Everest Base Camp Trek (2016)

Everest Base Camp Trek (2016)

Authentic Italian cappuccino, draft beer, German bakes, Swiss confectionary and a Finnish sauna at 3,300 metres above sea level? No, I am not in the Swiss or Austrian Alps where these can be hoisted up on aerial ropeways or cable cars. I am at a village in Nepal, and the only mode of access to it is an arduous eight-hour climb through treacherous boulder-strewn slopes. The nearest city—Kathmandu—is at least a week’s trek away. That is Namche Bazaar for you, a jewel of a village nestling in a depression in the high ranges of the Himalaya, watched over by a string of snow-clad eminences, not excluding the grandest of all, Mount Everest.

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Namche Bazaar is a pit stop en route to Everest Base Camp (EBC, 5,380 metres), the launch pad from which intrepid mountaineers attempt to reach the summit. At 8,848 m, Mt Everest, named after George Everest, a Director of the Survey of India, was identified as the tallest peak in the world in 1865. In the early 20th century, seven attempts were made to scale this peak from the Tibetan side, but all ended in failure. After the Second World War, Nepal opened up the southern route. The first few to attempt the feat through this route failed. Ultimately, New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay succeeded in reaching the summit in 1953. Since then, Mt Everest has been trampled over by thousands of human feet, and its crevasses have been stuffed with abandoned mountaineering debris, not to mention the frozen bodies of those who did not make it back safely. Periodically, the Sherpa community organises “cleanup” expeditions to bring back some of the trash, but the bodies are left alone.

All those attempting the Everest summit first camp at its base to prepare for the most challenging adventure of their lives. There is no permanent structure at the EBC, only a tented camp when there is an expedition. But the EBC has become the ultimate dream destination of all trekkers who, for whatever reasons, cannot attempt the summit.

My trip to the EBC in October 2016 was 18 months after the devastating Nepal earthquake and the ensuing avalanche in the Khumbu icefall that claimed nearly 9,000 lives and wiped out entire villages. During my fortnight-long trip, I did not see much of this devastation except a mangled bridge across the Imu Khola river in the upper slopes. The resilient Nepalis have since cleared the debris and restored the trail. For the far-flung Sherpa communities, revenue from the thousands of “tea houses” (homestay lodges) is often the only source of income in this remote and rugged roof of the world. Trekkers and mountaineers also provide employment to thousands of porters and guides. In fact, the most enduring and often haunting image of these deadly slopes is the procession of Sherpa boys and men balancing oversized sacks and bags on their backs and sprinting up or down in tattered clothing and local footwear. But for the support of these gallant porters, trekking in these mountains would be impossible for the likes of me.

Namche Bazaar

Whether you are headed for the summit or for the base camp, you will have to pass through the picturesque Namche Bazaar, where you will rest and acclimatise, refuel and restock before further ascent. It is also the last shopping stop before venturing into true wilderness. Yet, Namche is not connected by road, nor is there an airport to fly you in. There is a helipad where cargo planes fly in supplies for the Khunde Hospital built by the Himalayan Trust established by Sir Edmund Hillary. The hospital provides medical care for 10,000 sherpas within the Solu Khumbu region of Nepal. There is a school, also built by the Himalayan Trust, in nearby Khumjung. It started off as a two-room school in 1961 but now has over 350 students and goes up to the secondary level. In fact, the trust has built over 25 schools in the Solu Khumbu region, in which both Namche Bazaar and the EBC are located. Currently, these schools are run by the Nepal government. Namche also has the highest luxury hotel in the world, Everest View Hotel, built by the Japanese to cater to those craving to be pampered after a hard day’s trek.

At dusk, Namche dazzles like a diamond with its dense sprinkling of neon. The bazaar does roaring business in the world’s best-known brands of climbing gear, trekking boots and clothing. You can also pick up local products made of yak wool, sheep horn and assorted Tibetan stuff. For a village tucked away in the mountain wilderness, Namche has an active nightlife, which owes not a little to the Khumbu Bijuli Company built with Austrian support to harness the waters of the Thame Khola river. Commissioned in 2000, the 600 kWh hydel plant is located within the Sagarmatha National Park and illuminates a few other villages in the vicinity as well.

