Phak Ding—8,530 feet (2,600 meters)
N 27° 44.587’ E 086° 42.703’
It was an early morning, hustling out of hotels and bustling onto buses for the short pre-dawn ride to the airport. After a moderate amount of hurry-up-and-wait we hurried out to board a pair of Twin Otters primed for flight. There was a haze lying over Kathmandu that we quickly busted through to find generally clear skies and big mountains spread across the horizon.
I had a window seat next to the port propeller and during the 50-minute flight to Lukla my eyes were mostly pressed against that window. It was only ten months since I’d left these same mountains on this same aircraft... so how could I possibly have forgotten just how spectacular and formidable these peaks could appear on a clear morning? It was as if I was seeing Ghari Shankar and Menlungtse and a thousand others for the very first time... and just like that very first time 18 years ago, I was humbled to look out at all the impossible ridges, sheer faces, and jagged summits that I will never be bold enough to attempt.
Finally, the plane turned just enough for me to get a clear view of Everest lording over everything and about 30 miles [50 kilometers] distant. I turned in my cramped seat in an effort to get Erica and Ed Dohring to recognize the dark pyramid now dominating the horizon. The engine kind of messed with their view so I went back to enjoying it for myself... picking out the South Summit and noting how little snow seemed to be covering the rock of the Southwest Face.
I smiled at the obvious lack of wind aloft and granted myself a clichéd climber’s observation that it was “too bad we weren’t going for the summit today.” Of course, then remembering that temps at 29,000 feet [8,840 meters] in the last days of March were likely around -50° F [-45° C] while with patience we could be in line for a balmy -15° F [-26° C] in the latter half of May.
Our Yeti Air Twin Otter started diving down into a steep sided valley and I lost the view of the big hill while focusing on the small ones not so far from our wingtips. Now in the lower Khumbu Valley, it was easy to pick out terraced fields and small farms as the plane lined up for a Lukla landing. The pilot greased it, somehow matching the plane’s steep descent to the opposite slant of the small runway. Within minutes we were out and walking toward a nearby teahouse to regroup as the planes sped noisily away. We sat and ordered a breakfast while discussing the best ways to keep 15 people looking out for one another on the trails. All were relaxed, as we knew the walk to Phak Ding would be short and relatively easy. In fact, we would lose about 700 feet [215 meters] of vertical over the course of the morning.
The trail took us past blossoming cherry and apple trees, past a few flowering dogwoods and a selection of well-tended vegetable gardens. Things were easy enough that the gang could spread out and pursue their own interests. Ed Viesturs, typically, wasted little time in getting the day’s work done. Walking a more moderate pace with Erica and her dad, I finished somewhere in the middle of the pack, along with Peter Whittaker and Melissa. Our camera teams had various projects along the way, including some vegetable momos that beckoned seductively from one café menu along the track.
Eventually, we were back to a full complement of climbers, cameramen, and trekkers hunkered down for the evening in our teahouse along the rushing river and protected from steadily falling rain (the good flying weather was merely temporary) in the suburbs of Phak Ding.