“Scary” Tiny Mountain Airport

If you google search for lists of some of the most dangerous or scary airports in the world, one airport in particular consistently pops up on the list… Lukla airport in the Solukhumbu (Everest) region of Nepal– and I’ve had the good fortune to have flown in and out of this airport…  unscathed.

Last summer P and I went on a visit to Nepal for a month, and we were able to kill a few birds with one stone: we visited P’s family, I finally got the chance to experience Kathmandu with P, we were able to attend our good friends’ wedding, and we were able to trek in the mountains as part of P’s preliminary phd research on glaciers and climate change. This included the aforementioned flights.

Most people who hike in the Everest region either take a bus or fly to Jiri (which is lower down the mountains and closer to Kathmandu, and is literally the “end of the road” or the last place you can find motorized vehicles in that part of the region) or you can fly to Lukla which is farther along the Everest trek route.

Lukla is only about a thirty minute flight from Kathmandu, but feels like worlds away from the bustling, dusty, crowded city. One catches a flight to the mountains at the domestic terminal of Tribhuvan International airport, and climbs aboard a 18 seater Dornier 228 turboprop aircraft.  The flight takes off from the valley and flies straight towards the mountains, offering beautiful views of snow-capped Himalayan peaks, lush green valleys and gushing glacial rivers.

Photo 1: Domestic terminal of the airport, Photo 2: Our Agni Air flight prepares to leave KTM

The airport is carved out of a mountain ledge 9,380ft (2860 m) above sea level. Essentially the plane flies straight through the narrow valley before the airport approach, and doesn’t really decrease its altitude… you fly fly fly and then bam, out of the clouds and onto green earth once again. As you watch the ledge approach you can’t help but feel a bit nervous, the runway is short and slopped uphill, there isn’t much room for error, plus the plane is so tiny and feels so vulnerable. When we landed, our plane touched down with a hard thud, and I was waiting for it to bounce off the tarmac and flip on its side, but of course, I’m a bit dramatic.

Photo 1: Our flight departs after dropping us in Lukla, Photo 2: A view down the runway and into the valley approach, no room for error

We alighted from the plane, immediately feeling the cool dust-free mountain air, a relief from the pre-monsoon heat of the valley. I had fretted ahead of time about altitude sickness because I wasn’t sure how my body would react (I had a bout of nausea problems on a trip into the mountains in India once). I half expected to feel dizzy getting off the airplane, and keel over on the runway, but I surprised myself by feeling fine and ready to take off down the mountain path.

The town itself is pretty small. There are a few shops for buying gear, books, souvenirs, an internet café with satellite connection (which was very slow, very expensive and quite unreliable… but as a friend put it, when you are in the “physically most inspiring place in the world” who needs the internet?), a few guest houses, a hospital, and a few places to eat including an “Irish Pub,” a German bakery, and a Starbucks knock-off.

Our Irish friend poses with our porter in front of the "Irish Pub" sign (yes he's very tall, but bhai was also very short), the fake "Starbucks" sign is in the background

We didn’t spend too much time in Lukla at the beginning of our journey, so I’ll skip to the end. Most people get stuck in this town on their return to Kathmandu. Due to the perilous perch of the airport’s location, the narrow valley leading up to the airport (and the updrafts and cloud cover that accompany most narrow valleys), the unpredictability of the weather, and the small not-so-gadgety aircraft that fly this route, it is not uncommon for flights to be cancelled and people to be stranded for days at a time.

Another view: A plane prepares to depart, off the mountain and into the misted valley

(more tomorrow…)

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