1st May, 2016
We woke up in the morning, had our bath (for the last time before next 13-14 days) and descended to the hotel lounge for breakfast. Our flight was at 9 AM. Raju came in and we headed off for the airport after keeping the baggage deemed extra at the hotel’s locker room. The cab sneaked through the, now familiar, streets of Kathmandu, around the parks, the boundaries of Pashupatinath temple to arrive at the domestic terminal of Tribhuvan International Airport. The word “Domestic Terminal” was a misnomer. The place was crowded with people and their luggage dumped across the floor. Makeshift check in counters for different airlines resembled book stalls more than anything else. Flights destined for different places of Nepal (Jomsom, Pokhara, Lukla, Viratnagar etc.) were listed on a board. We headed towards one of the desks that read “Tara Air”. After the guy at the desk checked the tickets, we submitted our baggage and were given a hand written boarding pass bearing the flight number. The words “computer” and “print” seemed out of the world at this place. There was no mention of seat numbers as passengers were expected to occupy any seat which they deemed fit.
Our ears were tied to the announcements and we yearned to hear the words “Tara Air” and “Lukla”. It was already well past 9 AM (the slated time for departure). When asked, Raju said, our turn was yet to come. Perplexed by that answer, I asked how can it be? The reply from Raju and answers from a few others waiting at the lounge, made it clear that all the times mentioned for this route are “potential” and everything gets determined at run-time based on actual departures and takeoffs. An inquiry at the desk revealed, weather at Lukla was clear and the delay was mainly due to air traffic. We met a family from Hyderabad, husband, wife and their 7-year-old kid who were going for Everest Base Camp. They had done Annapurna circuit trekking earlier. Though it was a departure lounge of a domestic terminal, but it had passengers from all over the world, most of them destined for Lukla. No wonder, the Everest Base Camp trail is called the trekking highway of the world. Our time came at 10.40 AM. We were about to cross our first hurdle – i.e. to board a Kathmandu-Lukla flight as planned (may be not exactly on time, but nevertheless, the same day and with enough time for us to reach Phakding the same day – which in itself was a big deal considering the circumstances that prevail on this route). I started getting goosebumps as a bus took us to the aircraft. It was a small 25 seater. We could identify and count our bags as the luggage was getting loaded to the belly of the carrier. The interior was just tall and wide enough for a single person to bend his/her way to the seat. We were handed over a leaflet carrying safety instructions and a pair of cotton pads to stash in our ears. Seeing the leaflet, another passenger mused “We’re supposed to read it! eh?” After we all settled in, the pilots took their seats (the cockpit with all its apparatus and the front window pane was visible to all of us who were seated in front rows). As the aircraft taxied around for some time, the sound of its engine amplified till it reached a head-splitting roar just as it took off.
It sailed over the hills surrounding Kathmandu. Clouds floated over the cultivated fields, houses and nearby forests. As we soared above successive valleys nestled in the ever-increasing heights of the mountains, the river DoodhKoshi appeared as a strip of silk, meandering through the gorges. It would be our companion for the majority of our trail from Lukla.
At 2845 m, the Lukla airstrip is the starting point for the trek to Everest Base Camp. Sir Edmund Hillary, one of the first ascendants of Mt Everest and a highly revered figure in the Solu-Khumbu region because of his contributions towards improving the life of this region and the Sherpa community, was the primary person responsible for this airport becoming a reality. Hillary devoted majority of his life in helping the Sherpa community. He even lost his wife in an air crash in this region. He founded the Himalayan Trust, which is responsible for building numerous schools and hospitals in the region. It was the construction of these, that required huge amounts of raw materials to be ferried from lowlands and plains of Nepal to the remote villages high up in the Khumbu region. As a part of that effort, Hillary and his team of extremely hard-working sherpas built this air strip to help ferrying the loads, which, otherwise had to be transported by porters and yaks that took weeks to reach their destination. After completion, it was handed over to the Nepal Government. It was renamed to Tenzing-Hillary airport in January 2008 to honor the first climbers of the peak and also for their efforts behind construction of this airport. Today, a flight to this airstrip will take out 2 weeks of arduous trek, which was the norm in the initial days of Everest expeditions. In a program called “Most Extreme Airports” aired on the History Channel in 2010, Lukla was rated as the most dangerous in the world. The flight to Lukla from Kathmandu is not more than 25-30 minutes under normal circumstances. However, its highly probable that while Kathmandu bathes in bright sunshine, Lukla gets lashed by rains. High velocity winds, cloud cover and changing visibility often results in delays and cancellation of flights. Such delays can extend up to weeks. In its current form, the airport’s runway is 527 m long with a 11.7% gradient. It is accessible to helicopters and small, fixed wing, short takeoff and landing aircrafts. There is a high terrain to the immediate north of the runway and a steep drop at the southern end into the valley below. What it means for the pilot is, he has to apply the brakes immediately as the aircraft touches the southern end of the runway so that it slows down just enough to take a right turn to avoid crashing into the high terrain in the north. There have been many accidents during landing or takeoff at the Lukla runway with luck residing with passengers and crews on some occasions, while nature claiming its forfeit on others.
Suddenly, there was some urgency among the passengers seated in front and the buzz seemed to suggest that we were about to land. Looking through the front window pane, I still saw high hills surrounded in part by clouds with no signs of the runway. People started training their lenses. That’s when I saw a faint image of a straight line which gradually increased in length and width till I got a clear view of the asphalt runway with its markings clear enough, nestled among the high hills. As the aircraft approached the runway, one of the pilots had his hand on the handle that dangled from the ceiling of cockpit and just as the aircraft touched the southern end, he pulled it. It was just enough to allow the aircraft to take a right turn and come to a halt. All of the passengers clapped after the successful landing!
