by Hank Leukart
March 5, 2011
Mission Everest: A Tale of Two Brothers
Two brothers tackle the trek to Nepal’s Everest Base Camp and film the entire adventure.
Mission Everest: A Tale of Two Brothers
VEREST BASE CAMP, Khumbu, Nepal — “Maybe we should try to film a little movie of us while we’re hiking,” I suggest to my brother, Brian, while we’re trapped in an aluminum tube hurdling through the air during a 26-hour trip from New York to Kathmandu, Nepal.
“Sure,” Brian replies. “That sounds like fun.”
We’re both too tired to understand what we’re getting ourselves into. But, I suppose that’s how all impossible projects start. Watch our film, right now, to see how Mission Everest: A Tale of Two Brothers ended up. (If you don’t have much time, try watching the two-minute trailer for a taste.)
It’s not as though we had never done anything like the Everest Base Camp trek before. After all, Brian and I have tackled a bunch of marathon adventures: including hiking to Alaska’s McGonagall Pass and Muldrow Glacier, trekking Chilean Patagonia’s Torres del Paine Circuit, and snowshoeing the Grand Canyon, rim to rim to rim. So, when our father passed away earlier in the year, we decided that we wanted to spend some extra time together and tackle our longest trek ever. But, a few days before our departure, as we look over our 17-day hiking schedule for our hike to the base of Mount Everest, I seem to forget how difficult trekking can be.
“This hike looks like it will be the easiest yet!” I say, flexing my machismo. “There are too many acclimatization and buffer days. Should we try to add a long side trip on the way back? At the very least, let’s make sure to bring books and board games for the down time.”
“I promise you that the altitude will make it much, much harder than it looks,” Brian assures me. I don’t believe him, and I insist that we alter the standard return route from Base Camp by traversing a difficult mountain pass called Cho La. During our flight, I scramble to alter and compress our hiking schedule, making time to visit Cho La and summit mountain Gokyo Ri.
“This schedule should work as long as nothing goes wrong,” I tell Brian.
After landing late at night in Kathmandu, we take a taxi to a guesthouse in the backpacker neighborhood of Thamel, where we quickly find ourselves in a fight with a staff member trying to overcharge us. We wander around Kathmandu in the dark until we find another guesthouse, where we sleep for three hours before rushing back to the airport for our early morning flight to Lukla, the traditional starting point for treks in Nepal’s Khumbu (Everest) region. Since we’ve traveled to Nepal at the end of the trekking season, we’re surprised to find the airport packed with backpackers, like Styrofoam peanuts stuffed into a tiny box. At the customer service desk for Yeti Airlines, I ask to speak to Puru, a man with whom I’ve e-mailed previously to make our flight “reservations,” which required no deposit and could be changed at any time. (Sometimes, the chaos of developing countries works to customers’ advantage.) I’m disappointed when a woman tells me that Puru is unavailable, because Puru is an airline employee who began our e-mail exchange with, “Namaste!” and ended it with, “I will keep your reservation safe. Have a good day and a safe flight
The Woman Who Isn’t Puru tells me that flights haven’t left for Lukla for four days due to an unending fog hanging over the lower Himalaya, which explains why all of the hundreds of backpackers look like they’ve been living in the Kathmandu airport and are ready to stick their hands into blenders. She tells us that it’s likely our flight will be canceled, and when that happens, we’ll be at the back of a four-day line to get to Lukla. Brian and I look at each other. Without saying anything, we both know that though our trip hasn’t even started, and it’s already a disaster.
But, just then, Brian and I are transported into a spy novel by John le Carré. Or, at least, it seems like that’s what has happened, when a suspicious man with a cheap suit and shifting eyes approaches us.
“Need a helicopter ride to Lukla?” he whispers, in perfect English. “For $250, I’ll take you right now.”
Brian and I are apprehensive. We consult Lonely Planet’s Trekking in the Nepal Himalaya, which tells us: “Be aware of the poor safety record of helicopter travel in Nepal — Everest Base Camp is strewn with the wreckage of lost aircraft.” But, then, we also discover a long sidebar in the same book detailing the numerous crashes of Twin Otter airplane trips to Lukla, a flight for which we already have tickets. While we’re trying to decide what to do, we meet another waiting trekker, who also happens to be a helicopter pilot.
“Well, the helicopter is probably just as safe as the plane you’re planning to take — which is, to say, not very safe,” he tells us. “But I’d probably do it if I had the money.”
Brian and I look around at the sea of desperate faces in the airport. There’s only two things that we’re sure of: we don’t have enough buffer time built into our hiking schedule to sit in the Kathmandu airport for four days, and neither of us wants to stick our hand in a blender.
We negotiate with Mysterious Helicopter Spy to get the price down to $200 per person, and we pay him in cash. Soon, he’s rushing us out onto the tarmac to catch the helicopter. Meanwhile, Brian and I are trying to make our “little movie,” but we’re not really sure exactly what we should be filming. We’re constantly interviewing each other on camera about flight logistics (“Okay! What just happened?!”), and other backpackers keep glancing at us either like we’ve lost or minds or like there’s a possibility that, if they think hard enough, they may remember that we’re famous Discovery Channel hosts.
