(Continuation of “Scary” Tiny Mountain Airport)
When we told some of P’s relatives (who had traveled to the Solukhumbu region before) that we were planning to go up to Lukla in mid June they thought we were asking for trouble. With the monsoon coming we were likely to be trekking in clouds and rain the whole time, and what was the fun in that? June is right at the tail-end of the trekking high season. Most people who plan to climb Everest do so in May when the weather is most likely to be clear at the summit, and so the climbers start their trek from Jiri or Lukla several weeks before that time.
I half expected to see the trail a bit trashed, since I’d heard stories of the route being literally bumper to bumper with people in the high season, but it was peaceful, quiet and clean. We met up with a few people along the way, particularly a few news crews covering a Sherpa/climate change festival in Khumjung, and eventually we ran into these characters again when we all got stuck in Lukla.
Our trek (which I’ll talk about later) was great, and we were really lucky with the weather, but on the last day or two as we were returning to Lukla it was cloudy and misty with a bit of rain. As we spent our last day walking towards the airport-town we were hopeful (and spinning every Buddhist prayer wheel along the way for good luck) that we would be getting out of there the next morning as planned. Little did we know that there hadn’t been any flights from Lukla in days.
We reached our guest house, which had a large room full of tables that served as both a dining room and a lounge. It had big curtained windows that looked out over the airport. We arrived off the trek route, a little tired, a little grimy and in need of a shower, but excited about our accomplished journey and ready to return to KTM. P and I had a wedding to attend in a few days, and our friend had to catch an international flight.
There was already a small group of foreigners sitting in the corner of the large room when we came in for dinner. At first I thought that they were friends, but later I learned that they all reached the guest house at different times during the past few days, and bonded over being stranded together. The girls were wrapped in blankets they dragged up from their rooms, swapping paperback novels they had brought along or purchased from the small book stall down the road. The group had commandeered the tiny guest house television set, and had been watching pirated DVD movies they purchased from someone in town. As P, our friend, our guide and I enthusiastically talked about our return trip to KTM the following morning one of the stranded girls audibly snort-chuckled from across the room, as if to say, “You just got here… what makes you think you are leaving?!”
And then it started to pour. I peeked behind the curtains and saw the fog was thick as gray soup. A bit disheartening.
We were still hopeful though. You have to at least try, right? So we ate dinner, and spent the evening playing rounds of cards with our guide. We woke up early in anticipation of the flight, but when I pushed back the bedroom curtain the fog was even worse than the night before, as if our guest house was floating in a milky sea of whiteness. Our guide came to the door and said that it would be impossible to fly in this weather, so we might as well get some extra sleep and meet him upstairs in an hour or two for breakfast.
Apparently how the flights work is that even if your flight is delayed, as long as you are flying out on the same day you were scheduled to fly, you still have priority to get out that day, but after your flight day has passed there is no guarantee, and you have to be on the ball with pressuring the airlines and jockeying for space and tickets at the airport. I was still trying to be hopeful that we would get out that day, but it rained so heavily, in my heart I knew it wouldn’t happen.
One of the major issues with flying to Lukla is that the narrow valley and challenging landing situation (one aviation site commented on the airport’s short 450m runway with 12% incline, and the ridges and landscape one has to clear to make it on the runway in addition to the special maneuvers a pilot has to do to land the plane—backwards thrust on propellers, etc., making it particularly tricky. The site concluded by saying, “If this is worrying you, one comforting thought is that only the most experienced pilots in Nepal are flying to Lukla.”) so pilots can only fly when visibility is clear enough to make a smooth landing since everything is done by sight rather than with sensors and GPS. Some attempts have been made in the past for flights to land in foggy weather and the outcome has not always been good. In 2008 a Yeti Airlines flight crashed just short of the runway, killing 12 Germans, 2 Australians and 2 Nepali tourists and the memory of this crash is still very fresh in the minds of Lukla dwellers. When tourists start getting antsy and harass the airport officials they are gently reminded that after the Yeti crash, pilots have been more careful and strict about flight conditions specifically for their and for their passengers safety.
However one hears all sorts of crazy stories when you get stuck. As more people started to gather at the guest house, and at places around town, stories circulated from guide books and guides about times in the past when flights had been cancelled for many days at a time. One guide talked about a time the flights were cancelled for 15 days and since food and other goods (including extra cash for the bank) were also in short supply (which can happen when the planes can’t come to restock) the local bank ran out of money for withdrawals and stranded tourists lined the village road attempting to sell their trekking gear and cameras for cash to pay their unexpected extra food and lodging expenses. Another lodger shared a story from her guidebook about an airport official who was chased by a frustrated tourist with an ice ax for canceling flights. I even heard that in the high season the backlog of trekkers can get so bad that all the beds in town are taken, and people have to resort to sleeping on benches and the floor. Another website (called “Stranded! Lukla“) summed it up nicely:
The Lonely Planet guide says that flight cancellations are common and that the writers have personally witnessed some bizarre things at the Lukla airport, such as people going completely hysterical, pulling knives on airline staff, getting into fistfights, trying to bribe everyone, etc. I can really see how people might go crazy in this situation. Imagine that you’ve been trekking in the mountains for weeks, all your clothes are filthy, you are desperate for fresh fruits, vegetables and other foods and comforts you’ve been deprived of for weeks, and you are running out of cash and stuck in a town with no ATM. Maybe this is why there are so many policemen and soldiers at the airport: to prevent desperate stranded passengers from stampeding the planes when they finally do arrive.
