Eight or Nine Tiny Rainyak — Audio greetings from Nepal and Russ Johnson in 1997 as he visits Mount Everest. Click the link to hear the original soundtrack as an MP3 — four minutes — and scroll below to find out what it was like to head for the tallest peak in the world via helicopter during the 1997 holiday season …
Christmas card photo image credit: Russ Johnson
aNewDomain.net — It is the morning before the night before Christmas. I get up at 5:30 a.m., brush my teeth, pack a small bag and head off to the airport. Aside from a few noisy three-wheeled delivery trucks, the chaos of Kathmandu is yet to awaken.
A few merchants are rolling up the doors of their kiosks and starting to put out their goods. A butcher stands in his shop whacking a large carcass.
Winter is coming. It is foggy, very foggy.
I arrive at the airport and spot a hand-written sign that my flight has been delayed indefinitely due to weather. I climb the stairs to a little restaurant above the check-in area and order breakfast. No choice here. I get scrambled eggs. They are quite good, and the tea is warm. It feels good as the terminal is very cold. I keep my hands in my jacket pockets.
Announcement after announcement echoes through the hall. No flights are leaving. Steven Seagal, the action-film star, wanders about the hall below me looking impatient. The local newspaper says he is here for a Tibetan Buddhist convention, even though I can’t imagine that the Lord Buddha or the Dalai Lama would approve of his movies.
After two hours I go to the airline counter to try to ask how long the delay will be. Nobody is at the counter, but the door behind it is open so I stick my head inside.
Two men occupy a small office. One is sitting behind a desk and the other is huddled next to a kerosene space heater reading a book. The book’s title is in Russian. The man at the desk invites me in to share the heat.
He introduces me to the reader. “This is Sergei, your pilot. He’s from Kyrgyzstan.”
Sergei looks up. “Maybe in vun hour vee take off,” says Sergei. “Vut kind of computer you have, Macintosh or PC?”
“PC,” I say. I inquire if he uses the Internet.
“E-mail, not Veb,” he says. “I liff at Russian Embassy … connection too slow.”
We sit for a while, warming our hands.
The fog finally lifts. “Vee go,” says Sergei.
Our aircraft is a retired Russian Army helicopter owned by a company in Kazakhstan. I get in the chopper and jam myself onto a bench, packing up against fellow passengers — a mixture of dark, weathered faces and scruffy mountaineers from Japan and Europe. Dividing the cockpit and the benches is a wall of produce crates and other foodstuff. I see a box of Cadbury chocolate bars, backpacks and duffel bags. I gaze at the emergency exit sign — the text is in Russian and Hindi.
The flight attendant passes around a ball of cotton (for noise) and a plate of chewy caramels (to prevent exploding eardrums).
The engine revs up and the chopper rattles and rises above the valley, above the fog, above the exhaust of India-made Tata buses. Those are the buses with portraits of Narsingha, the testy Hindu spirit, painted on their rear differentials and “Honk Please” emblazoned on their bumpers. Earlier this week I saw a Tata stopped in the middle of a main road. Its driver sat in the road in front of the Tata, the engine sitting next to him. All the cylinders had been removed from the engine and were lying on a blanket. The driver looked to be performing a ring job as traffic skirted around him.
We rise to snow level and settled down at Lukla (considered by many to be one of the scariest airports in the world) where most of the passengers de-chopper. The rest of us — including me, my assistant, Dianne, the pilot, and a remaining crew member — are determined to go farther.
We lift off and then higher we rise. I find that I have to untwist my body to get bigger gulps of air because the air is thinning rapidly. Below us I see villages, seemingly uninhabited, covered with snow. We fly past a Buddhist monastery sitting high on a ridge.
Sergei said he would take us as high as his helicopter could go, which is far below Everest’s 29, ooo-foot summit. A French pilot, in a more-modern chopper, did make it to the top I was told. I chase from window to window, gasping for air, trying not to miss a view or a picture. I settle next to an open window. The flight attendant runs to my side, grabs my shoulder and points.
“Everest!” he shouts.
The mountain stands much higher than our current helicopter-safe altitude. The air around us is crystalline, and the mountain looks close enough to touch. A delicate trail of snow puffs off Everest’s summit like the hair of a fairytale maiden. I switch on my camcorder to record the moment.
I can’t resist this.
I shout an insufferable joke about tiny reinyaks and scream with all the air left in my lungs: “Happy holidays from the top of the world!”
For aNewDomain.net, I’m Russ Johnson.
Footnote: Connectivity in Kathmandu was an intermittent AOL dialup number at the time of this broadcast in 1997. But Russ made it home by Christmas day that year to post his holiday shout.