A Pemba Short Story
Based on the character from Charlie Lupton's Sherpa Adventure
‘Lukla?’ said the taxi driver. ‘You’re flying to Lukla? Are you crazy? That’s the most dangerous airport in the world!’
‘Yes, I know,’ I said. I was anxious. I had been picked up outside the trekking office about five minutes earlier, but we were still in the same street. ‘Could we hurry, please?’ I asked, as I looked at my watch. ‘I don’t want to miss my plane.’
The driver shrugged. ‘This is Thamel, one of the busiest areas of Kathmandu. I cannot go any faster.’ He hooted his horn and a rickshaw ahead of us swerved to one side. But the street was really only a narrow alley. It was full of people, rickshaws and mopeds. He was right, we couldn’t go any faster.
He was also right about Lukla airport. It is high in the Himalayas, surrounded by mountains. The high altitude means the air is thin, which makes flying difficult. The wind can be very strong and the weather can turn ugly without warning.
But what makes the airport even more scary is the runway. One end, where the aircraft approaches to land, is at the edge of a steep slope. If the plane descends too soon, it will crash into the mountainside. But once the plane has landed, it is still in danger. The runway is short and blocking the other end is a wall of rock. The good news is that the runway is uphill which helps to slow the plane down. But if the pilot gets it wrong and lands too fast or too far up the runway, he will not be able to stop in time. Instead of rolling to a halt, the plane will smash into the rock. Yes, the taxi driver was right - Lukla airport is the most dangerous airport in the world.
But I wouldn’t be flying to Lukla if I didn’t get to Kathmandu airport on time.
When I am climbing in the mountains I am in control. It’s up to me which handholds to use, which route to take, where to place my feet. But as I sat in the back of the taxi I knew there was nothing I could do but be patient and hope I would not be too late.
I looked out of the window. There were small shops jammed together on either side, selling everything - food, climbing gear, DVDs, souvenirs. Some shops had their wares on the street. Nepali carpets, boxes of spices, pashmina shawls, pots and pans - the street was a permanent open air market.
I looked ahead, lowering my head to see below the sun strip with the word SUZUKI that stretched across the windscreen. Every shop had a large colourful sign which stuck out above the street. I couldn’t see the sky for signs. Of course, since the earthquake many of those signs have fallen and many of the shops have been destroyed. But this was a long time ago, long before the earthquake, and a long time before I met Charlie Lupton.
There was no air conditioning and I opened the car window to cool down. This was a big mistake. Dust and smoke drifted in from the street. I could smell the spices and the noise was deafening. I wound the window back up, coughing as I did so.
‘Why are you going to Lukla?’ asked the taxi driver.
‘I am a mountain guide. I take groups of tourists on treks through the mountains. I am meeting a group at Lukla today.’
‘So you actually work for that trekking office where I picked you up?’
‘Yes, I am a Sherpa.’
‘That explains the big rucksack you’ve got.’ He glanced back at the rucksack which was by my side on the seat. ‘Do you climb as well?’
‘Not usually with the tourists, but sometimes I go on expeditions.’
‘Have you ever climbed Everest?’
‘Not to the very top.’
‘Now that WOULD be crazy,’ said the Taxi driver. ‘Climbing to the very top of Everest - why do people do it?’ He shook his head and sighed. ‘Only a few months ago a Sherpa was killed there. Lapka, I think his name was. He was killed in an avalanche in the Western Cwm. Did you know him?’
‘I was with him,’ I said. ‘He was my brother.’
For the rest of the journey I stared out of the window in silence.
Eventually we made it out of the city and headed along the main road towards the airport. We passed the famous Pashupatinath temple with smoke rising up from its ritual fires. I could see small monkeys clambering over the buildings. Then we turned onto the road that led to the airport. We drove under the giant arch which stretches across the road, with its red pillars either side, and its pointed spire on top. I looked at my watch. I had five minutes to check in.
The taxi screeched to a halt at the drop-off point. We both got out and I dragged my rucksack off the seat.
‘Thank you very much,’ I said.
‘It is my pleasure, sir,’ said the driver, as he put his hands together. ‘My name is Ganesh. Please, recommend my taxi to others. Please accept my condolences for your brother. I’m sorry, I don’t know your name.’
‘Pemba. My name is Pemba.’ I put my hands together and then dashed off towards the terminal.
I could see the check-in desk for my flight across the hall. Normally, there would be a queue, but nobody was there. My heart missed a beat. I ran as fast as I could with my heavy rucksack. A lady in the airline uniform had just placed a Closed sign on the desk and was walking away.
