The Khumbu is starting to fill up with climbers. With now over 138 Everest permits issued, they have left Kathmandu and most flew to Lukla, the traditional start of the week-long walk to Everest Base Camp. For some, the flight to Lukla will be a highlight of their trip.
As I’m noting on the team location table page, these foreign teams are currently making the journey:
- Alpine Ascents
- Climbing the Seven Summits
- Madison Mountaineering
- Seven Summits Treks Bahrain team
There have been trekking teams reach EBC and reported snowy conditions along the way complete with awesome views of Ama Dablam, Everest, and more. But before you can trek, you have to fly, and that usually means Lukla. These days, many teams are using helicopters to fly to Lukla and in some cases Namache, but I think they miss a beautiful section of the Khumbu from Lukla to Pakding to Namche. Plus this is their opportunity for the first view of Everest along the trail.
The World’s Most Dangerous Airport?
Of course, most people know that the Lukla airport is considered one of the most difficult airports in the world with a long history of accidents. The runway is short, only 1,510 long, and 66 feet wide (460 by 20 m) at a 12% slope. While paved today, the first time I landed there in 1997, cows grazed on the grass runway. When a plane approached a kid was sent to shoo off the bovine from the runway! While improved, it is not a whole lot different today.
It takes a special aircraft to land and take off on such a short area. Known as short-takeoff 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. Safety is always a concern, but if you need some extra assurance, perhaps flying with an airline named Buddha Air might be more apt.
Lukla-bound or departing flights have become infamous for crashes with 11 since 2000 killing over 57 passengers and crew (source). This is serious. The runway 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. However, to keep these tragedies in perspective, there are thousands of passengers safely flown each year between Lukla and Kathmandu.
The last incident was on April 14, 2019, at the Lukla Tenzing-Hillary Airport in Nepal an aircraft designed for high-altitude, short runway take-offs and landings veered to the right while taking off, crashing into a parked helicopter killing the first officer of the airplane and one police officer standing near the helicopter. A second police officer who was injured, later died while undergoing surgery in Kathmandu. Four other people were injured but are reported out of danger.
The plane was a Czech-built Let L-410 Turbolet flown by Summit Air, a small Nepali airline. In 2017, the same model aircraft also operated by Summit Air crashed at the same airport in Lukla while attempting to land killing both pilots. Over 350 Let L-410 Turbolet are in service in more than 50 countries mostly serving difficult airports, many in Africa. All versions of the airplane have experienced 118 accidents with 428 fatalities the first going into production in 1975. source
Flying to Lukla
Flying to Lukla, now named Tenzing-Hillary Airport, starts early. A 3:00 am wake-up call begins the action. This is early, even by climber’s standards as many have been rushing to get last-minute items, connect back home and, in general, rest up knowing what is ahead.
When the phone in your room rings, you are already awake, staring at the ceiling, wondering what you forget to pack, what you forget to say. The anxiety is high. The question now is whether to take a long hot shower, you’re last for six weeks. Yes, take a shower, wash your hair, perhaps shave – if appropriate – knowing it will be a temporary cleansing.
You packed your duffels, for the fifth time, the night before, but you take one more look to make sure. It really doesn’t matter. It is too late to get anything you forgot. It is time to go. The tiny man who carried your huge duffels to your room is fast asleep so you hoist the bag on your shoulder and struggle down the stairs. You begin to sweat, you start to breathe heavily. And you are about to climb Everest. Doubts enter your mind as to your training, your fitness, are you ready?
Now at the hotel desk, you check out. Pay for the laundry so you have clean clothes upon your return. Your bar bill, yes it was too much, but … All of a sudden, you hear a voice behind you, the tiny man. He retrieves your last bag. You are glad. This time you tip him ten US dollars.
The team slowly convenes in the lobby. Everyone looks asleep. The joker of the group maintains his facade. Everyone goes along, too tired, too nervous to compete. The cattle call comes and everyone goes to the bus, a small bus already loaded with your gear. Driving the quiet streets of Kathmandu, you see the city from a different perspective. It looks clean, quiet, serene. Everyone is quiet, except for the jokester. Everyone ignores him.
Arriving at the Kathmandu domestic terminal, you are struck at how different it is from your arrival. Several other teams also arrive, flying to Lukla. You inspect one another like gladiators preparing for a fight, but you don’t have the energy. You simply smile. Your leader gets the tickets for Yeti Air, Nepal Air, Sita Air, and, your favorite, Buddha Air.
Passing through the security, you smile, inside. The metal detectors are unplugged, just a wooden frame you pass through. The guard pats you down. He asks if you have a knife or lighter in your bag. You say no, he searches anyway and pushes you on. Entering the departure lounge, you look for your teammates and take a seat on one of the many nondescript chairs.
