Wednesday 24 January 2018

Trekking to Everest Base Camp - it's more doable than you think

Himalayan adventures

View Everest from Gokyo, featuring a hiker on their way to Everest Base Camp. Photo: Deposit
View Everest from Gokyo, featuring a hiker on their way to Everest Base Camp. Photo: Deposit
Hiking to Everest Base Camp. Photo: Brendan Daly
Hiking to Everest Base Camp. Photo: Brendan Daly
High church: Tengboche Monastery is the largest in the region.
Everest Base Camp
Hiking to Everest Base Camp. Photo: Brendan Daly
Lukla Airport, Nepal
Namche Bazaar. Photo: Brendan Daly
Hotel Everest View. Photo: Brendan Daly
Hiking to Everest Base Camp. Photo: Brendan Daly
Dingboche... Photo: Brendan Daly

Brendan Daly

Climbing the world's tallest mountain is not for everyone. Hiking to Everest Base Camp is another story, says Brendan Daly.

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This is as close to the top of the world as I'll ever get.

Standing on a rock-strewn glacier that carves its way through a desolate moonscape, I see a mound of granite rocks covered in knotted, multicoloured prayer flags. In front of them, the words 'Everest Base Camp' are daubed in charcoal.

I'm halfway through a 13-day wonderland trek among the world's highest mountains. Encircling me are soaring, snow-dolloped Himalayan peaks that, in the distance, seem to radiate a blue sheen. Jutting against the tip of the glacier is a towering frozen waterfall. My 120km hike, following the famous trail from Lukla in northeast Nepal to the foot of Mount Everest and back again, is a story of mesmerising valleys and peaks.

Starting at an altitude of 2,840 metres and climaxing at 5,364 metres, this definitive Himalayan trek is a bucket-list trip ­and it's easy to see why. The adventure began with a 40-minute flight from Kathmandu to Lukla. As monkeys scampered over the frantic terminal in the Nepalese capital, I took my place in a 16-seater plane destined for one of the world's most daunting airstrips.

Lukla Airport, Nepal
Lukla Airport, Nepal
High church: Tengboche Monastery is the largest in the region.

Shortly after my first glimpse of the majestic mountaintops, the plane began its nerve-racking descent onto what looked like a tongue of tarmac - a 500m runway culminating in a blank mountain wall. Welcome to Tenzing-Hillary Airport!

On the trail, the first thing that strikes me isn't the dramatic scenery or the pure air: it's the crowds. About 35,000 visitors trek in the Everest region every year, including more than 10,000 in the peak month of October.

Queueing behind trekkers, it can - especially near the start of the trail - feel like walking down a busy street. Despite the volumes, however, I see virtually no rubbish. Recycle bins, housed in stone shelters, fleck the trail.

The opening days of this lodge-to-lodge trek assume a gentle rhythm as the trail snakes through villages and pine forests, past Buddhist shrines and stone panels carved with prayers, and across swaying suspension bridges. The dominant sound is the clamouring of the thunderous turquoise rivers that cut through the vertiginous gorges.

Hiking to Everest Base Camp. Photo: Brendan Daly
Hiking to Everest Base Camp. Photo: Brendan Daly

Surprises come thick and fast. A few days in, for example, I turn a corner of the trail and suddenly four magnificent peaks - all above 6,000 metres - constellate in front of me. Ironically, Mount Everest is probably the least commanding of the mountain views along the trail. From this angle, the entrancing Ama Dablam ("Mother's necklace"), with two long ridges on either side of its peak resembling a mother's arms protecting her child, looks higher than Everest. It becomes a glorious constant in the skyline for the early parts of the trek.

Excusing the Himalayan mountaintops, Dingboche carries strange echoes of Connemara: it's a village with thick stone walls and small fields of planted potatoes. Although I felt slight symptoms of altitude sickness earlier on the trail, it is from Dingboche, standing at 4,410 metres, that they become more pronounced.

I'm travelling with an organised tour and most of us experience some symptoms. For me, it's a mixture of headaches, sleep disturbance and breathlessness that means walking slower than normal.

