April -2-2013 - The Day from Kathmandu to Lukla and Phakding
Today has had so many new and incredible experiences that I hardly know where to begin. After a 0600 wake-up at the Samsara Hotel in Kathmandu, we carried our bags down the four floors of stairs and dropped them in the lobby. We checked our spare bags with the hotel's storage service and checked out of our rooms. For breakfast we filled up on fresh mixed fruit, tropical fruit mix juice, sausage, eggs, and jelly-filled pastries. As we finished our meal, we were met by Wongchu, who struck up lively conversations with a party of Germans at the table next to us. When we were done eating, Wonchu had our bags loaded in the truck and we moved to the airport. We passed our bags through security and joined the throngs of people all trying to get out to various trekking or climbing locations. We were especially struck by the sheer quantity of equipment carried by some of the expeditions. Bags of rice and boxes of name-brand candy bars littered the floor of the terminal as too many travelers tried to get their boarding passes from too few ticket agents. Wongchu came to us and informed us that the helicopter he tried to schedule was just too expensive (the price had recently gone up). Our Sherpa, Nawang helped to get our bags checked and we moved through the next security checkpoint into the departure gate. The departure gate was simply another single room where all the travelers were held until their flight was ready to depart. We entertained ourselves with a live performance from Disney, which quickly gathered a small crowd of delayed travelers. Finally, though, our flight number was called and we rushed through the final security gate to a bus, which delivered us to our plane. The aircraft was a Twin Otter, something we are very familiar with from many jump trips at civilian airports. However, we'd never seen one with seats. We crammed into the small airplane along with what felt like far too many travelers for the size of its cabin and took off. The plane accelerated and climbed out with good power, but we were surprised at the low, half-mile of visibility. An industrial haze or fog had settled over everything, and as aircrew members this worried us, since we knew we'd have to negotiate mountains despite the low Vis. During the middle of our flight, we were finally able to see above the industrial haze to the tops of the Himalaya Mountains peeking over the tops of the clouds. Or perhaps peeking isn't the right word…decimating would probably be more appropriate, as the gray-granite, snow-covered mountains dwarfed the low cloud cover at their bases. The foothills beneath us quickly rose until they were towering well above our altitude, and mountain gusts and small clouds brought light turbulence that added tension to an already harrowing flight as the pilots cleared ridgelines by what looked like less than 100 feet. The last ten minutes of the 25-minute flight surprised us with a steadily increasing smell of fuel, the product of a heavy mix as the pilot attempted to maintain power at the high altitude and load weight. When the pilot did lower the nose to make our final approach, we could see the airfield off of our nose. Tenzing Hillary Airport at Lukla has an airfield that is regularly names as the most extreme airport in the world. It is only a few hundred meters long with a cliff at one end and a rock face at the other. It slopes upward at an almost impossible degree and the incline helps the incoming planes to bleed off airspeed in time to avoid crashing into the imposing rock face. The airplane takes a last second right turn and pulls into the overcrowded aircraft parking area. The entire landing experience took all of fifteen seconds, but it is a quarter-minute I will never forget.
After retrieving our bags, we walked around the upper end of the flight line and arrived Everest Lodge Lukla. Here, our Sherpa coordinated with onsite personnel while we were invited inside for tea. Nawang called us outside when we were ready to move and we watched in amazement as he prepared our bags for travel. They were stacked three high and tied together with ropes into a makeshift harness. The harness was not made for the porter's arms, though…it was made for his head. The Sherpa people have developed an incredibly efficient method of carrying equipment that enables them to carry up to and beyond their own bodyweight. A wide strap is placed over the porter's forehead and the entire weight rests squarely upon his head. We were shocked with the sheer size and volume of the loads that some of the sherpas were carrying along the small, narrow route. When they take a rest, they place small stick under the load and allow the load to be transferred to the peg. I thought we were in good shape, and compared to average trekkers we certainly are; but we can't hold a candle to their incredible degree of physical fitness. We are as inferior to them as couch potatoes are to us.
On the road, we passed many amazing people, all of whom eagerly offered "Namaste" as a greeting, or a simple "hello" in their native language. It is striking just how common the phrase "hello" is; its only difference is the regional dialect in which it is spoken. However, it wasn't just trekkers and expeditions on the trail. We shared the trail with pack animals. The jopkyo is a short cow-like animal with impressive curved horns and shaggy fur on their legs. They bear a wooden harness upon which many heavy bags of equipment or supplies are affixed with ropes. They walk nose to tail on the narrow trail with their jopkyo driver, who walks at the back of the animal train and whistles or occasionally yells commands at them. We were honored to spend four hours with Mr. David Breashears prior to our trek; he advised us to always walk on the uphill side of the train of jopkyos. This is because they are known for their determination and can occasionally knock a hapless trekker completely off the trail into the treacherous gullies below.
Around two o'clock we met up with the Seven Summits Team at Thadokoshi. The edifice was a quaint mountain lodge overlooking the valley below and had both indoor and outdoor seating areas. The team was situated on the covered terrace and was a lively, noisy bunch. Disney pulled out his guitar and performed for what ended up as a fairly large crowd of multiple expeditions and trekking groups. After lunch, we continued along the trail for about another hour until our arrival at Sherpa Farmhouse in Phak Ding. We were shown to our rooms and given free reign to explore the local area.
Some of the most amazing things we saw today were:
- the cable bridges suspended over enormous gorges, which get an unsettling bounce to them if too many people cross at the same time.
- the mountains on either side of the valley which easily ascended an additional two miles above us.
- The river raging in the gully below, clearly a difficult class 5!
- The beautiful valleys and scenic vistas.
- The adorable local children, playing with a ball or smacking jopkyos as they passed .