Hands grip seats and hearts beat a little faster as two motorised propellor engines drone with effort. Passing the ridge of a sharp peak, the pressure drops as the small 12-seater pierces the clouds and comes in to land at Lukla airstrip, one of the most perilous and isolated runways on earth. Gateway to mighty Everest and the high Himalayas, intrepid trekkers in search of an elusive adrenaline rush brave the altitude and the elements, beginning the long weeklong hike upwards.
On board the 12-seater flight from Kathmandu to Lukla
The plane’s propellor is seen from the window, with the snow-capped Himalayas on the horizon
Passing stony crags, virgin pine forests, turquoise rivers and small villages, simple wooden teahouses offer hot masala tea, spicy dal bhat curry and shelter. The ring of yak and jokyo bells together with the rushing of clear mountain streams provide the only other soundtrack to the steady, slow pace of trekkers’ footsteps. Ascending higher, the wind whistles, flapping row upon row of prayer flags strung across wire suspension bridges. Rocks engraved with Buddhist mantras line the route. “Om mani padme hum” chants my guide Saroj, asking for protection from the Buddha of compassion for those like us venturing into the capricious mountains. Ethnically Tibetan, the local Sherpa people still practice this distinctive form of Buddhism.
A turquoise stream can be seen from a suspension bridge on the walk from Lukla to Namche
Buddhist scriptures are painted on a boulder. The text includes the words “om mani paadme hum”
Jokyo herders cross a suspension bridge with their animals
At 3,450 metres the brightly painted chalets of Namche Bazaar, sat under the sacred snow-capped gaze of Khumbila, provides a welcome hub of Alpine civilisation for weary trekkers. As the spring tourist season begins, yaks and donkeys carrying supplies up towards Everest Base Camp pass through the steep lanes while sherpas ferry huge laden woven baskets packed with everything from Pringles to flat screen TVs. For Westerners, bakeries, cafes, Internet access and mountaineering supply shops offer a last taste of luxury before the ascent upwards into the Himalayas.
The town of Namche Bazaar
Two local girls carry sacks of rice down a steep mountain path
A yak herder leads his animals down towards Namche as the peak of Amadablam is seen behind
As the altitude climbs, the first view of 8,848-meter-high Everest, its icy summit just visible behind the twin peaks of Nuptse and Lhotse is afforded, a first reward on the third day’s ascent. To the right, the steep sides of snow-capped Amadablam cut into the cerulean sky. Golden-topped stupas and decorated prayer wheels mark the mountain pathways leading up to Tengboche monastery, the highest on earth, standing at just under 4,000 metres.
The summit of Everest (centre) peeps out from behind Nuptse (left) and Lhotse (right)
Yak herders lead their animals past the gates of Tengboche
This is the last view of Everest until Kala Patar, past the annually erected tent city of Base Camp, another four days trek away. Yet for a lucky few, the hopes of scaling Everest’s heights will crystallise as the annual April to May climbing window opens. Viewed almost like a god for those in this isolated region whose livelihoods depend on it, touching its summit is indeed akin to something holy.
Everest (with a cloud of snow flying off its summit) is seen at sunrise