Flying into Kathmandu is a walk in the park when compared to Lukla. Dubbed as the most dangerous airport in the world, Lukla’s runway is a mere 1,729ft (527m) long, with mountainous terrain to the north and a steeply angled drop to the south. It is built on a 12% uphill gradient to help planes slow down. There are no go-around procedures if the planes miss their approach, as such only highly experienced pilots with short-takeoff-and-landing missions under their belt, experience in Nepal and ten flights in Lukla with a certified instructor, are permitted to land at the airport. In a nutshell if climbing Everest doesn’t cause prickles on the back of your neck, then a high intensity landing in Lukla certainly should.
In 2008, Lukla airport was renamed Tenzing-Hillary Airport in honour of Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, the first climbers to reach the summit of Everest. Hillary was instrumental in the construction of the airfield in Lukla, building an unsurfaced airstrip on a mountain shelf in 1964. It took 37 years to finally asphalt the runway.
Home to 1200 people, the village sits at 9,383ft (2,860m) above sea level, nestled on a small plateau amongst the awe inspiring mountain peaks of the Himalayan Ranges. The nearly 40mi (64km) trek to Mount Everest, skirts steep mountainsides, through deep valleys and over alpine glaciers. The hike travels through small villages and teahouses, past prayer wheels and fluttering prayer flags to the memorial site honouring mountaineers and Sherpas who lost their lives climbing the mountain, continuing to Base Camp and then the final summit climb.
Leaving the viewing platform of the Lukla airport, I made my way through the centre of town on a narrow street that was sometimes cobbled and sometimes just compacted soil. Double-storey buildings lined the street filled with shops, teahouses and lodging services.
Shortly after leaving the village I passed through the National Luminary Pasan Lhamu Memorial Gate which was built to honour Pasan Lhamu, the first Sherpa woman to summit Everest in 1993. It is the gateway to the Khumbu Region that encompasses the Sagarmatha National Park and the Nepalese side of Mount Everest.
It was a gradual downhill hike, passing through a forest on narrow paths with the colossal mountainside ever present to my right. I continued on this downward hike, on a trail that wound itself up and down, passing through villages with teahouses until I reached Phakding, a small village that lies in the Dudh Kosi river valley. Here was the first of many suspension bridge crossings. The bridge, about 100ft (30m) above the river, stretched across what seemed to be an old landslide with large boulders and debris settling beside the river. As the bridge swayed and moved beneath my feet, I pondered about those whose fear of heights may find the crossing challenging. This isn’t the tallest suspension bridge on this trek, that is yet to come.
Finally reaching the small village of Benkar with its tin-roofed, brightly painted window frames, four-storey residences/storefronts, I settled into one of the teahouses for a meal. Known to aid with altitude adaptation I had garlic soup with Tibetan flat bread. Between the warmth of the soup and the crusty on the outside, fluffy on the inside bread, I filled my belly and finished with a Tibetan tea.
Rested and fed, I resumed my hike crossing another suspension bridge. Soon I reached the entrance to Sagarmatha National Park. A UNESCO listed site since 1976, the 1,148km² park is home to the Sherpa people, rare species like the snow leopard and several mountains including Mount Everest.
After obtaining the necessary permits to enter the park, I walked through the Jorsalle Entrance Gate, a concrete structure with Buddhist artwork on its interior walls to a set of steps that began a steep descent into a gorge, onto Jorsalle village, alongside the thundering Dhudh Kosi river and over two more suspension bridges.
However, what goes down, must come up and it wasn’t long before I engaged my hiking poles to start the steep ascent onto a woodland path until I reached a wide open low lying land beside the river filled with stones and boulders making trekking through it unstable and difficult.
But nothing prepared me for the next suspension bridge. Like all the others, Hillary Bridge was made of galvanized steel cables that’s connected to the grated deck by interlinked wire fence. An old version of the bridge was right beneath this one just hanging, blowing in the wind, no longer in use. At 410ft (125m) above the Dhudh Kosi river, this 459ft (140m) long bridge was exposed to the elements swaying laterally and vertically as the strong wind blew through the valley. It was a heart thumping, adrenaline spiking exercise that on this trek one could do without. I was grateful to reach solid ground.