I wake up again, my head still resting on the cardboard boxes full of beer bottles with which I share the back seat of the helicopter. Hopeful I look out the window at the gray, foggy and stale weather outside, and sigh: we’re not flying out of Kathmandu today and my guide is going to have to keep waiting for me in Lukla. Then, I smile as I watch my new friends, Christophe and Sabine, sleeping in the front seat, so peacefully it makes me happy and calm, too.
Soon, at around 2:30 pm, the helicopter pilot arrives accompanied by our trekking agency representative, and they confirm my ‘guess’ that we’re staying grounded. Christophe, Sabine and I climb into a little truck and drive back to the domestic terminal of the Kathmandu airport; we leave our luggage on the chopper to avoid the possibility of other hopefuls getting out of Kathmandu ahead of us the next day: the heli’s booked for days ahead as the small planes which regularly circulate between the capital and Lukla cannot handle the bad weather conditions which have surprised Nepal this November.
The three of us are disappointed but try to get some enjoyment out of the situation. We spend the evening talking in ‘Franglish’, circumambulating the famous stupa at Boudhanath and lighting butter candles in order to generate some good karma for the next day. Then, we have dinner at my favourite place in Boudha called Flavours and by the end of the evening all seem quite pleased with the extra day in Kathmandu.
On November 14th we get up early again and leave for the domestic airport at 5:00 am. Although it is still dark outside, I can see the fog in the air and yet, I know we are flying sooner or later. We dance through the airport formalities with grace that only experience can give, find seats in the waiting hall, fetch coffees, get our books out the packs and begin our morning exercise in patience.
While we wait, I meet with one of the Sherpas from our Manaslu team who has two clients with him: both professional alpine guides headed, like me and Christophe, for Ama Dablam. They are… very tall indeed :). As I watch them walk away on their long legs, I despair: I am neither as tall nor as good a climber as these men and yet our goal is the same – this couldn’t possibly be right.
At around noon our departure is announced and we are once again driven to the chopper. The pilot is already inside, his leather gloves and serious expression on, and instead of the compact beer boxes I am now sharing the back seat with three men. It’s still foggy and the visibility leaves much to be desired but we take off and fly: the chopper shakes – the pilot smiles. An hour later we are in Lukla and I, happily – inappropriately – hug my guide, one of the most respected Sherpa climbers who was also our chief Sherpa guide on Manaslu. Since Christophe will only meet his mountain guide at Ama Dablam base camp, my guide offers him and Sabine to trek with us. I am beyond pleased as I have grown very fond of my new friends.
It is late and we decide to trek only as far as Phakding that day. We stop at the lodge my guide owns and have a warm evening all together, planning our trip to the foot of ‘Mother’s Necklace.’ The next day we walk a steep and dusty trail to Namche Bazzar, where the three of us go to the local clinic to get advice on how to treat Sabine’s ‘Khumbu Cough’ (the advice + meds costs $105) and later spend more money shopping. The trek to Pangboche on the 16th of November is a beautiful torture: the visibility is zero and it is snowing. The day is cold and damp but the humid dust still manages to take off the ground and fly into one’s lungs gasping for oxygen at over 3600 metres. My guide and I run ahead, struggling to keep warm while Christophe and Sabine walk somewhere in the mist behind us. The dusty trail to Tengboche – the village housing the famous monastery by the same name – is painfully long and exhausting to climb. I begin to feel I will never arrive but here I am in front of a white-and-gold chorten growing out of the fog to greet me. ‘Just another hour to Pangboche,’ my guide announces as we stop for lunch at a local bakery. I am too cold to be hungry but the tasty smell and variety of desserts tempts even me to have… tomato soup, at least. My guide has a yummy-looking pizza, and we’re back in the mist in no time, running up and down dusty paths again, towards Pangboche.
When we finally arrive, I feel drained. Christophe and Sabine, also tired and cold, join us at one of the local lodges in a couple of hours. The lady of the house starts a fire and the few guests gather around the stove with cups of hot tea. We are quiet, smiling. My guide talks to our hostess and, suddenly, points at me.
‘Ama Dablam?’ the woman asks, looking me up and down with laughing eyes. I don’t speak Sherpa but even I can hear the scepticism in her voice. I have already heard it many times on this trek in the voices of people my guide has been sharing our ambitious plans with.
‘…Manaslu…’ he defends me, but the woman just keeps grinning.