Leaving Everest

You think climbing the world's highest peak is difficult? Try getting back to Kathmandu during heavy monsoons.

helicopter everest field

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For the past five weeks, Grayson Schaffer has been stationed at Base Camp. Last Friday, he began what can be as quick as a two- to three-day journey back to Kathmandu, depending on when and where you choose to speed up your trip by hopping on an airplane, helicopter, or truck. But the weather hasn’t been cooperating, and Schaffer sent us the note below from Lukla, the closest village to Base Camp with a good-size airstrip, explaining their ill-fated attempt yesterday to catch a helicopter ride.

It’s been a bit rainy in Lukla for the last week, so no fixed-wing flights have been getting in or out. Even though we left Base Camp four days ago, at this rate we’ll probably be the last ones to make it back to Kathmandu.

This afternoon we tried to fly out by helicopter. About 10 minutes after takeoff, we found ourselves in the middle of a thunderstorm in a tight river canyon. The pilot circled for another 10 minutes, trying to find a clear line of sight through the clouds. No luck. When we eventually landed beside the river, a couple of local fishermen walked over and the pilot asked them which river this was; it wasn’t the Dudh Kosi, like the pilot thought.

Twenty minutes or so later, after we figured out where we were, we took off again, this time heading back toward Lukla, but another wall of rain shut us down. We landed for a second time in a field just below Lukla, along with two other helicopters that had also been weathered out. One of those helicopters was carrying some extra fuel in jerry cans. We were a bit low, so Jake and Dave helped the pilot refuel. One of the other pilots signaled that the weather was clearing, so we took off.

But the weather wasn’t clearing at all. We circled and immediately landed in a farmer’s potato field as it was starting to get dark. At this point we were pretty convinced that we were going to be spending the night with the farmers. But one of our passengers turned out to be an Italian pilot named Georges Pierre. He thought he saw a hole in the clouds and offered to take the controls. With two members of our group, Dave Morton and Charley Mace, and our sleeping bags and everything else, Pierre flew off and disappeared. The small hole in the clouds closed in right behind him.

According to Dave and Charley, Pierre finessed the helicopter onto a tiny landing pad on the side of a butte and made them get out. Then he tried to find a way back down to our potato field, but clouds obscured it. About 10 minutes before dark it cleared just enough for Pierre to try one last time. He swooped in, picked us up, and dropped us all back in Lukla, approximately one minute before the Nepalese government starts fining pilots for flying in the dark.

The best part is that we get to do it all again in the morning.

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