‘So Lulka airport is the most dangerous airport in the world?’ I asked Happy – my aptly-named Nepali friend from All Hands Volunteers and our trekking organiser. ‘No problem,’ he replied. The cheeky smile on his face just a tad ironic this time. This response, and a head wobble, is the answer to most questions in Nepal, but this time I couldn’t help but laugh. Albeit nervously. Neither could my fellow trekkers, all three finishing up from volunteering in Thulo Pakhar with me. This was going to be one hell of a trip.
Left: Happy reassuring us it’ll all be okay. Right: The TV at Kathmandu Airport showing plane crashes. No, I’m not kidding.
When I was in Nepal in late 2015 I’d decided that if I ever came back – and I wouldn’t be coming back for several years . . . – then I would definitely go trekking. Instead of exploring Nepal that time around I volunteered an extra three weeks instead. Alhough I never regretted that, I’d be an idiot not to want to see what this beautiful country has to offer. With a whole bunch of my friends leaving the volunteering project, both new and old, I decided that the beginning of May would be a prime time to take a brief school-building sabbatical. Enough time to come back to the project afterwards and *hopefully* before the monsoon hit the Himalayas. It was time to see how majestic those mountains really are.
With my Canadian buddy Jesse and Italian amico Manu already on board, all that was left was to decide the potential fundraising job with All Hands wasn’t as important to me as trekking around the Sagamartha region and persuading Cam, our partner from down under, that he was coming too. Jesse and I had settled on the Three Passes Trek because it was supposedly the most beautiful and the most difficult trek. It would take us from Lukla up to Namche Bazar, splitting from the main Everest trail to go to Thame, the Renjo Pass to Gokyo, Gokyo Ri, the Chola Pass, Lobuche, Gorak Shep, Everest Base Camp, Kala Patthar, the Kongma La Pass, Chukkung, Tengboche and back down to Lukla via Namche Bazar. Spoiler alert – For anyone thinking of this trip: Do it Clockwise. Especially if there’s any chance of reasonable snowfall.
Our very own Gandalf – I mean Guide – Pasang, just before he burst into inexplicable laughter
We chose to hire a guide because frankly if you’re going to go to the trouble of trekking some of the highest passes and mountains in the world, why not have some reassurance you’re going the right way. Finding your own way is very much possible but so is getting lost in the passes in a snowstorm. Not to mention the hours of deliberation about which way to go even in ordinary weather. And which hostels, and mountain information, and all the other little things. We also chose to fly to and from Lukla, the closest airport to Everest, which would save us two weeks of trekking and two horrible bus journeys. That was a pricey choice at $150 each way, but worth it if you can stomach an abrupt landing and a tiny plane.
We embarked on our 18 day adventure on Star Wars Day (4th May for non-Sci-Fi fans) – supposedly a nice, relaxed pace with good time for acclimatisation – and so at 4.10 am we got up, went to the cash machine for some final spending/surviving money, and jumped in a jeep to Kathmandu Airport. There are cash machines in Lukla and Namche Bazar but they would undoubtably take a large commission so we took out our 1,500 – 2,500 Nepalese Rupees a day (approx. 15 – 25 US dollars/day) beforehand. Allowing for extra days (and extra tea/chocolate/warmth/illegal substances/Yak rides), we each had about 50,000 rupees in cash on us. The largest sum of my own money I’d ever had on me at one time by a considerable amount. That and giving away 30,000 Rupees the day before to pay for flights had hurt my frugal soul. My parents can no doubt relate.
Two hours after waking (or so – Nepali timing came into play) we were in a newly washed – “It’s probably just been washed so we won’t know it’s old and hasn’t been used in a while. . .” Thanks Cameron – 16 seat, two propeller engine plane jetting off from Kathmandu on the 40 minute journey to the Himalayas. The smallest plane I’d been in, probably the oldest, and the most concerned I’d been about flying anywhere. The sudden massive jerk that seemed to shove us down several meters from turbulence did nothing to still my nerves.
Pasang had told us sit on the left – no prearranged seating here! – and sure enough, blazing in the sunlight and much higher than we flew, the snow capped mountains were there to greet us. Giants peeking around wispy bits of cloud. Just as I was getting used to this mouse-sized plane, the fact that you could see the pilots in front of you and had stopped wondering why they had an air stewardess, I looked forward through the cabin window. Tenzing-Hillary airport. They weren’t joking about it being small and sloping. This thing couldn’t fit a Boeing 747 let alone land one. You might as well land on a slide.
Lukla Airport is only 527 meters long and slopes up-hill to make sure even these microscopic planes can stop in time. The ends of the runway are a straight drop down and a straight rock up. This would be the end of us. Short but sweet.
Somehow, suddenly, we landed.
Our plane, in all its teeny tiny glory, with the mountain Ngo Thung Ri in the background.
The runway from behind, you take off, or you crash. That’s it folks.
The next blogs will have many more mountains, idiots abroad and simply spectacular views. And maybe a Yak or two.
To learn more about my latest volunteering project or to donate to help build schools for children in Nepal then follow this link, your money and time are much appreciated! It’s a fantastic cause.