Everest Base Camp Trail
An Everest Base Camp Trek is stunning,
but not without dangers
Famous and dangerous
Nepal’s Everest Base Camp trek is one of the most famous treks in the world, but one of the most dangerous too. Foreign trekkers often encounter difficulties in the Khumbu region, with around three dying each year and many more helicoptered out. It’s generally altitude sickness – the umbrella term for both high altitude pulmonary edema and high altitude cerebral edema, both of which are lethal – that gets to them, long before any yetis might. The trek starts at the village of Lukla, 2,800m above sea level, and rises to 5,200m at Base Camp, however most see the climax of the trek as the ascent of Kala Pattar. Most non-Himalayans need 12-15 days to complete the trek, as you need to let your body acclimatize fully, by ascending slowly.
- Trail length: 78mi
- Climb: 2,745ft
Everest Base Camp: How high can you go?
The Everest Base Camp trek burned brightly in my little mind ever since I saw a magazine name it the world’s greatest trail. But it includes real dangers: the genuine threat of altitude sickness, grumpy yaks known for spearing and knocking walkers into ravines, and, of course, yetis. So, quite naturally, I suggested it to my fiancé for our honeymoon, and as she’d said yes to a similarly alarming proposition recently, she was clearly feeling a bit debonair and she foolishly said yes again. Result.
Post-wedding, our trek to the Everest Base Camp in Nepal starts with a flight from Kathmandu to Lukla, in a tattered, 12-seater plane. Though all around us are the biggest mountains in the world, we’re buffeted by winds, causing turbulence, stomach somersaults and thoughts of vomit. The Lukla airstrip was the scene of a fatal crash in 1991. And 2004. And 2008. When you consider its location – ie, halfway up the Himalayas – the capricious mountain weather and just how many of these small planes land and take-off safely every day, that’s not such a bad record. Says my guidebook. Said guidebook hasn’t mentioned that the runway is on a steep hill, or that it turns at a right angle. To save some face, let’s just say we’re still alive (there’s no evidence I actually cried).
We’re walking without a guide or porter, because frankly if you trek while someone else carries your gear you’re not trekking. The first couple of days, along the same historic route that Sir Edmund Hillary, Tenzing Norgay and many early Everest expeditions took, follow a muscular river through canyons and across Indian Jones-style swing bridges. The trail is lined with Buddhist mantras painted on rocks, stupa monuments, and colorful prayer flags, while the clang clang of yak bells is a constant soundtrack.
The Himalayan monster-cows are the most popular means of transport here. At first I dance naively in front of them, clicking my camera, but a guide later tells me about being speared by a moody moo. Luckily its large horn caught his backpack, but it still nearly hurled him into a ravine. I decide to stand back a bit.
How very Bazaar
The biggest challenge when hiking to Everest Base Camp is not going too high too soon, letting your bodies acclimatize fully. We have an acclimatization day in Namche Bazaar, which means short walks, each going higher and returning to a lower altitude to sleep. As a full-steam-ahead kind of chap, it’s frustrating holding myself back. But later I’ll be glad I did.
On day four’s long ascents we begin to feel the altitude, which makes us breathless. It’s well worth it when we get to Tengboche though. The village has a large Buddhist monastery and our first clear views of Everest, the silverback poking menacingly over the top of its neighbors, with a permanent plume of white cloud smoking from its coveted summit.
In Dingboche we take another acclimatization day and explore the surroundings. No roads, no bleating mobile phones, just mountains, with all their magical and lethal allure. I couldn’t be happier.
In Lobuche (4,930m) however, only a day from Base Camp, my new wife is not happy. She’s getting headaches – an not your normal honeymoon “headaches”, real ones – feeling nauseous and not sleeping much. She wakes me at 4am, with pain in her head and fear in her eyes. I’d read enough mountaineering disaster books to know we need some down time fast.
As soon as it’s warm enough to leave our sleeping bags (it dives below minus 20˚C every night, though it is December which is normally warmer) we retrace our path at pace. Passing monuments to climbers who’d never come home from Everest is a poignant reminder that we’re doing the right thing.
Her headache subsides as we rest up down in Dingboche, drinking endless hot chocolates by the yak dung stove. If I don’t say it, but I’m gutted I won’t see Everest up close. However, my wife sweetly suggests she’ll wait a day while I make a mad dash for it. It’ll take 14 hours, and the ascent is over 1,100m. “It’s possible”, says the teahouse owner, after a long pause.
It’s pitch black and freezing cold as I leave at 5am. After trying to follow a shortcut on the map, daylight finds me halfway across the Khumbu Glacier. Glacier travel is dangerous enough with crampons and roped to a partner. Idiot. But I get across unscathed, if less cocksure.
On the way to the dust bowl of Gorak Shep, the final settlement, I pass into a twilight world. My head is pounding. I feel like I’m scuba diving and every breath is the last in the tank. I no longer exchange greetings with white-faced hikers, who have stopped for oxygen breaks themselves.
Forced by time constraints to chose between the two, instead of Base Camp (there’s nothing there but rocks at this time of year and you can’t actually see Everest), I opt for Kala Pattar (5,545m), which offers great views of the big fella. As I climb I’m forced to stop and rest again and again. I feel like I’m back in the playground and some snotty-nosed bully is repeatedly winding me with punches. The last 100m of ascent, to the prayer flag-swathed summit, take at least an hour. But, finally – gasp – I’m there.
Hello not gorgeous
I feel destroyed yet blissfully happy. I sit for ages, spellbound by the world’s biggest rock star. Everest, in all its 8,848 meters of terrifying magnificence, is not really an attractive mountain however. Many of its only slightly smaller neighbors have more charisma and beauty. But I sit and stare until my headache becomes too much to bear.
After one of the most exhausting days of my life, I stagger back to Dingboche in the fading light, legs wobbling like a drunken Elvis impersonator. My fatigue has convinced me my wife has left me for someone who considers Costa Rican beaches a better honeymoon option. But she bounds up to me like a puppy. The drama is over, but thankful our marriage isn’t quite yet.
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