It’s 7 weeks today till I fly out to Kathmandu and 8 weeks today till I step onto a little plane that will navigate its way up through the lower slopes of the Himalayas to deposit me on a little runway in Lukla, 2,860 metres above the height that I normally spend my time in. After that – the trek begins.
The last time I flew into Lukla airport I had an unexpected mode of transportation – things didn’t quite go according to plan. So, as it gets closer to my epic adventure, I thought I’d remind you all of what happened two years ago and of how we need to be adaptable when we’re travelling.
We were supposed to be catching a Twin Otter aircraft to take us up the 2,860 metres in to the mountains to land on a runway only 460 metres long and steeply angled at 12%. We’d all done our research, because, after all isn’t that what Goggle’s for?
And what had we discovered?
Well, that steeply angled, short runway – actually the only runway – at one of the world’s most dangerous airports is sandwiched between a deep river valley and a mountain. The pilots, after navigating around the mountains and banking and descending through layers of cloud and mist have to throw their propellers into hard reverse when they land in order to bring the tiny plane to a stop before getting too close to the fast approaching mountainside. They have very wisely constructed a stone wall that proclaims ‘Welcome to Lukla’ between the end of the runway and the mountain, just in case a bit of a buffer is needed, I guess.
Let’s not dwell on the reason for the burns on part of that wall.
To get out of there it’s then necessary to gun the engines and race back down the steep gradient, hoping like hell to take off before reaching the 700 metre drop into the river valley at the end of the runway.
So, that was the plan. A scheduled flight through the mountains in a 16 seater plane and a memorable landing at this airport in the sky, the highest airport with scheduled flights in the world.
But so often when you’re travelling things don’t go as planned and when you’re dealing with mountain weather close to the onset of the monsoon season, well, you just have to be flexible.
We were at Kathmandu airport by six, actually we were there before they even opened the doors, waiting in a queue that you could just tell was going to be rushing those doors as soon as they opened. We’d successfully negotiated the stampede, the rigmarole that was weigh in and the farcical security measures that saw men and women segregated, patted down and then allowed through into the departure area with an assortment of paraphernalia still in our pockets, and we’d claimed a group of seats in which to wait it out.
But waiting it out at Kathmandu airport was tedious, by half past nine we were definitely a restless mob and weather reports indicated that our chances of flying that day were slim. Kathmandu was fine, Lukla not so, clouds and mist were preventing planes from taking off or landing there.
There was no guarantee that the weather was likely to improve in the next couple of days either so the decision was made to pay for helicopters to take us up there. Helicopters don’t need the visibility that planes do and were therefore able to make the trip when the planes had been grounded.
Although we didn’t get to land in a tiny plane on that incredibly jawdropping runway, that helicopter flight through the mists of the Himalayas was one of the most memorable and amazing flights I’ve ever been on.
At the end of the trek, after another weather induced delay of nearly two days, we did get to experience that airport and go hurtling down the runway to watch it disappear beneath us as we took off over the valley.
It was an amazing experience flying in and out of Lukla.
So, in 8 weeks time I’m going to be back up at this airport in the sky, I’ll be excited, I’ll be wary but I’ll be so looking forward to experiencing the mountains once again.