Monday, April 11, 2011

Kathmandu to Lukla

Kathmandu, April 3.  We leave the airport in Ang's Tshering’s Toyota. Driving is on the left side. The traffic is fast and fierce. 125 cc motorcycles are the vehicle of choice. They jockey for position with each other and spar with the small Indian-made cars and trucks. "So do you think you could drive in Kathmandu?" Apa asks. Actually, it's reminiscent of driving in Taipei which was insane, and I was reasonably proficient at that. "I'm not sure," I tell him, "This is as wild as I've ever seen." And it is. The roads are less than narrow and there's no pretense of maintaining lanes. The same was the case in Taipei, but at least in Taipei there was respect for oncoming traffic. Here the entire road width is fair game for traffic in either direction. The distance between cars is a matter of inches even when passing head-on, sometimes three vehicles abreast in a game of chicken on what would be a one lane road in the US.  I hold on but there's nothing in particular to grip. Seat belts, what seat belts? It's a mental stunt to sit in the front passenger seat and resist straight-arming the dashboard. I don't want to offend Ang Tshering by seizing up, and he is driving very cautiously, but the opposing traffic does not share his concern.  Clearly surface travel in Kathmandu is going to take some getting used to.

A quarter mile from the airport the road deteriorates rapidly. Paving becomes a mix of asphalt and enormous potholes. After two miles the potholes take over completely and there is no asphalt, just packed dirt embedded with rocks, huge dust clouds, and honking. Apa says, "You probably want to quit this place already."  He says it more as a question. I say, “Actually, no. It’s fascinating." The struggle for survival is in every doorway and on every face we pass by. It brings the essence of humanity right to the forefront. At every turn there is some new event in process that defies my sense of the possible. Just witnessing the massive effort each person is making by carrying this, or pulling that, transfixes me. It’s not possible to take life for granted when confronted with the sweep of fate at work in Kathmandu.

Recent events in Japan come to mind as well. The graphic images on TV of the tsunami are enough to make one thankful for anything less tragic. For weeks I’ve been wrestling with the juxtaposition of a lark in the Himalaya against the world backdrop of agony. Why not shelve the whole Everest idea and go to Japan and help out?  Or if not to Japan (there is radiation there) why not just stay home in the US and send the Everest money to the Red Cross? Better people than I probably would. If Sean Penn wasn’t in Haiti he’d be in Japan, but where am I? In Ang Tshering’s SUV in Kathmandu on a self-serving trip to generate publicity, create material to enhance our trade shows, and to experience the cultural wonder and change of pace that traveling with Apa entails. In the end this is a business trip, a grand junket, planned weeks before the tsunami…I have rationalized it, won’t dwell further, but a lingering sense of acting out the absurd continues to haunt me.

Ang’s SUV lurches up a narrow dirt road. We have the windows rolled up and the air conditioning on. We cross a river and wind past a huge walled compound on our right. “Where the king used to live,” Apa says, “I’ve been in the palace twice. I met the last two kings.” The first was murdered, the second exiled when the Maoists took control of the government, I think in 1998. “A museum now,” Apa says.

The Norba Linka hotel is situated at the north end of the Thamel district down an alley, down another alley, and down still another alley. Three lefts off the main road, and “main” is a term I use loosely. We drive slowly past chickens scratching and children wandering on the side of the alley. There are no cows in the street here. A low wall to the right surrounds a deep rectangular hole about 100 feet across. “What’s that?” I ask Apa. “The public water,” he says.  The hole is a brick lined cistern about 30 feet deep with a series of terraces and stairs to reach the bottom. I can see about a dozen women and children at the bottom filling water jugs from a trickle of water coming out of a single pipe. Others are washing clothes to the side. “Why is only one pipe running?” I ask. “It’s the dry season,” Apa says, “there’s a shortage of water.”

