KATMANDU, Nepal -- Thamel is a small, congested, frenzied tangle of semipaved alleyways that has all the elements of a Third World red-light district except red lights and hookers. A reasonable walk from Katmandu's temple-filled Durbar Square, it is a commercial district of bars and neon and cheap hotels and power failures and dazed, scruffy First World pedestrians and, here and there, an amputee hustling rupees.

It is a local man looking both ways before uttering an unsmiling, conspiratorial "Change dollars? Smoke?" It is another local man approaching a stranger with business card extended: "Trek?"You can't see the Himalayas from Thamel, not even on days when the air in the Katmandu Valley isn't full of dust and smoke and powdered dung from sacred cows -- days rare in the springtime dry season -- but they are a presence. You feel it in the score of shops that sell famous-label backpacks and down jackets and boots and other stuff of high-altitude adventure, some of it secondhand and almost all of it fake.

Tucked off one of Thamel's alleys is an unremarkable restaurant called the Rum Doodle. Up the stairs is a saloon that doesn't take Katmandu's official 10 p.m. closing time particularly seriously. Behind the bar is a board bearing the signatures of some of the men and women who have reached the summit of Mount Everest, including that of Sir Edmund Hillary, who, with Tenzing Norgay in 1953, was the first; and of some who died trying to do it again.

People hooked on Himalayas tend to hang out at the Rum Doodle. Among them on a recent April night was Ari Piela. A chunky man with fine, shoulder-length blond hair, a thin beard and glasses, Piela has been on the Top of the World. He summited May 28, 1999.


"If you say you've climbed some difficult peak but it's lower than Everest, they'll listen very carefully," said the 36-year-old Finn. "But after a few cigarettes, they'll ask, 'OK, but when do you climb Everest?' Non-climbers don't understand."

The joy of climbing any very large rock "because it is there" may be beyond the comprehension of most of us. But so are the Himalayas, whose wonder is elusive unless actually experienced firsthand.

First, some numbers, because we must and because they help a little. Start with Everest, and never mind the relative technical difficulty of scaling the thing.

In 1954, when then-modern instruments took readings from 12 points, the height of the planet's highest peak was set at 29,028 feet. In 1999, the National Geographic Society (whose figures we're using throughout this story) and Boston's Museum of Science used the satellite-based Global Positioning System to come up with a new figure: 29,035.

Either number makes Everest more than twice as high as any mountain in Colorado. More than twice as high as Washington's Mount Rainier.

The tallest mountain in all of North America, Mount McKinley in Alaska, majestically rises 20,320 feet -- and Everest tops it by more than a mile.

Are you getting the picture here?

Alongside Everest are two more peaks taller than 27,000 feet: Lhotse and Makalu. A few miles east is Kanchenjunga (28,208 feet). Not far the other way: Cho Oyu (26,906).

Eight of the world's 10 tallest mountains are either in Nepal or straddle the Nepalese border with India and China (including Tibet). More than 30 peaks in China, Pakistan, India, Bhutan and Nepal rise above 24,000 feet -- and all are in the Himalayas.

Those are the stats. Here's what you can see from the air.

A jetliner bound for Nepal from Bangkok approaches Katmandu via Calcutta on the India side. From the window seat, the mountains north of town are little more than a distant ridge of snowcaps above brown haze. There is no sense of grandeur.

But get on a sightseeing plane.

The Buddha Airlines 18-seater headed north from Tribuvan International Airport, first over houses, then over fields and temples, then over terraced farm plots and monasteries and then toward the mountains. Fairly impressive. The plane banked and flew east. From the left-side windows, there was now a major ridge.

A Nepali flight attendant, speaking perfect English, moved down the aisle.

"There," she said over and over, to one passenger at a time, "is Dhaulagiri. Seventh highest mountain." Moments later: "Annapurna. Tenth highest mountain . . . ."

The more we flew along that ridge, the more grand it became, and then it was more than a ridge.

We were not just skirting the Himalayas. We were over them. The view was all mountain.

I have experienced the Rockies and Alps and Andes from the air. I've never experienced anything like this.

The flight attendant told us more names, but we half-listened, overwhelmed by this general sensory assault -- and then, there was focus.


It does not stand alone, like McKinley or Rainier or Kilimanjaro, and the pictures and the books had prepared us for that. Lhotse and Makalu, as expected, were right alongside.

But Everest was singular nonetheless. There it was, this black wedge, arrogant and proud, the fierce wind sending a plume of whiteness like the mane of a great lion king off its summit.

