By Payge McMahon, www.turnthepayge.com
Rumor on the trail that the Lukla airport had shut down started a week ago. We were still making our push to Everest Base Camp (17,701 feet) and Kala Patthar (18,315 feet). The weather was starting to change, and afternoons brought a thick fog and limited visibility. Temperatures plummeted to minus 5-degrees F at night. Our guide didn’t seem concerned; five days later, it was a different story.
Snuggled into the Himalaya at 9,000 feet in elevation, Lukla is the "major" portal in and out of the Everest region. Its tiny airport is ranked as one of the most dangerous in the world.
If the weather didn’t lift, we would not be able to hike into Lukla as planned. Two thousand trekkers were already stranded there. All the hotel rooms were booked. People were sleeping where they could—on dining room floors, in hallways, and inside their tents. Food was being rationed as supply planes were grounded in Kathmandu. The few airlines and helicopter service that service Lukla, were helpless.
William, a trekker from England, was exhausted when he and his team stumbled into the little town on November 1. After four weeks of exhausting, high-elevation trekking in the Khumbu, William was ready to fly back to Kathmandu and then home. He and his group checked into one of the dozens of basic, no heat lodges, thinking the next day the airport would surely open. Four days later, they were still waiting. They made the decision to hike 70 kilometers to Jirli. It would take four days but they were able to fly back to Kathmandu on November 8.
We met the same day at Rum Doodles, a popular trekkers' restaurant in the Thamel section of Kathmandu. Named after a mystical 40,000 and ½ foot tall mountain, anyone who summits Mount Everest gets a free dinner for life. William was wearing an “Escape from Lukla” shirt. It summed up the situation to a tee (literally!).
For me, my escape from Lukla was less dramatic. On November, 7 we awoke to beautiful skies. It was the day we were making our final push to Lukla. We could hear planes and helicopters in the distance. Life had returned to the tiny airport. We entered the town by late afternoon. We saw hundreds of trekkers pushing their way into airline stores, trying to rebook flights. Only a handful of 20-seater planes were making the 30-minute runs to and from Kathmandu. It is going to take days to get everyone sorted. More bad weather is expected by the end of the week.
That being said, military precision was what I witnessed the next day at the airport. One plane would land and within five minutes they turned it around. Our flight was six hours late, but I wasn’t complaining. Some people had been stuck for over a week. I was glad to be traveling with Intrepid, an Australian based adventure travel company. Our flights were pre-booked and our Sirdar (head guide) took care of any airport politics.
Timing is everything in life and this time, it was on my side.