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Wild West of the East: Heading Home

Wild West of the East: Heading Home

[ November 11, 2009 - 1:54pm ]

The locals assured us there hadn't been any Maoist violence in this area. Guess blowing up an airport doesn't count.

In Nepal, the word "airport" means a small concrete building that had its head blown off and insides ripped out by Maoist bombs four years ago. In the case of four ski mountaineers trying to make it home, this is their only way out.

We had budgeted eight days to get from our remote base camp back to Kathmandu, which seems like a safe allowance as we set off on a 4,000-foot climb to begin the hike out. However, when we arrive a day early in Chainpur, some curious news awaits. The road we'd taken in from civilization a month prior was destroyed by 11 serious landslides two days after we passed through in brilliant sunshine. Obviously the 30 years it took to build the road was not enough to contend with four days of rain.

Only two of the 11 slides have been fixed when we arrive, which explains the seven buses and five large trucks sitting idle for a fourth week. Our options: Spend at least three more weeks (and likely much more) waiting for the road to be repaired or find an alternate means of escape.

Some haggling over the phone gets us a fixed-wing plane the next day —a 25-minute flight that costs $2,200. Not exactly attractive numbers at this stage of a trip, but better than three more weeks in Neverland. The moment we line this up, word starts to spread through the surrounding villages that four white guys and their Nepali cooks are chartering a plane with seats to spare. It doesn't take long for stranded villagers to wander down to the grass airstrip and feel out our price.

We decide to leave those details until tomorrow. In the meantime, we secure the local army general's permission to set up camp at the airport. "The airport," as it's defined in this area, means "small concrete building that had its head blown off and insides ripped out by Maoist bombs four years ago."

Our cook, Padam, celebrates the colorful shelter and outstanding dinner he and his boys whip up (if you've never had goat momos, look into trying some) by getting drunk again on raksi—a liquor that tastes like tiger piss. We gringos enjoy a warm beer that tastes better than ice water in a desert.

Shortly after we duck into the tents for bed, a freaky racket awakes me. I peek outside just in time to see a horse gallop through the bombed-out airport followed by a man with a headlamp and a machine gun. Four weeks ago this would've scared the dehydrated urine out of me. Now it seems just weird enough to end on.

The next morning, half the village shows up to watch our plane land on the cricket pitch. We pile all our gear into the cabin and sell six seats for $40 apiece. Two little kids ride for free. We plug our ears with cotton and take off from the bumpy earth, elevating above the raw land we have spent the past month exploring.

To help offset our additional costs when we get back to the city, I wander the streets of Kathmandu in an attempt to sell my old skis, which will cost $150 to take home but were given to me by a friend. The Nepali snickers sound like a pack of hyenas. "What are those?" a man asks. After 10 dead ends, I lower my price and sell them to an outdoor gear shop for $33. I later get $3 for my old pair of poles, just enough to cover a straight-razor shave the day we leave.  —Devon O'Neil

Breckenridge-based writer Devon O'Neil and North Face-backed ski mountaineers Kris Erickson, Jamie Laidlaw, and Kip Garre have recently returned from a 40-day expedition to the remote Saipal region in far-western Nepal, where they climbed and skied multiple unnamed peaks. You can read his six-part series here.

Airport Destruction

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