Every few hundred metres, the trail seems to weave its way through a Sherpa village and I'm curious as to whether the locals resent this parade of trekkers and their crews. But Psang, our head guide, insists that the jobs tourism generates offer villagers a welcome alternative to primitive farm work. Either way, virtually every village building along the trail is a shop, restaurant, or lodge aimed at trekkers.

Hiking to Everest Base Camp. Photo: Brendan Daly
Hiking to Everest Base Camp. Photo: Brendan Daly

As we approach Base Camp, I see stone memorials honouring those who have died on the mountain - offering a poignant reminder of its dangers. In 2015, a massive earthquake triggered an avalanche at Base Camp that killed 18.

This trek isn't for mountaineers - it's for anyone with an average fitness level. We walk for four to six hours (roughly 10km) a day and, apart from the altitude symptoms, it's relatively easy.

Dingboche... Photo: Brendan Daly
Dingboche... Photo: Brendan Daly

We stop for lunch in restaurants and stay in lodges each night. Typically family-run, the lodges are simple stone houses that sell snacks and WiFi. They become more austere - sub-zero bedrooms, no running water - around Base Camp. These are where we take evening meals (usually featuring rice, noodles or chips) and, to stay warm at night, congregate with fellow hikers around the lodges' prized possessions: yak-dung stoves. The altitude and lack of light pollution make the trail ideal for stargazing, too - stepping outside my lodge at night, I can see the brilliance of the Milky Way, shooting stars and even the red glow of Mars with the naked eye.

After reaching Base Camp, on day eight of 13, I expect that the return trek will be an anticlimax. I'm wrong. In contrast to the barrenness of Base Camp, the return feels like the classic Himalayan experience: with searing mountain peaks as a backdrop and golden eagles gliding through cloudless blue skies, we walk on a rocky switchback trail that skirts steep V-shaped valleys, passes brightly painted Buddhist monasteries and takes me through effervescent rhododendron forests flaunting their autumnal colours.

Everest is far from the only show in town.

Three Must-Do's

Take a Breather

NamcheBazaar1.jpg
Namche Bazaar. Photo: Brendan Daly

After getting your first view of Everest and a stinging 90-minute ascent, you reach Namche Bazaar (3,400m) – the capital of the Sherpa world. With a population of about 1,500 and shops selling outdoor gear, cafes serving Himalayan Java coffee, and, of course, an Irish pub, it’s ideal for a rest day.

Take High Tea

Hotel Everest View.jpg
Hotel Everest View. Photo: Brendan Daly

Sitting at 3,880m, the Hotel Everest View is one of the highest in the world. From the luxurious hotel’s terrace (open to anyone, not just guests), sip a lemon tea as you gaze on three of the world’s highest mountains: Nuptse, Lhotse, and, of course, Everest. See hoteleverestview.com.

Divine Inspiration

iw Depos (139).jpg
High church: Tengboche Monastery is the largest in the region.

Tengboche Monastery is the largest in the region. After trekking to 3,860 metres, it’s soothing to observe the monks’ prayer rituals and ceremonies as they chant the scriptures. The monastery hosts Mani Rimdu (usually held in October or November), the most important Sherpa festival.

What to pack

Bring hiking boots, base layer shirts, a warm fleece, a waterproof shell and a 40-litre daypack. As no toilets provide toilet paper, carry it in your daypack. Take a book for long evenings and consider bringing Diamox, a prescription medication that reduces the symptoms of altitude sickness.

Where to stay

Lodges are provided along the trail  on escorted tours. In Kathmandu, the Hotel Yak & Yeti (yakandyeti.com; doubles from €280) is a relaxing shelter from the city-centre chaos, set on the grounds of a former palace. The spacious rooms and huge buffet breakfast are the perfect antidote to stark trekking lodges.

Getting there

Brendan travelled to the Himalayas with KE Adventure Travel (keadventure.com) on the Everest Basecamp Trek tour. It costs €2,060pps, includes all internal transport and is full board (flights are extra but the tour operator can arrange these).

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