25 August 2014

Landing on Everest Base camp - An helicopter tour

Next stop: Everest Base Camp

A plane ride over the Himalayas was not enough. We boarded the 30min scenic flight and spend the journey looking through the windows, staring at the snow capped mountains and the bright sun reflecting on the white snow. 

The windows were scratched and dirty and we could not truly enjoy the views so we wondered, should we have taken that helicopter ride to Base Camp instead? Wouldn't it be amazing to see the sunrise over Everest from an helicopter? We were hooked

The best view we could get from the scenic flight

So the day after our scenic plane ride we were back at the domestic airport in Kathmandu, at the crack of dawn, to board our private helicopter ride to the highest mountain in the world.

After much waiting around we were finally in the helicopter, seat belt tightened, the sun on the horizon blinding us, fog hovering low in the sky. And the blades started to turn and off we went, into the paddies and the terraces that surround Kathmandu.
Terraces outside of Kathmandu

At first, the landscapes were green and brown, in all shades of a rich yet challenging agriculture land. The steep terraces are efficiently used to cultivate all sorts of local vegetables. Reminiscent of the rice terraces elsewhere in Southeast Asia, the journey to Everest Base Camp started with miles and miles of pretty hills.

Highest Buddhist temple in the world

Then, everything became arid and untouched. Around 45min after we had taken off from Kathmandu, we were still glued to the windows trying to take everything in.

Every time I am on an helicopter I have a feeling of detachment, as if I am not there but instead watching it all on the television. Everything looks miniature and yet as if so close you could extend your arm and touch it.

Lukhla airport runway

Around half way through the journey our pilot landed in Lukhla. Lukhla airport is the starting point of the Everest Base Camp ascend and one of the scariest airports in the world. The steep mountain wall on one side, the abyss on the other, and an extremely short runaway, landing here is a pilot's worst nightmare. As if to prove the point, a derelict plane lays on the side of the runaway. The pilot missed the runaway and crashed into the mountain wall. All passengers died on collision. Luckily, from an helicopter the landing is much less daunting.

The stop was required to drop fuel and we did not even disembark. When he boarded back, the pilot quickly hooked himself to the oxygen bottle. Attitude is the biggest danger of such trips and it is important that the pilot stays safe. 

Approaching Base Camp

We then quickly climbed to 3,000, 4,000 and finally over 5,000 meters high. On the way from Lukhla to Everest Base Camp you can spot the occasional trekker. The paths did not look particularly steep but rather a snaking flattish pathway, the main reason for failure to complete the trek is altitude sickness from lack of acclimatisation rather than poor fitness levels.

The landscape continued to be arid and ranging from beige to dark brown with white tipped mountains that looked like reef shark's tails. There are few inhabited places on the way with the exception of the Everest View Hotel and a couple of other accommodations mainly built for trekkers. A monastery, the highest in the world, on a privileged view point stands as if guarding he mountain.

The avalanche

All climbing permits for the rest of the year had been withdrawn the previous month when an avalanche killed several hikers and porters so Base Camp was extremely quiet and empty shortly after this sad event. The avalanche was clearly visible on the mountain wall. The steep ascend from Base Camp had been covered with a river of snow in an iceberg blue colour only pure ice or water can turn into. The tiny tents still waiting at Base Camp were in bright yellow and orange colours and looked like little dots from the sky. Some still kept hope they would be allowed to try the ascend.

 Aerial view of Base Camp

We hovered above Base Camp, toured the area at around 5,500 above sea level and landed slightly above the camp on a flat field with frozen soil at over 5,300 meters. When we got out of the helicopter temperatures were drastically lower than down in Kathmandu. In over an hour we went from the over 30 degrees in the valley to zero at Base Camp. The excitement of the moment numbed us and we felt nothing despite the freezing temperatures and glacial wind. The pilot ushered us out and warned us to come back after only a couple of minutes. He was afraid we could feel sick and collapse. The helicopter did not stop. So we jumped off and rushed to capture the moment with panoramic shots and selfies galore. 
Adrenaline filled selfie

Altitude sickness hit us straightaway and we both felt dizzy and slightly dazed after only a couple of minutes. 

Back in the helicopter, adrenaline pumping, we were still feeling the remnants of the altitude sickness which slowly subsided as soon as we started to descend. We wished we could have stayed longer.

Breakfast with a view

Everest View Hotel was empty excet for a Dutch father and son  who were on their way to the Camp. The hotel's terrace offers uninterrupted, indescribable views of the Himalayas and Everest peak. It is a stunning once in a lifetime view. We dipped toasts on egg yolks while we enjoyed the most majestic mountain in the distance. As the sun rose the sky cleared and became brighter making the view more pristine. The mountain, which has tempted so many climbers and taken the lives of several more seemed so harmless, so welcoming.

Breakfast terrace - Everest View Hotel

We got to enjoy the view longer than usual because our pilot was called to rescue a climber needing urgent evacuation so he left us there while he returned to Camp and down to Lukhla with the climber. No matter how much acclimatisation altitude sickness can hit the healthiest person and once it does, nothing can heal better than descending. Our pilot confessed that he was responding to such calls on a daily basis, in peak season, more than once a day. 

Was this real?

Back in Kathmandu, we were still touched by such a magical journey and firmly convinced we were incredibly lucky to have experienced this once in a lifetime moment, even if short. Should we ever have the time to trek to Camp, I now know it would truly be a once in a lifetime experience

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