11/23/2009 to 11/28/2009 | Nepal

Helicopter Hitching to the Khumbu

I woke up figuring it would be just like any other day in the past couple weeks, I’d go down to Kili’s office browse the internet, drink copious amounts of milk tea (chai), and do a bit of website work.  Little did I know, I’d leave the ground that day for the first time in nearly 3 years.  About mid morning just as I was downing my third cup of chai, Kili came down and said, “maybe you go to Khumbu tomorrow.”  To elaborate it seemed that a member of his expedition climbing Ama Dablam was in need of a helicopter evacuation, which meant I could hitch a ride up to Lukla (the airport closest to Mt. Everest) for free via helicopter, a journey which might ordinarily run you around $6000 by helicopter (a bit over of my $15 a day budget).  One man’s misfortune was my fortune, a couple hours later and I was informed the helicopter would not leave tomorrow morning but rather this afternoon.  A few hours earlier I had no idea I would be leaving Kathmandu that day for the mountains of the Khumbu, taking my first ever helicopter ride in the process.  I hurriedly packed a bag and gathered the things I would need for a few weeks of trekking, hopped on the back of Kili’s employee’s motorbike, and headed off to the Kathmandu airport (my first ever visit to the place).   I was taken out to the end of the runway where a number of helicopters were parked.  It would be just me and the pilot, yes I was riding shotgun in a helicopter up into the Himalayas, pretty cool.  If I had to breach my streak of 2 years, 9 months, and 27 days of continuous land travel this was the way to do it.  The rotor began to turn, slowly at first then picking up speed, until the helicopter shook gently with its motion.  Then we slowly lifted off the ground hovering over the runway and the large Korean Air 747 bound for Seol.  Picking up speed and altitude we headed east out of the Kathmandu valley towards the Khumbu.  We would head directly towards the low ridge passes separating the valleys of the region known as the middle hills, only to float over the ridges with effortless grace.  I thought of the day long bus ride and 4 days of strenuous hiking from Jiri which I had endured last time I had visited the Khumbu.  Now I was effortlessly hovering over the landscape that was so difficult to pass on the ground.  We made a banking turn to the north and headed up the valley towards Lukla, as we approached the town I recognized the trail I had walked a year and a half earlier clinging to the side of the valley.  My only disappointment was that being the afternoon the high mountains had already clouded up for the day depriving me of a snow clad Himalayan Mountain view as we hovered in to Lukla’s airport.

I stayed in Lukla that night and decided to start hiking the next day to Namche.   It only occurred to me as I hiked toward Namche that in my haste to leave I had not gotten a TIMS (Treking Informational Management System) card technically required to hike in the region.  At the time it was still free (no longer the case) but only available in Kathmandu.  I knew it would be checked at the park entrance so I prepared my self to talk my way though, which fortunately I was allowed to do with sufficiently respectful pleading.  I met a couple of Australians as I hiked up the final steep section of trail to Namche.  They were on a whirl wind around the world tour, as they ticked off the places they had been in the last 9 months I wondered if they had seen anything not through the window of a moving vehicle.  Nevertheless they were good guys, full of energy and enthusiasm, I wondered if they were maybe being a bit to aggressive considering the altitude but they kept up with me despite having spent the preceding week, according to their own admissions, glued to bar stools in a London Pub, and I had to respect that.  We split a room in Namche and headed off the next day despite conventional wisdom being to stay in Namche for two days to acclimatize.  I wasn’t to worried for myself as I intended to stay at my friend Maila’s lodge in Deboche only a few hundred meters higher than Namche for a few nights anyway which would give me ample time to acclimatize, but my Australian companions were making a bee line for base camp and I tried to caution them on dangers of a rapid accent.  When I stopped at Deboche they continued on to Pangboche, I later heard they made it so I guess my fears were unfounded, and they could handle their altitude along with their alcohol.

At Deboche I stayed in Maila’s Ama Dablam Lodge.  I had met Maila, a friend of Kili’s, at the same time I had met Kili while trekking to Everest Base Camp a year and a half earlier.  It was late in the season so outside of a few groups passing through things were relatively quite.  Maila and I hike up to the ridge above Deboche the day after I arrived.  It was a steep climb to the 5000 m vantage point, and difficult, considering I had been in Kathmandu only 3 days earlier and was not yet acclimatized.  My efforts were rewarded as the steep rocky outcropping perched high above of Tyanboche and Deboche offered a spectacular view down the valley towards Everest, Lhotse, and Ama Dablam.  The next day we hiked to Ama Dablam base camp (a place I had not made it to on my first visit to the region) via a less traveled route on the Deboche side of the valley, bypassing the typical route through Pangboche.  My final day at Deboche I was off to hike on my own, as a large group of French tourists were keeping Maila busy at the loge.  I hiked up a side valley that ran up opposite the village of Pangboche.  It was a beautiful and remote place and it was hard to image only a few hours walk away was the tourist laden “trekking expressway” that is the main trail up to Everest Base Camp.  The only other human I saw on this serine excursion was a local villager gathering yak dung for fuel in the high alpine meadow at the end of the valley.   Back at the lodge I joined Maila, and the French group’s guides and porters in the kitchen of the Ama Dablam lodge for drinks and dhal bat (the standard nepali meal of rice, dhal, vegetables and in this case meat cury) .  Quite a bit of chang (the local homebrew alcohol) was thrown back that night, an excess that would delay my intended early morning departure towards Gokyo the next day until noon.

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