Reaching Namche is a feat even for the fit and able and truly a challenge for me. I had not done any serious trekking for nearly two decades. Originally, I had planned this trek with my friend Kothanda Srinivasan, a veteran trekker familiar with this region. But as luck would have it, he had to opt out on account of a family emergency. Not wanting to abandon my plans, I decided to join a group trek organised by Cox & Kings, the travel company. We were a group of seven chaperoned by the able Sherpa guide Mingma.

After a couple of days in Kathmandu to stock up on down jackets, climbing poles and other equipment, we made our way to Kathmandu airport early in the morning to board a plane to Lukla, a mountain hamlet situated at 2,850 m. Lukla has an airstrip so tiny that only small planes like the Dornier, operated by a multitude of aviation companies, can land there. In fact, the National Geographic Channel places Lukla airport at the top of its list of 10 most dangerous airports in the world. Hemmed in by mountains, the taxiing distance is so short that pilots can ill afford to make an error of assessment.

Lukla airport is notorious for its temperamental weather, which puts it out of commission for days on end if the mist does not lift. Everyone who flies into this airport allows for some slack in the travel schedule in anticipation of delays. The flight itself is just about 30 minutes, but on clear days, Lukla sees 40-odd sorties, a remarkable feat for such a small airport. But our 30-minute flight to Lukla was uneventful with all the snow peaks playing hide and seek behind a misty veil.

After a sumptuous lunch at Lukla, we left immediately for Phakding, five hours away on foot. Our guide had assured us that we would be descending to Phakding, located at 2,652 m, and we had blithely assumed an easy day of trekking. It turned out to be our first lesson in Himalayan topography where the distances claimed by our guides are as the crow flies. From Lukla we descended on a wide trail north-west to the village of Choblung in the Dudh Kosi Valley. The villages were picturesque and the people, friendly. Of course, the promised views of pine forests and rhododendrons were behind a veil of mist and in any case we were plodding along in pouring rain.

Climb up to Namche

After a night halt at a tea house in Phakding, we began the steep ascent towards Namche the next day. This was the most difficult part of the entire journey since it entailed too many ups and downs and trekking for 10 hours with a brief lunch stop. Nevertheless, it was a spectacular route all the way, winding its way up alongside a playful Dudh Kosi hurtling down the slopes in a hurry to reach the plains. It was also a very crowded trail with hundreds of trekkers making their way up or down the path. You came across the most fashionable mountain gear, heard a babel of tongues ranging from Spanish to Lebanese, Russian, Korean, Chinese, French and, of course, Hindi, Gujarati, Nepali and Tamil. Every now and then, we had to stop to make way for a yak train—a dozen or so yaks laden with trekkers’ luggage as well as supplies for villages en route. Every time one heard yak bells, one rushed to flatten oneself on the hillside like a lizard to let the yaks pass. Otherwise, there was every danger of your being pushed into the foaming Dudh Kosi below.

The climb up to Namche took us across several metallic suspension bridges, and the river alternated to our left and right every few hundred metres. The bridges were narrow, allowing passage for two persons or one yak at a time, so if a yak stepped on the bridge from the other side, you had to beat a hasty retreat and exit the bridge before the beast caught up with you. Not an easy task when the bridge sways with your weight and the Dudh Kosi tantalises you through the metallic latticework underfoot. The Hillary Bridge, built over an earlier disused bridge, is the most photographed one on this trail.

Our lunch stop was in a quaint village called Monju, which happened to be the home of Mingma. His mother runs a tea house with many rooms. In between taking care of her guests, she finds time to tend to a large garden where she grows a variety of vegetables and fruits in the organic way. She fed us sumptuous Nepali fare. We would have gladly halted there for the night, but our group was on a tight schedule and Mingma constantly reminded us of the need to reach Namche before sunset. The path got progressively steeper from here, and every few steps I had to stop to catch my breath. Progress was very slow. Eventually, we reached the gates of Sagarmatha National Park, where all visitors must pay an entrance fee. Citizens of SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) countries pay considerably less than others. The guard manning the gate told me that at least a thousand people crossed the gate every day in the peak trekking season. The EBC is a huge revenue earner for Nepal tourism.

