Lukla Airport – getting in and getting out.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’ve been in helicopters before, both times in the north west of Western Australia. The first time was over the Bungle Bungles in the Pilbara and on a separate occasion over the Willie Creek pearl farm outside Broome. What spectacular views of such an awe inspiring landscape.

There are unlikely to be any flights though in my travel future that will surpass the helicopter flight between Kathmandu and Lukla.

We weren’t expecting it, we were supposed to be catching a Twin Otter aircraft to take us up 2,860 metres into the Himalayan mountain range to land on a runway only 460 metres long and steeply angled at 12%. Now we’d all done our research, because after all isn’t that what Google’s for? And what had we learnt you may ask. Well, that steeply angled, short runway, actually the only runway, at one of the world’s most dangerous airports is sandwiched between a mountain and a deep river valley. 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 tiny 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 very close to the onset of the monsoon season well, you have to be flexible.

We were at Kathmandu airport by six, actually we were there even before they 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 lounge with an assortment of paraphernalia still in their 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 today were slim. Kathmandu was fine, Lukla not so, clouds and mist were preventing aircraft taking off or landing there.

None of us really wanted to lose a day and have to make it up somewhere along the trek, and there was no guarantee that the weather would be any better tomorrow.

To cut a long story short, there was no way any plane was going to get there today and the only option was to pay for helicopters to take us in. In a way it was a disappointment not to be landing on that runway but the flight through the mountains in the helicopter certainly made up for it.

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.

An amazing experience, flying in and out.

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Waiting patiently for a flight out.

Waiting patiently for a flight out.

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Sea to summit – well, almost

Kathmandu

Assuming everything goes according to plan, next year’s trek will see me climbing out of my comfort zone and reaching Everest base camp, after a 15 day trek from Kathmandu, and several people have asked me exactly how high this is. Originally I was going as far as Thyangboche Monastery but, as you all know by now, I had second thoughts and decided to opt out of the safe option and go those few extra miles, well, a couple of thousand metres actually.

I think now might be a good time to put this extra couple of thousand metres in perspective for you. So listen carefully.

Everest Base Camp sits at an altitude of 5,364 metres, difficult to imagine, so let me put it this way. I live on the coastal plain of Western Australia, barely a hill in site, let’s call that 0 metres.

Burns Beach near Perth, Western Australia

The Darling Scarp butts up against this coastal plain but, even then, the highest point on the Darling Ranges is Mount Cooke at 582m.

Lukla

I will be flying in to Kathmandu which sits at 1,400m, so I’ll already be almost three times higher than the highest point in my area. Let’s take Australia as a whole – the highest point on mainland Australia is Mount Kosciuszko at 2,228 metres. After a short (apparently exhilarating) fight from Kathmandu to Lukla at 2,860 metres I’ll actually begin the trek. So, I’ll start trekking at a point higher than the summit of Mt Kosciusko!

Thyangboche Monastery

Five days later I’ll reach Thyangboche at 3,867 metres. This is where I was going to stop but, no, I decided to extend the agony thrill, for another few days and those extra couple of thousand metres.

Everest Base Camp and the tents of the summiteers

On the tenth day of the trek I’ll make it to Base Camp (in what condition I’m not sure, but I will be there) at 5,364 metres. May, when I’ll be there, is traditionally when many of the summit ascents take place so it could be a pretty busy place with the summit groups making their preparations.

A strenuous couple of hours will take us up to the summit of Kala Pattar, the highest point on the trek at 5,545 metres that gives us the famous views of Everest, Lhotse and Nuptse. When you think that Mt Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa, is 5,895 metres suddenly I realize how high I’m going.

Most of the amazing photos of Everest that you find in books and on-line are taken from Kalar Pattar, it’s a hard slog of between one and two hours depending on your level of fitness, up what looks like a brown hump of dirt.

The track heading up Kala Pattar

It’s a big hump though with the ascent of this final leg made acutely difficult due to the lack of oxygen in the lungs at this height. I’ve read several accounts of the ascent of this final hurdle before you get to witness the spectacular views that it affords. Without exception these accounts reveal the difficulty, the hurt and the struggle, and highlight the sheer determination needed to reach the summit. If the photos are anything to go by though the rewarding views are worth it.

View from Kala Pattar

I aim to take some of those amazing photos. In approx 6 months time these photos will be replaced by those that I have taken myself!

Remember, you can support me and my efforts by donating to the ‘Because I’m a Girl Campaign.’ Just go to the Donate page up there on my header or read all about it on the Challenge for the girls page.

What if ………..

It was rather confronting for me today to be faced with pictures of the plane that crashed shortly after take off from Kathmandu airport on its way to Lukla, bursting into flames and killing all on board.

Its passengers were people just like me and just like those who will be joining me on my trek next year. I feel deeply for the families of those people who, like all of us who love to travel, were following their dream.

But it begs the question, should we let ‘what if’s’ deter us from travelling? I don’t. This plane crash is a tragedy and has made news world wide, made all the more devastating through the suddenness of the accident and the visually explicit vision we are seeing.

But does a pile up on a motorway stop us from renting a car and travelling that same route on our holidays a few weeks later? Does a train crash in a major European city stop us from taking that same train ride when we’re there? Generally not.

In life generally, the ‘what if’s’ don’t stop us, if they did we would struggle to step outside our front door, let alone get in a car.

An on-line friend Gail Cooper and her husband leave London this weekend en route to Kathmandu. On Wednesday they will take that same flight in which those people lost their lives today, heading for Lukla, the starting point of their trek to Everest Base Camp.

This disaster hasn’t stopped them but no doubt today’s events will be uppermost in their minds as their plane taxis down the runway.

My thoughts are with the families of those whose lives have been lost in pursuit of their dreams and to the Nepalese people who put their own lives at risk every day to help us fulfil those dreams.

Mountains, Mist and …. ooh, one little plane

Remind me again why I’m doing this.

I think I’ve just made my first mistake in planning this trip. I read the Wikipedia site on the airport at Lukla. Not a good idea as it turns out. Sometimes I just don’t know when to stop, because then I made my second mistake, I watched U Tube footage of a plane taking off from the airport. Google maps showing the terrain really didn’t help either. Lukla is the starting point of the trek and to get there requires a short flight from Kathmandu in a Twin Otter aircraft. World Expeditions, in their blurb, describe it as ‘a memorable flight with amazing views’.

I don’t doubt it for one minute.

Notice the mountains in the picture? Well the pilot, of a tiny aircraft, needs to navigate his way around those mountains, banking and descending through several layers of cloud and mist, apparently without the help of landing aids, using just his own keen sense of sight (one would hope that it’s keen anyway). Then he has to pull the aircraft to a halt within 460 metres – hopefully with a bit of room to spare. And then, to get out of there he has to gun his engines and race back down the 12 degree gradient hoping like hell to take off before reaching the 700 metre drop at the end of the runway.

Does it help that only the most experienced pilots in Nepal fly to Lukla? Probably, just a bit.

Lukla is the highest airport with scheduled flights in the world and acknowledged as one of the most dangerous, and I’m going visiting.

But, on a positive note, considering there are around 50 flights a day in and out of Lukla in the high season and accidents are rare, it’s probably no more dangerous than driving to work.

Enough said! Let’s move on!