Saturday, December 8, 2001
S I T E S   A N D  S C E N E S

To Mount Everest on wings
Amar Chandel

THE question is as old as the hills: Why do sane, grown up people put their lives on the line to climb treacherous mountains? The answer is equally ancient: Because the mountains are there! Man needs challenge. It is his nature to subject himself to the most extreme tests of endurance. If there were no mountains, he would have created them. In fact, he has; for the climbers who prefer to test their limits indoors.

Photo by the writerBut nothing to match the thrill of conquering majestic Himalayan peaks, particularly the grand-daddy of them all: Mount Everest. It is the ultimate dream of every mountaineer and also the nightmare. Countless climbers have sacrificed their lives trying to emulate the Tenzing-and-Hillary climb to the summit of the summits, the highest mountain of the world. It evokes both awe and exhilaration.

How do I know? Because I have just returned from it. Before you start developing any false notions about my physical prowess, let me set the record straight. I did it the easiest way, by taking a flight to this grand peak from Kathmandu. Nepal has milked its tourism potential to the maximum and thanks to private air taxi operators, nearly every tourist destination Mt Everest, Pokhara, Biratnagar, Bhadrapur, Nepalgunj and Bhairahawa-Lumbini is connected by air. And the icing on the cake is that air travel is only slightly costlier than road travel by air-conditioned buses. When, oh when, is India going to exploit the goldmine that it has by way of tourist spots?


I am not sure what the situation is like at Tribhuvan International Airport, and the domestic airport adjoining it, after the outbreak of the Maoist violence, but when we went there in October-end, there was an easy informality about the whole place. Security men were courteous and not overbearing. Security checks were cursory, despite the 1999 hijacking of an Indian Airlines plane to Kandahar. Things were particularly relaxed at the domestic airport, although the entry to the airport is now limited to bona fide passengers.

Small planes of several companies with exotic names like Buddha, Yeti and Shangrila rev up early in the morning. There is a fierce competition for passengers and if you have time on your side, you can strike a good bargain. We were not lucky on that count, having very few days at our disposal and a lot many places to visit. So, we paid the full fare which comes to about Rs 3,000 (Indian) each.

We chose Buddha Air. The 20-seater plane was full and we were the only Asians in it. One advantage of small planes is that everyone has a window seat. So many flights leave for Mt Everest early in the morning that the planes were standing in a queue to take off. The plane started moving at the scheduled time of 6:30 am but its turn to take off came only after a wait of half an hour. We were told that this rush would continue up to 10:30 am.

Kathmandu is situated in a valley at a height of only 4423 ft, but it is very close to some of the highest Himalayan peaks. These became visible almost seconds after the plane gained height. The air hostess patiently identified each peak to every passenger who could hardly make anything of the tongue-twisting names like Phurbi-Ghyachu (21,775 ft), Chhoba-Bhamare (19,580 ft) and Melungtse (23,560 ft). Even we got excited only on seeing the twin peaks of Gauri Shankar (23,405 ft), considering their repeated mention in Indian mythology. Everyone's eyes were searching for Sagarmatha, better known as the Everest, the 29,028-ft peak.

The wait did not last long. Barely 30 minutes after taking off from Kathmandu, the grand sight unfolded before our eyes. Strangely, the whole mountain was not covered with snow. Yet, it took everyone's breath away. Still and video cameras whirred incessantly. But the passengers were silent, as if in a trance. The pilot invited everyone to the cockpit to get a bird's eyeview of the Himalayas. He was obviously proud of the Beech 1900D that he was flying and explained that it was fully pressurised, state-of-the-art, third generation aircraft worth $5 million, which was straight out of the factory. Traditional mountain flights showed only a small part of Mt Everest in the middle with Lhotse and Nuptse on either side obscuring the view, which made it very difficult to imagine the Everest as the highest mountain in the world. This was because noisy and non-pressurised aircraft flew either too low, at less than 13,000 ft, or too far, almost 50 nautical miles away. But our plane flew north of Mt Amadablam, into the Khumbu valley and came within five nautical miles of the Everest.

The magic moments ticked away all too quickly. The plane took a U-turn and it was now the turn of the passengers on the other side of the plane to savour the unforgettable sight. Thank heavens the weather gods were on our side and we could clearly see the Tibetan plateau in the background. The co-travellers that we talked to were unanimous that Mt Everest does cast a hypnotic spell. Now we know why climbers are attracted to it like moths to the flame.

In less than an hour, we were back in Kathmandu, with my nine-year-old son oblivious of the fact that Mt Everest was several days' journey away from the Capital. On return, the air hostess presented a certificate to every traveller with an enchanting logo: "I didn't climb Mt Everest, but touched it with my hear". Nothing could be closer to truth. It was a lifetime's experience all the way. Perhaps the best one hour one could spend while being airborne.