Your boy did it!
240 days of 'kadi tapasya' and my team was on top of Island Peak. I stand corrected, wanting something isn't enough. You have to obsess over it to get it.
I also stand corrected about another opinion I've had for a few years. Trekkers are the best humans on the planet. On this expedition, we met three unbelievably strong and amazing women - Awang, Hasvi and Reena. Over endless dal bhaats and honey ginger lemon teas, we became thick friends.
The story I'm about to share with you today is of lemons. You know the ones life gives you every once in a while. What do you do with them? Make lemonade, add vodka, squeeze them in other people's eyes or suck them and ask 'what else you got?'.
To provide you with some context, during season time the Nepal government shuts all flights between Kathmandu and Lukla. Instead, one has to drive 5 hours to a smaller airport, Ramechhap and take a flight from there to Lukla. Same process when you are returning.
October 6, 2023
After reaching the summit, we first walked back to High Camp to change our gear and get comfortable. We then walked to Basecamp for a quick bite before heading to Chukhung. Why the hurry? Well, Nepal spoils you. Throughout the trail, there are lodge villages with small tea houses catering to trekkers. We had decided that after the summit, we won't be sleeping in tents but on beds. It was almost 8pm by the time I rolled up to Chukhung. A hot plate of buff curry awaited.
October 7, 2023
I woke up and reminded myself that the dream had come true. After a few seconds of feeling content, I made my way to the dining area where a few others were soaking the morning sun peeping through the glass window. The air was crisp and perfect for a kadak masala chai. No one seemed to be in a hurry to pack and head back to Dingboche. As if some great battle had been won, soldiers rested against the lodge wall with tanned faces, bruised feet and a smile of victory that could be spotted from miles away.
It was when someone started talking about the wonderful bars Dingboche has, the team showed signs of being alive. The walk back to Dingboche was short and a round of beers accompanied our lunch. Dingboche felt special, special enough that I had made a slogan for it even before we had arrived there -
'bacche man ke sacche,
bolo dingboche dingboche dingboche'
As expected, the summit party was amazing. Ample Himalayan rum was consumed in one night to make up for the past month of detox. The liver was happy to be back in action.
October 8, 2023
An old friend, hangover, paid a visit next morning. It was good to see him. We had requested a chopper ride back to Lukla to avoid 3 days of walking. Just when we sat down to place our breakfast order, we were asked to rush and meet at the helipad in 10 minutes. Considering the walk to helipad was 7 minutes, we literally had a few minutes to stuff everything in the duffle and leave.
Two of our teammates, Abhi and Reena were leaving for Ama Dablam, they stayed back. The chopper could only accommodate 5 and Jayesh volunteered to stay back and find a ride in the next chopper.
Painful goodbyes followed. If you ever want to see grown men cry, this was the place to be. I wasn't very happy to leave my brother Abhishek behind and I am not one to hide how I feel.
The chopper felt much smaller than I imagined. It was only after we were squeezed in it that I realised that I had never sat in one before. To make matters worse, our expedition duffle bags were stacked on top of us.
Earlier that morning, while sitting in the dining area, I had overheard an American travel agent tell a story about a helicopter that lost one of its door mid-air. Luckily, only one bag was lost. No humans.
'Waheguru da khalsa, Waheguru di fateh' was my go to chant for the next 20 minutes. The chopper made an unexpected stop, at a patch of land that definitely didn't look like Lukla. Who cares, we were on ground.
Once the blades stopped hovering, the driver explained that weather in Lukla was not friendly and we had to wait for some time before he got clearance to fly again. We had landed at Phakding, a minute and a half air time away from Lukla.
We sat on the grass, going through each others' backpacks to find whatever we could to munch. Remember we had skipped breakfast? Coconut biscuits, dried meat, aam papad, candy, trail mix, GU gel. Quite a cocktail.
I made a video call home and told Kabir that his father had bought a chopper. He hung up.
After an hour or so, we hopped back on the chopper. Excited, that we will be in Lukla in a few minutes and head to Hikers Inn for a heavy continental breakfast. But, fate had other plans. The driver, steered the chopper, this time to Surkey. A large helipad that had 10 other choppers sitting. We were told that weather was still bad in Lukla, this was the closest we could go and would need to walk up to Lukla from here.
It was only a few minutes later, we figured out what was really happening.
