Thursday, November 28th 2019, 2:40 pm - Nepal is one of the most mountainous countries in the world and because of that, cloud and fog are ever-present, even when you’re in a helicopter.
Nepal is a country defined by the mountains and upheaval, both politically and geologically. It is that upheaval that is part of the process that has created the mountain range known as the Himalayas. In that range is the mountain, Everest, possibly the most famous peak in the world.
Our journey through Nepal wasn’t originally going to include Everest, but thanks to our guides at Exodus Travels, a flight to Everest Base Camp suddenly became possible.
However, to get there, we had to fly from Kathmandu to one of the most dangerous airports in the world in Lukla, Nepal at the base of Everest itself. Getting to see Everest has always been a dream of mine, George Kourounis, and Jaclyn Whittal’s (my storm chasing teammates), so we were willing to take the risk.
Getting to Everest means either walking, taking a plane, or riding in a helicopter. We decided that the walk was going to take a bit too long (it's a two week hike) so we headed for Everest Base Camp starting with a flight to Lukla Airport.
Nepal is one of the most mountainous countries in the world and because of that, cloud and fog are ever-present, even when you’re in a helicopter. Flights can be altered in mid-flight and in this case going up and over the ridge was out of the question and we were forced to turn back.
We took multiple tries to get over the ridge and into the valley leading to Lukla, but the cloud that spilled over the mountain cut visibility to zero and made it too dangerous to keep going.
Arrival in Lukla. The airport is well known as the most dangerous in the world thanks to the short runway, mountainous terrain and the ever-present fog and cloud.
Lukla is a small mountain village in Nepal that’s very well known as the gateway to Everest. The runway is 537 m long and steeply angled. Only very experienced pilots are allowed to fly there and even then, there have been many crashes and a few fatalities.
Helicopters are much easier to land and take off at Lukla airport, but they are far more expensive to fly and are slower than fixed-wing aircraft. Our flight to Lukla from Kathmandu.
Helicopters land at Kathmandu airport many times a day, flying to and from Kathmandu and Everest base camp. Rapidly changing weather conditions mean that dozens of flights can come in an hour as the weather clears enough to take of and land.
Old and new. The town of Lukla has long been the gateway to Everest and the only way to get there is to hike or take an aircraft. When Sir Edmund Hilary began his journey the town looked much as it does now. But, nowadays cell phones are everywhere and new roads are being built towards the town.
A Buddhist stupa sits in the centre of the street in Lukla and marks a beginning point for hikers heading for Everest. There’s no way to take anything other than a helicopter to the camp, so hiking is the only other way to get there.
Hurricane-force winds roar over the Himalayan peaks peeling snow off the rocks and driving it high into the atmosphere (as shown in the photo above). Bright sun shines through the airborne ice crystals creating rainbow patterns around the peak.
The crew stands on the main street of Lukla looking up the valley towards Everest. The flight to Base Camp requires near-perfect weather and the mountain is not cooperating.
Low clouds obscure the peaks of the Himalayas surrounding the town of Lukla. Most people making the trek to Base Camp begin here and the town has been shaped around getting those people the supplies and guides they need.
A prayer wheel spins in the dim light within a building designed to house it. Prayer wheels are used to accumulate wisdom and merit (good karma) and to purify negativities (bad karma) and are a ubiquitous feature of towns and cities across Nepal.
No vehicles can make the trek from Lukla to Everest Base Camp, so all supplies must be hauled there by animal or people’s power. There are a number of small towns along the hike so it isn’t just hiking/camping supplies being moved. Trade goods make the journey back and forth along the route, with most of it coming into and going out of Lukla.
When the weather clears enough to let helicopter and fixed-wing aircraft land at the airport in Lukla, the area explodes into activity. Dozens of helicopters are loaded and unloaded as they land, necessitating the work of many labourers who crowd the small airport. The clearing weather also meant that we could make our own journey to the Camp.
Landing near the top of the world. We were so high up that the thin air wasn’t able to support a helicopter with a full load of the crew. We had to land at the Pangboche Monastery to offload myself and George so that Jaclyn and Yan could make the final leg up to Base Camp.
Watching the helicopter swoop back in for a landing made my head spin in excitement. I was about to make the last part of the journey to the roof of the world, but it was going to be a quick one. Everest Base Camp sits at 5380 m and without weeks of acclimatization, we would only have minutes before potentially deadly altitude sickness issues set in.
Below us, at the edge of the Khumbu Glacier, Everest Base Camp spreads like a multicoloured spray of flowers along an icy riverbank. Above the camp, Mount Everest itself reaches up into the sky.
The moment I stepped out of the helicopter, the “thin air” (less oxygen per unit volume of air) made me nearly collapse. All I could manage was about five steps and then I landed on my knees, unable to stand. My cameraman, Yan Theoret, told me to stand up so he could get the shot we needed. I told him that the only shot he was going to get was me passing out if I did that. So, that’s why if you watch StormHunters, Everest, the shot of us at Base Camp is entirely of me sitting!
Coming in for a landing at Everest Base Camp. Actually making a landing at the Camp is difficult at the best of times and our journey was in no way guaranteed. However, at this point, I knew we were going to be able to land. I was almost too busy to be excited, but for just a brief moment, I felt like a kid on Christmas morning.