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"
VALERI, MASTER OF THE HIMALAYAS SKY
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.
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.
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
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 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.
from Spanish by Jorge Rivera
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