My alarm goes off at 5.15am and I peek my head out of my sleeping bag feeling the icy tent temperature immediately cool my cheeks and nose, yep freezing again! I roll around a bit in my sleeping bag freeing my gloved hands and pull my hat and buff off to feel the air on my face better, I’ve got thermals on, a hooded warmer, socks and down booties and start to get ready for the quick change into day clothes in the freezing tent, I know we are on a heli in an hour so I’m not that bothered today as I’m looking forward to getting to Kathmandu and a little warmth and comfort. My back reminds me it’s still not happy and I drop another super strength painkiller.
It’s so cold at night in basecamp that you have to keep things you don't want to freeze inside your sleeping bag with you, so out comes my iPhone, my spare iPhone, my iPad, my Garmin transponder, my 1 litre water bottle (boiling water when I went to bed is now cooled to drink and I drop an electrolyte tablet into it to get me started), head torch, wet wipes (trying to make an attempt to clean yourself with a frozen brick of wet wipes is no fun I’ve quickly learnt in mountaineering so they sleep in my bag with me), headphones which I unusually find quickly rather than the usual 10 minute search, two solar chargers, heated gloves and some spare gloves - it’s a busy place my sleeping bag!
I meet David, Silvia and Alex outside once I’m up, dressed, packed and ready for off, the camp is quiet as we’re up before anyone else and the option of a cuppa or breakfast before we go is clearly not on offer, we head up and over to the Elite helipad behind the cafe dome tent and see a few other people milling about so stand with them, wondering if there are more than one helicopters coming or if this is going to be ‘first five on’ situation??
“Hi Steve” a Nepalese man in a blue down jacket shouts over to me, I wave back and then realise its the doctor who treated me for covid in intensive care in Kathmandu a year ago - of all the helipads in all the world………..we spend awhile catching up and querying thoughts on going down to Kathmandu for a few days mid-way in the expedition and he seems to agree its ok and a good idea so that will do for me and I relax a bit about leaving the altitude of basecamp. We hear the whir of helicopter blades coming up the valley and all eyes turn to spot the machines heading towards us, they fly straight past and land on another helipad way behind us higher up into basecamp, next one same thing, next one same thing. We stand around hopping from foot to foot on the stone helipad for around 50 minutes before we give up and head back into the cafe, passing Bimal along the way who says the heli has been delayed (no shit sherlock!) and will be here in about an hour, we get into the cafe and sit around the little gas heater and Santos brings us some hot water to drink.
It doesn’t seem long before we get a shout that a heli is inbound with Nims and that’s our ride down, we grab our bags and hastily get ourselves back to the helipad just as the helicopter comes into land, the helipad is about 4m across so everything is a bit tight trying to get the heli down passenger off and us on but it all works, we get two minutes to say hi to Nims as he jumps off with Asma Al Thani, his private 1 to 1 client from Qatar who I first met in November last year on Ama Dablam and Piotr Madej the General Manager of the Kathmandu Marriott and Magda’s husband who has come up to surprise her with a visit (cute!), they climb out with around 30 boxes of pizza and treats for the other members of the basecamp team as we’re loaded in and airborne again within 3 or 4 minutes.
Silvia who is coming with us doesn’t make it onto the heli as it can only carry a maximum of three down from basecamp to the next stop so she’ll have to wait an extra 15 minutes or so for it to relay us down the mountain and return to for her and a few others (the seats have already been taken out of the heli to reduce weight so it can even fly to this point so loading is important, sort of, sometimes I think its a case of fill it and if it takes off from the ground its fine - it’s going downhill anyway!), I notice the doctor is also still waiting on the pad as we take off - oh well snooze you lose as they say!
