All is good in the Khumbu according to climbers and trekkers there. For most Everest and Nepal climbing teams, they start their journey at Lukla but this year there is a slight problem.
As I reported last month the Nepal aviation authority announced last December that the Tribhuvan International Airport (TIA) will be closed due to construction on the runway starting April 1, 2019, through June 30, 2019, daily from 22:00 (local time) to 08:00.
For most international flights, this will be an inconvenience but for flyers to Lukla with its notorious weather delays, especially in late morning, it’s a show stopper. In fact authorities have cancelled all direct flight from TIA to LUK suggesting that people fly out of Manthali Airport in the Ramechhap Provence – a 4 hour drive from Kathmandu.
Now it seems that many climbing teams have taken helicopters to either Lukla or Namche. We’ll see what happened as we move into April.
Lukla – an “interesting” Airport
For those Nepal climbers and trekkers their Khumbu journey usually begins in Lukla and with a bit of anxiety.
Often called “the world’s most dangerous airport,” it’s a reputation that I’m not 100% sure fits. However, Lukla is certainly in the top 10 according to most aviation lists.
That said, there have been seven crashes since 2000 killing over 50 passengers and crew. However, to keep these tragedies in perspective, there are thousands of passengers safely flown each year between Lukla and Kathmandu.
There are several challenges flying in and out of Lukla beginning with the only runway that sits at the top of a 2,000 foot cliff and ends where a high mountain wall begins. There is no opportunity for a missed landing or equipment failure. And there is more.
First, there is no radar or electronic landing assistance so pilots are strictly on visual flight rules aka VFR which simply means they must talk among themselves during landing and taking-off and have limited assistance from any form of air traffic control.
Second is the weather. Lukla sits at 9,400 feet surrounded by the low peaks of the Himalayan Mountain Range. The airport is often shrouded in low clouds, rain or snow shutting down visibility, and that’s an issue in a VFR environment!
Third is the short runway. At the Tenzing-Hillary Airport, (the formal name) the runway is short, only 1,510-feet long and 66-feet wide (460m by 20 m) at a 12% slope. Compare this to Heathrow where a runway is 12,801-feet x 164-feet (3,902m x 50m )
It takes a special aircraft to land and takeoff on such a short area. Known as short-takoff and landing or STOL planes, the fleet of Twin Otters, and Dorniers flown by Yeti Airlines, or Sita Air fly climbers and trekkers for about USD$140 one way.
The Journey Begins
When you finally arrive at the decision to climb Everest, a big decision is north or south i.e. Tibet or Nepal. At some point most people select Nepal for many reasons. And at another point it dawns on you that means flying from Kathmandu to Luka aka the most dangerous airport in the world.
There are other options like taking an 8-hour car ride to Jiri then another 5 days hiking to reach Lukla but those who are climbing Everest usually take the flight, regardless of the risk. After all, they are climbing Everest!
Back in Kathmandu, you have kind-of recovered from jet-lag, made the usual tourist circuit of the Boudhanath and Pashupatinath Temples, Durbar Square, Swaymbhunath aka Monkey Temple and met your teammates. After dinner, your guide announces “OK, up at 3:30 for a 4:00 am ride to the airport for our flight to Lukla. Have your bags downstairs, in your trekking garb and ready to go. It’s now real!”
You smile nervously as you know she speaks the truth.
You go back to your room and repack your duffles for the fourth time since landing two days earlier. It’s 11:00 o’clock and you are not tired but tomorrow is a big day – fly to Lukla and trek to Phakding. You make one more WhatsApp call to your spouse or friend and crawl in bed. Damn, its hot tonight, you say out-loud to no one as you do the crocodile roll in your bed.
You set an alarm but also asked the hotel to call you at 3, a judgment error since you finally fell asleep at 2. Nonetheless, out of bed and to the shower hoping the water has heated up enough for you to have your last tepid shower for the next six weeks. It’s not. After a bird bath, you look in the mirror. Your face and hair are a mess – like come off a tour of duty in … well it doesn’t matter.