People had been waiting at Surkey for days to get a ride to Ramechhap airport. Since Lukla airport had been closed for days, Surkey was seeing a lot of action. Our driver had secured a deal with foreign clients to take them from Surkey to Ramechhap after he dropped us there. I enquired and the rate to Ramechhap was $350 per person. We didn't even entertain the thought as no one of us had that kind of cash on us.
The route from Surkey to Lukla was paved with slippery climbs. Apparently it was the original route that Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay had walked on enroute to Everest. We joked that we paid a lot of money to hitch a chopper ride only to end up walking for 2 hours. We didn't know what else was in store for us, yet. Towards the last hour, it started to drizzle. By the time we reached Lukla, we were wet and feeling cold. The hotel owner took his own sweet time to give us our room keys which only made us more frustrated with the situation.
Irrespective, we had made it to our destination for the day. Only one thing stood in between us and Kathmandu, a short flight to Ramechhap airport. Few folks had flights on Oct 12th and the rest of us on Oct 13th. That gave us 4 buffer days. Surely, that would be enough time for weather to straighten up.
Jayesh, couldn't find a flight out of Dingboche and would have to start the long walk to Namche Bazar next day.
October 9, 2023
We set our alarms for 6:00 am as we were told that flights usually leave at around 8:00 am and to report at the airport at 7:15 am. I got up several times in the middle of the night but couldn't figure out the weather outside.
At 6, when we moved the curtains to look outside, it seemed we were swimming amongst clouds. There was no way anyone was leaving Lukla today. No point getting out of bed.
So, we walked to the airport for a cup of coffee and tried local delicacies making our way back to the hotel. In any country, you will find the best food when you skip the big restaurants and follow where the locals go.
The optimism of mountain folks is incomparable. Even though no flights had taken off from Lukla in 5 days, folks kept saying 'be ready tomorrow morning, weather should clear up!"
Jayesh walked 25 km from Dingboche to Namche in a single day, while we stuffed our faces silly.
October 10, 2023
The next morning, the weather did clear up. We quickly made our way to the dining area where about 50 other trekkers lined up for breakfast and a chance to catch a chopper.
Our guide came back and asked us if we wanted the good news or the bad news first. 'There's seats available on a chopper. Each seat is $800.'
Bhen****. Automatic response. The helicopter shark owners had sensed the blood in the water and it was time for them to feast.
Within minutes, the entire dining area was empty. Most trekkers who had been patiently sitting in Lukla for days, were now fed up. There was only one option left. Boycott.
We would walk from Lukla to Bupsa, the first village that has motorable road and hire taxis from there to Kathmandu. The hotel owner and many others said it would take us 5-6 hours to get to Bupsa. If we left right now (9 am) we could get there by lunch time, drive few hours, sleep at village Suleri and drive the next day to Kathmandu. Sounds like a plan!
With half-hearted excitement we left Lukla. We told ourselves, we are explorers and should adapt to any situation.
The walk down till Surkey was fine. Then the trail gets really thin and steep. The number of trekkers was exceedingly high coming down from Lukla. To top it off, every few hundred meters we would be greeted with a gang of mules carrying loads. For five hours, we trekked up in mule poop, leaning against the mountains every few minutes to let them pass by.
Surely we must be close, it's been 5 hours. Our guide inquired and said 'we are not even halfway through!' Wait, what? But, it was supposed to be 6 hours, max! I had not been this pissed in a while. In a stupid act of anger, I shoved an oncoming mule, only to have one of my trekking poles damaged. Serves me right.
We forced stop ourselves for lunch. My t-shirt was drenched in sweat and I was shivering. I only had one fleece left in my bag. This was supposed to be an easy 5 hour trek and most of our stuff was in the big duffle. At lunch, shit got serious. We realised everyone around us was just as clueless as we were. It was time to take matters in our own hands. The map suggested we were 7.5 kms away from Bupsa. With our current speed of 2 km / hr we would reach Bupsa around 7pm. We would walk faster and closer as a group to keep the morale high.
Then, a piece of news jolted our plans. Our luggage was almost an hour behind us, there was no point in hurrying and reaching the vehicles. Dammit.
After lunch, we had a little more energy and clarity where we were headed. We talked to each other more, keeping the spirits high. Every now and then someone would burst out laughing at the situation. We took a chopper from Dingboche to Lukla to avoid walking and here we were, walking again.