At the Norba Linka we don’t check in, this has all been taken care of in advance. We are handed our room keys, but not before we are seated around a low table and drinks brought out. The first order of business in Kathmandu is to relax and we are waited on like we’re still on Thai Air. At first I think this is because of Apa’s status in Nepal but it’s not. It’s simply the custom and it doesn’t take long to enjoy being catered to. One’s drink never gets more than half an inch below the rim when it’s refilled instantly. Suddenly there’s a stir. Abu has shown up to Apa’s great satisfaction. Immediately I learn he is Russian, is climbing from the north side (the Tibet side, we are south side—Nepal side). Abu is about Apa’s height, half again as wide, and probably weighs twice as much. I can’t place his age, 45 or 50 perhaps. He’s solid muscle and enthusiasm. “Apa, Apa, we climb together again! Ah, you are south side. I am north side. We will meet at the top this year, at the top, no? We will meet like this,” Abu brings his fingers together like two sides of a mountain.  The Norba Linka is clearly a hang out for the experienced and I am feeling slightly intimidated but thrilled at the same time. We’ve only been here ten minutes and the atmosphere is electric.

Apa is in room 102 and I am in 108. Our bags have already been carried upstairs. We both agree the Norba Linka is superior to the accommodations we had off Times Square where we stayed when Apa gave his speech at the UN. We’ve spoken a little too fast however. There is no electricity. The front desk receptionist says the power will be back on at 4:00 pm, but advises that it will be off again from 8:00 pm until midnight. “Rationing,” she says, “Shortage of power.”

Apa’s nephew, Kami Temba arrives. He goes to a boarding school nearby, and is in the 11th grade. He’s taking his final exams this week. Apa explains to me that Kami Temba’s mother died two weeks ago--Yangin’s sister. I knew this from the news in Salt Lake but didn’t make the direct connection with Kami Temba until Apa clarified for me. I ask Apa his sister-in-law’s name and he says “We should not speak the name of the dead. After they are passed we no longer mention the name.”  I thank Apa, “That is good to know.” I want to try to be as respectful as possible of Sherpa customs even though I know I’ll make mistakes. Kami Temba will be staying with us at the Norba Linka. It’s a good distraction for him to spend time with his uncle, and he immediately adopts me as his charge. “Kami Temba will show you Kathmandu when I am doing the interviews,” Apa says. “We will go to the funeral when we are in Thame. Kami Temba is taking his exams. He has to stay here.” I give this considerable thought. The opportunity to receive an education is valued so highly in Nepal that it trumps everything. Surrounding me in Kathmandu is evidence of why.

“The Norba Linka is my favorite hotel in Kathmandu,” Apa says. It’s a five-minute walk from the Asian Trekking office whose expedition Eco-Everest is. “I’ve worked for Asian Trekking 15 years now.” Again this year Apa will be Climbing Leader, an official title. Others with titles are Expedition Leader: Dawa Steven Sherpa whose father Ang Tshering founded Asian Trekking; Climbing Sidar: Naga Dorjee Sherpa; Base Camp Manager: Lee Bennett who is called Wiggy. To get to Asian Trekking we walk down the alley and turn right into a side alley at the end of which is a metal wall. A uniformed doorman opens an iron door in the wall and we step through carefully. You have to step high to get over the threshold, but duck low at the same time to avoid the header. This is a large door as doors in Kathmandu go. Inside I’m surprised to see we are in a spacious compound with three stories of offices to the right, a 50 foot high climbing wall right-center with a shirtless climber moving spider-like 40 feet in the air. To our left are the kitchen, conference rooms and more offices. Asian Trekking employs 32 people full-time managing logistics in Kathmandu, and runs 83 different treks and expeditions in the Himalaya, Eco-Everest being just one of them.

We climb stairs to a patio with a view in two directions. Dawa Steven is seated on a sofa eating lunch and introduces us to Wiggy. I first met Dawa Steven at the Save The Himalaya’s rally last September outside the gates of the UN and he looks taller and stronger than I remember him. Dawa Steven was the tallest Sherpa at the rally, by about a foot. He must get his height from his mother who is Belgian. “Dawa is going to try without oxygen this year,” Apa says. “He’s been three times with.” Wiggy, who is a quick wit and immediately likable says, “Excellent, that, I’m glad Dawa is finally going to put his university education good to use.”  Wiggy is two weeks away from retirement after 25 years in the Royal Navy. “I’m using my last furlough right now,” Wiggy says, “In two weeks I’ll no longer wake up saluting.” “Right,” Dawa says, “but do you know the origin of the salute?”

