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  Mt Everest and K2 Summiter: Ivan Vallejo Kangchenjunga 2006: VALERI, MASTER OF THE HIMALAYAS SKY

Back to Kangchenjunga

Caption for the attached Picture: "Alexander (assistant mechanic), the famous Valeri Bubanov, Fercho my expedition teammate and yours truly, at Taplejung airport, after the scare" 


Among the things that keep surprising me is communications technology and the magic of flying.   About the latter, each time I am sitting in one of those enormous apparatus and I see through the window how such weight and volume delicately lifts and defies gravity, nothing less but one of the most implacable laws of physics, I am surprised and I enjoy feeling and seeing it.

The first time I came to the Himalayas in 95, I also boarded for the first time one of those famous Russian M17 helicopters, which were developed for the war that the Russians and Americans had because of the Afghanistan conflict.  Some of you may remember the memorable image of Rambo who, being almost absolutely incapacitated, after a terrible beating, manages to incorporate and blows down with his bazooka a huge helicopter that came out of the blue, behind some cliffs.  This huge helicopter in Rambo's flick is a M17.

Those impressive devices were not used for the war anymore and part of them were sent here, to Nepal, to the Himalayas, where they have given their invaluable service for years, for transport, help and rescue.  Of course, since the helicopters could not come by themselves, they came with their pilots, so a squadron was organized in Russia and they flew here.  Today the Sergeis, the Alexanders, the Wladislavs are part of the daily life of Nepal and the Himalayas.  Valeri Bubanov belongs precisely to this breed of masters.

Valeri Bubanov is Russian, he is 46 years old, like me, and he lives between Nepal and Russia like a gypsy since ten years ago.  Only on the Himalayas, he has accumulated more than 5,000 flight hours and always commanding his M17.  He knows the shortcuts, hills, cliffs, gorges and summits of the Himalayas like no other.

I personally met Valeri last year when he went to take us out of Dhaulagiri.  On that occasion the forecasts were not very encouraging because of the wind blowing, two days we waited with not much hope.  By the dawn of the third the conditions improved a little, but the wind was still strong.  We impatiently waited at 4,600m with our packs ready to board.  At last, preceded by the characteristic noise of those tremendous motors, it suddenly appeared behind the cliffs, just like in Rambo, the electric blue helicopter with golden letters.  It came directly to us, it didn't even touched ground (ice is a better word for this case) and while it was still on the air we loaded our stuff and then it took off.  The flight back was a total hallucination, it gracefully passed between cliffs and gorges of Dhaulagiri, at moments it looked like the walls of the mountain were close to my nose, that flight was a dance between the air and the precipices.  After an hour we arrived to Pokhara safe and sound, and once on the ground I asked Valeri to take a picture, I gave him a Dhaulagiri expedition card and then I said goodbye saying: My friend, you are the master.  When he found out I had ten eight-thousands, he said a compliment back. 

Now for this occasion, to come to Kangchenjunga, the hiring negotiations were made through our Nepalese friend Ang Nuru Sherpa.  When we all agreed, the order was that we had to be on Wednesday, April 5 in KTM airport, domestic flights, at four in the afternoon.  I thought at that moment: Wow, it is late at four!  But in Nepal you can expect anything.

When the van took us into the runway to the helicopter terminal, I could see that it was a blue one with golden letters, I remembered Valeri and I thought about Dhaula.  When I got there I could confirm that it was really him and his Blue Bird.  I approached to greet him with a hug and he immediately remembered me, because of the card, and because I was from Ecuador.  There he was, Valeri, the same as last year with his friendly look and easy smile, wearing a baseball hat to protect his baldness and while we chatted he gave orders to Sergei, his assistant mechanic. 

We loaded our 2,000 Kg of packages, the passengers boarded, ten in total, and the control tower gave the order when it was four twenty; I was a little worried because of lots of gray clouds that were seen right in the direction where we were going, because flying is not my thing, and gray clouds are a bad omen here and in China...

Finally, all of us crowded among Nepalese, South Americans, egg cases, cans of flour, rice bags, potato bags and mountain equipment, we took off to the sky in that bladed rig.

The copter rises and the other Katmandu appears, the other Nepal you can see from above, different, like a picture painted with greens and ocher, like an acrylic of greens and yellows, from time to time the shining of the Bagmati appears like a light snake that slithers among the rice fields.  Then the steep slopes, beautifully and laboriously cut to take advantage of this abrupt terrain for agriculture.  Then the pine and rhododendron woods.  I check the altimeter: 2,400m.  We fly low.  Suddenly the woods disappear in the clouds, the window gets wet and we are surrounded by rain and thunder explodes; at times we can not see anything, not the slopes, not the woods or little houses.  For a second I remember the Tame plane that hit against a slope in Bogotá, but I find relief when I see that Valeri is driving.  Fercho looks back with fear in his face and I only node, I check the altimeter again: 2,100m.  My God, so low.  For a moment a clear opens and I see the top of the rhododendrons almost up to my nose, then I regret not having taken the bus, even though it was a trip of three long and uncomfortable days, but now it is too late to turn around and I start praying, not for me, but for him, for Valeri, because since he is Russian he must not be thinking about HIM, and in that moment, without doubting his accumulated hours, we need HIM. 

Suddenly we feel a brutal void in the stomach and the helicopter goes down and down; the window lets me see a square on the grass with a capital H.  The copter heads down in a drill and manages to land just on the H.  We only look at our faces, nobody says anything.  Immediately the helicopter is surrounded by a platoon of Nepalese militaries with loaded guns, they talk in Russian in the cabin and in Nepalese where we are.  We don't understand anything, of course.  After the Russian civilians and the Nepalese military agree, Fercho and I ask for explanations and we see that, indeed, the storm surrounded the Blue Bird and the danger of hitting against the mountain was imminent.  Valeri's mastery, I don't know if he knew exactly or if he just guessed, made him go down in a drill looking for the closest place to land and zassssss: he luckily found this site in the military base!  Of course, as it should be, after abruptly invading this place we should remain inside the device in a kind of temporary arrest until they could confirm our origin in KTM.  In that moment, with a little black humor, I asked Fercho if it was a problem if they found out he was Colombian.  Since time in Nepal goes at a different rhythm, just around eight in the evening we were authorized to leave the helicopter and go find shelter in a house in Taplejung. 

Two days later, the same Valeri took us in his Blue Bird from Taplejung (1,700m) to Ramche (4,448m).  When I said goodbye with a big hug, while he wished me luck for Kangchenjunga, I repeated: 

Valeri, you are the master of this sky.  Bye my friend.

Bye Ecuador, good luck. 

Ivan Vallejo Ricaurte


Ivan is one of the few climbers to summit Everest from the North and South, both without oxygen. This quest for the 14 shall continue this Spring... Stay Tuned for more.

Translated from Spanish by Jorge Rivera


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