It’s quite simply one of the best treks in the world
My heart felt like a Tibetan gong, beating down the seconds to my last moments. I clutched the staircase’s handrails as tightly as my perspiring hands would allow and boarded the 19-person Twin Otter aircraft. There was no turning back; the infamous 35-minute flight from Kathmandu to Lukla was imminent. A bamboo hamper filled with cotton balls was shoved into my lap; I took two swabs and buried them deep in my ears as the aircraft accelerated.
Lukla’s Tenzing-Hillary Airport has one runway, which is used for both take offs and landings. The History Channel, along with countless other authorities, has dubbed it the most dangerous airport in the world. Upon arrival a pilot is received by an airstrip that slopes 12° upward and is only inches from the edge of a cliff. Once the pilot touches down, he or she has 527m to bring the plane to a stop before the airstrip reaches a near-vertical mountain wall. (By comparison, a Boeing 737 requires a minimum of 1,418m for a successful landing.) There are only two types of commercial aircraft capable of negotiating the short runway, and without radar or navigation equipment at Lukla, pilots rely on their line of sight to land. If clouds roll in unexpectedly, they’re flying blind, which is why if there’s any doubt about the weather, planes are grounded.
Our pilot earned our applause as our flying metal sarcophagus touched down safely. The first thing to do in Lukla was get our TIMS (Trekkers Information Management System) card and a Sagarmatha National Park entry permit, which my partner Sylvie and I did at the park’s registration booth, a short walk through the town. Two ‘missing person’ posters hung on the windows – trekkers who had simply disappeared. We had hired a porter to come with us on the trek, although in hindsight we felt we would have been fine by ourselves.
My bag felt light despite being jam-packed with unwieldy winter clothing, camera equipment and extensive first-aid. The first day’s hike, starting at the relatively low altitude of 2,860m, snaked along an established path with tree-flanked foothills on one side and modest settlements with unassuming homesteads dotting the other. This was the undulating landscape of the Dudh Kosi Valley, where countless frighteningly long single-stay steel suspension bridges guided us back and forth over the raging river below. There was congestion at these single-person-width bridges as villagers and herds of mules carrying goods from Lukla patiently waited their turn to cross. Most of the supplies arriving in Lukla are transported from Jiri on the backs of animals. Before Lukla airport was built, trekkers and mountaineers also had to hike from Jiri, adding more than a week to their already lengthy venture.
Unlike every other hiking trail I have tackled, the main purpose of the path from Lukla to Everest Base Camp is not recreational. Although hundreds of adventure-seeking trekkers use the route every month, it is firstly the highway linking remote Sherpa communities together. After being bashed by a porter’s 40kg load a couple of times, I quickly learnt trail etiquette – a porter always has the right of way. They get compensated based on the weight of their load and for how far it is transported. Every item, no matter how insignificant, must be conveyed in this manner: everything down to rolls of toilet paper and cans of Pringles must be supplied via arduous week-long backbreaking hauls.