The infamous Lukla air-strip landing

The trek to the Everest Base camp starts from the Lukla air-strip. It is a 30 minute’ flight from the Kathmandu airport that drops you off at this strip from where you commence your foot journey. As simple as it may sound, it is probably the most challenging part of the entire itinerary as flying to Lukla can be quite a pain because of its unpredictable weather conditions.

We were doing the trek to Everest Base camp in September, 2022 and were all set to get going to the mountains. On my very first attempt to fly to Lukla it all seemed fine. We sat in a air plane that accommodated around 14 people and in the next 10 minutes we took off. As I usually do on my air journeys, looked through the windows, admired the bed of clouds, thinking to myself, just how pretty the colors in the sky were, and how beautifully well the whites and blues blend with each other.

Just then we felt some turbulence! I could feel some amount of nervousness taking over me but it seemed all fine outside the window, so I decided to give my overthinking abilities a little break! But then, I heard words that blew my mind off. Mid-way through, in just about 15 minutes of flying, the air-hostess announced bad weather conditions at the Lukla airport and that the pilot had decided to turn around.

We were brought back to Kathmandu airport and departed from the air plane towards the waiting area.. Even though I was quite well informed about the situation in Lukla as I had read about it and also seen various videos on you-tube about the so called “iconic Lukla landing”, when it happened for real, I was honestly a little taken aback!   Disheartened, we got back to the remaining half of our group and had no other choice rather than waiting at the airport and praying for the weather to clear off. However, we were unaware, that our adventure had only begun.

The airport waiting –

We waited at a super crowded airport for quite a few hours and just like us there were many other groups of trekkers, who were also counting on the weather to open up so that they could begin their journey. Back to back announcements were made for various other flights departing to different places and slowly the crowd reduced considerably. Now it was only people wanting to go to Everest Base camp who stay put!

Finally, after waiting for around 6 hours we had an update for Lukla! But it wasn’t in our favor. The flight was cancelled as the cloud cover was so heavy and there was no scope to land at the air strip at all! Being left with no choice, we head to our hotel in Thamel and just had to pass the day through, and wait for another attempt next morning!

With the entire day ahead of us, we started working on a plan of how to get to Lukla at the earliest and embark on our journey. Lots of calls were made, discussions took place, motivational speeches were delivered too…We ate, sat, slept, shopped.. and eventually tucked in to bed early and got to the airport around 5am next morning with a hope of getting an early flight..

The airline logistics –

One thing you should know about the way these airlines function is that, if there are missed flights and backlogs due to the bad weather, those groups don’t get priority when they come and wait at the airport the next day, as there are other groups who have booked the planes already on that particular date.

Only once all the current-day bookings have flown, the backlog can start getting cleared, which means that the possibility of you flying is almost zilch, as Lukla air strip normally sees the last landing around 11am in the morning, because the cloud cover tends to take over the visibility, post that!

But we had to be more faithful than fearful and shoot another attempt! We were still quite optimistic that we will make it through air. But alas! The next day, history repeats itself, and once again, bad weather announcement put us down. The only thing that happened differently was that we dint take a U-turn in the air, because this time, our plane never took off!

Over the next two days we continuously kept coming to the airport, getting through security checks, waiting for long hours but never did we take off from Kathmandu. Once again disheartened we got back to our hotel not knowing what to do, we spent the entire day just hoping the weather clears, and constantly kept monitoring the condition through live you-tube channels!

Change of plans –

We decided to not waste more time hoping to get to Lukla by air. The alternative was to fly to a place called Phaplu and do an additional 4-hour trek from Phaplu to Lukla and then get back on track. It dint seem difficult and was a much better option rather than waiting for the weather to open up as we were already behind our planned itinerary.

The next morning at the airport we repeated the “obvious” routine but this time to fly to Phaplu. Little did we know that none of our prayers were working, in fact the weather had decided to play more games with us. We sat in the airport transport bus that dropped us off next to our air plane. Today, even before we could step out of the bus and board the plane, the flight to Phaplu was also cancelled and bad weather was announced!

