Landing at Lukla Airport, Nepal

Day 3: Tuesday 3rd January 2006.

Landing at Lukla

The approach to Lukla airport is exciting and somewhat unnerving. The approach is down a steep sided valley for about ten minutes. The final approach technique is to do a sharp left hand turn and DIVE at a steep angle straight at a cliff, or so it seems at first. The screaming engines roar their protest, a sound reminiscent of diving planes in all those old WW2 movies. The plane levels out, touches down and suddenly comes to a halt. One has landed; spontaneous applause from all on board.

Lukla Airstrip

The Lukla airstrip is amazing. It was built in the 1960s under instructions from Sir Edmund Hillary. When landing or taking off there is no room for error. It is 351 metres long (1150 feet) and rises over 100 feet (30 metres) from the bottom to the top, giving it an angle of about 10 degrees. (Compare this with the road above the Heysen Tunnels in the Adelaide Hills at 7 degrees.)

Exhilarating Stuff

The airstrip was built by hand by several hundred Sherpas, the final preparation for the first flight was done by them all linking arms and dancing on the surface for several days in order to pound down the bare earth. It worked, but today it is an asphalt strip. The sudden stop is very necessary; there is a sheer rock face reaching several hundred metres upwards at the end! The plane taxis to a stop and turns on to a 50m x 50m tarmac. Taking off is just as hazardous; it is then a downhill slope. The planes become airborne only metres from the end, with a 600 metre drop to the valley below. Exhilarating stuff!

Sherpas Move the Immovable

When I returned home I did some extra research on the topic of the airport. Some of that information is included in the above paragraph. I discovered one interesting fact about its construction. Edmund Hillary was not happy with the compactness of the earth, so he gathered all the Sherpas used in the construction and asked them to do a celebration dance – for 2 days! The constant pounding of their feet did the trick, but they were tired of dancing by the end of the second day. They also had a number of immoveable boulders in the way. The solution was easy; they just dug large holes under the boulders, pushed them into the holes and covered them with earth.

Further reading


11 Responses to “Landing at Lukla Airport, Nepal”

  1. Massimo says:

    ahahahahahahahahaha! dancing for 2 days,absolutely brilliant!

  2. Trevor says:

    It was a very creative solution to a problem I thought.

  3. Brian Stern says:

    I am beginning the planning of a trip very similar to yours for April, 2008, with a group of friends. As I also was born in “47, felt immediate affinity. Great description of the Lukla airport (I won’t share it with my wife, yet). Over the last 30 years I’ve spent a lot of time backpacking in the Sierra Nevada Mtns. of California and spent time between 10,000 & 14,000 feet. Your description of the “one foot in front of the other…” on the walk to Tengboche was very reminiscent. Downhill is definitely as difficult, especially on old knees and hips. Enjoyed your blog, thanks.

  4. Trevor says:

    Welcome to my blog Brian. I feel jealous. I’d love to go back and explore that fascinating country. In fact, I was very tempted to return last year to take up a teaching position (I’m a retired teacher) as the need is very great. I know of at least 2 schools I could have walked straight into open arms of welcome.

    Yes – the old knees, ankles and hips take a battering on climbs like that. I hope you are doing your training. Despite any training I did, nothing prepared me for the demands of altitude. It was the toughest mental and physical thing I’ve ever done.

    The adventure genes are starting to kick in again now. For my 60th birthday later this year I plan to climb the Sydney Harbour Bridge. (You have heard of Sydney and its famous bridge?) There are daily conducted tours over the bridge.

    Enjoy Nepal.

  5. joel says:

    You make me dreaming again Trevor. Came across your site while searching for Lukla Airstrip. I was on the Everest expedition in 1990 with a few famous Aussies (and Kiwis) like Dick Smith, Tim Mcartney Snape, Rob Hall, Gary Ball, Peter Hillary and have great memories of that time.
    Went back to Mustang area 7 years ago. Beautifull country.
    Joel (Belgium)

  6. Trevor says:

    Hi there Joel,

    Every time I look at my photos I dream again of Nepal and those magnificent mountains and the wonderful people.

    That is quite a list of prominent and very serious mountaineers you were with. Did you summit Everest?

  7. David Chang says:

    I am leaving for Nepal March 20 (Thursday). Due to the closing of Tibet, my 16 yo son and I have some extra time, and someone proposed a trip to Lukla, and hiking to Namche Bazaar. I am 53yo – healthy, but not able to do much exercise (busy physician). Your blog is really helpful as it gives a lot of detail, and it is making me re-consider whether I am up to the physical challenge – I have had no chance to train (just rearranging travel plans over the weekend), and I have not spent time at this type of altitude (although flying to Lhasa would have been at a similar altitude). We would spend one night in Phakding, one night in Monjo, then ascent to Namche B for one night, and then back to Lukla the next day. We certainly would not be going as far and as high as you did.
    What do you think based upon your expereince?


  8. Trevor says:

    Hi there David.

    My first reaction would be that you are rather optimistic attempting to go that far on little training. Age is not a factor – many older people have done that trek successfully.

    Believe me – it is very challenging to do and the lack of oxygen really starts to take effect on the ascent up to Namche B. The last 2-3 hours of that leg is an unrelenting climb.

    The descent from Namche B to Lukla is possible in one day though we took two. It would be a long haul, perhaps 6-8 hours. Don’t be deceived into thinking it is all downhill! The climb back up to Lukla can be nasty at the end of a long day.

    If you are just arranging this part of your trip I was wondering about your flight bookings Kathmandu to Lukla and return. This leg is usually well booked out well in advance. You just can’t turn up and expect a seat to be available.

    From what you have told me it is possible to do what you are attempting. Your lack of preparation really worries me however, so I would be cautious; it is NOT a Sunday afternoon stroll through the park.

    Were you aware that just before entering Namche B there are National Park fees to be paid – can’t remember how much it was as it was a part of our trek package.

    In summary – I would advise that you go only as far as Monjo which would not be too demanding yet it would give you spectacular views of the surrounding mountains. The downside is that you will not see Everest which only become visible near Namche.

    Hope you have a great time – and be careful.

  9. Gene D says:

    It was twenty six years ago this week,my wife and made this landing-we will always remember the thrill!! (also the half dozen Sherpas trying to sing “Happy Birthday” for my 55th,while encampted about Lobache),

  10. Trevor says:

    Hi Gene,

    It certainly was a memorable landing – so exciting. We attended a film night run by our trekking company before booking – they showed a video of the landing and asked if we still wanted to go. I couldn’t wait – the excitement was all part of the adventure!

    I’d love to return some day.

  11. […] A sudden stop is necessary upon landing; otherwise the plane would likely slam into this mountain/rock surface here at the end of the runway — where people often linger to watch landings and take-offs.  I think this is the spot from where I took the first two shots.  Some of my readings on Lukla Airport are here and here. […]

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