Monday, November 26, 2007

Everest, Day 1

(Journal entry November 8th)

After a week of waiting and hoping for Steve to get well, we finally boarded a Yeti Airlines flight in Kathmandu this morning, bound for Lukla. The flight was pretty amazing - I'd heard it was good, but having flown in many small airplanes and helicopters around Alaska, I didn't expect to be as blown away as I was. It was a small plane, and we were on the wrong side to have window views of the Himalaya, but I still spent the entire trip straining and shifting to glimpse the snow capped peaks. Clouds covered the valleys, so all you could see were the jagged tops of the tallest shear-faced ridges. The mountains grew in size and number as we got further from Kathmandu, and when I heard a lady in the front row whisper "Everest?", I was sure the plane was going to fall out of the sky as everyone practically lept out of their seats to catch a glimpse of the famed mountain. Unfortunately, no one could confirm the sighting - the mountains and ridges were too numerous and widespread to pick the tallest among them.

After about 30 minutes of flying, we were fully immersed in the mountains, and I began to lose sight of the clear path through (or around) them. The pilot began banking left and right, between narrow passes, barely above high mountain plateaus, and around knolls and peaks. It felt like I was in a video game, or maybe a Star Wars battle scene, as we seemed to barely skim over and through the ground below us. Complicating the diverse terrain were whisps of cloud and fog that were rolling through the scenery, but the pilot manuevered through it all with complete calm and ease. Suddenly, with a quick turn to the right, the clouds broke and several buildings could be seen, cut into the mountainside directly in front of us. We picked up speed as the pilot aimed the nose of the plane directly at the small village. I was a bit worried that we were heading for a crash landing on top of a sod roof, when, incredibly, a tiny runway appeared, cut directly into the side of the mountain like a terraced field. We touched down at it's edge, and somehow managed to slow down with just inches to spare, saving us from slamming into the concrete wall that marked the runway's end. It was incredible. No descent was necessary; our cruising altitude was exactly the same as the runway's altitude.

There were two Nepali ladies on the flight - a mother and daughter -who obviously hadn't flown in an airplane before. It was an odd thing to witness - coming from the western world, you just take it for granted that people are comfortable with the sites, sounds, and feeling of being airborne. The older lady clutched the seat in front of her the entire trip, looking down at the floor instead of admiring the views, and the younger girl had a vice grip on a Japanese lady's arm and hand throughout the trip. When we banked or swayed at all, she would reach out with her second hand and grab another appendage with equal strength and furvor. I think the Japanese lady was a bit uncomfortable with the whole thing, because she kept trying to gently reclaim her arm(s), but the Nepali girl was way too strong for her. Needless to say, both ladies were quite exstatic when we landed safely in Lukla.

We only made it a few hours down the trail today (stopping even for a glorious nap in the semi-sun). No need to tempt Steve's sickness to return, plus the Everest trek is meant to be taken slowly because of the altitude. Consequently, it's 3 pm, and I'm already cozy in the sleeping bag, ready to dig into one of the three books I'm lugging with me.

We really debated doing this trek at all, mainly because I (we) felt guilty about retreating to the mountains - what we love, but what is also easy and comfortable - instead of heading back to the heat, touts, smells, corruption, and assault of India. But, now that we're here, I'm incredibly happy with our decision. Already, the Everest region seems more rustic and raw than Annapurna, and looking at the map, it looks like there are several day hikes to remote glacial valleys and scrambles up to view points that look quite appealing. And, the scenery is fantastic, the fall colors are emerging, there's a cool mountain briskness to the air, and I'm very happy with life!

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