Monday, April 11, 2011

Rendezvous with Everest

  Kongde Ri

This was definitely the highlight of our Nepal trip. I wish I could sound like an extreme mountaineer and say I trekked to get to Kongde. But our hosts, EO Nepal, wanted to give us an experience of a lifetime the safest and most comfortable way. Trekking? Hmmm.. maybe not. After all, we were a group of entrepreneurs, not mountaineers.

Normally it would take 5 trekking days just to get to Kongde. This was not "base camp". This was an area lower than base camp, but the closest and highest one could get to have a magnificent view of those glorious Himalayan peaks.


This was the first time a group of this size was flying up the mountains that our hosts even had to get special permission from the government. They also had to round up 10 high-altitude helicopters from various companies to accomplish this mission.

Our team leader for this expedition was army colonel Bikas JB Rana, a very famous rescue pilot and himself an owner of an airline company. Our other team leader was Everest summiteer Tashi Tenzing, grandson of the world famous Tenzing Norgay, who along with Sir Edmund Hillary was the first ever to conquer Mt. Everest in 1953.

The evening before, in the gardens of the Hyatt Kathmandu (where we were staying), we had the pleasure of listening to Tashi Tenzing tell us about the Himalayas, the Sherpas and his riveting Everest experience. Tashi is very articulate, engaging and inspiring.  That evening, the granddaughter of Sir Edmund Hillary, Amelia Rose Hillary, was also present! Unfortunately I didn't get to hear her short talk as my phone rang with a Manila call at the exact time she got on the mike. Grr!

After this presentation, we were suitably prepped and excited for the next day's event.

We left the the hotel at 6 am, and after a quick briefing at the airport, took off and headed towards the mountains. We rode in awed silence, our helicopter climbing to heights of a few thousand meters. This first leg of the trip took forty-five minutes.

We flew so close to the mountains, we could see the homes of mountain dwellers.  Everything below looked so remote.

There was just one road snaking through the mountains and some areas didn't even have road access. I wondered how many days it took for the people down there to get from one place to another.

There were terraces all over the mountains. The only mountain terraces I was aware of until this point are the famous Banaue Rice Terraces in the Philippine mountain province, which is supposed to be the 8th wonder of the world. The Himalayan terraces would probably also be one of the wonders of the world if they weren't overshadowed by the snowy peaks that loom high above them.

In the distance, the tips of the world's highest peaks were making an appearance. Although it was a bright and clear Kathmandu day, the weather kept changing as we got closer to the mountains.  Inside the noisy helicopter, Tashi had pointed to this mountain range as 3rd highest peak in the world. All the peaks looked the same to me and I was too embarrassed to  ask  "but which peak are you referring to?"

I  remembered to test my new polarized-lens shades by putting it in front of my camera. Don't you think there's a big difference?  If you plan to make this once-in-a-lifetime trip, you better make sure you have the proper shades.

The mountains which were way below us a little while ago were steadily rising and coming up right beside us. From flying above them, I could see that we were soon going to be flying between them! Everything that was green and brown was turning blue and white.

 We landed in this flat area where some of us got off to make the chopper lighter.  

Gasp! The view around us was just spectacular!

Then the rest went higher and higher, to the final destination

Our final destination was 4200 meters high (12,000 ft).  We knew our hosts had arranged something for us at Kongde, but we didn't realize the extent of their preparations.

As we got off the helicopter, we were greeted by women draping each of us with silk scarves, Sherpas doing a welcome dance, and Tibetan monks ready to  give our trip a blessing.  And then just below the ridge, a full champagne breakfast awaited us!

I know it was a major challenge for our hosts to execute the flying part of this expedition, but setting up this breakfast must have really been a logistical nightmare! They went all out--there was a warm buffet, a cold buffet, and champagne all around. And mind you, not just any champagne...

We were actually on the "viewing deck" of Kongde Hotel, one of the highest hotels in the world, and part of the Yeti Mountain Home lodges which is owned by an EO Nepal member. Thirty members of his staff from different lodges were here to make sure our breakfast went smoothly.

We were all so giddy and excited to be up here, and the first bottle of champagne had yet to be popped open! We had breakfast, took pictures, chatted with the Sherpas, took more pictures, hit golfballs into the Himalayas, took even more pictures! Then of course we toasted to our hosts, EO Nepal,  for this incredible experience they meticulously planned for us.

A number of the Sherpas with us that morning were experienced Everest summiteers, including one of those who had accompanied the three Filipinas who summitted Everest in May of 2007.  Looking back, it would've been a good opportunity to interview them about their individual experiences, but I was just too distracted to think of asking them anything substantial. Too bad.

The view from Kongde

It was freezing up here and we were thankful our hosts thought of providing each of us with own EO-logo down jackets, cashmere caps and scarves!  At 4200 meters the air is thin, and staying too long at this altitude would exhaust us city-folk. Many were light-headed and it wasn't because of the champagne!

In the time we were up at Kongde, the clouds had rolled in and out more than twice. Sometimes it was foggy and we didn't have a view. At other times it would suddenly clear up, and all the peaks would come into view again. After comparing notes with friends on other helicopters, we realized our group was lucky that we had made it to Kongde without a hitch. Some helicopters were not able to land in Kongde right away and had to wait it out on that flat area right across, hoping and praying the clouds would clear up long enough for them to attempt a landing.  It must have been so frustrating. In the end, everyone's "summit" experience was successful. Whew!

Mt. Everest is the highest mountain in the world at 8900 meters (29,000 ft). Of the fourteen peaks that are known as the eight-thousanders,  eight of them lie on the Nepal side of the Himalayas making the landlocked country one of the most desired destinations for trekkers and mountaineers (and uh, entrepreneurs?)

Two hours had flown by quickly and it was now time to go down. We hopped down the mountains again, transferring from one helicopter to another.

Leaving Kongde

From Kongde to the flat area, from the flat area to Lukla airport, and then from Lukla airport back to Kathmandu. The last ride was again 45 minutes long.  Exhausted by all the excitement, we fell asleep on the chopper ride back. Eegads, we are such wimps!

 First hop down to the flat area across, to change choppers

 Then off again...

Then to the famous Lukla (now called Tenzing Hillary) airport
 For one last transfer...

Then off again for Kathmandu.

 It's a 45-minute helicopter ride back to Kathmandu from Lukla airport

 Lots of brick factories lie right outside the capital

We were back in the Hyatt before noon. In four hours, we had achieved what most trekkers accomplish in a week, our heart rates aerobic only because of the staggering views before us.

Back in Manila, I happened across this quick interesting read of the early Everest Adventures. Each chapter is a gripping short story of expeditions starting in 1920 when the British first attempted to climb Everest. Tenzing Norgay Sherpa and New Zealander Edmund Hillary's summit experience is detailed in the middle of the book.

As I read through the experiences of these extreme trekkers, I find myself catching my breath. If they are extreme trekkers, we are the extreme... tourists! Haha!

To our wonderful hosts, EO Nepal, Thank you, Dhanybhad, Salamat, for going all out, doing everything in your power, and "climbing every mountain" to give us this truly once-in-a life-time, only-in-EO experience.

This was a definitely a 10!

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