Plane Crash Kills 19 In Nepal

A plane bound for the infamous Lukla airport in Nepal crashed yesterday, killing all 19 people on board. It is believed that the aircraft struck a bird shortly after takeoff from Kathmandu, resulting in the crash minutes later. This is the sixth such accident in the past two years, calling into question the level of air safety in the country.

The plane, operated by Sita Air, set off with 16 passengers and three crewmembers for the Tenzing-Hillary Airport in Lukla, which is the starting point for trekkers hiking to Everest Base Camp. Shortly after departure, the air traffic controllers noticed an erratic maneuver by the aircraft and when contacted by radio the pilot indicated that they had struck a vulture. The plane was attempting to safely return to Kathmandu when it went down.

Reports indicate that there were seven passengers aboard from both the U.K. and Nepal, while the other five people were Chinese nationals. Most were there on holiday and were preparing to trek in the Himalaya Mountains.

Over the past two years, 120 people have been killed in similar accidents throughout the region. Most were either on their way to or from the airport in Lukla at the time. According to the BBC, Nepalese Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai has vowed to improve safety and prevent similar accidents from happening in the future, although he has not outlined exactly how he intends to improve safety just yet.

Having made that same flight a few years back, I can tell you that it is a beautiful journey into the mountains, but most of the planes look like they’ve seen their better days. At the height of the trekking season, which is just getting underway now, aircraft are constantly in and out of Lukla. That means that there are dozens of similar flights all day long, weather permitting.

Hopefully the Nepalese government will introduce a more stringent maintenance and inspection process to prevent similar problems in the future.

[Photo credit: Associated Press]

Trekkers stranded in Lukla, Nepal again

Bad weather in the Himalayas has left many travelers stranded in a remote village in Nepal this past weekend, stretching supplies and accommodations to the limit. Fortunately, improving conditions allowed for many of them to be evacuated yesterday, with those remaining are expected to return to Kathmandu today.

Last week, heavy fog and rain descended on Lukla, a small village located at 9383 feet in the Himalayas. The village has one of the few airports in the region and serves as the main gateway for adventure travelers and climbers headed to Mt. Everest and other major peaks. That airport is considered to be amongst the most dangerous in the world during the best of conditions, and the heavy fog grounded all incoming and outgoing traffic starting on October 31st. With no planes getting in or out, trekkers completing their hikes were left stranded, and by the weekend, nearly 2000 people were stuck in the mountain town.

The fog and rain finally lifted yesterday, allowing aircraft to start shuttling trekkers out of the mountains at last, but the final groups weren’t expected to be airlifted until today. Other travelers elected to continue their hike on to the village of Jiri, a four day journey that would allow them to return to Kathmandu via bus and thereby avoid any further weather delays.

This is the second year in a row that the weather has left travelers stranded in Lukla. In November of last year thick fog prevented planes from getting in and out of the town as well, forcing the Nepali army to eventually use helicopters to facilitate the evacuation process. Fall in the Himalaya is a popular time for trekking, but the weather can be a bit unpredictable as the region transitions from the summer monsoons to the clear, cold of winter.

Having visited Lukla in the spring of 2010, it boggles my mind to think that there were more than 2000 people stranded there. The town is meant to be a brief stop over for those coming and going from Everest, and really isn’t set-up to accommodate that many visitors at one time. Judging from the reports, it seems everyone made it through just fine, but I’m sure there were some cramped quarters and cozy accommodations for a few days.

Nepal launches campaign to “Save Everest”

The Nepal Tourism Board has joined forces with the Everest Summiteers Association (ESA) and Eco Himal to launch the “Save Mt. Everest Campaign,” a project which is designed to clean up the world’s tallest mountain, and the Khumbu Valley where it resides, by June of 2012.

Everest has always held a certain appeal with climbers and the general public alike, and over the past few decades, more and more adventure travelers have made the journey to visit that natural wonder. As a result, the mountain, and the communities in the region surrounding it, have seen an increase in trash and solid waste to the point that it has become a major problem. Most of the poor villages in Nepal don’t have a safe, ecologically sound method of dealing with those issues. This campaign hopes to change that.

Over the course of the next year, organizers of the Save Mt. Everest Campaign hope to remove as much as eight tons of garbage from the mountain itself, as well as along the trekking route between Lukla and Everest Base Camp. They also hope to build 15 waste management plants, and train 100 individuals living in the Khumbu region to staff those facilities. The Nepali Ministry of Environment and Science says that it will also issue new guidelines for climbing and trekking expeditions in the Everest region as well. Those guidelines will be specifically designed to reduce the amount of waste that is generated by the visitors to Everest.

Having visited the Khumbu just last year, and made the trek to Everest Base Camp myself, I can tell you that garbage and other waste can be a serious problem there. I was surprised to see that they still sold bottled water, as I think it would be more ecologically friendly to require visitors to bring their own reusable bottles or hydration packs. This new program hopes to make those kinds of changes and have a positive impact on an environment that is amongst the most spectacularly beautiful on the planet. Lets hope they’re successful.

