January 1974: All flights from Lukla had been canceled because of the oil crisis. That meant we had no way to get back to Kathmandu, except to walk out. We couldn’t go back the way we came in because the passes might be snowed in by the time we get there. The only other way to walk out is to go south down the Dudh Kosi river valley, a very long trip. Our only other option is to try to fly out of Sangpoche airport at the Everest View Hotel.
We headed down the valley and went straight to the Hotel to book a flight out. We were put on the waiting list and had hot chocolate at the hotel. Then we trekked back down the hill to the International Footrest Hotel in to wait.
We expected to wait several days for a flight out. The hotel had a daily flight to bring in supplies and to fly out laundry. The situation was also complicated because three of the four pilots that are qualified to land at Sangpoche had quit. It snowed the day of our flight and we were delayed for two days until they cleared off the runway.
The legendary Swiss pilot Captain Emil Wick piloted the single-engine Pilatus Porter. He was probably the greatest living mountain pilot. He was known for his outrageous sense of humor and had flown climbers into remote mountain airstrips in Nepal. He had the distinction of being one of only two people to descend an 8000-meter peak without climbing it. This was after he crashed a Porter while delivering supplies to a Dhaulagiri expedition in 1960.
The Pilatus Porter is Swiss made and powered by a single turboprop engine. It was built for landing on glaciers in the Alps. It is much praised for its excellent handling and short take-off and landing capabilities that made it ideal for mountain flying.
At Sangpoche airport, about 11,400 feet in altitude, one must make a landing and take-off in less than 1,000 feet. At the uphill end of the runway is a cliff and at the downhill end of the runway is a 1,500-foot drop down into the valley.
As we are loading up Captain Emil told us about some of his strangest flights. One time he had to fly a Yak out. It took up all of the spare room. Another time he flew out a leopard that was headed to a zoo in Japan. He said the leopard started growling so he gained altitude till it went to sleep in the thin air. Our gear was weighed and carefully loaded the plane because weight is critical at this altitude. We took off down the runway, going airborne about halfway. At the end of the runway he banked right and we were on our way for a spectacular trip back to Kathmandu.
An excerpt from the Iranian Intercept
Tuesday, 19 December: Dudh Kosi Valley, Nepal
Flying in the Himalayas is a fusion of wonder and fear. The awe-inspiring panorama of the high mountains acts as a powerful drug subduing the senses, blocking out the inescapable reality that death awaits those who linger in its spell. The hypnotic trance may lure the unsuspecting to the side of a cliff. Engine failure results in a harrowing decent to the rocks below. Wind shear, an invisible, unexpected, and deadly force, might at any moment, plunge the frail craft into the void.
Following the valley of the Dudh Kosi River, as it closed in narrower and narrower, was akin to flying into the jaws of a mythical monster, the jagged mountains forming its teeth. The small aircraft continued on its way skirting rough walls, pummeled by bursts of turbulence, straining to maintain its course. I searched the valley walls for our destination.
No one spoke. The furious roar of the propeller and the low rumble of the slipstream rushed past the cockpit.
The pilot broke an awkward silence, "Can you see it?"
I pressed forward in the harness, straining to find it. "No, just the mountains."
He pointed. "There at one o'clock, past the village, up the side valley. Namche Bazaar."
"All I see is a small brown spot."
Ahead, a gash on the side of the ridge appeared about three kilometers away. A twinge of anxiety welled up as I awaited the approach and landing on such a tiny speck. Further up the valley, low cloud cover was beginning to form, merging the valley with the white slopes of the mountains.
I was about to seek reassurance from the pilot when the brawny man behind me leaned forward and spoke to the pilot.
"Es ist so klein." I could smell his fear. He asked if it was safe. "Ist es sicher?"
The pilot answered, "Ja Ja, kein Problem." He asked the man if he was okay. "Ist alles in Ordnung?"
"Machen Sie sich keine Sorgen." He told him not to worry.
"Mir ist schlecht."
He brusquely told him, "Bitte nicht erbrechen," not to throw-up.
"Ich bin krank."
"Hörst du mich — nicht erbrechen."
The pilot leaned towards me. "These guys from the east are not so tough. He says he is sick."
"The east, what do you mean?"
"One of the eastern lands. Can tell from his accent." That simple comment should have set off alarm bells, but the enormity of the spectacle before me short-circuited my internal warning system.
He banked right and changed course up the new valley. Ahead, at 12,500 feet, lay the world's highest airport. Syangboche airstrip, less than 400 yards in length perched on a ledge 1,500 feet above the river below. It would be like landing on an aircraft carrier.
The pilot, a confident and cheerful Swiss, a legendary mountain flyer, tracked the edge of the cliff to our right as he fought the turbulence.
"The clouds are closing in. I must take off again as soon as we load up. Hope the bastards are ready for me. I do not stay for long."
The small plane trembled as turbulent air threatened to drive it into the rugged cliff looming above. The single engine Pilatus Porter banked to the left to begin the final approach. A fierce gust shook the small craft causing it to slide away from the postage stamp sized landing strip. We drifted straight towards a rocky ridge. He dipped the nose, eased the throttle forward, gained speed, tracked right, and then left again. The aircraft was back on course. We would land on an up-hill grade that ended at a jumble of rocks below a small cliff.
Another wind shear shook the craft as he eased the throttle back to idle, deployed the large flaps, and brought the nose up for landing. The aircraft shuddered as it decelerated below forty-five knots and gently touched down with a slight thud. With full brakes and reverse thrust, the Porter achieved a remarkably short rollout after landing, with plenty room to spare. The brawny man let out an audible sigh of relief.