No other peak looks quite like that.

"The first time I saw Everest," said Susan Tomlinson, 39, a trekker from Lake Tahoe, Nev., who was at the Rum Doodle that night, "I just dropped to my knees and cried."

Just about all appreciation of the Himalayas begins in Katmandu, Nepal's capital (elevation: 4,428 feet). The trekkers who come here when the hiking weather is best -- October and November, and again March through early May -- internationalize the place, particularly Thamel. They come from everywhere. Thamel is where they can stay cheap, eat cheap, swap information, socialize and sign on to group treks or hire guides and porters for their own adventures.

In truth, Katmandu is not a beautiful city. Despite efforts to replace fume-belching tuk-tuks (motor-driven rickshaws) with battery-powered vehicles, foul air remains a problem in the Katmandu Valley. Tap water is hazardous to all but the fully acclimated. So is driving. Cows, revered by the largely Hindu population, wander at will, producing comfort for believers, sudden moves by traffic and, of course, the usual bovine byproduct.

Dogs roam back streets. Urbanized monkeys -- some of them nasty creatures the size of golden retrievers -- search through street trash; one squeezed through a slightly open window into a hotel room down the corridor from mine to rummage before being chased out, the only loss being a pack of chewing gum.

"Katmandu," said a visiting American doctor who has lived there, on and off, since 1979, "still suffers from the four 'P's': pollution, poverty, pus and poop."

But there is beauty here. The temples, palaces and statues of Durbar Square, the city's heart, make it a marvelous place to linger even if they lack Bangkok's dazzle; across the Bagmati River, once-separate Patan, now part of Katmandu, has its own Durbar Square with its own collection of temples and shrines.

Less than an hour's drive east of the city sits Bhaktapur, a well-preserved 17th century town perfect for wandering, photographing (the Nepalese, when approached with reasonable grace, are not camera shy), shopping and reflecting (more temples).

And in the other direction is Swayambhunath -- the Monkey Temple -- a gold-trimmed Buddhist shrine whose unforgettable eyes can be found on everything from embroidered T-shirts and caps to guidebook covers. (Yes, there are monkeys, these a little less nasty but thieves nonetheless.)

Still, primarily it is the Himalayas -- and the foothills leading to them -- that lure travelers to a country that for nearly a century (until the early 1950s) was essentially closed to foreigners. Not all roads, what roads there are in Nepal, lead to the mountains, but that elusiveness only adds to the magic.

Sunil Karki is a trek group leader from Bhaktapur. He understands.

"There are some mountains that are regarded as gods," said Karki, like most Nepalis a Hindu. "One is Ganesh (24,298 feet), because the mountain looks like the god. And Fish Tail (Nepali name: Machhapuchhare, 22,958) is also a holy one. Ten or 15 years ago, the government issued a group permission to climb Fish Tail, and nobody lived. Nobody came back." And no more permits were issued.

"Gauri Sankar -- the mountain has two tops, so it is regarded as a 'couple' god. And there are some others."

Everest? Karki smiled.

"Everest is just a mountain."

Not to everybody.

John Walters, a climber from Redwood City, Calif., was in Katmandu (and, naturally, at the Rum Doodle) preparing to join an environmental expedition. Its goal: To help remove some of the mountains of trash left by climbers at staging areas from the Everest Base Camp (17,600 feet) up to Camp IV (26,000 feet).

"I've been wanting to do this since 1976," said Walters, who works in the semiconductor industry when he isn't climbing in Yosemite. "Everest is a specific challenge because it is the highest peak."

But he won't summit.

"If you look around, it doesn't look like they're short of people who have summited," he said. "I'd like to live."

Through 1999, Everest had been summited 1,172 times. From 1922 through 1999, 163 people died trying -- 15 in 1996, the year of the IMAX film "Everest."

Piela went for the top anyway. In 1999, the Finn was one of 116 climbers to summit; 3 died.

"Climbing it was my dream," said Piela, an adventurer who has also mountain-biked the entire Great Wall of China and, next year, plans to ski across Greenland.

And still they come -- if not to summit, at least to experience these mountains.

"When you fly into Lukla, you see them and you think, 'Uh-huh,' " Susan Tomlinson said, recalling her brush with Everest. Lukla's airstrip is the launch area in Nepal for attempts at Everest. "Then you keep going over ridges and ridges, and you see the real Himalayas.

"And then you go back to Tahoe, and it's so ugly . . ."

The Lake Tahoe area, for those who have not been there, is absolutely gorgeous.

Now, you understand.