The thing is, being in Lukla really reminds you of how isolated you are. If you are stranded, the only alternative you have besides waiting for a flight is a 5+ day arduous hike up and down some steep valleys to get to Jiri where you can either catch a flight (if the weather is good) or a bus to KTM (which is another full long day on the road). Not to mention, in the past the Jiri-Lukla trail was a common place for Maoist guerillas to ask for steep “donations” from tourists (if you didn’t pay they turned you around and forced you to go back—this isn’t the case anymore, but it was a few years ago, and my dated Lonely Planet guide had a lengthy section on this). It winds up being a tough decision whether to stay or to go… because at any moment the sky might magically clear and the flights can come from KTM (it only takes ½ an hour) and then you are back in the capital again. You either wait seemingly indefinitely for that magic window, or you take your chances on the 5+ day hike and know you can make it out of there.
As we sat in the guest house lounge (ultimately we were there for three days) this was a common topic of conversation. Everyday more people arrived at the guest house and the group hanging out in the large lounge grew, and everyday people were missing international flights (even our friend had to reschedule). We were already missing the first wedding event for our friends, and I fretted about missing the rest of the wedding. If we walked to Jiri for sure we would miss their wedding, all we could do was wait. That was the worse part. The uncertainty. You could easily be there only a few more hours, or a whole other week.
One older woman decided to try her luck. After she had been waiting for about 6 days she decided to pack up her stuff and walk with her guide down the mountain. “I’m in Nepal to experience the country, not watch American pirated DVDs” she told the group she had been sitting with, “no offense, but if I hear you made it out of here today or tomorrow, I’m going to be mad, because I’ve officially decided I can’t wait anymore and I’m walking out!”
Our third morning the weather looked the most hopeful. It was still cloudy, but not as thick, and it looked like the clouds might lift. We quickly ate our breakfast and ran off to the airport (which is practically the middle of the town, so it is pretty much the center of activity). Others had already started gathering. Our guide grabbed our tickets, we went through the quick security check, and sat in the small waiting area. Eventually a siren was blown and we saw a bunch of people from town start streaming towards the airport. Our guide explained that when flights had been stalled for several days the airport blows a horn to let the town people know a flight left Kathmandu. It meant that in ½ hour a flight would arrive.
People in the waiting area were so happy they were literally jumping up and down. We had our heads stuck out the window cheering for the clouds to lift… but then, they started to thicken… and descend. I checked my watch… at just about the ½ hour mark, an airport official on the runway started waving his arms around in a circular motion. Our guide shook his head, “they are turning the planes around… the clouds are too thick.” Again… the message spread through the airport (and town) like wildfire—and people started freaking out. A woman next to me started sobbing, some people banged things around, a bunch of us walked out on to the runway to look down at the clouds as they grew thicker and denser and eventually swallowed up the valley and the end of the tarmac. After sometime our guide recommended we go back to the guest house, but suggested leaving our bags at the airport “just in case.”
The mood at the guest house was absolutely dismal. Then it started raining the hardest that we had yet heard. There was no point looking out the windows, and the curtains were drawn shut to keep out the clouds, rain, and stave off depression. Our guide ran back to the airport to bring our bags since word got out that the weather was so bad they decided to close the airport. I ordered and ate my fried chowchow noodles for lunch. Another hour went by… more card games, finished another movie. Then the mother of a stranded Indian family on holiday looked out the window when she noticed the rain had stopped. The sky was surprisingly clear, as if the heavy heavy rain lightened the clouds and they had risen above our altitude.
We grabbed our bags and ran back to the airport that was slowly reopening. Another siren, more commotion and then… the sound of a twin otter engine! A flight landed! It actually landed! It was beautiful, people cheered, dried their tears, and hopped more flights would come. We had tickets for the second flight of the day, so we watched anxiously as the first flight unloaded passengers and supplies for the town, then watched as the first haggard looking group of stranded hikers climbed on board and took off. A few minutes later another humming engine could be heard, and our flight landed! We ran out to the tarmac ready to jump on the plane, almost too impatient to wait for the arriving people to get off the plane first.
As I climbed aboard and settled into my seat I could see the girl who snort-laughed at us when we talked about leaving on the first day. She was still sitting on a step outside the airport door. Hopefully another flight came that day, the weather was so unpredictable it was hard to tell.
I was so excited to fly back to KTM and not to miss our friends’ wedding that I wasn’t even nervous about the take off, even when our guide said, “If the pilot misses it is just village, then rock, then water” (meaning our plane will careen down the cliff edge and smash into the valley and river below). Minutes later we were airborne. Flying again through the majestic valleys and out of the clouds. The guide pointed out the path to Jiri. It looked steep and challenging, and I thought about the woman slowly making her way along the trail because she couldn’t wait anymore. Then we saw our first actual road, and more villages, in no time we were flying over KTM and landing at the airport.
It is funny when you go from one very different place to another. When you land in the airplane it is almost like the place you were at before was a dream, because the issues that were all consuming—the weather, being stuck, not getting back to the city– melt away. Quickly you find yourself again absorbed back into the crowded, dusty, bustling city.
Lukla is definitely an experience… if you ever get a chance to travel up there…