Having just passed through a rather porous security check, we stood on the tarmac of Lukla Airport and awaited our flight. It was the first clear morning in three days, and the planes which were reported to have departed Kathmandu, were headed our way. Eager for their arrival, we listened. They were our way home.
Approaching planes can’t be seen from anywhere in or adjacent to the terminal. Instead, passengers rely on their hearing for news and flight status. Upon a plane’s arrival and resulting touchdown, the silence of the morning is broken by the revving of the engine, needed in order to climb up the runway to the terminal.
As the plane pulls into one of four spots, and before the props stop spinning, the doors are thrust open and a fresh group of trekkers and climbers are hurried out. Herded swiftly towards a fenced in pen with a “Welcome to Lukla” sign, they are prodded along by a guy with a long stick who also employs said stick to discourage any slowing down for photos, something Dirk quickly learned. After the new arrivals are welcomed to Lukla, so-to-speak, we are rushed onto the aircraft, given some cottonballs to put in our ears and we are off. Christy timed the entire sequence from the planes arrival, unloading, reloading and taxi to takeoff at six minutes.
The plane then heads down the 12% grade airstrip, which seems steep enough to allow one to coast to a takeoff without engines, to its terminus, some 527 meters away. Suddenly airborne, we’re unsure if it’s because the plane had enough thrust or we simply ran out of runway and the mountainside just dropped off, 2000 feet to the valley floor. In the end, it doesn’t really matter. We were on our way.
Watch the whole sequence, compared by some to a ballet and to others, an accident waiting to happen, in the video clip below. There are more props and people in motion than seems at all safe.
For comparisons sake, later that week, as we drove through the Eisenhower tunnel and started downhill towards Silverthorne, I noticed the sign warned truckers that a 7% grade lie ahead.
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Jon Maletz did a great story on the trip for the Aspen Times. Read it here.