When life and travel returns to normal after the pandemic ,a wild trip to Nepal can include a tribute at the world’s highest golf tournament.
I get the WhatsApp call in Washington Square Park, New York City – 12,105 kilometres from Nepal. •“Ollie, how are you?”• “Deepak! I’m good, man! What’s up?” • Deepak is Deepak Acharya, the Fonzie-level-cool senior director of golf at Gokarna Forest Resort in Kathmandu, Nepal. I haven’t spoken to my friend in ages. I gulp down some coffee, sit back on my bench. It’s nice to hear his voice. • “Listen, Ollie, I’ve got some exciting news. There’s going to be a major golf event here very soon. The world’s highest golf tournament.” • I put down my coffee. • “Wait, what?” • Deepak continues. “It will be played up at Kongde Ri. That’s 14,000 feet. We’re going up in choppers.” • There’s a pause, then Deepak arrives at his main point: “I think you should come over for it.”
I first visited Nepal in April 2016, with my friends Miles and Vlad. After trekking to Everest Base Camp, we put together an article on Nepal’s little-known golf scene. There are six courses in Nepal, including Royal Nepal Golf Club and the wonderfully named Yak Golf Club, Himalayan Golf Course and Nirvana Country Club. There are 700 golfers, of which one in 10 is a professional, earning cards at an annual Q school for the Professional Golf Tour of Nepal.
At Royal Nepal, we met a special young golfer: Pratima Sherpa. Then 16 years old, Pratima lives in a shed on the course’s fourth hole… and is the No.1 female golfer in Nepal. I wrote an article on Pratima for this magazine, and Miles, Vlad and I started Team Pratima to support her dream of becoming the first female golf pro in Nepal’s history. (Pratima is now a freshman at Santa Barbara City College in California, playing for the golf team.)
Ever since that trip, I’ve felt deeply connected to Nepal, and to its warm and wonderful people. I’m now friends with retired Gurkha majors and climbing Sherpas, Nepali golf professionals and caddies. Anytime there’s an excuse to revisit the Land of Everest, I’m in.
‘You’re gonna feel lousy up there’
“Diamox won’t touch it.”
It’s a few days before my trip, and I’m on the phone with the world’s pre-eminent high-altitude doctor… who, at this moment, is sort of freaking me out.
“Are you serious?”
“Yeah, you’re going up too quickly for it to be effective,” Dr Hackett replies, referencing the standard altitude medicine.
“Well, uh, what if I just hydrate a lot?”
“I mean, definitely do that. But that’s not really going to help.”
A few days earlier, it hit me that going directly up to 14,000 feet in 45 minutes might not be, like, the most incredible idea. Doing some research, I stumbled upon the Institute for Altitude Medicine, based in Telluride, Colorado, and run by Dr Peter Hackett. Hackett is basically the Jack Nicklaus of high-altitude medicine. He was also the 111th person to summit Mount Everest, accomplishing it in 1981. He also coughed up part of his lung on the descent, a fact that I find gross – and cool.
Dr Hackett is usually OOE (Out On Everest) or midway up Denali researching altitude sickness. But I find a phone number on the institute’s website and leave a rambling voicemail about my upcoming golf adventure. I’m shocked when Dr Hackett calls me back a few days later. More shocked when Dr Hackett spends 40 minutes graciously walking me through every upcoming logistical and physiological detail. It’s a little surreal. I feel as if I’m talking to Jacques Cousteau.
“Yeah, you’re gonna feel lousy up there,” Dr Hackett says. “But it’s doable. Although you should definitely bring up some Dex.”
“Oh, right. Of course.”
“Do you know what that is?”
I’ve been in some relatively high altitudes before. I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania at 19,341 feet and trekked to Everest Base Camp at 17,650 feet. But – and here’s what’s keeping me up at night – I hit those elevations after four and eight days, respectively. With this tournament, I’ll be going directly from 4,600 feet at Kathmandu to 14,000 feet in Kongde, where there’s 43 percent less oxygen than at sea level. And sure, we’re scheduled to be Kongde-side for only an hour. But if the weather turns – and it often turns – then we’re stuck up there, in a very remote part of the Khumbu.
At least the ball should go a bit further.
Options (and dangers)
The final few pre-trip days pass by in a blur.