Dawa Steven went to school in Scotland and is a font of knowledge on just about every subject. More importantly he is fluent in the big-picture sense which I learned while we ate pizza in New York last year. He has a vision for Nepal’s growth and maturity as a developing nation, and he wants to do his part to bring environmental awareness and economic benefit to his country in a workable balance. In New York last he explained his idea for an inaugural border to border east-west trek across Nepal from Pakistan to Bhutan. “For Nepal, 2011 is the year of tourism. We want to highlight the country as a whole. We have a corridor of economic vitality that runs north-south from Kathmandu to Everest. Everyone wants to glimpse Everest and the foreign dollars flowing there benefit a sliver of our economy in the Kumbu. This is good, however we need to spread the wealth instead of concentrating it.” But that was in New York. Right now we’re in Kathmandu and Wiggy answers: “The salute goes back to medieval times. In order to approach the queen a knight had to raise the visor of his helmet and show his face to prove who he was. He raised the visor with the right hand. There you have it. Right hand up--the salute.” Dawa Steven looks pleased. “Seems you learned something while protecting the Queen’s interests for twenty-five years.”  A month in the company of these two is going to be lively.

Back at the Norba Linka we look at a schedule tacked on the wall. The government cuts the power for 4 hours at a stretch. Four hours on, four off. It’s a varying schedule by neighborhood to reduce the draw on the power grid. The inconvenience is shared. The less favorable time periods rotate neighborhood to neighborhood. Thamel, where we are situated at the Norba Linka, will plunge into darkness in 5 hours. Well then, so it is. We go back to our rooms, Apa for a nap, and me for my camera. We agree to meet in 2 hours to do last minute shopping for gear and a poster for Jeff Clark.  When I next see Apa he says, “It was hard taking a shower in the dark.” And indeed it was.

6:30 pm at Asian Trekking.  Apa is elsewhere doing an interview for the Indian press. Most of the team has assembled for a briefing by Ted Atkins on the use of the TopOut oxygen mask. “Ted’s ex-military,” Wiggy says. That explains his delivery. No introduction, no small talk. Ted walks in, steps up on a raised area and says to the group, “Right. The oxygen mask. TopOut design. We’ve refined it to the point there are only two things that can go wrong.”  I’m mesmerized by the presentation. Ted’s British accent is like listening to The King’s Speech. Enunciation, articulation, artful pauses. It’s all high theater and I love it. I’m relieved I won’t have to employ the emergency measures Ted is describing. My plan is to try to make it through the ice fall to camp 1 and then if successful to try for camp 2.  Oxygen for westerners isn’t anticipated until camp 3 “If the valve freezes off from your breath you blow into it to dislodge the ice…like this” Ted says. “If that doesn’t work then you invert it like so, and tap. If that fails you have to remove the valve from the silicone mask. Two parts. Part one: thus. Everyone clear on that? I will demonstrate again. Thus. Part two. Thus. Do not drop these parts. Replace in the mask in reverse order. Thus. Any questions?”  Besides the valve issue there is the Russian Poisk cylinder’s threaded fitting to be concerned with. This single potential problem is really a series of sub-problems that constitute a number of ways the Poisk cylinder can leak. Cross-threading, over-tightening, operator error from reduced capacity to think clearly, the list goes on. Listening to Ted I realize I’ve definitely gotten in over my head. Fear is creeping into me and I try hard to suppress it.

