Tag Archives: Lukla

Precarious Flight to Shangri-La

The magazine in Australia that I mentioned before published another one of my stories. I again hope they don’t mind if I share. It’s very exciting to see one of my pieces in print, and it makes me really proud. Below you can find the full text with a graphic of what it looked like in the magazine. I’ve added a few hyper links to the pictures and videos mentioned in the story.

The Dornier 228 turboprop sat eighteen passengers. It was just wide enough for a person to stand in the aisle, both arms outstretched, fingertips touching the sides of the plane. I settled into the dark blue fabric of my seat, as the stewardess picked her way over hiking boots and backpack straps, distributing hard candies that would help our eardrums adjust to the altitude during takeoff.

The stewardess’s uniform mimicked a traditional Sherpani chupa—a full length red jumper tied in the back over a white silk shirt, framing her neck like the collar of a kimono. A colorfully woven rectangular apron pinned to the front of her dress completed the look. As I took my foil-wrapped candy, I wondered if it was an Agni Air policy for stewardess uniforms to include the apron, or if it truly signified that the attendant was married, as it would in Sherpa culture.

The two pilots completed their pre-flight checklist, and asked the stewardess to sit in the last remaining seat, next to fifty kilo sacks of rice and other commercial goods wedged around cargo netting that held passenger luggage at the back of the plane. The propellers whirred to life, and the tiny aircraft taxied down the Tribhuvan Airport runway.

It was June of 2009 and I was traveling to the Solukhumbu region of Nepal with my husband P, and our school friend RH. Intent on hiking the most famous of Himalayan treks, our journey started with the thirty minute plane ride from Kathmandu to Lukla; a tiny airport-village perched on the side of a high mountain cliff, acting as the gateway to Shangri-La.

Lukla was both a beautiful destination, and a treacherous one. It consistently appears on lists of the “most dangerous airports in the world” as it is positioned amid slender, snaking, high altitude valleys, and is carved from a ledge 2,850 meters above sea level. On approach the runway, which is less than 460 meters long and 20 meters wide, looks more like a narrow parking lot than a place to land a plane.

To accommodate the short length of the airstrip, the ground is pitched at a twelve degree angle to decrease landing speed, and pilots conduct maneuvers such as “backwards thrust on propellers” to further decelerate the aircraft. One travel guide noted, “If this worries you, one comforting thought is that only the most experienced pilots in Nepal are flying to Lukla.”

Our Agni flight departed the Kathmandu Valley and sped toward the wall of jagged snow-peaked teeth on the horizon. Fifteen minutes later we were gliding through a constricting green gorge shaped by the raging glacial river below. Mountain ridges were close enough to count individual treetops from the windows of the plane. The pilots were navigating by sight; in such a claustrophobic environment GPS units are not as trustworthy as a steady pair of eyes, and flights can only occur in good weather. Limited visibility meant grounded planes, or potential crashes.

This route certainly has its share. Before our arrival, four flights had ended in disaster during the previous five years, including a 2008 Yeti Airline crash that killed eighteen. A German family captured the accident on video as they stood on the hill above the airport, camera trained on the edge of the runway. The plane’s engine hummed deeply on approach, but the valley was cloaked in a dense wall of cloud. The family waited for the Twin Otter to burst dramatically from the puffy whiteness and complete its journey safely to the tarmac. Burst it did—as a fireball—just below the edge of the runway. The German father muttered a shocked “Scheisse!” before dropping the camera. Chunks of white metal, rubber wheels, and other wreckage could be seen from both the ground and air for months.

I tried to forget these images as the runway came into view. I reassured myself that it was Yeti Airlines that crashed, but I was flying Agni. I reasoned that the pilots had a vested interest in landing safely. I chided myself on seeking foolish adventures and putting myself at needless risk. I promised myself that I wouldn’t fly this route again.

The approach was quick—from sky to earth with little change in altitude. The plane bounced hard on touchdown, and I gripped the back of RH’s seat, bracing for the aircraft to bank and flip, another gory headline for the news. Instead the wheels rolled to a hard stop before the pilot maneuvered the plane to the stone-built airport terminal.

A deep sigh escaped my chest; I hadn’t realized I’d held my breath through the final moments of the flight.

*

RH, P and I spent the next few days hiking in the beautiful mountain landscape, and at the end of our trek, we found ourselves inevitably back in Lukla. Unless willing to hike another five grueling days to the closest wheeled-transport, a flight from the tiny airport was the only way back to Kathmandu. The choice was clear; we boarded the same Agni flight—anxiety quickly forgotten in lieu of a successful adventure.

*

Fourteen months later, in August of 2010, a news article caught my eye. The title mentioned a “tourist plane crash” in the foothills of the Himalayas.

The flight departed from Tribhuvan Airport, intending to fly to Lukla, but turned back midway due to inclement weather. My heart sank when I saw the company—the Agni flight crashed before reaching Tribhuvan. All on board were killed including one Briton, one Japanese, four Americans, five Nepali and three Nepali crew.

