Tuesday 21 March

(magnify) Preparing for take-off

Terrible night – I just didn’t feel like sleeping. Finally drift off just before our wake up call comes at 5 am. Quick slice of toast and coffee before we hit the road for the airport. Our aim is to get first in the queue for the fleet of planes that ferry trekkers to Lukla for the start of the trail.

We’re soon joined in the departure lounge by other trekking groups, but we seem to be ahead of the game, and by seven, we are underway on a Yeti Airlines Twin Otter, up through the Kathmandu smog and into bright sunlight.

It is not long before we are back in fog. Eventually the engine noise lessens and we appear to be approaching our destination. The cockpit door is open, but I can’t see any runway on the side of the mountain that we are approaching, until that is I realise that I have to look upwards.

(magnify) Landing at Lukla
Lukla Airport

The pilot pulls the nose of the plane up and executes a perfect touchdown. The runway is angled steeply uphill and the little plane loses speed rapidly. Just in front of a high stone wall across the end of the runway (this is not an airport where you can overshoot your landing) we turn right onto the parking apron.

Tea is served in a dining room above the runway, from where we have a grandstand view of other planes coming in. There is a slight chill in the air. Snow-scattered peaks tower around us. We will eat brunch before setting off, but before that there is time to look around the town. The way down is by a flight of steps next to the runway, and then a right-turn into the main street. Most of the buildings lining the street are lodges and shops, selling everything from porters’ baskets to counterfeit North Face duvet jackets. I’m looking for a pee bottle, having been warned that one of the effects of altitude is to make you feel the call more often, and that it can be pretty cold to get out of the tent in the middle of the night.

(magnify) Porters’ loads

Brunch consists of chips, vegetables, and a sandwich containing hot cheese and unspecified leaf. We hit the trail at 11 am, just as a few spots of rain are falling.

The way is mostly downhill at first, the valley floor to our left. Purba, one of our climbing Sherpas, is leading. According to Buddhist tradition, the right hand is most auspicious, and every time we come upon a Mani stone or prayer pole we are obliged by custom to pass it on our right. Some of the Mani stones are huge boulders carved with symbols depicting the Om mani pad me hum mantra. Unfortunately, this often means taking a detour down a steep narrow path off to the left of the main trail and then back up on the other side of the stone.

As we continue down the valley the rain becomes progressively heavier and the cloud lower. Last night’s lack of sleep is catching up on me, and a couple of times I stumble as my eyes close for a second.

There are lots of porters and their yaks on the trail. It can be difficult to overtake the yaks on the narrower parts. They appear to be docile enough, but those horns look like they could inflict some damage. The rules of the trail are to give way to walkers coming up hill, and to all porters and yaks.

We finally stop out of the rain at the Lama Lodge in a wooden dining room constructed on poles by the side of the trail looking out over the valley. There we drink hot lemon and try to dry out a little.

Campsite at Phakding

It’s not much further to Phakding and our campsite for the night at Sunrise Lodge. We first spy the orange tents across the valley, and reach them via a metal suspension bridge.

It is mid-afternoon. The tents are surprisingly spacious – they are Vango Force Ten Mk Vs – there is enough height to stand bent over in the middle, handy for putting on trousers. We congregate in the dining room of the lodge and start trying to dry our sodden cagoules and boots.

While we are there a German comes over and asks if we would be willing to take part in some medical tests. We are all a bit apprehensive at first, but it turns out to be nothing invasive. He is developing a new device to test for acute mountain sickness based on sound reflections off the eardrum. The test involves having our blood oxygen saturation levels measured and then a device pushed into our ear that emits a series of chirping noises. He asks us to look out for his colleague when we reach Gorak Shep near Everest Base Camp so that we can be measured again up there for comparison. My blood oxygen saturation is an adequate but not world-beating 94%, but my heart rate is a healthy 52 bpm.

I’m in bed by seven. The sound of distant revelry and drumming and the river lull me gently to sleep.