If you mention your intention to trek to Everest Base Camp, or beyond, invariably one of the first points raised by anyone with knowledge of the journey is the flight to Lukla
If you mention your intention to trek to Everest Base Camp, or beyond, invariably one of the first points raised by anyone with knowledge of the journey is the flight to Lukla. Given the title, The World’s Most Dangerous Airport, Tenzing-Hillary Airport, name after Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, who were the first confirmed trekkers to summit Mt. Everest in 1953, sits at 2,800m above sea level, and the runway, only covered with asphalt in 1999, runs for 460m at a 12% gradient. Whether it’s the abrupt mountain that lays at the end of runway 06, landing at Lukla, or the sharp drop at the end of runway 24, taking off, Lukla is a everything you’ve ever heard about it. Ironically, Lukla, meaning the “place with many goats and sheep”, is more of a tourist hub, the starting point for the vast majority of expeditions bound for Everest Base Camp and beyond. While there are locals who live at Lukla, some operating farms, some operating lodges and restaurants; discovering that the town has been strongly shaped by Western tourism isn’t difficult as you begin to uncover the availability of “Starbucks” coffee and “Yakdonalds”.
Kathmandu domestic terminal is mayhem. We had our tour guide run us through the various procedures for checking in our packs. We had a strict weight allowance of 15kg which is a lot lighter than you may think, especially for trekking in cold weather, however, I’m sure we were all a couple of kilograms over and there wasn’t any drama. 15kg is the standard for flights to Lukla, but I believe you can pay for extra weight by the kilos, somewhere in the vicinity of a couple of USD per kilo over. All in all, the check-in process was quite efficient and we were through security (who were happy to let the traveller in front of us keep his gas canisters in his carry on) and into the departure hall in about twenty minutes. Our flight was finally called and we headed outside and onto a bus which was going to transport us to our airplane on the other side of the runway. The tarmac was littered with old airplanes that seemed to have sat parked in their designated spots for decades, collecting an unbelievable coat of dust and dirt.
The plane was just about loaded and I was next to board when we got the word from Lukla that the weather was too bad for any incoming aircraft to land. So those who had boarded deplaned, and we headed back to the terminal. Flights run in and out of Lukla daily, however no planes remain at Lukla, so if you’re heading back to Kathmandu, a flight will have to first land at Lukla. Flights run through the morning and won’t fly past midday; and are often delayed or cancelled, postponing treks by days or even weeks in the summer rainy season, and unfortunately there is not much you can do. When a window of suitable weather does arrive, the airlines tend to take full advantage, landing planes at Lukla five minutes apart from one another and turning them around quite literally in less than ten minutes.
Around an hour later we heard our flight details come over the loudspeaker in the terminal and we headed back outside to the bus where we sat for around twenty minutes before heading back to the airplane. We finally got the all clear to fly (knowing full well that the weather could just as easily change again en route, forcing us to fly back to Kathmandu) and taxied for a couple of minutes before lifting off over the city.
Thankfully for some, flying is not the only way to reach Lukla. A bus to Jiri (2050m) from Kathmandu allows you to walk for six to seven days to Chheplung (2700m), half way between Lukla and Phakding (our first overnight stop). The bus ride can vary in length, but generally anywhere up to nine hours is common. Many of the stories we heard about the bus ride varied from unpleasant to horrible, involving flat tires, accidents and other dramas that added to the total travel time. While the cost of our flight was included in our trip, a flight to Lukla would have been no more than $150USD one way (you can book online), meaning the trek to Lukla from Jiri is bound to be a similar cost.
While obviously a more dangerous airport to commute to than the average, Lukla does not have the long list of fatal accidents that its title may portend. The aviation industry in Nepal is notoriously appalling, totally five fatal accidents since 2010 and another serious incident not involving fatalities. The Aviation Safety Network based in the Netherlands gives Nepal a two out of ten rating for accident investigation and a separate two out of ten score for aviation safety legislation. Nepalese officials have citied: inexperienced pilots, inadequate maintenance of old fleets, and poor overall management, as some of the major concerns behind the dismal safety record. In mid-Feburary this year, while we were trekking, a Nepal Airlines flight from the tourist town of Pokhara crashed into the remote mountains of Western Nepal en route to the village of Jumla, killing all 18 people on board. The aircraft was a Twin Otter aircraft that had been in operation for forty years. We first learned of the tragedy from a gentlemen in the lobby of our hotel after arriving back in Kathmandu from Lukla. It was a truly sobering moment (at least for myself) where the actual risks we had all taken to reach Base Camp seemed far more palpable.
