Beyond an Ascent
As part of Lufthansa’s “inspiredby Heimweh” series featuring Kathmandu, a small crew of us three photographers strike off into the Himalayas. What the hell for?! To answer the beckoning call of a faraway place and to discover an understanding of home within the wild raw spirit of Nepal.
Kathmandu / Altitude: 1,400m
THE Nepali sun burns through the morning haze, casting pink ghosts across the apron of Tribhuvan International Airport servicing Kathmandu and surroundings. Our shuttle bus jolts over the rough tarmac, transporting us to a Dornier 288. Back loaded, the repurposed STOL cargo craft has one row of seats on either side of the centre aisle leading into an open cockpit where pilot and co-pilot prep to fire up their machine. Seats are barebones; Flat military canvas stretched over steel frames with no trace of cushy armrests or pre-assigned seats.
I strap down into a spot beside the starboard propeller. Pieces of cotton are handed out, apparently as earplugs; a crucial detail I fail to catch. I consequently enjoy the deafening blast of engines as we rocket down the runway and jerk up into the air with gut wrenching force. Below, Kathmandu sweeps away into an orange-washed filigree bordered by the purplish blue of the looming mountains standing guard over Nepal's capital city.
Twenty minutes later, we are amidst giants threading through high winds. As we cross a ridge, hitting an air pocket, the plane instantly drops altitude with a sickening lurch and an audible BANG. My heart teleports to my throat. A wave of nausea and vertigo washes over me. Beyond the window, the harrowing view is the imminent mountain face - dark, icy, and far too close for comfort.
Out of the mist looms the lonesome runway of Tenzing-Hillary Airport stapled to the side of a slope. Notorious as one of the world’s most dangerous airports, it provides access to the mountain village of Lukla – considered a gateway to Mt. Everest. The pilot fights against gale winds to line up and in NAVY aviator style, guns the plane into the runway at full speed followed by hard brakes and squealing tyres. I disembark feeling unsteady. And am instantaneously awe struck by the majestic peak of Kongde Ri gleaming serenely against stark blue skies.
Lukla / Altitude: 2,860m
WE meet Karma of the Sherpa clan – a 31 year old father to two and our professional guide for the trip into Sagarmatha (Nepali for Mt. Everest) National Park. While we boast heavy packs and the best of alpine gear, this experienced mountain man is dressed down in light trekking wear, sneakers, and a daypack that is empty save for a bottle of water and a pair of gloves. Clearly for Karma, the path to Namche Bazaar, our destination, is a gentle stroll and not the arduous feat that awaits us inexperienced lowland dwellers.
For the moment however, the journey ahead does not feel insurmountable. On the contrary, the weather is favourable, the sun is warm on my face, and the air is scented with the sweet earthiness of the forest. It clings to our clothes and skin with the vague familiarity of an exotic perfume that I cannot quite place. Stone, gravel, and patches of ice and snow crunch beneath our footfalls. In buoyant spirits, we begin our journey into the depths of the Himalayas.
We follow the Dudh Kosi river upstream through small outposts and villages where we occasionally stop for tea. With shy smiles, the villagers offer their heartfelt welcomes: “Namaste!” Young children are intrigued by our cameras, wanting to touch and play with them. Teenagers stop their games of football to watch us plod by. A young mother in a teashop composes herself for us to take her photo.
There is an openheartedness here that makes us Westerners suspicious. “Why are they being so nice?” we ask ourselves. Our culture educates us to be cautious; “Don’t talk to strangers!” Our society ingrains us to mistrust; “What’s their angle?” Yet, there’s a mnemonic resonance exponentially spreading through me, crushing the skepticism. I am reminded of my own Japanese heritage - a culture which values honour, family, and respect above all else. Assuredly, it is a different people in a different land, thought I see traces of that same peaceful trust here in the Himalayas.
Dudh Kosi River Valley / Altitude: 2,610m
HOWEVER idyllic it may momentarily appear, be warned that a journey into this wilderness should never be taken lightly. At one village, a poster gives note of a trekker who went missing in September after falling into a river in the upper regions of the Himalayas. He is presumed dead until found. We additionally pass a procession of old gentlemen carrying a wrapped body on a makeshift stretcher, most likely back to the family of the deceased. According to The Himalayan Database, over one thousand climbers who dared to ascend its heights have been snuffed out of existence since 1950.
