What a difference a day or two can make. The First Ascent team walked out of Namche and down through the farms and fields of Phak Ding the other morning. In short order, we’d gone from snow, ice and rock to wheat, barley and happy little kids in school uniforms crowding the trails. Erica Dohring and I took the standard six hours to cover the walk from Namche to Lukla under mostly cloudy skies. Compared to the Lhotse Face or the Khumbu Icefall, the stroll to Lukla is not terribly difficult... but sure enough, it ends with uphill just when most tired Everest enthusiasts would prefer for it to be downhill. Through good luck, we didn’t get a downpour until we were in the Lukla suburbs and heading for the inn. Our gang was assembled in a spacious and warm dining room, already shuffling cards and drinking tea and settling in for the “airstrip hang” that begins and ends so many of the climbs we frequent. That is the point at which you’ve done all that you can do with your legs and it is now up to weather and pilots to figure out the rest. I believe our team was ready for the hang to take days since the post-cyclone pattern seemed a lot like pre-monsoon already (translation: clouds giving way to clouds). Pilots in these mountainous regions are known to favor visibility and smart passengers don’t quibble with that preference.
We wiled away the afternoon, looking out on the rainy strip of tarmac without much angst over schedules... it being our belief that the team duffels were still buried in Base Camp snowbanks anyway and that onward travel without some change in that status was going to be limited. Lam Babu burst the duffel-induced-lassitude around dinner when he announced that he’d received word from Tendi that all of the loads had actually left Base Camp as of that very afternoon. We went to sleep in Lukla once more believing that it was possible to get a little lucky on weather. And sure enough, yesterday morning came around sparkly and clear... so much so that during breakfast we watched four planes buzz in and out on the tilted strip.
Lukla airport is something similar to a sinking aircraft carrier. There is just room enough for a short-takeoff-and-landing plane to touch down at the lowest end at full speed, flying upward... reverse prop pitch in a rush of air and noise... Jam down the speed to nothing and then quickly taxi into a little corner at the top of the apron so as to get the heck out of the way of the next plane. The aircraft tend to land and takeoff in waves of three and four at a time, every two hours or so (allowing a Kathmandu round trip) and our scheduled flight was to be part of the second round. Clouds showed up and gathered on the peaks and began to fill the valleys... but not enough to spoil our day. Our flight went off without a hitch or a hiccup and by 11 a.m. we were checking into hotels in big and dusty Kathmandu.
Haircuts, shaves, neck massages, showers, internet, taxi-rides, telephones, televisions... it all came flooding back, just like that. At least a version of it all came back... Kathmandu amenities are not exactly the modern comforts that we are spoiled with at home, but they are very welcome, nonetheless. We won’t actually head for the international airports without the aforementioned duffels and those—we hope—are on animal backs approaching the Lukla outskirts right now... but then they are subject to the same delays as people (cargo planes don’t do any better in mountain-filled clouds). In any case, we expect to be on bigger, less weather-dependent airplanes in a few days time, winging it over the Pacific. The climb is over. The team still has a few fun get-togethers, including a big dinner with the Sherpa staff this evening, but for the most part now, we go back to being on our own.
There is souvenir shopping and tourism (yesterday happened to be the 56th anniversary of Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary’s summit—there were festivities and observances), but then there is also just plain easy hotel lounging. We’ve all got tons of catching up to do on current events and email. Personally I don’t mind the slow pace of waiting for duffels... it isn’t simply that the past 10 weeks of Everest climbing were hectic and charged with danger and the fear of failure, it is usually the 10 weeks before that as well, when Everest hangs in the future and must be constantly and vigorously prepared for. By contrast, this after-Everest-and-before-home limbo period is quiet and slow-paced. The monkey is off the back for a little while... the rat has been fed, etc.
It may be time to go back and read up on the Everest experiences of the teams that surrounded us for the past season... or to peruse even our own accounts (now that it all can be put in some perspective). Such study and reflection may give us closure... or possibly aggravation—one never knows... but it will be time to wrap up our thoughts on Everest 2009 in any case. We’ve all got other mountains—of one sort or another—to climb in the near future.
My hope is that in sharing our trip via text, photos and video, we’ve given an honest and entertaining glimpse of a place and experience that enthralls us. Having accomplished our personal goals of challenging a big, dangerous and magnificent mountain while keeping safe and coming down as friends, I also hope that we’ve succeeded in our “business” of demonstrating conclusively that Eddie Bauer is back in the expedition game... to stay.
Thanks very much for following the trip through to its end and for the many thoughtful and friendly comments that have been passed our way.