. I somehow felt that even trekking to the Everest
region would be tacit support of this culture and I was unsure that, despite
my reservations, I would be able to restrain myself from mindless hero worship.
I should have known that once we were within the magnetic pull of this massive
mountain, its attraction would be irresistible.
Bob and Curtis, two Antipodean mountaineers, had started us thinking. They had just spent forty days trekking and climbing in the Everest region and their enthusiasm was positively contagious. Soon all we could think about was the romance of names like Namche Bazaar and Gorak Shep; the magnificence of the regions history combined with the attraction of Sherpa culture was tantalising. The fact that we simply didnt have the time for the trek didnt stop us from planning. The trek could be shortened from a month to a fortnight by flying into Lukla (2,800m), a $190 round trip, but this was more than we could afford having blown our discretionary budget booking a 3-day white water rafting trip on Kali Gandaki.
Fate played its hand with the tragic death of an Israeli girl on the same river we were due to descend. We were undeterred, but apparently we were the only ones and our rafting company was forced to cancel and refund our trip. Filled with the success of our previous trek and Bob and Curtiss residual enthusiasm we took our newly refunded dollars and booked plane tickets from Kathmandu to Lukla. First thing the next morning we were on a bus to Kathmandu, excited as a con of gamers flying to Essen.
The plane journey to Lukla was everything we could have wished for. The 20-seat prop planes start making the 45-minute flight for Lukla at first light and keep going like crazy until, a few hours later, the weather closes in. Everything the region needs for the outside world either has to be flown in or be portered on mens backs for 9 days. This includes everything from salt to kerosene, from beer to tourists - the tourists could walk themselves, but most don't bother. Some pretence is made that the planes are running according to a schedule but we soon learn that this is just a façade the next plane will leave 5 minutes after it lands - as long as the weather holds.
Flying in prop plane is not like flying in a jet liner, it is more like going down a steep gravel-lined San Francisco hill on a dodgy skateboard. You feel every gust of wind and are only reassured as to your safety by the blasé attitude of the pilots. Within 15 minutes of take off we reached the foothills of the Himalayas and from then on our noses were glued to the windows, our eyes tracing rivers as they cut their way through the landscape. Updrafts and minor turbulence reminded us that pressing your nose against a window in a prop plane is probably not the best idea unless your nose has already been flatted from a boxing career.
Soon the snow-topped giants were being dwarfed by monstrous entities that the word mountain does no justice to. Out of the pilots cockpit we could see a strangely artificial line on the side of a mountain. As we grew closer and lost altitude, it became apparent that this line was going to be our landing strip. Not only was it between two towering mountains and perched on the edge of a cliff, but the whole landing strip was on a slope that would have some cyclists off and pushing their bike. The tilt and counter tilt of our small plane during the approach was reminiscent of docking a spacecraft in Elite. The landing was truly exhilarating and the purpose of the runways slope became apparent, as without it the plane would not be capable of stopping before colliding with the mountain.
The military here were out in full force as the airport had already come under serious attack by the Maoist rebels, and machine gun nests lined the runway. As a tourist it is difficult to be intimated by all the guns; the soldiers are always smiling and friendly and despite the military presence and curfews it is easy to forget that country is in a state of emergency. Even travelling through a Maoist stronghold, although unadvisable, is reported to be safe.
We walked alone from the airport, distancing
ourselves from the organized groups meeting their Sherpa guides. We were
carrying full backpacks with equipment for 15 days and although they at
first seemed little trouble they soon weighed on our shoulders. Having
gained confidence from our Annapurna trek and sure of our ability to follow
a trail on a map, we had elected to not take a guide; a porter was a different
question. We intended to carry our bags for two days to Namche Bazaar,
where we would hire better (and heavier) sleeping bags along with other
cold weather gear. At that point we doubted our ability to endure both
altitude and loads.