- Starting elevation: 4,390 ft / 1,338 m
- Ending elevation: 9,100 ft / 2,800 m
- Distance covered: 84 mi / 135 km
- Time hiked: 0h 0m
Many treks to Everest Base Camp begin with a half-hour flight from Kathmandu to the village of Lukla.
Mine begins like any other.
This flight is considered by many to be the most dangerous part of their journey (but then again, many people also think climate change is a hoax). Departing Kathmandu, you are bound for Tenzing Hillary Airport – dubbed “the most dangerous airport in the world” by some show on the History Channel that nobody cares about. Nevertheless, takers of this flight do not hesitate in pointing this out.
The alternative is (what the internet claims to be) a four or five-day hike from a place called Jiri which can be reached via bus from Kathmandu (which, had I the time, would be preferred to spending money on a flight).
My host in Kathmandu kindly escorts me to the Yeti Airlines sales office and assists me in the purchase of my airfare ($165 USD each way from Kathmandu) – I depart at seven-thirty tomorrow morning.
I show up at six thirty.
Walking into Kathmandu's domestic terminal I wonder to myself, could this place really be an airport? The building looks as though it may have taken a bomb blast and monkeys are running rampant, screaming their monkey obscenities at the droves of trekkers filing in around me.
I reach Kathmandu's take on airport security and casually beep my way through the metal detector into a large room filled with kiosks resembling the food court at a carnival. The perimeter of the room is lined with what appears to be various offices and the kiosks (the airline check-in counters) are crowded with baggage handlers, airline employees, and guides.
I locate a Yeti Airlines kiosk with “LUKLA” printed on a sign above it and get in (what I believe to be a) line. Being the kind gentleman that I am, I make the mistake of patiently waiting my turn. However, I realize that the two people in front of me are not in line, but are instead waiting for their guides to sort out their paperwork ahead of them.
Following the Nepalese lead, I scoot my way up to the counter and press my body up against it with one arm and my paperwork outstretched towards the reflective-vest-wearing man who I assume works for the airline. Despite earnest paper flailing, my position in the imagined queue is usurped multiple times by various guides. Maybe I should have hired one of these guys after all.
Finally, my papers are snatched from my hand and immediately handed back to me. “We are checking in the 6:30 flight right now, come back in an hour.” It's now 6:40.
What? Come back in an hour? That's when my flight is scheduled to depart. Thinking I didn't hear correctly, I interrupt the new near-yelling match of a conversation that has begun next to me, “Come back in an hour?”
“Yes. We doing 6:30 flight now. You're on 7:30.” Guess I am coming back in an hour then.
I sit down on a bench in sight of the kiosk and before I can begin to ponder what to do with myself, my body has an answer: find the bathroom. The bathroom sign hangs obviously above an adjacent hallway, but said hallway appears to lead – out onto the tarmac?
Luckily I find the bathroom before becoming a security threat; unluckily I find another, far greater threat, awaiting me in the bathroom. No toilet paper.
Ashamed to have fallen victim to the rookiest of all backpacking mistakes, I retreat to the lobby in search of ass-wiping material (always carry toilet paper). Peering into the offices hoping to find a friendly looking face I come up empty. The terminal's one small shop does not offer up anything wipe worthy either.
Maybe I can wait it out. Sitting back down I stare up at the clock – 6:57…6:57…6:57…nope, this needs to happen now. Time to make some friends.
Two young female travelers standing together with their guide in front of my airline's kiosk become my victims of choice, “Are you two on the 7:30 flight to Lukla?” They are. Following some small talk in an attempt to misdirect them as to my motives I break the question, “Can I ask you a very important question? Do you happen to have any toilet paper I could steal?”
As it turns out they do have a square to spare and they even agree to watch my pack (squatting with it on is incredibly uncomfortable, and leaving it in the lobby at risk of being nicked is preferable to it touching the floor of this particular bathroom).
One successful bowel movement later and I realize another thing I have forgotten: hand sanitizer. Water and vigorous pants rubbing will have to suffice for now.
I return to the lobby and find my new friends who turn out to be from Australia. They agree to let me schmooze until it's time to board our flight (which works out well for me because I have no idea what is happening in this place and their guide appears to be on point), and we discuss our plans to visit the Base Camp.
Eventually we are told that the time has come for us to claim our boarding passes and make our way to the departure lobby. Another “security check” (this time involving my privates being touched by, yet another, stranger) and we arrive in another large room, but this time, it's filled with chairs (hooray for chairs!). Time to sit for an indefinite amount of time while my impromptu guide listens for our boarding announcement.
An hour and a half later it comes time to finally – go and get on a bus. We sit on our bus for fifteen minutes before heading to the plane where my fellow passengers all selfishly scramble to be first onto the plane. Why? Because if you sit on the left of the plane you get (mediocre) views of the Himalayas on the flight in (just be sure not to sit under the wing).
We get seated and are treated to some strange tasting hard candies and cotton for shoving into our ears (or maybe our…no, I'm pretty sure it's for our ears).
Our captain pulls us around to the end of the runway and the engines WHIRRR as the plane begins to shake in place. The din builds as the invisible rubber band holding us back reaches its breaking point. At the cacophony's climax, we rocket off and are airborne in a matter of seconds. The dreaded “flight to Lukla” is underway (and only three hours late).
Sitting on the right-hand side of the plane, I peer out the not-so-clean window over the cloud-filled valleys below us. As the roar of the engines fades into background noise, we enter a valley as mountains rise up on either side of the plane. Awesome.
Thirty minutes into our flight and our destination comes into view. Leaning into the aisle and peering out the plane's windshield (is it called a windshield on a plane?), I can just make out the airport in the distance. We are nearly level with the runway which comes to an abrupt stop at a near-vertical face at the runway's edge.
The closer we get, the faster our approach feels. Before I know it, we hit the ground and the plane's tail slides out to the right as we skid up Tenzing-Hillary Airport's 12% gradient towards the end of the 1,500 ft / 460 m runway.
We disembark and pick up our packs from the baggage claim (a counter in a small dirty room where they just put everyone's luggage). I say goodbye to my new friends and take the first steps towards my destination.
I guess it's time to hike.