Dawa Steven goes over the ground rules for the climb. He employs the same military approach. Direct. Nothing sugar-coated. “Right. Toilets,” he says. “At base camp we will have two barrels. One is for women. We have three women in our group, only Sushma is here tonight. Please respect the toilets. Poo in the barrel, pee outside the barrel. Do not pee in the barrel. Our porters have to carry the barrels out. Right. We only want solid waste in the barrels. Right then. Above the ice fall we will carry all our waste out. You will be issued carry-bags. Use them. Eco-Everest intends to set the example and we hope other teams will follow it. Our goal is to sponsor legislation to require compliance in he Sagramatha National Park, but for now it is voluntary--except for our team. Carry your waste and garbage out.” The agenda switches to team members. Four members are climbing north-side. They leave for Tibet in the morning. Douglas is mid-twenties, from Australia, Bill is an attorney from San Francisco, David’s from Mexico, and Abu, Russia. Douglas has just returned from Antarctica, literally, two weeks ago. Bill is trying to summit from the north side, and then from the south side, all in one season. Apa tells me how many times he’s summited but I don’t retain the number--so much is happening. Abu climbed Everest in 2009 south side with Apa, and now wants to try north side. His climbing partner is David with whom Abu has climbed for years. Surrounded by experience I am definitely the odd man out. They want to know why I’m not trying for the summit. “Not a mountaineer,” I say, “just an interested party, I’ve only been as high as Mt. Whitney.” Chris, one of the three south side Americans (there aren’t many of us) says, “Deke and I climbed Mt. Whitney last week for a warm-up. Snow from the portal all the way up the Mountaineer’s route. We used crampons in the upper chute. A nice class 4.” Chris is from San Diego and owns a company in Carlsbad called Etaluma. He has a Ph.D. in bio-chemistry or similar discipline, I didn’t catch which. He describes what he does but I’ve missed the first part of it. Something like manufacturing electron microscopes. “I got tired  of the business model,” Chris says, “we’d build a $300,000 instrument and sell only a few of them and our receivables would drag out. So I got the idea, why not make an electron microscope using off-the-shelf components? At Etaluma we actually make a full-fledged electron microscope for $3,500. By keeping the price down I can sell dozens of them to schools. The kids love them. They put a mosquito on the slide and you can see the facets on the eyes looking back at you.”  How cool is that? Wow. I’m wondering where this eclectic group has come from. Is it climbing in general that attracts such a diverse group, or something else? Chris is describing how he decided to try for Everest. “Deke talked me into it,” he says. “We were caught in a storm on Denali last year and spent 8 days trapped in our tent at high camp. Deke and I were six inches apart in a six foot space and we’re still friends.” Deke is from Thousand Oaks and is an electrical engineer. He is the quieter of the two, Chris being an American version of Wiggy: loquacious.  There won’t be a dull moment with this crowd.

“Right,” says Dawa, “cooking arrangements. We will have three separate cook tents. The Indians will have their own, as well the Japanese. You’ll notice the Japanese are not here. We’re facilitating for them but they are meeting up with Ken Noguchi at base camp and will go on their own from there. They’ll climb separately and have their own cook and meals. The rest of you will mess in the 3rd tent with Wiggy, me, and Apa.”

The rest of us includes Bruno who is from Switzerland, but who now lives in Tibet. Joan (pronounced JuAnne) from Spain, Catalonia he points out, and three Brazilians. I haven’t caught the names of the Brazilians just yet but Wiggy informs me that one of them is packing his paraglider to the top and plans to fly off the summit. This bit of news travels the room like wildfire and there is muffled conversation on wind direction, gusts, and the likelihood of being blown into Tibet. It is all I can do to check with myself to make sure this isn’t a dream. If Apa were here I’d look at him to make sure I wasn’t making all this up, but he’s still interviewing. He’s been to 14 previous Asian Trekking briefings, and isn’t planning to attend this one.

Bruno has a soft voice and I have to listen carefully to catch what he is saying. Yes, he lives in Tibet, no he is not visiting there. He works for the International Red Cross and is stationed in areas post-disaster to provide long-term mitigation in the aftermath. Infrastructure, hygiene, pharmaceuticals. Everyone wants to know why he isn’t climbing north side. “Yes, a bit ironic,” Bruno says, “Yesterday I went right by the road to north side base camp, but my decision to go south side was the better choice for me. The Asian Trekking operation and success record impresses me, plus I like that south side you spend less time at the very high altitudes.” Conversation ensues about the location of the various camps north side versus south side.  Apparently ABC (Advance Base Camp) north side is roughly equivalent to camp 2 south side. The real crux, however, is that camp 4 south side (on the South Col) is at lower elevation than camp 4 north side. In theory, therefore, the final south side summit push is made from a lower platform and consequently the body is less debilitated by virtue of that. The odds of success are proportionately higher. Bruno goes on to say that he wanted to maximize his chances for success.  Douglas, the Australian, says he chose the north side because he felt it was less technical. No ice fall.

