October 29 to 31, 2011 – Saturday to Monday
After 14 ½ hours from Chicago landed at New Delhi. Spent the night in the Eaton Smart hotel in the international section of the airport. We were met by a very helpful young man who escorted us to the hotel while our luggage and other formalities were magically handled by someone. I was a little worried that they kept our passports, but the next morning at breakfast they were handed back to us along with other documentation and baggage receipts.
The itinerary sent by Ram Pahari of Himalaya Journey Treks and Expeditions said “Arrival in Kathmandu 1,334m, transfer to hotel”. “Transfer” is a serious exaggeration – more like “crawl”. There seemed to be no rules, with lines of cars, and what seems like thousands of motorcycles sometimes crossing the centerline two rows deep. Lots of honking as we wound our way painstakingly through amazingly impoverished areas, avoiding pedestrians, a couple of cows, cyclists, and the thousands of other vehicles, all gunning for the same position at the same time. The patience of the people in the midst of this chaos was quite inspiring. While everybody leaned on their horns constantly and we witnessed hundreds of near misses, nobody seemed to get exited, and took the pandemonium in their stride.
After more than an hour in absolute traffic hell – which I found most exciting! – we finally made it into the Thamel area, a chaotic haven of less disastrous appearance, with thousands of shops, restaurants and other businesses lining the narrow “streets”. People, motorcycles, rickshaws cars went everywhere, in every direction. The energy of the place was palpable and contagious. The spirit of this upper class area of Kathmandu! We were excited to be there, in Kathmandu. What an exotic name!
With the air grey with pollution, our eyes and noses burning and ears ringing form the cacophony of “hooters”, we arrived at the very adequate hotel, the Hotel Manang, and were greeted by some very friendly staff and a glass of fruit juice, a welcome libation after the smog, exhaust fumes and dust.
Five of our six adventurers made it to Kathmandu today. Kathy and Al Wilson from Indianapolis, Indiana who joined me on the Kilimanjaro climb and Serengeti safari I organized in 2008; Pete McIlroy, a friend from Columbus, Ohio, and his friend from Newburyport, Mass. Roger Verney. Kent Stucky from Columbus would join us the next day. We deposited our luggage in our rooms and set out to explore Thamel on foot. A whole new experience! Now WE were dodging cars, motorcycles, bicycles, and what seemed to be thousands of other pedestrians, all the while experiencing the polite nature of these gentle people. How exciting it was to be there!
As we meandered down narrow streets surrounded by a zillion souvenir shops with incense burning and sellers motioning you to check out their wares, Pete and I decided we all needed a drink, and walked into a restaurant with a bar. This led to a lovely evening of great Indian food (and great camaraderie and getting to know one another a little). It confirmed for me what I knew already – this was going to be a great group of friends with whom to share an adventure such as we are about to experience.
Exhausted and somewhat out of sorts because of the 10-hour time-change we went to bed. A strange thing, these mattresses on these beds. It was about three inches thick, but hard as a board. It reminded me of the time when I was in basic training in the South African navy in 1968. We were on a march in a remote part of the Cape Province, and after three days have had very little sleep. We came across an abandoned house with some furniture, lots of bats and other vermin. I was so exhausted I found myself falling asleep on top of the kitchen table amidst the dirt and dust. This mattress in the Hotel Manang felt like that tabletop. I woke up at a 3 am. feeling like my hipbones were protruding through my skin. I got up, stripped the bed, unrolled my nice new Thermarest self-inflating camping mattress pad, re-made the bed, and slept like a baby the rest of the night on a very comfortable camping mattress.
1st November, 2011 – Tuesday – Day 1
After a great breakfast we took to the narrow, crowded streets again, exploring and experiencing the smells and sounds of Thamel. Back at the Manang Hotel we met up with Kent who had just arrived from New Delhi. Unfortunately his backpack with all his hiking gear went somewhere else.
We spent a relaxing afternoon at a local pub, and then received the word that Kent’s backpack did not make it on the last flight from New Delhi. I had been the brunt of the joke in that I clearly over-packed. I had three fleece jackets, 8 pairs of socks, and multiple shirts. “Who would need EIGHT PAIRS of socks? Two pairs should be enough for 16 days!” they joked. So Kent and I went to our room and I shared all my extras with him, including four pairs of socks. He spent the rest of the evening shopping for boots and other essentials, and we finally got to bed just before midnight.Ram took us to his company’s office a few blocks from the hotel for our pre-hike “Lukla – Everest Base Camp – Kala Pattar trekking briefing with officially arrangements.” Ram’s coverage of the next 16 days’ hike and adventure was exhaustive and complete. We all felt a lot more confident after this briefing, with a much clearer understanding of what to expect.
2nd November, 2011 – Wednesday – Day 2
If you can’t Climb it, Drink it!
Itinerary Entry: After breakfast, Kathmandu by Flight to Lukla & trek to Phakding – 2,630m (the guys had some fun with this name – the “Ph” is pronounced “F”.)