I searched Nepali news websites, eager for information. Unlike American news, which censors more graphic photography, I came across a series of grisly photos taken by the Nepali army and released to The Himalayan Times.

The plane smashed into a rice paddy fifty miles outside of Kathmandu, and the muddy, water-filled crater was strewn with scraps of clothing and metal. A crowd gathered in the rain, hiding under umbrellas, watching the salvage work.

The most haunting picture in the series was of two Nepali army troops wearing green fatigues, wiping their hands on a white cloth after loading light blue plastic bags of human remains into the back of a truck. There were five plastic bags in the picture, each no larger than a backpack. The garbage bags were translucent enough that one could tell the contents were fleshy, like the soldiers were carrying blue shopping bags of ground turkey meat.

That meant the bodies had exploded on impact; there was nothing left but small pieces of each individual, mixed up in that mud pit and fished out by men treading barefoot through the water, looking for chunks of human. I had nightmares of small blue garbage bags filled with body parts, waiting on the curb outside my apartment, ready to be taken by early morning garbage men.

It took time to connect the tail numbers. A follow-up article mentioned 9N-AHE. I searched through my album for the trek, and scrutinized each photo from Tribhuvan and Lukla: A photo of the white Dornier 228, with Agni’s black, yellow and red stripes along the side. Another with Rory and I sitting in our seats, toothy-smiles for Prajjwal the photographer, excited to fly to the tiny airport in the clouds. A third—Rory and I pose outside of the plane upon landing in Lukla, as porters carry luggage from the aircraft. A fourth, our plane taxis down the short runway, new passengers aboard, the tail number visible yet small. I zoom in on the picture; one click, then two, then three. I make out the characters: 9N-AHE.

I re-read the articles—severe weather, spatial disorientation and loss of flight instruments, mechanical and pilot error, outdated crew checklists. The flight was doomed from the start. A flight I had travelled on. That picture of Rory and me in the dark blue fabric seats, smiling. Those seats are gone. Someone sitting in the same chair became chunks of flesh in a blue plastic bag in the back of a Nepali army truck. It made me physically ill.

I thought of the beautiful stewardess wearing the red chupa, passing out foil-wrapped candies. I wondered again if her uniform apron meant that she was married. Did she leave behind a husband, perhaps a young child?

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Mini Videos of Nepal

I wish I could post the mini video directly on my site, but I don’t think I can. However there is a nice 30 second timelaps video of Kathmandu Valley/Nepal that gives some nice views of what the city and mountains look like. Check it out if you have the chance: http://nepal.tv/watch/nepal-trailer.

On the same site they have a few other videos, including a mini video about the take off/landing at Lukla Airport which those of you interested in an Everest trek might want to check out: http://nepal.tv/watch/lukla-airport.

Agni Air Crash

I’ve written about the tiny mountain airport of Lukla before, and how we got stranded in Lukla for a few days due to bad weather. It’s supposedly one of the most dangerous airports in the world because of the altitude, angle and shortness of the runway, and the narrow valley leading up to the runway. Certainly there is a good reason for the flights not to travel when the weather is bad.

Sadly an Agni flight traveling from Kathmandu to Lukla crashed Tuesday morning killing all 14 on board. The flight took off from KTM, heading towards Lukla only to find that the weather was too bad to land and the flight turned around to return to KTM (something which also happened to us– but we were left in Lukla listening to the plane engines recede into the distance). Before the flight could make it back to the airport it crashed– about 50 miles from KTM– in a rural village.

The photos are scary… the remains of the passengers– 4 Americans, 1 Briton, 1 Japanese, 5 Nepalis, and 3 Nepali crew– have been collected in small blue garbage bags, as if their bodies simply exploded on impact and left tiny pieces. It’s scary and sad, especially when I can picture exactly what the flight and the plane involved in the crash looked like, even the uniform of the flight hostess–a Sherpani styled chupa and apron.

My heart goes out to the victims and their families.

For more info:
BBC–Nepali tourist plane kills all 14 on board
The Himalayan– Agni Air crash victims mortal remains brought back to KTM

Cavity formed in the paddy field where the Agni Air plane crashed. Photo credit: Nepal Army

Stranded in Lukla

(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.

P spins a prayer wheel in hopes of getting good luck for no delays on our flight out

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.

C in the guest house lounge, taken when we first arrived in Lukla before the trek

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!”

What to do in Lukla when you are stuck? You can try some "local rakshi" (alcohol) recommended by your guide. This is called tongba, made from fermented millet and hot water, sipped through a metal straw that is crushed at the end so you don't suck up the millet but only the juices. P tries some with our guide (center) and porter (right)

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.”

Photo 1: The view in the morning. It was still cloudy, but better then it had been in days. Picture 2: But then the clouds got much much worse. P and C (looking a bit haggard) stand on the runway (which you can't even see the end of!) making "L" for Lukla, we should have made "S" for Stranded

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.

Like MAGIC the clouds lifted and they brought in a few flights. We got out while we could.

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…

“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…)