Debate on the subject goes on. Negotiating the ice fall has me worried, terrified is a more accurate word. Douglas says his trip to Antarctica was to retrace Shackleton’s footsteps after the Endurance sank. “Elephant Island,” I say, “his crew living under an overturned lifeboat for 100 days, not knowing if they’d be rescued or die marooned there.” Douglas says, “Don’t know. I haven’t read the book, but we couldn’t land on Elephant Island, the weather was too bad.” Bad weather and constant cold on Everest also have me worried. “We were able to traverse South Georgia though,” Douglas says, “It took us four days and Shackleton did it in 36 hours.” Wiggy: “In ’89 I was on South Georgia with the Shefield, well the new Shefield, the ship that replaced the original Shefield after it was sunk in Falklands war.”  This I remember. “Sunk by a French Exocet missle,” I say. Wiggy is not pleased with that recollection. “Burned the superstructure to a crisp,” he says. I say, “Aluminum was the problem.”  Then Wiggy: “We were on garrison duty when I was stationed in Port Stanley. A bit of mop up, that.”  Douglas: “It took us four days on South Georgia because the tundra had melted and we couldn’t cross over the wider crevasses. Shackleton could go in a straight line, but we had to backtrack over and over again.”

Mention of crevasses scares me. Crossing them in the ice fall on ladders lashed together is something I’ve been trying to put out of my mind. “Tundra melted?” I ask, but my train of thought drifts off and Ang Tshering’s wife is engaging me in conversation.  She is from Bruge where they speak Flemish.  The Asian Trekking staff are serving us heaping plates of dal and rice. “I lived in Brussels for five years,” I tell Ang’s wife, “1960 to ’65.” We share memories of Belgium. She wants to know where I lived. “In Uccle, off the Chausee de Waterloo, 58 Avenue du Vert Chasseur.” Avenue of the Green Hunter. I still remember the translation, and this night is a night to remember as well. “What Shackleton did that was really clever,” says Douglas, “was that when the men he was with on South Georgia wanted to sleep, Shackleton would tell them they had half-an-hour. As soon as they fell asleep he’d advance their watches 30 minutes and wake them up. Kept them all from freezing to death.”  After dinner I start separating my gear into two duffel bags, one with gear to go direct to base camp, and one to travel with us on the trek.

April 4. 9:30 AM. Apa has an interview with the Asian edition of the Wall Street Journal after which we are going to the Bouddhanath Stupa about half an hour northeast. Apa knows the Lama at the monastery and wants to ask his blessing for the climb. Before leaving the Asian Trekking compound I need to give Dawa a copy of my evacuation insurance paperwork and passport. The latter he’ll lock in the Asian Trekking safe. The former is insurance I have with a company called Global Rescue. It occurs to me that as a westerner an insurance policy is important, whereas for Apa insurance is practicing his faith: spinning the prayer wheels, feeding corn to the pigeons, lighting candles, buying white paint for the monks, receiving the Lama’s blessing, the Puja ceremony, and more. He lives his faith minute by minute rather than calling on it when it’s convenient. Somehow Global Rescue seems to pale in comparison, but their website is entertaining. For an $800 per year membership fee Global Rescue will evacuate you via helicopter from the clutches of just about anything. Taken hostage by the drug cartel? Global Rescue will evacuate you. Seized by guerillas? Global Rescue will marshal local resources to free you. Pirates in Mogadishu? Not a problem. Fall in with the wrong crowd in Cote d’ Ivoire? Global Rescue’s your company. On their website they actually list all the recent evacuations they’ve pulled off. Another Global Rescue plus: no fine-print height restrictions on mountaineering. I’ve signed up online for their lower-cost $429 evacuation policy (the rescue has to be for a medical condition) and hope I don’t need it.

At the Bouddhanath Stupa I follow Apa’s lead. We wend our way clockwise through a series of candle lighting ceremonies, spin the prayer wheels, feed pigeons, and then take a bottle of Red Label Apa has carried from Bangkok to the back of a darkened corridor like a mine shaft where four people are huddled around a small fire. The smoke is thick. “They will give this to my friend who is not here,” Apa says, “but they will find him when he gets back.”  The thrust of our visit to this particular Stupa is to seek an audience with the Lama at the adjacent Ka Nying Shedrub Ling Monastery.