One cause being altitude sickness. At sea level, the percentage of oxygen is about 21% and barometric pressure at 760mmHg. As we climb in altitude, that percentage stays constant but the number of oxygen molecules per breath decreases. At 3,600m the barometric pressure drops to 480mmHg; Meaning 40% less oxygen molecules per breath. Which is why, while there are lesser degrees of altitude sickness, the more severe tend to occur around altitudes of 3,600m and above. Our sights are set to just above 3,500m.
As such, we follow our guide with blind faith in his expertise - pausing, eating, hydrating, and sleeping when suggested. Even so, our bodies begin to feel the effects of oxygen deprivation. From the village of Phakding, we continue North, threading through a string of villages that progressively gradate in altitude. After lunch in the village of Jorsale on the west side of the Dudh Kosi river, we get our first taste of altitude sickness as we climb a vertical difference of over 700m to reach Namche Bazaar.
Before long, my fingers and limbs lose their tenacity, turning clumsy. Muscles are on fire as fatigue sets in, and my lungs begin to gasp for breath. Blood pounds in my temple with staggering force, trying to supply the demand for oxygen. With water rations depleted and no way to refill, dehydration attacks. Each plod forward and up turns into a battle of will. Resting on a fallen tree trunk, I consider my options. But with our time constraint, there is no turning back.
Namche Bazaar / Altitude: 3,490m
FOUR hours later and filled with despair, we round a bend to find Namche Bazaar slapped precariously against the face of the Himalayas. Relief floods my heart. Traditionally this village was a trading post for locals bartering higher altitude produce with lower altitude agricultural goods. However all that changed in 1953 with the first recorded successful summit of Everest by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay. The impossible had been achieved and climbers and trekkers began to pour into the region for a taste of the world’s highest peaks.
Modern day Namche Bazaar is a bustling commercial point for mountaineers to stop, rest, and acclimatize to the altitude before pushing forward to Everest Base Camp. For us, this is as far as we go. Exhausted but feeling victorious, we feast on momo dumplings and Sherpa beer. Afterwards, we huddle by the fire to drink Nepali tea, retrace our journey on a map, and mark off the various peaks we encountered. As the mountains drift off into sleep, there is a shared understanding that’s crept into our core: we are not ready to leave.
Not at least without experiencing one more sunrise amongst the titans of our world. So come dawn, we wake with the moon still bright in the sky. It’s -8ºC in the hotel room. We’ve slept with our gear and batteries under bedcovers to keep them from draining. The oddities that we noticed at the start of the journey have by now become second nature. Sleep with the next day’s socks in your bed to keep them warm. Bring your own toilet paper. Brush your teeth with bottled water. Eat only cooked foods; no fresh vegetables or fruits – how contrary to the idea of maximum nutrition and peak health. We go through the morning rituals and step out to a frigid blue-black sky.
Sunrise Speculations / Altitude: 3,510m
OUR ride out of the mountains is by helicopter charter, supposedly landing at a remote helipad high above the slopes of Namche Bazaar. Will the weather allow it? Time will tell. En route we pass beside Namche Gompa, a Tibetan Buddhist monastery on the Western edge of the village. Its golden prayer wheels emit a mystical hollow clanging. The lonesome echoes are quickly swept away by the howling wind, always pulling the unwary towards unmerciful wilderness. We reach the helipad just as the sun summits the visible eastern ridge from elegant Ama Dablam to spiky Kusum Kanguru, lancing the Western peaks of Kongde Ri with gold.
Everything about the Himalayas will dwarf the human scale. After all, its creation is a resultant of an ancient (and continuous) collision of the Indian and Asian tectonic plates. These mountains have never favoured the affluent or the poor, the courageous or the weak, nor does it care for politics, religion, or race.
It is marked only by time and age. Any who have experienced its formidable presence are inevitably equated. And instilled by an insatiable allure to return again and again to vet body, mind, and heart against forces so utterly incomprehensible that it requires a dose of insanity.
As I watch and photograph the sunlight come creeping down mountain faces and into valleys below, this much is clear: the true heart and soul of Nepal broods here in the Himalayas. Whether or not I return to this corner of the world, I now recognize the notes of its landscape. Lacking any concept of finality, it somehow resonates with the human struggle for eternity. No matter how far I travel, even back to the Atlantic coastlines of distant Portugal, I know I will forever hear its beckoning.
Text & Photography: Mr. Vagabond
inspiredby Heimweh for Lufthansa