I’ll be honest, at that moment, I just felt choked in my throat and wanted to weep! I got flashbacks of everything I had seen and heard about this place and I genuinely did not want to accept that we were so unfortunate!

But on the other hand, I felt extremely grateful because it is better to be stuck on ground during bad weather conditions than experience turbulent flights. I kept on thanking my stars that at least we were not among those unfortunate ones who ended up being part of air plane crashes. It was an absolute blessing to at least have an option of taking the road journey instead.

Hat-trick failure –

After 3 failed attempts, with no other option but to stop hoping to reach any of the places via air, the road was the only way out! We basically had to drive for 2 additional days and then trek for an extra 12-13 hours to reach Phakding, which was Day 2 of our original itinerary. Mind you when I say we drove for two days, I do not mean that we had highways or even regular narrow roads for that matter, where you are comfortably driving, enjoying the lush green meadows and little streams flowing on the side!

What we drove through was actually a trekking route, with extremely uneven terrain, sharp turns, rocky surfaces, crazy inclines, etc. We were basically, off-roading for 9 to 10 hours straight for 2 whole days. At least 6 times during that drive, while we were passing through some inclines, with the hill on one side and a deep valley on the other, I felt like the vehicle was going to fall topsy-turvy, straight in to the valley and that this is where my EBC experience would be concluding!

As much as the drivers were super skilled, the ‘so-called’ roads were beyond horrible. Moreover, the rains had made the trails so muddy and slush-filled which made it a nightmare to be there! Off-roading on a road which technically does not exist, with constant head bangs on the roof of the vehicle, feeling motion sick at times, with aching lower back and knees, we spent 2 days on this drive and I couldn’t be more thankful when we got off the vehicle.

At around 1:30 am we reached a little tea house in Bupsa village where we were to spend our night and then start the 13-hour trek to Phakding the next morning. This 13-hours journey was a long tiring one but we had no choice but to push our physical limits, as were already 4.5 days late now.

The master is the weather!

After reaching Phakding, we were at least back on track in terms of the itinerary, though we were super late but now, the trail was familiar. I sunk in to the feeling, that finally the Everest Base camp will embrace us in its presence, sooner or later. In these 5 days, so much had happened, I started having doubts if we would continue to the Base camp or not? There was also talks and discussions about changing the plan and hitting the Annapurna Base camp instead, but the crave for Mount Everest is such, that nobody was ready to give up on it! And we finally did make through the entire journey and got to Everest Base camp as well the Kala Pathar summit.

We had our share of both, good as well as bad weather through our trek, as localised clouds can be unpredictable. There were times when we did not get the mountain views that we were hoping for because of cloud cover but we also had bright sunny days and clear weather window to admire the beautifully breath-taking views of Amadablam, Thamserku, Everest, Mount Nupse, Mount Lhotse, etc.

I had never imagined, my very first trek to the Base camp of Everest, would do this to me! From traumatizing to breath-taking, I felt it all! From feeling helpless and wanting to break down to having tears in my eyes when I saw the beauty of the Khumbu ice fall, it has been an experience that is hard to put in words! When I look back and recollect those memories, I know, this is exactly what adventure is about, what being & living in the mountains is like. There is no other decision-maker in the mountains, except the weather!

No matter what you plan, how you plan, how prepared you are, how much you push for things, if the weather decides you will fly, you will, if not, you stay put! Period! Riches, influence, power and politics, all goes in vain, when nature decides to showcase what she can do!

One of the biggest learnings that I have taken away from this experience is, human beings may have evolved in to this intellectually capable, making wonders happen kind of a specie, but they are inconsequential and completely at nature’s mercy for everything!

That’s the thing about being in the mountains, the higher you go in altitude the more grounded you become! When you are up there, there is so much that can and cannot happen, you are bound to feel fearful and grateful, all at the same time! Surrendering is probably the only decision you get to make, not out of choice, but out of necessity! But this feeling of surrender and helplessness, is the adrenaline, that keeps pushing me back to the mountains and I honestly cannot wait to be there again, and let my mother take the call for me!

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