‘Excuse me, I have booked onto the flight for Lukla,’ I said, as I dumped my rucksack and took my ticket out of my pocket.
She stopped and turned round. ‘I am sorry sir, this desk is now closed.’
‘But it’s the last flight to Lukla. I have to get there today.’
‘I’m sorry sir, you are too late. Checking in has been completed.’ She turned once more and walked off.
I ran after her. ‘Look, I work for a trekking company and I have to meet a party at Lukla. Some of them might even be on this flight. If I don’t get there today I may lose my job.’
‘Sir, checking in procedures are very strict,’ she said, as she kept walking. ‘I have no choice. I cannot let you through. There are no more passenger flights to Lukla today with any airline. You may be able to use your ticket for a flight tomorrow, if there is a spare seat. But that is very unlikely. I am sorry sir. If you wish to take the matter further then please speak to the management.’
I gave up and watched her disappear into the crowds which were milling round other check-in desks. With a big sigh I walked back out of the terminal.
I stepped outside and made my way towards the taxis. Then something caught my eye. Two men were walking in the distance towards another part of the airport. But what had caught my eye was something which had fallen out of the back pocket of one of the men. It looked like a wallet. But they were oblivious and kept on walking. ‘Hey!’ I shouted, but they did not hear. I brushed past some drivers who had come towards me to try and get business. I knew the wallet would soon be taken if I didn’t get there first. I ran, still humping my rucksack, and picked up the wallet. I could see it was full of rupees. I shouted again. ‘Hey! Excuse me! You’ve dropped this!’
This time they heard me. One of them felt his back pocket and then they both walked over to me.
‘Thank you,’ said the man as I handed him the wallet. ‘It’s good to know there’s still some honesty in the world.’
‘You’re welcome,’ I said.
‘Where have you flown from?’ asked the other man.
‘I haven’t,’ I said. ‘I was due to fly to Lukla, but I got caught in traffic on the way. I have missed my flight. It was my own fault. I should have left sooner.’
I expected them to say they were sorry, but instead they just looked at each other. Then one with the wallet stroked his chin as though he were thinking very hard. ‘How important is it for you to get to Lukla today?’
‘I am a mountain guide. I was due to meet up with a party in Lukla. But I have missed the last flight.’
‘The last flight?’ he said. ‘I don’t think so. WE are the last flight to Lukla.’
‘What do you mean?’ I asked.
‘Your flight was the last passenger flight. But we are flying a cargo flight to Lukla.’
‘Why is everybody surprised when we say we’re pilots?’ said the other man, with a grin.
‘My name is Kumar and this is Mukesh,’ said the man with the wallet.
‘Pleased to meet you,’ I said. ‘My name is Pemba.’
‘We are flying a Twin Otter to Lukla with a cargo of essential supplies,’ said Kumar. ‘If you don’t mind squeezing in and sitting on the floor behind us, you are most welcome to have a lift.’
‘Are you sure?’ I asked. ‘Are you allowed to?’
‘Well, I’m the pilot. It’s my responsibility. And I say you can come. It’s the least I can do after you gave me back my wallet. If you stick with us we’ll get you to the plane, no problem. Nobody will ask any questions.’
I followed them through a gate in the fence and we walked over to the plane. I walked to the door where men in fluorescent jackets were loading large boxes from a trailer. I poked my head inside. The seats which would be there for a passenger flight had been removed. There were large boxes packed in almost to the cockpit.
‘Excuse me please.’
I turned round to see two of the men waiting to lift another box into the plane.
‘That looks heavy,’ I said to Kumar, who was by my side.
‘It’s a freezer,’ he said. ‘We’ve got foodstuff towards the front and the rest are freezers.’
‘Are they tying them in place securely?’ asked Mukesh, who had just walked round the plane doing a check.
‘That’s what I’m keeping an eye on,’ said Kumar.
‘Pemba, you’ll be able to get in through our door at the front,’ said Mukesh. ‘There should be just enough room for you and your rucksack behind our seats.’
‘I could always sit down at the back of the plane,’ I said. ‘There is some space down that end.’
‘I’m afraid not,’ said Kumar. ‘The plane would be too unbalanced if we had any more weight down that end. That’s why I’m making sure they tie down the boxes. If they come loose and slide to the back, well …’ He put his hand out, with his palm facing downwards. Then he bent his wrist so his hand was pointing towards the sky. Then he dropped his arm. ‘It’s the thing all cargo pilots dread. A load shift which moves the centre of gravity backward. We could stall and fall out of the sky.’
