Despite an early start (5.40am), we woke up super excited, ready to finally start the adventure we'd spent months planning, and the past few days stocking up for.
This was it. We were leaving Kathmandu to fly to one of the most dangerous airports in the world, Lukla (at 2820m), to start our trek to Everest Base Camp and back via Gokyo Lakes and the Cho La Pass.
We'd spent months reading blogs and guide books, making sure we had all the information and equipment we needed, and we were READY TO GO!!
Kathmandu Domestic Airport is a tiny little thing, but we still managed to get lost. As we walked in the doors, we saw check in counters for a few airlines, but none were ours... We asked, and were directed to a separate room, which housed a few more check in counters, including ours. We presented our tickets and bags, nervous about ensuring that our bags were under the 10kg weight limit stipulated on the ticket. We needn't have worried. They were dumped on the scales, but the scales weren't plugged in or turned on, so clearly they weren't too concerned, unless your bag was enormous.
Excitedly clutching our boarding passes, we went through 'security' (an xray of your carry on bags by a man who was playing Candy Crush on his phone, not even looking at the monitor, and a thorough pat down by an official), and entered the departure lounge.
It was absolutely bustling. The room was full of goretex-clad trekkers and locals alike, anxiously awaiting the departure of their flight. Some people were in bigger tour groups, nervously chatting to people they'd clearly just met. Others were clustered in smaller groups, playing cards and chatting. Still others (and perhaps we fell more into this category) were slumped on seats clutching a horribly overpriced coffee (the airport knew they had a captive audience, so were charging NZ coffee prices), morosely contemplating whether anything could be worth being awake at this hour of the morning.
We settled into a seat, I grabbed a $5USD black coffee, and we checked the departures board to find out what was happening flight-wise.
The madness of Lukla Airport
Our destination, Lukla, has an airport that leaves much to be desired. Officially called Tenzing-Hillary Airport, in a nod to the two men (one kiwi, one Sherpa) who were the first to summit Everest and return to tell the tale, this tiny airport seems to spend more time closed than open.
Flights with 5 airlines are scheduled every day, starting at 6.30am, with the airport reportedly closing at 2pm. A mere 527m long, arriving and departing planes share the same single runway, adding to the complications of flying into and out of Lukla. Only experienced pilots who have completed at least 100 short take off and landing missions, flying specific planes designed for short take off and landings, are allowed to fly into the airport. At the South end of the runway, the hillside falls away steeply into a valley, and at the North end, it ends abruptly in a hill face - so you need to know exactly what you're doing.
Next, you need to factor in the weather. While the sun may be shining in Kathmandu, the weather in Lukla is frequently cloudy, with high winds and low visibility, meaning that flights are often delayed or cancelled. And so it was on the day we were trying to get to Lukla.
Is the airport even open?
We scanned the departure board. As we were walking in to the airport, we heard them announce the departure (slightly delayed) of one of the 0630 flights to Lukla, so we knew that it had at least been open at some point that morning. But the weather in Kathmandu was grey, miserable, and pouring with rain, so it wasn't looking good for fine weather in Lukla.
We quickly realised that the departure board was not a good source of information. Our flight wasn't even appearing on it, and flights to other destinations that we knew had already left were still appearing on the board as not having left. Clearly this board was for decoration, rather than practical use.
And so we waited. And waited. And waited. Our flight was scheduled for 0730, and was supposed to be the second flight from our airline to leave. Since we were fairly confident that the 0630 flight had departed, we thought there was a pretty good chance that we just might squeeze out if there was a break in the weather.
The airlines weren't great about giving any information to the waiting passengers. While most people understood the situation, and definitely didn't want to be flying if it was unsafe to do so, there were lots of mutterings from increasingly disgruntled passengers, wondering what the hell was going on.
At the front of the hall was a line of desks of representatives from the various airlines. More often than not, the desks were empty as the staff were hiding in back rooms, trying to avoid angry foreigners who just wanted to know what was going on.
