Desperately seeking Mount Everest
The world's highest mountain is playing hard to get. That's why I'm awake at 4am, peering out the window of my $6 room in the Himalayan village of Tengboche (3867 metres) like a child looking for Santa on Christmas Eve.
The room supposedly has views of Everest. Only it doesn't. All I can see in the moonlight is a mass of cloud. So far, the closest I've got to seeing the mountain the locals call Chomolungma has been on the side of a can of (warm) Everest lager.
Surely, I can't have come this far not to at least get a glimpse?
The very concept of Everest exerts a powerful influence on imaginations across the world and nowhere is that influence more pronounced than in Tengboche. The tiny settlement is dominated by an impressive stone-built monastery, which is the traditional stopping off point for Everest expeditions en route to base camp.
The climbers pause there to acclimatise and make offerings for a successful trip. Tenzing himself was born nearby and briefly entered the monastery as a monk.
Along with about 30 other tourists, our small group of trekkers is presented to the abbot, or rinpoche, of the monastery, who turns out to be a benign-looking small man of advanced years in maroon robes and Eric Morecambe glasses. As we queue to meet him, make our small cash offering and receive a good luck "khata" scarf, there are plenty of irreverent jokes passed around at the back of the line, but as they get up close even the cynics fall silent, impressed by the solemnity and dignity of the occasion.
Much earlier that morning, bleary-eyed we also visit the monastery's main prayer hall, a wood-lined room that is a riot of red, yellow and gold paintings and decorations on every available surface. Two monks are chanting prayers in an occasionally wavering baritone.
There are intervals of silence and then the eerie chanting begins afresh, creating a sense of perfect, hypnotic stillness. It's all a very far cry from the mayhem of Kathmandu, where we landed just five days previously. The Nepali capital is a good-natured riot of people, cars, motorbikes and animals. Thamel, the tourist ghetto 20 minutes' walk from our comfortable base at the Kathmandu Radisson, is a fun diversion with its endless stores selling trekking equipment, clothing, souvenirs and handicrafts. Almost all the outdoor gear is proudly and openly counterfeit, bearing the logos of premium brands but sold at a fraction of the price - and quality - of the real thing.
But we're not here to shop. Really. We're on an eight-day "introductory" level trek with adventure tour company World Expeditions that will take us to Tengboche and celebrations to mark the diamond anniversary of the first ascent of Everest.
Along for the walk are two members of Australian climbing royalty: Greg Mortimer, who, with Tim McCartney-Snape, was one of the first two Australians to summit Everest without oxygen, and Brigitte Muir, who in 1997 became the first Aussie woman to stand on the top of Everest. (She insists she didn't actually stand on the summit - she sat.)
Our first glimpse of the "real" Nepal is through the window of a twin-propeller Dornier 228, en route from Kathmandu to the Tenzing-Hillary Airport at Lukla.
From a height of several thousand metres, the terraced fields below look like real-world contour lines on a map. Switchback dirt roads wind to the top of green and brown ridges draped with shreds of cloud. In the distance we see our first snowy peaks.
Tenzing-Hillary Airport is, by reputation, one of the world's most dangerous and, while there is never a point at which we feel unsafe (the local pilots know their job), the landing on the 400-metre runway is high on drama. Surrounded by mountains, this is a one-shot only proposition, with no chance of a "go-around". The plane roars in heading for the side of the mountain and then jams on the brakes and executes a neat pirouette to the right. Passengers and luggage are disgorged quickly before the Dornier winds up again and heads off back to Kathmandu, taking advantage of the good flying conditions before the cloud descends.
The first day's trek is a steady two-hour downhill amble to World Expeditions' comfortable permanent campsite at the village of Monjo. The countryside is the Nepal of all our imaginings - if a little more lush and greener than expected. We pass through neat villages with terraced, dry-stone walled fields growing peas, potatoes, cauliflower, cabbage and barley that could be demonstration organic farms, everywhere there are gaily coloured prayer flags fluttering and at regular intervals along the track there are gaudy prayer wheels. Gorgeous, chubby children wave shy hellos.
