AsiaNepalLukla

Day 189 (1): Helirescue

Lukla Travel Blog

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A very empty Starbucks at 6:30 in the morning

Thanks to the people I met here and/or travelled with: John (Scotland), Dan (Scotland) & Tom (UK), Jon (UK)

But alas, it was not to be. When my alarm went off I peeked out of the window to see the mist still hadn't cleared. An Internet check taught me that while the clearing promised at 5 AM had not happened, it would definitely clear between 8 and 3 today, so I remained hopeful.

At Starbucks I met up with Dan and Tom for a game of Scrabble and our euphoria resulted in our highest team score ever: 696 points! John joined us too and as the morning progressed our optimism slowly faded. The mist did not look as if it had any intention of clearing.

Tom had a flight to Delhi to catch today, which he would certainly miss. That wasn't the end of the world, as long as he could make it to Delhi by tomorrow night, when he had a flight to Australia to catch.

Our best team-score: 696 points
Dan had a flight from Kathmandu to Delhi and then on to London tomorrow morning, so both were quite eager to bail Lukla as soon as possible.

We had heard some rumours about helicopters which sometimes fly from Lukla to Kathmandu. Whereas a plane needs about 2km visibility to fly through these mountains, a helicopter doesn't need more than 250-500 metres. We could see the end of the runway at the airport, so the visibility was at least 500 metres. How much would a helicopter cost?

We asked around and found a guy who was able to arrange a helicopter for us for $ 350 per person, provided there are five people.
Lukla runway, note how you can barely see the end of it. This photo was taken at the time which the weather forecast claimed was the best time of the day
That is quite a lot of money and we were one person short. However, Dan and Tom reasoned that if they would miss their flights tomorrow, it would cost them a lot more money (travel insurances generally don't cover missed flights due to unconnected delayed flights).

I started calculating. I'd get $ 115 back if I cancelled my flight to Lukla, so basically the helicopter would only cost $ 235. I had been planning to do a two-day rafting trip, but due to the delay in Lukla I would no longer have time to do so. That trip would have cost almost as much.
Furthermore, Orange Assignment #5 was a mountain flight over the Everest region. I suppose a helicopter flight would count as well, right? So I could use that money to pay for the helicopter flight. Besides, how often do you get to fly a helicopter in the Himalayan foothills? Let's do it!

John was game as well, so all we needed was a fifth person.
A helicopter leaving (not ours...)
Meanwhile I had phoned Hem to see if it was possible to cancel the Lukla-Kathmandu flight and get a refund. This was generally no problem and Hem told me he would also be able to arrange a helicopter for us. Since the helicopter would have to come from Kathmandu first, he was in a much better position to arrange this for us, so we gave him the go ahead. He could even do it for $ 30 per person less!

Tom and Dan found a fellow Brit, Jon, who had to get home for some kind of emergency. He had only been on his second day of the trek when he had to turn around. And then Lukla had been enveloped in the mist and all flights had been cancelled. He seemed desperate to get to Kathmandu today. We had our fifth person.

The airport was chaos. Although the airport was officially closed, due to all flights being cancelled, there were plenty of hopefuls in the check-in hall.
John trying to pose as checked luggage in order to get an earlier flight
There were also plenty of other people trying to arrange a helicopter. Some people had arranged it via their guesthouse, while others were desperately trying to get any information on how to arrange a helicopter from other travellers. For some reason they were all coming to me, as if I was the helicopter guru all of a sudden.
I didn't want to risk losing my own chance at a helicopter, so I promised to give them Hem's contact details as soon as our helicopter had arrived. Sanjeev smelled a chance of making some extra money though and he started arranging more helicopters.

Before any helicopter would fly from Kathmandu to Lukla it would first need some kind of proof of payment. $ 1600 is a lot of money, especially in Nepal. We had our flight tickets, which had a value of $ 600, plus about $ 500 in cash.
Dan explaining emergency procedures at the airport
This was enough for them to send a helicopter up - we were go!

I wondered if people hadn't missed a huge commercial opportunity here. Over the past few weeks Lukla airport has been more often closed than open. This year's monsoon is particularly bad and affects the whole region. Surely there must be people getting stuck and willing to pay for a helicopter every day. Why not set up a desk with a credit card machine at the airport. Bad weather? Ah, so sorry, why not charter a helicopter? I mean, eventually there were five helicopter which flew from Lukla to Kathmandu today. There had been enough people here for at least five more. That's $8000 the helicopter companies could have earned.
Instead we had spent more than two hours calling back and forth to Hem trying to arrange this helicopter, scraping together all the cash we had, using Sanjeev as mediator.
Having a little whisky to calm our nerves
Surely there are more efficient ways to do this.