I pack, organise visa materials, purchase special trip insurance (featuring, I notice, repatriation of remains). On Wednesday afternoon, I catch a flight to Istanbul, then switch planes for Kathmandu. Thirty-one hours after leaving Manhattan, my sneakers hit Nepali tarmac.
The tournament organisers have offered to pick me up at the airport, but I’ve got other ideas. I schlep suitcases across the street, dodge several taxis, and, roughly 17 seconds after leaving the arrivals terminal, enter Royal Nepal Golf Club.
It’s Major Naren Rai, the kindly retired Gurkha officer who introduced my friends and me to Pratima.
We hug, then Major Rai drags me inside the clubhouse for breakfast. Within seconds, I’m at a table with four other retired Gurkha majors – all with perfect posture and Titleist caps. Monkeys scamper around the porch outside. Kathmandu is waking up.
“So tell us about this tournament!” Major Rai says.
It’s called the Baahrakhari Everest Golf Tournament. Forty competitors. All amateurs. Most Nepali. The format: 18 holes, strokeplay, with hole No.1 taking place at Kongde Ri, 13,943 feet above sea level, and the remaining 17 holes played the next weekend at Gokarna Forest Resort back in Kathmandu (at a more oxygen-friendly 4,600 feet).
This high-altitude hole at Kongde, a downhill (relatively speaking) 100-yard par 3, didn’t exist a week ago. It’s been constructed during the past four days by a team of four, supervised by Deepak Acharya. The hole features an artificial tee and green (flagstick location: dead centre, three paces from the back edge), with all materials helicoptered up from Kathmandu.
Kongde is off the beaten Everest trekking route. It’s a remote, wind-swept area (predicted tournament temperature: minus-8 degrees Celsius) with the best views of Everest in the Solukhumbu, and the strikingly picturesque Yeti Mountain Home, considered one of the world’s highest hotels. A team of about 20 people are up at Kongde, readying last-minute details. Two photographers have even hiked up over four days to be fully acclimatised for tournament-snapping.
To arrive for their tee-time, competitors have two options. Option 1: take a Tara Air propeller plane into Lukla (9,383 feet) the day before the event, then a B3 helicopter up another 4,560 feet to Kongde the next morning. Option 2: chopper directly from Kathmandu to Kongde the morning of the tournament in an MI-17 Nepal Army helicopter.
After some light thought (read: an obsessive amount of panicked indecision), I’ve chosen Option 1, to sleep at 9,383 feet pre-tournament and (hopefully) acclimatise. There are only two issues with this choice. Issue 1: Lukla’s Tenzing-Hillary Airport is considered the world’s most dangerous airport. Issue 2: the airport, being wedged into the side of a mountain (and also being in the mountains), often shuts down for weather. Like, very often. Like, in 2011, thousands of hikers were stuck in Lukla for two weeks when weather rolled in (and then stopped rolling).
Regardless of the chosen option, all competitors will play the hole, have breakfast and be back in Kathmandu by 10:30am. That’s the plan, anyway. The totality of this event, I’m quickly realising, seems somewhat Herculean in scope. Choppering more than 100 people, including support staff, up into the Everest region, at 14,000 feet, for a single hole of golf, before returning to Kathmandu? Military operations have involved less planning.
“Make sure you sit on the left-hand side of the plane.”
It’s 6am, next day. Less than 24 hours after arriving in Kathmandu, I’m heading to Lukla with 12 other golfers (Option 1). As our 13-seat prop plane finishes boarding, a flight attendant passes out cotton balls for ears. Everywhere I look, there are Titleist caps and Callaway vests. I notice one extra-eager player already wearing a golf glove on each hand.
“How long is the flight?” somebody asks.
“Twenty-five minutes,” my friend Mahendra Mainali answers. Mahendra is playing in the tournament. Mahendra is a lawyer. Mahendra is due in Nepali Supreme Court at noon tomorrow, to argue a case. Anything for golf.
With a roar, our plane hurtles down the runway and into the air. The buildings of Kathmandu fade away, replaced by steep, green hills. To our left, majestic snowy peaks stretch into the sky. Before long, we’re in the mountains, clearing peaks by 50 feet. The pilots appear to be concentrating extra hard. The single, short, uphill runway of Lukla’s airport comes into view – and we enter a final approach that has to be timed perfectly, or none of us will be teeing off tomorrow. I’ve done this flight twice before but still grip my armrests rock-climber tight.
