Seizing our early morning opportunity for a flight slot out of Jonsom, we bid farewell to the Mustang Resort, bolstered only by coffee and tea in the chilly hotel lobby. We boarded our choppers and actually flew to another lodge for breakfast – sounds terribly posh, doesn’t it… and trust me it was! We flew east, right into brilliant sunshine and our destination was Mala Lodge set in the Annapurna lowlands among rice paddy terraces with the famous mountain, Machhapuchhre, also known as “Fish Tail,” (6993 meters) dominating the foreground. Our skilled pilots landed on one of the terraces which looked like the most improbable place ever to touch down, but they did so with ease. We scampered along a trail to the 18-room lodge and received a ceremonial greeting with silky prayer scarves and floral garlands made of wild rhododendron and local spruce.
Mala Lodge, part of the Ker & Downey portfolio, is yet another arrow in Tshiring’s impressive “Yeti quiver.” We met the manager, an impressive young Sherpa who’d climbed Everest six times and nearly lost his foot to frostbite. Having been adopted by Tshiring, he had a lovely manner with guests. A beautiful breakfast spread awaited us on the sun-drenched patio. We were seated all in a row on the same side of the table in order to feast our eyes on the breath-taking view. Mala, a two hour drive from Pokhara (or 15 minute flight) is part of a 7-lodge trekking circuit one can do through the Annapurnas, and we all vowed that we’d like to return one day to do just that. The rooms were attractive and one could easily envision tucking in for a few days. Satiated from a double helping of sausages and omelets, we flew to Pokhara for a brief re-fueling stop and commenced an amazing 90-minute flight across much of Nepal to Lukla.
The flight was nothing short of spectacular. We had many tummy-flopping “I-MAX moments,” one after the other, as we’d glide up the crest of a mountain, feeling as if we might graze the tree tops, and seemingly “fall” over the edge. Much of the precipitous landscape has been terraced for agriculture; from our birds’ eye perspective, the zebra-like concentric stripes which hugged the contours of the land were mesmerizing. And of course, we passed some of the Himalayas’ most impressive peaks like Lamjung, Ganesh, Dorjee Lakhpa and Gauri Shankar. Descending into the steep sided Dudh Kosi gorge, we landed at the Tenzing-Hillary Airport at Lukla, situated at 2860 m. It’s been referred to as “the most dangerous airport in the world,” (some would say “most thrilling”) due to its short, 35 degree angled runway which dead-ends into a mountain face. Relieved to be landing in a helicopter and not fixed-wing aircraft, we disembarked into the crisp mountain air and strolled through colorful Lukla, the gateway for trekkers and climbers headed to Everest Base Camp. During the high season, as many as 80 flights per day land at Lukla from Kathmandu, but as you might imagine, like Kathmandu, it is highly weather and visibility dependent, and sometimes flights can be delayed for days at a time, so important to build in a bit of contingency into any itinerary here.
Lukla, with its population of about 700 (only 380 of which are local Sherpa people) is a bustling town with souvenirs, trekking supplies, guest houses and coffee shops including a knockoff Starbucks!! We also saw supplies – inconceivable amounts of stuff — readied for transport via yak or by Sherpa porters. For expeditions, a porter will carry up to 70 kg (like 155 lbs!) and for local transport of supplies, they will carry up to 120 kg (265 lbs—twice their body weight), bearing the brunt of the load on their head and necks with special straps. Many foreigners are unaware that the term, “Sherpa,” which literally means “people of the east” is one of Nepal’s many ethnic groups, and not just a professional tag for the high-altitude guides and porters who have gained international fame. It is also the surname for most of these sturdy mountaineers – for example, Tenzing Norgay Sherpa who accompanied Edmund Hillary in the first successful ascent of Everest in 1953.