We approach the monastery unsure if the Lama is even there. “It will be good luck if he is here,” Apa says. We climb a series of stairs several flights to reach the Lama’s ante-room. I’m uncertain about an unannounced visit but Apa assures me it is ok. The Lama does not seem to be in. Crestfallen we start back down. About two floors below our disappointment we are surprised to run into the Lama and his retinue ascending. There’s barely enough room in the stairwell for them to squeeze by. “Welcome, Apa Sherpa,” the Lama says, “You and your friend come with me.” Apa is elated, “This is good luck” he says. “We need good luck for the climb, and this is good.”

We are seated in the lotus position at low tables and served tea by the monastery’s monks. The Lama and Apa converse in Nepali. There are two other guests seated to our left, in what capacity I am unsure, but they strike me as Korean possibly, but Apa says no, they are Nepali. A monk motions Apa to approach the Lama. Beforehand Apa has clued me in to the procedure. We have purchased special cloth at the Bouddhanath Stupa to present to the Lama after which we hope he will give us a blessing. I watch Apa and memorize the series of movements he uses. When it’s my turn I approach the Lama with head-down stooped posture and kneel, presenting him with the cloth just-so. “You are Apa number two,” he says which completely catches me off guard. “You need to train yourself to be more like Apa.” I wasn’t expecting this. Actually I wasn’t expecting anything, but now the Lama has challenged me. I know he’s not suggesting I emulate  Apa’s mountain climbing ability. It’s clear it’s Apa’s character he is referring to. “I will give you a book later,” the Lama says. I return to my seat after he ties a red string necklace around my neck and dismisses me.

Apa whispers to me, “For good luck. You keep that necklace on the whole time until the climb is finished.”  The Lama converses in low tones with a monk who is obviously his assistant. Then he motions to us. “You are invited to stay and have lunch with us, but first I will give you a lesson. Today I will speak of three things. First, common sense; second, philosophy; third, meditation.  Common sense can be practiced by anyone, with or without philosophy. If you employ common sense you can act appropriately and advance toward happiness, for instance: learning appreciation.” The Lama’s name is Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche, and he goes on to explain how one of the most obvious but overlooked common sense traits is appreciation for what one has as opposed to a fixation on what one wants. Without appreciation there can be no happiness. He then goes on to relate this to philosophy. Philosophy is the reason for correct action; and finally meditation, the practice of which is the path to enlightenment.

More tea is brought, and then vegetable curry. While we eat the Lama asks questions and talks with his guests. He enjoys teasing them and loves to laugh. I cannot understand the Nepali, but I can tell it is friendly and light hearted. “Apa’s friend,” he says to me, “what is it you do in Salt Lake City?” I tell him. “Then you are rich,” he says, which isn’t what I want to hear. “No,” I say, “not rich, just fortunate. We have a small company, only 14 employees, but it’s not large enough for me to be rich.” He presses me further, “You make parts for airplanes, and airplanes are expensive, and yet you aren’t rich?” Only later after we’ve left do I finally agree with the Lama. Rich in a relative sense. In the cab riding back to Thamel the poverty along the roadside and river banks convinces me that, yes, I am rich. The Lama was right, but I didn’t like hearing it, couldn’t quite appreciate it.

April 5. Apa is so busy he is beginning to get stressed. His aunt is in the Kathmandu hospital and cannot keep food down. He needs to visit her. He has another interview scheduled, has agreed to meet a friend across town, and also another friend in the opposite direction. We have to find a tailor to hem the blue jeans Jerry has given him which fit in the waist but are miles too long. The Nepal Telecom cell phone Apa’s bought needs a special SIM card, and we’ve got to find that but there are some technical issues Kami Temba is explaining. The word on the street is that the Ncell SIM cards are the way to go. We’re hoping the Ncell phone card might function as far up as base camp. Apa’s brother Nawang who is a monk at the Thame monastery has asked Apa to buy four meters of a special curtain material that will go on the exterior of the windows of the shrine. We put on our dust masks and head to the lower end of Thamel where the tailors and cloth dealers are located. While Apa negotiates with a tailor I go on a mission to find hand sanitizer. The best I can come up with is a 3 oz bottle. When I get back to the tailor’s shop he is slicing away with huge shears. We go in search of the curtain material, unsuccessfully. “It has to be white and not like any of these,” Apa says. “When you get back from the Monkey Temple with Kami Temba more shops will be open.” We go back to the tailor. He’s hemmed the blue jeans but with only one row of stitching. Worse, he hasn’t folded the material in the conventional manner. The cut edge is showing and will fray. We are out of time so Apa takes the pants as is, “A slam dunk, that one,” he says. “That tailor should not be a tailor if he is going to do work like that. I don’t like the slam dunk.”