Hundreds of trekkers stranded in Himalaya due to bad weather

More than 2000 travelers remain stranded in the Himalaya after bad weather moved into the region earlier this week. High winds and thick cloud cover have conspired to cut off all flights back to Kathmandu, leaving the high altitude trekkers with an unexpected extended stay in the mountains.

Most of the travelers were returning from treks in the Khumbu Region of Nepal, which includes hikes up to Everest Base Camp, located at 17,600 feet. Those treks generally begin and end in Lukla, a small and remote village in the Himalaya, which sits at an altitude of roughly 9100 feet, and offers the only true airport in the region. That airport is little more than a runway that runs up the side of the mountain, and is widely considered to be amongst the most dangerous in the world. The already tricky approach to the village becomes impossible when you add bad weather to the equation.

Fortunately, help began arriving yesterday when the Nepali army sent helicopters to Lukla to start evacuating some of the stranded travelers back to Kathmandu. Their helicopters perform much better in the poor weather conditions and offer plenty of lift to get the trekkers and their gear out of the Himalaya safely. With so many travelers waiting for a ride however, it’ll take a few days before everyone is back in the capital.

Having visited Lukla this past spring, I can’t even imagine where all of these trekkers are staying at the moment. While it is one of the larger villages in the Khumbu Valley, that isn’t saying a whole lot. There are a number of good teahouses to stay in there, but the rooms fill up quickly, and generally it is a very transient place, with adventure travelers coming and going on a regular basis. With 2000 trekkers in the village, it must be one very busy and crowded place.

Himalayan High: Lukla’s Tenzing-Hillary Airport

While Kathmandu is a unique and interesting city, it certainly isn’t a destination that draws you to Nepal. For most travelers to the region, myself included, it was simply a stop over until we could get on with our real journey, namely the trek to Everest Base Camp. After spending a day in the noisy Nepali capital city, I was more than anxious to get out of town, and get started with our hike.

The first stop for anyone traveling to Everest is Lukla, a small village located at 9380 feet (2860 meters). The town has the distinction of the only true airport in the Khumbu Valley region, and there are daily flights from Kathmandu. Named after the first two men to stand atop Everest, the Tenzing-Hillary Airport is the third highest in the world, but is best known for its unique landing strip, which runs 1729 feet (527 meters) in length, and actually goes up the side of a mountain at a 12% grade. That incline helps to slow down incoming planes at a more rapid rate, and actually assists aircraft on take off by helping them speed up more rapidly.

I set out from Kathmandu aboard a Twin Otter airplane, a utility aircraft that has been in service around the world for decades and is often employed in remote regions of the world. The plane seats 20 and is designed for short take offs and landings, perfect for getting in and out of Lukla. As luck would have it, when my trekking group scrambled aboard the plane in Kathmandu, I ended up in the very back of the plane, which gave me an excellent view into the cockpit, something that would later prove to be a bit scary as we made the approach into Tenzing-Hillary Airport.On the 45-minute flight from Kathmandu to Lukla you could practically feel the anticipation inside the cabin of the plane. We were all excited as we left the city behind and began to catch our first glimpses of the Himalaya themselves. Peering out the side windows, I caught sight of several snow capped mountains in the distance, while forests of rhododendron’s passed by on the slopes below. It was springtime in the Himalaya, and the whole region was in bloom.

Before long, we were making our final approach to Lukla, and my vantage point at the back of the plane, gave me an unobstructed view right into the cockpit, where I could watch both the pilot and copilot go about their business. This is a bit of an unusual sight, considering that most of the time when we fly, you can’t see what is happening up there, but on that small, Twin Otter, I could see exactly what the pilots saw, and in this case, that was a pretty scary sight.

Most of the flight, the view out of the cockpit window was generally what you’d expect, consisting of open sky or the occasional distant mountain. But as we came in for a landing, that view suddenly changed, and for a short time all I could see was a mountain wall looming directly in front of the aircraft. For several very long moments, that granite face blocked out all other views, and if you didn’t know any better, you’d think that we were about to fly directly into that rock face.

But the plane kept banking to one side, and slowly, ever so slowly, that gray wall of granite slid out of view, and a runway materialized, almost out of nowhere, in its place. The aircraft was in perfect position to land, and before we knew it, we were on the ground, rolling up the runway, and coming to a complete stop on the tarmac. After that, it was only a few minutes and we were out of the Twin Otter and on the ground in the Himalaya at last.

Once off the plane, there was little to do. We retrieved our backpacks almost immediately, and soon after that, we were on our way. Quite literally on our way. The stairs that lead up, and out of the airport run directly onto the trail that runs directly into the village of Lukla, and eventually the Khumbu Valley itself. The very same trail that will eventually lead to Everest Base Camp as well.

Next: On The Trail (Part 1)

Tenzing-Hillary Airport, Lukla, Nepal from Kraig Becker on Vimeo.