Day 1: Lukla and Phakding

The hotel lobby calls our room at 5 am and reminds us that we must leave for the airport immediately. Madhav and Ngima are already waiting in the lobby. Rahul and I hurry down to the lobby, and we leave the hotel at 5:15 am. We experience no delay on the way as the traffic is very light. We reach the airport in about twenty minutes.

As we hurry to check in, Madhav adorns us with marigold garlands, something he had intended to — but could not — do yesterday while receiving us at the airport. The airline company does not allow us to carry the garland on the airplane, however.

The airport is chaotic as a number of morning flights are taking off to various destinations. Travelers prefer early morning flights because the mountain weather is relatively calm in the morning and could unexpectedly turn bad later in the day, causing flight cancellations. Madhav has booked us the first flight to Lukla.

We check in at the Tara Air counter. I am concerned that our unlabeled sleeping bags, loosely tied to the duffel bags may not reach Lukla. Ngima assures me that they would reach. We wait at the terminal for the flight to be announced with other travelers, many of them appearing to be from Europe or America. I eye other travelers with trepidation and spot several in my age group.

The flight is announced, and we board a bus to go to the aircraft. We wait in the bus as the pilot inspects the aircraft and our luggage is loaded.

Tara Air aircraft being readied for the flight to Lukla

The aircraft is a Twin Otter DHC-6/400, a Canadian 19-passenger STOL (Short Takeoff and Landing) utility aircraft. It is small, full and cramped with passengers seated in rows of three. The air hostess is friendly and welcoming. She distributes candies, and cotton for plugging the ears.

A friendly Nepali man turns back from the seat in front of us and asks:

You are from India, deep south. Right?
Yes, I am originally from Kerala.
I guessed it from your accent. Are you going all the way to the basecamp or turning back from Namche?
We will try to go all the way to the basecamp.

He has been to the basecamp 30-40 times and shows me a smart phone photo of Mount Everest taken during one of those trips. It’s peeking from behind other mountains and does not measure up to the Mount Everest in my imagination. He asks whether we have a guide. His advice: listen to your guide; take your time, it is not a contest; and drink plenty of water.

The tiny aircraft is flying between and well below towering mountain peaks. Fortunately, the weather is calm. There is no turbulence, and the visibility is good.

About forty-five minutes later, the edge of the runway at the Tensing-Hillary airport in Lukla appears into view suddenly. The aircraft traverses the 1600 ft runway that slopes up at a 12% grade. The pilot successfully makes the ninety degree turn at the end of the runway and brings the aircraft to a gentle stop.

This airport was named as the number one extreme airport in the world by an H2-channel show. The challenges include fog, turbulence, wind shear, short runway length, high elevation, proximity of mountain peaks, and a mountain weather prone to unexpected changes. The edge of the runway is about 2000 ft above a valley. Once the pilot decides to land there is no turning back in the thin air, and there is no instrument landing system to assist the pilot. Perhaps because of the suddenly rising fog, an aircraft crashed in 2008 killing 18 people on board, mostly German tourists.

The Lukla airport opened in 1964, realizing a vision of Edmund Hillary, who with Sherpa Tenzing Norgay became the first to reach Everest summit. Following that ascent at age 33, Hillary devoted much of the rest of his life to helping the Sherpa people of Nepal. It was clear to him that an airstrip would be required for transporting materials needed for the schools he wanted to build for educating Sherpa children. The airstrip was built by Sherpas. They cut shrubs, broke stones, and paved the airstrip during the day. At night around a hundred of them, invigorated by sherpa beer, walked up and down the airstrip to tamp down the stones and to flatten the airstrip. The asphalted runway was constructed only in 2001.

The friendly Nepali man tells me that he and his Nepali colleague are taking their friends from US Jackie and Charlie to view the mountains. They will take a helicopter flight from Lukla to a place with a good view of the mountains and return to Kathmandu later in the day. This is part of Jackie and Charlie’s honeymoon trip. Jackie is beaming, good-natured, and visibly excited. Her good nature and excitement are boundless and spills over to her companions. Charlie is quietly fidgeting with his camera.  When the airplane door opens, Jackie wishes us good luck with our trek and hurries out with her companions to catch their helicopter flight. I wish her well, perhaps silently.

I have the impression that the weather may not be cold in Lukla because Madhav had told us to carry shorts. However, we step out of the aircraft into freezing cold; the temperature is perhaps around 30 oF. We zip up our light jackets and quickly don our caps. We ask Ngima whether we should take out the down jackets from our duffel bags. Ngima assures us that it will warm up as soon as the sun starts shining.

