For many intrepid world travelers, trekking the Himalayas to catch a glimpse of Mt. Everest ranks as one of the more common, if unattainable, ‘bucket list’ goals. Scaling even the base of the world’s highest peak takes months of planning while potentially costing thousands of dollars and several weeks or months of hard-earned vacation time. In short, it’s a romantic and certainly thrilling notion to check off one’s list, but the reality is that most of us won’t have that luxury until we’re well into retirement.
Nepal Vision Treks & Expeditions, a tour operator based in Kathmandu, Nepal, has been offering round-trip tours via helicopter to Base Camp and back—in about four hours–for those tourists who don’t have the time or stamina to hike their way through the mountains for several weeks (the shortest Base Camp trekking tours last 15 days).
Adventure purists may balk at the idea of ‘valet tourism’ via helicopter to the world’s most challenging and demanding peaks, but it’s an undeniably convenient and thrilling day trip for those seeking immediate gratification and who may not have the flexibility of enjoying a more traditional trekking adventure.
My journey began at the Kathmandu Airport, where I was weighed and briefed on the logistics of traveling via helicopter over the difficult terrain at such high altitudes. The guide and pilot inform me of what to expect; the conditions can vary, and the helicopter’s landing spot is never predetermined (it is somewhat arbitrary based on the wind and weather).
Within minutes, I was racing across the tarmac to the helicopter as if in a James Bond movie, donning a headset and buckling myself into the front seat as the pilot beckoned me to shut the glass door behind me. As the helicopter lifted off, the unsteady feeling of being out of my element faded along with the runway below…and then suddenly we were soaring towards the Himalayan mountain range ahead.
A necessary first stop was at the town of Lukla (pop. 230, elev. 2860m), dubiously known for possessing the world’s most dangerous airport. Sure enough, the approach to the landing strip was disconcerting as it sits on the edge of a precipitous drop, and then proceeds at a slight incline up the mountainside.
The pit stop lasted barely 5 minutes, as supplies were unloaded to the local townspeople and a quick refueling took place with the motor still running. Then we were off again, and the aircraft glided higher and higher, with the iconic Himalayan peaks providing a 270 degree panorama across the windshield in front of me.
Unbelievably, tiny towns dotted the jagged landscapes, delineated by rectangular crop boundaries and herds of cattle that looked like ants in a carpet, below.
Then suddenly, we began dropping down.
“OK, OK, OK! Hold on!” the pilot said urgently into the headphones. The helicopter made a slightly bumpy landing on a beige and rocky terrain, which might as well be a moonscape given how barren it was.
“GO GO GO!” he instructed me, while the guide (who has already whipped open the door and stepped outside) beckoned me to follow him away from the deafening rotors.
I clamored out of my seat and ran towards the guide, camera banging against my chest. I felt completely awkward and clumsy in light of the apparent military precision of the entire operation.
As the noise of the helicopter faded behind me, I was confronted with the reality of life at 5000m above sea level: I had barely logged ten steps when the lack of oxygen startled me, I was breathing as if I had just taken the stairs up the Empire State Building, two at a time.
The guide laughed and told me to slow down and catch my breath, and when I did, I was treated to one of the most spectacular vistas I’ve ever seen. Ahead of me on that perfectly clear day was Mt. Everest, the peak of countless legends that captivated me as a child. Unlike the neighboring snow-capped peaks in the foreground, the foreboding Everest looked black and barren, and from our vantage point it was deceptively shorter than the jagged white mountaintops on either side of it (this was an optical illusion based on our angle on the mountain, according to my guide).
We were only on the ground for 20 minutes, which seemed more like five in the excitement and thrill of it all. The helicopter never stopped running; it was too unpredictable at that altitude to attempt restarting the vehicle with the air so thin.
And like that, we were back inside the glass bubble of the cockpit, lifting off from Base Camp to return to a more manageable altitude (I still don’t know if I was hyperventilating out of excitement or altitude, but it was probably a combination of both).
Bypassing Lukla this time, we made a pit stop at Hotel Everest View (holder of the Guinness Book of World Records for highest-altitude hotel in the world, elev. 3962m). The property and views did not disappoint, and I was treated to a wonderful breakfast of coffee, scrambled eggs, toast, and fresh tomatoes and cheese; an amazing spread for any establishment but more incredible for a place so remote-how did they get supplies here? Better not to ask and just enjoy the experience.
With breakfast finished and the last few dozen photos frantically captured, it was time to head back to Kathmandu. We lifted off the mountains one final time, soaring over terraced rice fields that look like zebra hide in the de-saturating glare of the noon sun.
As we approached a more contemporary and urban civilization once more, I was struck by the beauty and sheer awesomeness of the mountain range at my disposal during the past few hours. Was I really just within reach of the world’s highest peak? Did I really just have an a la carte breakfast amidst scenery worthy of an IMAX movie? I don’t believe it…but I’ve got the photographs to convince me it wasn’t just a dream.
To make this dream your own reality, contact tour specialist Chet Bhatta- +977 98510 40806 at http://www.nepalvisiontreks.