Katmandu to Phakding, Nepal
Dust fills the shuttle as opposing traffic careens inches away. With Katmandu airport closed for runway resurfacing, we must drive four hours to tiny Ramechhap for a flight to Lukla and the start of the trek to Mount Everest base camp. I glare at the back of the drivers head. “Turn on the air conditioning, I can’t breathe!” Every Nepalese driver says the air is broken. Is it? Or is this a canny way to conserve fuel?
Tepid air pumps out of the vents as the vehicle zigs and zags around sharp curves. I look back at team members squished into the back. Four hours of torture for a 12 minute flight. We move like metronomes in constant motion. No one has upchucked yet.
Peeling my sweaty body out of the van, I step into bedlam. Vans are parked willy-nilly, disgorging hundreds of East Indian, American and European trekkers. My team moves like loose pin balls around vendors hawking fresh fruit and drinks, following a porter hauling our bags to the tarmac. Planes roar nonstop, engines running hot. I’m told that seventy flights a day carry travelers to Lukla and the start of the Everest trek. 70 flights x max 15 per plane=1,050 people per day in peak season? Please tell me they aren’t all heading to the same trail.
When our gear is dragged towards a plane, our group marches to the aircraft. There aren’t any announcements. Pay attention!
We aren’t turned away and soon the twin engine plane soars over mountain terrain latticed with fields that seem to hang free, ready to tumble down the slope. I don’t see a single car. Villages and homes pepper the highest terrain with snaking rivers far below. Everest stands majestic with Lhotse to the right and I peer at soaring icefields, trying to identify the peaks of Sagamantha National Park before clouds shroud them once again.
Steep mountains hem the plane in a ribbon of airspace as we approach the most dangerous airport in the world (Lukla). Looking through the cockpit windshield, we approach a cliff topped by a short runway with an 11 degree uphill slope. It ends at a wall of rocks. A twisted heap of metal from last week’s collision of a helicopter and a plane glows in the sunlight. Exiting the aircraft, I watch planes essentially do “wheelies” on takeoff. The pilots keep their feet on the brake, throttling up RPM’s, before speeding downhill. ( below: video plays correctly)
Afternoon clouds are building, and I’m impatient to get my boots dirty, but first there’s an orientation and then a meal. Today will be our shortest and (we’re told) the easiest day. Our guide replies “First, the trail is downhill and then slowly uphill.” This is the first, but not last time that our flatland births won’t jive with super-hero Sherpa lung capacity and oxygen rich blood.
We knew that we’d walk village-to-village, on uneven and often steep rock steps or over sloped dirt paths to reach the first night (2000′ higher) at the See You Inn of Phakding. Somehow we miss the fine detail of descending 1,000′ and then hiking up and down for a total elevation gain of 4000′. At least that’s what a runners app map reports.
We quickly encounter our first Yak team bearing heavy shipments, but humans also carry elephantine cargo loads. One man struggles with a freezer strapped to his back, and I feel guilt burn in my chest. Men remain beasts of burden in many places around the globe, but I question is this the price of tourism? Who will take care of them when their backs are broken?
Everything is lugged on this trail. I imagine someone struggling to carry the weight of a toilet for my soft backside. Maybe a pit bathroom isn’t so bad. My privileged life begins to accept a larger world view.
It’s spring. Rhododendron trees bloom white, pink and deep red. Fields sprout tender shoots of garlic, spinach and cabbage. Bird’s sing in the trees. We enter and exit colorful villages, passing Buddhist stupas, prayer wheels and Mani stones as I whisper mantra’s that race to God’s ears.
Gorgeous children play, collecting flowers, saying “hello” in English, or blowing up balloons with mischief glinting in their eyes.
During this first day, I halt, facing a phobia. Swinging bridges. Hear me out, please? It’s wrong for bridges to sway in the wind and worse when yak teams carry tons of supplies over the same precarious crossing. I whimper like a baby on the first one. Sherpa Chering tells me, “Only five more to go.” He’s trying to be kind and not laugh.
At the end of the day, I shiver in the unheated bedroom and hurry to zip my sleeping bag. On reflection, the sacred Himalayan mountains have taught me many things today.
- Live in the moment. Not six hours down the trail.
- Enjoy my surroundings—sights, colors, people, animals.
- Take a deep breath and overcome fears.
- Compassion surrounds me as team members offer encouragement or a steady hand. We are becoming a family. A tribe.