The trek to Everest Base Camp through Nepal's untamed landscapes is an astonishing personal journey, but it's important that community and environmental welfare stay key to the experience.
“You’ve got this!” says my trainer, Lucie Cowan, as I huff and heave on the climber machine at the Third Space health club in Soho. I’d love to say this is part of my daily routine, but I’m here on a get-fit-quick kick, before I attempt one of the world’s greatest challenges: hiking to Everest Base Camp.
I’m not a natural-born trekker, but this mystical mountain and its tales of triumph and tragedy have captivated me since childhood: finally, I have the chance to go.
Straddling the border of Nepal to the south and China/Tibet to the north, Sagarmatha – the ‘head or brow of the sky’ as Mount Everest is known in Nepal – rises a (literally) breathtaking 8,848 metres (29,029 feet) above sea level.
Leading the way
Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay famously first reached Everest’s summit in 1953 as part of a British expedition team. A stream of adventurers have since attempted the climb, with over 300 people sadly losing their lives on the mountain. In May 2019 – the month of my trek – Everest would claim 11 more. As the 2020 climbing season approaches, tighter new regulations will allow only those with previous high-altitude experience to attempt the summit, accompanied by expert Nepalese guides.
While just over 5,000 people have reached the ‘top of the world’, between 30,000-45,000 visitors a year trek to Nepal’s Base Camp. At 5,364 metres – higher than most mountains – the air contains only 50% of the oxygen at sea level, putting all who make the trek at risk of Acute Mountain Sickness. This is not your average activity holiday.
Third Space is one of the few UK fitness centres with a hypoxic chamber, which simulates the atmosphere at high altitude. “I’m going to die,” I gasp, after my first training session at ‘3,000 metres’. I didn’t even mean in the mountains: I meant right there, in sea-level London.
The way to Nepal’s Base Camp is on foot – two weeks of human-powered endeavour. On the Tibet side, Base Camp can be reached by car, although the site is currently closed for a clean-up. But for Everest, I didn’t want an easy path. I wanted all that comes with taking on an extreme physical and mental challenge.
It’s a challenge that adventure travel companies like G Adventures, which leads my 15-day tour, have made increasingly achievable, arranging flights, booking accommodation and hiring the best guides. Still, it’s not to be taken lightly.
“Altitude sickness can be fatal, so it’s important to ascend slowly and drink lots of water,” explains my G Adventures Sherpa guide, Shanker Bhattrai, at our hotel in Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, before what will be his 99th trek to Everest. “But it’s also important to believe you can make it to Base Camp, or you won’t.”
Our trek starts in Lukla, perched at 2,845 metres amidst the soaring peaks of the Himalayas. Stepping down from the small plane into the cold, thin air, I pick up my trekking poles and take the first of many ‘steps to heaven’ on the 80-mile round-trip.
The route leads through stunning pine and rhododendron forests, and across vertiginous suspension bridges fringed with prayer flags, as milky, glacial rivers rumble below. We pass Buddhist temples, colourful prayer wheels, mule trains and meditation-inscribed ‘mani stones’. We meet other groups, but footfall is light, while regular bins keep the path litter-free.
G Adventures ensures that its Everest Base Camp tour only uses Nepalese suppliers. It also supports global social enterprises through its Planeterra Foundation. In Kathmandu, we learn to make traditional momos (dumplings) at the Sisterhood of Survivors, which works to combat human trafficking by training survivors and at-risk women as paralegals and tour guides.
Sherpa-owned ‘teahouses’ offer a basic bed, communal bathrooms and restaurants serving hearty meals that vary little, except in price which increases the higher we climb. Early breakfasts offer plenty of fuel: pancakes, porridge and piles of potato with egg. We lunch under cobalt-blue skies on dal bhat (a traditional Nepalese thali of rice, lentils and curry), resting before the afternoon treks. After dinner, as the night fills with stars, we crawl into sleeping bags in icy rooms, and an inner battle begins. “You can’t breathe; you’re not fit; give up. You can do this; believe in yourself; sleep.”
The final push gifts us 10 hours of trekking through a mythical realm carved by ancient glaciers. The first glimpse of Base Camp brings elation: yellow tents of summiting mountaineers scattered like blossom. At this altitude, day-trippers cannot linger for long. Photos, high fives, smiles, tears and we’re done. I add a string of prayer flags to those in camp and thank Shanker for his help. My guide was right: the trek to Everest is about the mind as well as the body.
Where to book it
G Adventures' 15-day Everest Base Camp Trek starts from £1,049pp including internal flights from/to Kathmandu, porters, a G Adventures guide, 12 nights in teahouse lodges and two nights in hotels (international flights not included).