Thursday, November 15, 2012

Touching Everest - The Mountain Flight

Last Friday, 4 of us (Alfie, Nicky, a newly-arrived Swedish volunteer named Jeanette and I) braved news reports such as to book ourselves an internal flight in a country with one of the worst safety records, but best scenery, in the world.

For $150, we each bought a ticket on the Mountain Flight, an hour-long out and return flight along the Himalayas to reach Everest, take a good look, then return back to Kathmandu's international airport. Not otherwise having the opportunity to see the tallest mountain in the world, I was happy to pay this price and enjoy getting in the air as a bonus! So last Friday we woke really early and took a short taxi ride to the airport - which, after all, is close enough to see (and hear) from our school.

The internal departures building is not quite as posh as the international one, but after paying a bizarre tax of 200Rp and proceeding through security, during which the person operating the bag scanner had to be summoned back from his coffee break, we ended up in the departures lounge waiting for an hour or so while a collection of elderly tourists and overdressed GoreTex-clad treckers started to file in.

Eventually, about half an hour late, we were summoned to a bus which took us out onto the apron to await the arrival of our aircraft, which turned out to be a Beechcraft 1900D, very similar to the BAe Jetstream I have also flown on (in fact, until we got on board, that's what I thought it was). It amused me to see how many extra strakes and fins had been added to the tail, presumably to add lateral and longitudinal stability that must have been severely lacking when it first entered service!

We filed in past the cockpit and a seemingly redundant flight attendant and took our seats, one to each window. An uneventful taxi and takeoff later and we were spiralling upwards over Kathmandu and generally enjoying the early morning view (including that of Swayambhu Nath).


It's a seriously beautiful country, Nepal, and soon we could see the mountains very clearly as we started to fly East towards the Everest region.

One my one, we were also called into the cockpit to have a look around and the pilots also pointed out some of the key mountains. Being towards the back on the starboard side, by the time it was my go to visit the cockpit, Everest was coming into view so I nabbed a pic of that while I could. Further analysis of the cockpit photo showed that we were climbing towards the aircraft's ceiling of 25,000' - more than 4,000' below the peak of Everest! It's a seriously, seriously high mountain....


Shortly after passing Everest, the aircraft turned around, giving those of us on my side of the plane the best view of the mountains. So, can you recognise Everest, Nuptse and Lhotse? Reading all about them in a mountain climbing book I borrowed, I definitely could, and could also identify the South West Face and the route that Chris Bonnington's group took during their successful 1975 assault on that side of the mountain.

We also worked out how to take photos of both the view and the tourist...

We continued to fly past some spectacular peaks and mountains, views that I may never be privileged to see again, and at that point the £100 I had spent did seem exceptional value. Here are some more sights that we enjoyed, including (right) a stunning morraine scar showing where a glacier once flowed, and the terminal lake at the end just waiting to spill out and flood some villages at the end (a mostly manmade phenomenon... if you believe that we are responsible for the changes that the climate is undoubtably going through).


The flight attendant then demonstrated her true purpose apart from handing out the takeoff sweets. Firstly, she helped point out the mountains, talking so fast and in such a strong accent that I really couldn't understand her, and secondly, in trying to sell us some tat (a t-shirt and DVD), even up here at 25,000'!

We descended towards Kathmandu past some more stunning peaks, green this time, and almost all cultivated with the tiered rice and millet paddies going all the way up to the peaks. You really have to see it to believe it. Landing from the South, we also flew right past Pepsicola and Lokanthali, enabling us to see where we live (though not high enough to see Urbana school itself).


And after that we emerged, happy to be alive and quite pleased with our experience of seeing Everest for ourselves! I think it was well worth the money, and we even got a certificate to share. Definitely the highlights for me included going into the cockpit and hey, there is only one way to see the world's highest mountain and be back at work the same day!
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  1. WOW...double WOW....what a great excursion.

    Must have been a great experience, literally looking up to the King of the Mountains.

    One to show your children!!!

  2. The geographical aspects will be clear to you and the different characteristics of the place will be revealed to you in your journey to the peaks of Himalaya by the mountain flights you take from Kathmandu.

  3. I will be visiting Nepal next month and have done all my bookings in advance excepting for the Mountain Flight, as I am very sceptical to get onto the flight after reading about the unfortunate incident that occurred abut 3 months back. However, your experience seems to be very interesting and the pictures above are undoutedly stunning, definetly seem worth a journey...Can you share your inflight experience as a lot has been said and written about the safety standards of the domestic flights in Nepal?

    1. Hi 'Shar08',

      We debated going on the flight for some days - of course you can now see that it was really worth it and and views were fantastic - but that didn't mute a sense of foreboding.

      However, many things came to reassure us that the flight was safe. Firstly, living next to the airport as we did and seeing tens of mountain flights going off every day was quite reassuring. Secondly, it was clearly obvious that while public transport is rather haphazard and ad-hoc in Nepal, a special exception is made for the airport and once airside you can see that the aircraft look good, the equipment is modern and the flight crews look professional.

      Also I have a different outlook on this since I'm an Aerospace Engineer by profession. I don't think that poor maintenance (for instance) is the primary cause of problems for Nepal, it is more like pilot attitude and training. Our two pilots looked smart and switched-on and that does inspire a measure of confidence.

      Once on board the aircraft, I had no concerns. We enjoyed the flight, like hundreds of people do every day, and compared to bus travel in the country I would say that I felt a lot safer!

      I hope this helps, please send me an email if you want to discuss further - you can do this via my Blogger profile.