Zero visibility leads hundreds of tourists stranded in Lukla

Tourist waiting at Lukla Airport
Tourist waiting at Lukla Airport. Photo: ekantipur

Nearly 2000 people, including many foreign tourists, are stranded in the foothills of Mount Everest due to adverse weather conditions that have halted flights from Kathmandu. Surke is a two-hour walk below Lukla and stands at an altitude of 7,511ft.

Although, no actual figures of the stranded tourists were had, Chief of Lukla Airport Utsav Kharel said the number might be around 2,000. Due to zero visibility at Lukla airport, tourists descended to Surke hoping to be airlifted from there. A number of tourists are from European countries.

Foreign trekkers, Nepalese guides and porters are among those that have been stuck in the remote, mountainous region for five days. Hotels are reportedly overflowing and food is scarce as the influx of tourists wait for a flight out of the Tenzing-Hillary airport in Lukla – the gateway for trekkers wishing to scale the world’s tallest mountain.

Lukla, which lies at a height of 9,186 feet, is located about 78 miles northeast of  Kathmandu. Lukla airport is one the busiest airports in Nepal. As many as 55 flights a day touchdown in Lukla during the Everest region’s peak season from September to November.

Flights between Lukla and Kathmandu have been grounded for nearly a week, according to Secretary in the Ministry for Tourism and Civil Aviation Ganesh Raj Sharma.

“We have requested Nepal Army to arrange a helicopter for rescuing the stranded tourists from Lukla in Solukhumbu district,” Sharma said in a statement.

Yet, Nepal Army spokesman Ramindra Chhetri confirmed that due to low visibility, the helicopter rescue sent by the Army was forced to return to the airport without landing at Lukla.

On Friday, private helicopters rescued 81 tourists from Surke. Simrik Air rescued 26 people, Fishtail Air 20, Mountain Air 20, and Air Dynasty 15, according to Airlines Operators’ Association of Nepal (AOAN).

General manager of Simrik Air Yog Raj Kandel, however, said the number of tourists stranded is not as big as the authorities are claiming. “If the weather improves slightly on Saturday, rescuing all the people the same day will not be a difficult task,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Himalayan Rescue Association (HRA) and the Tourism Crisis Cell (TCC) called an emergency meeting Friday to discuss ways to expedite the rescue.

“Visibility is almost nil. Fog and clouds have covered the entire area, making flights by fixed-wing small aircraft impossible,” Utsav Raj Kharel, chief of Lukla’s airport, told Reuters.

Meteorologists say that the clouds may continue to blanket the region for several days, worsening the plight of the trapped tourists that are in need of food and supplies.

The hotels of Solukhumbu District were forced to use their dining rooms as sleeping quarters for tourists while many guides and porters sleep outside, the BBC reports.

Trekkers at higher altitudes on Everest were asked not to descend to Lukla because there is no space left.

Last November, authorities rescued over 60 tourists from Lukla airport. Lukla airport is one of the busiest airports in Nepal with as many as 55 flights conducted daily during the peak tourist season.

Tens of thousands of trekkers and climbers visit the Solukhumbu region in northeastern Nepal each year. Most begin their adventure at the small, windswept resort town of Lukla.

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