Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Onto Lukla - October 2012

Trekking to Everest Base Camp starts with an adventurous flight from Kathmandu to Lukla. Hundreds of passengers take the flight daily during the high season in October and November. The planes are small and noisy, they rattle, and on average two of them crash every season.

Getting to the plane is experience on its own. As we bulldoze our way through the overcrowded domestic section of Kathmandu airport I try to imagine doing this without an assistance. There are no signs to point travelers to any directions, save the right one, and the sporadic personnel speak very limited English.

Closely following our guide we arrive at an unmanned scale and drop off our entire luggage. An officer appears and briefly scans our over-the-limit belongings. Few handshakes and a nod later, we proceed through the door and take a short bus ride to our plane.

The scene is lively. Previous passengers are exiting the plane; their luggage is loaded onto a cart, and a re-fuel crew is making sure there is enough juice for another round trip. Inside there are two rows of seats, separated by a narrow corridor. Sign stating “Emergency Axe” catches my attention. Hopefully we won’t be in a need of using it. The flight day is short, and passengers plentiful. We don’t waste time idling around. As soon as the last seat is taken, the door close, and shortly afterwards we are airborne en route to Lukla.

The flight is just about 45 minutes. We soon leave the crumbling city behind and our windows offer views of much more pleasing nature. Farmlands open below us with their fields cascading on hillsides. Various shades of green neatly stacked one below the other. Deeper in the mountains, settlement became less frequent.  We are flying through a valley, surrounded by forested slopes. The dense growth surprises me in this altitude.

One last turn and Lukla appears in view; small town scrunched in a valley in the elevation of 2,860 metres (9,383 ft). Lukla contains an airport, several tea houses catering to visitors during the trekking season, and a variety of stores offering last minute trail supplies for those starting their journey, and souvenirs for those returning. There are also couple of coffee shops claiming to provide free wi-fi; however the service is not reliable and the connection is often painfully slow.

Lukla is served by the Tenzin-Hillary Airposr, one of the most extreme and most dangerous airposrts in the world. Its single runway is 460 m x 20 m (1,510 ft x 66ft) with 12% gradient. Due to the terrain - there are high slopes immediately after the northern end of the runway and a steep angled drop of about 2,000 m (6,600 ft) at the southern end, there is no prospect of a succesfull go around. You either land, or you crash. 

Exiting the aircraft, I take a deep breath of the fresh mountain air. It is crisp, its chilliness brings a soft pinch to my sinuses but at this time I hardly notice. The moment we’ve been waiting for is here. Curiously looking around, we take our first steps in the Himalayas, excited for the adventure ahead. 

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