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Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Trekking in the Sagamartha Region # 1: Our Flight

We had to start the trek with a little excitement. Up at 4am for a 6:30am flight from Kathmandu to Lukla. No problem. But then the guy who was supposed to pick us for the airport up doesn’t show. So we’re a little behind, but OK – taxis are outside and at this time in the morning, it is a fast route to the airport. Then disaster strikes: I’ve left my cowboy hat, my prided Lhasa hat, is the hotel lobby. I brought it specifically for the trekking and high-altitude UV and I very childishly just really want it. So snap decision: I’m going to try to go back for it. It’s 5:40 exactly for a 6:30 flight…15 minuts trip each way, but the driver assures me we can do it in 10. Plenty of time! So I’m going to risk it and go back for it. Silly of course, illogical and risky, but there it is. I believe I can make it so I am going to try.

With extensive bullying of his horn, generous use of back-alleys and speeds of the type my parents surely do not want to know about (the driving really doesn’t bother me, an adaptation from having been in India), we make it true to his word: round trip in 22 minutes exact. Back at the airport 6:02. No problem! We had plenty of time. This isn’t exactly an international flight. Whew! First adventure over and hopefully our last real gaff.

The 25 minute flight from Kathmandu to Lukla is great. An 18-seater, we each get a window. The flight is, in a couple words, casual and dramatic. If you have one of those ingrained fears of flying, then you might find this a bad experience, but luckily not being afflicted with such things, I thought it was great fun. The security check is very limited. We are not assigned seats, but each stoop and wander up the aisle in whatever order we enter. They pile any excess bags loose in the back and the plane starts down the runway as soon as the door is closed. There is no, fasten seatbelt notice, no captain's reassuring message or pre-recorded safety announcement mimed by the smiling air stewards. Instead, the pre-flight checklist consisted of the stewardess handing out candies to suck on and cotton balls to put in your ears (or the reverse, according to your tastes). They trust you to buckle your own seatbelt (or not, according to your tastes). And we’re off just like that.

Looking through the windows at the mountains you can imagine why they might not bother with safety checklists: given the proximity of the surrounding mountains and our height off the valley floor at times, we don’t have far to crash. We fly through clouds much of the way, but as we enter the Solukhumbu region, it clears and there to our left are the mountains, above us and shocking close off our port wing. It is a very odd, but very cool feeling flying through a valley looking out at someone’s house at eye level as if you’re in a bus driving by, rocky pinnacles above you and heavily terraced hill-fields below. We’re all glued to the windows. Then there is a gasp through the plane and everyone on the port side flumbles for their cameras. Rising like iceburgs above the sea of peaks are our first glimpses of the Himalayan giants, all white and gleaming. We’d come to know their beauty well, but here they were like mirages, so amazingly taller than anything else we'd seen.

Lukla AirportLukla appears in front of us, amazing nestled on a step of the valley backed by a headwall of peaks. Looking out the front windshield, we approach the town head on rather than from above and that plays havoc with my perception of what a normal landing should look like. The runway is short, uphill and backed by a natural rock wall, an emergency braking aid I assume. Not for the feint of heart or those with overactive imaginations. But the landing is super-smooth and at the low speed approach and uphill assist, we slow and are parked and out of the jet in 2 minutes flat. Literally in the time we take a couple pics of the airport and our new home for 2 weeks, we’ve got our packs, our guide has met us and we’re good to go. Oh if all flights were this easy!

Things are working out fine. My trekking partner, Harsh and I get along well and have a fair bit in common. He and I met over the Internet (I know, sounds like I’m introducing my date) on the Thorntree forum. He’s a native from Bangalore, not too far from me, so we chatted and figured we could trek together. He’s easy going too and loves photography. I covet his nice digital SLR camera. It doesn't however "accidently" find its way into my stuff over the trip. Our guide, Shreeram (sometimes ‘Shree’, but usually ‘Ram’ for short), is also easy going, smiles easily and tends to break into singing with little provocation. He likes his work, meeting all sorts of people and impressively speaks about 6 languages and can exchange pleasantries in several more. He was the chatty guide among those we met, always asking questions, joking or helping anyone in the guesthouses we stayed at. I also really liked that whenever we happened upon a good vista or the clouds rolled back to display a hidden wonder, he would exclaim, “wow!” displaying his love for the beauty despite having seen it all dozens of times. He carries about 1/3 of Harsh’s gear plus his minimal baggage, but I don’t bother. I’m already nicely packed and am fine with the weight, light compared with what I’ve often carried (no tent, minimal water, no food, no skis, no heavy crampons, ice axe or rope).

I’m happy with our setup of having a guide rather than or as well as a porter where we’re a team, not a tour group. Makes us more actively involved in the trip and of course, for me, a little hard work is part of the experience and value. As much as I know it helps the local economy, I cannot be comfortable with someone carrying what I can carry, my own cultural upbringing and a key component of my enjoyment, so having a guide is a nice balance. And Shreeram is a pleasure and improves our interaction with the locals and region so it works out great. I champion that everyone has their own strengths, abilities, desires for comfort and tolerances so don’t let me stop you from hiring a porter or 6 or going it cheap and just trekking without anyone – to each their own – but the guide route is my recommendation. I’m happy to provide contact info for the Agent, Puru, in Kathmandu as I highly recommend him and our guide Ram as top.

First trek view from LuklaGetting off the plane, putting on the familiar weight of the backpack, breathing in the dry, pure air, I am immediately struck with the feeling of home and contentment. I love the mountains – they are truly in my bones and soul. The scrubby, rocky, treed and alpine landscapes before us remind me strongly of Tibet and BC’s drier Interior (e.g. Lillooet and Chilcotin regions) and I have wonderful memories of both. Every range is different, yet all high and remote places share a sense that they are so much greater and larger than we are, that we are privileged to be able to share the space so close to the sky.

Here we are, Harsh and I grin together: Sagamartha National Park, the Solukhumbu Distict, the Everest Region. Call it what you will. We’ll be calling it home for the next 2 weeks. Uphill we go!

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