‘And that is not our preferred way of landing,’ said Mukesh.
By now the loading had finished. The men in the fluorescent jackets climbed onto the empty trailer and one of them sat at the small tractor at the front. They drove off towards the airport building.
Kumar took a final glance into the plane then shut the door. ‘Let’s get on board,’ he said.
We walked to the front of the plane. I clambered into the cockpit and squeezed in behind the seats. The doorway which led to the cabin with all the boxes was open. I wedged my rucksack on the floor just inside the cabin. I was able to sit down on the rucksack. I faced the cockpit and even when the pilots had got in, I still had a great view through the windows.
After they had done their preflight checks the pilots were ready for take off. Kumar was in the left hand seat. He was the one who would actually fly the plane. The two engines, one on each wing, started up with a roar and the propellers began to whirl. Kumar radioed to the control tower for permission to taxi to the runway. Then, holding the control column with his left hand, he reached up with his right hand and gripped a lever which came down from the roof of the cockpit. This was the throttle and it looked like a garden fork handle. He gently moved it forwards and the engine noise increased as the propellers went faster. The plane taxied to the beginning of the runway.
We waited and waited until we finally had permission to take off. Then Kumar pushed the throttle forward and we started to move. Faster and faster we went. It was very bumpy and very noisy. Then, the nose of the plane pointed up towards the clear blue sky, there were no more bumps and I felt a sinking feeling in my stomach. We were airborne.
Down below the buildings and roads of Kathmandu fell away. We left the city behind and within minutes we were flying over hills and mountains, lush and green with plants and trees. And in the distance were the mighty snowcapped mountains of the Himalayas. It only takes thirty minutes to fly to Lukla. It would take several days to walk there. From Lukla you can walk to Everest base camp in nine days. It is the ideal place to begin a trek. And soon I would be there! I was so grateful to Kumar and Mukesh for letting me fly with them.
But then clouds began to fill the sky.
‘We are flying into bad weather,’ Kumar shouted.
‘Will we still be able to get there?’ I asked. But he couldn’t hear me through his headphones.
Kumar and Mukesh were deep in conversation, speaking to each other through their radios. They were obviously deciding what to do. I hoped they would keep going, but I knew it would be foolish to do so if the weather was bad.
After what seemed like an age, although it was probably less than a minute, I saw Kumar say something and Mukesh nodded in agreement. They had decided what to do.
Mukesh turned round and spoke to me. ‘We think it is only a narrow band of rain. We should fly through it before we get near Lukla’. While he was speaking to me he took the headphones off one of his ears so he could hear me.
‘So we’re going to keep going?’ I asked.
‘Yes,’ he said. Then he put the headphone back on his ear and faced the front again.
On the ground, Kumar and Mukesh had been jokey and lighthearted. But I could see they were now both very serious. I looked out and saw mountains and rocks. Then everything went grey. We had flown into the middle of the cloud.
I knew this was potentially very dangerous. If we went too low or deviated just a little from the right course, we could crash into a mountain. And we wouldn’t even see it coming.
Then came the wind and rain.
The plane was buffeted from side to side. Water poured down the windscreen. The noise was incessant. Hailstones hit the plane like bullets. Kumar wrestled with the controls and fought to keep the plane level. Mukesh was adjusting switches on the console in front of him and on a panel above his head.
Then the whole cockpit was lit up by a searing blue flash following by a loud crack. It was lightning! But had we been hit? The plane seemed to swerve. Kumar was focused on the displays in front of him. There was no point him looking outside - there was nothing to see. The only way he could tell if he was in level flight was by looking at the instruments.
I instinctively leaned forward to look at the instrument panels more closely, although, of course, I did not understand what everything meant.
Mukesh must have sensed my concern. He glanced back at me and gave a thumbs-up.
We had survived the lightning!
It was then that I heard the screeching sound. The sound of something scraping - scraping along the floor of the plane. This was followed by a bang. At the same moment the plane seemed to lurch and I was thrown backwards, sprawling on top of my rucksack. I struggled back up.
Mukesh was signaling to me. He had his hand pointed up, bent at the wrist. Then he shouted two words I will never forget. ‘Load shift!’ He nodded towards the back of the plane and had a sense of urgency in his eyes. I understood straightaway what he meant. Somehow I had to get to the back of the plane to get a loose load back in place. And I had to do it fast. I turned round and started to make my way down the cabin.
There was no room to walk. I had to crawl and climb over the boxes. The plane was lurching and I was thrown from side to side. But somehow I kept moving back, inching over one box, then another. I came to a box with the words Dry Milk on it. I still hadn’t reached the freezers. I hung on with my arms stretched out over the sides and tried to get my breath back. It was very cold, but I was sweating with having to use all my strength.
