Above Namche Bazaar, Nepal – Atop a mountain outcropping in the thin air of the Himalaya, I begged the clouds to clear. Somewhere behind that white mist, right in front of me, was Mount Everest. I’d come halfway around the world to see it and here I stood, thwarted by the weather.
“Come on, clouds,” I coaxed as they swirled but didn’t lift. “Keep moving.”
Trekking among the highest mountains in the world had long been at the top of my travel list, but a golden opportunity to go meant making the journey out of season — during the summer monsoons — and risking that clouds might not lift for days at a time.
With occasional patches of blue sky during my first few days of walking, I was hopeful — optimistic, even — that I would be just lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the big one. On our fifth day, I rose before dawn with my trekking companions for an hour or two of steep hiking that would give us the best chance at a clear view.
At the Everest viewpoint, we gasped when a giant, jagged, snow-covered peak appeared across the valley to our right. We were already at almost 13,000 feet, but we had to stretch our necks upward to take it in. Then, we spun around when we spotted a sunlit, snow-covered set of peaks appearing tall behind us.
The clouds kept moving — clearing, then filling in — as we stood for more than an hour, waiting for one more view: Straight ahead, behind a stubborn wall of white, was Everest.
“Let’s go, clouds,” I tried to will them away. “Move just a little more.”
Ever since reading Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air” more than a dozen years ago, I’d dreamed of trekking in the Everest region of the Himalayas.
I wanted to meet a Sherpa porter, the tough, heroic locals who carry equipment for climbers. I wanted to spin a Buddhist prayer wheel. I wanted to explore the paths where climbers trekked on their way to the top of the world.
My nephew, Nate Louwagie, spent the summer in Nepal, volunteering to teach young monks English at a Buddhist monastery. When my sister-in-law suggested I travel with her and Nate’s girlfriend to visit him with less than a month’s notice, I wanted to jump at the chance. But I was conflicted.
Should I travel halfway around the globe and spend nearly $2,000 on a plane ticket with the risk of spending all my time fighting the monsoon?
After a few days of debate, I decided opportunity was knocking. I booked the flight.
For four days before we landed in the Kathmandu Valley, flights from the crowded capital city to the tiny mountain town of Lukla, where we would start our trek, had been canceled because of cloudy, rainy weather. We went to sleep in a Kathmandu hotel hoping the weather would change in time for our early morning flight.
When our plane took off with 13 passengers as scheduled that morning and climbed up, up, up, over rolling foothills, then steep mountains, we felt extremely lucky.
Lukla’s tiny airport is considered one of the world’s most dangerous, with a single short, sloped runway leading straight into the mountainside.
Just as I was getting nervous about landing, the plane turned around.
“We’re going back to Kathmandu,” the flight attendant delivered the bad news. Bad weather had foiled our plans.
Back in the capital’s crowded and grimy domestic airport, we waited for three hours, hoping for the mountain clouds to clear, when a group of Western trekkers approached us: Planes weren’t flying to Lukla, they told us, but helicopters were. They needed three more passengers to fill two chartered choppers. Were we in?
We nodded without thinking, feeling desperate to reach Nate and start our trek. But as the plans rolled forward, we began to question ourselves: Were we crazy to jump on some helicopter in an impoverished country and head up the mountains into bad weather?
“This feels like the beginning of a disaster movie,” my sister-in-law whispered.
An hour later we had signed our names to a clipboard and climbed into our seats. The helicopter floated low over the mountains, giving us a closer look at the terraced fields, small farms and pine forests from above. At a little over 9,000 feet, the pilot placed us gently on Lukla’s short runway.
We walked into what seemed like a serene fairy tale land: Chiseled stone buildings with brightly colored rooftops lined cobbled pedestrian streets. Locals greeted us with a friendly “Namaste.” With no roads or vehicles, only long, rocky and steep paths awaited us.
We huffed almost immediately on the rocky trails, still sluggish from jet lag and now feeling the effects of altitude. Two hired Sherpa porters carrying our heavy backpacks didn’t seem winded at all.
At our own slow pace, we followed an obvious wide and well-worn route of uneven dirt and rock, the same one that climbers use to reach Everest base camp. The path — unlike those in U.S. National Parks that I was used to hiking — wound through an occasional village, past patches of potato fields and ramshackle stone and wood houses, through pine forest and, every once in a while, onto a ledge between steep mountain walls and cliffs.
It also served as a pedestrian freight highway for the local people. We watched in awe as porters carrying cargo on their backs glided nimbly over the uneven terrain, some wearing only rubber flip-flops to cushion their stride. They lugged mattresses, sacks of rice, cumbersome rocks, lumber, cases of beer, skinned goats and, not ironically, a kitchen sink.
We felt lucky that it only sprinkled, the clouds occasionally opening to blue sky and awe-inspiring peaks. Temperatures were perfect for hiking — warm enough to wear T-shirts while moving, but cool enough to need a light jacket while standing still.
Strings of small square Tibetan Buddhist prayer flags draped from almost every structure, to benefit those who passed near them as their bright colors fluttered in the wind. Intricately carved flat stones inscribed with Buddhist symbols and prayers lined mountainside walls. Towns offered rows of prayer wheels, embossed metal cylinders for passers-by to spin clockwise in prayer and purification.
Each time I spun one, I closed my eyes and hoped for a clear view of Everest. But at the first Everest viewpoint along the way, I squinted at clouds.
