Day 1: The World's Most Dangerous Airport™
[Destination: Phakding 2,640 metres]
Ass o'clock, and we both race to get the hell out of the room but not racing so fast that I don't pause to get in a parting overloaded mirror selfie. In the car, racing for our flight to the world's most dangerous airport, we find ourselves at one point basically driving directly at an oncoming lorry at high speed (one or the other or both of us trying to pass, though it doesn't matter which).
Me (a bit later): “I like an airport with monkeys.”
I do not know why I have no pictures of the monkeys. I do have lots of pictures of the truly manic interior of the airport.
Huge delays (on flights to Lukla which is socked in more mornings than not). No surprise. We take a seat. At the last minute, Darby saves me from trying to carry on my giant knife. (Had it in the wrong bag.) Aakash breaks out breakfast, fresh fruit. Surprise food from Aakash would become a major and f*&^ing fantastic theme.
Darby & Aakash: [complete ringing silence]
Darby (a bit later): “I love the people-watching here. That dude has got a powder-blue waterproof ukelele sack. In the shape of a ukelele.”
Me: “Let's just hope we don't end up staying in the same teahouse as that guy.”
Me: “Yes, my dear, I'm afraid with no Mark or Tim you're going to have your work cut out for you producing quips. I hope you're up to the job.”
Darby: “Looks like I have to be funny for three. Luckily, I've been practicing…” [spies bag weighing] “Yay, we're getting weighed.”
Me: “That's the first time I've ever heard a woman say that.”
Darby: “You've been hanging out with the wrong women.”
No doubt. Did I mention Darby's packing-weight spreadsheet with everything itemised by ounce, down to the last Lara bar? I don't suppose I did. Still waiting, we get in tea, coffee, some minor hat repair.
Darby: “Do you see what he's holding?”
Me: “…A freaking ukelele. And it's not the same dude.”
Darby: “Nope. It's a plague.”
Me: “Either that, or we've timed our trip spectacularly poorly, to coincide with the Khumbu Ukelele Convention.”
We discuss setting up a micro-site: uke-count-in-khumbu.com, with just one really big number on it. Here I get my first look at Darby's Darby-mounted solar panel (for charging devices).
But, sticking it to the wise-acre good and hard, Darby ultimately comes in at 16.9 kilos to my 17.7. (I swear it was 12/4 in the hotel!) Looks like they're going to let us on the plane anyway. The time starts to hang heavy. I buy a copy of The Power of Compassion by the Dalai Lama at the little book kiosk. I really wanted The Ghurkas: Special Force but it was huge, so I buy a Kindle copy on my phone instead.
At long last, word comes down that Lukla has opened up, the backlog of flights starts to clear, and a bus ferries us across the tarmac to our flying coffin.
There's an additional long wait standing on the tarmac and a third in the plane waiting to take off. The heat and white nose are putting me to sleep. (Oddly, I couldn't get back to sleep for a quite a while after last night's disastrous tap-water gulping episode. Darby diagnosed it as good ole jet lag.) Speaking of which, while standing here on a freaking runway, my bowel gave one serious enough lurch that I actually scanned the scrub grass at the edge of the tarmac with a baleful eye. But the lurch subsided. I sure hoped it didn't come back five minutes into the 30-minute flight.
By jockeying and being a bastard, I scored a window seat, in the front row and, most importantly, on the left side, where I had advance intel all the views of peaks would be. The stewardess giving her safety briefing in the two square feet at the front of the cabin, half bent over, was pretty funny.
Once we're up in the air, I start to seriously nod off. After not too long, though, I start to see what Aakash meant by "really get the feeling of being in the air." Did I mention this was a quite small aircraft? And, unfortunately, when we start to hit turbulent air, it is just way too close to some serious terrain features. Basically, the ground is rising up fast all around us oh, yeah, we're flying into the Himalayas and soon much of it is at a higher altitude than we are.
The first cry of "Everest!" goes up. But, shortly after, it's time for… attempting to land at the World's Most Dangerous Airport™. Did I mention that, built by Sir Edmund Hillary, the runway slopes at 11 degrees because, at an absurd 1,729 feet, it would otherwise be too short for anything either to take off from or land upon and which also means one end is 200 feet lower than the other? And that one end of that runway is a sheer 2,000-foot drop-off and the other a solid stone wall? This is not the airport of second chances.
We were told that this was actually a totally uneventful landing, with almost no cross-winds. <gulp> Ahh… solid freaking ground.
Our path out of the airport and into the hamlet of Lukla takes us around the back of the runway…
…where we pause to spectate the reverse operation we just experienced. Scarier? Less scary? We'd find out in three weeks. Me bending over there is to retrieve my hat, which the take-off actually blew off my head.
We then traversed the main read: only drag of Lukla, end to end.
I think we stopped for lunch maybe just outside of town? Next little teahouse down the trail?
Teahouses as we were to learn are all extremely similar: a big room with benches around the outside and a yak-dung-burning stove in the middle, for the huddling around. I ordered a masala tea and a mango juice. I got chided, naturally, for not eating lunch.
Darby: “You're an adult.”
