The height of our ambition today was Mount Everest. We got up early to be collected from our hotel in downtown Kathmandu. The city which had been teeming with colour and life just a few hours earlier was now shut in and sleeping tight behind grey roller blinds. So we sped easily through the empty narrow streets and arrived early at the airport. We left our drivers, who promised to be there when we came back, and walked into the special part of the airport reserved for those who prefer to climb mountains by propeller rather than by rope.
It was confusing to say the least. Half a dozen airlines operate round tours to Everest, with delicious names like Agni, Buddha, Guna and Yeti. Each had their own colourful booth. People were milling around everywhere.
We had to pay some sort of tax – although it was not clear why. Once again we had the cash challenge, which we managed to negotiate, eventually finding a combination of currencies which they liked the look of. We were eased through various layers of thin security (for a small fee) and into another waiting area.
This was an international departure lounge. A visible mix of Europeans, north Americans, Asians and Japanese. Flights – which on the website had been precisely timetabled – were being announced In a seemingly random order – all except ours. The 1980s looking TV screen containing departure information was of no help. The flight announcer was repetitive and insistent “Flight 311, Flight 311, Flight 311”. Like a school mistress calling her class in for the next lesson. Geography in this case.
As we waited, we fell into conversation with three Canadians – Keith, a tall smiling man, with an occasional hint of smarminess, his pleasant wife and her silent companion. They were on a six month tour of Nepal, India, the middle east and various parts of the Mediterranean. Travelling featherweight with only a back pack each. An appealing thought for those of us wearily used to lugging weighty suitcases around the world. I speculated as to which absolute essentials one would carry round, but didn’t dare ask. And what did they wear whilst their clothes were in the hotel laundry? Perhaps they were naturists. Sometime my imagination just goes too far.
Finally it was our turn – the teacher announced our number – and we wandered out of the waiting room onto the tarmac. Visibility looked poor, and the morning light was low on its dimmer switch.
We boarded a bus for a ridiculously short ride across the tarmac. We were first on with our Canadian friends, followed by some teenage Indians, older Americans, Europeans and a particularly excited and animated couple of Argentinians. I tried in vain to conduct a conversation with a couple of aged grinning Japanese men who used hand and arm movements entirely absent from the international gestures handbook. We drove past a row of planes – all glued together from the same airfix kit, with cute pointed beaks – but dressed in different labels and colours. There was a rumour that some had larger windows than others – but it was hard to tell without a tape measure.
We disembarked and queued up for our plane. The door opened and dropped down to provide a set of stairs. There were about a dozen rows of two seats on the left and one on the right. After a quick anxiety moment about the middle seat, we realised the plane was two-thirds full allowing all to have a window seat as advertised. The smartly dressed flight attendant came round with boiled sweets, and apart from some unintelligible announcements, we were left to our own devices.
This is how it works. The plane goes up (as they do) and flies a straight line east, affording all of those on the left of the plane with a spectacular view along the granite edge of the Himalayas. Then it turns round and flies a straight line west, affording all of those on the right of the plane with a spectacular view along the granite edge of the Himalayas. I was seated on the right but cheated by taking a free seat on the left on the way out. Others leaned across to peer through the portholes. Surprisingly the plane kept level – not all of the traversers were as light as I am.
The windows were small and grubby on the outside. A tricky problem to solve under any circumstances, even if you know a reliable local window-cleaner. I struggled to focus my camera or keep it steady. I have a fair few unique shots of the dirty window or blurry mountain-shaped shadows. The visibility was still hazy and the pilot was unable to get as close as he sometimes does because of the imperfect weather conditions.
But despite all of that – it was absolutely breath-taking. The greatest mountain show on the planet.
Look at your atlas and see the sharp edge of white against brown and endless contours packed so tightly they are impossible to tease apart. A poured over these as a schoolboy – years before I took up geography as a degree. Now I was looking at them in their staggering reality.
We had risen through the foothills; sleeping like large dogs at the feet of their masters. Towering above them was my regiment of snow-covered peaks, proud, resolute and immovable. Some had jagged pyramid peaks, others were softer or more lumpy. But all were beautiful in their own way – individually carved by their creator, mounted on a heavenly pedestal and coated in glistening snow. Below their summits, their wedding dresses draped to the floor in parabolas so perfect, my maths teacher would have given them a straight A.
We looked at our panoramic picture crib-sheets, attempting to match shapes to shapes, trying to pick out the more famous ones in the identity parade . Our flight attendant helpfully named some of them for us.
We were allowed to put our head into the cockpit. Here the view was transformed. We were no longer peering through a misty port-hole but taking in a clean and expansive view through the bay-windows. The pilots knewa better window-cleaner. Here we snapped ranges rather than single peaks.
And there she was. Everest, or Chomolungma as she was called for centuries before the English took it upon themselves to anglicise the atlas. Head and shoulders above its classmates. Like an adolescent who has had an unusual growth spurt. Stood at the back of the school photo on account of its superior height.
The Holy Mother of the mountains watching over her children. We stared at the giant triangular peak of Everest to the left, the relatively smaller, flatter jagged peaks to the right. Here is the pinnacle of creation – 29,029ft above sea-level. Eight times higher than Ben Nevis. Five and a half miles high. Astounding.
There are those who will dispute its pre-eminence. Those who claim there are mountains which are larger with subterranean foundations. The summit of Chimborazo in Ecuador is 2000m further from the earth’s centre than Everest because the Earth bulges at the Equator. But this is the nonsense cooked up by those who know they have been beaten fair and square but blame the rules book or the referee.
When I downloaded my photos, I found that I had only taken one decent photograph of Chomolungma. All of the other photographs I attempted were indistinguishable or of lesser Himalayan beings. This picture will stand pre-eminent in my portrait gallery of mountains from around the world.
But I have one permanent inerasable memory captured with my very own eyes and emotions, of the greatest mountain on earth. And that is worth a thousand digital images.