With a thud, we land hard, screech to a halt. Passengers applaud. I yell “Shabash!” a phrase normally reserved for things like holes-in-one. Suddenly, we’re at 9,383 feet. And in Lukla 24 hours before the rest of the field arrives.
I’ve never been this early for a tee-time in my life.
This tournament is happening for one main reason: Ang Tshering Sherpa.
I describe Ang to my friends as “the Nepali Richard Branson”. A kind, deeply humble man, Ang was born in the Everest region village of Khumjung. He attended the school founded by Sir Edmund Hillary and began working on climbing expeditions at 11. By age 50, Ang owned Yeti Airlines, Gokarna Forest Resort, Tara Air, Thamserku Trekking and several hotels in the Everest region. He was also president of the Nepal Mountaineering Association, leading large campaigns to clean up Mount Everest. I met and interviewed Ang Tshering in 2016 and stayed in touch with him as I covered Pratima’s journey. (A passionate golfer, Ang was incredibly generous with Pratima.) To all who
knew him, Ang was the definition of Nepali kindness – and a true Nepali success story.
Six months before my trip, Ang was killed in a helicopter crash.
It had always been Ang’s dream to stage the world’s highest golf tournament in Nepal, up at Kongde. By playing, Ang’s friends are honouring the great Nepali. Because Ang Tshering did so much for his people, for his country, for his beloved sport in Nepal. His portrait has been placed at Kongde, beside the first tee.
I’m proud to be taking part.
“It’s on the right, up those steps.”
Our group exits Lukla Airport, passing hoards of trekkers either starting up for Everest Base Camp or waiting for Kathmandu-bound flights. We drop our bags at a nearby lodge, do a two-hour acclimatisation hike. It’s a clear day in Lukla, the gateway to Everest. I was here three years ago, in these same mountain towns, in these same hiking boots, and it’s hard not to be swept up in the excitement of the place. With every footstep, Everest beckons.
At 1pm, we’re given keys to our lodges. I’m in the Yeti Mountain Home, which Ang Tshering owned. It’s easily the nicest in Lukla, with en-suite showers and heated mattresses. In the garden, colourful prayer flags flutter in the breeze. Our group gathers here, drinking tea in the sunshine. A pre-tournament chipping contest begins, as a group of Sherpa children hug the nearby fence, counting down my swing.
“Three… two… one… gooooo!”
Mountains stretch in all directions. I’m among smiling Nepali golfers in Ang Tshering’s hotel. I can’t help thinking that Ang would have loved this.
It’s 5am, tournament day. I’m wearing snowboard pants, plus my green expedition jacket that I bought in Namche Bazaar (11,286 feet) in 2016 for $20 – which makes me look a little like the Nepali Michelin Man. In my pockets are Diamox, Dexamethasone and golf tees. I’m sitting across from Surya, one of the event organisers. He doesn’t look pleased.
“It’s very cloudy,” Surya says.
I look out the window. In the direction of where Kongde’s peak should be at 20,299 feet, I see a wall of clouds. This isn’t great. The No.1 rule of flying choppers in the Khumbu Valley is simple: don’t fly into clouds.
“Do you think the clouds will clear?” I ask. Surya looks back at me.
Others arrive at the lodge, armed with golf clubs and hiking packs. We sip Sherpa tea and stare at the mountain. At 6:30am, 15 of us head down to the helipad. Two choppers are already there, and our group sits at the field’s western edge to wait. Rajeev Bikram Shah, president of the Nepal Athletic Association, takes practice swings in the middle of the helipad, wearing a camouflage jacket and shades.
“Swing looking good, Rajeev!” someone calls.
I feel like we have other concerns.
Weather in the Khumbu, particularly when it comes to flying choppers, is tough to predict. Although approaching weather systems off the Bay of Bengal can be tracked online, there are so many microclimates – each changing so quickly – that the main method of assessing whether to take off is usually to just look out the window. Early in the morning, there are often cloud gaps. But Kongde is hidden behind clouds thicker than thukpa soup. I see my lawyer friend Mahendra checking his watch. Mahendra is due in Supreme Court in four hours. He looks a little anxious.
