I’ve stood at the edge of molten lava flowing from the world’s largest volcanic crater (Mauna Loa, Hawaii), touched the Equator in the Amazon Jungles of Ecuador, descended to the bottom of the deepest canyon in North America (Copper Canyon, Mexico), and stood on the shores of the largest freshwater lake in the world (Superior). I’ve looked down upon the lost city of the Incas (Machu Picchu, Peru), marveled at the fearless animals in the Galapagos Islands, been pummeled by spray from the largest waterfall in the world (Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, more than a mile long), and climbed the steep, unguarded stone steps to the top of the largest temple in the world (Angkor Wat, Cambodia). But as I headed for Nepal, the place in the world where I probably spend the most time, it occurred to me that I’d never bothered to see the world’s tallest mountain, Mt. Everest.
Serendipity intervened. The very same day, an email arrived in my Inbox from “GetYourGuide,” a company that aggregates local tours from all over the world and makes them available on their website. The firm inquired if I would care to try their service and offered me a free tour, anywhere in the world they operated. I browsed through their Nepal tours and was amazed by the variety on offer. In addition to popular activities such as Annapurna Circuit Treks and visits to Chitwan National Park, they also offered a selection of cultural activities, such as “Nepalese Pottery Workshop,” where clients visit craftsmen who are renowned for their pottery in the small township of Bhaktapur, just east of Kathmandu. Artisans demonstrate their skill and then invite participants to try their hand at throwing a pot; the creations are glazed and fired and given back as souvenirs. Since I love writing about culture, I debated long and hard, but in the end my desire to see the highest mountain in the world won out and I booked their one-hour Flight Over Everest.
Everything happened like clockwork. My ticket was delivered to my hotel the evening prior to the flight, a car picked me up promptly at 5:45 a.m. and drove me to the airport despite the fact that there was a bandh (general strike) underway across Nepal, and the driver waiting for me at the end of the flight. My only disappointment was with Agni Airlines; upon boarding the 29-seater craft I was crestfallen by the fogged-up and scratched condition of the windows, which would make it difficult to get good photos. Soon we were up and away, leaving behind the relentless dun-colored pollution that drapes the Kathmandu Valley. We pierced the low cloud ceiling and broke through to azure skies; moments later the Himalayan panorama spread before us. Jagged, snow-crowned peaks jutted through the cottony clouds and stretched across the horizon. Veering to the north, we flew so close it seemed our wingtips might graze the crags, while our flight attendant roamed the cabin, naming the various mountains.
A murmur of excitement rippled through the plane when Mount Everest finally came into view. Fierce winds tore snow off the twin peaks: the south face of Mount Everest on the left and it’s companion, Nuptse on the right. I was underwhelmed. “It’s just another mountain,” I thought. There was nothing to differentiate it from thousands of others I’d seen around the globe. And then I thought about the forces required to thrust this massif to its 29,029-foot height. Mount Everest is the world’s most dramatic example of colliding continental tectonic plates. In the Early Cretaceous geological period, the Indian plate broke off from what is today Australia and Antarctic and began rapidly moving 3,700 miles northward, where it slammed into the Asian plate. As the northern edge of the Indian plate was gradually subducted below the Tibetan block the Himalayas rose. I looked at this enormous slab of rock with new-found respect; it seemed inconceivable that something so seemingly immutable could have begun life as a ripple of hills on the margin of a continent.
My thoughts turned to the allure of this most high of peaks. For mountaineers it is the holy grail, and many have died trying to summit. By the end of the 2010 climbing season, Everest had claimed 219 of the 3,142 individuals who had tried to reach the top. At the summit, conditions are so difficult that the corpses of those who perished have been left where they fell. I gazed out my window, wondering where on the brilliant white field of snow these bodies lay.
My reverie was interrupted by the flight attendant, who grabbed my arm and indicated I should follow her. She led me into the front cabin, where Everest rose before me through the crystal clear glass of the cockpit. I took turns with other passengers, returning to the cockpit three times for different views of the famous peak. On my final trip to the front I remembered something my Nepali niece told me on my last visit: “We call her Sagarmatha,” she explained. I had to look it up. Sagarmatha, the modern Nepali name for Mount Everest, is a Sanskrit word, from sagar = “sky” and matha = “forehead” or “head.” Perfect.
GetYourGuide is an aggregator service, which compiles tours offered by local operators around the world and displays them in one convenient web site. They provide you with all the pricing and availability information you need to place your booking whenever it’s convenient for you, using their secure online payment system. The distinct benefit of their service, in my opinion, is the ability to book tours for all locations around the world from one central website, rather than searching for each separate city or country you are visiting. Additionally, I like the idea of being able to make date changes or early cancellations at no cost. Their website states: “Because we work directly with local operators, you never pay more than locally. Otherwise we’ll refund the difference.” I did a bit of research and found that I could have purchased the trip for $176 locally rather than the $196 quoted by GetYourGuide, however I was unable to determine if that price included the transport to the airport and back, but their money back guarantee seems to cover this potentiality. I found their service to be efficient, organized and dependable and, judging from my perusal of available Nepal tours, they offer an impressive selection of tours and activities, many of which I had previously not known about, despite having spent a great deal of time in Nepal.