Unlike the high mountains in Ladakh or Lahaul-Spiti, the EBC trek route is green most of the way. There were frequent mountain springs, some big enough to be called waterfalls. Junipers, pygmy rhododendrons and conifers populate the slopes. When tender, the leaves are red and waxy; this protects them from the intense ultraviolet rays at these altitudes. The forests are well-adapted to extremes of temperature. On some slopes, the forests are covered in cobweb-like fungus, which looks like a misty veil. These mountains are home to a variety of wildlife—musk deer, pika, marmot, snow leopard, clouded leopard—although we did not spot anything other than a few Himalayan Tahrs. I was not surprised, considering the huge crowds that throng the EBC trail during the trekking season.

The villages en route were piled high with mani stones and every village sported a colourful prayer wheel. Stalls laid out in the sun sold trinkets, mostly chunky silver jewellery and miniature prayer wheels. Some villages sported terraced barley fields, and virtually every village was watched over by an assortment of snow deities. The village of Pangboche was watched over by the matronly Ama Dablam. Then one encountered a series of peaks like Cho Oyu, Nuptse, Lhotse, Tukuche, Lobuche and many more, all revered sentinels to that tantalising giant, Mt Everest.

On our rest day in Namche we visited the informative museum and an impressive memorial dedicated to Tenzing Norgay. We admired the sun glinting off the metallic rooftops of Namche’s houses, spotted soaring eagles and nimble mountain goats and treated ourselves to delectable brownies in the bazaar. During the entire trek to the next camp at Tengboche, we were treated to the glorious sight of Mt Everest flanked by all the other peaks, illuminated by the golden rays of the sun. But at this height, the weather can be fickle. One moment, the peaks were lit up by the sun, and then in a few minutes, one was plodding through a steady drizzle. But the drizzle brought a wonderful reward—a rainbow that danced just in front of the snow-covered peaks.

Before we reached our tea house for the night, we made a brief halt at Tengboche monastery sitting at a height of 3,870 m. Built around 1900, it is perhaps the world’s most isolated monastery. Its precious old scriptures, statues, murals and wood carvings were destroyed in a devastating fire caused by an electrical short circuit on January 19, 1989. It was rebuilt in 1994 and stands proud and colourful against a breathtaking backdrop of the snow-covered ranges. Tengboche village also boasts the world’s highest bakery. A very steep descent through a dense coniferous forest brought us to our night halt. The night temperature here was—8 degrees Celsius, and there was no heating. We were carrying our own sleeping bags, but the tea house provided comfortable wooden cabins with a view.

Ascent to Dingboche

As you ascend, things become more and more expensive. If you wanted to charge your phone, it cost 500 Nepali rupees per device. A hot shower was available for 600 Nepali rupees. Surprisingly, in most tea houses, we were greeted with steamy hot towels. Meals were usually soup and Nepali dal bhat—a plate of rice, lentils and vegetables, standard fare in these parts.

Our next destination was Dingboche. We left early in the morning, when the sun was bright and the slopes were ablaze and warm. This route was less taxing, winding along a not-so-steep gradient full of tamarisk bushes and other typical alpine vegetation, including edelweiss. This was probably the most picturesque part of the climb, but altitude sickness seemed to be catching up with me. I decided to halt in a village en route and informed Mingma accordingly. The rest of the group proceeded to Dingboche. I lounged in the sunshine, watching village life go by. The last of the stragglers going up to Dingboche passed through the village, and the sun was now down near the horizon. And then came an Indian family from Bengaluru, a couple and their 13-year-old son, puffing their way up the slope. They encouraged me not to give up and to accompany them to Dingboche, although it was rather late. Thanks to their encouragement, I reached Dingboche after dusk and was reunited with my group. However, the night was bitterly cold and my altitude sickness returned. I was short of Everest Base Camp by just eight kilometres, but it seemed like an eternity, worsened by nausea and headache. It could pass or it could lead to pulmonary or cerebral oedema, a potentially fatal condition

Miraculously, throughout the trek, in almost all the villages, telecom towers ensured signal and even Wi-Fi. The next morning, I requested Mingma to requisition a chopper evacuation. The chopper arrived in an hour and transported me to Lukla in just 25 minutes, a journey that took me five days of arduous climb.

The trek to the EBC is an unfinished journey for me, but I comfort myself that this is one trip where the journey matters, not the destination.

(Published in Frontline dated Feb 17, 2017)

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