April 1 & 2, 2000 Delayed by two hours, we lifted off the tarmac in Kathmandu and soared up amongst the highest peaks in this region of the Himalaya. The Southwest face of Shishapangma (14th tallest peak in the world) was just off our wingtip.
Brad Johnson and I had hoped to climb that face last October, but arrived in the middle of a week of bad weather. On our first morning in base camp, the snow stopped for a few hours, but quickly resumed.
At 8 that night a Sherpa rushed into our tent with the news that an avalanche claimed the lives of Alex Lowe and Dave Bridges. They were traversing the glacier at the base of the face, when a slab let loose, 5000 feet above them.
Their death and the continuing bad weather convinced us to return to Kathmandu. Flying past it stirred a mixture of emotions. It was depressing to think of Alex and Dave, yet I still badly wanted to climb that beautiful face.
The next 8,000-meter peak on the horizon was Cho Oyu (6th tallest), which Brad and I had climbed last September. Of the 12 climbers on our expedition, five of us had summited this peak and two others had climbed it to above 7,400 meters. We were all excited to see the sun shining on the summit.
Everest, viewed from the south, was the next big peak. At first we could we see the top of the North Ridge, but it soon disappeared. A plume of snow was blowing off the top, racing towards the east. The South Col and the upper reaches of the Lhotse face were in full view. And the great horseshoe formed by Everest, Lhotse (4th tallest) and Nuptse lay beneath us.
We banked north between the summits of Makalu (5th tallest) and Kanchenjunga (3rd) and turned to see the Kangshung Face of Everest. As we flew further north the whole of the North-Northeast Ridge of Everest and then the North Col and North Ridge came into view. We could see every bit of our route, from the Rongbuk Glacier to the North Col and upwards to the First, Second and Third Steps and finally to the summit snow pyramid.
There were two Everest expeditions on the flight. Together with the tourists, we were yelling and screaming. As a peak crested the horizon on the left, everyone rushed to that side of the plane, good-naturedly crushing the person in the window seat. Then a giant peak would pop up on the right and we'd all shift to that side.
We were all quite friendly with each other, the whole plane in a party mood, when the pilot announced that we were being diverted to Chengdu, a city in the center of China. High winds had closed the Lhasa airport.
Well, the Chinese customs officers had no idea what to do with us. A plane load of tourists, with Tibetan, not Chinese visas descended upon their desks. Lethargic attempts at creating a solution were met with anger by the 150 disappointed and now saddle soar passengers.
Finally they loaded us on some airport shuttle buses and deposited us in a local hotel. Eight hours, two bus rides and a malfunctioning plane later, we were finally seated on a plane that could fly. We taxied down the runway and lifted off for Lhasa.