Today was the day we were going to the mountain.
The itinerary was clear: fly from Kathmandu to Lukla and then hike 3 miles downhill to Phakding.
It didn’t work out quite that way.
We woke up at 4:45 for a 5:00 AM breakfast followed by a group picture and a bus ride to the airport.
The Kathmandu International Airport is chaos personified. Noise. Cars. Monkeys.
We got in something that resembled a line and then we went through something that resembled security while people were pushing from all sides. Security was a decidedly informal affair. You did not need to take your shoes off. Liquids were fine. My metal detector flashed red from my phone in the pocket, I was waved though. After we got through security we moved to another room where we checked the luggage.
It was here that we saw that the flights to Lukla were delayed due to wind. We waited in that room for about 2 hours before the sign gets taken down and Lukla is open for business. We then go through another round of security. This one is much more fastidious with a few of our team having pocket knives confiscated and all of us getting an uncomfortably personal pat down. This put us in the gate area. More waiting.
While waiting, the first flight to Lukla, the one that had already taken off, returned with all of its passengers. The plane flew the 40 minutes to Lukla and couldn’t land. Lukla has one of the world’s shortest runways. It is so short that it pitches up 20 degrees to assist in slowing airplanes down for landing, and accelerating them for take off. To make things even more treacherous the end of the landing strip is a cliff so airplanes can’t easily abort a landing and try again. A landing a Lukla requires total commitment. So the plane made it to Lukla circled around a bit and didn’t attempt a landing due to visibility, or wind, or something, so they returned to Kathmandu.
Seeing those people return to the gate took the energy out of the team. We sat around the gate until noon. And they called our number, actually they called half of our numbers, our group is too big to fit on one airplane. Our group left the gate, boarded the bus and drove to the airplane, drunk with excitement.
We arrived at the airplane and the mood deflated. There was a crew of ten maintenance men & women wandering around the plane with the cowling off the left engine. We waited on the bus for about 15 minutes and then turned around and headed back to the terminal. Despite the maintenance crew it was a weather problem. The looks on the team that was waiting for the second airplane when we strolled back in was utter disappointment. It was mirror of our own emotions. The word was they would try to fly again at 2 PM. This was for a 9:00 AM flight.
2 PM approached it became clear that no one was flying to Lukla. But while we were eating moo moos and chow mein, Jim and Bishnu were burning the phones working alternatives. They gathered everybody and told us to leave the gate because we were going by helicopter!
Ooooh Exciting! The helicopter offered the opportunity of skipping past Lukla and landing in the lower, and hence less windy, Phakding. We divided into groups of 6 that weighed less than 540 kg. Nope change that to 520 kg because they wanted a full load of fuel. I tried not to be concerned that the helicopter company was called Fishtail Airlines.
Our group was Ellen, Anne Marie, JP, Stan, Ryan, and myself. We went back through security, including the overly handsy pat down, loaded into a van, and drove out to another part of the airport and…waited. But this time outside. Our helicopter landed, and was refueled. By gravity.
Then we were told it was too windy and if we couldn’t leave by three, we would be grounded until four because the whole airspace was being shut down so the prime minister of Pakistan could land (He coming for a two-day state visit). Right before the airspace shut down one helicopter with 6 of our group took off. We, on the other hand remained at our pleasant picnic table eating crackers. We could see another 6 of our group across the runway hanging by their equally grounded helicopter. Then we piled into the van and headed back to the terminal.
There, we figured we would head back to the hotel and take another run at this tomorrow, sans wind and Pakistani prime ministers. But no, Bishnu was not defeated yet. He bullied and cajoled another helicopter crew to take us. These guys were either less safety conscious or more desperate for the dough, but they agreed to take us. We weighed in, this time we were going with 5 people. Ryan was out. Then back through security. Back past the gentle molestation with a smile and out into, not a bus, not a van, but a luggage vehicle. Women in the cab, men with the cargo.
This time was different because we actually got into the aircraft! We took off and flew to Phakding. Except the helicopter wasn’t going to Phakding, it was going to Lukla, something we didn’t realize until we were on the ground bewildered that we were in the wrong place. The helicopter ride was pretty bumpy, pretty scary. We went through clouds with zero visibility. It was a white knuckler to the wrong place.
We texted upon landing we texted our leaders (thank god I bought that local SIM card, because I didn’t have the leaders numbers but Stan did, so he logged onto my hotspot and was able to establish communication) and it turns out another helicopter that landed a few moments ahead of us, also went to Lukla. They had secured rooms at a local tea house, the Namaste Inn. We humped it to the tea house had some masala tea and dinner (fried rice, chips, and vegetarian spring roll). There we learned the what had become of our group. The first helicopter group that left before three, indeed made it to Lukla and did the hike to Phakding. They had to use headlamps to make the final kilometer, as they were hiking in the dark. Two helicopters full of people were in Lukla for the night and would hike to Phakding at first light. Six people didn’t get out of Kathmandu and were back at our previous hotel. They were going to fly to Phakding at 7 and land by 8 the next day. Fingers crossed.
Travel in the Himalayas is not routine and does not follow your itinerary. To think you can schedule when and where you fly is just hubris.