I am sure I slept for only an hour, but my room mate, Kent, told me I slept a lot more than that judging from the snoring. “I really was not sleeping”, I said. “I just like to breathe that way!”
We had a 4:30 am. wake-up, and Ram collected us at 5:15 for the airport for our 6 am. departure to Lukla. Our adventure is starting!
We boarded the mini bus and Ram escorted us to the airport on his motorcycle. This time it took barely 20 minutes – very little traffic this early, but still many people walking in all directions in the dark.
We arrived at the airport in the pre-dawn dark, and the place was chaos! How I love the energy of this craziness! We were accosted by a herd of porters, all wanting to carry our bags. We are rushed through security and to the airport tax counter, the check-in counter, through more security, all the while being urged to hurry because “the flight will leave exactly at 6 o’clock”. We hurry and gather at the departure gate excited about departing on the small plane to Lukla.
We really miss our friend Mike Cantlin. This adventure is really his fault. Mike was my tent mate on the Kilimanjaro trek in 2008, and we decided that we needed another adventure, another goal. After Kilimanjaro I wrote in my book Kilimanjaro! that one needs goals, and that my next goal was Aconcagua the highest mountain in South America situated in the Andes in Argentina. A 23,000 foot mountain, I was dissuaded when Mike researched and found out that proportionately as many people die on Aconcagua each year as in the attempt to summit Mt. Everest. Mike suggested that, at our age, Everest Base Camp would be a more appropriate risk. I love adventure, but I do not have a death wish, so we decided on the Everest trek. Unfortunately Mike’s knee surgery did not allow him to join us. Bummer!
This topic of Everest Summit as opposed to Everest BC came up in discussion last night. Al said that he felt Everest summit attempts require some drive, some passion, some extraordinary obsession, and that he felt it was an inappropriate risk. I said, “I am so glad to hear you say that, because I have wondered sometimes if my position on Everest summit was just a cop-out because I am not capable of doing it. I suppose if I judged the risk worth the reward, I would consider it. But I don’t. I always said that treks like Kilimanjaro and Everest Base Camp are adventure. Everest summit, Aconcagua and other extreme endeavors are for me outside my desire for adventure.
3 pm. and we were still sitting in the departure lounge. No word about the weather in Lukla clearing. Conditions at Lukla must be near perfect for planes to land there.
One evening some time ago Mike called me at home in Columbus.
“Willie, are you home?’ he asked.
“Turn on the History channel. They have a show on about the 10 most dangerous airports in the world.”
Well, of course Lukla was featured as the number one most dangerous airport in the world. So our anticipation mounted as we were sitting in the Kathmandu airport hoping we would even get out today.
Until just over 40 years ago the eastern Himalayan region of the Solukhumbu leading to Mt. Everest was inaccessible to most air traffic. The way to reach the heights of the trailhead in Lukla was to travel the road from Kathmandu to Jiri, then hike five days over the rugged lowland hills. In 1964 Sir Edmund Hillary initiated construction of the Lukla airfield (LUA), and from that time the area has been opened up to countless enthused hikers. It is a great convenience to bypass the arduous hike beyond Jiri since the hike beyond Lukla is challenging enough for most. Lukla is now a vibrant and welcoming entryway to the Himalayas.
Finally at 3:45 pm. – no flights to Lukla today.
Landing at Lukla is dangerous, and we were pleased that the authorities take no chances when it comes to the weather. We got up, stiff from sitting on a hard metal chair since 6 am. Hungry and tired we make the trek back to the Hotel Manang. Fortunately we were able to get the rooms of the folks who were stuck at Lukla.
While disappointed, our spirits are high. We have quite come to like the local beer named –what else? – Everest. So, as we contemplate our position and options I said: “I know what we will do. If you can’t climb it, drink it!”
Tired and hungry, we hit the streets of Thamel for libation and dinner, and hit the sack at about 8 pm. Unfortunately Kent and I were both up at 3 am with a stomach problem. Hopefully it is temporary. . Kent says it is “healthy diarrhea”.
We had a flight booked for 11:00 am that morning. If this did not work out our last chance would be to go by helicopter the next day…
3rd November 2011 – Thursday – Day 03
We have been up since 3 am. Going to bed at 8 pm. was maybe not such a good idea!
Kent went downstairs for an internet connection, and I liay in bed wishing I could sleep another hour. I got my computer out and edited a short video – a “trailer” of our adventure. Fun!
After breakfast, still making frequent short trips to the restroom, we settled in to wait for the word on the day’s travels. Ram called and informed us that there were no flights to Lukla today. We had only one option now and that is to go by helicopter tomorrow. This would entail an additional two-hour hike just to get to Lukla, but we all enthusiastically vote YES for this option. This is why we were here. We came to go to Everest Base Camp, and nothing except the weather could stop us!
I took an Imodium. Definitely a miracle drug and an essential on all trips!
Hope to post POSITIVE news tomorrow…