April 21, 2010
Tighten your seatbelt. Kick your carry-on bag under the chair ahead. We’re about to descend.
The airplane is swooping in turbulence, wind and shock waves sent down from the Himalayan Mountains above. The pilot is weaving through a tight valley, trees and a tall ridgeline perpendicular with the wing. The stewardess takes her seat. A murmur over the intercom, and I hear the wheels go down. The craft is ready to land.
Welcome to the Lukla Airport experience, a flight from Kathmandu to an airstrip on a valley side at about 9,000 feet in the sky. Most all visitors to Mount Everest and the Khumbu Region of Nepal take this flight. Prop planes labor skyward from an airport on the outskirts of Kathmandu. They climb above the city’s sprawl, through smog, and into the clouds.
The airport in Lukla — a strip of tarmac perched at a steep angle jutting uphill — is often cited as the most dangerous on the planet. This is a myth. While there have been crashes, the airport is as safe as many major airports around the world.
“For decades, the Lukla Airport has been the gateway to the Khumbu Region and Mount Everest,” said Wally Berg, founder of Berg Adventures International and organizer for Expedition Hanesbrands. Berg has flown in and out of Lukla more than 40 times without incident.
All anecdotes on safety aside, the airport at 9,000 feet can be psychologically upsetting. The strip is essentially a thin line of tarmac set on a valley’s edge. Landings are bumpy and fast, the pilot braking hard to a stop as the plane drifts uphill toward a wall.
Takeoffs are even more dramatic: Thrust the motor, say a prayer, and point the plane down an airstrip that dead-ends at a drop into the valley below. The engines whir. The wheels leave the ground, and the pilot points the plane toward an oblivion ahead.
In 40 minutes or so, you’re back in Kathmandu. It is a bumpy plane ride from the mountains to the city. The wings dip. The plane circles to land, a long runway ahead. Wheels touch down, the propellers spin to a stop. Now breathe. You’re safe, at last, on flat ground.
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