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Himalayan High: Lukla's Tenzing-Hillary Airport
The first stop for anyone traveling to Everest is Lukla, a small village located at 9380 feet (2860 meters). The town has the distinction of the only true airport in the Khumbu Valley region, and there are daily flights from Kathmandu. Named after the first two men to stand atop Everest, the Tenzing-Hillary Airport is the third highest in the world, but is best known for its unique landing strip, which runs 1729 feet (527 meters) in length, and actually goes up the side of a mountain at a 12% grade. That incline helps to slow down incoming planes at a more rapid rate, and actually assists aircraft on take off by helping them speed up more rapidly.
I set out from Kathmandu aboard a Twin Otter airplane, a utility aircraft that has been in service around the world for decades and is often employed in remote regions of the world. The plane seats 20 and is designed for short take offs and landings, perfect for getting in and out of Lukla. As luck would have it, when my trekking group scrambled aboard the plane in Kathmandu, I ended up in the very back of the plane, which gave me an excellent view into the cockpit, something that would later prove to be a bit scary as we made the approach into Tenzing-Hillary Airport.
Before long, we were making our final approach to Lukla, and my vantage point at the back of the plane, gave me an unobstructed view right into the cockpit, where I could watch both the pilot and copilot go about their business. This is a bit of an unusual sight, considering that most of the time when we fly, you can't see what is happening up there, but on that small, Twin Otter, I could see exactly what the pilots saw, and in this case, that was a pretty scary sight.
Most of the flight, the view out of the cockpit window was generally what you'd expect, consisting of open sky or the occasional distant mountain. But as we came in for a landing, that view suddenly changed, and for a short time all I could see was a mountain wall looming directly in front of the aircraft. For several very long moments, that granite face blocked out all other views, and if you didn't know any better, you'd think that we were about to fly directly into that rock face.
But the plane kept banking to one side, and slowly, ever so slowly, that gray wall of granite slid out of view, and a runway materialized, almost out of nowhere, in its place. The aircraft was in perfect position to land, and before we knew it, we were on the ground, rolling up the runway, and coming to a complete stop on the tarmac. After that, it was only a few minutes and we were out of the Twin Otter and on the ground in the Himalaya at last.
Once off the plane, there was little to do. We retrieved our backpacks almost immediately, and soon after that, we were on our way. Quite literally on our way. The stairs that lead up, and out of the airport run directly onto the trail that runs directly into the village of Lukla, and eventually the Khumbu Valley itself. The very same trail that will eventually lead to Everest Base Camp as well.
Next: On The Trail (Part 1)