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Escape From Lukla

December 17, 2010

in Nepal

Nepal Army Russian MI-17iv Helicopter

Nepal Army Russian MI-17iv Helicopter

Lukla airport is the gateway to the Everest region. Considered one of the most dangerous airstrips in the world, it is situated at about 9,200ft (2800m) and is accessible only to twin otters using visual flight rules (not radar). As many as 50 flights per day arrive during trekking season, and everything goes surprisingly smoothly…until the weather changes. Clouds can roll in quickly, blocking aircraft from landing. When that happens, the backlog of tourists piles up fast. No one gets out, but new people people keep arriving back from their trek, expecting to fly home.

Lodges are rapidly filled to capacity, every room in town is taken, and people start having to hike back nearly an hour to find places to stay. Kitchens are brimming with activity as they try to cook for all the added guests. The two internet cafes are overloaded with people trying to inform families, reschedule flights, and post to facebook.

The airport is rife with angry, crying, bored, frustrated foreigners from all over the world. One reason is that people are going to miss their international flights; another is that they are tired from 2-3 weeks on the trail and just want to get back to “civilization”. (Funny how the crumbling chaos of Kathmandu is transformed into an appealing and cosmopolitan metropolis after a few weeks in the mountains!) They are tired, sick, dirty, and have no clean clothes…which primes them for discontent. More aggravating, however, is both the prioritization system and the lack of information. I’m accustomed to it and know how to stay calm and work “indirectly” as Nepalis do, but tension in Lukla heats up and people get crazy.

For starters, people who are scheduled to fly out that morning have priority over anyone who has already been delayed. I suspect this helps keep international flights on track, but it means that you can be stuck for 5 days and then watch people who showed up last night fly out as scheduled in the morning. That stirs up everyone’s ire.

Next, over the course of the day, Nepalis at the airport will tell you:

–The Kathmandu airport is closed due to weather.
–The Kathmandu airport is actually closed for a VIP arrival.
–Domestic flights are on hold for international flights to land.
–The Kathmandu airport is open.
–A plane is coming.
–No planes are coming. The weather on the way isn’t good.
–Some planes might be coming.
–You have a confirmed seat. On the 37th plane.
–Helicopters are available.
–Helicopters are coming but the seats are all booked.
–Helicopters have been diverted for emergency rescue flights. Maybe later they will come.
–Helicopters are not available.
–Helicopters are available, but the price just went from $450/person to $700/person.
–Helicopters are coming but they will take you to an airstrip 25 minutes away and then you take a plane to Kathmandu.
–Planes are definitely being sent to the other airstrip.
–Some planes are being sent to the other airstrip.
–Two planes are being sent to the other airstrip. We don’t know about after that.
–There are no lodges at the other airstrip. Do you want to go? We have a seat for you.
–Actually, there are no more seats available.
–A helicopter direct to Kathmandu is available.
–You have confirmed seats.
–Kathmandu office called and won’t release those seats.
–No one from Kathmandu office really called.
–We don’t have seats for you.

You get wait and do this each day, with three helicopter companies and your regular flight carrier, without straying too far for more than 20 minutes, watching a mere handful of helicopters come and go, praying for flights to start running, until one day it finally ends with: We do have seats for you. Hurry, hurry, hurry! Get to the helipad!

We wrangle helicopter seats gradually. On the second day of being stuck, as dusk was approaching, I got 4 seats. “Hurry, hurry, hurry!! The helicopter has already taken off from Kathmandu. It will be there before you, and it won’t wait.” I throw on hiking shoes and we make a rushed hike one hour straight down the mountain to a rural field posing as a helipad where the weather was better. Clients hustle onto the small rescue helicopter, and then I hike another hour straight back up the mountain, still stuck in Lukla.

On the third day of being stuck, we get one seat on the helicopter going to a nearby airstrip. I hear later that my rather reserved client managed to force her way onto the first plane that came to ferry them back to Kathmandu. I smile at that one.

On the fourth day of being stuck, we get 4 more seats–on a big Nepal Army Russian MI-17-iv helicopter. Then we lose them. Then we get them again. As we pile in, the 31 people onboard have never looked so happy (nor paid so much) to be crammed into a cargo hold with all their luggage. I queue up some dance music on my ipod and glow with relief all the way to Kathmandu–three days before the next trek starts.

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After we escape, it only gets worse. Continuing delays push helicopter fees to $1000/person–and that doesn’t include a few hundred in cash paid under the table to secure the seats. Over a week, as many as 2,500 people were stranded/delayed in the little town of Lukla, including my group. Dozens of people left to hike another 5 days down (or rather, down-up-down-up-down) to the nearest road.

We’re lucky. We got out after only a few days and got the ride of a lifetime!

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