This year marks the 60th anniversary of the first summit of Mount Everest, a feat that’s been attempted by thousands of climbers since. Although we all understand ascending the world’s highest peak is one of the most grueling challenges on the planet, few people also know that summiting the mountain is only one risk climbers take; they also often fly in via one of the most nail-biting runways in the world.
Associated Press reports that Tenzing-Hillary Airport is really just a small airstrip carved out of the side of the mountain. There’s just a single, narrow runway – and if the pilot misses it by just a few feet, the plane will hit a mountain. To further complicate things, the airport is surrounded by mountains, meaning once a pilot passes a certain point, there is no choice but to land.
The airstrip was built in 1965 by Sir Edmund Hillary, one of the first two men to conquer Everest, and it is named for him and his climbing partner, Tenzing Norgay. Hillary created the airport to help Sherpas spur development in the area, and ever since many climbers choose to fly into the airport in order to avoid a daylong bus trip from the capital of Nepal, Kathmandu, and five days of trekking.
Since its inception, the airport has claimed about 50 deaths – far fewer than Everest itself, which has seen about 240 deaths. But still, with a track record like that, the runway can definitely be considered high risk. For more on the world’s most dangerous runways, check out this slideshow.
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.