The flight to Lukla has me worried too. Discovery Channel did a documentary a year or two ago on the world’s ten most dangerous airports, and of the ten the ones I remember are Gibraltar at number 3, and Lukla at number 1. Last year an Agni Airlines flight crashed at Lukla and a number of people were killed, possibly as many as all 18 on the plane.  I purposefully tried to ignore the details but it was hard to do since news like that travels through our shop pretty fast. The issue with Lukla is that there is no fly-by possible. Usually airport design is such that you can take off and land in either direction depending on wind direction. This has the great advantage of offering an escape if the landing needs to be aborted. The pilot can choose to keep flying. Lukla’s landing strip is uphill and dead-ends into a wall of rock rising up into the mountain. A good landing ends with the plane making a hard right turn before hitting the airport’s terminal building. Once the pilot commits to an approach the plane is going to land one way or the other.  Carolee has asked me not to fly in or out of Lukla. She flew out of there in 1995 in a Russian helicopter and wants me to do the same. I’ve told her I don’t think this is an option which is about as polite a way of saying that I’m going in with the rest of the Eco-Everest team as I can come up with, but I’m still nervous about Lukla.  Nervous enough that the night prior to departure I’m having trouble sleeping.

Part of my worry is the landing in Lukla, and part is the whole daunting prospect of going above Everest base camp as the only non-mountaineer. The shifting icefall and crevasse crossing proposition is suddenly terrifying. All the rest of the team have climbed the requisite 20,000 ft. peaks in preparation, and have stories to tell about spending nights hanging from ledges on ropes anchored into vertical rock a thousand feet above the ground. Not only do I not have those stories, I don’t even want to have them. I don’t like heights and have forced myself to deal with exposure (poorly) over twenty plus years in the Wasatch. At 9:00 PM these twin fears are firmly in control of me so I decide to go out of the hotel and thread Thamel’s labyrinth of alleys for distraction. After walking for an hour or so the power goes out and Thamel plunges into blackness. The sound of generators takes over and lights come on here and there in the few shops that are still trying to shutter themselves for the night. It’s clear to me that the hotel is the place to be, not the streets.  Problem is, I’m not sure whether to turn left or right at the end of the alley I’m in.  Earlier, the visual clues were enough to backtrack on, but now the dark makes all the corners look the same. I’m basically lost unless I can find the main intersection with the electric pole that leans on a severe angle. That’s where I turn left and walk slightly uphill for a quarter mile to the fork in the alley, the lefthand of which goes past the brick cistern. After deliberating I take a right turn and walk about 100 yards but there’s nothing about the shadows that looks familiar.  I have a gut feeling I’m going in the wrong direction. The thing to do is return to exactly where I was when the power first went out, then think things through. Determining where that was is hard. In the end I don’t find the origin but I get lucky and find the leaning electric pole. The alley back to the Norba Linka is right here.

