Dispatch from the Razor's Edge, the Blog of Michael Stephen Fuchs

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 (shaking head resignedly): “Yep – most dangerous part of our day…” [The safest driving beggars the most insane flying for risk of death or injury.]
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.

What – before the yetis?

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.

Me: “Did you know that monkeys open bananas from the bottom? Anecdotally, it produces a lower rate of leaving stringy bits attached.”
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.”
Darby: “…”
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.

Me: “Hey, check out Weird Al over there.”
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).

Me: “It's so hard to imagine how you had trouble making weight.”

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.

A strangely unnerving sign
Me: “That is one damned small aircraft.”
Love this badass one of Darby
Camera goes around neck now – this is it! Also nice to get out of that packed terminal refugee centre.
This one, too. Like a contract killer or mercenary waiting to be inserted for a dicey job

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.

This is not zoomed “This is the 274 to Lancaster Gate, right?” Yeah – seeing this wedged behind the pilot's seat was not all that reassuring Nor was this Nor this, really, a bit later

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.

Celebrating survival with a little tarmac acro-yoga

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.

Yeah. A Starbucks – but at least the last one for a long, long time – <i>and</i> a fake Irish pub But also this – prayer flags before snow-covered peaks

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.

Me: “The only time in my entire life I eat before about 6pm is when I'm hiking. And we haven't started hiking yet.”
Darby: “You're an adult.”
Like a handjob gone horribly wrong

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. →

Cautionary note: do not close air-tight containers at 1,400m and open them again at 2,640m.

There transpired a discussion of getting out of our warm sleeping bags in the middle of the night – into -30°C.

Me: “There's always the old water bottle trick for men.”
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.

Checking in Scribbling Love both these photos – “Absolutely BADASSES!” - SGT Apone

And now it was time for… some trekking! Which for me means shooting wildlife beautiful domestic animals. And, increasingly, stupas.

Me: “I can't believe we're on the trek!!”
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!

Aakash: “Don't get run down by a truck.”

Here's what trucks look like round these parts:

Slow-moving truck Slower yet Damn

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:

My heart's breaking for the porters here. What an unimaginably grim and backbreaking way to make a living.

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.

Aakash: “That one there is the guardian for this stage of our trek. Watching over us.”
Aakash is like a human, mobile Wikipedia – I can type queries on his back.

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:

Darby: “Maybe not getting that rabies shot wasn't so clever.”

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.

Dusk Damn, dude. 8^( Mane

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.

Hugely hearteningly, it also has, basically, a "send the helicopter" button. Yes, it's located under a covering safety flap.

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.

Kicking it The crowd Tea and 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…


(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.

Me: “There's an abomination upon the mountains. Phones on silent in the Himalayas, please.”

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.

Tomorrow, Day Two: “A Gorge Is A Gorge, Of Course Of Course”

  3PoET     danger     trekking  
close photo of Michael Stephen Fuchs

Fuchs is the author of the novels The Manuscript and Pandora's Sisters, both published worldwide by Macmillan in hardback, paperback and all e-book formats (and in translation); the D-Boys series of high-tech, high-concept, spec-ops military adventure novels – D-Boys, Counter-Assault, and Close Quarters Battle (coming in 2016); and is co-author, with Glynn James, of the bestselling Arisen series of special-operations military ZA novels. The second nicest thing anyone has ever said about his work was: "Fuchs seems to operate on the narrative principle of 'when in doubt put in a firefight'." (Kirkus Reviews, more here.)

Fuchs was born in New York; schooled in Virginia (UVa); and later emigrated to the San Francisco Bay Area, where he lived through the dot-com boom. Subsequently he decamped for an extended period of tramping before finally rocking up in London, where he now makes his home. He does a lot of travel blogging, most recently of some very  long  walks around the British Isles. He's been writing and developing for the web since 1994 and shows no particularly hopeful signs of stopping.

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ARISEN : Operators, Volume I - The Fall of the Third Temple by Michael Stephen Fuchs
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