Behind the Scenes: Getting to Lukla

Ueli Steck’s Project: Himalaya
Part 3: Lukla
Chronicled by Freddie Wilkinson

Our first attempt to escape Kathmandu was thwarted by rain showers and high-winds. After five hours of waiting in barely-contained chaos of the domestic terminal of the airport for our plane to Lukla, all flights were finally, definitively cancelled for the rest of the day. The next morning, however, dawned clear and calm. Rob, Jim, and I boarded our twin-engine Otter plane, and silently said a few prayers – the flight could well be the most dangerous part of our entire journey.  Thankfully, the only surprise was the gorgeous views of Gaurishankar and Menglutse, two of the world’s most kickass 7,000 meter peaks. Forty minutes after we took off, we landed at 9,000 feet in Lukla, gateway to the Khumbu.

Fifty years ago – before this tiny airstrip was carved out of grazing pasture – Lukla wasn’t a village (even by Nepali standards), and the same journey took two or three weeks. But times change, for better or worse, and mountain ranges, much like people, grow up and change. Many of us rightly share a sense of disappointment and loss at the “commercialization” of such a sacred place as the Khumbu; I constantly remind myself that international development is a mixed bag, a collection of positive and negative effects that is impossible to simplistically summarize as “good” or “bad”.  And regardless of how you feel, it is happening, and if you aren’t willing or able to see the world as it is you won’t be able to impact it one way or another.

Which brings me to why we’re here, what this expedition is really all about: in a word, evolution.

In every mountain range the world-over, the evolution of climbing follows a certain pattern… First, the tallest and most prominent peaks are climbed by the most feasible routes, in whatever style deemed most expedient for getting to the top. As time goes on, incrementally harder and steeper lines are attempted in incrementally better style.

The Khumbu is no different. It was first reconnoitered by legendary climbers Eric Shipton and Charles Houston in 1950, the very first year Nepal opened its borders to foreigners. First to go were the giants of the valley, Mount Everest, in 1953, followed shortly by Lhotse and Cho Oyu. Then the smaller peaks began to fall: Ama Dablam, Pumori, Kangtega. Climbers also began doing more with less, tackling each new challenge with smaller teams, in more flexible, lightweight style.

Enter Ueli Steck. Schooled in the Alps – a range that was thoroughly domesticated in the later decades of the 19th century – he enchained (with Stefan Siegrist) the three great peaks of his native valley, the Eiger, Monch, and Jungfau in a single 25 hour push in 2004. The next year, he brought a similar approach to the Himalaya with his “Khumbu Express” expedition, an effort to solo the Cholatse, Tawoche, and Ama Dablam – the three siren peaks of valley that gird the Everest massif.

Now, sixty-one years after climbers first visited the Khumbu Valley, the place has slowly evolved from the ultimate expedition to a training ground. Of course, I feel a little nostalgic at having missed out on the “Golden-age” of Himalayan climbing, — but this trip is also a cool reminder that climbing is less about exploring physical boundaries then it is about testing our psychological and creative limits. As long as we climbers, both individually and collectively, can think outside the box, there will always be new challenges waiting the next generation.

Here’s another installment of our off-the-cuff, behind-the-scenes look at Project Himalaya:

One Comment

  1. Vouldering
    Posted April 15, 2011 at 5:14 am | Permalink

    Right on. Congratulation on getting it right with psychological and creative processes. Man on the moon. Man on the mountain.. What is the point? It is all about personal experiences and motivation. It is about time of being harmonious with the nature, knowing when to go and bring personal experiences back. Thanks

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