Nepal's tragic news sent a shiver down my spine


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The Independent Online

I awoke, as usual, with the radio on. I can't get to sleep if it's not, a habit I acquired growing up in Beirut where the BBC World Service would always be on. Lebanon is a place where news really matters and you would often find out who was shooting at you from some calm voice in London before anybody local had worked it out.

The news story that woke me up was about the tragic air crash in Nepal. It sent a shiver down my spine as I'd been on that very flight, between Kathmandu and Lukla earlier in the year. Nepal is not a place for the nervous flier. On a flight from Delhi, I was six hours late landing in the Nepalese capital as it was covered in cloud. Passengers just shrugged their shoulders in a resigned fashion.

Two days later, I was back at Kathmandu airport, this time to get on a little twin-turboprop Dornier. These are tiny planes that take about 20 people and are used because they can cope with the very short runways that constitute landing zones high in the Himalayas. I checked in, but we were not guaranteed a flight as we had to hope Kathmandu remained cloudless and conditions up in Lukla – where the airstrip is located at nearly 10,000 feet above sea level – were good. Planes taking off roar down a hill and are flung off a cliff-edge into a heart-stopping abyss, almost seeming to hold still in the thin air for a second before gaining some kind of invisible traction as passengers sigh in relief.

I was lucky. Kathmandu was clear and conditions high up in the Khumbu Valley were also acceptable. Our little tin can took off and started the flight to Lukla. The surrounding mountains dwarfed us. It felt like sitting inside a tiny, tin mosquito that the topography just longed to swat down. We bounced all over the place and there were moments when the passengers screamed in fear. The cockpit door was open and we could see the pilot struggling with the controls. Through the windscreen, I could see nothing but a huge mass of rock coming towards us.

Nervously, I half stood up and saw our destination, a tiny runway on a ledge below the huge rock. I sat down fast, tightened my seatbelt and closed my eyes. It did cross my mind that the reason I was in that plane, having left my wife and kids behind, was to hunt for the Yeti – what the hell was I doing? Then it was over. The plane taxied to the tiny airport, where we were rushed off and returning passengers hurried on before the props froze up.

As I set off down the valley towards Everest, I spotted a memorial to a crash in 2008. Not for nothing is Lukla known as the most dangerous airport in the world.

And yet, it was not the airstrip's height or unpredictable weather that appears to be what caused this latest tragedy. It was a random bird strike just after the plane had taken off from Kathmandu.

I couldn't help thinking how lucky I was not to have been on that plane, but it also made me realise how pointless it is to try and second-guess fate. You could spend your entire life avoiding scenarios like flying in Nepal, only to be run over by a bus.

In fact, I was hit by a bus in Kathmandu, but that's another story.