There are several ways to spot the summit of Mount Everest, the world’s highest mountain. You can sometimes see it as your jet airliner approaches the airport in Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal. Or you can rise before dawn, skip breakfast and spend an hour in a tourist plane flying around the summit, weather permitting.
Those are the easy ways. Or you can do it the hard way: by foot, in which case the summit can still be an elusive quarry, obscured by cloud and hiding among several other high peaks in the Himalayas.
A trek to the Everest Base Camp is on the To-Do list of thousands of people and many make it after a long, arduous hike. And some do not – numbed by the cold, gasping for breath and exhausted by the sheer exertion required to drag your body over steep, rock-strewn slopes to a bleak spot on a glacier, which doesn’t even have a view of the celebrated peak.
So what is it about the trek to Mount Everest – a trip fraught with a certain level of risk – that draws increasing numbers of people each year?
Well, first off, there is the unparalleled adventure of hiking amid the grandeur of the highest mountains in the world. And then there is the challenge.
“You don’t have to be a fantastic hero to do certain things – to compete. You can just be an ordinary chap, sufficiently motivated,” said Edmund Hillary, the New Zealand beekeeper who reached the summit with his Sherpa companion, Tenzing Norgay, in 1953 – the first mountaineers to do it.
I ticked the Everest Base Camp off my list in October as part of a group of seven.
We start the trek nearly 200 kilometres away in the village of Jiri after a harrowing daylong trip from the chaotic Nepalese capital of Kathmandu. We are happy to get walking after the ride over a rutted two-way road wide enough for one vehicle and without guardrails to prevent the bus from plunging hundreds of metres down the sheer sides of mountains.
So here we are in the Himalayas, a bunch of ordinary guys, including my son, a sturdy dude of 24 shouldering his own pack – along with a guide and three porters – who seem to fit Hillary’s definition. We have one main vice in common, and that is enjoying the outdoors.
What draws us is the chance to see spectacular vistas of lush green valleys contrasted with snow-capped mountains that dazzle in the sun and glow in the light of the moon. It’s an opportunity to walk far back in time when the wheel did not exist, to a place where people live off small plots of fertile land around their modest stone dwellings. Depending on the altitude, they grow rice, corn, cabbages, bok choi, carrots, lentils, soybeans and potatoes, and they pick bananas and apples. Always on offer are fresh eggs. That’s what we eat – a basic vegetarian diet.Many of the crops are grown in small terraced fields that ripple down the sides of the steep valleys to the rivers raging below, swollen by monsoon rains and melting glaciers. Farmers till the soil with plows pulled by a couple of yaks, dig up potatoes with hand tools and fuel fires with patties of yak dung made by hand.
For supper at the little Shobha Lodge in Bandhar where we spend our second night, the national dish of dal bhat is served. It consists of rice, lentil soup and curried vegetables – all you can eat. It’s also the place where we eat the first of many slices of apple pie – a fritter, in this case.
“My daughter is cooking,” says the proud mama of her offspring, who has attracted everybody’s attention with her charm, beauty and culinary skills. She also keeps the books and in the morning we settle our bills with her.
The daughter, who also works as a teacher, explains that classes start at 10 a.m. to give students who live up to two and a half hours away time to walk to the school in Bandhar. Walking is a way of life because there are no roads in the mountains. We have caught the tail end of the annual monsoon and the trails are muddy. We slip and slide in the rain while Nepalis, who learn to walk on the paths, skip gracefully past us, often wearing only flip flops.
All goods moving up and down the trails have to be carried by people or pack animals, often the former. We see porters struggling under loads of plywood and mattresses for new lodges being built for the influx of trekkers, metal stoves, containers of kerosene for the fires that cook meals at higher altitudes, bags of rice, kitchen pots and even a generator.
We see no one on bicycles or scooters, no cars or trucks – and no sign of obesity. In our first nine days of trekking, we cross three valleys and climb a total of 29,000 feet or 8,839 metres, almost equivalent to the height of Mount Everest. We glimpse a few snow-capped mountains during the first eight days of the trek. But Everest is not to be seen until our ninth day on the trail. We first spot the peak of Everest through a clump of trees as we head for Namche Bazaar. But it is far in the distance.
Later in the day, we arrive in Namche at 11,319 feet or 3,459 meters where the many hotels are bursting with trekkers, restaurants are dispensing espressos and a couple of bars feature loud rock music and pool tables, which were humped up the trail on somebody’s back.
Most of the trekkers in Namche, built on the side of a steep bowl, flew from Kathmandu into Lukla, a village perched on the edge of a cliff along with its runway. It is two days’ walk from Namche.
We try to see Everest again by taking a day hike to the Everest View Hotel a couple of hours from Namche, but no luck there, as the peak is hidden by cloud. However, we do get in some acclimatization time, which helps us adjust to the higher altitude.
We also touch base with several people we have met along the way and make friends with three young British women, recent graduates of Leeds Metropolitan University. Two are physiotherapists and one is a speech therapist. They are doing the trek after spending three months volunteering at a school near Kathmandu for children with cerebral palsy, a disorder that affects mental and physical development. It’s not a good condition in a part of the world where a strong back ranks high on a CV.
They stay with us every step of the way, and their good humour buoys our spirit as we move up the slopes.
There are several enchanting surprises along the way, with our next stop at Tengboche being one of them. We attend a monastery service with monks clad in maroon robes as they murmur their mantras and prayers punctuated by the clash of cymbals and off-key blasts from horns. Surrounding the village, which is at over 12,000 feet, are snow-capped peaks including Everest and Ama Dablam, almost blinding in the sun.
The village has several hotels and two are said to be owned by the monks, as is the bakery. It tempts us with fresh coffee and has us dithering over a choice among the many chocolate cakes, pies and other baked goods including croissants (spelled crissants). I opt for a piece of chocolate-rum cake after a late lunch and return at breakfast for Dutch apple pie.
But the best view of Everest, to my mind, comes on the 14th day of our trek, just before supper in Dingboche. The clouds part and the late afternoon sun bathes the summit of Everest in a golden hue, the perfect colour for the crown of the world.
The 1,000-foot climb from Thukla to Lobuche at 16,207 feet or 4,940 meters nearly does me in and I consider throwing in the towel – a day away from the Everest Base Camp.
But a shower – in actual fact, a bucket of hot water scooped with a cup – and a pill to counter altitude sickness provided by my friend Bob Johnston help give me the strength to go on.
The next day, we trudge into the Everest Base Camp at 17,598 feet or 5,364 metres, shake hands with our group and hug the British girls. It’s mission accomplished.
After spending the night at Gorak Shep, the village closest to the Everest Base Camp, we begin our descent and head for Pheriche. In the dining room of the Snow Land Lodge, the guests sing Happy Birthday as I celebrate my 69th with a chocolate cake.
My group and I feel like we’re on top of the world.