Flying into the most dangerous airport in the world

26 October 2017

I was a bundle of nerves when I woke at 5am. We had a 6am flight to catch to Lukla, the starting point for our trek to Everest Base Camp (EBC) and the beginning of perhaps my greatest physical and mental challenge to date.

We were hurried through the security point at the airport to check in for the flight. Our hand luggage was weighed and then I was unexpectedly also asked to hop on the scales. This may have been the scariest part of the whole trip. Holding in my breath like that might make a difference, I was subjected to a very public weigh-in in front of my guide, Chuda, my new travelling companion, Michael, and the airline check-in guy. When the scales stopped on the final reading, Chuda chortled like it was the best joke this side of the equator and my weight was to become an ongoing source of amusement for him.

As I stepped down off the scales, my self-esteem in pieces before I had even begun the hike, he whispered in my ear that by the end of the trek I would weigh at least five kilograms less. He actually wasn’t wrong about that. I should mention at this point, that Chuda was easily three inches shorter than me, as most Nepali people are. He probably weighed less than me even with his backpack on.

But with my day pack slung over my shoulder, we joined the queues for a more thorough security inspection that involved a frisk and bag search. Fortunately, being a conservative country, I was ushered into the ladies line which was much shorter than the line for men. Hiking to EBC is predominantly male, when you factor in porters and guides. I saw perhaps three local female guides and porters the entire trek.

The female security officer’s hands barely grazed  me as she checked for concealed weapons before turning her attention to my bag and, with an even less interested glance, she stamped my ticket and I was right to proceed. Beyond the tatty curtain, that had seen better days, were the rows of chairs that characterise an airport departure gate, and dozens and dozens of tourists in their shiny new North Face hiking clothes and overladen day packs. Closer to the flight boards, the guides were pacing, anxiously checking to see if their flight was still scheduled for departure or cancelled.

It was not quite 6am and while the conditions looked OK through the grimy windows of the departure lounge, I knew from my research and the anecdotes of the Aussie boys that clear skies in Kathmandu did not always mean clear skies high in the mountains.

As we sat waiting, an undercurrent of nervous anticipation was sweeping those around me as 6am came and went and no updates were made to the departure boards. However, Chuda seemed nonplussed, confident that we would make it to Lukla that day. I wiggled my toes inside my hiking boots, wondering if I should have worn them on some of my training hikes. While this may sound beyond stupid to not have done this, my boots were already broken in. I had worn them on my hike up Mt Kili and while I had lost a few toenails on the descent, I hadn’t got a single blister or experienced any other issues. I was more confident in my footwear than that of my travelling partner, who had told me his leather boots were new.

Finally, there was movement from the airport staff and they opened the glass doors to the departure gates. The PA system crackled to life and an announcement that I presumed pertained to our flights hushed the waiting mob. For the life of me I couldn’t decipher what was said but a grin broke out across Chuda’s face and he stood up. Michael and I followed suit and with one hand I flung my daypack up onto one shoulder, before negotiating my other arm through the empty strap. This was it.

But like any flight, waiting only ever precedes more waiting and even when we were finally shuffled through the glass doors, it was only as far as a small bus with long seats down either side. It was cold outside the waiting area, far colder than I had anticipated. The heat in Kathmandu had been stifling since I had arrived and I was dressed in three-quarter black tights under my new Nepali tennis skirt. I loved this style of skirt because it had a zip and velcro pocket on the front that was perfect for holding my phone and some money for easy access. On top I wore a moisture-wicking singlet over my sports bra. I was ready and dressed for hiking, which I knew would warm me up quickly, but while ever I was stationary, was chill. I had a hooded fleece jacket in my pack that I suspected I would need once we landed in Lukla at 2,860m (9,383 ft).

Once the bus was full, we headed out across the tarmac, passing rows of parked planes, some only seating three or four people. We were headed to a relatively large plane, seating 14, including the pilot and stewardess. I was itching to get on board. The flight into Lukla is legendary for several reasons not least of which is the view on the flight in, following the majestic Himalayas into the Everest region. But at that altitude, it is also reputed as the most dangerous airport in the world.

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Our teeny plane.

