Onward to the trail
Nowhere to go but up
Hey, look! More stairs!
The lap of luxury
Into the mountains
Annapurna Sanctuary 1
Annapurna Sanctuary 2
Nowhere to go but down
Goodies for everyone

Onward to the trail

Namaste!ur trek officially began on April 4. After breakfast, we took some time in our hotel rooms to meticulously pack/unpack/repack our bags. Each of us had been given a giant duffel bag by Erickson Travel prior to our departure from the States, which we were told would be carried by the porters on our expedition. In addition to the duffels, we were each expected to carry a moderate-sized backpack containing whatever items that we thought we might want each day on the trail. Gyaltzen Sherpa, the director of Above the Clouds Trekking, secured our souvenirs and other items we didn't need in the mountains.

When we convened in the lobby, the first order of business was for us to meet our guide. Gyaltzen introduced us to Chhongba Sherpa, a stocky and solid fellow with the wide Tibetan-like features of many of the Sherpas from the famed Khumbu region near Mt. Everest.

The first impression we had of Chhongba was undeniable: this guy was a dead-ringer for Oddjob, the bowler-wearing villain in James Bond's "Goldfinger." With such an imposing character on our side, I felt that we were in good hands, as long as Sean Connery didn't show up.

Chhongba and Oddjob: separated at birth?

It took us awhile on that first day to get to know Chhongba. I suppose we were sizing each other up a bit; he probably took one look at us and wondered how he was going to lug the four of us up the mountains and back. Personally, I thought he looked like a tough taskmaster who would be cracking the whip on us all along the trails for the next two weeks. Little did I know then what a big ol' teddybear he was.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. The first mission for us was to take a 29-minute flight from Kathmandu to Pokhara, the city nearest the trailhead. Doesn't sound like a big deal, right? Especially to someone like me, a guy who's traveled on planes most of his life.

A notice on the pilot's control panel read,
"No acrobatic maneuvers, including spins, approved."

Well, let me put it this way: I had never flown in a Dornier 228 prop plane over the foothills of the Himalayas before. It wasn't the smallest plane in the world -- there must have been close to 20 passengers aboard -- but I'm willing to bet that it ranks among the loudest. And in the swells and thermals of the Himalayan sky, those two propellers sounded like they were giving all they could to keeping that bird aloft. For the first time, as we bobbed over the undulating landscape by what seemed like only a few hundred feet, I felt like it actually was possible that an aircraft carrying me could, er, land improperly. Needless to say, I was pleased when I was able to take the cottonballs out of my ears, look down and see my feet firmly planted on the tarmac at Pokhara airport.

Pokhara airport. That's Chhongba in the foreground,
carrying a tackle box full of first-aid products designed to keep us alive and trekking.

After landing, we piled into a van and took a harrowing half-hour journey to the trailhead. At least it was harrowing on land. I could handle that.