You drag one of your duffles downstairs until, amazingly, the same nice guy who hauled your bags to your room is in the lobby – at 3:37 am – and implores you to drop everything. He will get this one and your other bag on the 3rd floor. By now any sense of pride is evaporating and you nod in agreement and stumble off to find the instant coffee.
The ride to the domestic terminal of the airport is quiet. Your teammates, along with you, are in stupor. Your seasoned guide looks like he just left a GQ shoot – not a hair out-of-place and clean-shaven. How the ***K do they do this? Anyway, after half an hour you arrive at the airport.
Your confidence takes a hit when you are asked to stand on a huge scale along with your duffles to see if collectively you and your teammates weigh too much for the flight. You hold in your stomach hoping it will help – it doesn’t. 136 kg – all in. Your brain can’t calculate if this is good or bad. The guy weighing you grunts to get off the scale for the next passenger.
Next in this gauntlet is waiting in the departure area. The TV monitors play a cruel game of flight departures – you know this is a joke played on foreigners as the Sherpas nod off enjoying a moment of relaxation – there’s a lesson here. Just when you think the 15 minute by 15 minute delay game is just plain fun for the airlines, a call comes to hurry up and get on the bus!
Now five hours after your wake-up call, you settle in your seat, smaller than a 4th Grade school desk. The flight attendant comes by offering a single piece of hard candy and a wad of cotton. You hold the cotton in your hand, lost in translation.
The twin prop engines wine to a roar and suddenly the cotton wads makes sense. Just as the sun rises, your Twin Otter STOL aircraft takes off.
The flight to Lukla is short – 30 minutes. For once, you wish it was longer. Leaving the Kathmandu Valley, you have a bird’s eye view -literally – of the rolling terrain of Nepal. You marvel at how crop fields are carved out of steep hillsides, home and roads built on mountain ridges. This shows the resilience of these people. You sink in your seat with admiration.
You strain to see the big peaks but later learn you were flying towards 20,000 and 23,000-foot peaks – nothing to scoff at. Then you feel the plane slow, the props squeal as they fight for power in the thin air. You instinctively tug at your seatbelt. After all, what an embarrassment to be in injured landing in Lukla on your way to Everest. You pull out the smartphone just in case there is something to … you close your eyes.
You glance in the cockpit for reassurance. One pilot has his hand on the yoke, both pilots have their hands on the throttle – normal procedure but your heart rate increases. In your mind you know these pilots have done this hundreds of times, this month alone, but your anxiety heightens. You look over at one of the Sherpas flying with you. He is asleep.
The whine of the twin engines is defining. Where is that damn cotton? Then in a blink the Otter’s wheels meet the ground hard. An aircraft carrier landing. The plane bounces. The engine roars as the props reverse. You glance out a side window to see a blur of motion. Will we stop in time? You lunge forward as the brakes bring the small aircraft to a halt. And then hard back in your seat as it make the right turn to the tarmac. Everyone applauds. Smiles of relief are spontaneousness and involuntary.
Welcome to Lukla!
Tomorrow we continue the trek hiking to Namche and the infamous Namche Hill!
This is a video I took from my 2008 landing:
And from a helicopter landing last October, 2018 when I climbed Island Peak:
More Climbers to Watch
Elia Saikaly is back on Everest this year. You may know him from his amazing short videos, including several impressive time-lapse of Everest. This year he has a new project: The Dream of Everest. It’s the story of 4 Arab women from Saudi Arabia, Oman and Lebanon and their journey to the summit of Everest.
- Nadhirah would become the first Omani women, she wears the Hijab.
- Joyce from Lebanon will be the first Lebanese woman to achieve the 7 summits
- Nelly and Joyce would be come the first women from Lebanon.
- Mona would become the 2nd Saudi Arabian woman to summit Everest.
Elia tells me:
I’m half Lebanese, so this is a story very dear to my heart. It’s timely and relevant, especially in the Middle East and GCC region. Most of these women live in the desert and not many climb high mountains, so they’re trailblazing in their respective countries and will be inspiring many back home along the way. It’s been a year in the making and I’m quite excited to bring their story to life on screen.
This is the project’s trailer:
They are climbing with Madison Mountaineering and you can follow them on this website.
Memories are Everything