The small talk is quiet. Those with cell phones and local sim cards check email, Facebook, send a tweet. Those without, nod off, chat quietly. All of sudden another tiny man swings through announcing something in Nepali. Your team gets up and moves in unison following one of your Sherpa.
Lining up at the door, ticket in hand, you wait, and wait, and wait. False alarm, the weather has shut down Lukla. This drill is repeated four more times. Your 6:00 am departure is now 10:00 am. Then it is canceled.
Returning to the hotel, you crawl back to bed, knowing the same drill will be repeated tomorrow, and perhaps the next day. Your schedule is out of your control and in the hands of the weather Gods, get used to it, this will be your life for the next two months.
Finally, the Gods are happy and you step on the small plane, a DeHavilland Twin Otter designed for short runways. It is a mainstay for this type of flying around the world. All it needs is 1000 feet of gravel or pavement to land. Lukla’s runway is 1,509 feet.
The flight is suspended animation. Every seat is a good seat. if you want to video the pilots take row one, but the views are astounding out any window. The small plane skirts the mountain tops sending cows and goats running along high ridges, their road, dirt paths. The clouds enveloped the plane. You wonder how the pilots can see where they are going. You stop wondering.
As the flight continues, it is only 30 minutes but seems shorter, no longer; it doesn’t matter. Your face is pressed against the window, staring but not seeing. You are lost in thought. The Sherpas on your flight are fast asleep some are snoring. You know your place.
You review the safety record of the airport in your mind. You know the facts: the landing starts at a 2,000-foot drop-off at the end of the runway. If your pilot misjudges the approach, the plane can hit the hillside. There have been many crashes at this airport including one in August 2010 where 14 people died.
The engines begin to squeal as the props are feathered. They are flying your plane. They know what they are doing. The flight attendant comes through the last time. She passed out cotton to be used for earplugs in the beginning along with a breath mint. Now she passes by without looking. Another mystery of Nepal.
The Otter takes on a steep attitude heading towards a controlled crash. The runway appears through the clouds. You can feel the g-forces as you slow, then accelerate. You place both feet firmly on the floor as you pull the seat belt tighter. The Sherpa next to you snorts as he kind of wakes up.
With a bang and a loud roar, the Otter lands – one wheel at a time. The engines reverse with gusto. It is loud, Now you wished you had used the cotton, but just as quickly, a low roar takes over as the plane turns right onto a small concrete landing area. The pilots maneuver the plane like a ballet dancer positioning it precisely on the spot marked #3 between two other planes, # 2 and #4.
Just as you begin to breathe another loud roar fills the void, the Sita plane takes off filled with trekkers completing their journey. Yours has just begun.
Getting off the Otter, you regain your legs. A controlled frenzy surrounds you as the plane is unloaded and reloaded for the 10-minute turn-around. With the unpredictable weather, the pilots don’t want to waste any time. The engines stay on.
Now at 9,400-feet, it is time to transition from traveler to trekker. From this point on to base camp, it is all dirt paths, no cars, motorcycles, bicycles – just feet and hoof. You have a quick snack at one of the many teahouses in Lukla, don your day packs, and head to Phakding or Monjo – small villages nestled in the Himalayas for your first night in the Khumbu. You lose altitude, about 600 feet – the last time this will happen until you descend from an acclimatization climb in a couple of weeks!
Stepping off the plane at Lukla, you remember it’s time for Sherpa time, bistari, bistari—which means ‘slowly, slowly‘ in Nepali.
For the first time, you feel like your Everest quest has really begun …
A video I took from my 2008 landing:
The Nepal Ministry of Tourism posted these foreign permit tally as of April 3, 2021. As I’ve noted, many teams are still arriving and some are planning to arrive in mid-April, rather late. This is probably due to tot the massive confusion around Nepal’s COVID quarantine and testing rules. Even with this slow start, 300 foreign permits are expected with the Tibet side closed to foreigners.
- Everest: 138 on 14 teams
- Lhotse: 6 on 2 teams
- Nuptse: 9 on 2 teams
- Manaslu: 1 on 1 teams
- Annapurna: 44 on 4 teams
- Dhualigiri: 12 on 2 teams
- Pumori: 5 on 1 teams
- Tukuche: 1 on 1 team
I have begun to create my annual team location table and tracking climber’s blogs (see sidebar). If you have a team not listed, please let me know, and I will add them if I can track them. If you prefer not to be mentioned, please contact me.
I am posting background articles and interviews between now and early April when the teams arrive at the base camps. If you would like to see anything special this year, post a comment or drop me an email.
Here’s to a safe season for everyone on the Big Hill!
Memories are Everything
The Podcast on alanarnette.com
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A video of this post with more details