The tallest, fiercest beast of rock, ice and snow on the planet goes by many names.
If you’re the average Nepali, you’ve grown up calling it Sagarmāthā, meaning “forehead in the sky.” If you’re a native speaker of the Tibetan languages, it is the “mother of the world” or, Chomolungma. But those of us who have not had the rare pleasure of casting our eyes from a young age upward toward the behemoth, which rises like a ghost from the Mahalangur mountain range — we know it as Mt. Everest.
It’s 5:45am and I’m making my way in darkness toward the nearest main road from my Airbnb in the Lainchaur neighborhood of Kathmandu.
The simple but sturdy four-story concrete home is buried deep in a pocket of squiggling half-paved, half-dirt streets that don’t appear to have names. Many are scarcely wide enough for a single car to pass people on foot.
Even at this early hour, when I reach the big thoroughfare (which might be Lazimpat Rd., Google Maps seems as confused as I am), it’s already a loud, hectic scene. With no painted lane markers or stoplights for guidance, the streets are an untamed river of wheels: weaving motorbikes, overstuffed and swaying local buses, bicycles loaded with everything from live chickens to clear blue jugs of water, a few cars, and the odd dust-glazed tuk tuk.
At a corner I stop and scan zooming headlights for approaching taxis to take me to Kathmandu Airport.
I’m anxiously aware that getting a taxi could be a difficult feat at the moment. A fuel shortage caused by neighboring India’s politically motivated withholding of petrol has obliged many Nepalis to wait in petrol station lines for up to 24 hours. Unsurprisingly, fuel prices have been driven to unfathomable levels in under a week. Using a car is now such a costly endeavor that it has forced many taxi drivers off the road, or to charge exorbitant fares.
But I have little choice.
Two bicycle tuk tuk drivers, one taller and one shorter, parked at the corner press me to take a ride. The taller one asks, “Where are you going?”
“To the airport.” I say, “But I have to get there very quickly. I need a car taxi.”
“I can take,” the shorter one offers, “is no problem.”
“I’m sorry, it’s too far and tuk tuk isn’t fast enough. I need to be there in 20 minutes.”
They keep after me for a bit longer, but eventually go sulky and silent when I resort to ignoring them. Finally I manage to flag down a tiny beat-up white taxi car. While the driver maneuvers a cramped turn-around, the two tuk tuk guys engage him through his rolled-down window. Just as we’re inching to merge into traffic, it seems something they’ve said has struck home and it causes the driver to abruptly halt the car. He twists in his seat and tells me I have to get out.
“Why, what happened?“ I ask, hesitantly exiting.
He says simply, “This not a taxi now.”
“But it was a taxi two seconds ago… please, I have to get to the airport!” I utter futilely into the car’s exhaust cloud.
After a second, the taller tuk tuk driver looks at me smugly, “You need ride?”
I glare at him. Indignantly, I trudge a half block up to renew my taxi search. I know that if I don’t make this flight, I will miss the only day for at least a week that, according to weather reports, will be clear enough to see what I’ve come to see.
By no small miracle, I make it to the airport via taxi, get through security, and board the small, 20-odd seater Yeti Airlines plane by exactly 6:30am. At 6:45, the other tourists and I lift gently from the runway and are in the air, flying over the enormous, hazy city into a pale ocean of clouds.
After about 10 minutes of nearly audible anticipation, a chatter of excitement cascades through the cabin. I peer through my window and spy distant mountains.
“Everest!” somebody near the front shouts. Our lone flight attendant, Sunita, dressed in a traditional Nepalese-inspired marigold and green outfit, sashays up the aisle, pausing every couple of rows to correct the shouter.
“That peak is Langtang Mountain. 7,234 meters high.”
“When will we see Everest?” an Australian man behind me asks.
Sunita smiles patiently. “It will be a short while before we can see it. We must first pass other mountains of this range.”
Pressing my forehead to the glass like a child, I watch, mesmerized as the startlingly lovely Himalayas glide by outside the window beneath beams of morning sunlight. At times they resemble vast fields of toothed jaws biting up through white whisps.
At other times, they become spectral giants sleeping side by side, sloped bodies echoing to the horizon.
Sunita taps me on the shoulder. “We’re getting close, do you want to go into the cockpit to see it?”
I nod, grab my camera and work my way to the front of the plane. A thin, bespectacled Korean guy in his twenties is snapping away, standing directly over the shoulders of the pilots. I can’t help thinking that there is no way in hell so many people would be able to get this close to airplane pilots flying in the U.S. One little bump of the arm, or a dropped camera…
The Korean guy backs out of the small space, and I move in. The co-pilot looks up from the hundreds of buttons in the cockpit (I would never let me, or anybody else get this close to those things! I think) and greets me with a typical warm Nepalese “Namaste.” He point toward the left window at a small triangle-shaped peak in the distance.
“There is Everest.”
My breath catches in my chest, and for a moment my mind becomes a broken record: Wow… wow… wow…
At last I snap out of it, raised my camera to my eye and began to shoot. The buttons and pilots and even the airplane itself fades away, and it’s just me and the mountain through my lens.
Back in my seat, I’m half delirious from the experience of actually seeing something of this magnitude (in every sense), this mystical mountain which I never even seriously considered I’d ever get to see with my own eyes.
I hear a muted popping sound over the whir of the propellers and look back to see Sunita filling glass flutes with champagne, which she passes to each of us in celebration. I clink glasses with a stylishly dressed Japanese woman sitting across from me. We smile and say “cheers!” in our own languages.
I put down my camera for a moment and sipping my champagne, gaze out the window as we circle around the northern Tibetan side of the mountain and begin to head back to the airport. Wow. I’m here, I think, I’m really here.
“Do you call it Everest in Nepal, or something else?” asks the inquisitive Aussie behind me.
Sunita tells him “In Nepal we traditionally call the mountain Sagarmāthā, but different people have different names.”
Smiling secretly to myself, I think: I’m going to call it mine.
Next stop: The wild beauty of Nepal’s Chitwan National Park!