THE BROCHURE of the Hotel Everest View promises "spacious, modern and comfortable" rooms, each with a "panoramic view of Mt. Everest through glass doors opening onto a sunny veranda." The hotel rate, $122 or 1,464 rupees per day, "includes all meals from a fixed or a-la-carte continentials menu."
Our expectations, as we waited in the Kathmandu airport for the Pilatus Porter STOL aircraft that would take us to what, at 13,000 feet, is the highest hotel in the world, were as high as the mountain and the price.
My husband, Alan, and I decided to splurge, for when again would we be in Nepal with the chance of spending a day at the base of the famed Mt. Everest? Knowing we'd never climb it, the next best thing seemed for us to be as close to it as possible, because it was there, and we were there.
The two-hour delay in the freezing cold airport only served to increase our eagerness, and when we finally were airborne and beginning to pick our way through the Himalayas, I experienced a rush that had to be more than just an altitude high. At one point toward the end of our 45-minute flight, the plane veered to the right and started stubbornly toward a mountain straight ahead. At the moment my mind finally registered our direction, and I was experiencing increasing alarm, the plane made a hairpin turn to the left and began its swoop down to the so-called airstrip like a hawk in swift attack upon its prey.
In keeping with the other superlatives of this region, the Shyangboche airstrip is one of the shortest in the world. The pilot actually reverses thrust while touching down and then applies the brakes; it's the closest I've come to a plane's stopping on a dime.
Sherpa villagers on the hotel staff (in fact, they are the only staff of the hotel, with the exception of a Japanese cook) met the plane, greeted the seven passengers and, carrying the small piece of luggage each of us had been allowed to bring to the plane, began the 45-minute trek up the mountain to the hotel. We followed.
There had been no "yaks and horses waiting to carry passengers and baggage," and feeling mildly disappointed that we wouldn't be able to ride a yak up the hotel trail, I trudged up the mountain behind my husband. I was experiencing the first of what would be many disillusionments.
As we walked, the sunny, clear day quickly turned to clouds, apparently blown in from the valley, and my husband began to feel uneasy about a possible storm. Perhaps we should take the next plane out? But the next plane - the supply plane plus one passenger (our traveling companion for whom there had been no room on the first plane) - never came.
We reached our "luxury" hotel and found instead a hotel for which the adjective rustic - very rustic - would be more apt. The Mauna Kea or the Greenbriar, this was not. The rooms were average-size and simply furnished. There was nothing elegant or even warm and cozy about our room, and that was its basic problem - it was never warm.The hotel generator, which produced the meager heat for the hotel, was turned on only twice daily form 6 to 8 a.m. and from 5 to 8 p.m. and our room, at the warmest, climbed to about 55 degrees.
Our bathroom was even colder. We had no hot water in the tub or shower (not that it mattered, because it was much too cold to take your clothes off), and the hot water tap in the sink sometimes ran and sometimes didn't. I never did figure out what accounted for its mercurial behavior.
The Sherpas, a truly gentle, accommodating people, were trying to make the best of a bad situation, with no little embarrassment. They hooked a four-foot plastic siphon from our sink to the tub. But when I turned the hot water faucet on, the water danced violently up in the air, whacked the wall, and sprayed water on the bathroom floor - water which remained in an icy pool on the floor for the duration of ourstay.
The threadbare towels were so cold they felt wet. The toilet was so cold, taking a chance on a possible kidney problem seemed a preferable alternative.
The central gathering place in the hotel was a large, windy room with a circular fireplace to one side that served as the "dinning room, bar, and lounge" specified in the brochure. And there is where we spent our entire time, huddled around the fire, trying to stay warm, our full attention devoted to keeping the fire going, using semi-damp and green wood.
Sometime around 5 p.m. that first day it began to snow, and the hotel guests realized the likelihood of having to remain a day longer than they had planned.
