Getting up at the crack of dawn would have been a lie-in compared to the time we were prised out of bed for our flight to Lukla. But the early start payed off: the streets of Kathmandu were virtually traffic free and half our group (including me) caught the first flight of the morning with the rest following an hour later. At this time of year, the weather is typically clear in the morning but clouds over in the afternoon, so there is a definite advantage to getting an early flight. Once we were packed into the aged twin otter, however, the relief that we’d got our flight as planned gave way to just a little anxiety. With Lukla rated the world’s most dangerous airport by The History Channel in 2010 it was hard not to feel slightly nervous as the little plane revved its engines before catapulting down the runway towards it. I consoled myself that, despite some 36 scheduled flights a day, Wikipedia lists a major incident only every couple of years (and the latest, in 2012, was due to a bird strike immediately after take-off in Kathmandu, which was nothing to do with flying to Lukla…right?). Even factoring in frequent cancellations, then, I consoled myself that the odds weren’t really so bad. The haze over Kathmandu initially limited the distracting effects of the views but as we neared the end of the flight the sight of snow capped peaks surrounding us was breathtaking, even from my position in the middle of the plane. A central seat also gave me a great – though heart-stopping – view of the runway as we approached. Just 460m x 20m with a sheer cliff above and below there is not much room for error! Fortunately, out pilots were clearly pros and before I knew it we were safely down and drinking coffee while we waited for the rest of the team to arrive.
It was as chilly as I’d feared and I bundled on all my clothes, but it seemed I’d dismissed my flip-flops too soon. They were a common sight amongst the Nepalis and Sherpas in Lukla so I would have blended right in – if I wasn’t such a wimp about having cold feet. Instead, snug in my hiking boots, I followed the others as they set off towards Phakding, out stop for the night. “Follow” was the operative word as I stopped to take a myriad of photos of the glorious scenery bathed in sunshine. Luckily, Viki is even more of a shutter-bug than I am so we dawdled at the back together. As the day wore on the hot sun more than offset the cool air and I enjoyed a relaxing hike along the gently undulating path, through villages, across the river and round the many walls and piles of mani stones.
As we progressed, the embarrassment I’d felt over the flip-flops paled into insignificance compared to my embarrassment about my relative load-carrying ability. Weighed down by nothing more than a half-empty 25L day pack I goggled at the heavy, bulky loads that are the norm for the porters.
Many used a traditional basket, piled high with sacks and boxes. Those supporting our team took two of our big duffles each, and then strapped their own small packs on top, carried by a strap over their forehead. At up to 27kg (60lbs) per duffle I’m not sure I’d be able to even pick up such a load, let alone carry it up a mountain. Lucky for the sherpa who has my duffle, though, as it’s about half the size of most of the climbers’. I’m wondering what crucial items I’ve omitted to pack….