Our flight is a half hour late. On our way to the terminal building we pass passengers that have already formed a line near the runway to board the return flight.

Ngima introduces us to his cousin and our porter Pramod. They have already collected our baggage, including our sleeping bags. The steep climb from the airport to a restaurant nearby foretells what’s to come later in the day. We go to Paradise Lodge & Restaurant for breakfast: scrambled eggs, toast and tea. We compliment the lodge owner’s wife for her good spoken English.

The trek starts around 8:30 am after breakfast. We stop at a bank to convert dollars into Nepalese rupees for expenses on the trek. Our trekking fee covers lodging, breakfast, lunch and dinner. But we must pay for bottled water, soft drinks, beer, snacks, wi-fi, and charging electronic gadgets.

We go past a check post, and report all our electronic gadgets: iPad, iPhones, and GoPros. I ask whether there is a charge for carrying photographic equipment. Ngima tells me that the authorities want us to report our gadgets only to help them in case an item is reported lost or stolen during the trek. I don’t understand how the record will help, however.

Located next to the check post is the National Luminary Pasang Lhamu Memorial Gate, named after Pasang Lhamu Sherpa, who in 1993 became the first Nepalese woman to summit Mount Everest. Sadly, she perished during her descend because the weather turned bad. (On 16 May 1975, Junko Tabei of Japan became the first woman to summit Mount Everest.)

Trek entrance
National luminary Pasang Lhamu memorial gate

Through the gate we enter the Lukla – Everest Base Camp Trekking Trail. My practice walks have not prepared me at all for this trail with its steep up hill climbs, steep down hill descends, and rocks of various sizes strewn all over. I realize that if I am not careful I could twist my ankle and end my trek right then on the first day. I learn not to look beyond four feet in front of me, most of the time. Otherwise, the seemingly endless trail in front of me disheartens me. Also, I am concerned about tripping on the rocks.

I mentally thank whoever recommended a good pair of trekking shoes for that great advice. Also I thank whoever recommended the trekking poles. I am using them for the first time and realize that they are not only knee savers, but also life savers. They are a tremendous help to reduce the stress on the knees, especially while going downhill. They also help propel me up hill. (My left wrist has healed enough that it can bear the weight.) More importantly, I am able to steady myself while walking the trail strewn with rocks and loose gravel. Without their support I could lose my footing and fall off the trail.

The trails are etched on the sides of enormous mountains. The outer edge of the trail could drop off hundreds of feet, making sections of the trail treacherous. When you stand on the trail and look around, there is much to take in. You can at once feel your insignificance as well as your luck being a part of the breath-taking awesomeness that surrounds you:

And I was some of the mud that got to sit up and look around.
Lucky me, lucky mud.
I, mud, sat up and saw what a nice job God had done.
Nice going, God.
Nobody but you could have done it, God! I certainly couldn’t have.
I feel very unimportant compared to You.

― Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle

After an hour’s walk we reach a chorten in the middle of the trail. Chorten (Tibetan) or stupa (Hindi) is a heap of stones, some of them inscribed with the Buddhist mantra Om Mani Padme Hum. I ask Ngima about the meaning of the mantra. He says wisely that it means Om Namah Sivaya, which he knows that I will understand as a Hindu.  Later I learn that a literal translation of the mantra does not reveal its deeper meaning about the nature of suffering and, as Dalai Lama explains, how the union of compassion and wisdom enables one to transform into the pure exalted body, speech, and mind of a Buddha. This is hard to comprehend at first. Then I realize that this is not unlike the mathematical equations I use as a scientist. One equation, for example, contains three terms, and the meaning of each term can be readily stated as the time-derivative of density and so on. But that by itself does not reveal the equation’s meaning that mass is neither created nor destroyed or the even deeper meaning that the laws of physics do not change with time itself (according to Noether’s theorem, if you are curious).

We see many prayer wheels with mantras written on them. Turning the prayer wheel is believed to have the same meritorious effect as chanting the mantras.

Ngima explains that we must always keep the chorten on our right hand side while passing it. I get distracted while listening to Ngima. As I take the next step down, I slip and fall awkwardly and unwisely get up immediately. It is a potentially dangerous fall; I could have twisted my ankle or broken a bone. Fortunately, I am not hurt. Ngima immediately suggests that we take a break. We stop at a teahouse close by, to drink tea.

