Back to the archives … in 2012, I traveled to Nepal on my own to meet a small group of trekkers for several weeks of hiking in the Khumbu region.
I rose in Kathmandu today at 4:15 am in order to leave at 5 for our flight to Lukla’s Tenzing-Hillary Airport, a tiny landing strip at 9200 feet in the Nepal Himalaya. I had been filled with trepidation about this flight. It is by far the fastest way into the Khumbu region, where we would begin our trek to Ama Dablam base camp, but look up Lukla Airport and every header you’ll see says something like “world’s most dangerous/most extreme/scariest/pick-your-frightening-superlative-adjective airport.” And like a gawker at an accident scene, I had not been able to resist watching video after video to prepare (terrify?) myself before the flight.
Our group was quiet, although a few decided a little morbid humor might help stave off our nervousness. Our guide, Stéphane, demonstratively crossed himself, while fellow hiker Ellen took a photo as we were bussed to our plane, noting that at least someone would find the camera with the black box and see our group photo.
After a hectic free-for-all in the small, domestic Kathmandu airport, we drove onto the tarmac where two shiny Yeti Airlines planes were being washed and polished. Between them sat a decrepit Tara Airlines prop plane, with filthy windows, dented metal on the tail wing, and grime and cobwebs all over the struts and wings. No, no, say it ain’t so … but yes, this was where our duffel bags seemed to be heading. My heart sank as I looked longingly at the Yeti planes on either side.
We filed into the 15-seat plane and sat with our packs on our laps and our bodies touching our seatmates. The seats were threadbare, just metal supports covered in a thin, ratty fabric. I perked up when the lone flight attendant came around with a little basket, but it was, disappointingly, just filled with cotton balls for our ears and a hard candy to suck on when the pressure of takeoff and landing grew strong.
Takeoff was uneventful (except for a little spinning on a patch of ice – yikes) and the 35-minute ride was pretty and smooth. Near the end, we passed precariously close to the ground at a pass (75 feet of clearance, estimated by Rick, a doctor in the group who is also a pilot) and to mountains on both sides of us as we slipped into a ring of peaks.
Suddenly, the sun was gone and we felt ourselves descending. As we dropped, we saw our 1700-ft-long, 65-ft-wide runway appear; the runway starts at the edge of a cliff and ends at a mountain face – clearly no maneuverability for a go-around or an aborted landing!
Rick said later we needed to come in quickly at about a 45-degree angle in order to hit the front end of the runway. Right before we touched down, the stall alarm sounded as the pilot deliberately killed the engine. We slowed as we braked and coasted up the 12.5 % incline of the ramped runway, a necessity in order to stop the plane before it hits the fence and mountain face at the far end.
In minutes, we were off the plane, in an outdoor Arrivals area where we met our local guide. We also learned and saw later that most planes unload and reload in anywhere from 90 seconds to 4 minutes, then they are back in the air for the return flight.
This flight sounds scarier than it is, and the pilots are really pros. We gathered our wits and our belongings, walked a few minutes to our Lukla lodge, and had a hearty celebratory breakfast before the real adventure began.
(See A Sense of the World for more notes on this trek.)