Our constant companion is the epic Dudh Kosi river, in full spate with the near onset of the monsoon season. The river, whose name translates as "milk river", is well named as the combination of billions of tiny bubbles and suspended clay particles give the water a distinct opaque appearance.
We cross and recross the Dudh Kosi via, to me at least, a terrifying series of pedestrian suspension bridges 50 metres or more above the roaring waters. I can't decide whether it's a comfort that the bridges are festooned with prayer flags and khata scarves. Mortimer, ever alert to what's happening in the rest of the party, divines my discomfort and with a casual, "Shall we do this one together?" tackles the next suspension bridge with me, considerably lessening my fears.
As the days wear on and I accumulate more and more bridges, my fears gradually lessen, although the morning a porter decides to herd half a dozen fully laden yaks onto a bridge behind me, setting it oscillating wildly, has me briefly offering a few prayers to whoever is the local bridge deity.
The trekking days soon fall into a seductive rhythm. Our combined groups number about 30 trekkers plus a crew of some 35 locals - porters, cooks, trek leaders.
Our leader is 28-year-old Sonam Sherpa, who proves to be a gracious, funny "fixer" for whom nothing is too much trouble and, because he's local to the area, also has the answers to pretty much any question we throw at him.
Days begin early - between 5.30am and 6am - with a cup of hot, sweet, milky tea poked cheerfully through the flap of the tent. Tea is followed by "washy, washy" - a bowl of hot water for morning ablutions. Kitbags are then packed for the porters to hoist on their backs two at a time and carry to the next stop. A carb-heavy breakfast follows (World Expeditions uses its own cooks, who are trained to prepare food to Western hygiene standards. No one in our party suffered stomach problems, despite the dire and gleeful predictions from every second person at home, on hearing about my upcoming trip). After a morning's walking it's more carbs for lunch then a couple of hours' trek to the next camp, more tea, washy, washy, a big dinner and then bed by 8.30pm. Party Central it ain't.
On the trail itself, the days are often hard but supremely satisfying against a backdrop of almost indescribably beautiful and dramatic scenery. Because we are trekking at the fag-end of the "season" with the monsoon just around the corner, much of the time we share the walking only with gangs of heavily laden dzos (half yak, half cow), donkeys, horses and, at higher altitudes, genuine yaks. There are also dozens of porters, each bent under their impossible load, slowly picking their way up and down the steep trail.
The porters carry literally everything - not only the kitchen sink but the whitegoods as well (we considered asking the guy with the fridge on his back for a cold drink, but he looked pretty distracted at the time).
After Tengboche it's mostly downhill, as we retrace our steps to Lukla. The richer oxygen floods our lungs and the walking becomes easier.
All too soon we are back in Kathmandu after a mad scramble to get out of Lukla when all flights are grounded by the weather. The only solution is a helicopter charter and an exhilarating 30-minute joy flight through the Himalayan valleys.
An intense experience like Nepal takes a long time to process, as memories, experiences and sights crowd in on one another. But the one image that rises above all others for me came as the sun rose that morning over Tengboche.
The clouds did finally begin to shift and suddenly Everest and its near neighbours Lhotse and Nuptse tantalisingly started to appear in a monumental dance of the seven veils.
By late morning the whole panorama was on show, familiar yet viscerally emotive and endlessly fascinating.
It sure beat the hell out of a picture on a can of beer.
The writer travelled as a guest of World Expeditions.
GETTING THERE There are daily flights from Kathmandu to Lukla operated by a number of local airlines and all are weather dependent (yetiairlines.com).
TREKKING THERE World Expeditions operates a huge range of trekking adventures in most parts of Nepal, catering for all levels of ability, from children to experienced mountaineers. The 12-day Everest Trek to Tengboche Monastery costs $2070. The price includes all meals, porterage, accommodation and the use of a down sleeping bag and jacket.
MORE INFORMATION worldexpeditions.com.