Friday, May 11, 2012

Escape from Kathmandu!


            “Excited” doesn’t begin to describe how I felt as my three friends and I squeezed into the taxi geared up with our new backpacks and trekking tackle.  We headed to the airport to catch our 10:30 a.m. flight from Kathmandu to Lukla.  The flight was one of many I’d taken recently, but this one signified the beginning of my Himalayan adventure and my trek to Mt. Everest. 
Runway at Lukla (from Pauline-G's at travelpod)
In my research for the trip I’d read that the hour-long flight to Lukla was an adventure in itself.  If you sit on the left side of the plane there’s incredible views of several of the tallest mountain peaks in the world.  But the flight wasn’t supposed to be just sunshine over pretty, snowcaps and bubbly clouds.  Lukla is known as one of the most dangerous airports in the world.  The runway, used for both takeoffs and landings, at Lukla’s little airport is no more than a few hundred yards long and is nestled in the side of a mountain.  So, when taking off from Lukla, if the departing plane doesn’t gain enough speed to acquire lift, the plane will drive right off the edge of the cliff and plunge 2,000 feet down into the rocky valley below.  Equally as perilous is landing at Lukla; if the pilot doesn’t calculate everything just right, there’s a good chance of missing the runway and crashing into the mountainside.   I was pretty sure that I wanted to piss my pants.  I just didn’t know if it was because I was scared or because I was excited. 
the whip.
After a short wait at the KTM airport, boarding for our flight was announced.  The four of us got on a bus that took about 15 co-passengers and us across the tarmac and delivered us to the Pilatus PC-6 Turbo Porter aircraft that would soon be our winged whip to Lukla.  Ignoring the airport personnel’s request to proceed in an orderly fashion, people scrambled to get off the bus and on to the small plane.  Apparently, I wasn’t the only one that read that the money-seats are on the left side. 

I ended up on the plane’s starboard, but I did get a window.  It didn’t matter.  I was stoked and raring to go.  The looks of enthusiasm plastered across the other passengers’ faces as they impatiently anticipated take off was enough to know that I wasn’t alone.   Even with less than 20 people on board the airline was kind enough to provide a solo female flight attendant that walked the aisle offering everyone a piece of hard candy and cotton balls to block the noise of the thunderous engine.
"See ya, Kathmandu!" ... or so I thought.
"Is booze free on this flight?"
I watched the two pilots in the open cockpit ahead of me press buttons, pull levers, and finally give a gentle push on the throttle.  Shortly after, we left the ground and watched Kathmandu shrink until it was a miniature model of itself.  Buildings looked like Legos, cars looked like ants, and people were invisible.  30 minutes into the flight, I was still staring out the window as we gained more and more distance from the hustle and bustle of Kathmandu and entered the mountain country of Nepal. 
That’s when our lone flight attendant unbuckled herself from her seat in the rear of the plane and shuffled forward to the cockpit where apparently the captain had something for her to broadcast.  “Were we about to land?” I wondered.  Unfortunately, all of my excitement and enthusiasm quickly changed to frustration and disappointment as I had apparently reached the anti-climax of Tara Air flight 069.  The flight attendant made a convincingly regretful (yet obviously rehearsed) announcement that due to the weather at Lukla we would be unable to land and would have to turn back.


            After landing back at KTM everyone was told to wait in the terminal so that, if the weather cleared, another flight could take us to Lukla.  On the previous flight there was a Sherpa that had been hired as a trekking guide.  I sat just behind him in the airport as we anticipated good news.  While waiting, I overheard him tell his trekking client that this type of thing happens all the time and the chances of anyone getting to Lukla today were slim to none.  “Sometimes,” he explained, “three or four days pass without a single flight making it to Lukla”.  Great. A couple hours passed and just when I was about to give up hope, a voice came over the airport loudspeaker— our flight was given the green light.
Apparently Indian women are more prone to throwing up.
            Once again we were put on a bus, taken to the plane, and fought for the coveted portside.  This time not only did I get a seat on the left but I was the last person to board the plane, so I was stuck without a window in the very back of the plane next to the solitary flight attendant.  Maybe she’d see my aggravation and give me an extra hard candy.  I didn’t care at this point I just wanted to get in the air.  I took three pieces of the plastic like chocolate and for a second time we powered forward into the grey-blue sky. 
            The day’s events had worn me out.  I didn’t have the energy to be excited anymore.  I actually fell asleep for a bit.  When I awoke I could see into the cockpit up front.  Between the pilots’ gestures and the radar screen, it appeared that we were exactly on top of Lukla.  “FINALLY!  We made it!” I thought.  Then my favorite little flight attendant unbuckled her seatbelt and walked to the front.