After waiting on the tarmac for three hours, our helicopter still hasn’t arrived. Every time I ask Mysterious Helicopter Spy when our helicopter will arrive, he talks to someone in Nepalese on his cell phone and tells us, “Soon. They can only fly when there is a break in the fog.” Slowly, I’m becoming convinced that we’ve paid $400 for the privilege of being the targets of an elaborate Nepalese con.
We continue to wait with two Mormon missionaries, Mike and Emily, who are sharing the cost of the flight with us and don’t seem to mind that we keep asking them questions, with a camera pointed at them, about their backpacking inexperience.
“It’s for a serious documentary film we’re preparing for international release,” Brian and I tell them, joking.
When our helicopter finally appears, Mysterious Helicopter Spy ushers us into it with extreme urgency.
“Hurry! The fog is coming!” he yells. “The pilot may not be able to get you to Lukla! Goodbye!”
“Wait, where are we going if we’re not going to Lukla?!” I ask Brian. He doesn’t know. No one knows. As the helicopter starts to hover off the ground — a sensation I find completely foreign compared to the feeling of an airplane takeoff — we realize that, for the first helicopter flight of our lives, we have no idea where we’re going, and our pilot doesn’t speak English.
Half an hour later, the pilot lands our helicopter in a rice paddy about three miles south of Lukla. One of the two backpacks I’m carrying is filled with heavy supplies for a subsequent trip to India, including a laptop, snack food, and guidebooks. I had never expected to hike with it, because I planned to leave it at a teahouse upon arriving in Lukla. So, it takes us over three hours to trudge the three miles and 2,000 feet of uphill elevation to Lukla with a double-weight load. When we finally arrive, in the rain and darkness, we find over 2,000 backpackers trapped in the town, unable to return to Kathmandu due to the weather. A passing backpacker tells us that all of the teahouses are full and that there is a food shortage due to the number of people stuck, but we eventually find a room at a place called Tara Lodge.
In the lodge’s common room, Brian and I sip lemon tea from a pot big enough for six people (the cryptic Nepalese teahouse menu didn’t explain sufficiently the meaning of a “B Pot”), as a television shows the IMAX film Everest, detailing the 1996 climbing disaster in which climbing guides Rob Hall and Scott Fischer died on the mountain. A room full of trekkers bundled up in puffy North Face jackets watches, enraptured. It feels like we’ve been inducted into a strange outdoors-nut cult. We’ve landed, by helicopter, in adventure-traveler heaven.
Read the second part of this series about our hike to Everest Base Camp, in which we explain how we managed to film ourselves for 17 days straight while simultaneously hiking up to over 17,400 feet.
Hank looks out at the Himalayan Mountains next to a stupa near Namche Bazaar, Nepal. (view all Everest Base Camp Trek, Nepal photos)
How to Trek to Everest Base Camp
- OVERVIEW: The most commonly hiked route to Nepal’s Everest Base Camp starts in the small mountain village of Lukla and ends in Gorak Shep, a remote outpost which serves as a jumping off point for hikers visiting Base Camp and Kala Patthar’s fantastic summit. The trek’s length is about 87 miles, but it’s the elevation gain from 9,394 feet in Lukla to 17,334 feet at Everest Base Camp and 18,471 feet on Kala Patthar’s summit that make this trek a challenge.
- GEAR: The tea houses along the trail to Everest Base Camp make the trek unique, because the services they provide make it possible for trekkers to bring significantly less gear than they might otherwise on a trip of this length. We completed the trek without carrying a tent, sleeping bags or sleeping pads, and we carried only a minimal amount of snack food. Trekkers can eat all of their meals at tea houses (though the food is rarely great) and rely on tea houses to supply blankets. It’s worth it for lighter backpacks.
- LOGISTICS: Set at least three weeks aside for the the flights in and out of Nepal, a couple buffer days on either end of the trek in case of bad flying weather, and the trek itself. Book a normal commercial flight to Kathmandu, Nepal, then book the terrifying flight to the small mountain village of Lukla on a local Nepalese carrier. We booked ours through Yeti Airlines.
- ROUTE: Here is the hiking and acclimatization schedule that we followed (excluding sick days):
- DAY 1: Lukla to Phakding
- DAY 2: Phakding to Namche Bazaar
- DAY 3: Acclimatization day (suggested side trip to Thame)
- DAY 4: Namche Bazaar to Tengboche
- DAY 5: Acclimatization day (suggested side trip to Tengboche geocache)
- DAY 6: Tengboche to Pheriche
- DAY 7: Acclimatization day (suggested one-way side trip: Dingboche)
- DAY 8: Dingboche to Lobuche
- DAY 9: Lobuche to Gorak Shep to the Kala Patthar summit
- DAY 10: Gorak Shep to Everest Base Camp and back
- DAY 11: Gorak Shep to Pheriche
- DAY 12: Pheriche to Tengboche
- DAY 13: Tengboche to Namche Bazaar
- DAY 14: Namche Bazaar to Lukla