Then I felt a sinking feeling in my stomach. The plane seemed to be falling. I lost my grip on the box and was thrown upwards. I banged against the roof of the cabin and then fell back down on the box. Had the plane stalled? Were we plummeting downwards? I tried to look back towards the cockpit, but all I could see were boxes. I had to assume we were still flying. I had to keep going.
At last, I came to a large box with the word Freezer on it. It was still tied securely in place. I crawled onto the next box, and then the next. And then there was nothing, just the floor of the plane and the ends of ropes which had been holding boxes in place. Three boxes were down the far end, wedged against the back of the plane. I felt the plane lurch again. I had to get them back in position - and fast.
I dropped off the end of the box and fell onto the floor. I slid on my back and crashed into the freezers at the far end. I felt the plane sway. With me at the back the situation was now even worse. I had to get the weight back to the middle of the plane.
I started to move the first box. At first, I tried pushing it with my hands, but progress was slow. Every time the plane hit some turbulence the box would slide back. I had to think of a better way. I sat on the floor with my back against the box. Then I pushed with my feet. Progress was still slow, but at least the box was not sliding back. Eventually I pushed the box up against the other cargo in the middle of the plane. I grabbed one of the ropes and wrapped it round the box. I tied it to another rope which was still in place. Thankfully, because I am a climber, I know how to tie proper knots. Once the box was securely back in place, I slid back down and started work on the next box.
By the time I had got the last box back in place, I was exhausted. I sat on the floor, leaning against the side of the plane with my hand hooked round a rope so I would not slide. I wiped my brow and took a deep breath. Then I began scrambling back over the boxes towards the cockpit. As I reached the food boxes I noticed that the plane was flying more smoothly and the noise of hail and rain had gone. Ahead, the cockpit was bathed in a golden light. The sun was shining; we had come through the storm.
I reached the cockpit and collapsed onto my rucksack.
‘Are the boxes back in position?’ shouted Mukesh.
I gave him a thumbs up. I took a deep breath, puffed out my cheeks and breathed a sigh of relief. But I knew we were not safe yet. We still had to land at the most dangerous airport in the world.
I looked out the windows. We were surrounded by mountains on all sides. I looked ahead. There, nestling in the mountains was the small town of Lukla. At first I could not even see the airport. We seemed to be descending towards nothing but buildings and rock. Then I saw it - a grey, pencil-thin strip of tarmac. Behind it were cliffs and mountains. If we got the landing wrong there was no question of pulling up at the last minute, flying over the airstrip and trying again. Still, these pilots knew what they were doing. There was no need to worry. I had to accept I was not in control. I knew there was nothing I could do but be patient and hope we would make it.
Lower and lower we flew. The airstrip was now coming up fast. We were now so low that the grey tarmac filled the windscreen, as it stretched upwards towards the town - and the rock.
We landed right at the edge of the runway. Good, the more runway we had to slow down the better. We sped along the tarmac. We were almost there.
Then I saw Mukesh look out towards the wing. He said something to Kumar and then yelled back at me. ‘The flaps are damaged from the storm! We may not stop in time! Brace! Brace!’.
The plane was bumping up the runaway. The wind was roaring through every nook and cranny of the plane. I closed my eyes, held my breath and waited for the impact.
But there was no impact. Everything went quiet. I opened my eyes and sat up. We were taxiing to the right, towards the airport building. On our left, less than a metre from the edge of the wing was the cliff.
We had made it!
The plane came to a halt. Kumar and Mukesh ripped off their headphones. Mukesh looked round at me and grinned. ‘See,’ he said, ‘we told you we were pilots.’
We climbed out of the plane and walked under the right wing to look at the damaged flap. ‘That should be easily repaired,’ said Kumar.
‘Thank you very much for letting me come with you,’ I said.
‘Thank you for returning my wallet and tying down the loose cargo,’ said Kumar.
I put my hands together in gratitude. We said goodbye and I walked towards the terminal building.
Just before I stepped inside I stopped to take one last look at the plane. Airport workers in their fluorescent jackets were already unloading the cargo. I looked up at the mountains and breathed in the fresh air. It was mountain air. I was back where I belonged. I turned once more and entered the terminal building.
Since then I have made many flights to Lukla, but I will never forget when I flew there with Kumar and Mukesh. After all, it had very nearly been my last flight to Lukla.
Based on the character from Charlie Lupton's Sherpa Adventure