Soon we see a train of dzopkyo or dzo, a cross-breed between yak and cow. In the train there are 8 or 9 dzos, all of them wearing around their necks bells that announce their impending arrival. The leader dzo knows which way to go. The others follow it. The herdsman walks behind the train and calls out commands to keep the train moving. Ngima tells us to move to the uphill side of the trail, stop and wait until the train passes. He pushes away the dzos that occasionally come too close to us. They have sharp horns and could hurt us, if they take a swing at us.

We encounter more dzo trains and donkey trains on the way. The trains are carrying provisions for people and the teahouse lodges uphill: cooking gas, kerosene, rice, etc. The donkey trains cannot go higher than Namche Bazaar. On uphill climbs, occasionally a donkey would stop for a moment, perhaps to catch a breath. Its beautiful eyes seem to search for the place where to take the next step and continue the journey.

Porters pass us carrying loads in oversized baskets called doko, wide at the top and narrow at the bottom. They carry the doko on their back and support it by a head strap called namlo. They appear to possess superhuman powers for carrying heavy loads that can exceed their body weight. Furthermore, they do this feat on long, steep up hill climbs, at high elevations, where the air is thin. Not surprisingly, they are the most energy-efficient load-carriers in the world, per scientists from the Université Catholique de Louvain in Belgium. Part of the reason for the high-efficiency is thought to be their rice diet, which makes the CO2-production to oxygen-consumption ratio low – just below 1. As the porters walk up hill with heavy loads, they bend almost sixty degrees to the vertical, supporting themselves with a short, stout T-shaped walking stick called tokma.

Ngima tells us that many Sherpa names are based on the day of the week the child is born: Ngima is Sunday; Dawa, Monday; Migmar, Tuesday; Lhagpa, Wednesday; Phurba, Thursday; Pasang, Friday; and Penba, Saturday. There is an Ang in front of Ngima’s name, which he explains is similar to a Bahadur or Singh found at the end of many Nepali or Indian names.

The basecamp trail goes through the Solukhumbu District, home to Sherpas. Ngima’s family is originally from lower Solukhumbu. Sherpas migrated from Tibet some six hundred years ago and speak a Tibetic language. Sherpas follow Buddhism, whereas the majority of Nepalese are Hindus. Ngima tells us that Hindus and Buddhists live in harmony.

We see one tourist with a vacant expression on her face going toward Lukla on the back of a mule. A sherpa girl is tending the mule, walking by its side. Ngima thinks that the tourist is probably going back because she became sick and could not continue the trek.

Ngima gets a call on his cell phone. He tells us that the call is from his wife who is working in cypress. I mistake cypress for some company or agency in Kathmandu. No, it is Cypress the country, Ngima clarifies. His wife is a household worker in Cypress, working 24 hours a day, earning €500 per month. Ngima is 32 and she is 30.They have a three-year old daughter, Choten, who lives with Ngima and his parents in Kathmandu. Ngima didn’t seem happy about the situation. “What to do, he says, “the economic conditions are not good in Nepal.” His wife is from Darjeeling in India and studied English there. She was working at a school for small children. When she lost her job, she could not find another one in Nepal. She will be back after three years.

We come to the first suspension bridge on our trek, the Mudslide bridge. The flat trail approaching the bridge is covered by loose, brown dirt. I feel a moment of joy, seeing what appears to be familiar terrain for me. But I trip and fall. Hidden under the loose dirt are ledges, which I could not see. I am not injured as the dirt is soft. The bridge is swaying as we walk across. Ngima helps me cross the bridge. He doesn’t want me to hold the handrails as the ends of the wires wound around them are sharp and may cut my hand.

Now an arduous up hill trail comes up. I focus only on my next step, not looking further ahead on the trail. It is important to ensure that my next step is sure. I use the trekking poles to find spaces between the rocks for a soft landing and to propel me uphill.

A large group of trekkers, mostly American teens in bright red jackets, talking excitedly, comes behind us. We give way, and the group quickly walks past us, like a fast train.

We take a second break. Phakding is now only one hour away. It’s a steady climb from here on.

We have been walking in parallel to the Dudh Koshi river for a while, but could not see it as it is a short distance away from the trail. But now the river flows almost perpendicular to the trail before turning and becoming parallel to the trail. Now, we get to see its milky white and blue waters, gurgling over rocks.

Dudh Koshi River

About four hours after leaving Lukla, we reach Budha Lodge in Phakding. The climb is more arduous than I had expected, an expectation based on the faulty reasoning that Phakding is at a lower elevation than Lukla. I reprove myself for forgetting the thermodynamics principle that work is a path function; that is work (or effort) depends on the path between starting and ending points, not on the elevations of those points. There are few straight paths on this mountain trail; it goes up one mountain, down to a valley, up another mountain and so on. My apprehension about tomorrow’s trek increases. If the “easy” trek is this hard, what about trekking on the feared “endless steps” to Namche Bazaar?