The hours ticked by with no news. Some of the bigger tour groups got up and left. While we thought this probably wasn't a good sign (their leaders presumably knew more than we did, and maybe they knew the airport wasn't opening today), but at the same time, maybe that increased our chances of getting out - that's 16 free seats on a plane right there!
Suddenly, there was an announcement - two flights from our airline were boarding!! But not ours?? How does that work??
We were told when we booked that we should book the earliest flight available, as that's usually when the weather is best, and that's the priority order the flights will depart in. If there are delays, the first flight will still be the first flight, the second flight will go second etc etc. But here we were, watching two flights go without us. We were confused and frustrated, and getting information was difficult.
By this time, it was nearly lunchtime, and we were getting towards the 2pm cut off for flights into Lukla. I asked, if the airport reopened, would we be the next flight? Apparently not - we were the 4th flight on the priority list. Some quick maths (we think they have 2 planes flying this route, the flight is 45 minutes each way, both planes have just left for Lukla, Lukla Airport closes in 2 hours, we're the 5th flight) suggested that we probably weren't going to be going anywhere...
So now what?
At this point, we'd hung around so long that we might as well wait the extra couple of hours until the flights were officially cancelled at 2pm. Our vague understanding was that if your flight was cancelled, you could put your name on a waitlist for the following day, or you could cancel and get a full refund, and then rebook for another day. We decided that the best approach would probably be to cancel, get a refund, and then book the next available 0630am flight out, to increase our chances of getting good weather. There didn't seem to be any point in going on the waitlist for the following day, since it seems that the early flights are the only ones that really leave.
We were pretty bummed that we weren't going to get to go, but hey, what can you do.
But wait! There's another option!
At 1.30pm, 30 minutes before Lukla Airport was due to close, 6 hours after our flight was due to leave, and 7 hours after we'd arrived at the aiport, we saw an airline representative having a serious conversation with another group of trekkers sitting near us. Knowing that there was no way anyone was going to give us any information without us having to go find it, Zev wandered over and asked what was going on. The rep replied that the airport wasn't reopening, but for an extra $70USDpp, we could get a helicopter up to Lukla.
I was completely torn. We really wanted to get going, and a helicopter sounded like an amazing way to get there. If we stayed in Kathmandu, who knew when the airport would next be open... But on the other hand, our flights had already cost us $177USDpp, which is really expensive! Another $70pp was a lot of money! I went into a tailspin.
Then, Zev pulled through. He made an executive decision. We were doing it. How would we pass up our first helicopter ride??
Suddenly, it was a whirlwind of activity. We were whisked back past an angry security guard, we grabbed our bags, paid the airline man his money, we were weighed, our bags were weighed, and we were ushered into an office. They took our passports and gave us tickets, and we were told to wait about half an hour.
We were starting to get excited, not just about the helicopter ride, but also about getting started on our trek. All the waiting had been a total downer, but now it was real again - we were heading into the Himalayas to trek!
Sure enough, about 30 minutes later, we were piling into a jeep with 4 others - one Nepalese guide, two locals, and a monk. We sped across the tarmac in the pouring rain to the heliport. There were about half a dozen choppers parked, all being loaded and unloaded with mostly trekkers, clearly anxious to get to or from the elusive Lukla. Our luggage was loaded, then we were loaded.
And we were off! Even though my brain knows that helicopters take off straight up, it was still a pretty weird feeling to bypass the whole 'drive forward really fast before you go up' side of things. Suddenly, we were going up, and then forward!
Flying in a helicopter was a totally different feeling to a fixed wing. For starters, it made me much more motion sick. Generally, in planes, you bounce up and down a bit when you hit turbulence, but it's generally pretty stable. In a helicopter, you're all over the place - you're moving up and down, side to side... It's like being in a bumper boat - even though you're still going in the right direction, you're not necessarily facing dead on to the way you're going.
Nonetheless, even with the weather doing its best to cramp our style, it was an undeniably beautiful flight. We flew over terraced farms carved into the hillsides like fingerprints, and watched as the clouds clung to the mountaintops before dissolving like candy floss.