There was 10 of us. Seven had flown in on the plane that morning: a Swiss business magnate in his mid-60s, traveling with his wife and a German industrialist friend; a couple in their late 20s, also Swiss, he an engineer in Zurich, she is a secretary; and Alan and I. Three others we met as we sat around the fire drinking our first of what was to be many cups of coffee and tea: another American, a Californian and ex-philosophy teacher now studying the art of acupunture; and a physics teacher and his wife from New Guinea.
I felt an element of pleasant surprise at their already being here. Alan, on the other hand, immediately perceived our numbers as a possible complication, since the largest plane flying to and from the hotel held a maximum of seven passengers.
As it got darker it got colder, and finally the hotel receptionist brought in a somewhat ragged pile of down parkas from which we chose additional layers. My layers consisted of stockings, jeans, wool pants over the jeans two nylon turtleneck shirts, a wool dress worn tunic-fashion over everything else, a bright pink raincoat and finally a dirty-blue, worn parka. Seated a foot from the fire, with my legs stretched out and shoes practically in the fire. I was able to keep warm, sporadically. This was camping at luxury prices.
It was so cold that it was uncomfortable to move five feet to the dining table, but move we had to since there were no facilities for eating around the fire. We all clustered, family style, around the long table, and then shoved our seats and place settings closer together for additional warmth.
Common courtesy and manners could not be observed because the plates and air temperature were so cold that if you waited politely for everyone to be served, your food would be cold by the time you began to eat. The food was average the first night. I can't fully recall what we had.
The meals went from adequate, the first night, to decidedly worse the next day. This I suppose, was not entirely the hotel's fault; remember, the supply plane had not landed the day before. But I do fault the hotel for serving rubbery and cold scrambled eggs, runny porridge, and for not wiping blood and feathers off the soft-boiled eggs before serving them.
As we all ate breakfast, we were told that no plane would be in the day, for although the snow had stopped, the runway could not be cleared in time for the planes to land. The wealthy Swiss businessman was most notably alarmed at this because his party, on their last leg of a trip around the world, had connections to make the next day.
We moved back to the fire and began the first of what was to turn to a continuous discussion of how we might all get out of there. We were told that a helicopter might be available, but it would cost $800 and could take only four passengers. There was also the possibility of a large helicopter - no one was sure how many that would hold - and so Alan questioned everyone to see who would be willing to share costs, assuming we could get a helicopter in. The New Guinea couple said they did'nt mind being stranded for a day or two and to count them out. So, also, the American who had relinquished his seat on the returning plane on Saturday and seemed happy for yet another day of the trekker's life.
Alan then volunteered to hike down to the airstrip and try to make radio contact with Kathmandu. There was no way of reaching the airstrip by walkie-talkie, and radio communication from the airstrip to Kathmandu was, itself, tenuous. There were three daily scheduled communications, but with scratchy sound,. the messages transmitted in English (a foreign language for the radio operator) and the cultural barricades, it made for a situation that was fertile with the possibilities of confusion and misunderstanding. Our message was never answered.
That night, as we waited for dinner, I thought back to the marvelous brochure that had stated so accurately: "There are no planned activities at the Hotel Everest View," and so inaccurately, "yet many facilities are available to make your stay interesting and rewarding . . . You can sit around the hotel's fireplace and discuss the day's happenings with other guests."
Or you can sit around and discuss how you're going to get out of there.
For dinner Sunday night we had cabbage, carrot tempura and carrot tops tempura. We had run out of meat and it was vegetarian, like it or not. We also used the last supplies of butter that night, though we weren't to know this until the next morning at breakfast.
We had more important things on our minds than butter. The airstrip was cleared; at least one plane should be able to land the next morning (as long as the weather stayed clear), but it was likely that only one plane would come. And suddenly there were 10 of us who had to get on the first plane. Who had priority?
Those booked first at the hotel? But one of them had given up his reservation on Saturday and therefore, others felt, his priority also. The younger Swiss couple felt they had first priority for they had booked into the hotel for two days and had a firm reservation on the plane for Monday morning. The wealthy Swiss party had connections to make, besides which the German industrialist was suffering from oxygen starvation and general physical unfitness. The Swiss businessman and Alan and I had booked for only one night and should have been out on Sunday.
