“Do I, then, belong to the heavens?
Why, if not so, should the heavens
Fix me thus with their ceaseless blue stare,
Luring me on, and my mind, higher
Ever higher, up into the sky.”
Yukio Mishima, Sun and Steel
A snort of bemused laughter burst through the taxi, the driver’s eyes wrinkled with a smile, watching me through the rear view mirror.
“What do you mean, ‘Do Everest?’,” I asked. “Like, climb it?”.
“No offense sir, but I think you are maybe not that fit.” His grinning eyes replied through the mirror. I ignored that slice of painful truth and rolled two fingers in the air soliciting more information.
“Fly sir, you can charter a plane to fly around Everest.” he explained. “I can get you a deal on tickets if you wish”. Yes, yes, he knows a friend of a guy with a connection. Cabbies, God love ‘em. I had been in Nepal all of twenty minutes and already I was hip deep in some wild adventure planning. Fly around Mount Everest eh? Why would you not want to do that? The only immediate objection I could muster was crashing into the side of a mountain and dying a fiery death; or worse, surviving the crash and slowly freezing into a solid block of hippy while waiting to be rescued by some Sherpas and a sheepdog.
“Hell ya, I wish!” I told him, and that is how my flight around Everest began.
Nepal is one of the most beautiful countries I have ever seen. The landscape is so vast, the people so gentle and warm, the food so rich and scented it boggles the mind. And if crafts are your thing, the Nepalese are masters at all things wooden and woolen. We had ventured to Kathmandu (with me annoyingly singing Bob Seger the entire flight) to relax a little after returning from Korea. Quite literally nothing on the agenda other than browsing the markets, drinking yak milk and see a few places of worship. I had long wanted to visit the Cremation Place and the famed Monkey Temple. Flying around Mount Everest had never entered my mind; in fact, I didn’t even know it was an option. I can be a bit dim sometimes; for all my travel to exotic lands, I, on occasion, miss the obvious. It is the highest point on earth; of course there will be some kind of tourist event associated with it!
Here are the cold facts straight from wiki: Mount Everest, also known in Nepal as Sagarmāthā and in China as Chomolungma, is Earth’s highest mountain. Its peak is 8,848 metres (29,029 ft) above sea level. Mount Everest is in the Mahalangur Range. The international border between China (Tibet Autonomous Region) and Nepal runs across Everest’s summit point. Its massif includes neighboring peaks Lhotse, Nuptse and Changtse.
The next day, with the early morning sun just beginning to make its appearance, I found myself sitting in a small airport terminal about twenty minutes outside Kathmandu. Huddled in amongst the half dozen other passengers who had purchased a ticket, most of them through legitimate sources such as the ticket counter, I glanced down at mine. So obviously printed at home on someone’s desk top computer. A friend of a guy that knew the taxi driver. Hummm. Either way, the flight attendant took it without a second glance and handed me my Everest Kit. A small fold out card displaying the Mahalangur Range and naming all the peaks along with a small red chest sticker that said, “ I flew Smirik Airlines and didn’t crash into a mountain and die” or something like that. I don’t speak Nepalese. Also included was my full colour and nicely laminated boarding pass! I joke, but it actually was a nice keepsake; I have it still. We were herded out onto the tarmac as a group and waited for the tram.
When the small open buggy arrived, (more like a converted luggage cart) it took us to our shiny new ( well, it must have been new at some point) two prop, eight window, 1900G Airliner. For the first time since doing the ticket deal with the cabbie, I felt a little apprehensive. For the record, I do not have a fear of flying. I definitely used to; I was a white knuckler for years, but have long since conquered that fear. Yet the sight of this crate, sorry, aircraft, somehow dredged up all those deeply buried “falling out of the sky on fire” feelings. Nonetheless, I manned up and walked the gangplank, sorry, up the steps and boarded.
Now this was new! I had never had to crawl on my hands and knees to my seat before! I had done it once to the washroom on the flight back from Margarita Island, but that was a totally different situation. The cabin was so small, I literally had to bend at the waist to duck walk to my seat. With the passengers settled, the pilot fired up the twin engines. This was not my first time on a prop job; my brother is a pilot and has tried to dump me out into space on numerous occasions while flying in a single prop craft. There was also a puddle jump from Atlanta to Panama City that I slept through, but this was my first time on a turbo prop. As soon as we left the ground, I was relieved. We had darted up into the sky with such ease and agility, all doubts about the aircraft’s abilities were put to rest. It was obvious our pilot was experienced and in all likelihood, a well decorated fighter pilot or a world renowned stunt pilot! He was simply doing this for his love of flying and a little extra cash. Tell yourself whatever you need to in order to relax in a sixteen seater pre-war airplane I always say.
The beauty of Nepal slipped away beneath us; the vibrant greens soon gave way to shimmering blue as we climbed ever higher. The condensation on the windows crystallized then vanished and it wasn’t long before the stewardess drew our attention to the left side of the plane. Just like that, there they were. The Himalayas. I had seen the foothills up close in Rishikesh; I had also seen them at a distance flying to Guwahati. But this! This was heart stopping. How many descriptive adjectives can I use? Majestic, humbling, powerful. The sheer unbridled, untamed beauty of the most prolific mountain range in the world smacked me in the face like a cold wet towel.
I was awed. I don’t speak or write about religion; my thoughts and beliefs are my own. But I will tell you this: In that moment, looking out that small window suspended somewhere around 30,000 feet in the air, I felt closer to God. We were left to gape at the windows, mountain identification cards long forgotten as we travelled alongside the range. As we drew nearer the peak of Everest, I began to realize just exactly what Mount Everest was. Since childhood, we have all made reference to it, used it as an obscure example or reference for size or accomplishment; but when you actually see it, you realize the enormity, the sheer dominance of this monument to Mother Nature. It becomes more than a reference; it becomes an inspirational life altering moment.
Slack jawed I took it in, as best I could at least; I knew I was close to sensory overload. I recognized the slight feeling of disembodiment as if in a dream. The haze I am left in when my eyes deliver the beauty of a scene or a landscape faster than my mind can process it. I clearly remember seeing the powdery snow being blown off the peak by a frigid wind and instantly feeling the chill consume my body. Somehow through the thick tempered glass, the freshness of the unspoilt air filled my lungs. To this day I can close my eyes and remember that moment in every detail, every sensation, every emotion, instent recall; simply magnificent.
We banked sharply to return to Kathmandu and in my mind, the plane listed heavily like an overloaded cartoon ship as we all changed sides of the aircraft to prolonging our views of the mountain.
I made my way up to the cockpit to tell the pilot just how exhilarating an experience this was, but words failed me; an unusual and uncomfortable situation for me. As I stammered, he smiled at me knowingly; I am sure he has seen this reaction in passengers a thousand times before. With a curt nod of his head, he allowed me to sit up front with him for a while, snap a few pictures and take in some of the return journey. Slowly, the green returned beneath our wings; the elegant Napalese landscape replaced the harsh cold rock and I headed back to my seat for landing. What a flight this had been, what a flight indeed. A flight with Icarus, to close to the sun and among the heavens.