If you’re planning on visiting Everest’s Khumbu region on a prearranged itinerary these days then there’s a high probability of your plans going tits up. The air service to Lukla, the Khumbu’s gateway village, has been deteriorating as rapidly as Tiger Woods’ career, and it seems that every time the erstwhile golfing superstar takes his pants down the aviation industry in Nepal suffers another setback and flights to Lukla become ever less reliable.
But in case you’re wondering what on earth I’m talking about, here’s some background. When the Himalayan kingdom of Nepal first opened its doors to foreigners in 1950 after centuries of isolation the first travellers to have a look at Everest from the south side were Bill Tilman and Charles Houston. They had to trek for 65km to get to its base after being dropped off by lorry in the town of Dhankuta near the border with India. When they made the first ascent of Everest in 1953 Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary had an even longer trek, all the way from Kathmandu 150km away. In those days Kathmandu wasn’t even linked anywhere by road, and equipment had to be transported up from the border by means of a 23km long aerial ropeway that rose some 1400 vertical metres above the village of Bhimpedi.
When Edmund Hillary’s Himalayan Trust was building schools and hospitals in the Khumbu region in the 1960s, he identified the village of Lukla, high up on a shelf in the spectacular forested Dudh Kosi Valley, as a possible site for an airstrip. Tenzing-Hillary Airport, as it is now called, was opened in 1964. It immediately made Everest more accessible and has been a major factor in the development of the Khumbu region, home of the Sherpas, as a tourist destination.
But there’s a twist. If you type world’s scariest airport into Google nearly all the top 10 lists that come back feature Lukla. I even wrote a post about it myself a few years ago. The tiny little Twin Otter planes that fly there have to land by line of sight, often after plunging through cloud in the heart of a deep valley with high mountains towering overhead. The runway is so short it has to slant steeply uphill to assist the aircraft in stopping before it ploughs into a high mountain wall. Most people who have flown there have a white-knuckle Lukla story to tell. My pilots always seem to be reading the paper, and on one occasion I ended up touching cloth while our Twin Otter was tossed around like a pancake as it passed through cloud. While the scenery is breathtaking, many people will tell you it’s best not to look out of the window as you are landing.
Because of the dependence on good visibility and low winds flights in and out of Lukla are frequently grounded. And then there’s the state of the aircraft; it seems Nepal’s aircraft operators have not been maintaining them as diligently as some people believe they should. There have been numerous accidents to Twin Otters in the last few years, not only in Lukla itself but all over Nepal. A ghoulish category on Wikipedia lists various aviation accidents in Nepal over the last 5 or 6 years, and nearly all them involve Twin Otters or Dornier Do 228s destined for Lukla. The situation became so bad that last year the European Commission added all Nepali airlines to its list of banned operators. The fleet of working aircraft capable of landing in Lukla has shrunk significantly in recent years. Some insurers, such as the BMC, have even added special Lukla clauses to their insurance policies to guard against claims involving missed departures.
There was a time in the past when tour operators added an extra day to their itineraries as a contingency should flights be delayed in Lukla, but these days a single day isn’t nearly enough. In 2011 there was quite a lot of press coverage when trekkers were delayed in Lukla for five days due to bad weather, but three years later this situation has become normal. When I went to the Khumbu region this year we took helicopters because we knew the aeroplanes couldn’t be trusted. Our bags came back by plane, and sure enough there were significant delays and they ended up arriving in Kathmandu 12 days behind us, by which time most of our group had gone home and had to pay hundreds of dollars to have their bags shipped back. Once again there were three or four day delays this year for passengers, which meant the limited number of trekking lodges in Lukla filling up and people having to sleep on the floor. Some places even started running out of food, which has to be transported in by porter back from the roadhead at Jiri, several days’ trek away.
If you only have 5 or 6 weeks’ holiday a year you don’t really want to spend one of them sitting around waiting for your plane to fly. Not surprisingly the combined effect of fewer aircraft, increased delays, high profile accidents and changes to insurance policies means that tourism has taken a bit of a battering in the Khumbu recently and it was much quieter there this spring season.
But it seems things are about to change. Earlier this month the Kathmandu Post reported on plans to build a road all the way to Surkhe, a short walk from Lukla. The reaction has been low key compared with the media furore which greets most announcements about Everest these days. While the road is long overdue and vital for Nepal’s tourist industry, which benefits significantly from income generated by Everest expeditions and base camp treks, predictably there have been the usual quotes flying around about the amount of rubbish clogging up the Everest trail. “There could be considerable environmental damage from plastic rubbish and debris,” one expert was quoted as saying in article by the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle entitled Highway to Everest: infrastructure at the expense of nature? It’s worth keeping the quote in context, though. The same expert acknowledged that while the road would have an environmental impact, it would also improve the quality of life for the local population by improving access, raising land value and generally improving infrastructure.
Not so long ago there was quite a lot of discussion in the tourist industry about how Nepal’s classic trek the Annapurna Circuit would be destroyed by roads being built from both ends of the trail, up the Kali Gandaki and Marsyangdi Valleys. When I trekked the circuit in 2006 I remember being annoyed by the frequent motorcycles zooming up and down on the Kali Gandaki side, but locals told me the road was for their benefit because it enabled trade to pass up and down the valley more freely. In a post I wrote a few years ago I argued the road up the Annapurna Circuit would ultimately improve the area as a trekking destination, by opening up places like Manang as tourist centres and encouraging travellers who seek a quieter experience to visit other parts of the country, benefiting people there as well. By and large that appears to have happened, with newer treks such as the Manaslu Circuit becoming more popular. And it seems people are still trekking the Annapurna Circuit and enjoying it, which shouldn’t be that surprising: road or no road the scenery is always going to be stunning.
Beautiful scenery hasn’t stopped us building roads, cable cars, funicular railways and mountaintop restaurants in the Alps, Rockies and other picturesque places in the western world, and these developments are not always a bad thing. For example, I’m not saying you should build a bar on top of every mountain, but enjoying a pint on the summit is one of the many things which make an ascent of Snowdon unique. I certainly believe new developments need to be done sensitively in a way that minimises their environmental impact, but you can’t halt progress or stop people in poor countries improving their infrastructure. The new Everest highway is long overdue. I will miss those unscheduled all day Lukla bar crawls though.
All of which gives us a nice excuse to show a video of Lukla Airport and the trail from Lukla to Namche Bazaar, filmed during my curtailed expedition to Lhotse this year.