The next morning we turned back and headed to Namche, which was a full day away but possible to reach if we boogied. We marched as fast as we could, nutritiously fueled only by snickers bars we ate as we walked. At one point we got stuck behind some other trekkers and a yak train very slowly crawling up a steep hill. At the top a plateau offered us a short window to pass them and I was literally running past yaks with my big bag bouncing off my back. All day we only stopped to buy a couple quick snacks or take some last pictures. We spotted a few tahrs and a couple of enormous birds of prey throughout the day. It was strange to be back below the treeline and surrounded by so much more life when just yesterday the land seemed barren and the mountains almost close enough to touch. Once we passed Tengboche we resolved to make it all the way to Namche, even if we had to use our headlamps for the last bit. As we got closer fog rolled in that was so thick we couldn’t see down the ridge we walked along. After 10 straight hours of non-stop hiking we reached the outskirts of Namche, pretty happy with our accomplishment.
We managed to book a plane ticket to Kathmandu for the next day first thing in the morning, so we hurriedly packed and hit the trail for Lukla. We needed to check in with the airline office before it closed in the late afternoon, so again we were racing the clock as it was a 6-7 hour trip. The trek was pretty uneventful and we didn’t have a problem checking in, but met two other backpackers in our lodge that had both been waiting 2 or 3 days for a flight out due to weather cancellations. Our flight was booked the next day for November 23 and all domestic flights were to be grounded from the 25-27 for an international conference requiring heightened security. Between the already existing backlog caused by weather delays and the imminent no-fly days, it seemed our chances of getting out of Lukla anytime soon were very slim. The situation was worse for other travellers we met who were worrying about missing upcoming international flights. We heard some people had forfeited their $165 plane tickets and resorted to hiking several days out to catch a bus back to Kathmandu. We even heard flight tickets had already been sold for the three days of the domestic groundings, adding to the frustrations of travelers.
In the morning we headed to the airport with little hope of success. Lukla would be an expensive, boring and chilly town to have to spend a week in. At the airport there was virtually no organization and we just stood in a growing crowd beside two Terra airline booths, waiting for a representative to emerge from the chaos. Finally one arrived and a big tour group starting checking their bags through; the two of us stood little chance amongst these big groups with organized guides acting on their behalf. But Sean managed to get our tickets passed on to the representative and somehow we got our bags checked and tagged while others around us grew frustrated at the lack of proper ques. We emerged from the mayhem and odd security process with a ticket stamped with a 2, meaning we were supposed to get seats on the second Terra aircraft that arrived, and there were only to be 4 that day. We waited and were relieved to see the first of many carriers arrive from Kathmandu, meaning the weather was good enough there to fly. Sitting by the door in a room packed with anxious people, our heads flew up each time we heard a helicopter and we got more nervous as the time on our ticket came and went and still no airplane appeared. By a huge stroke of luck it finally arrived and we actually got two of the 19 seats on it.
The takeoff itself was pretty interesting, as the small plane taxied onto a small flat square of pavement at the top of the runway. The pilots then proceeded to lock the brakes and throttle up the engines to maximum capacity causing the plane to roar and shake. Suddenly they released the brakes and we shot along the substantially down sloping runway and launched off the cliff at the end into the air. We flew over the same path we had hiked on all the way from Jiri and Sean pointed out recognizable towns and we had good views of the snowy peaks in the distance. Before we knew it the Kathmandu valley appeared and I got a little nervous as we flew impossibly low with no airport in sight, but was comforted by the fact that the pilots right in front of me seemed almost bored. Finally we landed on tarmac that had appeared at the last second, relieved and astonished at our good luck.