Exactly ten years ago, during the January school break in Nepal, when I was working in Kathmandu University High School, we planned to do the Everest Base Camp trek. I was intrigued to discover that the trails would be snow free, for the most part, and provided you could stand the cold, they would certainly be empty compared with the congestion of the busy spring and autumn seasons. However, the flight to Lukla was cancelled on two consecutive days due to local conditions, probably low cloud, so we went to Langtang instead (probably an equally dangerous road route … certainly with landslides and vertiginous slopes). But it was good to mature and realize this idea, notwithstanding the time that passed.
Lukla airport has been called the most dangerous in the world, and while not wishing to underestimate its challenges for pilots, it´s worth mentioning that in the busy seasons there are 80 flights a day. Over the years there have been several mishaps while landing, often due to sudden poor visibility, but major loss of life has been limited to one fatal crash in 2008. The upgraded airport at Phaplu, near the district capital of Salleri, may enjoy clearer skies as it is slightly lower. We saw one of those small planes make a perfect landing there, and as at Lukla the runway is steeply angled upwards, slowing the plane on impact, which no doubt compensates for its restricted length; but it is also the flattest land available.
So, I admit that this history influenced me to take a jeep to Salleri, and start the trek from there. It took three days to get just beyond Lukla, not a long addition. Here we can see Lukla on the right, and planes come in from the left, coming up the valley and descending quite markedly. This also shows the direction of the trail, moving directly north into the heart of the Solu Khumbu, as the district is known.
One of the attractions of this trek, from the purist and aesthetic point of view, is that there are no roads, at least in the Sagarmatha National Park, but they are encroaching on Lukla. There is a track from Salleri to Nunthala, the first stop on the trail. After the trek, as we returned there, a new branch of this had been added nearer the river. Apparently it will go on to below Lukla. Meanwhile there is a huge traffic in mules, as everything to stock the teahouses, as well as the huge traffic in Everest expeditions, must come in on foot.
As we approached Salleri in the jeep, suddenly the vista opened up and you could see in pristine air, the great wall of mountains ahead: what joy!
It seems to be difficult to breathe clean air these days, if you live in a city of any size. Kathmandu seems to be under a permanent haze of pollution, only dispersed to some extent during the monsoon. The hill station of Dhulikhel, close to Kathmandu, where the hotels were built to benefit their customers with fine views of the Himalaya, is now also immersed in this smog, with very rare mountain views. Delhi has by far the worse air quality in the world, exacerbated in the winter months by a pool of static frigid air. Could it be, that since the wind drifts from west to east in the winter months, that this particulate horror has drifted towards Nepal? Here is the evidence of this insidious smog, in a photo looking southwards at the same time as the shot of the pure air to the north (above) was taken.
So, we have to come right into the heart of the mountains to get clear enough air!