Day 1: Dropping Into Lukla

November 4, 2022
Start: Kathmandu 1324m (4343ft)
Via: Lukla 2860m (9381ft)
Stop: Phakding 2610m (8561ft)
Distance: 8km (5miles)

After a couple hours of sleep the alarm goes off at 3:30am. 10 minute snooze and then it’s time for the last hot shower in the next two weeks. We’re out front in the dark for our pickup by 4:30am. The incredible owners of Hotel Butsugen are up and waiting with us at the gate. After a quick stop at the Hyatt for the rest of the group, we make our way through airport security. Everything goes through a scanner as we enter the door and then we make our way to the Summit Air ticket counter. All the backpacks are put on the scale at once. And then all the duffels are weighed together. I think we’re all holding our breath about the bag weights. Apparently the tour company has to pay for some extra weight. They issue our tickets and then we proceed to a security check for our carry-on backpacks. Women and men are separated into different lines for this check/scan.

We actually board the plane ahead of time where Caspar and I sit in the second row on the right. Even though we’re not on the ‘mountain’ side of the plane, the views of Kathmandu and the foothills climbing to Lukla are stunning. Mist hangs in valleys as the sun comes up over the horizon. The mountains start to get bigger and bigger in the window. We’re headed straight for the mountain in front of us as the plane banks to the right. For a moment, I can see the short runway in the distance out my window.

The Tenzing-Hillary Airport, which sits at an elevation of 2845m (9334ft) is known as one of the most dangerous airports in the world. The runway is 527m (1,729ft) long with a 11.7% gradient. Only small fixed-wing planes and helicopters can navigate the thin air, surrounding mountains and short runway. Because the airport is surrounded on all sides by mountains, once an airplane starts its approach you better hope that it lands. And then there’s the weather and poor visibility. Flights are delayed or cancelled all the time because the pilot must have a clear visual of the runway. Even though the Tenzing-Hillary airport was built in 1964, the runway was not paved until 2001.

We line up for the runway and seemingly drop out of the sky directly onto the tarmac. With the flaps down, the pilot immediately cuts the engine as the 11.7% uphill gradient also helps us slow down. Within maybe 10 seconds we’re turning right into the airport apron. It probably only takes another 30 seconds to come to a stop in our parking spot. As we file out of the plane, duffel bags are being unloaded and there are carts sitting there with the gear bags that are ready to be loaded. I can see my breath in the air as we walk the short distance to where we will have breakfast and meet our guides. We order breakfast and then sort our gear. Things like my trekking poles and umbrella and first aid with my little knife had to be in the checked duffel bag. Water is provided and we fill our bottles. We also watch the steady stream of planes landing and taking off. The planes departing rev their engines as hard as they can then seemingly slingshot themselves down the runway, gaining just enough speed to lift off before they run out of tarmac. Look for a video of this on my instagram. Once we finish with the duffels, the porters arrange our bags for transport. Each porter carries 2 duffels by strapping them together and wrapping them in a protective cover. This is another reason why it’s so important to keep the duffels as light as possible. Each porter is probably carrying at least 25-30kgs (55-66lbs) which is a ton of weight! The porters leave while I eat my breakfast of eggs, potatoes and masala tea and then we meet our guides. Tiger is the lead guide, Bikram and Dipak are our assistant guides.

We hike through the town of Lukla. We pass gear shops and souvenir shops and dogs warming themselves in the middle of the cobble path and children brushing their teeth. At first, the trail is mostly downhill and we bounce along with lots of energy and enthusiasm. We stop at Himalayan Sherpa Coffee where they roast the beans right there in the tiny cafe. At 2700m, it’s the highest roaster in all of Nepal. Caspar enjoys a steaming, chocolatey espresso. Undulating trail leads us to several more stops for tea and coffee. Jagged mountains stretch high above us in every direction and there are beautiful sights around every corner. Homes and farmland are cut directly into the slopes. We bounce across our first suspension bridges and give way to oxen and donkeys who carry gear and supplies from village to village. Most of the donkeys are not loaded as they head to Lukla for resupply.

On the approach to Phakding

We cross one last suspension bridge on the approach to our destination for the day, Phakding. We arrive at Hotel Sherpa Lodge & Restaurant Bar and have a late lunch before finding our rooms. On the second floor, Caspar and I get a room together. Jeremy and Clearance share a room next door to us. Susan and Silke also share a room next door to them. Sophie gets a room to herself on the first floor. Our room is just the beds and the toilet is down at the end of the hall. The walls of our home for the night are paper thin and you can easily hear talking and laughing in the rooms around us. On our way into Phakding, we couldn’t help but notice that there is a bakery offering free wifi and charging. These kinds of services usually cost money so we are pretty stoked. Everyone except Sophie gathers at the Hermann Helmers Bakery where we are warmly welcomed. There are yummy treats and drinks and the wifi turns out to work really well! I eventually get a slice of some kind of chocolate cake and it is so moist and delicious. I get the idea to purchase a few slices for after dinner. It is after all my birthday today. The guy at the bakery says he’ll even add a little decoration to the top for free. If you’re planning a trip to Everest Base Camp, please make sure to support this awesome bakery!

On the way back to the Hotel Sherpa Lodge, I see some oxen tied to trees getting their evening meal. Their shaggy hair color is stunning, with shades ranging from brown to gray to black, with splotches of white. The group gathers for dinner at 7:30pm where we try our hand at some serious connect 4. Just after Caspar steps out to bring in the cake slices for the group, Tiger, Bikram and Dipak are coming my way with a giant, flaming cake. The whole tea house launches into song and all eyes are on me. I can feel my face turning red. Caspar is missing it all and I’m trying to wait until he comes back. A guy at the table next to me starts yelling “blow out the candles.” I’m trying to stall but eventually start working on the candles. As some kind of altitude joke, they are the candles that relight themselves. Good thing we’re not any higher because I have to work pretty hard to complete the task of putting out these candles. One by one, Tiger, Bikram and Dipak drape white khata scarves around my neck. This is a Tibetan Buddhist tradition and is given as a symbol of respect, goodwill and a wish of happiness. There’s enough cake for the entire tea house and I get to work serving up the slices. It turns out that Sophie arranged for the cake. Thanks for the wonderful birthday surprise Sophie!

The pictures below were taken by Silke Raffel.

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