Sitting within arms reach of the pilot is an experience not often afforded to air travellers. The tiny twin-engeine aircraft would have sat no more than a dozen passengers, but still had room for a flight attendant, who ensured our seat-belts were fastened and the aisle kept clear while offering an in-flight mint. As we taxied, the flight-attendant attempted to deliver the routine airplane safety briefing, accompanied by the familiar laminated card, detailing the procedures should the (somewhat less) unlikely event of catastrophe strike. While she stood just behind the cockpit and urged our attention, her presentation seemed inevitably ill-fated to permeate above the excitement the impending 45 minutes held for us all. I do not recall a single word she said.
The scenery en route was incredible. You get a fantastic view of the Himalayas from the left side of the plane, including Mt. Everest. You’re also able to see countless villages and homes on the ground, amongst the mountains, truly secluded from the rest of the world. Most of the flight takes a single bearing until the final five minutes when we banked to the left into what looked like a horseshoe of mountains. From there we could see the tiny runway from the cockpit as we turned back towards the right to make the final approach. It’s only minutes from first spotting the airstrip to touching down, but it can feel like forever. While the runway becomes larger and larger as you approach the pilots truly exude pure confidence. There was never a moment where I felt in danger or uneasy, but once the tires hit the tarmac, an inevitable sense of relief is hard to evade.
After making our way through the “terminal” building, we walked around the rear of the runway toward the actual town itself. You get an incredible view looking straight down the tarmac and can see planes landing and taking off – quite amazing to watch. The whole time planes are: landing, taking off, or taxiing through the terminal area – there were at least twenty people on the tarmac. Some military officials wielding rifles, other with high visibility vests who would help unload the planes, and some in regular civilian clothing who honestly appeared to be there because there friends were working. The nonchalant attitude of the security officials toward those who (admittedly only perhaps) appeared to be on the tarmac area was a far cry to what our airports in Australia or the United States experience. As planes made their final approach you would often hear whistles being blown to ensure no one remained on the actual runway as planes landed.
While the runway is short compared to any regular runway, the incline must factor heavily as planes seem to only need three quarters of the length or so to slow down enough to then comfortably taxi. The latest incident involving a fixed-wing aircraft at Lukla was in 2010 when a plane landing lost braking control and struck the rear wall during landing. No one on board was injured. While the Nepalese aviation industry possesses a dismal record, there have only been a few fatal accidents involving Tenzing-Hillary airport. In 2010, a plane crashed at Shikharpur while returning to Kathmandu after attempting to land at Lukla, but was prevented from doing so due to bad weather. All passengers and crew died. Only two years prior, a plane crashed on final approach, killing all passengers. There has been only one other fatal incident, in 2004, where a plane again crashed on final approach through heavy clouds, killing all crew members, while no passengers were aboard. There have been seven other incidents not involving fatalities at the airport since 1973.
As we deplaned, the difference in climate hits you immediately. It’s far colder than Kathmandu, and the air is immeasurably cleaner. We stepped down onto the tarmac where our plane had come to rest in one of the four available bays. We then walked through a gateway in a chain linked fence, passing men in military uniforms on the way, to a room inside the terminal building were our bags were waiting, along with our two porters and assistant guide who had planned to meet us in Lukla.
There is one main path through Lukla, starting with the airfield at the Eastern end, making its way through the main areas of the town with a straight walkway lasting just over three hundred metres from the runway to the start of the trail. Children often occupied the middle areas of the path, playing cricket and other sports. There were, as you’d imagine, many shops selling souvenirs and trekking gear, but also a pub, and nice, friendly cafes with cakes and other deserts available. There were numerous places to stay the night and buy food and drinks, as well as procure tour guides and porters.
We had breakfast before we started trekking for the day, stopping at Paradise Lodge, where we would end up spending two nights waiting for suitable weather so we could return to Kathmandu at the conclusion of our trek. It was very nice with great staff and fantastic food (and an extensive menu). The lodge is located quite literally metres from the Airport Control Tower and sits against the chain linked fence separating it from the runway. It was a pleasure staying there for the two nights on our return, watching football with popcorn and lemonade through the night and watching television and reading books through the day. There was unlimited WIFI for 500Rs which was well worth it.