You don't need to be a hardened mountaineer to experience a little bit of Everest's magic, says Phoebe Smith
There was no escaping it. Any minute now the crevasse would swallow me up deep into the glacier and I would be gone forever, lost in the bowels of Everest. I braced myself for the moment the ice would split at my feet, took a deep breath, then opened my eyes…
I woke with a start. The glow of the sunrise illuminated the fabric of my tent walls so that everything around me was coloured bright orange. Outside I heard sherpas stirring. The radio was blaring out a Hindi love song as pans were filled to start breakfast. This was Everest Base Camp, the kicking-off point for would-be summiters of the world’s highest mountain. And I was here for two nights soaking up the atmosphere of what is probably the most famous campsite on earth.
As I unzipped my sleeping bag and felt the rush of cold air seeping in, I heard the ground beneath my mattress groan. This is a campsite with a difference. The land we pitch on is the rock strewn Khumbu Glacier and is in a constant state of flux. Frequently, especially in the early hours of the morning, you hear it creak deep below. Coming back to find tents moved or ice splitting is not unusual – hence my scary dream.
Per-chiiing! Outside the wind-scoured ice stalagmites began to explode as the -13C temperatures of night were replaced by rising heat. I emerged from my tent to see the next expedition along was readying to have their kit blessed by a Buddhist lama for good luck in a ubiquitous puja ceremony – usually involving a lot of drinking (tea and sometimes stronger). Nearer to the Khumbu Icefall – a colossal swirl of seracs and crevasses that must be negotiated to reach the first of four camps on the way to the summit – climbers were already making their way over the newly fixed ladders spanning bottomless chasms in the glacier. This is arguably the Everest ascent’s most dangerous section. They looked so tiny against the white ripples – no more than specs of flotsam on an ocean of ice. For them the adventure was just beginning, but for walkers like me, getting to Base Camp is an adventure in itself.
It had started 11 days earlier in Kathmandu, boarding the tiny Dornier plane to Lukla. Based deep in the Himalaya, the airport is infamous for its unpredictable weather and tiny landing strip, as well as the usual risks associated with small planes among big mountains. The alternative is a week’s walk in before the trek proper even begins and between that and a 40-minute flight, a trip to the ‘most dangerous airport in the world’ was the obvious choice.
Soon the brightly coloured high-rise apartments of Kathmandu were relegated to the smog below. Mountains upon mountains flashed by, those faraway peaks becoming bigger until my brain couldn’t compute their gargantuan size and simply relegated them to the unreal, their snowy tops merging mirage-like into the clouds. Suddenly in the dusty hills below, the tiny match box-size strip of tarmac appeared; a miniscule line on the ground. It looked like an impossible goal, but in less than a minute we were hurtling towards the wall at the end of the runway before a sharp right turn whisked the plane safely to a stop outside Tenzing-Hillary Airport. I had arrived.
The chimes of prayer wheels’ bells filled the air as I left the small town and negotiated (always to the left) the rocks carved with Buddhist prayers. It was spring so the usual Himalayan palette of browns and greens had been splashed with reds, pinks and purples of rhododendrons that clawed their was up the mountainsides en route to Namche Bazar.
The air smelt sweet with spices while smoke from the piles of juniper burnt for luck crept its way into my chest as I made my way up. Dust swirled as each zigzag gave way to another, then came the dzo. These cow-like herds march up the paths carrying luggage and supplies. It doesn’t matter who is first, you get out of their way (always on the inland side) and let their pointy horns pass.
A checkpoint, and overtaking porters loaded with so many groceries I felt like a lightweight with just my little daypack, marked that I was close to this the main trading centre in the Khumbu region. Sitting at 3,440m Namche really feels like the gateway to the high Himalaya. As I climbed through its steep, cobbled streets, wandering among the outdoor shops boasting a mix of real and questionable mountain kit at bargain prices, prayer flags, khukuri knifes and shawls made from ‘genuine yak wool’, I felt like I’d reached somewhere very special indeed.
“That’s me,” said Ang Phurba (locally known as Kancha Sherpa) as he held an Everest book out to me. I looked at the sepia photo on the page more closely, the wide eyed smile of fresh-faced 21-year-old sherpa he was pointing to in a crowd of excited faces, then up at the 81-year-old man who stood in front of me now. He was older, but I could recognise those same twinkling eyes and excited grin.