I soon forgot the disappointment. Trekking there was like stepping into a time warp, a traditional culture with pieces of the modern world sprinkled in.
Some restaurant owners cooked over fires. Farmers cut and bundled grain by hand. Women washed laundry in rushing mountain rivers. Some wore traditional clothing of striped aprons and fur hats.
At the same time, cellphone coverage was excellent. One of our porters, a thin 16-year-old named Pemba Sherpa, wore a jogging suit and blared Justin Bieber on his phone, almost dancing up the mountain to the crooning of “Baby, baby, baby ooohh.”
Sherpa people along this popular route were accustomed to welcoming the Westerners passing through their communities. Toddlers folded their hands together, bowed and greeted us in singsong voices: “Namaste.” Schoolchildren smiled at us as they scampered up and down the trails with small packs of their own. Adults stopped to pose when we lifted a camera in their direction.
With few tourists in the monsoon season, we often had the path to ourselves. In high tourist seasons of spring and autumn, we were told, bouncy, narrow, rickety cable bridges sometimes become bottlenecks with hourlong waits on the trail. We passed over them freely.
After a Sherpa woman prodded a yak/cow hybrid across one of the longest and highest bridges — the silty river rushing far below it — I felt more assured that the bridges must be safe. Still, I quietly hummed the Indiana Jones theme song to comfort myself while slinking across.
My thigh muscles burning from a steep climb, I smiled after five hours of hiking when we arrived in the village of Namche Bazaar on our second day of trekking. Above 11,000 feet, Namche serves as a way station for Everest climbers who typically stay a couple of days to acclimate and rest before heading to the 17,500-foot-elevation base camp.
In town, we walked past the ting, ting, ting of women pounding rocks into gravel and men carving rectangular blocks out of stone to make building materials. Like many of the villages along the way, the town caters to tourists with Western-style toilets, Coca-Cola and cafes with menus in English. Namche Bazaar also boasted Internet access and cash machines, though the machines weren’t working on our days there. One lodge in town named itself the Hill-ten. Shops sold what was likely knockoff North Face climbing and camping gear, as well as Nepalese trinkets.
We checked into the Nest Hotel, which, like most of the lodges in the region, offered simple rooms with two twin foam mattresses atop wooden platforms and communal bathrooms down the hall for less than $3 a day. By Western standards, the accommodations are sparse, but when you realize that every nail, board and can of paint was likely carried on somebody’s back, they are impressive.
In the dining room, we loosened the laces on our hiking boots and sat down to tea with powdered milk, flat chapati bread and steaming entrees of rice-and-lentil dal bhat and vegetable soup they called Sherpa stew before exploring the town and calling it a night.
Early the next morning, we noticed the sky clearing more than we’d ever seen it.
Another Everest viewpoint was just an hour or two up the mountainside, depending on how fast our tired legs could carry us. We had planned on hiking it later, but with clear skies I suggested we go for it then.
We plodded up the steep path full of switchbacks above the picturesque town. Huffing at the top, we were surrounded by a sea of white. A small group of trekkers told us the clouds had just moved in; they had seen Everest 15 minutes earlier.
We waited, hoping the clouds would clear, but chilled and hungry we eventually headed back down.
Our spirits lifted when we stumbled upon a parade of traditionally dressed Sherpas marching to the Buddhist monastery for a festival in town.
We followed them to get a closer look, and they smiled and motioned for us to go inside. We sat on wooden benches and absorbed the serenity of robed monks chanting in a colorful, intricately decorated prayer room. A Sherpa woman brought us cups of warm tea.
When the alarm blared in the 4:30 a.m. darkness the next day, I snuggled deeper under my thick comforter. Then I remembered how close I was to Everest.
Before long, we would have to start heading back down the pedestrian highway to Lukla, our quick hiking adventure ending all too soon.
Early mornings offered the best chance for clear mountain views, so I forced myself from under the cozy blanket, pulled on some warm clothes and laced up my hiking boots. “Let’s go see this mountain,” I said.
We trekked up to the same Everest viewpoint as the day before, faster this time, and once again clouds enveloped us at the top. We knocked on the door of a closed lodge, asking to huddle inside and drink hot tea while we waited for the skies to clear.
After more than an hour, we finally saw glimmers of sunlight through the windows and headed outside.
The clouds crisscrossed each other on unpredictable winds.
Then, to our right, a giant snow-covered mountaintop revealed itself so close it almost seemed in reach. Next, morning light glowed on peaks behind us. With each new, stunning view, I felt hopeful.
Standing there in silence, among the impossible beauty of the ancient behemoths, human problems seemed insignificant. Those mountains were there long before us and will be there long after we’re gone.
My thoughts scattered to the mountain winds when Nate suddenly jumped and pointed: “There it is!”
We rushed next to him and peered between the clouds. A dark pyramidlike mountain top loomed in the distance.
“Woo hoo!” We high-fived each other and tried to snap pictures in the fleeting clarity.
As our cameras clicked, Nate reconsidered.
“Wait,” he said, as the clouds moved in again. “I’m not positive that’s it.”
Without a sign at the viewpoint or a guide to tell us, we couldn’t be sure.
But on the way back down, Namche Bazaar coming to life below us, I realized it didn’t really matter.
I’d walked among giants, Everest or not.