This partial relief is mitigated by the pitch blackness up the alley. No generators producing even the hint of light from inside any buildings. Virtual blackness. I can see the shape of rocks at my feet but ten feet to either side and ahead is just a void. Nothing to do but make a plunge into it. I trudge into the dark taking careful steps. Now’s not the time to roll an ankle. After I’m several hundred yards up the alley a car turns in back by the entrance and slowly starts following me up the alley. This isn’t a good sign. Best to keep walking and pay no attention. What I do notice in the piercing headlights is dust. It floats like fog on the coast. I pull my mask a little tighter and keep walking. Voices ahead me.  Male voices. Still no sight of them. Car behind me, stopped now. I’m sandwiched. Not good. Keep walking. Five figures emerge from the pitch black. I reach out and touch the wall to my left, try to shrink into it. The men crouch down on the side of the road opposite me and keep talking. They seem to have large baskets. It looks like they’re setting up camp for the night. A good sign. This alley is their home and they are not necessarily working in concert with the car behind me. They’re doing the same thing I am, going home, settling in for the night. The alley forks left. It’s too dark to see it, but I recognize the change from packed rocks to just plain packed dirt. A hundred more yards and the hard left into Norba Linka’s alley. Be careful not to fall in the cistern I tell myself and hug the wall to the left. There’s the break in the wall, turn left. Twenty yards to go. The gate in the wall is shut. Locked even. I try to reach through the grill of the gate and maneuver the latch. No luck. Stuck in the alley. Then the night watchman hears me, comes over, opens the gate. I’m in. Like making it back to camp. Hiking Kathmandu in the dark. Good training, but not near cold enough. Cold is another fear to deal with, but not now. The wake-up is 5:00 AM, breakfast at 5:30. We leave for the airport at 6:00 AM.

April 6. Abu shows up for breakfast. “Too early to eat,” he says. He leaves for the north side an hour later than we do for south side and has come down to say goodbye to Apa. “The Chinese are being tight with permits,” he says. “This year I took the risk, but not last year.” Wiggy says, “Russell won’t do the north side anymore. He’s moved his operation south side. Tired of hassling with the permits.” So I add: “That was a great documentary on Discovery channel about Russell Brice’s team a couple years ago.”  No one picks up this line, seems watching climbing on TV is a redundant activity for the crew at Norba Linka.

In the van on the way to the airport there is discussion about the funeral pyres off to the left. Opinion is divided on whether this is a good site to visit as a tourist, or not. The “nots” seem too have it. The airport is crowded. We are at the smaller, older, domestic airport which is really just a continuation of the international airport, but with smaller buildings. We spend half an hour outside watching Apa do photo shoots and interviews. The reporters have him walk toward them several times over in the same space to get the live “arrival” footage. He is draped with yellow khata and waves and smiles patiently. The rest of us concentrate on the bags, our carry-on packs in particular. “You’ll be amazed,” says Wiggy, “our duffle bags will actually make it. It looks chaotic, but they have a system. You just can’t see it.”  He’s right. The bags are piled in heaps on the roadside along with other expedition’s bags. Most of the bags are red except for Apa’s which are yellow. I have an orange and a red bag and they are quickly lost from sight. We have yellow Asian Trekking tags on ours and the sides say Asian Trekking in huge letters except for my orange bag. “They can sort them back out at base camp if they have to,” says Wiggy.  Except for our carry-on packs all the baggage travels separately. The planes aren’t large enough to carry both passengers and cargo. Our bags will travel on a separate cargo flight later in the day. We won’t see them until base camp ten days or more from now.

Passing through security is different, not lax, just different. All the usual items prohibited in the US are let through here: water, food, ice axes. Security empties my back pack, unrolls the clothes, turns over the battery charger, hefts the laptop. My roll of duct tape causes conversation and is confiscated. Security places it on a table behind them. I argue with them in English but only receive silence back. On the other side I ask Dawa Steven about it. Why confiscate duct tape? “Maybe they think you’ll tape up the pilot,” he laughs. I ask Naruz about it. “I will try to get it back for you,” he says. But in the end he returns empty handed. “I think they just want to keep it for themselves,” he says. I decide it is a small price to pay for getting through. “You can buy some more in Namche,” says Dawa.

We are flying on Agni. I would have preferred to fly Budda Air just for the name, but the Agni plane looks stout, an over-wing like a DeHaviland, but it isn’t a DeHaviland. It’s a ______. I write the name on a scrap of paper and lose it in my pack.  We stand on the runway waiting for the passengers from Lukla to de-plane. A squad of soldiers runs by. Training. Probably 60 of them, not a squad--I don’t know a squad from a company, but there are quite a few soldiers. Running in boots on asphalt doesn’t look comfortable.

We are on the plane. I have the third seat, front right. Every seat a window view. The palne is about 5 feet wide. We take-off without ceremony. The steel roofs of Kathmandu give way to the low, terraced hills. Every square inch of land that can be cultivated is. In the distance snow capped peaks rise from the haze. I have 25 minutes to cultivate my nervousness about the landing in Lukla.

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