The short plane ride from Kathmandu to Lukla, through the front range of the Himalayas, is famous not just for scenery but for thrills. The tricky part is landing, at which the pilot gets one shot: Skim over a pass, bank, and drop sharply onto a short runway sloped upward at nearly 10 degrees to bleed off speed. Taking off on the return leg is also a kick, as the plane races downhill to get airborne before the runway drops out from beneath it.
Lukla, elevation 9,400 feet, is the entry to the Everest region. Our group of 10 will spend two weeks walking from here to Everest Base Camp and back, a net ascent of 9,000 feet. A fancy GPS will eventually compute a total ascent, on the roller-coaster trails, of 25,000 feet.
Teahouses in villages along the way offer lodging and meals. Snacks, too: We’re never more than a day’s walk from Snickers, Fanta, and cans of Pringles past their sell-by dates. Rather than stay in teahouses, we camp—to keep control over our food and water and to limit exposure to other trekkers’ respiratory and gastrointestinal ailments. This costs more, since it requires a supporting entourage: two yaks, five yak/cow hybrids, two yak drivers, four porters, a kitchen staff of seven, and four Sherpa guides named Nima, Lhapka, Ngawang, and Kami.
Nima and Lhapka have each summited Mount Everest and other big peaks several times; Ngawang is a climber-in-training. Kami, the sirdar (boss), has provided logistical support to several Everest expeditions. And he knows everybody: “Kami, what’s the name of that Sherpa who climbed from Base Camp to the summit in eight-and-a-half hours? Do you know him?”
“He used to drive my yaks.”
Like most Sherpas, Kami is a Buddhist—and a devout one. On long ascents, it is a comfort to walk beside him while he quietly chants. At his request, the keeper of the Khumjung monastery opened the cabinet with their Yeti skull—the only skull I’ve ever seen with a full head of hair, which that Yeti evidently liked to part in the middle. When we reach the spectacular site of the Tengboche monastery—the high point of a ridge with a panoramic view embracing the peaks of Everest, Lhotse, Nuptse, and Ama Dablam—Kami will get us an audience with its lama.
The lama blesses each of us with a tap on the head, and a monk drapes around our necks the katas, white silk scarves, Kami has brought. We make offerings and each receive two juniper berries, a candy, and a red string. The string, to be tied around the neck, stands for the blessing’s power. It’s my one souvenir.
Our audience is a bit labored. Someone asks for advice—what could the lama offer to a Westerner about the way a Buddhist looks at the world? Kami translates the question and the lengthy reply, which is perhaps a gentle rebuke: To understand the Buddhist way takes many years of study and meditation; to such a question there can be no short answer. I try to put one in the lama’s wheelhouse: “Is it important to have a monastery in such a beautiful place?”
“Yes.” Those Buddhists get you coming and going.
In Nepali, Everest is called Sagarmatha. We had our first glimpse of it a little past the gate of Sagarmatha National Park. The summit, blasted by the jet stream, trailed its characteristic plume of blown snow. It is not a lovely mountain; its profile without the plume is unmemorable, and from tricks of perspective, other peaks often look taller. It’s simply there—a Margaret Dumont of mountains. The peak that dominates the Base Camp trek is Ama Dablam. It stands slender and alone, not jostling with bruisers along a ridge line, with a trapezoidal summit like the blade of a screwdriver.
On the flight from Philadelphia to Kathmandu, I had sat beside a climber, also named David, on his way to join an Ama Dablam expedition. Sightings of that blade raised the unsettling question of where Airplane Dave might be—and a shudder of relief at not being there, or him.
The route to Base Camp traverses steep valleys, and rivers rage along the narrow valley floors, runoff from the glaciers up ahead. They’re crossed on suspension bridges hung high in the air. After a long, wobbly stroll on one of them, solid ground seems to bounce and buck.