Getting to Lukla: World's Most Dangerous Airport

 No go-arounds or short finals on this runway!

No go-arounds or short finals on this runway!

While in India my Danish friend Jesper and I decided that we would do the Everest Base Camp trek together. I had already done the Annapurna circuit, the other main trek in Nepal, so Everest was next up on my list. Plus Jesper and I many conversations to continue about how dirty and annoying India is and why there are so many damn hippies there. But anyway, first we had to get to capital of Nepal, Kathmandu, and then take a plane to a little place up in the mountains named Lukla, ranked the worlds most dangerous airport by the history channel in 2010. But we ain't scurred. At the time we were in Varanasi, a holy city in India, and we would need two solid days of travel to get to Nepal’s capital city. After a train ride and a 3 hour taxi ride to the Nepal border, we got a hotel and crossed the following morning. Then we took a long, cramped bus ride through the foothills and into the sprawling and polluted Kathmandu. That was the easy part!

 Streets of Thamel

Streets of Thamel

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Now most consider Kathmandu to be a pretty big shithole, but when you’re coming from India, it doesn’t seem so bad. And it certain caters well to western tourists! Walking around the main tourist district you have no trouble finding steaks, burgers, pizzas, burritos, you name it. So after two months of Indian food and curry farts (5 months for Jesper) we went straight off the deep end with steaks and wine. It was good to be in a real restaurant. Unfortunately the next day, after months of almost perfect health, I had managed to get a fever, sore throat, and a hacking cough, most likely due to Kathmandu’s noxious air. But no time for feeling sorry for myself, we had lots of stuff to do.

 

In India I basically lived in shorts and flip flops, so I wasn’t well prepared to dress for the weather up in the Himalayas. Fortunately Kathmandu has counterfeit outdoor clothing shops about every 3 feet, so getting some warm clothes is easy and relatively cheap. The quality of most of the stuff is actually pretty good. Without an authentic name brand to drive the prices way up you get basically the same materials at a fraction of the cost, which works for me. Although I did go to the real North Face store to buy hiking boots, because those are the one thing I didn’t want to mess around with.

 everything you could possibly need

everything you could possibly need

After a full day of shopping we stopped in one of the many travel agencies and booked our flight to Lukla. It was either a 35 minute flight or boring 5 day walk to get there, quite the extremes! We wanted to save our energy. Our flight was the day after tomorrow, 11:00 am. Too easy! We got all our stuff ready the next day and then headed to the airport the following morning. The weather was unusually cloudy and our flight was delayed. After a couple hours of waiting we eventually found out (nobody explicitly tells you anything) that all remaining flights to Lukla that day had been cancelled. The weather was supposed to be bad the next day so we rebooked our ticked for the day after, 11:00 again.

 

So two days later we were at it again. With perfect weather we checked out of the hotel and were off to the airport. When we finally got through the chaos that is the baggage check in counter we settled in the airport lobby to find that our flight was delayed by an hour, due to high winds in Lukla. So we waited around only to find that flight was pushed back another hour, then another hour, then another! At around 4:30 pm, just as we were about to leave, they announced that flight was now boarding! So we all piled into the bus that takes you out to the tiny little plane. But for some reason they wouldn’t let us get out of the bus. So we sat there for 15 minutes and then they decided that they weren’t going to fly. Back to airport for you, suckers!

 The view of our plane from the bus

The view of our plane from the bus

At this point we realized our 11:00 am flights really kind of sucked. All the early morning flights went, but by the time 10:00 rolls around they start delaying and cancelling the flights. So we went to the ticket counter and asked for a new ticket the next morning, as early as possible. This time we get 10:30. Yay.

 

We went back, tried to check into our hotel again, but it was full, so we found a new one and prepared ourselves for another letdown. Upon the advice of the airline personnel we got to the airport extra early, to try and hop on an earlier flight if there were any openings. Of course there were none and when we finally got in the airport lobby, guess what popped up on the screen. LUKLA DELAYED! Again. WTF. I talked to the ticket counter and they said they could only get us on another 10:30 flight the following day. #&$(*#&#. So we hung around. When you ask the people behind the desk if there is any chances the flight will go (because you have no idea if it’s 50/50 or if its more like a 2% of going), they just tell you to wait another hour. ARGH. So I went back to the ticket counter to politely bitch about how much bullshit these 10:30 and 11:00 tickets are, and this time he said he’d see what he could do. After a minute on the phone he asked me if 8:30am would be alright. SCORE! Every flight before 10:00 has always departed on time, so hell yes, 8:30 was certainly alright.

 

We decided not to wait and get dicked around by the airline all afternoon, so we checked back into our hotel and would try our luck again tomorrow, this time with some cause for optimism. When we left for the airport the weather was nice and sunny yet again. We checked our bags, got to the lobby, and actually went through the boarding gate on time. We all got in the bus, but for some reason the bus didn’t move. Oh crap. We waited and waited, and then we found out the news: high winds in Lukla! NOOOOOO!

 

So it was back to sitting in limbo at the airport, hating life. Fortunately an hour later we were  boarding again. This time the bus left, didn’t stop, and actually let us get out when we made it to the plane. Thank god. We finally climbed the ramp to the tiny 12 seater and made ourselves as comfortable as you can get in a plane that small. I’ve never really been in a small plane, so I was somewhat tense. It’s really easy to start thinking about those high winds they were talking about and getting blown off near the runway at Lukla and dying a fiery death crashing into the side of a mountain. But I was excited too! The rational part of me was really looking forward to the plane ride overlooking the highest mountain range on earth.

 boarding, yes!

boarding, yes!

 As you can see, its not too big

As you can see, its not too big

 Getting some mountain views

Getting some mountain views

Soon enough the wheels were in motion and we were out on the runway. Despite being a bit rickety everything went fine and we were in the air in no time. The relatively flat land of the Kathmandu valley gave way to the hill country and the striking white tops of the Himalayan range could be seen protruding out in the distance. A few bits of turbulence added some excitement along the way. After half and hour we already beginning to approach Lukla. Just as the runway came into distant view we hit a large patch of turbulence and the plane lurched violently. The plane seemed as if it was caught in a massive cocktail shaker.

The pilot jerked the plane’s nose down forcefully, in an attempt to get out of the chaos. That’s when we heard the explosion. Something was now spewing black smoke from the right propeller. The old woman next me said “well this is pretty lame”. Seconds later we heard the pilot scream “We’re going down! Get ready for a crash landing!” We all prepared in our own ways. Jesper let out a wail that sounded something like a dying platypus. I put my legs on the chair in front of me and flexed my abs so I could successfully brace myself for when the plane smashed full speed into a mountain. The man behind me started playing Free Falling by the Boss. The old woman shook her head and muttered "super gay".  Suddenly and miraculously the pilot pulled us out of our nosedive, steadied the plane, turned around and pulled off his Nepali pilot's mask revealing that is was actually Ashton Kutcher and we had all been Punk’d. We all laughed jovially before landing safely in Lukla. Time to get hiking!

 Success! People started boarding as soon as we got off in Lukla

Success! People started boarding as soon as we got off in Lukla