The rush of memories was overwhelming. Each mile, each segment across the Pacific brought me closer to Nepal, and further from home. Connections between two worlds. Strong memories of each.
At hour 18, I walked the empty spaces of Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport passing the time between flights. Stoping dead in my tracks I stared at the sign – Thai Airways TG 319: Kathmandu. A smile crept across my face. I looked around to see if anyone noticed but I was alone.
My previous flights were mostly on-time and uneventful, just as I like. I got my window seat on the right side of the Thai 777 jet and stared out the window dwelling in the memories from my previous seven flights. The first was in 1997. I didn’t know then what I didn’t know. But that trip changed my life forever, setting in motion all the return trips and climb after climb after big mountain climb.
This flight, I knew what to do. 30 minutes before landing, there it was – a large snow covered massif. At first I thought I knew but then another appeared to the left. I said out loud to no one, “Everest!” My heart skipped a beat, my lungs contracted and a simple grin emerged – all involuntary – all in a blink.
I stared at Makalu, Lhotse, Nuptse and Everest until the clouds regained control. My head settled back against the seat, my eyes closed, considering this new mountain which would be providing the challenge. The long travel from home was coming to a promising end as I started missing what I care about the most.
As the door opened on the wide body jet, I could taste the warm, moist air of Kathmandu. A monkey sat quietly on the airport sign watching the throngs getting off the airplane. I wondered who was visiting whom.
A few minutes later, I went through the visa ordeal passing my passport, application, photo and crisp new US money to a series of men, who worked diligently to fold, fondle, mutilate, stamp and process the documents. The last one pushed the pile back at me with no words. Welcome to Nepal.
Standing in front of the “Absolutely no photos” sign, I took a picture of the room as it filed up with NGO employees, UN officials, returning Nepali, visiting Thai, tourists, trekkers, monks and of course, climbers.
Everything happened so fast, I wondered if I had entered the wrong country. But my shoulders tightened as I took the escalator down to baggage claim. With four segments half way around the globe, there was a lot that could go wrong. But in all my years of expedition travel, I had never lost a bag.
I walked quickly over to the decades old, noisy conveyor belt. From across the room, I spotted my big red duffle. I smiled. I looked ahead and behind Big Red to see the second one – the big black duffle. Two for two. My shoulders relaxed as one of the “trolley men” quickly sized me up, grabbed my bags and started carting them away. I followed in tow. We passed the x-ray machine without making eye contact, the two officials were engrossed with their newspaper.
As is the custom in Kathmandu, and most airports around the world, a crowd of people massed together just outside the exits holding signs. I scanned them and another smile came to my face. “Alan Arnette. Hotel Courtyard. Altitude Junkies” That was all I needed to see.
One of the Altitude Junkies Sherpas, Pasang Ongcho Sherpa, was my greeting committee. Along with an unnamed driver, we quickly navigated the streets of Kathmandu. I thought of my first time here 16 years ago, and last in 2011 – nothing had really changed. Traffic lanes, signs, signal (only one) and police continue to be more of a suggestion rather than a rule. The scooter occupants now wear helmets but the pedestrians walk aimlessly across the road along with the occasional cow. The car horn has kept its honored role as Nepal’s national song.
The streets seemed a bit cleaner than before, a few newer buildings lined the large streets but once we entered the Thamel area, it was 1960 all over again. The multi-colored signs hawked “Himalayan Trecs” and ” Climbing Gears”. A pile of knitted shawls had a sign propped up on it claiming “Yak Wool”.
The narrow streets felt even more congested than before, People walked shoulder to shoulder, motorcycles slalomed the course, cars hugged the road, dogs slept peacefully on the concrete store steps. I recognized the stores, shops, restaurants. We just passed Fire and Ice Pizza, on my agenda. There was the Hotel Garuda, the first hotel I stayed in for Ama Dablam in 2000. I still remember the barking dogs – all – night – long!
The driver never signaled or stopped on his relentless mission to deliver us to the Hotel Courtyard. Passang and I were equally focused on talk of mountains. He just got back Peru with Phil Crampton. He had a great time. With four summits of Everest and three of Manaslu, we compared routes, conditions; what to expect this year. His gentle manner, and soft voice gave instant ease, reminding me of why I respect the Sherpa culture as I do.
Leaving the car, I was greeted by the owners of the Hotel Courtyard. Calling me by name we connected once again. I remember being here in 2008. They had just started to renovate the hotel. Husband, wife – Pujan and Michelle – he is Nepali, educated in the US, she is from Seattle. Together they run arguably the finest “boutique” Hotel in Kathmandu. Not the big commercial approach like the Yak and Yeti or the budget version many expeditions use, but squarely in the middle with a personal approach often missing in this busy world.
We sat in the “library” sipping simple ice water infused with mineral salts – they told me it would make me climb better! I eagerly agreed. More memories were brought to life as we talked of Kathmandu, hotels, mutual friends and climbing.
In my room, I relaxed once again. Listening to the rain now gently falling, it was soothing. The warm air felt soft. I left the windows open as I lay on the bed. As my eyes closed, yet another smile crept across my face.
Memories are Everything