We thunder down the valley for around 10 minutes staying close to the valley floor with the rising mountains all around us before the heli flares up and we drop down and land in a village called Pheriche where we all jump out and wait in a ‘field’ whilst the pilot goes back for Silvia and the doctor, as it takes off the downdraft from rotors blows someone’s basecamp vegetable supplies all over the place so as soon as its gone we pick up the shopping spread around and shove it back in bags - 10 second rule it will be fine, no one will ever know their leafy greens have been blown all over the place on the way up!
Once our heli returns we all get back on, the four of us and some random guy who doesn’t seem to know whether he should be on or off but he stays sitting and we go, his bags chucked off to make way for us and hopefully re-stored somewhere underneath the heli. Next stop is Lukla the main ‘hub’ airport into the mountains and we land on the newly built helipad which is very busy, I count 10 helicopters all with rotors going as we come in and some are taking off even before we touch down and the door is opened by a very jolly Nepalese man who gestures us to get out and head towards the main building which we do, hot tea is handed to us and then he wanders off laughing to himself - no idea what’s going on, what time our next flight is or what we should be doing, at some point he returns with a colleague who photographs our passports and then he’s gone again. As we stand around the ‘departure lounge’ Deeya appears who was airlifted out of Camp 2 on the rotation with suspected HAPE and infection, we thought she’d already gone down to Kathmandu but apparently had only got this far and then got stuck in Lukla for several days, hopefully she will make it down to Kathmandu with us - poor thing, at least she looks better than she did in Camp 2 now! We forget she’s a movie star in Nepal so there’s a steady stream of people asking for selfies with her before she gets the chance to pull her buff up and hat down and go and hide in the corner of the lounge away from multiple iPhone’s being shoved in her face, I must say credit to her though when asked she poses and smiles with everyone ever the professional, I think had it been me I’d have been more a of a diva and told everyone to politely F off.
About 45 minutes later Piotr also arrives at Lukla, he managed to get 30 minutes with his wife before he had to get back on the heli and come down, he’s not acclimatised and it turns out had set off the day before with Nims and they had got to 2 or 3 minutes outside of basecamp but had to abort due to bad weather and were forced to land and spend the night in Pheriche further down the mountain, Piotr without any acclimatisation (or proper mountain clothes) had spent the night with a Sherpa laying next to him with an oxygen tank and mask just in case altitude sickness overtook him in his sleep - I can’t imagine it was a restful night for either party but I hear there was some Black Label cocktail with butter consumed before bed that probably softened the blow for them.
A few hours wait in Lukla and then the giggling Nepalese airport controller is back and gesturing towards an empty pad where a heli is coming into land and we start towards it. As soon as the heli is down the doors are open the passengers and luggage come tumbling out, seats are refitted and our stuff starts to go in, attendees start to add more fuel (a fair bit down the side of the heli rather than in it that I choose to ignore and think that must be normal) and then were loaded in ready to go ……………….and the pilot goes for a cuppa!!
Another 10 minute wait and then finally all passengers and pilot are in, doors are shut and locked and we’re pulling up and away from Lukla heading down the mountain towards Kathmandu, the landscape of green mountains now we are lower down is stunning and its a 35 minute flight to Kathmandu but not long before we see the vast spiralling city come into view and were flying over the rooftops towards the airport, efficiency is better here and we are landed, out, transferred to the gate and in the Elite vehicles enroute to the Marriott before we know it - overall a slightly longer 6 hour journey than the original 50 minutes we expected!
Arriving at the Marriott Piotr has kindly held a breakfast table for us (unfortunately he couldn’t get on our flight and in the end had to take a fixed wing flight back at 3 in the afternoon!) which was the greatest gift we could have been given, as we sat around the table drinking coffee, eating fresh fruits, baguettes and cheese it reminded me of the scene in classic 1958 film called ‘Ice Cold in Alice’ (before my time for any smart arse comments) when they finally get their ice cold beer - breakfast was just magical and we ate like Kings, suddenly starving, grateful for such fresh food - I will treasure that breakfast for many many years as we sat laughing and smiling together, the four of us, we’d made it down, we’d done our rotation and now we recharge before the main event!