The only ones with clear priority were the New Guineans, who had booked into the hotel first and had been slated to leave on Sunday, but they were the ones who had said earlier that they didn't mind being stranded for a few days. All that had changed.
Concerned discussion degenerated into heated argument until nothing could be resolved - but that is another story. We all went to bed in emotional turmoil that night, and it looked as though it might be who could push the hardest would get on the plane the next day.
Fortunately, the rooms were all supplied with heating blankets. Fully dressed and under the blanket, I was finally able to get warm and stay so for most of the night, troubled only by unpleasant dreams.
The warmth was short-lived, for at 6 a.m. we had wake-up call, at 7, breakfast, and at 7:30 we began the trek down the airstrip.
We reached the airstrip at 8:30, and as we waited for the plane we reached an agreement: If the six-seater plane came, the New Guineans, the Swiss party of three and the single American would be first on; if the seven-seater plane came, it would be the same lineup, except that Alan and I would go in place of the American.
We waited in the unfiltered sun until 1:30 p.m., when it became clear that no planes were coming that day - for what reason we did not learn then, though there was some talk among the Sherpa villagers about the King of Nepal needing both planes for the day.
Back at the hotel we learned there was only enough fuel to run the generator for one more day. After that there would be no electricity or heat. That night at dinner some mysterious looking balls (about the size of the small rubber ball used to play jacks with and just about as red) appeared on our plates. We are told it was minced buffalo meat. One bite convinced me that its origin was too dubious a nature of me: besides, we hadn't seen any buffalo grazing on the mountain.
Tuesday morning began as a repeat of Monday morning. But we were assured as we left the hotel to begin our climb down the airstrip that they were sending two planes. We agreed on the same lineup as yesterday and then all waited in great agitation for the first sound of an approaching plane. At 10 a.m. we heard a yelp from one of the villagers stationed on the side of the mountain, and soon we heard the sounds of an engine. As the plane got ready to land, a second plane circled around, ready to rescue the remaining guests.
The first plane to touch down was the seven-seater. We must have loaded in less than a minute, the doors were slammed shut, and we took off as if we had just jumped on a trolley car in the nick of time. As we rose into the air, the other plane was doing tricks and dips as it dodged our plane, and I had a sinking feeling somewhere deep inside. And corny as it sounds, tears were in my eyes.
We later discovered that the second plane was flown by a Swiss pilot, from the same section of Switzerland as the younger Swiss couple who flew back with him. He was the most experienced of the three pilots, the other two being young Nepalese with not many months flying time in the STOL aircraft. The planes had not come for us on Monday because it was the Swiss pilot's day off, and the Nepalese were supertituos about flying the Himalayas unless the Swiss pilot was flying also. So anytime he had a day off or was sick, no planes flew.
Back in Kathmandu, the anxiety receded, letting feelings of anger and of being ripped off surface. My husband argued with Trans Himalayas Tour Ltd. (in charge of all bookings and originators of some of the mistruth - such as the hotel's being pressurized) about the outrageous accomdation and prices. Each day we were stranded cost an additional $30 in food (food?), though we did not have to pay the $122 per day lodging rate. Alan threatened to go to the Nepalese Tourist Bureau, and he wrote a long and explicit letter to Trans Himalayas Tour Ltd., a copy of which he promised to send the Nepalese government.
We originally had gone to that part of the world to attend the International Solar Energy Congress, my husband being on the board of ISEC and an expert in solar energy.At the end of the letter he detailed five ways in which solar energy could be used to improve the efficiency of the hotel.
On the basis of this information, our hotel charge was reduced 25 percent - not enough, really, to satisfy us. And even if there had been no charge, I'm not sure we would have been pleased. After all, we don't go camping in the middle of winter in the states, because we really don't find it that alluring a prospect.