Just before it got dark, probably around 5:45 pm, we approached a spot where engineers had just blown up the place with dynamite. There was debris everywhere. But, there was only one way ahead, we had to cross it. As we ran for our lives, I thought about various headlines that would appear in the Indian newspapers if shit went south 'Trekkers lost after safely climbing Island Peak', 'Trekkers vanish in the remote region of Bupsa'.
It felt like we had entered a different galaxy. Low visibility, low light, trees hanging from the mountain with exposed roots.
After a few hours, we stopped for tea. I asked one of the local guides how far were we from Bupsa. The answer came '20 minutes'. Like a naive tourist I got happy and took his word. An hour later I asked him again and got the same reply. The only difference was that it was now pitch dark and we were making our way through what seemed like an extremely narrow patch of jungle, a perfect habitat for snakes. We had two girls with us and we did not have a good feeling anymore about the situation.
I stopped, turned around and gave the guide my piece of mind. I asked him to simply be honest with us. I'm sure it was my loud Punjabi tone, because within seconds the guide and his posse disappeared. Great!
In the far distance, we could hear men talk and engines roar. When we reached Bupsa, it felt a bigger achievement than reaching the summit of Island Peak.
A little leech had grabbed a hold of Sam's neck and was happily sucking blood away. In my state of tiredness, I ran around looking for a lighter. Later Sam asked me 'tu kya mere gale pe aag lagane wala tha?' A pinch of salt did the trick.
More bad news followed. One of our porters had fallen and broke his leg. The other porters were finding a replacement from nearby village and will start walking again soon. Our bags were almost two hours behind us. It was 7:00 pm now.
It was decided that we would all pile up in a single Bolero and head to the nearest dhaba for dinner. The second vehicle will bring all the bags as they arrive and meet us there.
When we left, it seemed liked we were driving on a piece of land where a meteor must have struck. I have never seen it before but if I were to guess, this is what it must look like. It was funny in the beginning, soon our body parts cried for relief.
That's Sam, passed out of exhaustion, not alcohol. That's tea, not whiskey. It was around 9 pm when we had reached this tiny restaurant. We were still 5 hours away from Sileri, where we were supposed to spend the night.
Remember the meteor crash site road I told you about? Trust me when I say this, that is the condition of road we drove on the entire night. There was not a single patch of paved road. The government of Nepal is least bothered to develop it because there are hardly any humans living on that patch and it is only used when flight services to and from Lukla are interrupted. Not a priority.
At 2:00 am, I woke up because our bodies were not bouncing up and down in the vehicle anymore. Our Bolero was parked head on facing the other Bolero. Apparently, the other vehicle had a flat tire and the driver did not have a spare. Our driver spend the next one hour trying to pull out his spare tire but the nuts were so well screwed in, that it won't open.
Finally, an approaching Bolero taxi was stopped and gave us their spare. We left the site at 4:00 am. We barely drove for half an hour when our driver swerved the vehicle to the left of the road, turned the engine off, laid his head on the steering wheel and dosed off. The other driver behind us, knew exactly what was going on and followed suit.
Afterall, they are humans and need sleep too. I rather have them sleep a few hours than drive sleepy. But you couldn't help but just laugh at the whole situation. Suddenly, the $350 deal that we were getting from Surkey to Ramechhap seemed lucrative.
October 11, 2023
We reached Sileri at 7:00 am, after 12 hours of rocky road driving.
This was as far as our current vehicles were going to take us. Two Scorpios waited for us and we quickly transferred our bags. After a long breakfast and some freshening up, we loaded ourselves for the last leg of the journey to Kathmandu. By now, we were scared of even asking people 'bhaiya, kitna time lagega?'. Not sure, how they will react, but quite sure it will take twice as long as suggested.
Our two new drivers were God send. They brought a sense of relief and joy to our journey. They talked about food and music and we instantly hit it off with them.
There's no trouble that a good plate of daal bhaat cannot resolve.
At lunch we were told that we had another 4 hours left in the journey. We all just looked at each other wondering what else was in store for us. Fortunately, except for one flat tyre and few cramps, the rest of the journey was smooth. The joy of seeing our hotel was enormous. I think I even hugged the hotel's service staff. You can spot him in the picture below.
We planned 8 months for Island Peak. Yet, the bigger adventure came unplanned. There were moments of frustration, anger, painful laughter, sleep deprivation, calm and hope. But above all, I will remember being in no control, forced to go with the flow. Like a baby in a basket, left on the river, upstream, making its way down. All the while, asking the higher power for protection.