To pass time at the helipad, our accompanying doctor, Dr Sudhamshu KC, takes our group’s oxygen saturation levels with a pulse oximeter. Above 90 percent is ideal. Below 85 percent means “descend immediately”. I receive a 92, which I’m rather pleased with. Dr Sudhamshu checks the next golfer. “Ninety-six! Very good,” he tells her. I feel unexplainably jealous.
“OK, first chopper!”
There’s a commotion around us as word spreads. There’s been a slight break in the clouds (a break I am definitely not seeing); the first chopper is going to try for Kongde! Four golfers – Bikash Rana, Aarti Rana, Rajendra Shrestha and Rekha Ghimire – quickly load into the chopper, and the pilot lifts up. We watch them careen into the distance, out of sight. I cross my fingers. Four golfers are risking their lives to honour their friend.
Soon, the walkie-talkies crackle. The chopper made it! All passengers were dropped at Kongde. They’re playing the hole now. The organisers shake hands with each other and smile brightly. It’s official. The Baahrakhari Everest Golf tournament is the highest in the world.
“Here it is!”
The same chopper lands back at our helipad, loads up five more golfers, and roars back towards Kongde.
“We’ll be going up soon,” Mahendra tells me.
Within minutes, however, there’s more commotion. The chopper couldn’t make it through the clouds to Kongde. The pilot diverted to Syangboche (12,402 feet), where a separate hole was built just in case. More news arrives: the golfers back in Kathmandu can’t leave. The MI-17 Nepali Army pilots have deemed conditions too dangerous.
This is all not sounding good.
The chopper finally returns with the Kongde group. Bikash, Aarti, Rajendra and Rekha disembark and are mobbed by the waiting crowd. Everyone wants pictures with them. We learn their scores: Bikas and Rekha made double, Rajendra bogeyed, and Aarati made par. I take a photo with the group. I’m thrilled for them. I just hope I can join them.
Five more people load into the chopper, but this time, the pilot won’t even consider Kongde. It’s too dangerous. The chopper flies instead to Syangboche. Soon, Mahendra hears news.
“The golfers are stuck at Syangboche. The clouds are too thick to take off.”
“Are you serious?”
I check my phone’s weather app. It’s 9am. And there’s a rain storm approaching Lukla.
If we don’t get out of Lukla soon, the airport will close. We’ll be stuck overnight. It dawns on me that my flight back to New York City is tomorrow morning. Prateek, the event organiser, walks up to me.
“Oliver, we’re still trying to get you up to Kongde. A pilot here says it’s risky, but if there’s a gap in the clouds, he’s willing to take you, Mahendra, and two others. But once the pilot drops you, there’s no guarantee he can come back. You might be stuck at 14,000 feet overnight.”
I consider this plan. It seems, in a word, unwise. Mahendra speaks.
“I love this idea. We will both do it.”
The weather, however, has other plans. As we wait, clouds completely cover Kongde. The call is made: Kongde is off. Priorities switch to getting us out of Lukla before the storm. Everyone heads for the airport.
“We tried,” I say to Mahendra, as we’re handed boarding passes and rush through security. Within minutes, our plane throttles down the runway (downhill this time, which feels like a roller coaster) and launches into the air. My tournament is over.
Lukla’s airport shuts down 10 minutes after our plane leaves.
The rest of the group is stuck in Lukla overnight.
I have to fly back to New York City the next morning; my score for the opening hole of the World’s Highest Golf tournament: a DQ. Over the next four days, however, 13 more golfers make it up to Kongde. (Mahendra, fresh from Nepali Supreme Court, is among them.)
In total, 25 players were able to compete in the Baahrakhari Everest Golf Tournament. Seventeen golfers played at Kongde, eight at Syangboche. Tashi Tshering Dong won the overall event with 39 Stableford points. (Almost all amateur events in Nepal are Stableford.) Tashi was tied with Rabindra Tiwari at 39 points but won on a three-hole count-back (seven points to four).
The Baahrakhari Everest Golf Tournament was many things. It was a tribute. It was a successful record attempt. It was Nepali through and through. One fact about the tournament will always stay with me. Of the 25 players, one, it turns out, was Ang Tshering’s son, Norbu. Although we didn’t know it at the time, later in the day on Sunday, long after we’d arrived back in Kathmandu, Norbu made it up to Kongde in a chopper from Kathmandu.
He quietly completed the hole, under the watchful eye of his father’s portrait.