But a helicopter desk at the airport wasn't the only thing I missed. In general the whole mission lacked structure and coordination. Communication went in the usual Nepali way, i.e. it didn't make any sense at all. Sanjeev had become the main contact point and communication hadn't been his strongest point in this past week. The first update was that the helicopter had already left Kathmandu twenty minutes earlier and would be here within the hour. Then an hour later the helicopter was about to leave Kathmandu. Then the helicopter would be leaving Kathmandu within 30 minutes. Then the helicopter had been diverted to another airfield due to the bad weather. Then it would arrive again in 20 minutes.

Six hours it took for the helicopter to arrive.
Our helicopter arriving
Helicopters I should say, as several of them had been ordered. What ensued was utter chaos. As soon as a helicopter would land people would rush out and immediately try to board it. The pilots had no passenger list, or manifests, so they didn't know who to take. It was survival of the strongest.
We had been informed that our helicopter was from the company Mountain Flight. None of the helicopters so far had been Mountain Flight, so we didn't partake in the pushing and shoving to try to get aboard.
Then a Mountain Flight helicopter appeared and we rejoiced. We ran over to board it, but were violently pushed aside by a Nepali woman who had decided this was the helicopter for her Canadian guests. Our helicopter literally got hijacked here!

By this time pretty much everybody had managed to board a helicopter, apart from us.
Take off (why does a helicopter use the runway for take-off?)
Perhaps we were too polite that we didn't just jump into any helicopter without verifying whether it was ours. Or perhaps we were lacking a guide who would make sure we would board the right helicopter when it got there.
We were told there was one more helicopter on its way, and with us there was one more group of people left waiting, the Spanish group that Sanjeev had arranged a helicopter for. Now it was my turn to get up on my high horse. Sanjeev was my guide so between us and them we would be the ones more entitled to the next helicopter. They had already missed their flight to Delhi, so they weren't all that fussed about getting to Kathmandu anymore, and they left.

So that just left us, waiting for a helicopter. Would it ever arrive?
About 20 minutes later we heard the familiar sound roaring through the valley.
Flying over the Himalayan foothills
We were thrilled when an AirDynasty chopper appeared above the ridge. This was most definitely the helicopter ordered for the Spanish group, but they were gone, so we did what others had done before us: we hijacked it! This was our chopper now!
We did it! We were finally leaving! The five of us danced around the runway, cheering and hugging each other. Jon, who had to get home for a family emergency, was almost in tears. All day long he had been a bit quiet (understandably) but as soon as our helicopter took off he loosened up and started joking with the rest of us.

The flight was phenomenal. We soared through the valleys, staying under the clouds, sometimes topping ridges and hill tops at no more than a few metres from the ground. “Reminds me of 'Nam”, I said in the best American accent I could muster.
Made it to Kathmandu!
Because it really did. It didn't remind me so much of my trip to Vietnam, but it reminded me of all the Vietnam movies I've seen.

This was one of the highlights of my entire trip. Even though it was just a means of 'escaping' Lukla, this 1.5 hour flight was just amazing. Well worth the money!

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A very empty Starbucks at 6:30 in …
A very empty Starbucks at 6:30 in…
Our best team-score: 696 points
Our best team-score: 696 points
Lukla runway, note how you can bar…
Lukla runway, note how you can ba…
A helicopter leaving (not ours...)
A helicopter leaving (not ours...)
John trying to pose as checked lug…
John trying to pose as checked lu…
Dan explaining emergency procedure…
Dan explaining emergency procedur…
Having a little whisky to calm our…
Having a little whisky to calm ou…
Our helicopter arriving
Our helicopter arriving
Take off (why does a helicopter us…
Take off (why does a helicopter u…
Flying over the Himalayan foothills
Flying over the Himalayan foothills
Made it to Kathmandu!
Made it to Kathmandu!
John with the bottle of Jameson wh…
John with the bottle of Jameson w…
Before take-off: Jon, Tom, Bart, J…
Before take-off: Jon, Tom, Bart, …
Tom the luggage man
Tom the luggage man
Yay! Our helicopter arrives
Yay! Our helicopter arrives
boarding the helicopter
boarding the helicopter
Jon and I in the back of the helic…
Jon and I in the back of the heli…
Hey, who let Simon Pegg in?
Hey, who let Simon Pegg in?
Flying over the Himalayan foothills
Flying over the Himalayan foothills
Flying over the Himalayan foothills
Flying over the Himalayan foothills
Sun nearly setting
Sun nearly setting
Flying over the Himalayan foothills
Flying over the Himalayan foothills
the view above
the view above
Flying over the Himalayan foothill…
Flying over the Himalayan foothil…
Flying over the Himalayan foothills
Flying over the Himalayan foothills
Flying over the Himalayan foothills
Flying over the Himalayan foothills
Jon and I in the back of the helic…
Jon and I in the back of the heli…
Flying over the Himalayan foothills
Flying over the Himalayan foothills
Flying over the Himalayan foothills
Flying over the Himalayan foothills
Flying over the Himalayan foothills
Flying over the Himalayan foothills
Approaching Kathmandu
Approaching Kathmandu
Approaching Kathmandu airport
Approaching Kathmandu airport
Lukla
photo by: halilee