PRAISE God I was never in the Russian army. I don't know which the poor conscripts sent to Afghanistan must have feared most, their guerrilla opponents or their own helicopter transports.

En route to the start point for our walk-in to Everest, we had head-splitting, body-shaking rattle through the hillsides in just such a machine.

Conditions for the 45-minute flight from Kathmandu to the Lukla airstrip were pretty good, with the snow-decked giants of the Himalayas marching to one side. But even so, when the helicopter was shrouded in cloud, there was an uncomfortable sensation that the terraced hillsides were only a few hundred metres below.

Then, as we climbed higher, tree-clad slopes and rocky ridges were alongside us. Exhilarating but not a form of flying I want to make a habit of.

Pilot Vachislav Ovcharenko and flight engineer Nicoli Shonarov had probably flown the shuddering machine in more hostile circumstances but the language barrier made it hard to be sure. Gold-toothed smiles were the response.

The Russian-built helicopter was crammed to capacity. The 24 passengers, including all our Himalayan Kingdoms Everest team, were strapped in on bench seats running along the sides and between us was piled rucksacks, barrels, mattresses and all the paraphernalia of expeditioning.

Our landing on the stony airstrip was surprisingly gentle. Lukla has a frightening reputation but it is light aircraft passengers who really get the scare. The short runway slopes down the hillside and arriving aircraft seem certain to slam into the hotel at its uphill end. The wife of Sir Edmund Hillary was killed in a crash here and bits of wreckage testify to other unhappy landings.

Lukla, perched at 2850 metres above the Dudh Kosi river, is just to the south of the Khumbu, the Sherpa homeland, and is the gateway to Everest. We walk at a leisurely pace, but this seeming sloth is deliberate. Altitude sickness can occur at any time above 2500 metres, and hurrying now could scupper a summit bid.

For four of our team, including myself, this is our first visit to Nepal. Crowded, polluted Kathmandu was hardly a culture shock to anyone who has travelled outside Europe, but up here, the head reels to take in the soaring natural beauty and cultural differences.

The dusty track that winds north from Lukla up the valley of the Dudh Kosi to the Sherpa capital of Namche Bazaar teems with bent bodies as the M1 does with trucks. The portering work is no longer generally done by Sherpas. Most of the porters are slight men, boys and occasionally girls from lower Nepal, some barefoot, carrying all manner of goods, produce, building materials and fuel in wicker baskets. The weight is taken by a plaited rope across the forehead and looks brutally uncomfortable. But even when handed a rucksack with the latest in strap technology, the straps are ignored and a rope attached.

For a Himalayan virgin like myself, there is a pang of conscience at having a lad in flip flops carrying not just my own heavy bag of kit not needed on the day walk, but another equally bulky sack. Raju is just 12 years old and probably carrying twice his own bodyweight. He won't come any higher than Base Camp, but even so, a cynic might wonder which one of us is really climbing Everest.

Tomorrow: snow in Namche Bazaar

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