He is the last living member of the 1953 Everest expedition that saw Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay become the first people to stand on the roof of the world on 29 May. He had invited me and my walking group in for tea in Namche and began, with the help of his son translating, to talk about that most famous of all mountain journeys.
“I went up the Khumbu Icefall over 40 times, setting up camps,” said Kancha. “I would head up by flashlight in the early hours to avoid the avalanches. I was lucky to go at all – I’d never done it before, but my father and Tenzing had worked together so he took a chance asking me to come along.”
Kancha was paid 8 rupees a day (around £20 in today’s money) and went on to work as a high altitude sherpa on the USA Everest ascent in 1963. With his tales swimming in my head, I left hoping that I’d finally catch sight of this legendary peak the next day.
Waking early I headed up a steep path to the Hotel Everest View. A bit of a white elephant, this Japanese-built hostelry was supposed to attract wealthy business people who wanted the very best view in the Himalaya, but that clientele didn’t want to walk for three days to acclimatise. So they built an airstrip nearby but visitors couldn’t cope with the sudden high altitude and got sick. Now it’s rarely full. Thankfully the last few days trekking had prepared me better. I felt tired as we neared the 4,000m mark but a few steps further, through the halls of the hotel out on to the roof terrace, and aching legs were instantly forgotten.
Greeting me was an exquisite panorama of peaks – Kangtega, the horse saddle with a thick wedge of leather-like ice sat on its back; the pointy Thamserku; Ama Dablam, or ‘Mother’s Treasure’, with snow hanging round her neck like jewels; then a sprawling ridge of Cholatse, Taboche, Lhotse, and the snow-plastered, romantically-named Peak 38. Behind all those, peeking up like a covert spy was a little peak – Everest. I didn’t believe it at first. It looked so unassuming, so unimpressive compared to the others so… small. I had to ask several times if I had it right. But, after that, it only seemed to grow.
I continued to trace the path through the twin villages of Khunde and Khumjung – home to the Edmund Hillary established school and hospital as well as the remains of a more mysterious resident in the local monastery. It looked like a coconut, with a slightly ginger tone of hair – but I knew it wasn’t. The glass that protected it kept dazzling with the white light from the camera fl ashes as people gawped trying to work out what it was we were looking at.
“Yeti scalp,” explained Chewong, our sirdar.
“Have you ever seen one?” I asked.
“No, but my friend heard one 20 years ago,” he replied. “A strange noise, but the cloud was low so he couldn’t see. A girl was dragged by her hair and her yaks had their skulls broken and their brains eaten!”
In the darkness of the monastery I felt myself shiver, but once outside in the Himalayan sunlight, yetis seemed at odds with the beauty of the surrounds. Eagles soared on the thermals while prayer wheels chimed and flags flapped comfortingly in the breeze. This area is known for musk deer – a protected species – so I kept my eyes peeled as we walked above the trees.
“Quick – I see one,” shouted Chewong and we stared down the embankment, waiting. A black-and-white mountain dog emerged from the trees wagging its tail. Suddenly the sightings of yetis made a lot more sense.
The next few days saw worries of yetis relegated to lower down the list as I put in a lot more ascent and the air got thinner. Thankfully the route was full of distractions to take my mind off the altitude. From visiting teahouses for copious amounts of hot liquid, to visiting the monastery at Tengboche at prayer time (listening to the monks chanting while they sipped steaming tea), negotiating rickety bridges over deep gorges and gazing at Everest, until I arrived at Dingboche – three days from Base Camp.
Here I had the luxury of two nights in one place to acclimatise – but that didn’t mean sitting around. First I had to summit a peak for a taste of the air above 5,000m. ‘Little’ Nangkartshang hill looked small enough but as I started walking up, it seemed to grow. Vultures circled as I climbed higher and the familiar clunk of the yaks’ cowbells began to fade. Each step took tremendous effort. At altitude you can feel your brain working slower – putting one foot in front of the other takes a great deal of concentration, your chest feels tight and you have to constantly remind yourself to look at the views – and what views they were. Makalu rising up from the valley, Island Peak slap-bang centre earning its name and serrated tops forming a pointy parade.
