Most people visiting the Everest Region begin their journies by flying from Nepal's capital city of Kathmandu to the Himalayan town of Lukla.
As I learned during my first visit to the Himalaya, the process by which one books a ticket and then gets to Lukla is not winning any awards for its straightforwardness or efficiency any time soon (or ever).
Thankfully, largest commercial operator of flights to Lukla, Yeri Airlines (aka Tara Airlines), now offers online reservations so this time around I book my flight to “the world's most dangerous airport” in advance (protip: always book the earliest flight).
It is advisable that you build and extra day (or two) into your itinerary if you plan on flying to/from Lukla since flights can oftentimes be delayed due to weather (or the Yeti). On my trek to Everest Base Camp I managed to get to and from Lukla rather painlessly, but this time around, for the Three Passes Trek, things didn't work out exactly as planned.
It's 4:30 am and my alarm goes off.
I stumble to the bathroom before hauling my pack downstairs and waking up the guy working the reception (sleeping on the ground behind the counter) at the Shangri-la Boutique Hotel (I would definitely recommend this place) to get my boarding pass.
I step outside into the near pitch blackness that is pre-dawn Kathmandu and hail a taxi.
We zoom through the darkened city, narrowly missing pedestrians at every turn, making it to the domestic terminal of Kathmandu's Tribhuvan International Airport rather quickly. I pay 1,000 rupees (~$10) and walk up the short path from the parking lot to find a crowd of people waiting as airport staff struggles to get the lobby doors open.
Once inside, I get to the counter before the still-confused masses (it helps having done this before) and exchange my ticket for a boarding pass. Then I take a deep breath as I hand over my backpack (aka my life) to a man who will hopefully get it onto the same plane as me.
After blasting my carry-on belongings with x-rays and a quick pat-down from a friendly security officer, I arrive (once again) on the departure side of domestic terminal.
I immediately employ a strategy I learned last time around and begin asking people whether they're on the same flight as me. You see, if I find all the people on my flight, I don't have to worry “IS THIS MY FLIGHT BOARDING RIGHT NOW!?” whenever people are called to the gate, because I can simply watch and follow everyone else (most of whom have Nepalese guides who understand what's going on).
It's during the implementation of this strategy that I meet Pavel and Olga, a Russian couple from Siberia now living in Prague – two of the people on my flight.
An hour past our scheduled departure time, our flight status is updated: delayed (for another hour). Apparently, the weather today isn't cooperating in Kathmandu or in Lukla (trust me, you don't want to be on this flight in poor weather).
Pavel, Olga, and I continue to meet more trekkers on our flight (the terminal is really just one large room), and each time the clock comes within minutes of our scheduled departure, our flight (and every other flight) is pushed back another hour.
It's now nearly one in the afternoon (remember, I woke up at 4:30 this morning) and I'm becoming convinced that we will not be leaving Kathmandu today. As the flights continue to be delayed, other flights to Lukla (on the smaller airlines) are canceled and the departure hall starts to empty as disappointed would-be trekkers are forced back into the city.
Yeti Airline's policy states that people holding tickets for that day's departures have priority; in other words, if I end up back here tomorrow, I will have to wait for all tomorrow's ticket holders to depart first (not sure how much I agree with this).
I've now lost all faith that I will be leaving Kathmandu today and so I grab Pavel and Olga to share my plan with them: go back to the lobby, find an airline employee, and rebook on the first available flight tomorrow.
We find an agent and discover that there are three seats left on the first flight tomorrow. They're ours. As we're being handed our new tickets, the departure lobby empties and we're told that all of today's Lukla flights have been canceled. Many people are now stressing out since they don't have any days to spare (poor planning) and there's a scramble to organize a helicopter to Lukla (or even Namche Bazaar – two days north of Lukla) this afternoon.
How much is a helicopter? Around $2,000 US (which is split between the (max) 6 passengers). Despite overwhelming demand, the weather is just too bad to get up into the mountains today (and in case you had your doubts, no, I was not a part of the “let's get a helicopter” crew).
With that, I share a taxi back to Thamel and take my walk of shame back to the Shangri-la Boutique Hotel where I book another night.
At least I'll get another great feed of momos (dumplings) before hitting the trail.