High as a kite

Trip Start Dec 14, 2007
Trip End Jun 01, 2010

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Flag of Nepal  ,
Thursday, June 5, 2008

There are those who age as the years pass, and those who grow younger.

A year before kicking around Kathmandu, and slowly getting the ducks in a row to depart my anomalous Hong Kong village fishing shack home of 11 years, my esteemed employer, the South China Morning Post newspaper, carries a peculiar fashion shoot of 50-plus je ne sais quois and captioning this grey to be a groomed 60.

It seems this week, at least according to birth certificate, passport, ID cards and vows of my immediate progenitors, that I actually turn 50. Don't
believe everything you read in the press.

There was no grand plan to location or celebration, but if there was going to be a birthday to wing with a flourish, this might be the one.

Order two bottles of Dom Perignon to be flown in with a visiting friend from Hong Kong's duty free, and book myself a sunrise flip past the tip of Mt Everest. Turns out courier thinks Dom cute overkill and arrives with a brace of Moet instead. One simply can't rely on the help anymore. So a B-grade breakfast rather than the A course. But what the hell, next year I'll be 40.

Rise at 4.30am for a taxi to the Everest flyby. Across the still city, the dust in the streets lies inert, waiting to be kicked into song and dance by the first flock of vehicles to bump and grind down the knobbly roads.

Buddha Air awaits. A sleek Beech 1900D 19-seater. Play the percentages: I wager Buddha Air doesn’t have a dispensation to crash in Nepal. Two single rows of seats line the inside of the pressurized aircraft. Window seats all. Around 6am, load up, buckle up, seal the doors, and up to around 8,000m for the up and down, turn-around one-hour spin.

As the aircraft rises out of the green valleys, a line of white cloud hides the sun and famous mountain peaks. Hit 3,000-4,000 metres, over the inversion layer and the highest horizon on the planet reveals itself, a dragon’s back of white mountain tops, east to west as far as the curve of the earth allows the eye to see. They sparkle and sheen, almost prance in the very first rays of the south-eastern sun. Thin trills of white cloud whisp around the higher peaks, solid thunks of rounder, heavier stuff lurk and linger in the valleys.

Champagne calls, the cork pops, and more than one passenger shoots an involuntary glance. What just broke?

A plastic cup, 'borrowed' from the airport cafe suffices as a celebratory
chalice. A backdrop of legendary peaks, the inpenetrable border between Nepal and Tibet. At round 6.20an, Everest comes into view, pretty much eyeball to eyeball with Sagarmatha (Goddess of the sky, as Everest in known in Nepal). Raise a toast. The alcohol bubbles (at near jet-stream altitude)
come on line. High as a kite at the top of the world.

The aircraft arcs a slow 1800 and the other line of passengers get their view. An invite into the cockpit gives a wider vista, not confined to little eggy windows. A rear sun frames the valleys more starkly. This snow white is whiter than white. More like arc light white, super bright white. But it’s a gentle, loving, warm whiter than white, curiously benign, without hint of its potentially deadly spite.

The jet’s nose dips, the bottle is empty. Armchair mountaineering at its best.

Disembark and hit the deck running, directly to board an old Dornier heading   back in the same direction, this time under the clouds – destination Lukla, the most dangerous airport in the world. Three months after I visit, 18 die.

Two-thirds of the way down the 'greater' valley from Everest, it is the furthest one can can fly into the Himalayas, a seven-day walk north from the closest bus stop, Jiri. Bank into the valley, and fly straight at a mountain wall. Where the hell is the runway? Bump, a hell of a bump, and reverse-thrusters scream. The aircraft judders to a halt after about 300m. On to the tarmac, disembark, look back and behold a 450m runway running about 150 down from the horizontal.

Ten minute turnaround, full, absolute max taps and a downhill charge. Lift-off 50m before the end. But lots of place to play, as there is a 2km valley hole down beyond the end of the strip.

The town of some 1,000 people has no wheeled vehicles, except in the flight precinct.
Not a bicycle, trolley, or wheelbarrow.
Not a sound.

Hand-hewn stone buildings, walls 45cm thick, line 500m of stone path. Thin, stone-walled trails lead off the main road, the only road.

Not a one-horse town, this is a 100 yak town.

This is Everest central.

You want to climb Everest, walk to Everest, odds are you will fly in here, load up, walk for 10 days to Base Camp, do your thing, walk back and fly out. It is a settlement comprising a few dozen homesteads, a string of lodges, and stores of mostly second-hand mountain and trekking gear. Everything is flown in. Everything is at least triple the price.

You don’t have to fly, you can walk in. There’s the Jiri for those who want to 'do the whole Everest trail', but word is this  section carries a skewed quotient of pain and pleasure. Up, down, up, down, up, down over a series of ridges rather than along any valley structure. And the view doesn’t hold a patch to the higher climes, I’m told. The silver lining is that by the time you reach Lukla, you’re acclimatizing, and well into your stride, and on the next stretch will shame the Lukla fly-ins.

Lukla is the Aguas Calientes of Machu Pichu, the little town at the bottom of the hill you generally have to pass to get 'up there'.

But this is a village of harder men, and women. Much harder.

You get to Aguas Calientes by train.
If you're a local, here you walk – everywhere.

There is no flat ground except for the one path through town. The rest is only up, or down. Many paths are rough-laid with slabbish, dark grey rock, interspersed with rubble-rock. Oddly they offer traction rather than slip.

This is the lead-up to monsoon, the end of the dry season, the summiting window. Everest was first peaked in 29 May, 1953. Now a large penant hanging outside the restaurant next to the Tenzing Hillary Airport celebrates the 24 May, 2008 summitting success of the Cordoba Expedition, 55 years later. Other signs signal other successes.