And most importantly, 45 minutes later, we landed safely in Lukla.
We grabbed our bags and headed off in search of accommodation. From our research we knew that most places (tea houses) offer rooms for incredibly cheap - lower down, twin rooms can range from free to 500r ($5USD) per night, depending on the facilites (if you want a private bathroom vs a shared bathroom). The proviso is that you eat all your meals at the restaurant in the lodge/tea house. Higher up, rooms (and food) get more expensive, but we didn't expect to pay much more than 500r per night for our room anywhere along the trail (unless we were looking for some extra luxury).
The first two lodges we tried were full - which often happens when flights out of Lukla are cancelled, as there is a backlog of trekkers stuck there. The third place we tried had a room available, so we took it!
We were both starving - we hadn't eaten since breakfast, and it was now close to 4pm. We still weren't quite sure how this lodge thing worked though - we knew we had to eat dinner and breakfast there, but we weren't sure if that meant you weren't allowed to eat anywhere else... While we now know that they don't care where you eat, as long as you still spend enough money in their restaurant, we opted not to stop for a snack anywhere else in case we inadvertently offended our new hosts. Instead, we wandered through the cobbled main street of Lukla, and headed off to pay for our first trekking permit - a local tax that has replaced the older TIMS (Trekkers' Information Management System) card.
Rumour has it that the locals were frustrated that they weren't receiving any of the financial benefits from hikers paying the TIMS card fees (collected by the national government), so they decided that they would no longer be checking them. Instead, they've imposed a local tax for the same price as the old TIMS fee - $20USD per person. By collecting the money themselves at the start of the trek in Lukla, they're guaranteed to receive the money, and it doesn't cost trekkers any extra.
After a quick 2 minute exchange, we left with our shiny new paper permits tucked into our passports, and headed back to the accommodation.
Our first night on the trail
Although we had originally planned to land, then hike straight from Lukla to nearby Monjo (about 4 hours away), the delay in our arrival had put a dampener on our plans to get going. Instead, we spent the night tucked up in the common room of the guesthouse. It was a bit of a strange vibe - there whole town was a mix of delirious (and often drunk) trekkers at the end of a number of weeks of hiking, and nervous trekkers about to start their hike. As Zev and I later came to realise, Lukla is a town full of people who can't wait to get out - whether it be to head up the trail or get back to Kathmandu.
The trekking culture was a bit of an unknown quantity too. In huts in New Zealand, people are usually really friendly, and it's a really social atmosphere. Maybe it was just nerves, but this had a bit more of a 'cool kids' feel to it - those who had been here longer knew exactly what was going on, but rather than letting you in on the secrets, they seemed to enjoy watching others be on the outside of things...
So things were a little unusual. We now know (but didn't on our first night in Lukla) that most of the lodges like you to order dinner in advance - usually before 4pm. They're feeding a lot of people, so it helps them to be more efficient. Similarly, they like you to order breakfast the night before. Most places have 'room books', or notebooks for each room. Everything you buy is written in the notebook, and that's how they figure out your bill at the end. Some places just give you the book, and you write in your order and give it back to them, some places come and take your order. So there were lots of little nuances that we hadn't quite figured out yet.
We spent the evening huddling in the freezing cold common room. The temperature was about 7degC, and the tiny fireplace they had was doing nothing to warm the room. Eventually our dinner arrived to warm us - 'mac and cheese' (boiled macaroni with a smattering of grated cheese on top), veg curry and rice, and a 'small pot' (1L thermos) of milk tea.
Warmer and fuller, we headed back to our room to organise our gear for the following day. We repacked our bags as much as possible, and by about 8pm, we were tucked up snug and warm in our 4 season sleeping bags, dreaming of hitting the trail to Monjo the next day!
Lots of love,
S & Z
Lukla accommodation information:
Lodge: Alpine Lodge
Room Price: 200r/night
Total Bill: 2500r including room, dinner and breakfast