I've promised to blog about my friend Pemba Sherpa (Pega's) trek and climb to Mount Everest this season. Pega has spent most of the winter guiding trekkers into the mountains and honing his rock climbing skills at a local climbing wall in Kathmandu. Today he flies to Lukla Airport also known as Tenzing-Hillary Airport for the start of his trek into Mount Everest.
Lukla Airport has the reputation of being one of the most dangerous airports in the world. And it's not just one thing that makes it so, but a combination. It's one of the shortest runways at just 527m (1729ft) long by 30m (98ft) wide. An elevation of 2,845m (9,334ft), means there's no real descent when coming in for a landing, just the dropping of the landing gear. An 11.7% slope to the runway helps with braking and getting up to speed but it also means that one end of the runways is 61m (200ft) lower than the other end. On my second trip to Lukla, a girl sitting across the aisle from me exclaimed to her husband on seeing the runway, "Holy shit, it's shorter than most of my clients' driveways. " Then the brakes are on and you hope you manage to stop before hitting the stone cliff at the other end. One end of the runway is up against a stone cliff with the other end dropping off 609m (2,000ft) into a steep valley. Taking off again is even more exciting with sharp acceleration and a charge down the hill akin to the sensation of a roller coaster ride. There are no second chances or re-dos on this runway. The plane lands, or it hits a wall or drops off a cliff. There are also no navigation aids or night operations at Lukla Airport.
The first time I tried to fly to Lukla, I was with a group that was booked for the first flight out from Kathmandu. It’s best to aim for the earliest flight possible as cloud cover and cancelled flights are more common as the day goes on. Along with every other group trying to get to the Himalayas we sat in the airport and watched the information board flash delay across the board until finally at 2:00 p.m. all flights were cancelled for the day. We had been at the airport since 6:00 a.m. One of our guides, however, a local Sherpa from the mountains managed to arrange helicopter flights for us. He told us we wouldn’t be able to get all the way to Lukla because the weather wasn’t good enough for a helicopter landing. We did manage to get within a 1 1/2 hour hike though. That was my first experience of the Himalayas. Zero visibility on the helicopter ride in and then a hike in at night with no headlamp.
We were lucky. Delays are common with pilots using their knowledge of the area’s terrain and visual flying skills only. In 2011, thousands of trekkers were stuck for a week when bad weather struck.
Hopefully Pega makes it in without delays. Will let you know how everything is going soon.