After two hours was a short scramble to summit. I was exhausted. Then I spotted a flash of red, yellow and blue. There in front of me was a man wearing only his pants with the word ‘Superman’ emblazoned on them. He was a Canadian, who had stripped to his underwear for no particular reason – proof that altitude really can do funny things.
It’s a shame the same superhero wasn’t waiting at Gorak Shep two days later on my second 5,000m peak – Kala Pattar. As Himalayan peaks go, it’s almost as famous as some of the world’s highest. That’s because you don’t need any technical skills to tackle it and it offers one of the best views of Everest there is. At the lowly height of 5,643m (in comparison, Everest’s 8,848m) this was still a big challenge. Starting at 5,100m, every metre of ascent required solid determination. Around me the sherpas strolled effortlessly up with big backpacks while for me breathing felt like sucking honey through a straw. What would have been a 45-minute meander in the UK took over two hours of unrelenting effort.
Despite that view of Everest before me, once I had finally reached the prayer flags at the summit, I had to wait for 10 minutes before I could summon the effort to stand up and take a photo. From here the striped rock and lack of snow that singles out Everest’s top looked close enough to touch. The ripples of ice that make up the Khumbu Glacier looked easily surmountable and I caught myself, just for a second, thinking that maybe, one day, I might be able to try it.
Kala Pattar may be vertically taller than Base Camp, but reaching the lowly 5,365m of my tent felt like the biggest high of all. To emerge onto the boulder-strewn glacier and be greeted by hundreds of tents – knowing that mine was among them – made me feel a tiny bit like an expeditioner.
After surviving my first night without being swallowed by a crevasse, I began to explore the campsite, meeting some of those who hoped to conquer Everest. It may be 60 years since the first ascent title was claimed but other ‘firsts’ are still sought. There was the Indian team that included two record attempts – a 16-year-old boy and a woman hoping to summit twice; friendly Lakpa Sherpa, a 22-year-old who invited me in for mango tea and had already been up Everest twice, as well as summiting K2, Manaslu and Makalu; and Kaji Sherpa, the 42-year-old who didn’t start climbing until he was 37, but since then has been up Everest five times. Next year he plans to summit four times in a season to raise money for his village.
“Like staring up at heaven,” was how Kaji summed up seeing the summit the first time he climbed it. And as I gazed up at the Khumbu Icefall on my last morning, before starting the four-day walk back to Lukla, I felt I got a glimpse of what he described.
We, mere mortals, had reached the end of our adventure where the mountaineers begin theirs. But after everything I’d experienced, a trek to even just as far as Base Camp proves it: you don’t need to climb the highest mountain on earth to feel like you’re on top of the world.
Everest ER Team: Dr Suzi Mackenzie, Dr Kirsty Watson and Dr Pranav Quirala
“Trekking to Everest Base Camp is such a big achievement. It’s certainly not an easy walk, but it is an amazing place to be. We are all volunteers and come for the season – and you always leave with unforgettable memories.”
Chewong Sherpa head guide/sirdar
“On Everest, I’ve been as far as Camp IV on a Spanish expedition in 1982. I cried three times I was so scared. I would never go back – it was very hard and I had headaches and difficulty breathing. I’m too old now and prefer walking not climbing!”
Dr Kami Sherpa Khunde Hospital
“There were problems initially with sherpa culture when we moved in about 25 years ago but not now the only shaman left in the area comes to see me! Mainly all they offer is good wishes and prayers – they have seen how effective Western medicine is.”
Valerie Parkinson, Himalaya walking guide for 27 years
“I attempted Everest in 2009. I got to the south summit but turned back due to running out of oxygen and other complications – I lost parts of four of my toes to frostbite. I was just one hour away from the top. Is it worth putting myself through all that again? I’m not sure…”Wanderlust editor Phoebe Smith is also author of Extreme Sleeps: Adventures of a Wild Camper. She travelled with Exodus on this trip. The Everest Base Camp Trek starts from £1,769pp, including return flights from London Heathrow via Delhi, return flights to Lukla from Kathmandu, 3 nights hotel accommodation in Kathmandu, 12 nights teahouse accommodation on trek, porters, walking guides and all breakfasts. Look for special departures that include two extra nights staying at Everest Base Camp in tents (usually March/April) something that is not possible to organise independently.