THAT evening, we met the team and the guides for the trek. There were twenty of us in the group with five lead guides from the trek company, Karma Sherpa and Gyalzen Sherpa, and their assistants, Pemba Sherpa, Jeta Tamang Sherpa and Dawa Sherpa. There were also ten Sherpa porters whose name I didn’t know.
The group comprised Aussies and Kiwis and there was a good mixture of ages, with both young and old people. This meant we would bond well and help each other out if someone was sick.
The trek company checked the bags we were carrying. We were allowed a single duffel bag with all our clothes and a day bag with our immediate requirements, and together they had to weigh no more than 14 kg. It was amazing what I got in my bag: two trousers, four shirts, Birkenstock sandals, spare walking shoes, water purifier, two long-sleeved shirts, a down jacket, a fleece jacket, a sleeping bag, a thermal liner and of course, my medical kit!
After breakfast at the hotel, we left Kathmandu and flew to Lukla from where we would begin our first day’s trek to Phakding, a small village at an altitude of 2,610 metres. Upon landing at Lukla’s Tenzing-Hillary Airport, we were immediately surrounded by porters who were waiting for work.
Lukla’s airport was officially named Tenzing-Hillary in 2008, the year of the famously modest Sir Edmund Hillary’s death (Tenzing, an Indian citizen who was never knighted, had died in 1986). The airport had been built at the instigation of Sir Edmund, who envisioned its use as a way of bringing in supplies every now and then, and not as a major tourist airport. The runway is short and steeply sloping, with hills at one end and a precipice at the other. The effect is a bit like landing on an aircraft carrier, with the upward slope of the runway acting as an arrester on landing and the downward slope as a catapult on takeoff. This is all the more necessary as, at over 9,000 feet, the air under the wings is thin, and engine power not what it would be at sea level.
A lot of mountain airstrips used by hill-country farmers, deer-hunters and the like have the same squeezed-in design as Tenzing-Hillary; but it’s a bit hard-case for a passenger airport.
In fact, these days, Tenzing-Hillary is rated the world’s most dangerous airport by some authorities. There have been many takeoff and landing accidents a Tenzing-Hillary over the years, though with surprisingly few of them fatal; perhaps because only expert pilots, piloting special bush aircraft designed for short strips, are allowed to attempt Lukla in the first place.
(The terrible accident that claimed Hillary’s wife and daughter in 1975 was at the nearby airport of Phaplu on the other side of the Dudh Kosi Valley; a supposedly safer airport, but a plane flown by a less expert pilot.)
To make matters worse, Lukla’s airstrip is often socked in by mountain weather for days on end. In the days when it was only used for freight this was no big deal. And even in the 1970s the few hardy souls who chartered a plane to get to Lukla in preference to hiking in for a week from the town of Jiri near Kathmandu, as Hillary and Tenzing had done in 1953, were generally philosophical about the vagaries of mountain weather.
They say that the old 1950s expedition route through the Himalayan foothills from Jiri is very scenic. A few people still do it, but 95% of visitors to the Everest region currently fly into Lukla via Tenzing-Hillary airport.
But by the same token this means that Hillary’s old bush airstrip now accepts 30,000 arrivals a year, many of them the sorts of people who got impatient if the planes were delayed by bad weather. In 2011 they were delayed for six days. That’s a long time to be staring out the window at the rain coming down, especially if you are booked on ahead.
In the age of modern mass tourism, Tenzing-Hillary was becoming a relic of the bush pilot era, no longer fit for purpose.
Fortunately, a good-quality road to Lukla has been under construction for several years and now reaches past Phaplu, in various stages of surfacing. The plan is that the road will soon be sealed all the way to Lukla, and the climbers and trekkers will then be able to catch a bus from Kathmandu.
Then again, how unromantic! The fabled white-knuckle destination of Lukla will be just like everywhere else once the road is completed, and especially so if the Tenzing-Hillary airport is decommissioned in favour of asphalt, buses and Phaplu.
You can’t stop progress, rationally speaking. All the same, I predict that if the alternative becomes sealed roads, tourist coaches and a normal sort of an airport, the old expedition route will undergo a trekking revival!
Finally, here’s a video I made during a visit in 2018, about flying out, this time by helicopter. It gives you a good idea of the intensively cultivated terrain near the airports!
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