460 meters and a gradient of 12% … These figures have been going through my mind, over and over again. It is the size of the short runway of the airport of Lukla, where we will have to land with our rickety sport plane. And to make it all a bit worse: at the end of the runway there is also a ravine of no less than 700 meters deep! You probably understand now why the airport of Lukla has been labeled as the most extreme and the most dangerous airport in the world. Internet is filled with articles and long lists of accidents that occurred in the airport’s history. The airline company we have chosen to fly with, also wasn’t spared. In recent years they have recorded about three crashes. The last one was the worst. Due to fast rising fog, the pilot had poor visibility, causing the plane to crash against the mountainside. All passengers were killed.
A webcam shows us that also today it is very foggy in Lukla. Due to the bad weather our plane stays on the ground. But after five hours of waiting, the weather suddenly improves and we are allowed to board. We are taken by bus to a small plane, which only has room for 14 passengers. To our great surprise, there is a man sitting on one of the wings of the aircraft. He is – I’m not joking – doing a quick repair with Duct tape. Combined with the dubious prestige of the runway that we will be flying to, my heart starts racing… Is it wise to board this device that is being held together with tape? The urge to start the trip is fortunately big enough to persuade me to step on board.
There is no separating door between the pilots and the passengers, so we get a nice view on the hundreds of buttons and switches that decorate the cockpit. A stewardess in local attire distributes earplugs, that we can use to protect us from the deafening roar of the engines. The plane shakes up and down through the clouds. A lady who is sitting next to me grabs a bag, that she neatly fills with her freshly digested lunch. After forty minutes we arrive pretty spectacularly on the infamous runway of Lukla. Unscathed. Whew…!
In a dilapidated hut our backpacks are being thrown on a counter. Sophisticated baggage distributers aren’t available here. A dozen sherpa’s are waiting outside to carry kilos of luggage. They look at us with questioning eyes when I lift my 21kg and Wim his 23kg on our backs. Sorry guys, we don’t have work for you. Ramji is also waiting for us. We met him at Kathmandu airport. Quite intrusively, he offered us his services as a guide. And he could even arrange a private helicopter flight for us, in case our plane didn’t take off. For only $ 1000. A bargain… Although it was pretty remarkable that when a few moments later the pilot himself spoke to us, the price suddenly dropped to $ 500. We shake hands with Ramji and leave him unemployed at Lukla airport. Hopefully we will not regret this choice, because we notice that almost all other hikers do take a guide.
We climb further into the village of Lukla and find at one of the many primitive outdoor shops a gas bottle to prepare our food. We also purchase the mandatory permit, so we can get started with our great adventure.
Already at the first turn, the aid of guide Ramji would have been welcome, because we are already going the wrong way. Some workers shout at us and show us the right way. Although the first part is mainly descending, my backpack already starts to weigh considerably.
Sweat is dripping down from my back. A problem the sherpas clearly suffer much less from. I can’t hide my amazement when I see what they are dragging along. Besides hikers’ luggage, they also carry large bags and boxes full of food to supply the lodges and local residents. They have no choice, since there aren’t any roads here. All transport has to be done through hiking paths from one village to the next. The youngest sherpas seem to be less than twelve years old, while the older ones are far passed their sixties.
We walk along incredibly charming villages with inviting bars. They look very tempting, but because our flight was so much delayed we ignore them as disciplined as possible.
For a moment we stop to eat a banana and to take a painkiller. I can still hear the loud engines of our plane humming in my head.
After a two and a half hour walk we arrive in Phakding. We have noticed that putting up a tent next to the path is impossible, due to the rocks and steep slopes. That’s why we share a lawn at a lodge with two sherpas. We can camp for free if we buy a meal at the lodge. The deal is quickly sealed.
Wim goes for a bowl of mushroom soup, while I opt for the so-called sherpasoup, which turns out to be a creamy vegetable soup. After this we are being served a delicious vegetable curry with chicken. We inflate our sleeping mats in the lodge, after which one of the guides comes to tell us that he is delighted that we are doing the trip while carrying our own luggage. “That’s real hiking,” he says with an approving look in his eyes. After the high season he plans to go hiking with his tent as well. “Two months holiday in India”, he explains. Well indeed, the Everest Base Camp Trek is working for him. And for us as well, so it seems. Despite today’s short hike, I am really tired. It isn’t even 9 pm yet when we go look for a place to sleep next to the sherpas. But not without taking a digestive from the hut with us. We need to keep ourselves a bit warm in the tent, you see…
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