For travelers attempting the 14-day Everest Base Camp trek in Nepal, there's more awaiting them than just two weeks of high altitude trekking. For most, the trip begins with a flight into Lukla's Tenzing-Hilary Airport -- otherwise known as "the most dangerous airport in the world." At nearly 10,000 feet, the airport features a single runway less than 1,500 feet long (most commercial runways are more than 5,000 feet) and is built on a 12 percent slope that on one end collides with solid rock and the other falls off steeply into a deep valley.
It's not the most relaxing way to kick off the trek, but considering the alternative is taking a bus 10 hours along treacherous mountain roads before hiking four days uphill, most visitors take their chances with the flight.
Flight from Kathmandu
Before trekkers are allowed to defy death during the landing in Lukla, however, they have to survive an hour-long, knuckle-whitening flight from Kathmandu to get there. On average, there's a plane crash each year. A Sita Air flight went down this year killing everyone on board.
My wife Liz and I braced ourselves as we taxied to a foggy runway in Nepal's capital during our recent visit. All 18 passengers were deathly quiet, the recent tragedy at the tops of our minds no doubt. Engines roaring, the pilots steered us into the mist and, finally, safely into the air.
From our seats in the well-used, twin-prop plane, we caught some stunning scenes of Mt. Everest. Yet we also got unwanted pilot's-eye views through the cockpit, where the captain and co-pilot wove skillfully between swirling storm clouds, dodged soaring vultures, and let the wings skim dangerously close to the peaks of some of the world's highest mountains.
Landing in Lukla
After a long, winding turn around a steep hill, the narrow landing strip came into view not far below. The pilots revved the engines, drawing shrieks from the rear of the plane. We then banked sharply and roared toward the asphalt. By the time we finally landed, three people had sobbed loudly, two lost their breakfasts. Not one of us said a word until the plane came to a stop.
Once safe, Liz and I knelt and kissed the asphalt runway much too intimately. Then we grabbed our packs off the tarmac and headed quickly up the dirt and stone trail into Lukla.
We had been awake since 5 am, and with six hours of uphill hiking ahead of us, we needed a drink. Considering we hadn't had breakfast (nothing to lose on the flight), we opted for two strong Everest coffees and some fresh apple strudel from one of the town's bakeries, which are surprisingly sophisticated, complete with wi-fi and espresso machines.
After a caffeine fix and some time to calm our nerves, we headed up the trail, starting the long trek to Everest. As we looked back, the three-year-old son of the bakery owner gave us a thumbs up, and we left Lukla and its terrifying airport behind.