This turned out to be the first of many Burning-Man-isms I was to learn from Darby on the path. We met our porters! Siahn and Lakhdan! Amazing guys, about whom I'll have more to say later. My hand sanitiser exploded on me up the entire length of my arm. →
There transpired a discussion of getting out of our warm sleeping bags in the middle of the night into -30°C.
Darby: “…and for ladies.”
Me [pregnant pause, eyes go wide]: “…Did you bring it?”
Darby: “Are you kidding? I've also got a 32oz gatorade bottle in the porter bag. You don't think I'm going out to the bathroom in that? It's probably a quarter-mile away, too.”
(If you don't get the reference, follow the link.) We relaxed, scribbled, and checked in with the world. The trekking permits came out.
And now it was time for… some trekking! Which for me means shooting
wildlife beautiful domestic animals. And, increasingly, stupas.
Darby: “It's not like we planned this for a year.”
Me: “…Three, more like.”
Speaking of which, it was also soon time for… the Official Start-of-Trek Photo, yay!!! Also a bit of a gear change-up: fleece top off, gloves out and on, and water sleeve strapped into pack properly. This was it!
Here's what trucks look like round these parts:
As we amble, I learn that Pasang Lhamu Sherpa was the first Nepalese woman to summit Everest, in 1995 but that she also died later on the same expedition. Then the Gatekeeper Crow:
Then… THIS. <gulp> (Note to Darby: No skipping on the rickety suspension bridge over the bottomless gorge!!!)
And then here comes the beer truck. This sounds callous, and it sure is. Here was this poor little man with five cases of Tuborg basically suspended from his forehead, by the straps they use to balance the ridiculous load, climbing what was nothing like gentle or flat terrain. And this was the moment, I think, when I first started to feel, well:
And the tragic coda was that this guy was enduring this body- and soul-crushing labour… so rich, Western, North-Face-wearing trekker mf'ers up top can get pissed on really bad beer. More on this later. For now yak hybrids!
These absolutely wonderful painted and carven stones, below as well as the prayer wheels are all called “mane” which means “prayers”. The villagers here help clean and repaint them over time. Great spans of time.
More of what we were walking up into was becoming visible:
One always circles around stupas clockwise, just as one spins prayer wheels clockwise. It's somewhat of a big deal. (At one point, staring into my viewfinder, I found myself two-thirds of the way around a truly huge stupa the wrong way. Had to circle back.) We also picked up a dog spirit animal along this stretch:
As full-on dusk settled, I remembered Aakash's earlier self-description as "the laziest guide we will meet." (He also always stressed how doing nothing, at altitude, was acclimatising.) And I had really loved our slow, leisurely pace up until now. But I didn't much fancy this trail in the dark it presented some pretty rough terrain to negotiate sightless.
We finally roll into Phakding, yay, checking into a lodge/guesthouse-type affair. In the room, Darby and I together manage to work out the compass function (also the illumination function) of my flash new hiking watch the manual for which I'd failed to make time to read in order to face her Spot Gen 3 device in the right direction. (Darby, evidently, knows where the satellites are at any given time.) As previously alluded to, this is like a personal locator beacon, except with message-send capability.
We put in dinner orders well in advance (to take it easy on the the lone chef, and allow him to batch meals together), order some more masala tea, and get busy kicking it, scoping the crowd in the main room, and catching up with notes.
While Darby is forced out into the night to transmit her regular "stopped for the evening" message (we're much higher up, but somehow the satellites prove farther away), I take the bags to the room and then take myself, led by my stomach, to the bathroom…
DO NOT READ THIS
(You've Been Warned)
…for my evening training session for the All-Asia Explosive Diarrhoea Championships. Remember all that tapwater I accidentally drank while half-asleep? My tummy sure did.
That I was prepared for. But not for it sneaking up on me so fast that I managed to get my pants down but not my cheeks seated. There was, subsequently, let's agree to call it, and as I suggested to the others on my return… an incident.
This incident necessitated what let's agree to call it a clean-up operation. As I told Darby, I really don't do panic, and try not to get angry, but just work the problem. My initial thought was, “Man, this will be an interesting challenge trying to get this bathroom back into a state such that other people can use it.” Also, given my growing sense that toilet paper is absent from, or at least frowned upon, in Nepal, I was forced to use my entire packet of tissues, and half my wet towelettes, in the operation. (The tissues got me into a state, roughly, where I could go for the towelettes.)
Back in the main room, I loudly announce that I shall be purchasing an entire case of tissue packets which I have already seen for sale, and now I know why at the earliest opportunity. (I also bought quite a lot of loo roll, sold at a substantial premium, not long after.) In summary, the operation was a success, and as I further reported to the others: “You'll hardly even know I was there.”
For whatever it's worth, the above was transcribed verbatim from my “notes at scene”. Anyway, shortly after perhaps into all the ringing silence these proclamations engendered a phone rang that indefensible default Nokia ringtone for approximately five full minutes. Other devices lustily chirped.
The guy beside me proceeded to watch a music video on his phone. Without headphones. Another reason and there were to be very many more to hit the hay early.