The single and only road through Lukla reeks of hardness, harder than the stone. For the men (mostly) and women that challenge Everest (notwithstanding the modern commercial novices) seem of rocklike proportion. The Sherpas that inhabit the village are granite incarnate. Smallish men in stature, of seemingly preternatural strength. They are the carriers, the guides, the backs, and legs of most expeditions. Without them, 85% of the successful ascents could not have taken place, and probably 90% of casual treks around the mountains and valleys would not occur.

With bowed heads, a carrying strap broadly biting into the top of their foreheads, they carry. Their lives do depend on it. Baskets on their backs. Laden baskets. Half a cubic metre of firewood. Half a cubic metre of
water is 500kg. Call the firewood 120kg. With backs anywhere down to parallel with the ground, these men trudge, trudge, slowly, immaculate in footstep, up, up, step by step. Or down, down. For miles and kilometres and valleys and ridges and other measuring devices known only to men who carry such loads. Who barely seem to break a step. Their thighs bulge, as if about to pop, as their rubber thongs shlop from stone to stone.

This is the path to the top of the world. All those who have been to the top have laid their boots along it, leaving it reeking with bravery, strength, fear, defeat, victory, stupidity, death, determination, blood, broken bodies and more death. I ponder my frailty in the face of such endeavour.

Word is Everest is not the most technical of climbs. Rather a very long, very hard, very, very dangerous walk requiring the ultimate in stamina, combined with climbing prowess when required. At least along the commonest, 'easiest' South Col route – 'easiest' here measured somewhere in the scales of alchemy. Almost impossible, say some.

If one did 1,000 squats, push-ups, step-ups, and walked up and down 1,000 steps every day for the next 10 years, would that make you ready?

I sit, quietly in a restaurant corner, and humbly listen to a conversation, unobtrusively. A group of ambulance drivers from Australia discuss their hike, with two 14-year old sons, to Base Camp, from which the final push is made up Everest. It is a bit over 6,000m. They discuss how some turned back when the altitude got too much for one of the lads. They discuss their altitude and oxygen problems in serious medical terms.

One looks at a lone man, sitting apart, and asks his opinion.

It transpires the lone, still man has just completed his 3rd successful ascent. A New Zealander, now living in Alaska, having spent some apprenticeship in Antarctica, some kind of human snowmobile. He does not exude natural hardness –  medium to slight build. He speaks slowly, clearly, and answers all the questions fully and politely. The 5,000m line is an altitude sickness threshold, he advises, and explains it can be "pushed through" with a 2-step forward 1-step backward technique, to slowly adjust the body to the next big leap.

US$60,000 is what it takes to get up Everest, with his unnamed company. And that can go up to US$100,000 if you want "higher-flow oxygen bottles, or extra porters". To "qualify" you need to have peaked two 6,000m mountains, and have a fair history of mountaineering skills.

Thank you for asking, thank you for answering, he returns to a small laptop. Not some backwood mountaineering neanderthal.  A careful man, taking notes, writing up trips, smiling quietly to himself. In the street he would look like an unshaven Sunshine Coast beach bum. He keeps his steel comfortably to himself.

What had he learnt? How did he get better? "I learn to conserve my energy, I learn about movements of my body on the mountain that do not take as much energy as another man's movements. This gives me an edge,
it is what a guide needs – to take up the slack sometimes, to drive the others on."

I wonder how hard one must be to reach to top of Everest – solo. Then I wonder how hard it is to sail around the world – solo. Who is the tougher, the harder, for it is in this village, on the side of this mountain that these
men live.

Years of honing the body for a one-month assault on a mountain top.

Years of honing sailing skills for months and months of solitude at sea.

Groups walk down the hills, into the village, after days or weeks on the mountainsides, desperately seeking warmth, fresh food, new company, a flight out.

One man, tall, 6'8" or so, in parachute jumpsuit, looms into focus. Odd. He lops, not lopes, nor trudges, or walks and never strides. One long angular knee pushes forward, followed by a booted foot, and a waving
hiking stick. The bodily rhythm seems to have gone from him, yet his body has a kind of unsynchopated orchestration. It ambulates forward, uncomfortably, a rhythm of an unnatural kind. But his face! Absolutely singular in gaze. Forward. Through the village. Past the dogs, yaks, men, women,
children, unwavering. Lost. Lost deep inside himself. He seems to be walking because he cannot remember to do anything else. Each hiking stick, flailing appendages that somehow come down correctly angled on odd-shaped boulders, maintains his balance. Ungainly, he floats past.

He carries only a light pack. The porter, the man that carries the load, had passed unnoticed. Was he waiting ahead, standing in a doorway at some point, waiting to step out and say "stop, stop. It is over"?

The morning of the flight out, the cloud descends. The mist descends. No flights. Sitting drinking interminable cups of coffee next to the airport, waiting for a hole in the cloud. The following day, the same thing. Internet cafes charge 20 times the price of Kathmandu. Not a realistic, long term option.
Bottles of water are 4 times the price.

Sitting. Waiting. All the online weather forecasts say eight more days of rain.
More mountaineers arrive, more trekkers walk in. Lodges bulge. Mud squelches. There is mud everywhere. Dry soil is a foreign planet.

The third morning reveals some blue sky, and snow on the local peaks. It's cooler. At 6.30am the first flight arrives. Anybody who has seen a bunch of press photographers at the crucial moment of an event knows the meaning
of’ bunfight’. This was a dogfight. Claws out, screeching at check-in counters, big shoving small, locals hustling the insiders’ angles. Astonishing. After only two-and-a-half days. The record wait in Lukla is 13.
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the-rambler on

Can't guess
Hullo 'Guess Who'. Dang sure it's fun. And tx for the wishes :)

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