Flying into the roof of the world

The Twin Otter’s propellors whirred like giant bees, its conical nose tilted upward and then we were surging upwards into a propitiously blue sky. After the delay we’d experienced in getting to Kathmandu and a tense few hours milling around the airport check-in zone as our baggage was checked against the strict weight limits, it was a relief to be airborne. We knew though that the mountain weather was capricious, so taking off was no guarantee that we’d be able to land at Lukla, our destination. The city shrank below us and was soon left behind as we flew over the lush green plain at the bottom of the deep gash of the Kathmandu Valley. Vertiginous agricultural terraces clung to its sides and the bottom was patched with jewel green rice fields strewn alongside the lazily winding Dudh Koshi river.

Below us, the hillsides were folded like scrumpled wrapping paper. In front and to the left skeins of jagged white mountain tops played out, dropping through bare cliffs to fall headlong to the valley floor through brushy pine forest. Occasionally we dropped quickly and heavily as we caught a thermal, leaving our breath gasping in our throats. More breathtaking still were the Himalayan views. I felt lightheaded with the majesty of the landscape passing alongside. The phrase Edward Wilson, explorer, artist, naturalist and doctor, used about the Antarctic, ‘terrible beauty’, sprang to mind. Peak after craggy peak appeared, butting at the plane’s windows, gloriously silhouetted against a paintbox blue sky. Shaded layers of mountain ridges were stacked on top of each other, topped with a mountainous meringue layer. The Himalayas are home to 14 of the world’s highest peaks, and peering through the windscreen from my prime position right behind the pilot in our tiny speck of a plane, it was easy to believe it. The feeling of being perched in the air, dwarfed by the scale of the awe-inspiring scene around us, was at the same time humbling and uplifting, with a seasoning of adrenaline.

The flight was enthralling, but all too soon we were cruising in for our hair-raising landing. With an impassive mountain face directly in front of us, we began to descend steeply and suddenly a short run of tarmac appeared. We dipped elegantly onto it, touched gently down and raced along. Despite a steep upward slope, we were still moving at speed and it began to look as though we would run out of runway. As our stomachs clenched with fear, the pilot hauled the plane into a sharp right turn, we turned a corner, brakes shrieking and cruised to a halt in Tensing-Hillary airport. A spontaneous cheer rose up from the passengers, which the pilots turned to acknowledge graciously. We had arrived at Lukla, with an altitude of 2843m and the starting point of the Everest Base Camp trek. Our adventure had begun in earnest!

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