Everest Diary: Day One - Sent to the mountain with garlands and blessin gs

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KATHMANDU - Mountain guide Dave Walsh is smiling again. "I've just found the instructions for the tent - they're in Italian." In the sun-filled yard of a Kathmandu hotel, loads are being prepared and equipment checked ready for despatch to Everest Base Camp.

To those unfamiliar with the Himalayan expedition scene, like myself, it looks like frantic chaos. A Nepali is busy stitching tent material on a treddle sewing machine; Kit Spencer, the expedition's agent in the Nepalese capital, is demonstrating the safety harnesses to be worn by porters high on the mountain and scores of barrels are being lined up ready for packing.

Meanwhile, there's been a hitch on the bureaucracy front. The satellite phone which will keep us in touch with home for the next 10 weeks needs a licence. So, at this late hour, it has had to be handed over to the "ministry" which gets the paperwork in order. Dave's deputy guide, "Barney" Barnicott, summed it up while checking the fit of a client's crampons. "It's going to be a monster day," he said before rushing off to deliver the phone to the bureaucrats.

Despite all this, both guides are confident that the show will be on the road - or rather in the air - on time in the morning when we - Himalayan Kingdoms Expeditions (South Col) team - are due to make the 45-minute flight to Lukla and begin the long walk to Everest Base Camp.

The team is made up of three guides and seven climbers who have each paid up to pounds 30,000 for the chance to climb to the highest point in the world.

It is an international group - five Brits, including myself, three Americans, a Canadian and an Irish woman. All from different backgrounds and with varied mountaineering experience, we are just beginning to get to know each other. Conversation is light, if slightly probing. It seems a friendly bunch, which augurs well, but it will be important to bond the team before it meets the testing conditions on Everest. We have also been joined by another Canadian who will trek with us as far as Base Camp - itself no mean feat since the camp lies at a higher altitude than Mont Blanc.

Thankfully, we will be lightly loaded. Much of today has been spent packing gear into those 60-litre blue plastic barrels. The expedition has 40 of them, most of which will be carried to Base Camp on dzhos, a hybrid yak. Each hairy beast will be loaded with two barrels.

Shortly after our arrival at the appropriately named Summit Hotel in Kathmandu, we were invited to a puja, a blessing ceremony which is intended to bring good fortune to the expedition. Rust-red tikka was daubed on our foreheads and a garland of yellow and red flowers hung round our necks. We drank tiny bowls of rakshi, a strong-tasting rice wine, and ate saffron coloured eggs, or phuls.

Similar blessings will be bestowed on our approach to the mountain. Perhaps it is a ceremony that cannot be repeated too often. Even by our proposed route via the South Col, the most popular way up the mountain, climbing into the thin air of Everest remains a hazardous business.

When I was buying high-altitude gear a couple of weeks ago at Outside, a specialist shop in Hathersage, Derbyshire, the assistant Andy Kirkpatrick remarked that "Climbing Everest is like hill walking, only ..." Then he tailed off. Only what? Only bigger, or perhaps "only more deadly".

However we won't have to wait until the mountain for some scary stuff. That begins with the flight to Lukla. This stony airstrip is little more than an inclined terrace on the hillside, making landing or take-off at Lukla one of the most terrifying experiences in passenger aviation. I can't wait.

Steve Goodwin's next report will be tomorrow