Danger! The Airport

Overall, I’m a pretty cautious traveler, though an adventurous one. I like to research my destinations and know what I’m getting myself into. Learning about what to do, what to not do, places to see, and what to watch out for can be helpful when heading to a new culture in a new part of the world. Especially in developing countries.

This normally means learning about scams and local traditions.  Sometimes it involves learning tipping standards or modesty rules. On occasion, it means learning about the world’s most dangerous airport – one that was impossible to avoid if I was to follow through with one of my travel dreams – to trek to Everest Base Camp in Nepal. In this instance, I’m not so sure that my “cautious traveler” tendencies really benefitted me as learning about scary airports and the possibility of utter disaster aren’t something I seek out.

Some background.

The Lukla airport, formally called the Tenzing-Hillary Airport, sits on a cliff in the “lowlands” of the Himalayas in Nepal. I put lowlands in quotes as the land is not low despite being so much lower than the height of the famous mountain range these foothills precede. Not only are the mountains around Lukla jagged and scary for any pilot to negotiate at a low altitude, but the airport sits on a nice short uphill cliff. That’s right. A short airstrip. On a cliff. Oriented at a 12% grade uphill. Facing into a brick wall. Clouds all around. Mountains so high that a small plane cannot run on full power. Oh! And once the plane hits the uphill runway, it must slam on the breaks in hopes of coming to a stop before the brick wall gets too close. Sounds like the kind of fun I travel half way around the world to experience. But it was a necessary evil in the quest to reach Everest Base Camp.

Getting onto the plane at the Kathmandu airport that was headed for this ridiculous airport was an unforgettable defining moment in my life and in my travels. For me – the self-proclaimed cautious adventurer – willingly strapping myself into a small, rather well-used and old-timey airplane to begin a journey I had only dreamed of was a battle of will. More than just a small part of me though that it could have been the end. It’s the kind of moment where the spirit of adventure courses through your veins and takes over the common sense portion of your brain in hopes of experiencing something so visceral that nothing else matters. This was my moment of clarity.

The flight from Kathmandu to Lukla is short — only 20-30 minutes depending on weather.

And it’s beautiful. The bustling and over-populated Kathmandu valley fades into the deep shades of green of rice terraces, and slowly turns into an alpine wonderland — rugged mountains reaching towards the sky, with only dirt roads and small villages throughout.

But then comes the doom. You oddly can sense when you are getting close to the uphill runway.  You can see pilots preparing to land (since there’s no cabin, just a metal box everyone shares, you can pretty much see everything the pilots do). They deftly maneuver the plane until the airstrip directly in the center of the front window. With every second we hover, my blood pumps faster. I can’t watch. Clouds purr beside the propeller engines of the 16-person plane. Mountains envelop us.  I shut my eyes as hard as I can.

We touch down. I grip my knees and jolt my eyes open to hope I see asphalt and Nepali buildings . . . and I do. We slow down, and eventually putter to a stop – one which was not caused by a brick wall. We’ve arrived safely. We’ve landed at the most dangerous airport in the world. And now the journey of a lifetime begins. Or, rather, continues. The journey really began once I committed myself to following a travel dream with faith, an open mind, and way too much travel research.

Annie Shustrin is a traveler in every sense of the word.  She has been across the world, tasted the fruit of many cultures, and writes of all her experience at TravelShus.