We go to our room, on the second floor, taking a steep staircase that could almost qualify as a ladder. The amenities in the lodge are limited as I had expected, but the lodge is cleaner than I had thought. The porter is unloading our bags. We leave our back packs in the room and go down to the dining room for lunch. Ngima brings us the menu and takes the order, writing it down in a notebook. We pick the standard Nepali fare Dal Bhat (lentils and rice) with vegetables and a papadam, which costs about four dollars.

After lunch Rahul goes out for taking pictures and sightseeing. I come back to the room, remove the sweaty clothes, wear shorts and a sweater. The room is cold. The bed and comforter are invitingly clean. I crawl under the comforter, shivering uncontrollably. I worry about the cold at night.

The dinner is served at 6:30 pm. I order garlic soup and fried rice; Rahul, a noodle dish. Ngima tells us that garlic soup is a good antidote for high elevation. After dinner, Ngima brings us grapes and a banana, fruits that he brought with him from Kathmandu. This is going to be a daily practice.

After dinner we pick up a conversation with Ngima and the lodge employee Santosh. A middle aged gentleman man joins the conversation. I had seen him earlier in the day, walking around the lodge with a pair of pliers in his hands, and had taken him to be a handy man. He talks about his trips to Alaska, Boston, Quebec and other places in a good English accent. I am curious about what took him to those places. He says that he trains people for mountain climbing. Then I learn that he is Dorjee Sherpa, who has summited Everest six times, and has appeared in a 1996 IMAX movie about climbing Mount Everest, as a member of the movie crew. On the dining room wall is a framed newspaper article with the headline “Bernard Voyer à l’assaut du sommet du grandiose.” At the bottom of the article is Dorjee’s photo and a tribute to him entitled “un guide émerveillé” (a marvelous guide). Hanging next to the newspaper article is a photo of Mount Everest autographed “to dear friend Dorjee” by Bernard Voyer. Dorjee is originally from Lukla, but built this lodge on his wife’s property located in Phakding. On April 16th he is going to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.

Last April when an avalanche — triggered by the earth quake — struck the basecamp, Dorjee was eating lunch with twenty others in a tent there. The avalanche killed seventeen people at the basecamp (and five people at other locations on the mountain). He and his companions in the tent were unhurt. It was the wind, which accompanied the avalanche, that knocked down people on the rocks, injuring or killing them. A Peruvian climber from Dorjee’s tent ran out in panic. She was knocked down by the wind and hit the rocks face down. Fortunately, she survived, although with broken front teeth.

Before Dorjee told us this story, I had not heard about the wind that came with the avalanche. Later I read Eric Simonson’s (International Mountain Guides) description in a blog: “The earthquake caused a huge block of ice to fall from the ice cliff in the saddle between Pumori and Lingtren: This saddle is at 6150m and EBC is 5360m, so the difference is 790m (or about 2,591 ft). The tons and tons of falling ice going this vertical distance created a huge aerosol avalanche and accompanying air blast that hit the upper part of Everest BC and blew many tents across the Khumbu Glacier towards the lower Icefall”.

On our way to the room we see Santosh watching on TV a live 20-20 cricket match between New Zealand and India.  New Zealand is batting and the score is 54 runs for three wickets with 11.2 overs remaining. Santosh is hopeful that the Kiwis will be contained within 120 runs. Then Indian batsmen will be able to lead their team to victory. Santosh has confidence in the Indian batsmen Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Virat Kohli.

Santosh studied maths and economics in Kathmandu and is now working in Buddha lodge. He has a good opinion about President Obama’s good interaction with the rest of the world. “How is Prime Minister Modi? Seems all talk and no action,” he asks. “Rising through the BJP ranks and beating Rahul Gandhi is by itself a gift to democracy and India, even if he ends up doing nothing else,” I observe.

My worry about the cold at night is unfounded. We put the sleeping bag on the bed, and cover it with a comforter. And the fleece liner inside the sleeping bag provides another layer of insulation. A little while after I crawl inside the liner, I become comfortably warm. But if the warmth inside the sleeping bag makes you forget that the room is actually very cold and touch anything metallic like an iPad, then you are in for a shock.

Lukla            8,950′ (2728 m)
Phakding    8,661′ (2640 m)

Fitbit statistics

No of steps Miles walked Calories burned Floors climbed
17,303 7.81 2,766 219

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