The plane had a single line of seats down each side with a narrow aisle in between. Without any safety briefing or ado, the stewardess walked the length of plane handing out small wrapped sweets and cotton buds which I correctly surmised were to be used as ear plugs. On such a small prop plane, the noise was loud and incessant for the 25-minute flight. I was beyond excited and had my Nikon in my lap ready to snap whatever I could from my small window. The pilot was seated almost directly in front of the aisle with no partition or door separating him from the passengers. I watched, fascinated, as he did his pre-flight checks as the engines roared into life.

In the air, I realised I had chosen a seat on the wrong side of the plane, looking into the sun. The seats on the left faced the Himalayas and as we moved away from the city below us, the majestic snow-capped peaks came into view. I peered across the aisle and watched with envy as my fellow passengers snapped pic after pic. If I was disappointed then, it wasn’t to last as we came into land at Lukla’s Tenzing-Hillary Airport. The runway is just 500 metres long and has been carved into a mountain ridge next to a perilous three-kilometre drop which meant that our descent was swift and spectacular.

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The view at Lukla airport.

As I exited the plane, I looked out and then up to see the most vivid blue sky draping the snow-capped towers of earth that surrounded us on all sides. I squealed inwardly with excitement and couldn’t wipe the smile from my face. Coming from Australia, where our highest mountain is a mere 2,228 metres (7,310 ft), I was not only already higher than any point on my home continent, I could see snow caps. To see snow in Australia, you have to travel to the snow fields many hours south of where I lived, even further to Victoria or cross the bight to Tasmania. While I had seen snow, it was never like this and never at such heights.

We were bustled without ceremony through the airport and onto a path that skirted the flimsy security fence around the airport and wound its way down towards the town of Lukla. We had walked no more than 200m before we stopped at a teahouse. It was my first experience of a teahouse so I had no expectations but I fell in love with it instantly. Structurally, everything was made of wood, with low ceilings, a central stove fuelled by dried yak dung, wooden tables and plastic chairs. The tables were covered with colourful tablecloths on which sat caddies of paper serviettes. The guides and porters gathered around the bar, exchanging banter with the teahouse owner whom they obviously knew well. Chuda told us to take a seat at a table near the stove and asked what we’d like to drink.

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Getting our trekking permits stamped in Lukla.

Michael and I drank sweet milky tea and ate toast with butter while we made small talk across the table. I was pleased to see I had phone service and I was able to check in on Facebook. I’d been told I should be able to get service most of the way to EBC while many teahouses also had wifi for a price.

I bought two litres of water at the bar and filled my camelback. Chuda had told us that today would be an easy, mostly downhill hike of only three hours, so it wasn’t necessary to buy the three litres I had capacity for. As well as plastic bottles of water, the teahouses sold an assortment of western chocolate bars, Pringles, tissues, beer and spirits. Chuda told us that while these items were cheap in Lukla, the higher we climbed, the more expensive these commodities would become. Everything beyond this point is either carried on the backs of porters or flown in by helicopter.

I was anxious to get started and had already adjusted by walking poles. I hadn’t used them since Kili where I had found them invaluable on the long downhill stretches. However, it quickly became apparent, as we finally set off through Lukla town, that the path was paved in stone; uneven paving, and cracked and steep in places, but paved nonetheless. My walking poles were more hindrance than help and when we stopped to get our permits stamped, I lashed them to the outside of my daypack. I didn’t use them again for the rest of the trip.

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The path was paved but uneven.

We were on our way and I was enchanted. It was an easy walk but crowded on the path as it was still early in the morning. Our pace was determined by those walking in front of us. But if I was keen to move ahead, it was clear that Michael was not. Much to the irritation of Chuda and myself, Michael wanted to stop and photograph everything. And if he wasn’t taking a still photograph, he was filming on his GoPro, complete with a running commentary to camera. This was to be my first lesson in patience. It was his trip too, and like me, he would have his reasons for doing this trek. It was not my place to get upset because he wanted to stop and enjoy the journey but on this first day, I found it trying.

It was a short day of walking, the descent easy, the weather fine and clear. To me I think it was important that I had an early win, a day of success. When Michael actually asked Chuda and I to walk more slowly so he could take it all in, I swallowed my annoyance. Later in the trek, this was to prove invaluable to me, but I wasn’t to know that yet. I just wanted to get to today’s destination, our first overnight stop, and reflect that I was actually doing it. I was on the trek to Everest Base Camp.

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It was such a lovely feeling to be happy and in the mountains.

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