            Even though Lukla was just below, a sudden change of conditions made it impossible for a safe landing and we were yet again forced to retreat back to Kathmandu.  With no more flights leaving, a Tara Air representative told us that we would have to return tomorrow and that we would be put on standby.  It was no one’s fault and, especially with an airport like Lukla, it was better not to risk it.  I knew that.  I felt like a little kid that asks for something for Christmas, waits and waits, and on the big day he doesn’t get what he asked for.  I was angry and disappointed.
            The next day, we arrived back at the airport before 8 a.m. and started what was beginning to feel like a routine.  We asked questions and were given the same runaround answers over and over again.  After several restless hours in the terminal, the representative that we'd been politely pestering all morning said that he was able to get all four of us on a flight and that we had to board immediately.  YES.  I wanted to yell out, “FINAAAALLY!” but I didn’t want to jinx another flight.
            Just as I was about to step through the departure gate and onto the tarmac, Mr. Representative Dude ran up in a discreet manner.  NO.  I waited for him to tell me and my friends that something else had gone wrong.  However, I was surprised to hear what came out of his mouth next.
1000 Nepalese Rupees = $11.70 USD
            Apparently, this guy "knew a guy" that was a helicopter pilot and heading to Lukla in a few minutes.  His helicopter was usually chartered for $2,500 USD, but since it wasn’t booked yet and the pilot was flying some supplies to Lukla anyway, Mr. Representative Dude offered us the four passenger seats.  “Maybe I help you… you help me?  Hmm?” he whispered, implying some sort of bribe.  Then he told us he’d be back in a few minutes and slithered away. 
            I wanted to laugh.  Sometimes I forget how much I love the sketchiness of Asia.  The four of huddled and discussed.  A chartered helicopter would make for a heck of ride and quite the entrance.  But there was no way we could come up with anywhere near the usual $2500 cost.  After a quick discussion, we came up with what we thought was a good price for us.   Mr. Rep Dude suddenly appeared out of nowhere and, looking nervously over his shoulder like he was in the middle of a drug deal, stuck out his hand.  In turn, the four us handed him 1,000 Nepalese Rupees each (that’s only about $46 US).  Without even looking at it, he shoved the money in his pocket and led us out to the tarmac where I pickup truck was waiting.  Thus, my first shady run in with corruption in Nepal was concluded and an airport truck drove us to our private helicopter. 
            We had just bargained down from $2,500 to less than $50 without even trying-- how nice could this thing really be?  Half-expecting a giant piece of shit with a propeller on top, I was pleasantly surprised to see a shiny red and black helicopter sitting on top of a giant letter H.  Our luck had finally changed.  A new surge of excitement and happiness rushed through my veins.  Now I felt like the little kid at Christmas whose dad hides that one special present, acting like he didn’t get it, and then gives it to the boy as a surprise at the end.
            We took some pictures and boarded the helicopter making several “GET IN THE CHOPPA’!” jokes and other Schwarzenegger/helicopter references.  From that point on, the trip from Kathmandu to Lukla couldn’t have been better.  The sky was clear and the views were great.  We didn’t get the mountaintops promised with the airplane, but the low flying helicopter was able to maneuver quickly over wall-like ridges and through valleys giving us an up close look at the hillside scenery.

             A little over an hour later we landed safely on a helipad at Lukla’s Tenzing-Hillary Airport.  As soon as we stepped on to solid ground the helicopter was unloaded and almost immediately took off again for it's return to Kathmandu.  Adrenaline still pumping, I put on my pack and stopped for a second to look around.  Massive mountains surrounded me on all sides.  I was officially in the Himalayas and at the starting point for the trek I’d come here for all along.  Even with all the ups and downs, the start of my adventure had proven to be nothing short of exciting.
 I couldn’t wait to see what would happen over the next two weeks trekking through the mountains, fighting frigid temperatures, and battling the ever-thinning oxygen at high altitudes.  And with that, my team of four took the first steps of many on our journey to 18,000 ft. and our ultimate goal of reaching Everest base camp.
Check out this quick video I put together of my ride in the chopper!  (give it a second to load)...

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