The small air strip was a treat to watch. With mountains surrounding it on all sides, there were lodges right beside the runway. The departure lounge (if you may call it so!) was just a small room. We collected the baggage and headed out of the airport. As we strode down a small alley dotted by lodges, Lukla was buzzing with mountaineers and trekkers from different expeditions. All freshly arrived, were either heading off straight away on the trail or having their lunch. It is a crowded place with lots of pubs (including one by the name “Mallory Irvine pub”). We went to a lodge and ordered lunch while guide Raju went out scouring for porters. As we sat around a table in the lawn after lunch, two porters arrived. Passang and Doranath, who were to be our companions from now on, were young and jovial. Doranath was youngest of the two, just done with his class X exams, was out in search of work in this trekking season. 14 days of hard toil carrying approximately 30 kg on their backs in this high altitude terrain will hopefully yield the money they need to support their families. Like most of them, our porters came from villages from lower regions of Nepal as far as a week’s walk away (by local standards). Like every year, in this spring season, they were staying at a rented place in Lukla, waiting to be hired. While Passang had been on this trail before, it was the first time for Doranath. That raised some questions but we were happily proved wrong. If I’m able to tell my story today, I owe a lot of that to him. That’s a tale to be told later. With majority of our baggage distributed between the porters, putting our respective backpacks on our shoulders, we started off. For the next 14 days, we’d be on mountain tracks, gaining altitude by the day, reaching closer to the lap of Everest.
Ranjan da didn’t quite enjoy his lunch. I learnt that he had a bit of food poisoning and was also running slight fever in the morning at the Kathmandu hotel, but now he seemed okay. We were supposed to reach Phakding which wasn’t more than 2-2.5 hours of walk by our standards. As we moved out of Lukla, the route traversed through a countryside with lush green fields with houses tucked amidst them. It was more or less level (as it can be, on a mountain trail) with no such hurdles posed. As it always happens in the mountains, we soon separated from each other in groups of one or two, depending on our respective walking speed and soon I found myself alone with the Himalayas! The Doodhkoshi thundered down the valley through the deep gorges.
The route was dotted with hotels and lodges owned predominantly by the Sherpa community. There were tourists from all over the world from every possible country we knew of, all headed towards or coming from The Everest Base Camp. They were from all age groups. Looking at some of the elderly people, who were trekking alone, carrying their entire luggage by themselves, gave us a bit of shame. After a good hour of walking, we sat down at a lodge to have some rest & a few chats. We waited for a long time, but there were still no signs of Ranjan da. We asked a few co-passengers who came after us and they confirmed that he was just around the corner. That gave us peace for some time but time was running out. I and Dhananjoy went back on the trail and as we turned around a bend, we saw him sitting beside, looking worn out. His stomach wasn’t playing well and he had vomited. Having an upset stomach is the last thing you want on this route. After sometime, he seemed to have recovered and a few pep up talks from rest of us got him back on the road but he was very slow. Though we were not in a marathon aiming to clock record times, there’s a limit beyond which we can’t afford to drag behind schedule, if we were to reach Phakding, out first place of halt for the day. As we walked along, Ranjan da kept getting weaker & finally gave up, when we still had about half an hour’s walk left. He reached a state where he couldn’t lift his legs for a single step without support from either us or the guide. We had to stop before Phakding. It was a village called ThadeKoshi (meaning straight up on the hill emerging from the river Koshi or DoodhKoshi as it is called). It was a forced change in the schedule which meant we would have to cover extra miles on the next day to reach Phakding and continue on to Namche Bazaar. A day already known to be long enough and one of the most tough days of walking on this route, had another 30 minutes to an hour added on top of it. We went to a lodge and had Ranjan da settle on a bed as early as possible. Our bag of medicines, foolishly enough, were with the porters who already have reached Phakding (which was a norm for them to have the place ready with our luggage before our arrival). What was worrying, was Ranjan da’s weakness and a feeling getting strong within him, that with this state of health, he probably can’t carry on. A big setback right at the start. Anyways, we had to give our best shot in boosting him up.
We met a young woman from US, who suggested we should give him doses of electral (a mixture of medicated and somewhat flavored salt and sugar) at regular intervals. She had left her job to come to Nepal and has been staying here for last one year to provide voluntary service to the distressed Sherpa people in these remote villages after the earthquake. She kept a repertoire of limited set of medicines, which needs regular replenishment from Lukla. She gracefully offered one pack of electral and I bought a few more from her. Niladri, in the meantime, spoke to one of his Doctor friends, Snehasis, in Kolkata, who suggested an antibiotic along with regular doses of salt and sugar mixture in water. Doranath, one of our porters, came back from Phakding, carrying our bag of medicines. The first of his many acts that had us awe-struck! At the fag-end of the day, after an arduous day of walking with loads on his back, just when he reached Phakding, a phone call came asking him to bring the bag of medicines half way back down the road which he had just ascended. A call to which he readily responded. All such efforts bore fruits and Ranjan da’s health improved. He was still reluctant to eat and had to literally force some down his throat. After he settled in his bed, Niladri, Sidhhartha da and Dhananjoy thought about experimenting with a local brew Roxy but it proved to be a costly affair with most of them wobbling out whatever they ate at dinner. I wasn’t feeling good either. It was the first day and the start was far from ideal. The next day was going to be critical and we had to be at our physical best. The trek was supposed to be from Phakding (2650 m) to Namche Bazaar (3440 m), a gain of approximately 800 m in a single day and we were not even at Phakding, but a good 30 minutes before it. Ranjan da’s state was a cause of worry. I went to sleep hoping for a better tomorrow.