26 October 2016, Wednesday
Trekkers Lodge and Restaurant
Phakding, Khumbu Region, Nepal. 2660masl.
If MapMyRun was not lying, we trekked almost 8.80 kilometers this morning for two hours and 45 minutes. And that’s it for today. The whole afternoon can be spent sleeping, journaling and eating chocolates. For acclimatization purposes, we only had a short trek today, mostly downhill with a 200-m elevation drop. This should help our bodies adjust to the altitude since we ascended to high elevation quite rapidly from Kathmandu (~1400masl).
Nestled in the Himalayas at 2,860m above sea level, the town of Lukla welcomes trekkers to Everest region with a hair-raising landing at Tenzing-Hillary Airport. This notorious airport boasts a 527-meter runway with a 10-degree incline—already considered steep by aviation standards. It has a long list of crashes and mishaps thanks to its geography and physics. Add the operating airlines’ dismal aircraft maintenance and there’s the powerful formula to be the world’s most dangerous airport.
It’s not something anyone would want to think about when travelling to Everest region. But the good news is, flying to Lukla isn’t the only way to get to this part of the Himalayas. The alternative is to trek another 6-7 days via Jiri and this trail goes straight to Phakding, bypassing Lukla.
But because I had limited time, I had no choice but to take the plane to Lukla.
While at the domestic terminal, I was trying to act normally like I wasn’t bothered by the prospect of flying in a small plane. But inside, I was like an antsy groom on his shotgun wedding. I could not wait to board the plane so this petrifying part of the trek would be over. Once at the tarmac, I discreetly hurried to get off the bus and board the 16-seater plane to snag a “choice” seat.
Bloggers were not hyperbolizing when they wrote about how small and ancient Lukla-bound planes were. But if there was one tip from them I took very seriously, it’s taking (and fighting for) a seat on the port side of the cabin. Left-side seats offer a sweeping view of the snow-capped Himalayan mountain range—that is, if you’re not seated near the propeller like I was.
In terms of safety, I thought I’ve seen the worst in Myanmar’s Yangon Airways but, lo, Nepal’s Sita Air beat it by a notch. Sita, however, maintained a strict cargo limit for their flight. Prior to boarding, the airline staff notified us that they offloaded some ten pieces of luggage because the plane was overloaded. It garnered praises from passengers instead of complaints. I mean, who would complain about a move that would lessen your chance of crashing into the mountains? But onboard, the only safety protocol the lone flight attendant followed was to check if our seat belts were fastened. There was no safety demo the before take off but there were tattered safety briefing cards in seat pockets which the FA didn’t bother to present to us. But it’s not like she violated any safety procedure, it may be THE ONLY safety procedure they had for short flights.
After seeing that we were all strapped in, the FA started to distribute cotton and candies. I wished it were cotton candies but they were just cotton AND candies on a tray. In all flights to Lukla, candies are given to passengers for motion sickness relief and cotton balls for the ears to dampen the noise of the plane’s engines. I took a handful of candies (Pinoy tayo eh haha) and none of the cotton balls, confident that my ears could tolerate those so-called noises.
The flight was better than I expected or imagined. It wasn’t bumpy at all, no creepy rattling sounds from the turboprop plane. The steady buzzing of the two engines was made bearable by the sea of clouds draped over Kathmandu Valley and eventually by crazy, magnificent mountain views as we approached Lukla. About 15-20 minutes into the flight I finally saw what I came to Nepal for—Mt. Everest. All the blogs and vlogs I came across didn’t mention any Everest sighting during the flight so there’s still a muted high in me. But I knew it was Everest, the South Summit was a giveaway.
Everest has a subsidiary peak called the South Summit with an elevation of about 8,749 meters, still higher than the second-highest mountain in the world, K2. Looking north, the South Summit is located to the right of Everest’s main peak. So instead of having a pointed peak like Ama Dablam’s or Matterhorn’s, Everest has this triangle-trapezoid profile. Rob Hall died from exposure on the South Summit, I recalled from my textbook, Into Thin Air.
I snapped out of my recollection of the 1996 Everest disaster when I noticed some of the passengers focusing their cameras and phones on the cockpit. When I turned to look, there was the asphalt patch of a runway on the mountain. We made it to Lukla! But it wasn’t until the wheels touched the ground and the plane halted that we let out a sigh of relief. Surely all of us were holding our breaths as the plane approached the deadly airport.
The plane landed at 6:45am, exactly 30 minutes after taking off from Kathmandu. Despite its small area, Lukla is a busy airport. Planes come and go every 15 minutes or so making it hard for arriving passengers to compose or pose for a photo upon setting foot in Lukla ALIVE.
At the baggage claim area, we met our guide and porter, Sherpa brothers Jangbu and Pemba. Our small group was complete at last. Oh wait, there’s another one I haven’t written about—the other trekker, Leo.
A few months before the trek, I realized I was a little short on budget and needed to find at least one other trekker to lessen the tour cost. Then I remembered from one of the blogs I follow that there’s this website called trekkingpartners.com, a platform for trekkers looking for hiking buddies, guides, trek deals, etc. I signed up for an account and posted my route and trek dates. I received a number of replies from all over the world and one of them was Leo from the US. I didn’t take him seriously at first thinking he’s just like the other respondents who vanished after one or two emails and probably found better or cheaper options for their trips. But about a week before my flight to Kathmandu, Leo sent me an email asking if my trip was still on. Of course, it was, I replied…a little shocked I’d be having constant company on the trail besides the guide.
I met Leo yesterday at our pre-climb meeting in Kathmandu’s Hotel Florid. My first impression? It was a little uncomfortable first meeting. Don’t get me wrong, I think first meetings are 98% uncomfortable and awkward. I couldn’t pin it down at that moment but there was something off about him. I thought I was too quick to judge so I tried to be friends with him by going to dinner with him at a local restaurant after the meeting.
I did almost all the asking. I didn’t want to tell much about myself so I bombarded him with questions about his family, work, and educational background like a job interview. The guy talked fast, maybe like 50 words in five seconds. I’m not exaggerating. Sometimes I’d ask him to repeat what he said but most of the time I just pretended I understood what he was saying. As dinner went on, all I could think of was how would I survive a 16-day trek with this guy? I really have poor social skills. Or maybe I was just tired.
Our small trekking group of four started off after a short rest and refreshment at a teahouse in Lukla. For the first hour I could still keep up with Jangbu’s slower and Leo’s normal pace but as we neared Phakding my distance from my two groupmates grew farther and farther. Pemba was way ahead of us carrying two 10-15-kg duffel bags.
It was a great first trekking day. I was so thrilled to be ON the Everest Base Camp trail. That I was experiencing what I had been reading in blogs for months. And I was walking on the same trail that legendary mountaineers walked on. It felt like being in a movie or a documentary passing Sherpa settlements, spinning prayer wheels and gazing up at colorful prayer flags flapping against the clearest blue sky. The experience was just magical!
I could gush on an on about today’s incredible sights but I really should be sleeping now. My headache is getting worse, probably triggered by the cold and likely the lack of sleep from the past two days.