We lunched on the patio at Yeti Mountain Home-Lukla, one of seven chalet-style lodges in the region and another part of Tshiring’s empire. Never dreaming when I got dressed this morning that it would warm up so much, the sun was high in the sky and as my friends shed layers, I wished I’d worn a short sleeved shirt. A highlight of the lunch was a wonderful mushroom soup served with garlic toast – garlic is supposed to help you acclimate to the elevation – and so we indulged with guiltless pleasure. Before we knew it, we were back on the helicopters which picked us up at the lodge for the short 10 minute flight to the mythical Namche Bazaar, sparing us a 2 day trek with a grueling ascent to its perch at 11,500 ft. We walked from the heli-pad through the town, past monasteries and tent camps for trekkers and slowly made our way to the Yeti Mountain Home Namche. As fate would have it, the 20-room lodge was at the tippy top of the town and accessed by countless flights of steps. With the exception of our trusty Sherpa guide, Balla, even the most fit among us huffed and puffed a bit on the ascent, which I re-named the Stairway to Heaven.
Once ensconced at the lodge, Balla proposed a stroll into town to explore his home-town and this last outpost of civilization. I hesitated for a moment knowing that what goes down must come back up, not sure I wanted to tackle those steps again. But the retail therapy won out! We passed amazing shops and stalls selling everything from Swiss chocolates to sleeping bags (North Fakes, I am sure!). Balla led us to “N.D. Tibetan Cooperative Store,” a shop specializing in handicrafts that benefited Sherpa widows who’d lost their husbands to mountaineering accidents. We all did a bit of damage here from fur hats to turquoise trading beads, yak bells to yak skulls (the latter of which I could not resist!). We stopped for a warming cup of tea at a hotel that was unexpectedly empty due to incoming cancelled Lukla flights, and were served an assortment of surprisingly good cookies from the next-door German bakery.
Back at the lodge, I luxuriated in my first hot shower in three days and we gathered for pre-dinner drinks and lots of mountaineering anecdotes in the cozy living room around a pot belly stove which threw out plenty of heat and had an outstanding meal with the lights of Namche Bazar twinkling in the distance. The pre-dawn wake up knock was accompanied by a seriously good cup of coffee and I’m not sure if it was the caffeine or anticipation-induced adrenalin that lured me out of my electric blanket cocoon. Today was to be a pinnacle experience, but all, of course, hinged upon clear skies and good weather, and my relief was palpable when it became apparent that we had a perfect blue-bird day. Thinking it would be impossible to top yesterday’s “fly-out breakfast,” we were embarking on yet another flight in our trusty Eurocopters for a very special meal at the Yeti Mountain Home at Kongde situated at 14,025 ft. Thankfully, the choppers picked us up right at the lodge rather than the town helipad (which in my case would have precipitated a midnight hike to get there in time) and we were whisked away, catching our first glimpse of Everest along the way. We landed on a snow bank and carefully navigated our way down the frozen path to the lodge where a sumptuous breakfast was laid out on the capacious snow-covered veranda. Ceremonial prayer scarves were presented and we were all frenzied between snapping still photographs, taking panoramas with iPhones and capturing the majesty of it all on video.
Mt. Everest, the highest mountain in the world at 8848m (29,029 ft), was center stage and in our direct view from the terrace, as was Nuptse at 7879m, Lhotse at 8501 m and Ama Dablam at 6856m, all “technical” mountains and alluring to climbers. Truly, the peaks were 360 degrees all around us. We sat down to one of the most delicious meals of the trip: fresh fruit, croissants and bran muffins that I’d bet my last bottom dollar came from the Lukla German bakery, omelets oozing with melted gruyere cheese, and garlicky potato pancakes, all in the name of helping with the elevation! Champagne bottles were uncorked with pomp and circumstance and we toasted the mountains which were all around us. This was one of those “pinch me, it’s real” travel moments that I will savor forever, and for sure the closest I will ever get to Everest in this lifetime.
As if in a Cinderella moment, approaching midnight, the cloud cover started to roll in and the magic spell was broken…. There was a semi-urgent rush to get to the choppers and “get out,” lest we get stuck- but mind you, doing anything quickly – especially requiring even a short climb – at 14,000 ft (my highest elevation I’ve experienced) is not easy! But we took flight, feeling exhilarated, and headed for Lukla to refuel and return to Kathmandu.