As I clambered aboard my rescue helicopter, I looked around for the last time at the brown, barren landscape and windswept village of Dingboche. I was pretty sure this would be the last time I would see this scene. I can say that I wasn’t taking away many good memories. After three days and two sleepless nights of gasping for breath and shivering in the sub-freezing cold, I was looking forward to thick air and long sleeps.
One of our porters, Bhanshu, climbed aboard with me, apparently he drew the short straw. As the chopper roared back to life, we slowly rose into the thin air. One other passenger was aboard, a Nepali, who did not appear to be an evacuee. I also noticed that the pilot, a 50ish looking fellow dressed in a flight jacket and wearing a lanyard with an official looking ID, was wearing a nasal cannula supplying him with supplemental oxygen. The US FAA requires oxygen for pilots flying flying above 12,500 ft, so this made sense. The US FAA also requires passengers to be provided with the option of having supplemental oxygen above 14,000 ft. Apparently, the Nepali FAA (assuming they have one) has no such rule, or at least don’t enforce it. I was left to continue breathing the thin air. This was very surprising seeing as I was being rescued for AMS. Fortunately, I was sufficiently distracted by the adrenaline rush of flying in a helicopter, even though we briefly flew above 18,000 ft.
I know that Dip, when he called in to request the helicopter, also requested that they give me a “tour” of base camp before flying me down to Kathmandu. I was dubious that they would do this. Why waste the fuel, and why take a passenger being rescued for AMS to an even higher altitude? It became obvious that I was wrong when the pilot turned and climbed the helicopter up into the Khumbu valley.
What a ride! I may have started dying in the thin air, but with the rush of the scenery in the crystal clean sky, I did not notice. In just 10-15 minutes we flew up the valley, directly over Dhukla, Tengboche, and Gorak Shep, the villages I was scheduled to stay in over the next 3 nights, then onward to Everest Base Camp, marked by a city of hundreds of orange and yellow tents strung out for about a kilometer on the Khumbu glacier’s lateral moraine. As we approached Gorak Shep, with the viewpoint-hill of Kalapathar rising to the left behind the small collection of lodges, the enormous hulk of Nuptse hove into view, and seconds later Everest. Nuptse appeared as a giant icy black pyramid against the pale blue sky with Everest, obviously being blown by a strong wind, lurking behind. “Wow” doesn’t, begin to describe my wonder. This is a scene that will always be with me, burned permanently into my memory.
Once over Base Camp (such an inhospitable-looking campsite), we made a sweeping U-turn and retraced our path back down the Khumbu Valley. It took us only a few minutes to pass by each of the villages that were about a day’s walk apart. Down, down we went, finally pulling to the left of Namche Bazaar, over the evergreen forests we had climbed through several days before, and into Lukla, where we landed on the helipad next to the ski-jump of a runway at the Tenzing-Hillary Airport.
This was a scheduled stop on the way to Kathmandu to drop of my porter and to refuel (and drop of some small cargo items). I was told that it would be 30-45 minutes for the stop, so we climbed some steps up to the same lodge we stopped at after our landing at Lukla several days before. As we ate, I watch the clouds roll up the valley. Not good. After lunch, we rushed back down to the helipad, just in time to watch the last passenger load into our helicopter. Apparently, I had gotten bumped to the next flight, which I was told would be taking off shortly. The chopper roared to life…..but I could see the pilot looking intently down at the clouds rising toward Lukla. Suddenly, the engine powered down. The pilot got out and talked earnestly on his cell phone. He then climbed back into the pilot’s seat and shut down the engine. Apparently, no one was going anywhere soon.
After a wait of about an hour watching the fog swirl around and envelope the airport, we retreated back to the lodge to wait out the weather. It very much looked to me like I was going to spend the night at Lukla instead of Kathmandu. I was wrong though.
Part 3 to come…