Up, up and afraid

Adrenaline junkie ... the perilous Lukla Airport near Everest Base Camp.
Adrenaline junkie ... the perilous Lukla Airport near Everest Base Camp. Photo: Alamy

At Everest, it's not just the mountain that takes some guts, writes Flip Byrnes.

There is one catch to arriving at the Everest Base Camp trek start-point in Nepal, and that is flying into the infamous, perilously situated Lukla Airport.

Choosing between trekking the Annapurna circuit and Everest Base Camp, I'd chosen Annapurna following a Lukla Airport conversation with my international pilot sibling. It involved words including "suicide", "firebomb" and ended with, "wear natural, non-flammable clothing. Like hemp." The advice came from a place of love and I dutifully headed for western Nepal.

Coming in to land at Lukla airport.
Coming in to land at Lukla airport. Photo: AFP

But after completing the Annapurna circuit, keen for more trekking, Everest Base Camp tempted again. So I called another pilot friend hoping he'd offer the answer I wanted. "Wow. That is the coolest airport ever. It's going to be really, really exciting. Have fun!"

Have fun! Go up in flames! Knock yourself out and maybe come back! The green light I'd been after.

Wow. That is the coolest airport ever. It's going to be really, really exciting. Have fun!

Well, if fun is up for grabs, it might as well be had properly.

Everest Base Camp, Nepal.
Everest Base Camp, Nepal. Photo: Getty Images

Several rumours reported that the door on the cockpit is left open, so there's only one of two seats thrill-seekers covet - the Front Row Death Seats directly behind the pilots (1A and 1B).

On Tara Air, unfortunately, seating is not allocated, so to add even more anticipation to the 6am chaotic Kathmandu Airport scene as every man and his dog (and there is a dog) depart for Lukla, is the mission to score the seat.

Like a woman who has been promised serious excitement, at check-in I push ahead of a mountain of equipment, an expedition of Everest mountaineers and the dog.

I puzzle fellow passengers by standing at the boarding gate 10 minutes before the flight's called, guarding the door of the bus taking us across the tarmac and hurling myself onto the plane like it's the last lifeboat on the Titanic, straight into 1A. Boom! The perfect ringside seat.

Considering our little Twin Otter is about to land on a 460-metre uphill airstrip halfway up a cliff face at 2800 metres, which terminates in a rock wall, it's odd that the most concerning element is that the pilot's wearing mismatched ski gloves. That, and the cockpit clock reads 12.38pm (it's 6.20am, there are no flights past mid-morning due to unstable weather) and the ski gloves are complemented by Top Gun aviators circa 1988. I'm after something confidence-inspiring and coming up ... empty.

But what Top Gun lacks in work-appropriate fashion, he makes up for in expertise. These pilots land at Lukla multiple times daily and there have been only three fatal crashes since construction more than 50 years ago. Fairly good odds by any bookie's standards.

Lukla, actually Tenzing-Hillary airport, named after the Everest summiteers who built the airport in order to facilitate building of schools (now used more by trekkers than tradesmen), is consistently rated as one of the most dangerous airports in the world. But that's only if something goes wrong.

The 35-minute scenic flight is everything promised and more; it winds up out of Kathmandu alongside the Everest massif, through valleys and below ridge lines until finally, the Lukla airstrip appears, a stripe of liquorice in a wall of granite. Behind me, anarchy is reigning as fellow passengers jostle like a media scrum to record video and take photos of the landing, almost falling into the cockpit itself.

As an over-eager German tourist attempts to hurl himself over my shoulder towards the windscreen, it's clear this has to be the most eventful, unusual aeroplane ride in the world. And Top Gun is one hell of a pilot, as he throws the propellers into hard reverse and we land without incident, apart from having witnessed an epic feat of aviation.

At Lukla, the planes arrive like trains, unloading and reloading trekkers in less than 10 minutes, with as little as 90 seconds between a take-off and landing.

So impressive is the well-oiled operation that, like a true aviation nerd, I delay beginning the actual trek until lunchtime.

Everest can wait, while three happy hours are passed sitting at the end of the runway, sniffing jet fuel and being blasted by thrusters as planes take off and disappear, dropping from the runway down the 2000-foot cliff only to reappear soaring towards the mountain tops beyond. Each successful departure and arrival worthy of applause.

Everest Base Camp? It's an epic destination and during climbing season (April-May), it is the one place in the world where you're guaranteed to rub shoulders with the bravest and most inspiring climbers on the planet.

Many are perfectly happy to break base camp life monotony and patiently share their stories with curious trekkers.

Otherwise, there's just some rocks, tents and a really big mountain. Lukla Airport, however - now that is where the action's really at.

 

Everest Base Camp

If you're after an organised trip, Intrepid Travel runs 15-day Everest Base Camp treks out of Kathmandu. $1230 a person includes staying in mountain tea houses and Kathmandu hotels, guides, porters and return flights from Kathmandu to Lukla. intrepidtravel.com.

If fancy footloose flying is not your thing, Lukla and the Khumbu region can be accessed on foot with a six-day hike from Shivalaya (about a 10-hour bus ride from Kathmandu). But it's out of the frying pan and into the fire; flying can be safer than driving the rutted, twisting roads.

 

Trip notes

Getting there

Cathay Pacific flies daily from Sydney and Melbourne to Hong Kong. Cathay Pacific and Dragonair offer three flights weekly from Hong Kong to Kathmandu. Prices start from $1774. 131 747, cathaypacific.com.

Flying into Lukla

Airlines flying into Lukla change annually, but Yeti Air, Tara Air (a subsidiary of Yeti), Agni Air and Nepal Airlines are staples.

If travelling independently, have a local operator, such as Himalayan Encounters, himalayanencounters.com, make reservations (as they did for me). They can arrange an experienced porter or guide to meet you at Lukla. Flights start at about $140 one way.

In trekking season, flights can be booked solid. Try for the earliest 6am flights to avoid weather deterioration mid-morning (and cancelled flights). Be aware Lukla can close for days, but if pilots call it unsafe to fly, it's best to go with the flow.

Top tip

Sit on the left-hand side of the plane towards Lukla for scenic Everest massif views, right-side on the return (although higher peaks can be obscured by cloud).

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